“He is the single most influential director of his generation” – Peter Bogdanovich
Quentin Jerome Tarantino has had such a profound effect on Western cinema that it’s easy to forget that before the seismic release that was Reservoir Dogs in 1992, Hollywood was in a fug. High-concept star driven vehicles that had sustained the studios in the late 80s through the 90s, were losing their lustre. Bruce Willis’ Hudson Hawk had just imploded under the weight of its own idiocy. Sylvester Stallone was enjoying a run of breathtaking clunkers including Rocky V, Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. These were dark times.
Independent filmmakers were equally staid, making films for themselves and their friends, rather for their audience. As film journalist Peter Biskind stated, "Before ‘Reservoir Dogs’, people rarely died in Sundance films except of old age, boredom or AIDS". All that changed upon the release of Reservoir Dogs, a bloody, brash, brilliant heist thriller that grabbed audiences by the lapels and kneed them in the crotch. A self-confessed movie geek and first time director, with the help of his own great script and support from the film’s star Harvey Keitel, had mustered $1.5m dollars and produced a film that electrified the industry.
Reservoir Dogs was brutal and hilarious, exciting and tragic, gripping and shocking. And reinvented the idea of what a soundtrack could and should be. The obscure 70s songs from the film became instantly recognisable, even to those who hadn’t seen the film. Tarantino cannibalised ideas and themes from his encyclopedic movie knowledge to create something vibrant, immediate and new. It was rap music for a visual medium.
Most critics applauded the film’s relentless pace and breathless energy, but detractors accused it of glamourising extreme violence, a criticism that has dogged Tarantino throughout his career. Looking back at some of the most iconic moments from the film, including the now infamous ear-cutting scene, this feels a strange accusation. Not only does the camera deliberately pan away at the key moment, it remains a horribly uncomfortable viewing experience. Mr Blonde is patently a sadistic psychopath. There’s little glamour here. Nor in Mr Orange’s death throes, as he writhes on a dirty floor in agony, sodden with his own blood. Resident Evil this is not.
After such a dramatic debut, could the enfant terrible repeat his feat? He could. And how. 1994’s Pulp Fiction is an unadulterated masterpiece. It took everything that was great about Reservoir Dogs and improved upon it. Every scene close to iconic, every performance spectacular, every line eminently quotable. Less raw but more accomplished than its predecessor, Pulp Fiction was a revelation that has become a cultural touchstone. Its modest $8.5m budget returned a massive box office gross of $214m, making it one of the most profitable films of all time. It secured seven Oscar nominations, winning Tarantino and writing partner Roger Avary the award for Best Original Screenplay.
Proving that low budget films could make significant profits made the studios sit up. 20th Century Fox founded Fox Searchlight in 1994, a studio dedicated to fostering smaller budget, independent style films that included The Full Monty, Boys Don’t Cry and 28 Days Later. Other studios followed suit. The landscape had undoubtedly changed. A spate of interesting, profitable, low budget successes emerged. Films like Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects in 1995 owed a great deal to the furrow ploughed by Tarantino.
Miramax, the distribution company specialising in independent, arthouse cinema who oversaw both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, were catapulted from handling mostly low grossing, critically acclaimed films, to one of the most influential companies in Hollywood. Its co-owner, the infamous Harvey Weinstein along with brother Bob, became two of American cinema’s most powerful figures. Indeed, Harvey initially burnished his burgeoning reputation as ‘the man who produced Reservoir Dogs’. Miramax, (later becoming The Weinstein Company), had only won two Oscars prior to Pulp Fiction, both for 1989’s My Left Foot. They have since won a further 40, and become the most potent, if controversial force in independent film.
There is little debate that Tarantino’s post-Fiction output failed to hit the heights of his first two films. 1997’s Jackie Brown was an excellent, if more orthodox film adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel, Rum Punch. He then persuaded the notoriously stubborn Harvey Weinstein to split his 2003 martial arts epic Kill Bill into two parts. The result? A shamelessly fun, stunningly superficial, wonderfully self indulgent homage to the Hong Kong movies he’d devoured in his formative years.
2007’s Death Proof was a celebration of the grindhouse exploitation movies of the 70s he had loved, complete with deliberate continuity errors and glaring technical flaws. His dedication to the genre was to be admired, but the initial release of 'Grindhouse' as a double-bill with pal Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror did not score with audiences... and a film made deliberately badly can still be a bad film. Tarantino was in danger of becoming one of those directors he had overwhelmed in the early part of his career - making movies for himself and his friends, and Death Proof met with critical and commercial indifference.
2009’s Inglourious Basterds saw the history of the World War II rewritten in a brilliantly bonkers way. Marketed as a Brad Pitt vs Tarantino movie, neither of the film’s standout moments featured the megastar actor. Michael Fassbender was frankly magnificent as the British agent in Berlin’s bloodiest bierkeller, but it was Christoph Waltz, a largely unknown Austrian actor who utterly stole the film. The opening scene, with Waltz chilling as the urbane and charming Nazi Colonel interrogating a Jewish man in his home, may be the best thing Tarantino has ever written. It won Waltz a deserved Oscar and it signalled that Tarantino was close to returning to his very best.
Django Unchained is indisputably Tarantino’s strongest film since Pulp Fiction. For over 2 hours, it looks as though it might even be a masterpiece - with only a baggy ending and an unwise cameo from the director himself snatching greatness from a still-excellent film. It is brutal, thrilling, terrifying and hilarious, gliding between these tonal shifts with ease. It reminds us of why we so embraced Tarantino those 20 years ago.
So where is the next Tarantino? His emergence and success in the early 90s, to help shake up the studio system, mirrored that of Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese and Lucas in the 70s, forcing the Hollywood establishment to embrace change. Current studio slates couldn’t be more conservative, filled with remakes, reboots, sequels and superheroes. A new catalyst is desperately needed, an auteur with ambition and a commercial sensibility, to infect his or her peers with a similar enthusiasm, and to crash through any window of opportunity. Just as a 29-year-old former video store clerk did with such gusto a generation earlier.