To many casual fans, the language of Tarantino is an incessant riff on the pop culture of Post-War America. It is an obsessive deconstructing and constant repositioning of 50-years-worth of movies, music, and TV shows that pools everything from LE CORBEAU to THE DE FRANCO FAMILY to GREEN ACRES into one heaving amalgam of collective memory.
"What you mean you're gonna walk the earth?"
But ultimately, there's so much more to QT's references than quirk for the sake of quirk or a stylistic tick. And my intention is to explore the deeper meaning behind his characters' penchants for analogies to TV shows and lengthy digressions on the meaning of "LIKE A VIRGIN" in a little piece I'm calling...
RAMBLERS, LET'S GET RAMBLIN': the words of Quentin Tarantino (volume 2)
"You Are Aware That There's An Invention Called Television, & That on That Invention They Show Shows, Right?"
The movies of Quentin Tarantino took the culture of coffee shop chit chat and made it not just an art form but a national craze. In the wake of the Tarantino Mania that took American films by storm in the 90's, suddenly it was cool (in real life, mind you, and not just the movies!) to make lists of the WORST MARVEL SUPERHEROES, to argue the merits of BUCK ROGERS vs. FLASH GORDON, and to indulge in all the geek fetishisms that had previously been relegated to discussions over DUNGEONS & DRAGONS boards in dorky dorm rooms on lonely Saturday Nights.
But beyond the novelty of a bunch of hardened jewel thieves clucking over diner food about the deeper meanings of MADONNA lyrics or the pleasures of 70's AM Radio, there is something more significant in Tarantino's (and his characters') preoccupation with
obscure B-Movies and discontinued breakfast cereals. In Tarantino-land, pop culture riffing and referencing is how Millennial Americans relate to and debate one another. In Tarantino's eyes (& words), our shared cultural heritage comes not from small town Rockwellian pleasantries or Sunday Night Dinner conversations but from the mutual experience of Boomer TV shows and Fast Food Drive-Thru Menus. And our worldview grows not from the urbanities of the upper class or the hard-earned cynicisms of blue collar roustabouts but from the larger reach of MTV and JOHN WAYNE movies.
Kool & the Gang, as in everything is...
According to the words of Tarantino, we bond with and define those we meet through a spectrum of reference that transcends socio-economic background and educational experiences. After all, not everyone went to Harvard and knows the experience of an Ivy League youth, but everyone knows the BRADY BUNCH. And whether or not they favor the BRADY SIX or the PARTRIDGE FAMILY.
Tarantino additionally theorizes that the way we contextualize new concepts is by stacking them against our shared memories from movies and Top 40 music. The director has always contended that Americans size each other up by assessing each other's tastes in cars and comic books, by testing each other's knowledge of movie motifs and mad men jingles, by challenging each other's takes on sit-coms and song lyrics. Pop culture, in Tarantino's mind, is how we categorize and feel one another out. We put people into columns based on their awareness of or fondness for certain kinds of music or movies. There is a famously excised scene from PULP FICTION in which Mia Wallace, prior to going on a date, asks Vincent
Vega to identify himself as being an ELVIS MAN or a BEATLES MAN, a BRADY MAN or a PARTRIDGE MAN, a BETTY MAN or a VERONICA MAN. Her intention is to deduce who he is through his word-association-like answers. She needs to know (as we all do, I suppose) just what kind of company is taking her to dinner. And more pointedly, what kind of person she's going to have to make conversation with for the next 3 or 4 hours.
There's more to Supes than meets the eye...according to that scoundrel Bill
Tarantino also asserts that our go-to analogies have evolved (or devolved, depending on the source of assessment) from higher cultural comparisons to something more terra firma, even bubblegum. Jules in PULP FICTION is going to walk the earth in his post crime career but not like a character in a W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM story...but "like CAINE from KUNG FU." The Make-Shift Vampire Hunters in FROM DUSK TIL DAWN don't cull their knowledge of killing blood suckers from an ancient text or sacred tome but from HAMMER HORROR FILMS and BLAXPLOITATION CINEMA.
There was a move in 80's screenwriting toward intellectualism, especially in more high minded independent fare that saw characters well versed in historical and philosophical references (both known and obscure). This was an effort to link thematically back to a hipper moment in time, specifically the mid to late-50's Beat era where coffee shop culture first took shape over cappuccino and a hyper-chatter that embraced all manner of deep thinking minutia.
But the rush of cool produced by the quirk of beautiful losers waxing on Kierkegaard & Camus came with an air of manufactured, calculatedly cinematic pretention (which was exactly the point, by the way). But while that purposeful
falsehood, that attempt at ultra-heightened caricature (a throwback as well to the literary minded heroes and heroines of the French New Wave films) possessed an air of Boomer-approved cheekiness, it failed to ring true for an audience of Gen X-ers whose own base of preoccupation was generally more attuned to THE X-MEN, WELCOME BACK, KOTTER and 120 MINUTES.
I'm Superfly TNT!
Tarantino tweaked that movement by mixing the high and the low, the intellectualist and the delinquent, the sophisticated and THE THREE STOOGES. Tarantino has been smart enough and savvy enough to instill in his characters a philosophical bent that relates complex quandaries and juvenile distractions on the same level. His brilliance, in fact, in this area, lies distinctly in his ability to locate high Zen in low places.
The ultimate Tarantino pop culture digression occurs toward the end of KILL BILL (VOL. 2) when the titular Bill dissects the SUPERMAN mythos, arguing that CLARK KENT, as a collective guise, is the Last Son of Krypton's ultimate statement on the human race, a flawed but generally well intentioned species who want nothing more than to occasionally connect to one another in a sincere and meaningful way. And if it takes TV and Movies and Madonna to allow that to occur, who's to say there's anything wrong with that? Whatever brings people together, whether it's STAMITZ or STEELER'S WHEEL, is what brings people together. In the world of Quentin Tarantino, bonds are made and broken over the most trivial and tenuous of connections, but in the end, it makes perfect sense. Life itself is trivial and tenuous, and the sense we make of it is nothing but our own personal pulp fiction anyway.
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The 90ís was one of the great decades in American Cinema, and I intend to explore it one film, genre, or director at a time.
Matt Berry is a copy writer, music journalist & occasional author of Weird Tales-inspired short fiction from Illinois who loves talking and writing about movies and music almost as much as he loves the music and the movies themselves. And the more coffee, pie, and cigarettes consumed during those discussions, the better!|
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