Essays · Movies

Understanding Quentin Tarantino

This selection of video essays provides some insight into the mind, habits, and techniques of the filmmaker.
Quentin Tarantino In Reservoir Dogs
By  · Published on August 2nd, 2018

Quentin Tarantino lives and breathes cinema. He’s so enthusiastic about the medium that listening to him talk about film is always fascinating — and somewhat infectious if your taste buds align with his. But whether you love or hate his movies (or him, personally), there’s no denying that he stands out among his peers as a filmmaker and as a personality. When you’re watching a Quentin Tarantino film, you know it’s a Quentin Tarantino film. And even though his filmography spans a variety of different genres, his work has retained certain hallmarks from the get-go that have remained consistent throughout his career.

This selection of video essays provides an overview of some common tropes and themes you’ll find in his movies, and with them, I shed some light on the divisive director’s personal motivations and ambitions as an artist.

1. Paying Homage and Breaking the Rules

Tarantino is open about how he plucks ideas from other movies. That said, he always bends what he borrows to fit his own artistic vision. Detractors of the writer/director often accuse him of having no original ideas of his own. However, the way he repurposes these genre elements is unique, resulting in him establishing his own instantly recognizable stamp throughout the years. Part of the attraction of his movies is in his ability to take us on a journey through film history, paying homage to the cinema he loves while breaking conventions along the way.

This essay by Now You See It examines how Tarantino studied masters such as Jean-Pierre Melville, Martin Scorsese, and Sergio Leone and then reworked their lessons to write his own rulebook:

2. Romanticizing Cinema

Disreputable exploitation fare has been just as influential to Tarantino as classic Westerns, French New Wave, and Old Hollywood. And while the lurid sensibilities of these flicks have permeated all of his movies to some extent, his Grindhouse installment, Death Proof, places them front and center. An homage to the glory days of carsploitation and slasher movies, this is in many ways Tarantino indulging in his love of all things Grindhouse. However, when you peel back the layers, Death Proof can also be viewed as the work of an artist longing for a bygone era. Released as a double bill alongside Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, together the films sought to bring the theatrical experience of drive-ins and dilapidated 42nd Street theaters to the modern age. Since then, Tarantino has brought some old school flavor to subsequent releases in a bid to make moviegoing feel special again.

This video by Film Radar argues that Death Proof is Tarantino’s most personal movie and connects it to his disillusionment with the 21st-century cinematic landscape:

3. Getting into Character

Tarantino’s movies do a great job of balancing the quiet with the loud. There’s at least one memorable scene in each film that’s relaxed and intimate only to end with an eruption of violence. This contrast of subtlety and the dramatic, however, also applies to the characters. Even the most inhumane characters in his works are humanized to some extent through informal conversations with each other that make them feel like real people. As a result, the action has more meaning when it goes down, as we’ve gotten to know the players involved.

This video by Youtuber (and fellow Scot) Must See Films does a great job at highlighting how Tarantino effectively presents his colorful characters as different sides to the same coin:

4. Recurring Meals

If you go into a Tarantino movie with an empty stomach, then you’re going to regret it later. The grub on display always looks delicious, but usually, the intentions behind its inclusion are less appetizing. Typically food is a centerpiece to scenes where characters are hanging out right before something grim happens, after all. For the most part, these scenes are understated, but they’re a recurring trend in his oeuvre.

This short and insightful essay by Dan Hassler-Forest looks at the variety of ways in which food has been used in the Deuce’s films, ranging from serving a symbolic purpose to a more direct one:

5. Setting the Scene

The ability to write captivating dialogue is arguably Tarantino’s greatest strength. From characters shooting the breeze about pop culture to them waxing biblical right before a massacre, people exchanging words is the meat and potatoes of his movies. Sometimes these characters aren’t even saying anything at all, but the dialogue is so well-written and perfectly delivered that you could watch it being performed for hours quite happily. At the same time, though, Tarantino’s genius really shines when it comes to setting up future revelations and confrontations.

In this excellent video by The Closer Look, the host reveals how Tarantino uses dialogue techniques to take advantage of the viewer’s natural curiosity:

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.