A young, iconic American filmmaker from the 1990s. A self-taught cinephile who did not complete high school and was influenced by French New Age films in the Los Angeles video store where he worked for minimum wage.
Quentin Tarantino, the former enfant terrible of American cinema, turned 50 on Wednesday. In addition to his sometimes erratic public stunts (especially in regards to women), he has built a rich cinematography, making him one of the most outstanding and influential filmmakers of the past 20 years.
I came across this funny guy a few years ago at the Cannes Film Festival. His tinted glasses were glued to a large, arched nose, his shirt was half open, his hair tousled, and his belly triumphant — the haggard air of a guy after a crazy night. Unlike his usual self, he was not nervous at all but quiet and calm — nothing of an incessant chatterbox.
Tarantino has made a big splash in the world of cinema. In just two years, he became a key figure in film. In 1992, he made his first full-length feature, “Reservoir Dogs,” which was a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival. “True Romance,” directed by Tony Scott and co-written by Tarantino with Roger Avary, his former coworker at the video store, and “Natural Born Killers,” directed by Oliver Stone (for which he wrote the original script, then revised so heavily by Stone that he could not recognize his own words), went to the big screen in 1993 and 1994, respectively.
That same year, thanks to “Pulp Fiction” — the brilliant overlapping of three stories set in the context of organized crimes — Tarantino won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) at just 31 years of age. He also won Best Screenplay for “Pulp Fiction,” along with Roger Avary (the future director of “Killing Zoe”). Tarantino, who previously failed to earn the money needed to create his first two screenplays on his own, would now have the means to carry out all his ambitions.
He did not attend film school like many of his peers, but born in Knoxville, Tennessee and raised in suburban Los Angeles, Tarantino drew from the shelves of Video Archives (the famous video store that once employed him) in order to add to his own knowledge and cinematography. He drew his inspiration from the blaxploitation films of the 1970s, spaghetti (Italian) Westerns, gangster and martial arts movies, but he created his own identity and a strong personality.
Talent imitator or transmitter of cinematic history? Certain people see a laziness and an irritating sort of automatic response in his tributes to filmmakers and films of the past. Others see him as the torch bearer for legions of movie-goers — someone making sparks.
The aesthetic violence in his films — grotesque, burlesque, tinged with dark humor — has been interpreted in many ways, for better and for worse. It has not always been well-received. The filmmakers who complain about Tarantino do not have the same genius for blending cinematic and popular culture.
He has worked in many genres: gangster films, film noir, swashbuckler films, war movies and Westerns. But Tarantino’s films are practically a genre in themselves. His cool, kitschy style is unique and, at times, retro and modern. There is outstanding meaningful dialogue in the difficult marriage of drama and humor, an eye for striking shots and anthology scenes — Mélanie Laurent running through the high grass in “Inglourious Basterds” — a certain taste for irresistible soundtracks.
He revived forgotten artists, including in the soundtrack to “Pulp Fiction,” a classic within its own genre. He did the same with numerous actors: Pam Grier in “Jackie Brown” (his own adaptation from a novel by Elmore Leonard), David Carradine in “Kill Bill” and John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction.” He made known extremely talented actors: Steve Buscemi in “Reservoir Dogs,” Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction,” or Christopher Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds.”
His admirers, myself included, forgive all of his excesses, his scenes that may drag on, and we revel in the violence, his sometimes questionable humor and even his unbelievable scenarios (How about the wacky and unnecessary Australian accent of his character in “Django Unchained”?). The reason is very simple: It is never boring.
His films form a coherent body of work. Eight feature films (or rather seven — he considers the “Kill Bill” series a single, unified work), make up a cinematography that he greatly cherishes. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Tarantino confessed that he did not always see himself as a filmmaker for 10 years. And he would not, out of pride or out of habit, compromise his artistic heritage by playing up a film too much. “I don’t ever want to make anything lesser than ‘Death Proof,'” he admitted.
In the early 2000s, after several joint collaborations with his friend Robert Rodriguez, many asked if the his best films were behind him. This was before the stunning two-part work of “Kill Bill,” and the mastery of “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained.” He has his own signature, and at 50 years of age, the best of Tarantino is yet to come.