Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Pulpy Love: Tarantino's Five Greatest Scenes


Quentin Tarantino might not just be the defining filmmaker of our time, but also (hear me out) the single most widely influential artist in all of contemporary culture. His early features Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction functioned like homemade explosives, cobbled together from whatever pop culture cast-offs were at hand, shoved indecorously beneath the floorboards of the Western artistic tradition. When it detonated, pieces of its deliriously trashy, self-consciously eclectic and unabashedly violent aesthetic became embedded everywhere from highbrow theatre to lowbrow broadcasting, Martin McDonagh to MTV.

More wide-reaching still, the self-styled auteur has arguably changed the way we watch films, if only inadvertently. His narratives are typically structured around a series of set-pieces, which almost operate as self-contained films. When people talk of their favourite Tarantino flick, they will usually refer not to the episodic stories as a whole, or the often vividly-drawn characters, but to their favourite scenes. In this way, his early films appear to have anticipated the arrival of Youtube and its users' montages of movie moments. They predict the outcome of the digital revolution, which would facilitate the breaking down of once full-length features into discrete and quickly digestible units of action and drama. One might therefore say that he is the pioneering chef of junk food cinema, its delights and irresistible dangers.

Here are his five greatest creations:

5. True Romance: Sicilian History Lesson

Okay, so this is a bit of a cheat; Tarantino might have penned the screenplay for this bloody postmodern cut-up of Badlands, about naive lovers Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette fleeing from gangsters they've recently robbed, but the film itself was directed by Tony Scott.
  Nevertheless, this early script helped establish Quentin's name in the industry, and the fatal encounter between Dennis Hopper's cop Clifford Worley and Christopher Walken's Sicilian drug overlord Vincenzo Coccotti is one of his most unforgettable tour-de-forces. Having barged into Worley's trailer with his hired goons, Coccotti demands that the officer tell him where his son, Slater, has disappeared with the loot he deems as rightfully belonging to him. Worley isn't impressed by Coccotti's threats, and realising that he is doomed, provokes the Sicilian to bloodthirsty rage by delivering an impromptu history lecture on his people's Moorish ancestry.
  Expertly played by the two veteran character actors, the scene touches on many of the themes that would come to define Tarantino's work: racism in American society, machismo, and language as a weapon and precursor to physical violence.


4. Jackie Brown: Get in the trunk

This eight-minute sequence from Tarantino's 1997 ode to the blaxploitation era of 1970s cinema is a superb piece of filmmaking. There are the usual verbal pyrotechnics, but presented with an uncharacteristic restraint and subtlety.
  Samuel L Jackson's black-market gun runner Ordell Robbie shows up uninvited at the home of Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker), a criminal employee he has recently bailed out of jail and whom he fears may turn informant against him. On the pretext of doing him a favour, Ordell coaxes Beaumont out of his living room, into the trunk of his car, and off to an unceremonious demise.
  The brilliance of the scene lies in the performances: For once, Tucker can do his motor-mouth schtick without outstaying his welcome, and Jackson demonstrates his uncanny facility with Tarantino's words, seducing Beaumont and us, the audience, who laugh along with the ghetto banter so that the final moments of brutality register as a real shock.



3. Reservoir Dogs: The Diner

Never one to rush proceedings, Tarantino opens his debut with nearly ten minutes of totally irrelevant yet utterly compelling dialogue between the titular colour-coded crooks. They chew the fat about everything from Madonna to the ethics of tipping, over coffee and cigarettes. Even the man himself gets in on the action, in role as Mr Brown, giving his eccentric take on the lyrics of 'Like A Virgin'. And why not? After all, Tarantino's dialogue is usually just a means of engaging in flirtatious conversation with his audience, and here he simply bypasses the middle-man of the professional actor and does it straight to the camera.
  In this scene, we see that Tarantino tipped his hat to Godard early, outright stealing the New Wave pioneer's hip, narrative-averse riffing on pop culture, and replacing Gallic sophistication with all-American brashness.


2. Inglourious Basterds: Hans Landa Smells A Rat

If Tarantino can be said to have 'matured' as an artist at all over the two decades of his career, one might locate this change in his recent willingness to engage with the real world, specifically historical traumas of great significance in the formation of America, albeit heavily filtered through his own pulp mill of fantasy and dime-store fiction.
  Case in point: the opening scene of his controversial WW2 revenge drama. Colonel Hans Landa, notorious 'Jew Hunter' of the SS and perhaps the single most memorable character Tarantino has created, arrives at a French farmhouse in order to interrogate dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite, whom he secretly suspects of harbouring Jewish refugees.
  Unlike the detached thrills of his earlier work, Tarantino's direction allows a truly authentic sense of horror to bleed through the celluloid - this time, we feel the magnitude of what is at stake. Later on, the film dispenses with this emotional weight as it moves towards audaciously-staged comic-book levity, but for a little while at least Tarantino rivals the depiction of inhuman cruelty and prejudice evident in the best parts of Spielberg's Schindler's List.


1. Pulp Fiction: Tasty burgers and dead meat

Black screen. Cut to Jules Winnfield (Samuel L Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta), immaculately attired, speeding down a Los Angeles motorway, en route to another job. These two men are killers, but you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise.  They yak about cheese burgers and Amsterdam. They alight, tooling up with firearms, and scaling a nondescript apartment block. They're still talking, but now they're on to foot massages...Stay alert - some of these topics might make a reappearance later on. In Tarantino's universe, words are like a rogues gallery in a whodunit: there are plenty of them, and you never know which ones to suspect.
  Jules and Vince burst in on a trio of gormless college kids - former business partners of their boss, Marcellus Wallace. It seems they tried to put one over on him. The details are never explained. In Tarantino, these familiar genre tropes rarely are, in any more than half-hearted fashion. Come on, the films say, we all know the score, so let's just get to the good stuff. First, the passing of judgment. And then the execution.
  Before he finally pops a cap in their ass, and having already seemingly exhausted his supply of quoteworthy dialogue, Jules delivers a passage from the Bible: Ezekiel 25:17. It's the ultimate postmodern repurposing, showing that - quite literally - no text is sacred any more.
  It's the quintessential Tarantino sequence because it encapsulates what all of his films reflect about the nihilistic maelstrom that is the modern world, and what they have perhaps helped turn it into. It is a window into a universe where meaning is no sooner found than it is lost, a fallen Eden and a garden of earthly delights, exhilarating and disturbing. Tarantino's very own Youtube.