Quentin Tarantino is probably the biggest plagiarist in mainstream cinema. And I do mean plagiarist. There is a great tradition of artistic allusion. Simply lifting dialog, scenes, and whole plots is different.
The way allusion works is that the writer and reader share a common vocabulary. But in the case of Tarantino, the viewer has almost certainly not seen the films he has. And that’s a shame given that they are usually remarkable films — often better than his.
Quentin Tarantino: Movie Thief
Tarantino gets away with this for two reasons, I think. First, he creates compelling films that are distinctly more than the sum of its many ripped-off parts. Second, he’s so shameless about it. It’s hard to do anything to an artist who has absolutely no sense of ethics.
The worst example of this is with Reservoir Dogs where he lifts major plot elements from the Hong Kong crime drama City on Fire. And note: that wasn’t some classic film from decades before but rather a recent film starring Chow Yun-fat and Danny Lee.
What’s more, people around Tarantino have claimed he’s stolen work from then. This claim was most notably made by Roger Avary. And it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Tarantino doesn’t even understand the issue or believes all the world is simply fodder for his genius.
If you’re like me, you really liked the phrase “a pair of pliers and a blowtorch” in Pulp Fiction. It isn’t that I’m into torture; it is just that it’s a great phrase, “I’m gonna call up a couple hard pipe-hitting niggas to go to work on the homes here with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.”
Robert Altman used to say that if you looked at the 5 best bits in any of his films, you’d find they were the results of accidents. This isn’t true, but he apparently liked to think it. But I’ve come to believe that anything I really like in a Quentin Tarantino film is actually by someone else.
About a year after seeing Pulp Fiction, I was watching TV late one night and Charley Varrick came on. It is about a bank robbery that goes wrong for unusual reasons and the consequences of them. It stars Walter Matthau in an unusual kind of star role. It’s a great film that you should really check out.
Two-thirds into the film, we get this very short bit:
That’s John Vernon delivering the line, “You know what kind of people they are. They’re gonna strip you naked and go to work on you with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.”
Truthfully, I don’t know if the line is original to this movie; it may have been a common turn of phrase. I doubt it though; I’ve never heard it elsewhere.
The one thing I do know is that Tarantino got it from this film. Just watch the film; it is his kind of movie. And there’s nothing else in Pulp Fiction that references the line. He isn’t making a sly allusion to it. He’s just ripping it off.
Watch Beyond Quentin Tarantino
It’s actually kind of sad. Quentin Tarantino wants to make psychotronic films. But he doesn’t. He makes a particular kind of art film that is clever and easily digestible by his upper-middle-class audience. Part of that process is carving off notable moments from the psychotronic films he loves.
So his fans get to smirk at “My name’s Buck and I’m here to fuck.” But they’ll never get the experience of seeing Eaten Alive or Charley Varrick or City on Fire. Why would they need to when Tarantino rips it off for them in such a stylish package?
Quentin Tarantino at the 2010 Academy Awards by Sgt Michael Connors. It is in the public domain.