Imagine a boy, paunchy and wired with the infectious excitement of youth, poring over a newspaper. On the newspaper are times for the local cinema. Everything from Hollywood melodrama to foreign art films are plastered across the paper. The boy glares intently, squinting to seek out the best viewing option. This is not the last movie the boy will watch, nor is it the first. For he will grow up to be the world’s most famous movie geek, Quentin Tarantino. The films he seeks out now will have a profound impact on him as an adult moviemaker, seeping their way into his own creations, for better or for worse. The now fully grown Tarantino has not shied away from his influences, subtly slipping a few into a film here and there, no. He has fully embraced the movies he grew up with, adding as many references and pop culture infused dialogue into his own art as he possibly can. Tarantino is still that little boy, sweaty with anticipation of the opportunity waiting in celluloid. He is a film nerd who wants to make a movie like the movies he loves. What makes him different than the average wannabe filmmaker, is that Tarantino is insanely talented. Thus, his influences, when mixed with his brilliant writing and directing, make something wonderful. But, to truly enjoy a Tarantino film, one must first look to the past and see the films that inspired and molded young Quentin into the man we know and, for the most part, love today.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 crime classic, The Killing, looks relatively small when put next to the films in Kubrick’s overall oeuvre, it certainly did not seem insignificant at all to Tarantino. As one can see by the man’s filmography, he’s a huge fan of crime pictures and noir with snappy dialogue. The Killing provides all this, as well as a darker underlying message and one of the best endings in crime movie history. It’s no wonder Tarantino looked to this for inspiration when writing and shooting his debut, Reservoir Dogs. Reservoir Dogs takes the basic tried and true heist gone wrong formula and then adds in lots of fast paced dialogue and directorial flourishes. Tarantino even pays homage by using some of the same shots as The Killing. The opening scene in the diner closely resembles the meeting of the heist crew in The Killing in shot composition and thematic purpose. Yet, this is just one example in a career filled with references and allusions. Reservoir Dogs is an impressive and satisfying debut film, and it is certainly enhanced by Tarantino’s deft use of his cinematic influences. This pattern would keep up for his entire career.
The clearest example of his use of past films for inspiration is his near constant allusion to the genre of the western. It’s no coincidence Tarantino consistently uses the music of Ennio Morricone in his movies. Whether it be in films like Kill Bill, or in actual westerns like Django Unchained, one would be safe in assuming the western is the genre to affect and inspire Tarantino most. While Tarantino has always favored final shootouts (See: Pulp Fiction) and western-esque elements, his most obvious foray into the genre was in Kill Bill. There, he crafted an original revenge tale solely around the concept of mashing together other genres and films. Tarantino cites The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly as his all-time favorite film. With Kill Bill, it shows. The opening black and white shot of Uma Thurman’s character being threatened with a revolver harkens back to a similar shot with Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach in Sergio Leone’s film. The Kill Bill movies are filled with more western references, to everything from The Searchers to Once Upon a Time in The West. Under less talented hands, this could have become a derivative mess. But because of his immense skill, it all coalesced into something beautiful, with his references adding to the films, becoming more than just a smartly placed series of winks and nudges. Sometimes, like the severed ear scene in Reservoir Dogs (a reference to a particularly bloody part of Sergio Corbucci’s Django) it is nothing more than Tarantino having some fun. Other times, as in his casting of blaxploitation star Pam Grier in Jackie Brown, it adds another entire layer to the film. With this seemingly harmless nod to the popular blaxploitation cinema of the ’70s, Jackie Brown becomes not only another crime picture, but a commentary on the genre itself and a sort of post-modern blaxploitation comeback film for Mrs. Grier.
Tarantino’s entire career is about elevating this material into something better. He took an obscure spaghetti western from an unheard of director, and took his own free form version of it all in Django Unchained. He wants to make a war movie like The Dirty Dozen? He will, but it will certainly be more than the stuff it was inspired by. Tarantino has made his purpose in filmmaking to tell people about his love of movies. All he is really trying to do in making films is to tell everyone that movies are great and this is why. He is constantly channeling that paunchy and wired boy poring over the movie listings in the newspaper whenever he does anything. Just recently, he took over the New Beverly theatre in Los Angeles, and will be showing primarily prints of old films. Like his moviemaking, this is another attempt by Tarantino to make the world love the wonders of cinema s much as he does. It’s an admirable effort, really, and one that I can totally get behind. What’s more noble than sharing one’s enthusiasm? I can only hope Tarantino continues on this path for many years to come. For if there is anything the world needs more of, it is movies, and the joy that comes along with them.