What’s he done this time? As a filmmaker who creates experiences that aren’t remotely like anything else out there, Quentin Tarantino has earned the curiosity. Like ’em or loathe ’em, Tarantino’s movies exist in their own distinctive, vacuum-packed world, strange missives from an unfettered imagination. He’s unfettered because his movies keep making money, but I wonder what the faithful will think of The Hateful Eight, a typically outrageous but even-chattier-than-usual extravaganza. Most of the film’s 187 minutes (with an intermission) take place inside a snowed-in frontier trading post, although the scenes outside Minnie’s Haberdashery are just as talkative and—despite the Western vistas in the background—claustrophobic.
Two decades ago, the man fired a bullet into the head of status quo filmmaking. A volatile combo of creative arrogance and innocence, Quentin Tarantino is an absolute original. His movies don’t look or sound or move like anyone else’s in the world; he transforms action, character, and landscape into something iconic, beautiful, strange, silly or sublime, like a glimpse of an alternative universe where everything is always becoming … more. Forget assembly-line art, grinding out product to stay famous and rake in the big bucks. No, Tarantino takes his own sweet time writing and directing: only six movies have followed Reservoir Dogs, his 1992 bombshell. Surely the most blasphemous Christmas gift ever, Django Unchained makes eight.
Q.T.’s pictures are gorgeous mutations of style, genre, classics and cult faves. Like James Joyce, who fished streams of language for meaning, Tarantino “samples” eclectically from the well of cinema. No other working director takes — and offers — such exuberant joy in the sheer sensuality of movies, reveling in action choreography that transforms physical violence into modern dance and abstract art; salty dialogue and the art of the yarn; bold color design, dynamic composition and cutting; stylized performances; music as narrative bloodstream. Gleefully fracturing chronology, he manipulates memory and immediacy into a new species of narrative form — such as the shape of a woman’s vengeance.
For Tarantino, style is signature, spelling out who you are and what you’re worth. When David Carradine’s Bill, rising to meet his end, drawls, “How do I look?” he’s referencing an aesthetic that’s a gloriously profane form of morality. Looking good is, for Tarantino, the art of cinema.
‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992)
After selling a couple of tasty scripts to Tony Scott (“True Romance”) and Oliver Stone (“Natural Born Killers”), Tarantino crashed out big-time, writing and directing a movie that was the antithesis of everything square. Story’s simple: A wild bunch of colorful hard cases hires on for a jewelry store heist. The caper goes south in a big way, thanks to a gun-crazy colleague (sexy psycho Michael Madsen), and the undercover cop (nervy Tim Roth) who sets them up. “Dogs” sizzled with a new way of seeing and talking and acting; moviegoers got their first bite of the Tarantino template. The “Dogs” (Tarantino himself; Lawrence Tierney, old-school tough guy on screen and off; Scorsese-baptized gangsta Harvey Keitel; neurasthenic Steve Buscemi; the late lamented Chris Penn, pudgy, volatile) were far from pretty but, man, could they talk a blue — very blue — streak; and also bleed redder than red (Q.T. follows Jean-Luc Godard’s aesthetic: “There is not a lot of blood in my film — there is a lot of red”). Conversation’s as loaded as the gang’s guns, as actionful as body blows. We never witness the actual heist, just prequel and apocalyptic aftermath, all the action shaken up into one deliriously explosive now. The absurdist roundelay of extreme violence and stylized dying in “Dogs” (recalling, for starters, Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” and Ringo Lam’s “City on Fire”) heralded the beginning of Tarantino’s career-long commitment to fleshing out the concept of what’s transcendently “cool.”
Quentin Tarantino developed a reputation not simply for unconventional storytelling and inventive writing, but for inspired casting. Reservoir Dogs introduced Lawrence Tierney to a new generation of crime movie fans. Pulp Fiction revived the faltering career of John Travolta. And Jackie Brown, his first film based on someone else’s story, he cast as his leads two veterans of the seventies drive-in and exploitation cinema: Pam Grier and Robert Forster.
Last week I published my interview with Ms. Grier. This week, I present my conversation with Mr. Forster, one of the most underrated performers of his time and an actor we almost lost to neglect before Tarantino gave him a showcase. Again, limited to twenty minutes, I had very little time to really dig into his career, but I was able to touch on some of my favorite films of his, and discover that they are his favorites as well.
Sean Axmaker: Let’s talk about Jackie Brown. Quentin Tarantino was a fan of your films. Were you a fan of his when you were cast?
Robert Forster: Well, sure. This guy made great movies. I had auditioned for one of his movies, for Reservoir Dogs. I thought I was going to get it until I realized that he had dedicated the film to the guy to did the part that I wanted, Lawrence Tierney. So it came as a big surprise when I walked out of that audition thinking that I had just hit it out of the park, and then Quentin comes out after me and says, “Look, this isn’t going to work. I’m going to give this part to the guy I dedicated the script to, but I won’t forget you.” And I thought, “Okay, good.” And then he did Pulp Fiction and became a huge filmmaker and years had gone by and I ran into him in a coffee shop. By then my career was really, really dead and we blah-blahed for a few minutes and then six months later he showed up at the same coffee shop with a script in his hands and handed it to me. I by then had been reduced to hoping some young guy who liked me growing up would turn into a moviemaker and give me a good part and here comes the guy and what a script! When I read it I could hardly believe that he had me in mind for Max Cherry except that nothing else made any sense, so when I asked him about it he said, “Yes, it’s Max Cherry that I wrote for you,” and that’s when I said to him, “I’m sure they’re not going to let you hire me.” Because I’ve had the experience of getting close to good parts and realizing the distributors wanted something else. So when I said that too him, he said, “I hire anybody I want.” And that’s when I realized I was going to get another shot at a career and this guy gave me what I’d been hoping for: a good part from someone who liked me growing up.
[Expanded from a feature originally published in 1997 in Seattle Weekly]
“Amateurs borrow, professionals steal,” goes the maxim. Quentin Tarantino steals like a pro. Where directors of the previous generation peppered their films with classic cinematic quotes, Tarantino plunders the films of his formative years for ideas – mostly B-movies and exploitation films about cars and capers and criminals – and riffs on them with a mix of reverence and sly playfulness.
Tarantino’s films aren’t so much stories as strings of anecdotes: movie moments, urban myths, conversations strewn with pop culture references. His challenge with Jackie Brown is how make someone else’s story—Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, to be specific—his own. His solution: set it in his own reference riddled world. From the film’s opening shot—a quote from The Graduate overlaid with early seventies movie lettering and set to a Motown tune—we know we’re in Tarantino territory.
Pam Grier’s entrance in her retro stewardess outfit introduces the kick-ass star of Foxy Brown and Friday Foster gracefully aging into the modern world. Robert Forster, the almost star of the late 60s turned exploitation film stalwart (see Alligator and Vigilante), brings the understated authority that marked his genre pictures to the lived-in ease age brings. That’s the genius of Tarantino’s casting. Jackie Brown is not some stand-in for Foxy Brown but a projection of where she might be 25 years later. Grier’s persona is intertwined with the role, a middle aged woman with her back to wall who turns her situation around: from victim to player. With the weight of her career as an action star, Grier makes Jackie her own and dominates the screen with her energy and charisma.