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If you have been an audience of Hollywood cinema for at least a year or a half more, you must have come across the name Quentin Tarantino. Even if you haven’t heard of the name yet, one way or the other, you must have come across any of his film scenes or his film characters or instead watched the numerous subtle references or tributes about him in other films, series, or cartoons. To be precise, being exposed to the world of Tarantino is pretty inevitable.
Even though the vast influence in the whole industry, throughout his career, Tarantino has directed and delivered a strictly limited number of 9 films debuting with Reservoir Dogs (1992), following up with Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997), Kill Bill volume 1 and 2 (2003 and 2004 respectively), Death Proof (2007), Inglorious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained (2012), The Hateful Eight (2015) and his latest one Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019).
Tarantino has influenced the Hollywood industry for over two decades. Through this course of time, he has won numerous awards including, two Academy Awards, two BAFTA Awards, four Golden Globes, and the Palme d’Or. He has also been nominated for five Grammys and an Emmy.
From dark humor to the aestheticization of violence compiled in chaptered non-linear plots along with many other traits, which I’ll be talking about in detail later, Tarantino has developed a particular style of filmmaking and a world of his own experimentations. Hence, he is one of the present auteurs among other Hollywood big names such as Wes Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick, and also Martin Scorsese.
At the age of 14, Tarantino wrote his first-ever screenplay, Captain Peachfuzz, and the Anchovy Bandits. Since childhood, his love for cinema and writing elevated within him while attending numerous film screenings with his stepfather.
Later in his life, he worked as an employee in Video Archives, a video store in California, for five years and was often complimented for being a perfect movie buff. During this time, he co-wrote and directed his first film, My Best Friend’s Birthday. But unfortunately, it couldn’t be his debut as a fire at the film lab had destroyed most of the film, and he was left with only 36 minutes of unreleased footage.
Although he couldn’t make a breakthrough with this film, the script eventually formed the basis for another movie called True Romance. True Romance was a success, and the earnings helped Tarantino to work on a new script. With further help, he successfully wrote and directed his first film, Reservoir Dogs, which launched him as an independent filmmaker.
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino, the neo-noir crime drama Reservoir Dogs was a dialogue-driven heist film. It was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992 and became an immediate hit. The film became a critic’s choice, and thus, Tarantino’s Hollywood career began.
Later on, with the release of True Romance, the film he had previously worked on, he attracted several offers to write screenplays for movies. Two years later, in 1994, the second film of his career, Pulp Fiction, was released. It became one of the most successful films of his career, making a path for more.
Tarantino always has a knack for keeping his audience at the edge of their seats. He is a great scriptwriter, and he puts a lot of effort and hard work to produce a naturalist tendency even in a bizarre situation and keep us hooked from the very beginning to the end.
Pulp Fiction begins with the dialogue “Forget it, it’s too risky,” instantaneously hooking the audience as they yet don’t know what they are about to see, but whatever it is, it’s going to be interesting.
Tarantino always loves to structure his narrative in a non-linear format. He adds several layers contributing to the story’s depth. The story becomes more resonant and dramatic compared to a classic linear format. He divides the film into chapters just like in a novel to help the audience follow through the narrative. While he breaks the story into several segments, he also breaks the chronology and finally connects in the final chapter.
Being a great writer, Tarantino makes sure to build up a strong, bold persona of his characters such that they stand out on their own rather than simply being carried by the story. So, for example, irrelevant of Django’s past, we genuinely love to watch him shoot a bunch of people in slow motion and not just for sympathizing with him for his past life as a slave.
The characters play a vital role in moving the story forward. Apart from a general plot, there is always a dominant character arc in his films, and the story mostly revolves around them. The characters are always in some kind of trouble or conflict or on a quest for revenge, and it’s always the journey of the characters which takes the story forward.
Tarantino believes in his writing skills, and when he writes a scene, he does not shy out to drag the scene to a longer extent and make it heavily dialogue-driven. He makes his characters have long conversations about very ordinary topics, like in the opening diner scene of Reservoir Dogs, the whole crew discuss different interpretations of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”.
These long casual conversations help the audience connect with the character more as we find them relatable to a certain extent, irrelevant of them being criminals or Nazis, and hook the viewers to follow their journey and actions more carefully throughout the movie.
There is always a sense of uncertainty and climax revolving around the characters’ actions and their consequences. With his brilliant writing, QT unfolds his story in such a way that it’s never easy to guess what’s going to happen next, and he just manages to keep defying our expectations.
He often uses the long dragged-out scenes to drop in a sudden turn in the story. For example, in Inglorious Basterds, mid-way through the movie, we have a scene where a new character who’s a British Spy (Michael Fassbender) is in a bar with a German movie star (Diane Kruger), and as they interact with other German soldiers, they all start playing “Who Am I?”
The Scene stretching for about 20 minutes could have easily become boring, but since we already know which people are German and who are pretending to be, this becomes a climax and keeps us at the edge of our seats. Just then, things take a completely different turn all of a sudden when the British orders beer using a wrong hand gesture and the other German figures out about the imposter.
Tarantino has been greatly helped by three cinematographers – Andrzej Sekula, Guillermo Navaro, and Robert Richardson throughout his filmography career. These cinematographers have massively contributed to creating the “Tarantino-esque” vibe.
While shooting a particular scene, Tarantino ensures to make every frame influential. Thus, even after having a tight screenplay and gripping dialogues, he tries to navigate the audience into a particular visual perspective that supports the script.
For instance, in the opening scene of Pulp Fiction, we see a mid-shot of two people, who we later come to know as Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer), having a conversation in a restaurant. But, until now, we have no clue what their motive is or what the following action will be, and we don’t know who they are.
But Tarantino wants his audience to find it out through their conversation and wants us to know in layers as they slowly unfold through their dialogues. So to ensure the focus on these two characters, he cleverly uses only two types of cinematic shots, single mid closeups and OTS (Over The Shoulder) shots.
Tarantino has written the script in such a way to keep the audience hooked and also has guided the actors to carry it out. Hence he doesn’t want unnecessary diversions and thus sticks to keeping in frame only the portion of importance, irrelevant to whatever’s happening outside the frame.
While the world has shifted into shooting films in digital format, Tarantino loves to shoot his movies in films and primarily uses the 35mm anamorphic format. Since the beginning of his career, he had spent most of his low budget on Panavision cameras and equipment. Even in his latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, with a remarkably higher budget, he sticks to his 35mm anamorphic format using Kodak Vision 3 stock.
The filmmaking of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is relatively way more vast than his previous films. Avoiding the digital format, he also succeeded in maintaining the authenticity of certain scenes which the script demanded.
For example, scenes of the television series in which Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) acted were shot entirely in 5222 black and white stock. While some of the scenes from inside Sharon Tate’s (Margot Robbie) house were shot in Super 8.
Shooting in film format also gives a filmmaker a lot of scopes to experiment with lighting as it becomes a very integral part. This is because, in film format, one cannot control the dynamic range, but in a digital format, one can simply control it by shooting in a log.
In Kill Bill, the part where The Bride fights the crazy 88, the scene has a transition from color to black and white and then again color until the lights of the room are turned off, leaving only an impression of blue light coming in through the window. Tarantino has staged this scene very well as the light from the window acts as a backlight, and dimming the key light, forms a silhouette.
Watching The Bride fight in silhouette is a visual break to the eyes of the viewers as the past scenes were already filled up with heavy bloodshed and gore. Thus in this scene, the viewers can actually focus on the aesthetics of Kung-Fu sword fighting.
Tarantino loves to use a lot of camera movements repeatedly in his films as a trait. These include :
- The very famous POV (Point of View) shot, or in his case, The Trunk Shot, where he shows his POV from inside a car’s trunk, or in some cases like in Inglorious Basterds, just from a significantly lower angle, fitting the time era of the story.
- The God’s Eye Shot is another very commonly used shot used in several Tarantino films. This is a wide overhead shot captured from way above the scene, giving a sense that the characters are being watched, Like in many instances in Jackie Brown.
- The Tracking Shot is a classic technique used by Tarantino where the camera follows close behind or upfront the character while they are walking. He does this to grab the audience’s focus onto the characters if they are having a conversation, or rather put his viewers inside the characters’ shoes.
- The Quick Zoom is a favorite and staple shot used by Tarantino in almost all his films. He quickly cuts a scene to quickly zoom into a character’s close-up to highlight his emotion or reaction, or sometimes simply to introduce them.
- The Extreme Closeup shot is used in many cases where he wants his viewers to focus particularly on smaller details like the character’s eyes, lips, or even feet (of course).
The entire sound design in Tarantino’s films makes up for a completely different and unique package. From using famous songs from popular culture to elevate particular sequences in the film to using several sound effects to amplify the action scenes, the sound design in Tarantino’s films plays a significant role in progressing the narrative.
Tarantino himself claims that while he has an idea for a film in his mind, he listens through his record collection to find the personality of his movie. Well, he sure makes the best out of his time because from O-Ren Ishii’s arrival scene in Kill Bill Vol – 1 as she paces down her way in slow motion while Tomoyasu Hotei’s popular song “Battle Without Honour or Humanity” plays in the background, to Mia (Uma Thurman) and Vincent (John Travolta) tearing up the dance floor to “You Never Can Tell” by Chuck Berry, Tarantino knows exactly which song to put in to fit the persona of the scene, and hence becoming a king of needle drop.
Tarantino truly has mastered the art of using in-scene music in his films when it comes to using non-diegetic or diegetic sound. He uses music in essential scenes to capture the audience more and amplify the plot’s emotion.
We can see significant usage of non-diegetic sound in his films to set the mood of a particular scene and also to heighten the emotion, like using David Bowie’s song “Cat People” in Inglorious Basterds in a scene where Shoshanna plots her master plan to kill the Nazis. The song helps to amplify the character’s emotion and help the viewers get a better insight at a reformed Shoshanna, who’s now fearless and sees nothing other than revenge.
Tarantino loves using popular music in his films in various ways to introduce characters, heighten the mood-setting of a scene, or simply roll the film title. Like in Pulp Fiction, the film opens with the title rolling while “Misirlou” by Dick Dave plays. This song gives a perfect insight into the film’s mood and eventually becomes the theme.
He also uses popular songs diegetically in a very clever way. Like in Pulp Fiction, Mia listens to Urge Overkill’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” and dances to it. In Jackie Brown, Jackie listening to The Delfonics’ “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind” helps the audience to understand the character more and her mood deeper.
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, many hipster girls are seen for the first time. They can be heard singing a song in the choir while walking down the street and dumpster diving. If you pay attention to what they are singing, it is “Always is Always Forever” by none other than Charles Manson. Thus, subtly hinting to the audience that there is a possibility of encountering Sharon Tate’s murder later in this film.
Just a little later in this scene, we see the hipsters crossing the road while Cliff (Brad Pitt) and Rick wait in the car at the crossing. Right then, we can see an exchange of looks between one of the hipster girls – Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and Cliff. Simultaneously, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” plays on the radio, which is an apparent reference to the movie The Graduate, which is about a young man having an affair with an older woman. This subtly hints to the audience that there might be a further interaction between Cliff and Pussycat later, who is way younger.
Mastering the art of using in-scene music, Tarantino never fails to experiment as well. In many of his films, he can be seen using contrapuntal music, which acts as a counterpoint to the actual mood of the scene.
Let’s look into a scene from Reservoir Dogs where Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), after finding out that one of his fellowmen was a cop in disguise, ties him up and tortures him, eventually cutting off one of his ears.
This is a pretty serious scene with lots of graphic bloodshed and torture. If he had approached this scene differently, it could have been way too dark, gruesome, and uncomfortable, perfectly fitting for the genre of crime drama. But he always represents violence in a very stylized manner which would be fun to watch.
In this scene, Mr. Blonde, after tying up the imposter, plays “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel, dances to it while knifing his hostage and eventually cutting off his ear. What a great use of diegetic music in a script!
While Tarantino succeeds in showing the dark and dangerous side of Mr. Blonde, he somehow also manages to form a casual relationship of the character with the audience, hence making the scene more fun to watch rather than straight away horrific.
Looking at another instance of excellent experimentation, in the final Candyland shootout scene in Django Unchained, he uses 2pac’s popular song “Unchained” while Django (Jamie Foxx) picks up his gun and starts shooting. We generally see the usage of music fitting the time of the story. But QT is all about defying expectations and chooses to use a 21st-century song into a Civil War age story, and amazingly manages to pull off the character transformation of his protagonist as the metamorphosis of Django from an enslaved person to a Hero is perfectly highlighted.
Apart from using pre-released songs in his movies, in 2015, Tarantino finally got a chance to work with his dream composer Ennio Morricone, whose compositions had been used in Inglorious Basterds, Kill Bill, and Django. During the production of The Hateful Eight, Morricone was signed to compose the original score for the film, and it also happened to be his first western project in over 30 years.
Morricone made a piece of very cold and claustrophobic music that perfectly matched the film’s tone and seamlessly epitomized the storyline. Eventually, after huge anticipation, it did succeed in bagging the Academy Award for Best Original Score.
Just like Tarantino knows how to use the perfect music, he also knows where not to. Tarantino does make the ideal use of music or songs to heighten the emotion of a scene, but he also uses silence to build in a queer feeling of tension and uneasiness.
In Inglorious Bastards, while the evil Hans Landa confronts Shoshana for the first time, Landa seems to be very polite and asks casually about Shoshana. But there is a subtle way of interrogation as he slips in certain hints of his suspicion against her.
Over here, the script was tight and gripping, and Tarantino had total faith in the actors to carry out the dialogues and expressions perfectly enough to grip the audience in a moment of uncertainty and tension even with the absence of any music to highlight it. Hence Tarantino avoided music completely except for the necessary diegetic sounds.
Talking more about sound effects, Tarantino uses a mix of realism and comics in a scene. For example, gunshots, car crashes, or other destructions all have sound effects with a realistic approach. Still, on the contrary, he often uses loud, exaggerated noises made by the antagonists, or even splooging sounds of blood or also sounds of characters being hurt, or attacked or falling, deviating a little from reality and having a cartoonish tone.
Use of Visual Effects
In an interview with Jonathan Ross, Tarantino said how much he despised the heavily CGI-dependent action scenes in most of the present Hollywood films. Hence, he tries to create the scenes in-camera using practical effects as much as possible. The car chases, explosions, crashes, and stunts are practically done.
In his early films, most of the narrative was heavily driven by script and dialogues. He made up his scripts in such a way that it was designed for low budget, with minimal production design, and used most of his funds for bagging up good actors and good technicalities.
Later on, as he became financially backed up, he could now include major action sequences which the script demanded. Although, as said earlier, he had never been a supporter of much CGI usage, he tried to pull off every sequence live in-camera as much as possible.
For example, in Death Proof, from the Challenger vs. Charger car chase scene to Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russel) charging and crashing his car head onto his victims, everything was shot practically, live in-camera, and CGI was avoided as much as possible.
He does recruit a lot of stunt crews to pull off the action scenes perfectly without needing to overly depend on CGI. But in some cases, CGI was unavoidable. For example, with Kill Bill having prolonged fight sequences, the weapons had to be CGI-ed in some parts. Like when The Bride fights Gogo Yubari, although it was mostly a practical capture, some shots of Gogo’s special chained weapon had to be CGI-ed.
Since Tarantino is hugely known for the bloodbath shown in his films, he tries to achieve these through practical effects too. From a cut-away leg to a fountain of blood splooging from an arm cut away, he finds out ways to represent them practically and thus also make it look authentic enough.
Tarantino manages to find ways to stylize the onscreen violence in such a way that even with the absence of CGI, the scenes still look amplified enough to put the viewers at the edge of their seats. He cleverly uses his budget to build excellent sets, recruit perfect stunt crew, and easily cut out the CGI part. With real explosions and gunshots, he manages to bring a completely different form of authenticity on screen.
Signature Directorial Traits
Though Tarantino has made a limited number of films, he has explored the horizons of different genres from classic gangster crime drama to war action thriller to western and now his latest a classic comedy-drama. Yet, he always likes to repeat and use certain styles in his filmmaking, thus making up his own format.
He can always be seen including pop culture in his films, from popular songs references to certain movies or even comics. But, apart from creating a reference, Tarantino also uses his music very cleverly and unconventionally, as discussed earlier.
Tarantino also steals certain shots from popular older movies and uses them in his own movie. But this doesn’t mean he straightaway copies them. In a way, he does, but this is his way of paying homage to his favorite films. A great example would be from the movie Pulp Fiction in which the shot through Butch’s (Bruce Willis) windshield of Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) is straightaway taken from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
When you are watching a Tarantino film, you obviously have to expect a lot of gruesome, graphic, and gory violence. From hands and feet getting cut off, to a hell of a lot of bloodbaths, to gunshots, to even tearing off scalps! Violence is exaggerated but also stylized in such a way that the audience does find it amusing to watch at some level.
Most of his films are represented in a non-linear narrative. From breaking the chronology to quick cuts between flashbacks and the present, Tarantino loves to structure his story in this form and also segments them into chapters to avoid confusion.
When Tarantino represents his protagonist on screen, he makes sure to make them stand out. Thus he writes clever, catchy dialogues and also chooses bold primary colors for their costume to make them pop and stand out on screen.
Tarantino also repeats a similar style of cinematography, with a bunch of similar frames or camera movements, which I’ve talked about earlier, in every film. Thus building up a whole cinematic style of his own and keeping his audience hooked.
Lastly, just like the exaggerated graphic violence, a Tarantino film isn’t complete without a cinematic representation of a foot fetish. Tarantino has an absolute fetish for feet, which is clearly depicted in his movies. From close-ups of feet and toes to mid shots of feet sticking on the windshield or outside a car’s window, and also tracking shots, there are a lot of feet.
These are some of the signature traits of the great auteur, and putting all these together as a package, we know it’s a Tarantino film when we see it.
Ambiance created in the audience’s mind
Tarantino never lets his audience feel detached from the movie for even one bit. He writes his script very cleverly and writes simple yet catchy and gripping dialogues, which helps the audience connect to the characters and form a bond.
He shoots his scenes in such a way that it makes the audience immerse into them. As a director, he makes sure that his script is carried out perfectly by the actors, and we, as the audience, simply can’t help but feel for them.
When a character is dying, or is hurt, or is simply boiling with revenge, you can’t help but get involved and dive into the character’s mental process.
When I was watching Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for the first time, in the ending scene where Cliff is being taken to the hospital, Rick says how good a friend he has been. To that, Cliff responds, “I try.” Somehow that line and the way the whole scene was represented got me to my core, and I felt more profound for the character.
Even when QT shows a lot of visual violence, he portrays it in such a way that it is justified to be fun to watch. Thus the viewers can’t help but notice it to be amusing and aesthetic instead of just being gory and gruesome.
Tarantino, through his career, has opened to us an entirely different world of cinema. Through his unique style of filmmaking, he has delivered to us an entirely different perspective.
Over the years, just like he has been praised, he has been criticized a lot too. He has been criticized a lot for showing graphic violence and bloodshed and also aestheticizing it. He has been accused several times that this representation is massively provocative and might produce several ideas of violence in an individual’s mind.
Tarantino always defended himself by stating that this is just fun for him, and he chose this style for the pure intention of entertainment. I personally find nothing wrong with this. Tarantino grew up watching several kinds of action and western films, and now he represents his favorite kind in his own way.
Even though a portion of the population doesn’t like his style, there’s another portion who absolutely adores it.
From using several popular songs to paying subtle homage to his favorite films, Tarantino has always made sure to include pop culture in his cinematic world. Over the years, with all the love from his audience and other filmmakers, he has become a part of pop culture. From The Simpsons to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), subtle Tarantino tributes can be seen everywhere.
Through his brilliant concept of filmography and love for cinema, Tarantino has created a cinematic style of his own and provides a completely unique experience for the audience, and somehow he manages to pull it off so well that he deserves all the love and fame.
He also proves that you don’t necessarily need to go to a film school to make movies, and all you need is pure love and dedication for cinema, thus becoming one of the greatest auteurs of this generation.
Fun fact – Among hundreds of other film terms, The Oxford Dictionary has now officially added the term “Tarantino-esque”, which defines certain types of films resembling or imitating characteristics or reminiscent of Tarantino’s films.
From the very beginning, Tarantino had a plan to make a total of ten films throughout his career and then retire and eventually settle down into writing screenplays. But do we really want to miss his on-screen magic?
So the next time you watch a Tarantino film, make sure you submerge deeper into the Tarantino-esque phenomenon and analyze his filmography more technically. Until then, “Au Revoir, Shoshanna.”
About the Author
Arkaprava is currently completing his UGC as a student of Media Science and wants to explore the field of mass communication even further. He is a film enthusiast and practically lives in movies. He sees himself sharing his perspective with the world (maybe with the help of a pen or the camera).