My Best Friend’s Birthday, Quentin Tarantino’s 1987 Debut Film

Few­er than 40 min­utes sur­vive of My Best Friend’s Birth­day, the first film direct­ed by Quentin Taran­ti­no. But its brief screen time runs dense with ref­er­ences to Elvis Pres­ley, the Par­tridge Fam­i­ly, A Count­ess from Hong Kong, Rod Stew­art, Deputy Dawg, and That Darn Cat. In between the rapid-fire gab ses­sions, we also wit­ness a slap­stick kung-fu bat­tle and even hear a bit of repur­posed ear­ly-sev­en­ties pop music. Though a fire claimed the sec­ond half of what was pre­sum­ably the pic­ture’s only print, the first half, which you can watch free on YouTube, leaves no doubt as to the iden­ti­ty of its auteur. In some sense, it bears an even deep­er imprint of Taran­ti­no’s per­son­al­i­ty than his sub­se­quent films, since he stars in it as well. To behold the ear­ly-twen­tysome­thing Taran­ti­no por­tray­ing the good-heart­ed and aggres­sive­ly enthu­si­as­tic but jit­tery and dis­tractible rock­a­bil­ly DJ Clarence Poole is to behold the Quentin Taran­ti­no pub­lic per­sona in an embry­on­ic form, a dis­tilled form — or both.

The plot of My Best Friend’s Birth­day, such as it remains, finds Clarence look­ing to give a birth­day present to his pal Mick­ey, who’s been fresh­ly, and harsh­ly, re-reject­ed by an ex-girl­friend. None of Clarence’s ideas — not the cake, not the call girl — work out quite as intend­ed, though now I sup­pose we’ll nev­er know how wrong things real­ly went, or if they man­aged to right them­selves in the end. Yet the trun­cat­ed ver­sion of the film feels some­how more fas­ci­nat­ing — more sat­is­fy­ing, even — than any com­ple­tion I can imag­ine. Both the movie’s hope­less­ly unre­solved sto­ry and its dreamy visu­al qual­i­ty, cour­tesy of a beat­en-up 16-mil­lime­ter print trans­ferred onto what looks like a VHS tape, turn it into the most exper­i­men­tal art Taran­ti­no has ever cre­at­ed. It casts adrift even the direc­tor’s hardi­est fans in a stark south­ern Cal­i­for­nia real­i­ty: long-run­ning argu­ments about mean­ing­less cul­ture, cease­less ele­va­tion of the dis­pos­able, and a vague, loom­ing, but nev­er­the­less con­stant sense of threat. And amid all this, it can still serve up a line like, “What made you inter­est­ed in tack­ling pros­ti­tu­tion as a career goal?”

My Best Friend’s Birth­day appears in our col­lec­tion of Free Movies Online.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Crack­ing Taran­ti­no

Film­mak­ing Advice from Quentin Taran­ti­no and Sam Rai­mi (NSFW)

Quentin Taran­ti­no Gives Sneak Peek of Pulp Fic­tion to Jon Stew­art (1994)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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