Tarantino Character Studies

 

Darren – The M0vie Blog


Kill Bill is a remarkable film. It’s an impressive work – so impressive that it is split across two parts. What’s really impressive about it, though, is just how big a departure is represented from Tarantino’s body of work in the nineties. Tarantino made his reputation taking basic scenarios with which we’re all familiar, but putting a new twist on them – for example, Reservoir Dogs takes place in the aftermath of a botched robbery or True Romance followed a young couple a cross-country elopement, running from the criminals rather than the law or Pulp Fiction followed a variety of intersecting stories which spring out of a deal and betrayal between bad men (it’s all set in motion with Jules and Vincent recovering something stolen from Marsellus). Here, however, Tarantino is doing something different. Rather than providing a unique angle on an archetypal story, he’s instead playing out the story to its logical conclusion. Kill Bill, Vol. I is a most typical revenge ploy, albeit perfectly executed. However, Kill Bill, Vol. II takes that idea and picks it apart. The characters who serve as plot functions in the first half become real human beings in the second. Seen as Bill arguably has the most screentime across both films (apparent from the Bride) it’s fascinating to see what he begins as, and how he ends up.

Most of the characters in the first volume of Tarantino’s revenge saga are archetypes. They aren’t really characters. They exist as obstacles for the Bride to overcome. Sure, Tarantino peppers these big moments with hints of character and insight, but in the most sensational way possible (O-Ren’s history, for example, is a collection of over-the-top moments and set-pieces). We can recognise their plot functions. Copperhead, for example, is the sassy one. O-Ren is the one with a hair-trigger temper.

Bill is introduced to us as a disembodied voice. He’s Charlie in this warped little version of Charlie’s Angels that Tarantino is building. Even when he puts a bullet through the Bride’s head in the opening moment, he’s just a deep voice. He’s portrayed as the archetypal criminal mastermind, moving behind the scenes, manipulating. He knows to call Elle Driver just as she is about to put the Bride out of her misery, with absolutely uncanny timing. He’s shot mysteriously, from the shadows. Even when he shares physical space with another character – for example with Sofia Fatale  in the final scene of the first half – he remains an ominous all powerful figure. We watch his hands at work, but not his face. His hands and his voice. In a way, he’s almost divine, almost godlike.

However, what Tarantino does in the second film is to humanise these characters. Compare, for example, the presentation of O-Ren’s backstory in the first volume with the story we’re offered of Bud at the start of the second volume. Bud is a far more human and pathetic figure than the cliché that is O-Ren. The Bride herself is transformed over the course of the second film from an unstoppable killing machine on a roaring rampage of revenge into a loving mother and “real” human being (achieving what she sought all along).

So how does Bill change over the course of the second movie? What shading does Tarantino provide the character? In an exploration of Kill Bill as Tarantino acting out his own psychosis (a diagnosis I’m not entirely comfortable with), Metaphilm suggests:

Bill, the father, God, is completely humanized. In the first film we barely saw him, and never saw his face; he existed merely as an omnipresent threat and a kind of puppet-master, pulling the strings of his DiVAS. Now, in Volume 2, he’s locally and physically present as a man, a mere mortal. Now he has a brother; he plays the flute; he tells stories; he gets beaten up by his master, Pai Mei; he plays games with his daughter; his heart can be broken; he even makes sandwiches, going so far as to cut off the crust.

In fact, Bill becomes so human in Volume 2 that we start to sympathize with him, almost to the point where we don’t want to see him die. He no longer seems worthy of killing, no longer seems to deserve to die. We learn that he never knew his real father, that his own father figure—Esteban Vihaio (Michael Parks)—is a pimp who cuts women’s faces when they’re disobedient. In other words, we see that his father is as big a prick as he (our father) is, and thus that his childhood was no doubt as perverse and dysfunctional as our own.

Far from only seeing his hands and his voice at work, here we see Bill chat and joke – and we even she him flustered and out of breath, when he comes down from the temple.

Instead of being the ominous archetype of the all-knowing figure (perhaps closely related to Blofeld, the archvillain of all those Sean Connery films), Bill possibly becomes the most Tarantino-esque of the characters in the film. He relates long rambling anecdotes in an organic manner and offers philosophic insights in charmingly abstract terms. All of Tarantino’s characters have an insight into life – a unique perspective that they are perfectly able to articulate in terms that feel at once verbose and yet perfectly natural.

Of course, Bill is a stone-cold sociopath (shooting a pregnant woman who is trying to tell him the baby is his, while implying that he’s the one really hurt by all this) and a reasonably negligent father (who lets their daughter watch Shogun Assassin?). For all his charm – and Tarantino builds a lot of it on Carradine as an actor (playing the flute, wandering the world, all iconic features of Carradine’s time as a lead in Kung-Fu), implying that there’s little redeeming about Bill himself – there’s no doubt that Bill is fundamentally a bad guy. He is sympathetic (much more so in the second film – desperately wanting to save his brother), but the movies never lose sight of the fact that the world would probably be a better place without him.

On one hand, the character speaks of honour – refusing, for example, to execute the Bride as she lies in coma, despite having no problem ambushing her at her wedding – but it seems this only an affectation rather than a core part of his personality. He’s willing to drug the Bride to get his own answers and emotionally manipulate her through her daughter. It’s telling that Bill meets his death on his own patio rather than on the beach he suggested – a samurai sword duel at dawn would be a perfectly honourable cap on the film, but instead himself and the Bride find each other fighting a lob-sided battle on lawn furniture. Hardly the most honourable way to go, is it?

However, Bill is more than that. He’s very much a Tarantino figure, but he’s also a conscious exploration of a conventional trope or pop culture archetype. I’m in the minority of adoring the half-hour conversation between Bill and the Bride at the climax to the second volume, because it’s another example of Tarantino playing a classic cinematic sequence through his own unique lens. This sequences is an amalgamation of all the classic “motive rants” or “we’re not so different” speeches than villains offer by way of an excuse not to kill the hero who is in their clutches. They can’t just kill the hero, because that would be a disappointment – a rather anti-climactic conclusion to the film. Instead it’s just a way to up the stakes before the hero ultimately prevails.

Bill’s conversation is that cliché played entirely straight – hell, he’s even got “truth serum” in a gun which may as well be labeled “convenient plot device”. And yet, Tarantino makes it work, through sheer force of will. It’s as if Bill knows he must hit these beats, but does so in his own unique way. His arguments are smooth and practiced. He’s almost charming. Of course, not all of them make sense and, in the end, Bill is a completely irredeemable sociopath, but he’s a character who has put a lot of thought into understanding his world.

In Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the omnipotent Doctor Manhattan describes himself as “a puppet who can see the strings” and – in a way – that’s how Bill feels. It’s almost as though he’s entirely aware that he’s the sort of fictional omni-present criminal mastermind, and that’s how he’s supposed to act. After all, if the Bride is Superman pretending to be Clark Kent, isn’t Bill Lex Luthor, a character who – despite his convincing rhetoric and internal logic – will always be the villain? He appears to have come to terms with that – if he hadn’t, he could just as easily have finished off the Bride while he had her tranquilized.

That’s why Bill is, at least to me, the most inherently fascinating of Tarantino’s creations. Unlike the rest of the characters in Tarantino’s work, who arguably exist as archetypes and eventually become something more, Bill is an archetype who can never really be anything more. He can be a better example of what he is, more nuanced and shaded, but he will always be “the bad guy”, “the mastermind”, “the criminal genius”. And while the Bride can change, becoming a mother rather than a killer or assassin, Bill can’t. He’s trapped within the story that Tarantino is telling, and is smart enough to realise it.

It would almost be tragic, if he wasn’t so damn good at being the bad guy.

 

M. Carter – M. Carter @ the Movies.


Anger is a dangerous emotion, one that can push people to their breaking points and beyond. But more dangerous than anger is the combination of anger and grief. Both are unpredictable at best; together, they pack enormous potential for explosion. And the longer anger and grief are repressed, the bigger the boom will be. In that respect, one story thread in Quentin Tarantino’s wildly revisionist WWII epic “Inglourious Basterds” – the story of Jewish orphan Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) – isn’t just splashy, lurid, violent entertainment. Shoshanna’s story is a case study (and maybe a cautionary tale, too) of how powerful repressed emotions can be.

 
 

The anger and grief that Shosana eventually feeds on to fuel her vengeful plot came to her honest. To avoid certain death in concentration camps, Shoshanna and her family fled their home and went on the run, hiding in any home that would take them. In the opening of “Inglourious Basterds,” Shoshanna’s family has found refuge underneath the floorboards of a home in France. They have learned to become good at disappearing into the scenery around them. But Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), infamously and deservedly known as “The Jew Hunter,” has tracked the family to their hiding spot and orders his subordinates to shoot. Shoshanna is the sole survivor of the bloodbath, and Landa lets her escape unscathed. He seems to understand that living is a far more effective punishment than a bullet to the back of the head. At the time all Shosana feels is fear, but years later her fear has turned into a rage that roils and churns underneath her placid, pleasant face. There are fleeting glimpses of this turmoil in her clipped, then harsh dismissals of a young Nazi war hero (Daniel Brühl), an overeager suitor who volunteers her theater as the spot for the premiere of a film about his exploits. Later, in an excruciatingly tense meeting with Landa – who may or may not recognize her; his cool stare belies everything and nothing – and Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) himself, she barely conceals her anxiety, then breaks down the moment Landa leaves the table. Laurent’s control in this pivotal scene is plain remarkable. The Jew Hunter’s sudden reappearance stirs up long-buried emotions and hammers a thin crack in her façade. That one small fissure is all it takes to for the anger and the grief to bubble their way up to the surface.

 
 

When those feelings resurface, it doesn’t take long for Shosanna to shape them into a vengeful plot to end all plots. In a way, the same man who took away her power gives it back to her. The anger, the need for revenge, trumps the fear. The same woman who cowered in that café, the very picture of meekness, has become the quiet leader of la résistance. Shoshanna’s wrath spurs her to action, and the damage, intentional and collateral, is steep.

 
 

That’s not to suggest that Tarantino fancies himself a shrink; probably he gets off on watching chicks kick ass and take names. This is a director lambasted by feminists for his macho, shootout-heavy films. Still, the fact is that script for script, Tarantino writes women scorned like nobody else in the business. With every film, the women unleash more and more hell. He got off to a rollicking start with Alabama (Patricia Arquette), the tough-as-nails prostitute who delivers a brutal lashing to the goon who’s hunted her down. The Bride/Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman), heroine of the “Kill Bill” films, dispatched every assassin who had a hand in her near-fatal shooting. In 2009, Tarantino wrote his strongest character yet: a diminutive, delicate-looking woman did her part to give World War II the end it should have had. She identified herself, to the Nazi glitterati trapped in the burning theater, as the face of Jewish vengeance. It is not a face – or a character – anyone will soon forget.

 

Fitz – Nevermind Popular Film


Pride hurts. Butch knows this all too well. He finds himself between a rock and a hard place: his ass needs to go down in the fifth, but that’s not how his family raised him. The Coolidge are made from better stock than that. A prize fighter who knows this might be his last chance to fully utilize his ability to get the hell out of dodge, so Butch is going to throw a fight for Marcellus Wallace.

Once the time comes however he beats his opponent to death and tries to skip town. And he used the fix to make much more money than he ever could have with a title fight. Unfortunately, his girlfriend forgot his father’s watch. A watch that made it through three generations just to get it to Butch, and he isn’t going to leave it at his apartment regardless of life or death. Vincent and Marcellus will surely be waiting for him at his apartment, but Butch is not leaving without his father’s watch. After his third encounter after visiting a toilet Vincent doesn’t make it out this time, and Butch blows him away.
In a shot referencing Psycho, Butch sits along at an intersection singing along to “Flowers on the Wall” when Marcellus, carrying a box of doughnuts, stops and makes direct eye-contact with Butch. Much like when Marion Crane runs into her boss after taking a considerable amount of money. He slams into Marcellus and after a brief beat down both men are taken captive. Now stuck in a basement of some hick pawnshop owner Butch and Marcellus are two of the unluckiest bastards on the face of this Earth. Butch is lucky enough to get away, but instead of merely leaving Mr. Wallace there he decides to get medieval on these hillbillies. His motives are far from pure during a majority of Pulp Fiction, but he ends his portion of the film with honor.

 

Kevin – The Porkchop Express


A lot of people look down upon me when I explain to them that True Romance is my favorite Quentin Tarantino movie.  “But he didn’t even direct that one” they all say.  You know what?  Tarantino has never been renowned as a director above his writing ability.  True Romance‘s script is still vintage Tarantino, and the fact that he sold this script to help finance Reservoir Dogs actually worked in the film’s favor.   

The screenplay fell into the hands of Tony Scott, who by this point was most known for his mainstream Tom Cruise team-ups (Top Gun and Days of Thunder).  Truth be told, Scott is a better craftsman of action sequences than Tarantino.  Taking a few liberties with the script, including changing the narrative into a linear structure, Scott’s direction gives Tarantino’s anecdotal and pop-culture drenched script a shot of adrenaline.   

It seems odd that as far as “favorite characters” are concerned, the film’s lead character is actually considered an under the radar candidate.  Then again, True Romance is not your typical movie.  The movie is blessed with a monstrous cast of character actors and Hollywood stars in memorable roles.  Perhaps most noteworthy are Gary Oldman as a dreadlocked pimp and Brad Pitt as a perpetually high couch potato.  These are all great characters.  However, none of them are as deep as the Clarence Worley, the film’s Elvis-loving hero.   

Clarence (Christian Slater) is a clerk at a comic book store who is about to make his annual birthday trip to the cinema.  Clarence’s idea of a perfect date isn’t going to the movies for a Kung-Fu flick, it’s going for three of them.  Clarence doesn’t get out much.  He gets laid even less.  And unfortunately, this is just one more date that he’s going to have to make on his own.  At least it seems that way until Alabama walks into the theater and spills her popcorn all over his lap.   

What I really admire about Clarence is that he is such a hopeless romantic that he doesn’t even consider the thought that the beautiful blonde wearing little more than lingerie and a cheetah coat might be a call girl.  Girls love Kung-Fu, right?  Of course!   

Naturally, Clarence is unphased when Alabama ultimately reveals the fact that she was hired by Clarence’s boss as a birthday treat.  After discussing his dilemma with his mentor (an imaginary Elvis), he decides the only solution is to kill her pimp and go on the run.  Logical?  No.  Romantic?  Hell yes!  For Christ’s sake, the movie isn’t called “True Logic” dammit.   

Clarence isn’t exactly career-focused, but that isn’t to say he doesn’t have goals.  He aims to achieve the ultimate in every possible aspect of life.  A normal girl just wouldn’t do for Clarence.  That’s why he’s so in love with Alabama.  She is the ultimate in sex appeal, loyalty and spunk.  Plus, she looks pretty good in a cow-print skirt.  Not too many ladies can pull that off.   

Speaking of cows… when Clarence stops at a burger joint, would you expect him to order just any cheeseburger?  Shit no!  He’s going to order the “biggest, fattest burger you got.”  Don’t forget the large chili fries, either.  Mixing a ridiculous amount of sugar into his coffee, he claims he’s “not satisfied until the spoon stands straight up.”  But most of all, what’s the point in looking up to any old singer when you can just as easily idolize “The King?” 

It’s safe to say he does these things to feel like he’s “living it up,” when he is obviously lacking in memorable life experiences.  

It’s apparent that all his time before meeting Alabama was spent either in the comic book store or planted firmly in front of his television.  After Alabama gets beat up by James Gandolfini, he promises her a vacation.  After all, he’s only ever seen TV in America so he’s curious what TV looks like in other countries.  The decide to go to Cancun because it sounds like something out of a movie.  After a wild shootout and the biggest possible shitstorm created by a budding romance, they finally make it there. 

At the end of the movie, we see Clarence playing on the beach with his son.  It’s good to know that he’s checking out more than just the television stations in Cancun, but it’s also good to know that some things haven’t changed.  The son’s name is Elvis after all.

Simon/Ripley – four of them


I don’t care if they are technically two people.  They are the quintessential Bonnie and Clyde of a film filled with many already notorious pairs–Vincent and Mia, Vincent and Jules, Marcellus and Butch (hm), even, to some extents, the unseen friendship of Koons and Bitch’s dad, Maynard and Zed, the Wolf and Raquel, Lance and Jody.  Pulp Fiction is all about twosomes getting in trouble, usually with only one of them coming out alive, sometimes both, sometimes neither.  But Pumpkin and HB (as she will be known) are the most literal: they hold up banks, liquor stores, and now diners.  They might not be as open to interpretation as, say, Mia Wallace, and their actions aren’t as latently stupid as Vincent and Jules (though, fear not, they are really stupid), but they frame the non-linear story…we take a full tour of LA, the petty and hilarious crime masquerading as organised, the romances and crisises and drug deals gone bad and motherfucking suitcases, and then we come right back to these two assholes.  Some may not know it, but we need those two to close the story.  Vincent may be dead, but it doesn’t mean we’re done with him.  Without them, we’d never see our main characters again, they’d be dead and Kung-Fuing it up, respectively.
 
They also have the best conversation in the entire movie.  I don’t care what you say, it rocks.

 

Frank – Pompous Film Snob


    What a marvel of a film “Jackie Brown” is. With such a colorful pallet of character created by Elmore Leonard and brought into the flesh by Quentin Tarantino. There’s no doubt in my mind that “Jackie Brown” is Tarantino’s masterpiece that includes my favorite of his characters: Max Cherry played by Robert Forster. Max is a simple man, he drives an 80’s Buick, likes coffee, sees films and eats lunch at the mall by himself and listens to cassette tapes. Max is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. There’s nothing in the world that can tame Max – it’s not that he’s a free spirit nor is he bitter or jaded – he knows how the world works. He knows the scum like motherfuckers that the world harbors. He’s a ronin – that is until he meets Jackie Brown.

    Max Cherry is the one true noir throwback character from any Tarantino film. He’s not a private detective but worse: a bail bondsman. Yikes. He’s an older man who tries to act gentle and look younger, he’s his own keeper. The polo shirts, the non wrinkle slacks all form this enigma that is Max Cherry (what a cool name by the way). Max is the type of man who is alone, but not lonely – many confuse the two.

    He’s probably never loved anyone in his entire life, he has zero concept of what real love is. He touches instead of feels, he listens instead of hearing. To me Max represents everything old school. He carries on the legacy of Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen. He’s a man’s man. That is, until he meets Jackie Brown. The hard knockin’ ghetto gangsta bad ass motherfuckin’ black chick is anomaly to Max’s being. She represents everything he thrives on, what he’s built his name on, and his career.

    He’s the character Robert DeNiro, Michael Keaton, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman and Sylvester Stallone all took interest in. What does QT do? Casts Robert Forster. Bad-fucking-ass.

 

 


 

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Author: Frank Mengarelli

Everybody relax, Frank's here. After going to film school at Columbia College Chicago, Frank decided to underachieve with his vast knowledge of film into a career in civil service. Frank had a brief stint as a film blogger, and then he met the heterosexual love of his life, Nick Clement. The two instantly bonded over their love from everything to Terence Malick to THE EXPENDABLES films. Some of Frank's favorite filmmakers are Terence Malick, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Sylvester Stallone, Oliver Stone and Spike Lee. Some of his favorite films are THE TREE OF LIFE, STAR WARS (all of them), BAD LIEUTENANT, THE THING and ALL THAT JAZZ. Frank spends his free time with his dog Roger, collecting any Star Wars collectible he can find and trying to finish his pretentious, first person narrative novel(la), LARGE MEN IN SMALL CARS..

8 thoughts on “Tarantino Character Studies”

  1. Excellent choice, Simon/Ripley — I always wanted to know more about Pumpkin and Honey Bunny because you’re right; they do have the best conversations. I also like that the WOMAN is the badass the guy is more subdued. It’s a nice switch-up.

    Kevin’s very much on target with his description of Clarence as a romantic. It might be hard for some people to see him as such given his descent into violence, but he starts out as an innocent character, very pure-hearted and really almost … virginal, in a way.

    The difference between the Bill in Vol. 1 and the Bill in Vol. 2 always fascinated me. We see a completely different side of him in the second film, and that makes me wonder if he isn’t a nicer guy than we imagine. Frank made a fairly convincing argument that while Bill’s no saint, he is human and capable of emotion. In a weird way, he loves Beatrix by protecting her daughter.

  2. In a lot of ways I thought the Superman/Clark Kent Bill discussed was about himself.

    Bill is the caring father, the weary man, the flute player. The psycho is him putting on the Clark Kent suit.

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