One of the most controversial aspects of Quentin Tarantino’s repertoire is his reliance on cultural references (mainly popular contemporary culture). This has been a complaint in which those who hold it are in the minority. While not to say that their complaint isn’t illegitimate, there are two angles to this aspect which make it that the judgment of "good" or "bad" both right, all depending on 1.) The Age of the Audience and 2.) The Role the References play within the work. This piece will analyze the evolution of the pop culture references in Tarantino’s film and see the different experienced a younger or cinematically inexperienced viewer might have versus an older or more experienced film viewer.
As of this writing, Tarantino’s directed and written works are of six bodies. This is quite clearly 1992’s RESERVOIR DOGS, 1994’s PULP FICTION, 1997’s JACKIE BROWN, 2003/2004’s KILL BILL, 2007’s GRINDHOUSE, and 2009’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. The evolution of the pop culture references seemed to develop positively with each new film, showing a growing sophistication paralleled by the higher budget of each new project.
RESERVOIR DOGS is a film which shall be graded with disregard to claims that it is a remake of the film CITY OF FIRE (which isn’t so much of the case, it is a rehash of the film’s last 20 minutes more than a remake). Below is a list of the references that RESERVOIR DOGS makes to different pop culture icons.
1. Madonna's LIKE A VIRGIN/TRUE BLUE
2. Charlie Chan
3. John Holmes/Charles Bronson
4. Durring break fast scene - two songs mentioned via K-Billy super sounds of the 70's
6. Love grows where my rose marry goes
7. Doesn't everyone want to be wanted (Partridge Family)
8. Inspired DePalma sequence
9. Doris Day
10. Stuck in the middle with you
11. Fire scarecrow
12. Pam Grier/Christie love
13. Marvel super heroes (the thing from fantastic 4)
14. Marlon Brando
15. Don Ripples
16. Silver surfer poster
17. Aunt francis/betty white
References used just for describing petty things or general conversation. When they mention that Joe looks like THE THING, it is less significant than the telling of Mia being a tv pilot actress. None of the "Fanboy claptrap" has anything real to do with the plot. It all has to do with the characters. Describing the characters or letting us be able to associate with these characters - not just on an emotional level like some other films may do (like GOODFELLAS’s Henry Hill, who’s emotional twists and turns is what supposed to make him relatable), but to know that they know the same culture as us. It is a good place to start and it does great to make characters the audience will like (not necessarily great characters).
PULP FICTION, since it is following RESERVOIR DOGS, is just by nature going to have some of the same attributes as it’s predecessor. To many, PULP FICTION was not just the best film of the 1990’s but also a landmark film of all film history for taking what it actually is - pulpy fiction - and turning something seen as dirty into art. Here is a list of the references made in the film.
1. Tony rocky horror - just for joke
2. Explanation of a pilot
3. Bible verse - sony chiba
4. Burger stuff
5. What the TV Show is
6. Jack Rabbit slims - almost as if these people live in the past rather the present.
7. A good bunch of the things in the film (such as Walken being a Vietnam vet (Deer Hunter), Butch deciding to be Zatoichi, ect.)
8. maxi pad
9. Burbank studios
10. Guns of the navarone
11. Kane in kung fu
12. Arnold - green acres
As with RESRVOIR DOGS, it is the case in that a good bit of the references made in the film is indeed just for conversation. It is that same culture aspect which helps the characters be more relatable to the audience via culture and not just their predicaments. However, with PULP FICTION Tarantino does decide to take a step foreword. With the explanation of the television pilot, it works with the RD dynamic but also is an important part of the development of the character of Mia Wallace and helps Vincent be able to communicate.
But when we get into things like the Biblical speech Jules recites before popping caps into people’s asses (which is a reference to Sonny Chiba), we actually then go into the character development of Jules and Vincent. Jules ends up having a spiritual enlightenment while Vincent doesn’t (and ends up ironically dieing latter, maybe because of his lack of change). It helps comment on how Jules decides to deal with the problem of having the two lovers try to rob the restaurant.
We also have here a prototype of something which will be continued with Kill Bill, and that is the continuation of characters. This isn’t talking about weather Butch wants to go in as Leatherface or Zatoichi when trying to save Marcellus, rather it is Walken. Sure, enough then though the character dies at the end of the film, Christopher Walken did play a Vietnam Vet in THE DEER HUNTER, and it is almost as if Walken’s character is in an alternate reality, having to speak to Butch.
Other little bits of stuff - such as the Burbank Studios plug is just there in order to give the audience (or at least the parts of the audience which knows the area) where the characters are.
Jackie Brown is what many would love to call Quentin Tarantino’s most "mature" film, in that the fan boy claptrap (which doesn’t seem to be all that bad of a thing thus far) is at the current minimum of six. Of course, a good bit of that comes from the fact that this is an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard book. Here is a list of the references:
1. Use of the music which is not original and copying of the beginning shot from THE GRADUATE
2. The killer - kung fu film reference
3. New york under cover
4. Biggun -lotf
5. Johny cochran
6. Delphonics - mechanism to help the romantic sub plot
With the exception of the beginning (which is either a decide to put us back and remember an older time in American cinema or as some critics have mentioned, is just a great study of Pam Grier’s face) the little un plut, the Johnny Cochran plus, everything here serves a purpose. The mentioning of THE KILLER by Ordel isn’t just the making of small talk, but rather also the illustration of one of the aspects of the gun market. The use of the Delphonics is a device which works in order to help progress the romantic relationship between Max Cherry and Jackie Brown. Of course a couple is going to share some of the stuff that they have passions about. In fact, the use of the music does have some contextual worth, with Ordel noticing the music playing in Max’s car the night of his death being (or should have been) and indicator of which side Max took.
KILL BILL is maybe the most complex film to talk about from this aspect. One thing which makes this job easier is that the need to list all of the pop culture references is not there. So many different books and articles on blogs and such have gone over and act as check lists for a bunch of the stuff here.
So, what can we make of this stuff?
The first thing to acknowledge that two things which would be seen as pop culture references are not. The inclusion of Sonny Chiba’s Hattori Hanzo and Gordon Liu’s Pai Mei are extensions of characters from different franchises. Not pop culture references. It’s executed appropriately, since Sonny Chiba has played Hattori Hanzo for much longer than most actors do with individual characters. Sonny Chiba played Hattori Hanzo in the television series KAGE NO GUNDAM as well as in SHOGUN’S SAMURAI and MAKAI TENSHO. As for Gordon Liu’s Pai Mei, Gordon Liu has had the distinct pleasure of fighting and defeating on three different occasions Pai Mei in three different Shaw Brothers films, EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN, ABOTT FROM SHAOLIN, and CLAN OF THE WHITE LOTUS. No one else is more certified to play the role as Gordon Liu can.
Passed that, the rest of the pop culture references are deliberate. Many reviewers and critics have noted that out of all of the films that Tarantino has made, this is the one which was the most gratuitous with such. The reviewers which labeled this as a negative just show one of the major faults with critics today - they do not keep up with production notes with films. The first thing to consider when reviewing a film is judging it for what it is. If something is meant to be in the film, then one shouldn’t criticize it for it’s inclusions, weather how well it is done. Tarantino does it better than anyone else. When Bill is using Superman to give a psychoanalysis of Beatrix, it is a pop culture reference that adds substance to the film. KILL BILL might be a step back in terms of evolution, but it is a deliberate one and not one which shows Tarantino might be loosing his touch.
To mention DEATH PROOF is to go over the same principles addressed with KILL BILL, therefore redundant.
Here, we are at the latest (till this Christmas) of Tarantino’s films, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Here is the list of the pop culture references for the film:
1. Hitler Propoganda (unknown specific) - used to flesh out the motivation of landa
2. Heydrich "the hangman" - historical reference for reality
3. The White Hill of piz palu
4. Leni Riefenstahl
6. w.g. pabst
7. max linder
8. lilian harvey
9. vichy (?)
10. Winston Churchil
11. Louis B Mayor
12. David O. Selzenick
15. Winnetka (of the Apaches)
16. Matta Hari
17. King Kong
18. Edgar Wallace
19. Ghengis Kahn
20. Marco Polo
21. Briditte Money
With INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, the "Fanboy claptrap" complaint can no longer be used to be applied to Quentin Tarantino. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is Tarantino’s love letter to the cinema. All of the references and such to German filmmakers and their works are to be expected. Therefore, if they are expected to know it, then why call it fan boy claptrap. It is part of these people’s professions to know this kind of stuff. Shoshanna is a theatre owner, Bridgette von Hammersmach is an actress, and Goebbels is a producer and director. The mentioning’s of the Nazi propaganda and Heydrich the Hangman is all that which just fleshes out the point the character Hans Landa has made.
A big aspect of the criticism that Tarantino receives when people attach his fan boy-ish tendencies is that you have to take the viewer into account. Let’s profile a movie critic for a minute. When it comes to the major critics that people actually listen to on a good basis is a critic who is older. The normal to assume is that the elder critic has seen more films than their younger and aspiring counterparts (yes, there are some scenarios which are exceptions but I am talking about the general norm). I know that a favorite filmmaker of mine John Carpenter said that he didn’t care for INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS due to the copying of the music (Carpenter is notorious for being one who scores his own films). The older generations are going to get all of the hints, winks, homaging, rip-offing, and other such things that Tarantino does with his films.
But then lets go to a viewer like myself. Now, when I was 10 years old and I was shown KILL BILL for the first time, I did not get any of the inferences except for obvious ones like STAR TREK or EVEN STEVEN. When I heard the music, I thought it was made for the film and that a lot of it was Tarantino’s creativeness. Now, eventually, you have to come to terms that that isn’t necessarily the case. But, even though you will have to give credit to different people and their works (which are different films), your experience of those items was with Tarantino’s films, when it comes to your emotional bank with films. In the end, that is what matters.
As Scorsese has said, there isn’t one thing which the old masters hasn’t already done. Our job is to improve on it. That is what Tarantino does. He puts his own unique spin on many things. This is a big thing with films like PULP FICTION, KILL BILL, and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. One also has the old adage from Picaso, "Good artists copy, great artists steal." Which goes great in the argument that Tarantino should use original music. To be technically correct, Tarantino has used original music before. KILL BILL’s second half uses music done by Robert Rodriguez. But then you have those who criticize Tarantino for reusing works from the likes of Ennio Morricone. Skipping the already used reasoning that something which leads a person to another good thing cannot be bad, you got to think that this borrowing of music is something which helps breathe new life into works. Certain pieces of music are used for certain scenes in past movies, but Tarantino finds certain pieces to be idiosyncratic and therefore reuses them, letting the pieces be more of what they ultimately are, fully realizing their potential.