As Curtis said, it’s difficult to trace Tarantino’s impact now because his influences have already permeated the current themes of film to an incredible degree. But to pick it apart a little…
There were a number of factors that made Tarantino’s first two films stand out and propel him to the forefront of modern directors on a wave of applause and controversy.
- His apparent realism with how he writes characters’ dialogues, the situations they’re placed in, and what they discuss. Jules and Vincent talk about Burger King, Reservoir Dogs opens with an analysis of a pop song. I don’t think any guy can hear Joe talk about how everyone would want to be Mr. Black and not find it hilariously accurate.
- His unusual and constant use of profanity and violence in his movies to the point of possible excess; such as RD’s most famous scene where Mr. Blonde tortures the police officer. The graphic nature of his films received a lot of criticsm from some, but for others they help enhance the realism or believability of his works.
- Their shoestring budgets. Reservoir Dogs was largely financed by Harvey Keital (as far as I know) and put together for under a million dollars. Pulp Fiction likewise was made for under 5 million or something
- His interweaving of pop culture (particularly 70s pop culture) and geek humor into his movies and into innocuous situations (“What is the Fonz!?” “He’s cool.”)
- His directing style is heavily influenced by previous great filmmakers, but he is smart and knowledgeable enough to both give nods to his predecessors but also forge his own distinctive style. The fixed camera shots, long shots, steadily increasing faceups, trunk shots, etc etc. He’s known as the movie buff’s director.
- His narration style, riddled with flashbacks and out of sequence segments, was also relatively groundbreaking. That has really changed the way modern noir or modern heist movies especially are narrated.
- His rags-to-riches tale. Tarantino dropped out of high school and was working at (where else) a video rental store when he sold his script for Reservoir Dogs.
now, what makes Tarantino particularly brilliant are a few other factors. Despite the purported realism of his films, they really are quite absurd. Despite the realism of his dialogue, it’s too quick and snappy and “Tarantinoesque” than how people usually talk. Jules recites extended biblical quotations before capping someone. When Mr. Blonde tortures the officer, it’s to Stealer’s Wheel. Butch goes from baseball bat --> hammer --> chainsaw --> samurai sword. Even the “real” elements of the films are completely unreal. As realistic as the tipping and Madonna discussion is at the beginning of RD, it’s also ridiculous. Ringo and Honey Bunny’s discussion of robbery is both smart and absurd.
Another one is how well and how deeply he sketches his characters. No one is wasted, no one is thrown in purely to move on the plot. You get the feeling from his works that everyone there is a true person, someone with a life of their own apart from whenever they show up on screen. This is done both by either chance uses of flair (Zed, the taxi driver) or through relentless or even passing uses of character development (Jimmy, Mr. Orange, Mr. Blonde). No character is wasted by Tarantino and you get the feeling that he loves all of them.
It’s also important to keep in mind how huge the movies were in terms of advancing other actors. Harvey Keitel was a respected old actor, and Bruce Willis was a superstar giving an “indie” film a try, but otherwise the casts were either new actors, bit players, or has-beens who ended up getting a second shot. Samuel L. Jackson, Steve Buscemi, Uma Thurman, Tim Roth, Ving Rhames, John Travolta, etc.
As for interpretations, the prevailing one for Pulp Fiction is that what was in the suitcase was Marcellus’ soul. The glowing, the bandage on the back of his head, certain veiled comments etc., make it the most prevalent analysis. I think the most important symbolicy info to take from PF is Jules’ final dialogue with Ringo. That’s really the most important metaphysical conclusion in that film; followed closely behind by Butch’s decision to save Marcellus despite having tried to kill him just before. RD is more about people and their inability to trust or work with each other.
But here’s why I like both RD and PF…and Kill Bill and even Jackie Brown too The characters are awesome and incredibly human. This isn’t Keyser Soze robbing the jewelry store, it’s people who read comic books as kids, or who like 70s music, or who don’t tip, or who do drugs, or who hate having their car messed up, or who are in love, or who aren’t, or a psychopath, or an informant. Their interactions with each other are incredibly genuine and earnest. And while the movies can feel too postmodern to have any sort of singular meaning or even a purpose to be taken from them, I think there are good points and observations about life and people that can be taken from them.
And most importantly: Tarantino just <b>really</b> knows how to tell a story.