Tarantino, Autobiographically

My first exposure to Quentin Tarantino came in the car with my dad. This had to have been the Fall of 1994. He and my mom had seen Pulp Fiction in theaters – why, I’m not sure, because in retrospect this movie seemed to be for neither of them – and because the movie dominated pop culture conversations in a way few things did, I think I had asked him about it.

He went on to tell me about his favorite scene. It’s during “The Gold Watch” where Butch Coolidge has to risk his life to go back to his apartment after screwing over crime boss Marcellus Wallace via a fixed boxing match to retrieve his father’s watch that his girlfriend had mistakenly forgotten. After killing Vincent Vega, the hitman sent to kill him, after Vincent carelessly leaves his gun on the kitchen counter while going to the bathroom, Butch runs over Marcellus with his car, gets kidnapped by a couple of redneck rapists, kills them, strikes a deal with Marcellus after saving him, and then hustles back to his girlfriend so they can catch a train out of town.

My dad is sharing this vignette with me, minus the part about redneck rape considering I was 13 at the time, and describes the interaction Butch has with his girlfriend. He’s obviously been put through the wringer, yet he has to pause in the middle of getting the fuck out of Dodge and ask her about her stupid pancake breakfast because in his haste and terse tone, he’s made her cry.

To my dad, this was one of the funniest damn scenes he’d ever seen. Because no matter how extreme the circumstances – like, say, murdering three people, one of whom was sent to kill you, and the other two after they rape the crime boss who sent the guy to kill you, and somehow escaping with your life (and your prized watch!) – if you make your girlfriend cry, you’re not going anywhere. Since I was only 13, I didn’t understand exactly why he found it so funny, but life, experience, and the tedious grind of previous annoying girlfriends have put me firmly in his camp. That scene is fucking hilarious. It’s like an I Love Lucy scene filtered through John Cassavetes.

What I did know at the time was that this scene was so goddamn weird sounding, that I had to somehow see the movie it was in.

***

I used to babysit two boys who lived down the street, Colin and Cameron. The kids were nice, and the family paid me well. We’d play Monopoly, chase each other around the house, and eat pizza. I’d make them listen to Reel Big Fish while we were running around. Then they’d go to bed, and then I’d hang out and watch TV until their parents came home. Pretty standard teenager babysitting stuff.

One time I had brought with me a VHS copy of Reservoir Dogs that my friend Mike loaned me in a small gym bag. I didn’t grasp the full inappropriateness of bringing such a violent and profane movie into a house with kids ages 6 and 8, but I must’ve known it wasn’t totally a good idea because I kept it in the gym bag out of sight from the parents.

When the kids went to bed, I flicked on the movie and had an immediate appreciation for why I felt compelled to hide it. The movie opens with Mr. Orange screaming profanities and bleeding to death in the back of a car driven by Mr. White after a fiasco of an attempted diamond heist. This movie filled me with fear, tension, and absolute dread the way only the idea of being forced to have my first kiss during a game of “spin the bottle” could.

Yet I couldn’t turn it off. I was rapt. I was all in. I had to know who the rat was, who would survive, and how the story ended. When it finally did – starkly – and the plunky, good vibe rhythm of “Put the Lime in the Coconut” by Harry Nilsson played over the end credits, I felt violated. Exhausted. Emotionally derelict. I’d never felt that way watching a movie before, and I wasn’t sure if I liked it.

The next day I watched it again. And then several more times after that before eventually returning it to Mike.

***

I finally saw Pulp Fiction in the summer of 1996 at Mike’s house. After spending the day at Water World, we ate a Tombstone Pizza and popped it in the VCR. He’d seen it several times already, and since Quentin Tarantino continued to dominate pop culture in the nearly two years since Pulp Fiction’s release, I had it on the brain constantly.

Without outright forbidding me from watching it, my parents strongly discouraged me. As a parent now myself, I understand why. The movie has the adultest of adult themes without being outright pornography or snuff, and while I was certainly smart enough to handle it, it sat with me way longer than any movie had since Reservoir Dogs. It’s kind of a fucking lot to take, especially at not-even-15. But they were in Europe on their 25th wedding anniversary, so this was my opportunity. What was my grandmother going to do about it if she found out? Was there even a 10% chance she knew what the hell this movie was?

Nevertheless, I adored it. I signed up for Columbia House, got it and Reservoir Dogs, and my parents couldn’t say shit since I paid for these myself. Side note: I’m just about the only person I know who joined Columbia House, got my free movies, and then paid properly for the others you were required to buy as part of your membership. I was so good at it, I did it three complete times, in fact. I spent the next year and a half obsessively rewatching Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

Mike and I were became obsessed with Tarantino, and if I remember correctly, he even had a Pulp Fiction poster on the wall, much like affected cool kids and aspiring film weirdos (we were in the latter camp) were. One Christmas we had each bought the other the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack.

***

Christmas Break 1997, once again my grandmother is in town to visit. Jackie Brown is released Christmas Day. Probably a week later while I’m sitting around with my parents and grandmother playing Racko, which, it bears mention, my grandmother had great enthusiasm for, and no skill at. Mike calls my house and invites me to see Jackie Brown later that night at like 10:30. As I’m now 16, this is an ideal time to see a movie that mystifies the older people in the room.

We sit in the dark, and while the movie isn’t nearly as explosive as Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, it’s one I love immediately even though it lacks much of the time-shifting weirdness and the violent gonzo setpieces of Tarantino’s previous two movies. What it does have is the mundane trifles of everyday life intruding upon hyperreal situations such as Louis not being able to remember where he parked after the climactic money exchange and growing increasingly frustrated with Melanie’s needling to the point he shoots her dead in the parking lot. This scene still makes me laugh every time it’s on. I think it’s Louis’s pure haplessness combined with Melanie’s give no fucks attitude and inability to read the danger she’s skirting.

One thing that nags at me, however, is my wondering if Tarantino can only do movies about criminals and other assorted lowlifes who live in Los Angeles.

***

Six years elapse. Six fucking years with no movie. And the next movie is some samurai/kung fu bullshit? Goddammit. It feels like my love affair with Quentin Tarantino might be over, so I drag my feet in getting to the theater to check out Kill Bill Vol. 1. Another contributing factor is that I was in my 3rd year of college, had broken up with my girlfriend of three years just eight months prior, and hadn’t seen much of anything in theaters. With a radio show on Friday nights, spending money dedicated almost solely to beer and Jagermeister, and a ton of other diversions at my fingertips, I didn’t make it to the movies much, and when I did, it was only for weird shit like Team America: World Police and the goofy b-movie revenge fantasy Walking Tall starring Johnny Knoxville and The Rock.

So it wasn’t until Thanksgiving break that I went to the theater alone to see Kill Bill Vol. 1. I figured I owed it to myself to at least give it a shot, and with no girlfriend, being away from college, and shit else to do, I plopped my ass down for a matinee.

HOLY SHIT WAS I WRONG! This movie fucking rules. The story is propulsive, extremely violent, and lovingly created in a pastiche of references I vaguely understand. The anime sequence of O-Ren Ishii lying under the bed while the yakuza kills her parents brings me right back to Colin and Cameron’s living room watching Reservoir Dogs at the tender age of 13. I’m rapt. I feel violated. Exhausted. Emotionally derelict.

The next six months creep by in a way that makes it feel like six more years between Tarantino projects. My friends and I go to the theater within the first week and see Kill Bill Vol. 2. It’s predictably excellent, and my love affair with Tarantino is back in full bloom. One of my roommates buys them both, and we watch them constantly in our dirty college house.

***

After finishing graduate school in May 2006, I move back in with my parents for four long months. I’m fortunate in that I’m very close with my parents and adore their company, but after living away from them for the previous six years, moving back into my house feels… I dunno… stifling. But, they were cool enough to let me live rent-free while I found a real job, and by October I do, and move into my own place in Denver’s hip West Wash Park neighborhood.

For anyone young, renting, and living in Denver, here’s a quick aside. That apartment was about 750 sq. ft., 2 bed, 1 bath, and cost me… ready? … $550 a month. What does $550 a month get you in Denver today? A Tuff Shed in the backyard of some meth house?

Anyway, right about the time Grindhouse is released in April of 2007, I’m living my best life. I’m winding down my time at my first real job and about to join one of Denver’s best PR firms. I’m living on my own, loving the shit out of it, and my girlfriend lives less than 10 minutes away from me in Glendale.

I call my friend Jamie and suggest we get loaded and go see Grindhouse one night after work. So we head down to that big theater next to the Dave & Buster’s on Colorado Blvd. and proceed to pound beers in the parking garage. Since it’s a double feature, we determine that beers on the front end will be insufficient, so we load up my big top coat with cans of Coors Light and two flasks of whiskey.

It’s my first time drinking surreptitiously inside a movie theater, so we’re understandably paranoid about it even though, seriously, what’s the 15 year-old pimple-faced usher going to do about it if he finds us – take our birthday away? Unsure of how to open these cans inconspicuously, we decide to wait for a loud part and then crack ‘em.

The lights go down, and before the “Dimension Films Presents” title card that opens Planet Terror has even finished materializing onscreen, from some other part of the theater we hear, CL-CLICK… WHOOOOOSHHHHH. Jamie and I look at each other and smile. One of us says, “Well, I guess we’re not alone in our idea of how to best enjoy this movie.” CL-CLICK… WHOOOOOSHHHHH. CL-CLICK… WHOOOOOSHHHHH. Both of our beers are open. CL-CLICK… WHOOOOOSHHHHH. CL-CLICK… WHOOOOOSHHHHH. CL-CLICK… WHOOOOOSHHHHH. CL-CLICK… WHOOOOOSHHHHH. Beers crack open all over the auditorium.

This probably doesn’t bear mention, but I’ll go ahead and underline what you likely already know. There are about 20 people in the theater, and roughly all of us are dorky white guys aged 25-45. Shocking, I know.

Both movies are fine, and truthfully, I enjoy the fake trailers for Thanksgiving, Werewolf Women of the SS, and Hobo with a Shotgun more than either film. I think I was good and shitfaced for Death Proof because it takes me another viewing to realize there are two different sets of four women in it. I generally don’t watch either Death Proof or Planet Terror anymore, but I always think fondly on that cold night getting drunk with one of my best friends and cracking beers in the movie theater with a bunch of other like-minded nerds. CL-CLICK… WHOOOOOSHHHHH.

***

Friday, August 28, 2009 – my 28th birthday. I’ve just bought my first house with my fiancée, I’m less than two months away from getting married, and my career is going well having just gotten promoted to Account Manager. I work downtown on the 18th floor with my own window office that faces the Denver Westin Hotel. On many days, travelers would leave their windows open as they got dressed in the morning, so you’d begin your day with some bonus nudity. One afternoon in particular, some dude plowed his old lady from behind with her face pressed against the window on the floor directly across from our office. The office went apeshit.

The office closed at noon on Fridays, so my best buddy Jason, whose office also closed at noon Fridays, bought me a ticket to see Inglourious Basterds, which had opened just 7 days prior, that afternoon at the Denver Pavilions, a short 16th Street Mall Shuttle ride away. Before we go, we grab beers and shots of Jagermeister at a nearby restaurant. We’ve got a nice buzz going, and sit ourselves down in the crowded theater.

The opening scene of Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s finest work. I’ve heard one of his techniques described as “building dread through seemingly innocuous conversation,” and the give and take between Col. Hans Landa and Monsieur LaPadite is an absolute master class. The movie is filled with dynamite character performances, but none moreso than Christoph Waltz as Landa, an actor probably no one in the theater had heard of before this performance.

I remember thinking at the time that the scene where Archie Hickox gives himself away as not a real German because he holds up his index, middle and ring finger to signal for three glasses was a load. Like, seriously? I’ve seen people in this country signal three that way, and also the “German way” with their thumb index and middle fingers. Big deal. Kind of a flimsy plot device there, QT.

Fast forward two years, Kristin and I are in Munich for Oktoberfest. We board a bus, and she attempts to buy two tickets by holding up two fingers like a peace sign – index and middle. The bus driver, in German and sort of frustrated, goes, three tickets? Kristin realizes her error, holds up the thumb and index finger, and clarifies two. She pays, and we sit down.

“Holy shit, that scene in Inglourious Basterds was true,” I tell her. “That’s amazing! Who would’ve thought that actually mattered?” Hickox and two of the Basterds end up dead for this gaffe. The mundane trifles of everyday life intruding upon hyperreal situations…

***

The Monday after Thanksgiving of 2012, I started Weight Watchers. At 225 lbs, I was as big as I think I’d ever been. It was gross. Two weeks later I saw Reservoir Dogs at the Denver Pavilions, and Pulp Fiction at a half-empty theater in Reno while I was traveling on business. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t dedicate a lot of real estate to it, but I will say ditching your work associates and the Broncos playing the Raiders so you can race up I-580 from Carson City to Reno so you can catch an 18 year-old movie you’ve seen 100 times already certainly gives you fanboy bona fides.   

Django Unchained was once again released on Christmas, and there are two extraneous things about it I remember. 1. Since we were on Weight Watchers, Kristin and I brought bottled water and a pack of gum into the theater to snack on. Indulgent! 2. I had been waiting months for the CBS Evening News to air a story about my company that I had spent weeks coordinating and prepping for. So, naturally, the one day I’m not home and watching the newest movie of my favorite director, they decide to air it.

My phone starts blowing up halfway into it, and I get distracted. This is annoying on many levels. But I decide to put my phone aside, and just enjoy the film. If someone needs to talk to me about a TV news piece (that went well for us!), and can’t wait another hour and a half, then fuck ‘em.

I remember once seeing a Tarantino interview where he said he thought Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction belong in the comedy section of the video store. He’s not wrong, as both those films have scenes and dialog funnier than 90% of all movies out there. So it should come as no surprise that my absolute favorite moment in Django Unchained comes when Don Johnson’s character, Jonah Hill’s character, and a bunch of other white supremacist dickheads plan to storm Dr. Schultz and Django’s camp for their disrespect earlier in the day.

They put their dumb little hoods on, and then realize they can’t see out of the eyeholes. Everyone starts sniping at each other, and it devolves into a bunch repressed suburban housewives bickering about a neighborhood pot luck dinner. Don Johnson’s character finally has enough and shouts at them, “Goddammit! This is a raid! I can’t see! You can’t see! So what?! All that matters is can the fuckin’ horse see? That’s a raid!” They put the bags on, raid the camp to find Schultz and Django have tricked them, and then get blown up like the rock stupid dumbasses they are. The mundane trifles of everyday life intruding upon hyperreal situations…

***

Quentin Tarantino filmed The Hateful Eight in 70mm film. I don’t know photography or cinematography, but I assume this size of film is meaningful for some reason that I can’t be bothered to look up or care about. All I know is that Tarantino made a big deal out of shooting in 70mm, and encouraged people to see the film in that format.

Once again released on Christmas, this time in 2015, I attended a party a few days after its release where I enthusiastically told the partygoers that I was going to see The Hateful Eight in 70mm. My friend Jamie grew annoyed by this and accused me of being a hipster. Hey buddy, I don’t know film sizes, but what I do know is that I’m such a Tarantino freak, if he recommends that I consume his films a certain way, I’m going to do my best to do so.

He could have said I needed to get an old film projector, sit in my attic like Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and project it against a brick wall while wearing women’s clothes, and I probably would have made that happen despite having no attic, nor any particular affection for dressing like a woman. He could have said The Hateful Eight is best consumed on the crappy 3-inch screen of an old Sony Watchman, and I would’ve overpaid for one on eBay. Just tell me how to optimize the experience, and I’ll do it.

However, I did not enjoy this one. Pretty much not at all. Built like a murder mystery dinner party, only if your friends were way more racist, violent, and ugly. Kurt Russell beats the shit out of Jennifer Jason Leigh for the first half, a bunch of uncomfortably racist stuff happens, and then the last reel reshuffles the deck in the same annoying way Ocean’s Twelve does by essentially going, oh, you just watched W-X-Y-Z happen, but what really mattered was S-T-U-V, so here’s that hastily assembled and stapled to the end of the movie.

I know the script for this had leaked and Tarantino said he wasn’t ever going to make it, then did, so he didn’t change anything, but it feels like a first draft. There’s long stretches where basically nothing happens, action gets crammed into short bursts, and the ending sucks. It’s like a funhouse mirror of a Japanese wrestling match with two guys who are never quite on the same page.

And finally, a note about the 70mm cinematography from Owen Gleiberman, a film critic for Variety who used to write for Entertainment Weekly, one of my favorite magazines growing up, and someone who knows film way better than I do: “Tarantino grew fixated on the film’s 70mm cinematography, but that has to go down as an irony of film history, since the visual “largeness” is lavished on a single claustrophobically gloomy set, resulting in what feels like the world’s most lavish episode of “Gunsmoke.”

***

I’ve spent this entire week reading about Quentin Tarantino, his movies, and Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, and, as a result, thinking about my own life. I don’t have a ton of obsessions, but along with punk rock and professional wrestling, Quentin Tarantino is definitely one of mine. One year for Christmas, Kristin got me Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece. It’s 200 pages of behind-the-scenes photos, ephemera, anecdotes, infographics, essays, and more. It’s one of my favorite books of all-time, and I think I devoured it in less than four nights.

The way most of you feel about Star Wars, I feel about these goofy movies. I can’t remember details from my of my moviegoing experiences, yet I remember vividly details about all 8 of Tarantino’s. The 3,700+ words above certainly prove that.

So I’m off to see Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood tonight, and I’m geeked for it in a way that happens less and less frequently the older you get. And in a life filled with more and more mundane trifles, I’m ready once again for them to intrude upon new hyperreal situations. I can’t wait to see how it goes.

Cut to black.

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