Quentin Tarantino is considered to be one of modern cinema’s finest creators. From directing, writing, and being the cinematographer on his films – to even starring in them – he is an example of a filmmaker who has truly learnt from the Hollywood star systems of the past, and used it to his advantage. It is his references to the past within the modern world that has gained him the title of ‘postmodernist auteur’, and that is what this essay will be discussing. Just what is it that makes Tarantino’s works postmodernist? And what then makes him an auteur? To discover this, I will be looking for his marks of authorship within Pulp Fiction (1994), and Kill Bill Vol.1 (2003), and considering how they could be considered postmodern.
In order to understand Tarantino’s works with a scholarly view (rather than that of a regular cinema goer), it is important to grasp the concept of postmodernism. Jameson describes it as “The consumption of sheer commodification as a process” (1991 : p. X) – meaning an acceptance of things being done for the purpose of monetary and capitalist gain. Postmodernism rejects the notion of “high art”, something that ‘La Politique Des Auteurs’ is often critiqued for holding in high esteem (therefore creating a hierarchy within art) – so can a postmodern auteur even exist? It’s a theory, which linguistically, means “after modernism”, meaning it carries a form of self awareness that early capitalism did not contain. This is where Tarantino’s strengths lie – in creating a parody of reality, which is in fact, truth. The excessive violence, drug use, casual racism, and bricolage of the past may seem to create a setting which is unreal, but is in fact a highly accurate commentary of the modern world.
The most notable mark of authorship within Tarantino’s work is the use of excessive, graphic, comic book style violence. Brooker and Brooker (1997: p.91) argue that the “amoral, superficial, and self referential portrayal of violence” is also a key feature of postmodernism and its aesthetic. Pulp Fiction (1994) is the best example of this insular violence which seemingly carries no reasoning. The first section of the film (the film is split into four non chronological sections – with discontinuity being key to postmodernism) follows gang enforcers – Vincent Vega (played by John Travolta), and Jules Winnfield go to an apartment to retrieve a briefcase which appears to contain something impressive (Tarantino has never revealed what is inside), and in the process, kill three people inside the apartment, and take another hostage. This is all shown in full gory detail, with the audience feeling uncertain as to why any of it is really going on. The third segment of the film is based around a boxer named Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), who runs away from a boxing match which has a lot of money resting on it – and it is unknown to the audience as to why he does this. The series of events escalates until what is arguably the most shocking point in the film, when Coolidge, and gangster boss Marsellus Wallace , are taken hostage in a homosexual BDSM dungeon, where Wallace is anally raped. The audience are left to wonder how the characters have got into a situation this removed from the main plot, and what it’s real relevance is. The truth is, it has no relevance – which is one of the tenets of postmodernism. Tarantino created this sequence in an effort to cause outrage and controversy, to create something vulgar and offensive in order to reject the idea of high art. For all the amoral violence within Pulp Fiction, we have the revenge tale of Kill Bill Vol.1 (2003)– the story of ‘The Bride’ (Uma Thurman), who after waking from a coma, decides to find, and kill, her former team who tried to kill her (and to her knowledge, caused her to miscarry). This violence too, is gratuitous, in one scene we see The Bride fight a group of assassins called ‘The Crazy 88’- a scene that had to ben edited into black and white to navigate American censorship laws, however there is reasoning behind the bloodshed. What makes the violence in Kill Bill Vol.1 an example of postmodernism is that it shocks by rejecting genre conventions and gender representations – it is rare that you see a woman commit horrendous acts within film.
Tarantino’s use of gender and sexuality within his film could also be considered highly postmodernist, as they reflect what is seen in modern media and pop and pulp culture. The character of Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction is an example of a highly sexed, almost feminist trope seen in modern film. We are introduced to her through a story about a man who gave her a foot massage, despite the fact she is a married woman (an act that is debated between Vincent and Jules as to being highly sexual). When the audience finally see’s Mia, she is spying on Vincent through CCTV camera’s she has installed in her home, in an act of almost Hitchcockian voyeurism. Throughout the film, she exudes an almost childish and juvenile sexuality – something that is disturbingly favoured in modern pop culture. Thurman also plays The Bride in the Kill Bill films, a character who switches between fighter, lover, and mother simultaneously. The women she fights seem to represent these parts of her personality, O-Ren Ishii being the fighter, Elle Driver being the lover, and Vernita Green being the Mother. This is an example of a developed character fighting comic book style, 2D, dehumanised villains – which is an exemplary mark of postmodern characterisation by Tarantino.
Race is a hugely talked about subject within critique’s of Tarantino’s work. To consider it from a postmodernist perspective, you have to consider the anxieties that come with globalisation, a mark of capitalism. The most obvious mark of this is in Kill Bill Vol.1, when O-Ren Ishii takes over a Japanese crime syndicate, only to be met with uncertainty due to her mixed heritage (“making a Chinese Jap-American half-breed bitch its leader”). She responds swiftly by beheading the adversary, which is symbolic of a capitalist regimes response to those who do not approve. Pulp Fiction removes itself from modern politics, James Wood for example suggest “[Tarantino’s films] represent the final triumph of postmodernism…artworks so entirely vacuous, so entirely stripped of any politics, metaphysics or moral interest” (1994). So much so it means that derogatory terms like “Nigger” bear no weight within a make believe society where there is no right or wrong.
The easiest way to decipher post modernism in any format is to look for references to the past. Tarantino, as a former video store worker, loves nothing more than to pay homage to films that have inspired him. Kill Bill Vol.1 is heavily influenced by Japanese culture. From the anime flashback of O-Ren’s origin story, to the snowy dojo garden in which The Bride and her fight – which is taken aesthetically from the 1973 Fujita film, Lady Snowblood. Even the iconic yellow catsuit that Uma Thurman wears in the film is a reference to the one which Bruce Lee wore in Game of Death (1972). Pulp Fiction, even named after books which would tell lewd stories such as the films narrative, is a clear expansion of the gangster and film noir genre – and we only need one example to prove this, Mia Wallace, the ultimate Femme Fatale. Tarantino takes stock characters from the gangster and kung fu genres, and puts them into his imagined modern world, where there are no rules to confine them. The bright colour palettes used in his films are also a reference to 1950’s technicolour, which was a revolution for filmgoers and the development of a cinema culture. Groth theorises “Tarantino’s characters – and Tarantino himself – inhabit a world where the entire landscape is composed of Hollywood product”, and it is this obvious bricolage of the past which gains Tarantino his status as a postmodern auteur, above all else. It is his homage to the past, which allows him to express the present.
So, to conclude, Quentin Tarantino can be considered a postmodernist auteur. Through the blurring of genre, references to the past, and rejection of what is culturally “acceptable”, he has made his way to the top of many critics lists of top directors. I believe that Tarantino’s works strive to test the viewer to be shocked, he wants to see where the limits of an audience who are constantly bombarded by violence, sex, and drugs lie. Going back to the phrase “post modern”, meaning after modernity – where does the horror lie for a society who has access to, and has seen, everything?
Jameson, F. 1991. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham : Duke University Press.
Brooker, P. , Brooker, W. 1997 . Pulpmodernism: Tarantino’s Affirmative Action, Postmodern After- Images. London : Arnold.
Bealer, T. L. 2008. Quentin Tarantino’s Destabilization of Gendered Identity in Kill Bill, Presentations of the 29th Annual SW/Texas Regional Meeting of the Popular Culture and American Culture Association: Gender. p.177. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Nama, A. 2015. Race on the QT: Blackness and the Films of Quentin Tarantino. Texas: University of Texas Press.
Wood, J. 1994. Pulp Fiction .The Guardian November 12th 1994.
O’Callaghan, P. 2016. 10 Great Films That Influenced Quentin Tarantino. [Online] Availiable at : <http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/lists/10-great-films-influenced-quentin-tarantino?utm_content=bufferc3dbf&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebookbfi&utm_campaign=buffer> [Accessed 7 January 2016]
Groth, G. 1995 . A Dream of Perfect Reception – The Movies of Quentin Tarantino. The Baffler No. 8.