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My Life in Tarantino Movies

Eight films, eight chapters, eight ways of experiencing the world

Ryan Simpson

This week marks the release of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, director Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature film. To celebrate, we’re looking back at the best of QT—the best scenes, the best stunts, the best dialogue. We’ll drill down on his extraordinary rise from video store clerk to filmmaking legend and talk to the man himself about his long career. Here now, a life through the films of QT.


1.

I saw Pulp Fiction for the first time in the fall of 1994, at the Ponca Plaza Twin in Ponca City, Oklahoma. I was 18; I’d never heard of Quentin Tarantino. I’d heard of the movie, barely, because at the other theater in town, the Northpark Four—“the good theater,” as we called it—there were posters in the lobby of John Travolta wearing long hair and a black suit and Bruce Willis wearing boxing gloves. I wasn’t really curious about it, though. I’d been driving around looking for something to do, and Pulp Fiction happened to be starting. I liked going to the movies by myself because I thought it seemed romantic. Other things I had never heard of—a partial list—would include: film noir, postmodernism, the artistic technique of pastiche, the French New Wave, surf rock, Anna Karina, and pulp fiction.

My friend Cindy from orchestra was working the box office, behind a sheet of plexiglass with cutouts for air and money. “I heard it’s weird,” she said. The theater was nearly empty. I sat in the dark and ate Red Hots. Vincent Vega opened the briefcase; the orange-gold light of magic poured out onto his face. Afterward, I came out into the enormous parking lot, which was almost empty of cars. It was dusk, and the sky looked huge and strange. I couldn’t believe what I’d just seen. Quentin Tarantino, whoever he was, seemed not only to speak my language in a way no film director ever had. He seemed to have spoken to me in a language I’d never heard before and hadn’t realized I understood. The world, I thought, is bigger than I knew.

2.

I saw Reservoir Dogs for the first time the very next weekend. I rented it on VHS, from the Blockbuster Video on 14th Street. I’d seen the internet once—my uncle had a CompuServe account, and had shown me how he could check the weather anywhere in the United States, a trick that struck me as almost offensively useless—but I’d never been online myself. I still knew nothing about Tarantino except that Pulp Fiction, which I’d already been to see a second time, made my brain unfold like a kaleidoscope. Other things of which I had no firsthand knowledge—again, a partial list—included: Los Angeles, the early films of Stanley Kubrick, the spaghetti Western tradition, and the existence of a gangster-movie industry in Hong Kong.

In our living room, I pushed the videotape into the machine. Mr. White sped away from the heist with Mr. Orange bleeding in the backseat. “Mr. Blonde”—I still thought of my own hair, which I wore in a floppy ’90s cut, as blond, my childhood color, though anyone else would have said it had turned brown a year ago. Afterward, I rewound the tape, feeling dazed. Had I just watched a person’s ear being cut off? We all knew corporate pop culture was trying to kill us. Was there something in this stuttering, violent, profane, uproarious jumble that suggested a way out, an alternative? I sensed, dimly, that those were the stakes, though I had no idea how to think about the question; I still half-thought Tarantino had invented surf rock. I only knew it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. “There’s a college boy under there after all,” the hairdresser said, when I let her cut my hair short a few weeks later.

3.

I saw Jackie Brown for the first time in the spring of 1998, in a living room in Northampton, Massachusetts. It was another Blockbuster rental; I was 22, in my junior year of college, and in town visiting my girlfriend, who went to Smith. She had a regular babysitting job with a local couple. We watched Jackie Brown while Isabelle slept in her crib upstairs. I don’t know why I hadn’t seen it in the theater. I still thought of myself as a Tarantino fan, though now that I knew everything there was to know about film history and aesthetic theory—just ask me—I was probably a shade less enthusiastic. Also because I’d seen Tarantino in a thousand interviews and magazine features and his method, endlessly explicated across all forms of media for several years, no longer seemed new. The idea of mixing up influences from your private pop canon of trash and highbrow classics didn’t read as a radical intervention anymore; it was what you did to show you had taste. We had Ethernet connections in our dorm rooms. I had never heard of either Robert Forster or Pam Grier.

We put some Orville Redenbacher in a big ceramic bowl and turned on the movie. Jackie Brown and Max Cherry looked at each other with unreadable, adult emotions playing around their eyes. We kept having to hit pause because Isabelle would wake up and call us, and when that happened one of us had to go upstairs and carry her around her room—a hot little blanket-wrapped bundle—until she fell asleep. Jackie Brown flirted with a more mature kind of wisdom than the other Tarantinos we’d seen, was more nuanced and less flashy, probably because it was based on an Elmore Leonard novel and not a story Tarantino had written himself. After the movie we laughed and said “what the fuck was that” and wondered whether Quentin had lost it.

4.

I saw Kill Bill: Volume 1 for the first time in the fall of 2003, at the cineplex in Orange, Connecticut. I was 27, eking out something less than a living as a freelance writer while my wife got her English PhD at Yale. Pre-release buzz for Kill Bill had focused on its violence, and among our little friend group, all the men and none of the women wanted to see it. So I went with two male friends, both grad students in Siobhan’s program, and we drove out to the theater making what I am confident were history’s most insecure Judith Butler jokes.

There was a long line for tickets. There was a scramble to find seats. Almost all the other moviegoers were men. I sat in the dark and ate Skittles. The Bride, in her yellow bodysuit, dueled with O-Ren Ishii in the snow. Afterward, we came out into the cold night and got in my friend’s SUV. “The style was so advanced that it almost couldn’t stand the emptiness of the subject,” I thought. “The violence was like the style’s allergic reaction to the story.”

I had still never been to California.

“The fight in Lady Snowblood was better,” I said.

5.

“It’s funny,” one of us said on the way back to New Haven after Kill Bill: Volume 2 a year later. I don’t think it was me, though it could have been. “David Foster Wallace has so much contempt for Tarantino, but the biggest difference between them is that when they were kids, Tarantino had better taste in TV.”

6.

I saw Inglourious Basterds for the first time in the fall of 2009, at the Harvard Square Theatre in Cambridge. I was 33 and working as a blogger; Siobhan had a postdoc at Harvard. I’d started a Twitter account over the summer and felt highly important because I’d accumulated 500 followers. I’d never owned a smartphone. The movie was a date, but we were trying to pay off our student loans; we didn’t get snacks.

We sat in the dark and watched. Archie Hicox held up the wrong fingers when trying to signal “three.” Afterward we talked about how good most of the acting had been, and how Tarantino’s women characters were often stronger than you’d expect, and how this was his best film in ages because it found a way to be substantively about movies and not only structurally about them. “Say what you will about Tarantino,” we said, “but he knows how to shoot a fucking scene.” I wondered, as I would wonder without ceasing for most of the next decade, what people were saying on the internet.

7.

I saw Django Unchained for the first time in the early winter of 2013, at a late-night showing in Brooklyn. It was just after New Year’s, and the streets were full of laughing, off-balance hipsters: women in wigs and fake-fur wraps, men looking like vampire lumberjacks, with the facial hair of circus ringmasters. A chunk of the crowd on the sidewalk seemed to blow into the theater with Siobhan and me, not obviously having planned to do so, but not resisting the current. The lobby was packed. I was 36 and working as a staff writer for Grantland. In a few weeks I was supposed to leave for Alaska, to follow the Iditarod from a small plane. Everything seemed slightly surreal. The crowd, almost entirely young and white, was raucous; there was a sense of intense expectation, and also a sense that the expectation itself was beside the point, that it would be our enthusiasm, and not the movie itself, that carried the movie. Cheering broke out from the opening titles. Loud whooping and cheering for every act of violence.

Pay attention to culture long enough, I thought, and you see the strangest reversals take place. When I first watched Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, this crowd’s equivalent would have been vaguely pro-capitalist but intensely skeptical about the aims of capitalist pop culture. Now we were all vaguely anti-capitalist but equally convinced that pop culture was going to save us. I sat in the dark and ate popcorn. Slaves fought while Leonardo DiCaprio twinkled. Afterward we came out into the freezing night. We could see our breath. We rubbed our hands against our sides to keep warm. “I don’t think I’m going to see another Tarantino movie for a while,” Siobhan said. “It just doesn’t seem worth it.” I said that at a certain point didn’t art have to be about more than how many spaghetti Westerns you’d seen? Wasn’t the narrative template of avenging ultimate historical wrongs—the Holocaust, slavery—kind of an obvious overcompensation for not having anything to say? Not everything is a movie, is it? The crowd swirled away from us in a way that said maybe it was.

8.

I saw The Hateful Eight for the first time on the last day of January in 2016, at the ArcLight theater on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. I was 39 and writing for MTV News. Our office was at the Paramount Studios lot in Hollywood, and whenever I drove in to work, the walk from the parking lot took me down long avenues of soundstages: tall, wide, warehouse-like buildings with palm trees interspersed. Robots would lean against the white walls smoking cigarettes, or you’d see clean-shaven men in WWII flyer uniforms sipping from Starbucks cups and reading their phones. My hair, the little I had left, was definitely brown, and I had a beard, like every other man I saw brunching at Alcove on Sundays. The night I went to see The Hateful Eight, the ArcLight was weirdly deserted. Siobhan had stayed home, true to her word on Tarantino; I was at the movies by myself, as I had been the first time I saw Pulp Fiction.

I sat in the dark and ate Reese’s Pieces. Samuel L. Jackson arranged his wickedly bearded face into ardent expressions of loathing. Afterward I came out into the mellow L.A. night. The movie had made almost no impression on me. As I got in my car and started the drive home, I was more conscious of the night around me than of the film I had just seen. There’d been a power outage, and the lights were out all around Los Feliz. The leafy streets were shadowed. Dark streetlights hung over the intersections. The world felt bigger than I knew. A partial list of things I didn’t, and still don’t, understand would include: almost everything.

I’ll still see his next movie, I thought. Following an artist for a long time means never quite giving up the hope that that first magical connection will come back. But sometimes, I thought, driving home, it’s OK to let your childhood influences go.

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