How Quentin Tarantino came to define (and be defined by) 90s’ culture

I first saw Pulp Fiction during a party at a friend’s house. We were teenagers and, like a lot of teens, we thought that socialising meant watching movies while getting absolutely wasted on cheap vodka and wine stolen from someone’s mum. You could barely hear a word of dialogue over the noise, but just looking at the characters on-screen was enough to tell me.

This was cool.

Pulp Fiction wasn’t Tarantino’s first film but it is, few would argue, his masterpiece. It’s Tarantino on his best day, a hip, young auteur writer/director using slick dialogue and a killer soundtrack to weave complicated narrative arcs around an equally complex cast of characters. Don’t get me wrong, there are problems with Tarantino both as an artist and as a human being, but I still defy anyone to listen to Jules and Vincent arguing about foot massages and then tell me that Quentin Tarantino can’t write a great script.

Since then, I’ve watched every film by Tarantino more than once. Although this doesn’t make me unique amongst mediocre white men, my compulsion to keep watching (even after his cameo in Django) has surprised even myself. Like most people, I wasn’t super fond of Death Proof, I think that Jackie Brown is criminally underrated and I believe that The Hateful Eight was grotesquely self-indulgent, a sentiment that might not be universally accepted but is, as we will soon discover, one which remains irrefutably true.

As a result of his popularity, Tarantino’s work has been widely explored in both academic film studies and culture at large. Fan theories abound about the lineage of certain characters and the functioning of the Tarantino meta-verse, often finding themselves supported by deeper readings that address Tarantino’s influences, narratives and the way he shamelessly rips-off and critiques the movies and TV shows that came before him.

But the most interesting way to read Tarantino, at least to me, is to pinpoint the exact moment at which his movies changed. Somewhere down the line, while no-one was watching, Tarantino stopped making pastiches of the films he loved and quietly replaced them with homages to the films he’d already made. Tarantino stopped holding up a mirror to culture because he had become a cultural image in his own right.

So how did this happen? Well, the answer might just surprise you.

You see, the 90s’ represented a massive shift in the world’s media eco-system. Part of this change was technological; the newly popularised ‘internet’ allowed a single individual to connect with anyone in the world, while the digital revolution armed them with the tools needed to express themselves and relate their own experiences.

The second part of this change was cultural. The Cold War was over, the Berlin Wall was down and humanity had begun to communicate in a way that had never been possible before. For many of us, the world grew incalculably larger almost overnight and the changes we saw created hope for the future. What came next would be an unprecedented period of massive inter-cultural exchange and growth in media consumption during a time when the possibilities for humanity seemed almost infinite.

And these two elements would go on to change the way we interact with Film and TV forever.  Video cameras and recording equipment were becoming more and more affordable, so the public started creating shows and platforms that reflected us and that allowed us to share the videos that we made by ourselves, for ourselves. Youtube, Instagram and Tik Tok are all huge now but none of them would exist without the rapid technological and cultural advances of the 1990s’. Game shows were replaced by reality TV, the survival of the fittest demolishing older structures to make room for something infinitely more relatable to the average person. The Matrix taught us to view reality more critically while the popularity surrounding The Blair Witch Project became the hammer that would nail traditional cinema to the internet until death do they part.

And all of this meant that classic, straightforward storytelling went right out with the trash as the world started demanding increasingly complex narratives with the all the subtlety of a screaming toddler. We wanted content that reflected our views and experiences while also providing us with something new, exciting and (frankly) more accessible than some aspects of early internet culture, which many people saw as a bunch of elitist nerds. We wanted someone to take everything that we already loved about consuming media and crank it all the way up to 11.

Cue: Quentin Tarantino.

To me, Tarantino is the ultimate embodiment of the 90s’ in film. His reputation paints him as a clinical obsessive, harbouring an almost violent adoration of the pop culture he grew up watching. Gangster flicks, samurai movies, westerns; all of this celluloid is consumed, digested, reorganised and repurposed, refamiliarizing audiences with many of the best shots, scenes and lines of the previous fifty years in one easy-to-consume format. Tarantino’s art is not a journey of exploration, then, but one of excavation. He’s a fanboy movie historian retelling and recontextualising cinematic history for a new generation of movie-goers.

But give it enough time and suddenly there’s nothing left for Tarantino to ingest. As we’ve mentioned, 90s’ culture was rapidly spiralling into something nigh unrecognisable. It promoted the accessibility of television and the internet while regular cinema attendance was being pulled into a nosedive that now appears to be terminal. Tarantino’s movies ranked amongst the most influential theatrical releases of their day and even now Tarantino and Christopher Nolan are two of the only modern auteur directors who can guarantee a big box office opening (not counting Michael Bay, since his credentials as auteur, director and redeemable human being all seem highly questionable).

So Tarantino keeps doing what Tarantino does best; parcelling up the choicest cuts of the zeitgeist, wrapping them in different genres and serving them up to delighted audiences everywhere. But in this modern era, the films being pastiched aren’t the classics of the 60s’, 70s’ and 80s’. Unusually, critically, Tarantino started drawing from his own earlier catalogue.

This becomes remarkably clear when you watch his newer films. The self-referential aspects of both Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Hateful Eight are so explicit that it’s almost (almost) annoying. I joked about it before, but The Hateful Eight in particular deals with this development badly. It’s a murder-mystery (which is new-ish ground for Tarantino) and has a colourful cast of unique characters, which is a good start. Some of the callbacks are even okay, if not exactly inspiring; Marquis Warren’s ‘Lincoln Letter’ glowing the same colour as the briefcase in Pulp Fiction stands out as an example of this and an example where it works. It isn’t nuanced, but it is isn’t detrimental to the plot and it gives persnickety films nerds (myself shamelessly included) a little something to get excited about.  

The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino, Image Source

But for every subtle wink, there comes a resounding slap to the face. Tarantino bloated The Hateful Eight with his fantasy-league dream-team of actors; Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Samuel L Jackson plus a surprise guest appearance by Channing Tatum, seemingly cast to underline the fact that yes, Tarantino is aware that new talent exists but will continue working with the same twelve people out of sheer spite. It also lacks the frenetic pacing that characterised so much of his earlier work, depriving us of all the dense action scenes and stranding us in the glacial currents of eight people sat in a room, talking. But perhaps most egregious of all is the shock revelation at the end of this arduous, indulgent, three-hour long mystery; a ninth person, not introduced to the audience, had been hiding underneath the floorboards the entire time.

That’s it. That’s the movie.

The Hateful Eight is predicated upon the question ‘Which of these eight people is the key to the mystery?’ and the answer is ‘None of them, there’s a ninth person that the audience had no way of knowing about’.

If there was ever a direct opposite to the deus ex machina then we have found it; a mechanism whereby the story’s resolution does not descend from the heavens but is instead dragged up from whichever hell Tarantino was surely occupying when writing this script. No matter how well you might rationalise it, this choice represented a solid-gold middle-finger to everyone who just spent the last three hours of their day watching this movie (three hours and twenty minutes, including the intermission that Tarantino insists is the ‘correct’ way to view it).

But there is one perspective that makes a kind of sense. Imagine for a second that everything we’ve said is true and we now occupy a universe where Tarantino has run out of ideas. He can never stop making movies (even filthy rich as he is, the man’s planet-sized ego simply will not allow that) so for the first time he writes a script without any real inspiration to guide him.

Put yourself in his position.  He might have been tempted, just this once, to throw twenty years’ worth of leftovers into a big pile and call it art. Make it three hours long. Add an intermission. Write an extended sequence where you, the writer, are simply reading the script over the action on-screen. Piss your audience off. That’s the point.

It’s a high-risk move, sure, but it also creates a defensible argument. After all, if the audience didn’t complain about the self-reference in his earlier movies then they don’t get to complain about this one.

Understanding these mental gymnastics means that we can now argue that Tarantino was not insulting his audience by lazily resolving the story with the stupidest fuck-you plot device ever, but was actually making an insightful commentary on the artistic bankruptcy of his own later career. If Quentin Tarantino, the former enfant terrible of pop culture, can’t keep the spotlight trained on his brilliance then he’d rather illuminate his shame than risk stepping back into the darkness altogether.  It’s no secret that The Hateful Eight was beset with problems in production (including an original copy of the script being leaked, forcing extensive rewrites) and this helped spawn rumours that it would be Tarantino’s final film. Like so many of the heroes of his childhood, perhaps he wanted to go out with a defiant bang and a gun in his hand.

Fortunately for us all, Tarantino would live to write another day. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is a far superior film, but it would not have existed without the comparative failure of The Hateful Eight. It’s as if Tarantino finally realised that if self-reference is the only trick left, he’d need to embrace the meta-meta-textual or prepare for a rapid decline with no safety net.

Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’

We can understand this by watching this clip of Rick Dalton in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. Dalton is a movie star entering the twilight of his career and understandably bitter about his impending decline. He’s forced to take roles as a villain-of-the-week just to keep his name ‘out there’ and spends the entire film reconciling his fear of obscurity with his desire to remain in the public eye by any means necessary.  But by meeting Trudi Fraser, an agent of this generational change, Tarantino Dalton comes to realises that change is inevitable and soon there’ll be no room left for his classic style. After spending so long coasting by on talent and charisma, he realises that the only way forward is to adapt to New Hollywood by accepting his new position in the cinematic hierarchy.

And that’s the story of how Quentin Tarantino, writer, director and man who definitely has strong feelings about feet, came to exist in his present state. The Tarantino of the 90s’ is a very different beast to the Tarantino of today, but that difference might just be the thing that saves him. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown – all incredible films, but their combined cultural gravity proved too much for him to escape from.

It was only by allowing himself to fail that Tarantino found something new to say.

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