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The Auteur Theory, Fact or just Pulp Fiction?

The politique des auteurs has been the subject of contentious debate in the film industry since it was
introduced by film critic Francois Truffaut.
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His controversial manifesto, 'A Certain Tendency of
French Cinema', published in the January edition of Cashiers du Cinéma in 1954, outlined
Truffaut's opinion that a hand full of directors stood above the rest. It was his firm belief that the
auteur does not just mechanically transpose the script on to the screen, but they actually leave their
own identity on it. Unlike the matteurs-en-scène the auteur is considered the main creative force
behind the film.
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Still the question remains, in a collaborative industry, is it possible for one person's
vision and ideals to be powerful enough to bleed through every shot of every scene and make them
a true auteur?


Fig 1.Promotional material for Kill Bill Vol.1 (left) and Django Unchained (right) advertising Tarantino
as a brand.

The auteur theory is one that, over the last fifty years, has been 'applied on rather broad lines;
different critics developed somewhat different methods within a loose framework of common
attitudes'. (Keith Grant, 2008, p.g 55) Buckland argues that certain 'contemporary Hollywood
directors are marketed as auteur's with their own brand image'. (2003, p.g 99) A prime example of
this promotional strategy is Kill Bill Vol.1, a film that was advertised as ‘The 4
th
film by Quentin
Tarantino’. (Fig 1) It is Tarantino, the 'rabble-rousing writer-director of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp
Fiction', that could hold the key to unravelling whether, in modern cinema, the role of auteur truly
exists. (Waxman, 2005, p.g xi) Tarantino certainly fits Andrew Sarris' interpretation of the theory as
he has a 'distinguishable personality' as well as exhibiting 'certain recurring characteristics of style,

1
Francois Truffaut was also a writer, director and actor.
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The aim of the auteur policy is to distinguish between directors as artists (auteurs) and directors as mere technicians
(metteurs-en-scène). (Buckland, 2003, p.g 85)

which serves as his signature'. (Ipid, p.g 43) Here is a director whose work, major or minor, radiates
the same manner and meaning. Since he first burst on to the scene with Reservoir Dogs, the
freshness of Tarantino's approach to cinema has earned him huge success. Sharon Waxman (2005)
wrote that...

In the 1990's Quentin Tarantino would turn out to be the biggest thing to hit the
movie industry since the high-concept film. He became an image, an icon, and
inspired a genre, if not an entire generation, of hyper-violent, loud, youthful, angry,
funny (though none as funny as Tarantino) movies. (P.g 3)

This is an appraisal that borders on worship and is an indication that there is far more to Tarantino
the filmmaker than that of technician. This assessment also sums up some of the characteristics of
Tarantino's work, in particular the unflinching violence as can be seen in Reservoir Dogs with Mr
Blonde cutting off the police officer's ear. This scene also highlights Tarantino's urge to shock his
audiences as do Mia Wallace’s heroin overdose in Pulp Fiction and the Pai Mei eye pluck from Kill
Bill Vol. 2. (Fig 2) These traits are also prevalent in his earlier screenplays Natural Born Killers and
True Romance, as is Tarantino's penchant for playing with narrative structure.
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As Tarantino wrote
in his introduction of the published version of the screenplay, 'True Romance had a complicated
structure to start with, but when the producers bought the script, they cut and pasted it into linear
form’. (1995, p.g vii)


Fig 2. Left to right: Mr Blonde in Reservoir Dogs, Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction and Pai Mei in Kill Bill Vol. 2.

There is some dispute over how much of Tarantino's essence actually resides within True Romance
as it is based on, according to Roger Avary, a script called The Open Road written by Avary. The
two men worked together at Video Archives during the early eighties and 'for a time they had
friendship, partnership, synchronicity, a unique collaboration'. (Waxman, 2005, p.g 20) Tarantino
had taken Avary's script and synthesised it, pumping it full of his own personality but the finished

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Pulp Fiction with its narrative that stops and starts, shifts and rewinds, forcing the viewer to construct the story - the
trajectory of each character, their interrelation with other characters and fictions, the "how", "what", "when" and "why"
of the narrative. (Villella, 2000)
article is not what made it to the screen. Avary was called in when the script ran in to trouble and
rewrote it, several times. Director, Tony Scott, asked Tarantino to rewrite the ending, he refused and
once more Avary was drafted in. The ending in the film is that of The Open Road, the original Avary
script that has 'apparently been cannabalized throughout the Avary and Tarantino canon. (Ipid, p.g
21)

The relationship between Tarantino and Avary continued until 1994 and the release of Pulp Fiction,
a film that 'has a distinctive tone, that mix of menace and humour that is thrilling and frightening at
the same time, a tone that came to be known as “Tarantinoesque”'.
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(Waxman, 2005, p.g 57) Once
more Tarantino's vision is called into doubt as Avary insists that the script at least half his work.
Tarantino again adapted one of Avary's screenplays, Pandemonium Reigned, this time to write the
storyline of the character, Butch. However 'ultimately it is unclear whose handiwork Pulp Fiction
truly is' as Tarantino and Avary had been working together for so long it is difficult to distinguish
between their voices. (Ipid, 2005, 55) Clearly there are some question marks at the writing stage of
Tarantino’s earlier works but what makes it on to the screen is of most significance, as this is where
the auteur makes his or her impact and 'transcends the script by imposing his or her own vision'.
(Buckland, 2003, p.g 76) This is an opinion shared by Victor Perkins as the following extract taken
from an interview given for film is film suggests.

The director's most significant area of control is over what happens within the image.
His control over the action, in detail, organization and emphasis, enable him to produce
a personal treatment of the script situation. (Buckland, 2003, p.g77)

There are numerous stylistic familiarities that are customary throughout a Tarantino film that put his
indelible seal on it. Tarantino's films are identifiable as much by their tone and style as they are by
some of the shots used in them. Certain shots are synonymous with Tarantino and have become a
signature of his work, these include the ‘trunk shot’ which is a POV shot looking out of a car’s
trunk and close ups on women’s feet. (Fig 3)


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‘That Tarantino can become a noun to describe broad (post-modern) process at work in social life today seems
intensely revealing, suggesting that in some major way, even for writers who don’t think much of Tarantino’s cinema,
his films do capture the tone, the feel, the style of our contemporaneity’ . (Polan, 2000, p.g 71)

Fig 3. Left to right: The 'trunk shot', as seen in various Tarantino films, feet shots from Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Death Proof.

Tarantino notably works with the same actors on multiple titles to the point that his films are
becoming synonymous with the presence of Samuel L Jackson.
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(Fig 4) It is not only Jackson that
has appeared in a number of Tarantino’s works as Fig 5 illustrates. Uma Thurman is another
favourite of Tarantino having appeared in Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill double alongside Michael
Madsen who is most recognisable as Mr Blonde in Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino has become well
known for resurrecting the careers of actors seemingly long forgotten by Hollywood such as John
Travolta and David Carradine. Even Tarantino himself appears in small cameo roles in the majority
of his films, some more memorable than others, but there are many more tell-tale signs to his work
such as his relentless desire to draw upon popular culture to add a distinctiveness to his dialogue.


Fig 4. From to right: Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown, Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill Vol. 2.

Fig 5. From left to right Paul Calderon, Tim Roth and Bruce Willis in Four Rooms, Paul Calderon in Pulp Fiction, Time
Roth in Reservoir Dogs and Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction.

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Samuel L. Jackson has appeared in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 2 and also features in Tarantino's
upcoming release Django Unchained.

The ‘pop culture’ references that run through Tarantino’s movies are in abundance, whether it be
Jules from Pulp Fiction likening himself the Caine character from the seventies television show
Kung Fu or the Mr Brown speech in Reservoir Dogs about Madonna’s Like a Virgin. Madonna is
mentioned in Pulp Fiction also, as Fabian, the girlfriend of Butch, draws comparison to her tummy,
saying that it is like Madonna‘s ‘when she did Lucky Star’. (Tarantino, 1999, p.g 98) There are
various other examples of Tarantino’s obsession with ‘pop culture’ weaved seamlessly throughout
Pulp Fiction.
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Jules uses “correctamundo” a phrase adapted from the Happy Days character, Arthur
‘Fonzie’ Fonzarelli, as well as directly naming him when trying to calm Honey Bunny down ‘We’re
gonna be like three little Fonzies’. (Ipid, p.g 182) It is not only music and television that is
noticeable in his works but also films. This has led to much criticism and, in the case of Reservoir
Dogs, ‘accusations that the film closely paralleled a 1987 Ringo Lam film called City on Fire,
Starring Chow Yun Fat’ (Waxman, 2005, p.g 28) Cathryn James, Tarantino’s manager, puts a
different slant on his, sometimes, contentious referencing to the films of other directors.

Quentin is extraordinary at homage… He pays homage to other people’s words and
vision. He can re-tool other words, put it to his own pentameter, bring his own voice.
Quentin can take material on the page, or on the screen, and pump a whole new
perspective into it. (Waxman, 2005, p.g 22)

There are numerous scenes in Pulp Fiction that pay homage to cinema from around the world for
example, Sonny Chiba’s 1976 action film Karate Kiba, ‘in which the hero quotes the bible before
dispatching his enemies'. (Polan, 2000, p.g 20) Tarantino shows his respect for French film as 'Mia's
hairstyle is like that of Anna Karina in several [Jean-Luc] Godard films – such as bande à part, in
which the characters do a vibrant dance like that in Jake Rabbit Slim's'.
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(Ipid, 21) The links do not
end there as Polan also suggests that the story told by the Christopher Walken character to young
Butch regarding the gold watch refers to directly 'The Deerhunter and what happens to the Walken
character there'. (P.g 20) There are also a number of scenes and characters from Kill Bill Vol. 1 that
have been inspired by Hong Kong cinema that include Hattori Hanzo.
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Hanzo is a character that
was also portrayed by Sonny Chiba in the Shadow Warriors series of films.


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Lance claims 'I'll take the Pepsi Challenge’ when defending the quality of his merchandise. (Tarantino, 1999, p.g 40)

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The production company set up by Quentin Tarantino and Lawrence Bender, A Band Apart, is named after his
favourite Jean-Luc Goddard film, bande à part (Band of Outsiders).

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GoGo Yubari from Kill Bill Vol. 1 is modelled on the character of Takako Chigusa, also played by Chiaki Kuriyama,
in Battle Royale, a 2000 film by Kinji Fukasako.


Fig 6. Top left: City on Fire and Reservoir Dogs. Top right: Grease and Pulp Fiction. Bottom left: Pulp Fiction and
Anna Karina. Bottom right: Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Game of Death.

The use of music is another distinctive feature of a Tarantino film and generally diegetic, as it
resonates from within the world on screen. This is unmistakable in scenes such as in Pulp Fiction
when Mia Wallace presses play on the large tape recorder and then dances to Urge Overkill’s Girl,
You’ll be a Woman Soon or the numerous shots of the juke box changing 45’s in Death Proof.
Possibly the most memorable scene comes from Reservoir Dogs, in which Gerry Rafferty’s Stuck in
the Middle with You plays on the radio whilst the police officer is being tortured by Mr Blonde. The
way the music is employed by Tarantino ‘brings us [the viewer] deeper into the scene’ and
ultimately into the, sometimes disturbed, world that he creates. (Eschenroeder, 2010)
All the conventions of a Tarantino movie appear in Jackie Brown, which is arguably the most
significant film when trying to ascertain whether or not he is a true auteur. This is a film, once
more, based upon the writings of someone else, Elmore Leonard, but it is the way in which
Tarantino handles the material that stands out. Leonard’s 1992 novel, Rum Punch, is turned on its
head as Tarantino takes the character of Jackie Burke, a white woman caught between a rock in the
form ATF agent Nicolet and a hard place, the gun dealing Ordell Robie, and transforms her into
Jackie Brown, a sassy black woman. This one change alters the tone and the genre of the story from
that of a hard-edged crime drama into a full on Blaxploitation film akin to those of the seventies.
The name change and the casting of Pam Grier once more highlights Tarantino's knowledge of film
as, in many ways, Grier reprises her role as Foxy Brown from the film of the same name.
Tarantino’s use of Soul and Funk music, genres of music generally associated Blaxploitation films,
adds to the feel of the film, a film that is ‘often seen as a homage to those films’. (Boyce, 2001)
Although Tarantino makes few other adjustments from the Leonard novel it is enough to impress his
own style. Jackie Brown harbours all the qualities that make it instantly recognisable as a Tarantino
movie, Samuel L. Jackson, actors that have arguably been starved of the Hollywood limelight and a
blend of violence, and humour: the latter of which is not as abundant in Leonard’s novel.
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Tarantino,
'instead of merely transferring someone else's work faithfully and self-effacingly’, he, in keeping
with Edward Buscombe’s view of an auteur, ‘transforms the material into an expression of his own
personality'. (Keith Grant, p.g 77)

Tarantino imposes his own vision on to the screen which certainly lends itself to the auteur theory
and although his work is influenced by many other films it is the unique way he moulds this
material that sets him apart. His use of homage and the resurrection of characters from important
films of their era and genre, as well as bringing back the original actors to fill these roles serve to
enhance his status as an important filmmaker. The amusing dialogue riddled with pop culture
references juxtaposed with an unnerving brutality adds to the thrilling fascination that makes a film,
a Tarantino movie. Quentin Tarantino is not only marketed in a way that befits the modern auteur,
his body of work carries constant themes, styles and techniques that elevate him to a level above
that of metteurs-en-scène, and therefore make him an artist.

(1646 words)













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Pam Grier and Robert Forster had enjoyed relatively successful film and Television careers prior to Jackie Brown but,
debatably, their acting credits have improved since.
Filmography
Four Rooms, 1995 [film]. Directed by Allison ANDERS, Alexander ROCKWELL, Robert
RODRIGUEZ and Quentin TARANTINO. USA: Miramax.
Jackie Brown, 1997 [film]. Directed by Quentin TARANTINO. USA: Miramax.
Kill Bill Vol.1, 2003 [film]. Directed by Quentin TARANTINO. USA: Miramax.
Kill Bill Vol.2, 2004 [film]. Directed by Quentin TARANTINO. USA: Miramax.
Natural Born Killers, 1994 [film]. Directed by Oliver STONE. USA: Warner Bros.
Pulp Fiction, 1994 [film]. Directed by Quentin TARANTINO. USA: Miramax.
Reservoir Dogs, 1991 [film]. Directed by Quentin TARANTINO. USA: Momentum Pictures.
True Romance, 1993 [film]. Directed by Tony SCOTT. USA: Warner Bros.

Bibliography
BUCKLAND, W., 2003. Film Studies. 2
nd
Ed. London: Hodder Education.
JAFFE, I., 2008. Hollywood Hybrids: Mixing Genres in Contemporary Films. Plymouth: Rowman
& Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
KEITH GRANT, B., 2008. Auteurs and Authorship: A Film Review. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
LEONARD, E., 1992. Rum Punch. London: Phoenix.
POLAN, D., 2000. Pulp Fiction. London: British Film Institute.
TARANTINO, Q., 1995. Natural Born Killers. London: Faber and Faber Limited.
TARANTINO, Q., 1999. Pulp Fiction. London: Faber and Faber Limited.
TARANTINO, Q., 1995. True Romance. London: Faber and Faber Limited.
WAXMAN, S., 2005. Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and how They Conquered the
Hollywood Studio System. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

Websites
BOYCE, L. 2001. Quentin Tarantino – Use of Music [online] [viewed 28/04/2012]. Available from:
http://www.netribution.co.uk/features/essays/quentin_tarantino_music.html
ESCHENROEDER, K., 2010. Analysis: Diegetic Sound in Pulp Fiction [online] [viewed
28/04/2012]. Available form: http://kyleschen.com/2010/04/13/analysis-diegetic-sound-in-pulp-
fiction/
VILLELLA, F. A., 2000. Circular Narratives: Highlight of Popular Cinema in the 90’s [online]
[viewed 27/04/2012]. Available from:
http://web.archive.org/web/20061126215319/http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/3/circula
r.html