Just in time for Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, we’re taking a look at the great director’s personal trademarks. Watch our video and find out what makes Tarantino Tarantino.
In the director’s own words, “I steal from every single movie ever made … Great artists steal; they don’t do homages.”
What sets Tarantino apart is his eclectic taste—he draws on everything from spaghetti westerns, to B-movies, to blaxploitation flicks, to samurai films, to cinema classics. In a sense, he proves that—as an artist—you are your taste. A director is defined by what he’s a fan of. Even more than a cinephile, you might call this former Video Archives clerk the ultimate fan-fiction director—his movie references spring from a pure love of cinema. Often he’s not even really making a deeper thematic point with all the referentiality beyond, “Isn’t this great?” too.
It’s a Bloodbath.
So what is the purpose of subjecting us to all this human suffering of Biblical proportions? Well, on one level, there isn’t a “purpose.” The director rejects our impulse to ascribe a sophisticated external meaning to the carnage.
Interviewer: “There are bits in Inglorious Basterds—really unsettling. Is that because you never want people to forget the capacity for humans to harm one another?”
Quentin Tarantino: “No, I think you are getting too heavy with it as far as I’m concerned. Yeah I don’t have concerns or thoughts like that.” - British Academy Film Awards Interview
For him, it ultimately comes down to entertainment value. This is violence for violence’s sake, unapologetically aestheticized. Tarantino’s violence is so memorable because it’s creative—these scenes stick in our minds because of their inventiveness and specificity. And Tarantino’s characters evidently agree with him that all this brutality is highly entertaining.
The violence is also unabashedly gruesome—unlike so many action movies that border on bloodless, Tarantino’s films revel in the gore which is the physical consequence of fighting.
Ultimately Tarantino uses violence as a means of control— he describes himself as a conductor, with an orchestra made up of the audience’s emotions. Tarantino has rejected criticism that the violence in movies leads people to behave more aggressively in the real world.
Quentin Tarantino: “I have absolutely no hypocrisy or contradiction to say that I abhor violence in real life and I can love it in genre.” - MTV News Interview
He cites Japan as an example of a peaceful society that produces extremely violent films—and he views cinema and real-life as completely separate entities… which might be one reason he saw no problem with encouraging kids to see Kill Bill.
The Characters are Professional Criminals.
… but Tarantino portrays their unorthodox careers like any other line of work. Take the opening scene of Pulp Fiction: Ringo and Yolanda discuss how to optimize their business and they eventually hit on an untapped market. Tarantino brings us into the business with characters whose jobs aren’t so different from ours (most of the time)—they share “water cooler” chats with the coworkers, and try their best to keep the boss happy.
Tarantino’s movies emphasize professionalism.
Mr. Pink: “What, are we on a playground here? Am I the only professional?” - Reservoir Dogs
The guys conducting the heist in Reservoir Dogs and hitmen Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction evidently believe in the adage, “dress for the job you want.” In Inglorious Basterds, Aldo Raine prides himself on being great at his job. We might read all this talk about professionalism as reflecting Tarantino’s own perfectionist motivation to be a master of his craft (in a field that, likewise, can take him to some sick places).
Aldo Raine: “You know how you get to Carnegie Hall, don’t you? Practice.” - Inglorious Basterds
The Characters are Acting.
Tarantino has said, quote, “A theme all my characters share is that they’re all good actors and use acting techniques. They’re always playing a character to some degree or another.” The characters often have to cover up their true identities with a false persona—and this adds layers to the story. The tension and thrill comes from knowing that someone is pretending and could be discovered—because in these worlds there are dire consequences for not performing your role perfectly.
Holdaway: “Undercover cops gotta be Brando. To do this job you gotta be a great actor, naturalistic.” - Reservoir Dogs
Tarantino willfully ignores the screenwriting convention to include dialogue only if it succinctly advances plot or illuminates character—his movies feature long conversations with no apparent relation to anything. All of this talk gives Tarantino’s films their specific texture that fans love—and explains why most of them approach the 3-hour mark.
The contrast between the unhurried, idiosyncratic dialogue and the high-stakes scenarios yields the irreverent tone that defines this director’s work. Even though the characters tend to be in mortal danger (or engaged in the act of killing), they’re never too busy for a lengthy conversation dissecting the most trivial subject.
It’s part of the Tarantino Cinematic Universe.
Tarantino’s movies are interconnected—they feature the same fictional brands. And characters from different movies are related to each other—Mr. Blonde is Vincent Vega’s brother. The Hateful Eight’s Pete Hicox is an ancestor of Archie Hicox from Inglorious Basterds. And when the Bride is buried alive in Kill Bill Vol. 2, the grave belongs to Paula Schultz, who may be related to Dr. King Schultz from Django Unchained.
This isn’t all playing out in one universe, though—according to Tarantino, there are two. One is the “realer than real universe” that his characters live in, and the other is the “movie universe” where stories like Kill Bill are set. As he explains it, quote, “when all the characters of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, when they go to the movies, Kill Bill is what they go to see.” In Pulp Fiction, Mia tells Vincent about a pilot she was in—the premise sounds a lot like Kill Bill—so it sounds like this failed pilot went on to become a movie with Mia Wallace playing the Bride.
Mia Wallace: “There was a blond one, Sommerset O’Neil. She was the leader. The Japanese fox was a kung fu master. The black girl was a demolition expert. French fox’s speciality was sex.”
Vincent Vega: “What was your specialty?”
Mia Wallace: “Knives.” - Pulp Fiction
On a less literal level, Tarantino’s movies also feel they’re set in a connected story world because of specific recurring artistic features—from the familiar faces of actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Madsen, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, and Tim Roth… to the use of playful code names or nicknames, to the trunk shots, to all the images of bare feet that suggest Tarantino may have some sort of foot fetish.
It’s a Secret Western.
His love of the Western genre comes through in his fondness for outlaws, gunfights, Mexican standoffs, Western-style music, and a general sense of lawlessness. Tarantino said Pulp Fiction is “a modern-day spaghetti western.” He named Sergio Leone as the filmmaker who’s had the greatest influence on his career, and Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as his all-time favorite movie. The title of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood pays tribute to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, which Tarantino called, “The movie that made me consider filmmaking.”
It’s a Secret Musical.
When Tarantino is thinking about what story to tell next, he turns to his vinyl collection for inspiration. So it makes sense that his movies feature what he calls, “the equivalent of what in a musical would be a big dance number or a big musical sequence.” Tarantino understands music’s power to maximize the impact of a scene. The song may perfectly echo the story—or it may be perfectly opposed to the action at hand. Tarantino also likes to use anachronistic music—in his view historical accuracy is less important than capturing the feeling of what’s happening.
Anything can happen.
There’s a sense of infinite possibility in Tarantino’s movies. They’re full of random coincidences and, at times, the sense of a higher power, too. It feels as if the hand of fate intervenes in the character’s lives—not in a straightforward or moralistic way, though…. in a truly mysterious one.
It might even seem that Tarantino—as the God-slash-author of the film—delights in being that unpredictable, unknowable force intervening in his characters’ lives. The sense that anything-can-happen also extends to Tarantino’s approach to filmmaking. He prides himself on breaking established rules.
Quentin Tarantino: “...and there are no moral boundaries, and there are no ‘oh well you can’t do that’ kind of boundaries. That is exactly how cinema was when I came into it, and I think I went a long way to knocking some of those walls down.” - MTV Interview
You know you’re watching a movie.
Tarantino doesn’t concern himself with verisimilitude—he’s perfectly happy for the audience to know they’re in a story world of his creation. He expresses this through visual flourishes and the use of text on screen, as well as by giving himself cameos in small yet memorable roles (and he’s not averse to playing pretty nasty personalities). Tarantino also plays on viewers’ pop culture knowledge.
It has a non-linear structure.
In Pulp Fiction, all the vignettes are out of chronological order, but the movie feels cohesive because each part contains references to the other story threads. Also, because of the way it’s structured, the main characters are alive at the end (even though Vincent dies earlier on)—adding to the comic, upbeat feel.
One reason for Tarantino’s love of non-linear structure may be that he thinks of his scripts as literature; he often divides his films into chapters.
Quentin Tarantino: “If I had written Pulp Fiction as a novel and I was on your show, you would never even remotely bring up the structure.” - PBS Interview
Revenge is a dish best served cold.
This saying is the epigraph of Kill Bill, but it could easily apply to Tarantino’s other works, too. So what exactly is Tarantino’s take on “revenge”? The Bride makes it explicitly clear that the vengeance she seeks isn’t an attempt to “get even,” as we might tend to think of it. The idea of “getting even” falsely implies it’s possible to make up for what she’s lost. So instead, for her, revenge is a means of taking power back.
The Bride: “When fortune smiles on something as violent and ugly as revenge, it seems proof like no other that not only does God exist, you’re doing his will.” - Kill Bill
Tarantino often focuses on disempowered characters who use violent revenge to regain control over their lives. In Kill Bill, O-Ren Ishii loses everything when her family is slaughtered by the Yakuza, but violence is also how she avenges her loved ones… and becomes the new Yakuza leader. As part of playing our emotions like an orchestra, Tarantino shows innocent people being hurt to make us crave revenge on behalf of his characters, and then partake in their sense of empowerment when they get it. Yet as good as it feels, once characters choose retribution, they may be committing the rest of their lives to it. In Inglorious Basterds, Shosanna gets her vengeance on the Nazis that destroyed her family—but she has to die too, and her body will burn in the flames of the fire she created. After the Bride kills Vernita Green, she accepts that Vernita’s young daughter may one day come after her… so the cycle of vengeance is never-ending.
Hattori Hanzo: “Revenge is never a straight line. It’s a forest. And like a forest it’s easy to lose your way.” - Kill Bill
Tarantino has maintained that he will retire from filmmaking after 10 movies, and since he counts Kill Bill volumes 1 and 2 as one movie, that makes Once Upon a Time his 9th work. So, as he nears the end of his career and we look back at his filmography, we can see that Tarantino has created something bigger than a body of work—his own multiverse.