You can call Quentin Tarantino a thief. Call him unoriginal, a copycat, whatever, he doesn’t care. But if you really want to get him going, call him a tribute artist. This, he insists, is the last thing he has ever been: great directors, Tarantino declares, “don’t do homages.” They outright steal, from anyone, anywhere, without regard to intellectual property or hurt feelings.
But great directors don’t plagiarize in the Tarantino school of filmmaking. (Pay attention students, this is important.) They don’t take verbatim from a single source, or even two or three. They steal everything. “I steal from every single movie ever made,” says Tarantino, and if you don’t believe him, you’ll probably have to spend a few years watching his films shot by shot to prove him wrong, if that’s possible.
But, of course, he’s overstating things. He’s never gone the way of blockbuster CGI epics. On the contrary, Tarantino’s last film was an homage (sorry) to an older Hollywood, one on the cusp of great change but still beholden to things like actors, costumes, and sets. Maybe a paraphrase of his claim might read: he steals from every movie ever made worth stealing from, and if you’re Quentin Tarantino, there are a lot of those most people haven’t even heard of.
The Cinema Cartography video essay above, “The Copycat Cinema of Quentin Tarantino,” begins with a reference not to a classic work of cinema, but to a classic album made two years before the time of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is “a signifier of the artist’s status as an icon within a social milieu… this image more than anything explores the social ambiance in which someone lives in pop culture before becoming pop culture themselves.”
To suggest that the Beatles weren’t already pop culture icons in 1967 seems silly, but the visual point stands. On the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s they eclipse even their earlier boy band image and freshly insert themselves into the center of 20th century cultural history up to their present. “Understanding this idea,” says narrator Lewis Michael Bond, “is fundamental to understanding the cinema of Quentin Tarantino.” How so?
“All artists, consciously or unconsciously, take from their influences, “but it’s the degree of self-awareness and internal referencing that would inevitably bring us to the concept of postmodernism.” Tarantino is nothing if not a postmodern artist—rejecting ideas about truth, capital T, authenticity, and the uniqueness of the individual artist. All art is made from other art. There is no original and no originality, only more or less clever and skillful remixes and restatements of what has come before.
Tarantino, of course, knows that even his postmodern approach to cinema isn’t original. He stole it from Godard, and named his first production company A Band Apart, after Godard’s 1964 New Wave film Band of Outsiders, which is, Pauline Kael wrote, “like a reverie of a gangster movie as students in an espresso bar might remember it or plan it.” Tarantino’s films, especially his early films, are genre exercises made the way an adrenaline-fueled video store clerk would make them—stuffing in everything on the shelves in artful pastiches that revel in their dense allusions and in-jokes.
In this school of filmmaking, the question of whether or not a filmmaker is “original” has little meaning. Are they good at ripping off the past or not? When it comes to exquisite, bloody mash ups of exploitation flicks and the revered high classics of cinema, no one is better than Tarantino.