Quentin Tarantino’s Copycat Cinema: How the Postmodern Filmmaker Perfected the Art of the Steal

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Quentin Taran­ti­no Picks the 12 Best Films of All Time; Watch Two of His Favorites Free Online

An Analy­sis of Quentin Tarantino’s Films Nar­rat­ed (Most­ly) by Quentin Taran­ti­no

Quentin Taran­ti­no Explains How to Write & Direct Movies

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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