Quentin Tarantino is a divisive filmmaker, but it’s hard not to be intrigued every time one of his new films rolls into town. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is no exception. In fact, with a killer cast and fresh new setting, we here at The Edge are more excited for a Tarantino flick than we have been in years. Ahead of release later this month, our writers have taken a look back through his filmography to pick out their favourite. To think, it all began with QT babbling on about the meaning of ‘Like a Virgin’…
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Sometimes you just can’t beat the original. Spielberg didn’t make his best film with his debut feature. Scorsese certainly didn’t. Tarantino just may have. After years working as a video store clerk developing an extraordinary knowledge of cinema, he broke onto the Hollywood scene in a big way with this electric heist thriller. Drawing heavily from Hong Kong crime film City on Fire, Tarantino established a penchant for pastiche that has stuck throughout his artistic career. Though it was his first film, there’s nothing amateur about Reservoir Dogs. That being said, it’s probably the most stripped-down of any of his works. There’s not a neverending ensemble of stylised characters. The aestheticisation of violence is relatively tame. Non-linear narrative devices are limited to flashbacks that appear rudimentary compared to the choppy time-jumping, chapter-divided order of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill.
The old adage ‘style over substance’ has been aimed towards the director many times over the years, and rewatching Reservoir Dogs after seeing all his other films definitely makes it feel like back-to-basics filmmaking in comparison. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have style. Reservoir Dogs has plenty of style, illustrated almost immediately by the slow-motion opening titles that capture the gang strutting along to the tune of ‘Little Green Bag’ by the George Baker Selection. It established Tarantino as a director who knows his sounds; it goes on to top that iconic opening with an even greater musical moment, using ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ as the soundtrack to Mr Blonde’s (Michael Madsen) torture spree. Everything that defines Tarantino today can be tied back to Reservoir Dogs, but what sets it apart is a restraint that has eluded him in more recent efforts. An impeccable debut.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
If anyone says to you the name Quentin Tarantino, then chances are your mind is probably going to jump first to his 1994 cult classic Pulp Fiction – and why wouldn’t it? Undoubtedly, it’s the quintessential Tarantino film: a memorable script, seminal iconography, deconstruction of character archetypes and a narrative structure described by many as a Chinese puzzle, unravelling further with every subsequent viewing. It’s a film now regarded as a staple of Postmodernist cinema, regularly appearing as a case study in film courses across the world. Besides the phenomenal impact it had at the time and continues to have on budding filmmakers in the present day, what’s abundant in Pulp Fiction, something found slightly lacking in his more recent releases, is a razor-sharp sense of humour that ranges from the insanely bizarre to the utterly bleak – with a through line on chance and coincidence that reaps rich comedic rewards.
It’s all there: the awkward but charming Twist dance performed by Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) to the tune of Chuck Berry’s ‘You Never Can Tell’; Travolta’s nonchalant delivery of “Ah man, I shot Marvin in the face”; and Tarantino himself appearing as Jimmie, a role miles better in contrast to some of his other cameo performances (think the Australian miner in Django Unchained). This in spite of his frequent use of the N-word, which remains a bone of contention amongst critics. There’s something dark about how successful Tarantino is at drawing comedy from bloody violence – which can be quite unsettling to consider retrospectively – but, as the film notifies us in its opening card, one of the definitions of pulp is ‘a magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper.’ A bit like Pulp Fiction, then.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Set in Nazi-occupied France, audiences may have expected Tarantino’s characteristic action and violence to be the focus of his WWII story Inglourious Basterds, its title referring to the group of Jewish-American resistance fighters at its centre. Whilst the bloody violence of the Basterds is shown in graphic detail, it takes a backseat to what Tarantino is perhaps best known for: dialogue-led scenes. For this film, however, he had to tackle dialogue from a different angle, casting a sizeable number of German and French actors and letting them speak in their native tongues for authenticity. With what may be lost in snappy exchanges is gained through palpable sequences of tension, some of the most acutely intense in recent memory, including the opening interrogation and ill-fated name game at the tavern.
Although Inglourious Basterds does move at quite a slow pace at times, the range of performances more than make up for its lengthy runtime. Mélanie Laurent is brilliant as the vengeful Shosanna Dreyfus. Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine is rather comical and stiff, yet there is a certain deadpan charm there. Of course, Christoph Waltz as SS Officer Hans Landa steals the show, effortlessly switching from charming to smug to downright wicked as quickly and easily as he switches between a variety of languages. The soundtrack, largely inspired by and featuring plenty of the work of Ennio Morricone, is used to full advantage to deliver some of the most iconic Tarantino scenes since Pulp Fiction. Though it’s not for the squeamish, Inglourious Basterds takes the No. 1 spot for its expert tension building, eclectic performances and the creative use of its historical setting. What can I say, I’m a fan of war films.
– Tom Ford
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), directed by Quentin Tarantino, will be released in the UK on August 14th. Watch the trailer below: