Films, filmmakers, and actors/actresses define eras of your life. It’s bound to happen when you’re a hardcore movie-watcher. Name any on-screen (or even off-screen) personality, and I can tell you when I became aware of their work. My first look at Quentin Tarantino happened in 1994, and my experience as a movie-watcher has never been the same. I’ve seen every one of his movies on the big screen ever since, with one exception. Much like Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino’s films have paced the last 18 years of my life. I remember exactly where I was when I saw each one.
It started harmlessly enough. I was a freshman at Westminster College. Our local theater offered free admission to any movie so long as you had a Westminster student ID. In the fall of 1994, an indie movie named Pulp Fiction was taking the world by storm. It came to the Fulton theater, and I saw it with a date. She didn’t particularly care for the movie, but I thought it was one of the most unique things I’d ever seen in a theater. Everyone I talked to about it wanted to rip it apart and figure out the chronology, figure out what was in the brief case, talk about the awesome soundtrack, and discuss the more jarring scenes (“Bring out the Gimp!”). It was on everyone’s mind. So many people I knew were interested in it that I ended up seeing it two more times at the theater.
For whatever reason, I didn’t get a chance to see Jackie Brown when it was released in 1997. I guess that’s the difference in the level of work you have to do in college between your freshman and senior years. In fact, my next Tarantino-directed film didn’t happen until 2003. Throughout the summer of 2003, theaters were adorned with intriguing bright yellow posters. They featured Uma Thurman, menacingly holding a samurai sword while wearing a form-fitting motorcycle suit. It was for Kill Bill. The poster proclaimed that it was “the 4th film from Quentin Tarantino”, and that it was for “Volume 1”. My friend who met Kevin Meaney had to explain to me that there were going to be two parts of the film. Those months prior to the release were almost excruciating- call it effective marketing. And then again, the year in between volumes 1 and 2 was excruciating- call it effective filmmaking in volume one. Needless to say, I was not disappointed with either volume. The films were dripping with coolness and quotability. And for neophytes like me (at the time, anyway), it gave me an introduction to both samurai and kung fu. Hell, it even gave me a tiny introduction into animé. From that point on, I was hooked. Whatever Tarantino made, I was going to watch it.
By 2006, I had become a regular at a bar that showed movies once a week. The guy who chose the movies had great taste. One week, he insisted I should show up. As it turned out, the movie of the week- the reason he insisted I show up- was True Romance (1993). Admittedly, Tarantino had not directed it, but he had written it. His fingerprints were all over it. There were no expectations going in, and it wound up being a real treat.
Over the next three years, before Inglourious Basterds came out, I filled in the cracks in my Tarantino viewing experience. I finally got around to Jackie Brown. Like so many other Tarantino films, it’s forever linked to a song in my head. Viewers don’t even have to go far to find it in the movie. It’s right in the opening credits.
I’d seen Reservoir Dogs (1992) Johnny Cash-style- one piece at a time, over several years. I knew every single nook and cranny of that movie but I had never sat down and watched it from start to finish. This, despite being able to quote it or wax poetic about key scenes. I finally gave it a proper viewing in 2007. Naturally, I loved it. It was easy to see how it had been a hallmark of 90s indie cinema.
Allow me to digress for a moment. The funny thing about Reservoir Dogs is that it always makes me think of something that’s almost completely unrelated to the movie. When I was in college, circa 1996, there was a particularly annoying guy who lived down the hall from me. He constantly played the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack. He didn’t even have the courtesy to play the whole thing. He would only play “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealer’s Wheel. It was beyond obnoxious. And one day, one of my friends heroically sneaked into Annoying Guy’s room, snagged the soundtrack, split it in half, and tossed it in the trash. He may or may not have pissed on it before throwing it away, but my memory is hazy. It was a minor, yet major, victory that day. Annoying Guy was no longer able to harass us with the song ever again, since he never replaced the disc. That’s what I’ll always remember about Reservoir Dogs.
Some time in 2004, the Guy Who Met Kevin Meaney turned me on to the Hollywood Stock Exchange. One of the very first stocks I bought was something titled “Untitled Quentin Tarantino World War II Project”. Inglourious Basterds (2009) was a long time coming. By the time it was released, my viewing priorities had changed drastically. For the first time ever, I was wise to QT’s orgy of pop culture references beforehand. It was a blast counting them all out- Leni Reifenstahl pictures, Le Corbeau, The Dirty Dozen, even Cinderella and The Sound of Music. What made this viewing so astounding was that it was recommended by my parents, who no doubt saw it because it was a Brad Pitt movie. I warned them, “Are you sure you want to see that? It’s Tarantino.” As it turns out, they thought it was great. It’s not often that I’ve heard my dad laugh as much as he did at that movie. It was music to my ears. Of course, that’s probably a sign that QT wasn’t as edgy as he had once been. All the same, finding out that my almost-70-year-old parents were cool enough to enjoy a Tarantino movie made me extremely happy. And I liked it so much that I saw it again in the theater, this time with my documentarian friend at the Moolah here in St. Louis.
That brings me to Django Unchained, a movie I’ve paid to see twice in the last week. I’ve seen it with two sets of friends, and the repeated discussion process of “Remember when…” and “How cool was it when…” has begun in earnest. I’ve been farming out informative Django links to those friends for a week now. There are evil men in this movie, and they are made to suffer excruciating, vengeful deaths. None of the oppressors gets out alive, all of their justice meted out by a spaghetti western hero for a new generation.
Along the way, Tarantino has grown as a filmmaker. He’s no longer a restless youth, raging against movie history and screaming “LOOK AT WHAT I CAN DO!” He’s mastering his craft, making legitimate genre movies without showing off. If there’s pastiche, it’s not to the detriment of the rest of the film, as was the case with 2007’s Death Proof (let’s not talk about Death Proof).
Here’s to at least 18 more years of Tarantino films.