“You’re so cool, You’re so cool, You’re so cool.”
Alabama Worley’s thoughts while watching Clarence negotiate himself out of a chaotic and botched drug deal pretty much sum up the general consensus on the films of Quentin Tarantino. Although True Romance (1993) was optioned off and eventually directed by Tony Scott, in one of the late director’s best and most underrated pictures, it’s still indicative of Tarantino’s origins as an iconic contemporary screenwriter. With a relatively modest, though distinct body of works, no one has changed the landscape of pop culture and modern cinema quite like Tarantino over the course of his career spanning just over two decades. The self-taught student of film who’s famously been quoted as saying, “When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, ‘no, I went to films,'” looks to emulate greats like Sergio Leone, Howard Hawks, Brian De Palma, and Martin Scorsese in his own works.
Tarantino’s first great hit was in the revolutionary indie heist film Reservoir Dogs (1992), which opened at Sundance to universal acclaim, showcasing his unique brand of character dialogue, which relies heavily on pop culture references, morally suspect world views, and sharp, quick retorts. Riding on the coattails of the success of Reservoir Dogs, he sold the scripts for True Romance and Natural Born Killers (1994), the latter of which Oliver Stone picked up and helmed. In the interim, he turned down several offers to write and direct in favor of retreating to Amsterdam to work on a script that would become his greatest film yet, Pulp Fiction (1994). Pulp cemented Tarantino as a relevant and influential writer/filmmaker, firmly establishing his trademarks of aesthetisized violence and dialogue-driven nonlinear narrative structure. He would go on to secure on Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for his work on the film, which he shares with Roger Avery. His next projects would be writing and directing a segment for the largely panned Four Rooms (1995) compilation picture and the screenplay for his buddy Robert Rodriguez’s horror flick From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), in which he also starred. Keeping consistent with his established modus operandi, blaxploitation homage film Jackie Brown (1997) followed as his next written and directed feature. The six year break leading up to samurai-inspired revenge film, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), would be Tarantino’s longest absence from filmmaking, beginning a new chapter in his career and following up with Kill Bill: Vol. 2 in 2004. Although intended as a B-movie, the negative reviews for Death Proof (2007), served as Tarantino’s first big critical blow. The grand, plot-driven narrative proved to be his new method of choice, with the back-to-back releases of the Nazi-hunting, pseudo Western, Inglourious Basterds (2009), and the slave owner-hunting, spaghetti Western, Django Unchained (2012), with the latter earning him his second Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
While he’s been successful in nearly everything he’s done, there are two clear stages in Tarantino’s filmmaking evolution. Having begun with simple stories centered more on colorful character interactions than on dramatic plot developments, his early films elevated an undistracted, uncluttered screenplay onto a gleaming, reverential pedestal. Whether it’s about the proper etiquette of tipping at diners or about the wrongs of “digging on swine” no matter how delicious bacon or pork chops are, his knack for lively, unfiltered, socially incorrect dialogue never fails to amaze and amuse watch after watch. During Dennis Hopper’s ballsy and absurd speech to Christopher Walken in True Romance about the origins of the Sicilian race, I nearly took a blood oath branding Tarantino as an indesputable genius. And you just KNOW, although he was uncredited, he had to be responsible for Sean Connery’s famously macho “prom queen” line in The Rock (1996). Up until Jackie Brown, this narrow narrative focus was well-maintained; then his ambition took over.
The Kill Bill series was a wildly new and exciting direction for Tarantino to pursue, finally melding his love for violent Asian cinema with his signature storytelling vehicles. While greatly welcome at the time, since his previous works may have mistakenly pegged him as a “one-trick pony,” in retrospect, Kill Bill sent Tarantino off the path of the righteous man into the valley of darkness, where he’s been stubbornly fixated on sweeping revenge plots. Maybe he’s “tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd,” but Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained both continued on trend, in nearly identical but progressively diminishing narrative structures, straying far from his formerly tight, efficient plot lines. Despite some shining moments, like the exceptional opening monologue by Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, the writing as of late just hasn’t been consistently on-point, with too much bloat and glaring structural deficiencies. Sure it was new and exhilarating, but the trouble with novelty is that it has a tendency to overstay its welcome and evoke a sense of nostalgia for the old and true. Such is the case with the second and current phase of Tarantino’s career. Oddly enough, this new turn has seen him being largely embraced by the Academy,with the exception of the completely overlooked Kill Bill, leading him to earn his second writing Oscar for one of his weakest screenplays yet in Django. Hopefully his latest muse, Christoph Waltz’s, “Djesus Unchainced” SNL skit hasn’t sparked any new ideas for a future project.
He’s long spoken of Kill Bill as an intended trilogy, akin to Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, and although the third installment has hovered in limbo over the last few years, something tells me he’s not quite ready to leave it to rest. He’s also hinted at a ridiculous-sounding–yes, even for him–third film in a Django-Inglourious Basterds trilogy. Since he’s famously hinted at retiring by age 60, I certainly hope his next decade of filmmaking isn’t wasted on a sustained descent into the rabbit hole.
In spite of the slight drop off from the style which built him up to renowned fame, Tarantino remains one of the greatest screenwriters working today, having made an indelible mark on cinematic history already. Perhaps all he needs is a good look in the mirror to get back to form, reassuring himself with the words of Mr. Orange, “’cause you’re super cool.”
Which are your favorite Tarantino screenplays?