How, why and in what senses can Quentin Tarantino be regarded as the ‘author’ of a film with reference to Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012)?
Quentin Tarantino is a widely known American director who has fashioned his own unique genre, known as the historical revenge fantasy. In creating Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012), Tarantino cements his role as an auteur in American cinema and hence asserts himself as the ‘author’ of all of his films. Tarantino often bases his films on historical events, with both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained sharing stylistic and thematic similarities with other Tarantino films. The two, however, share direct links to one another that separate themselves from the rest.
Susan Hayward (1996) dates the term ‘auteur’ to go as far back as the 1920s, ‘in the theoretical writings of French film critics and directors of the silent era.’ The debate focused on the auteur (author of script and filmmaker as being the same) versus the scenario-led film (scripts commissioned from authors or scriptwriters). Subsequent to this, in the 1950s, this debate was popularised by the film review Cahiers du cinema (1951) during the French New Wave film movement. It is the highest praise any filmmaker could receive, labeling the director as the “author” of his or her own films. Even though, in the late 1960s, there was a tendency to see the auteur structure as the major one, Hayward argues that the studio and stars were ‘equally important contributors to the production of meaning in film.’ While this is true in Tarantino’s films, each one is thought to be his own, due to his stylistic choices and trademark features. While the stars are equally important, Tarantino is widely thought to be the creator of his films.
Oliver C. Speck (2014) writes in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained – The Continuation of Metacinema that Tarantino ‘implicates his audience in violence, exposing a portion of our dark nature’. Tarantino delves into historical and political stories, often shocking an audience and allowing them to take him seriously as an auteur. Speck contends that there is a ‘provocative shift’ from films that explore ‘race and violence but are set in a never-never land of an unspecified presence, to films that deal with Slavery and the Holocaust’ and that this fortifies his title and role as an auteur. Tarantino makes bold moves and Speck states, ‘this seriousness stems from a political/critical impetus.’ Only these two films imagine those who have been tortured in history (the Jews and the slaves) to attain revenge on the leader of the oppressive regime, hence both films cement the conscious and deliberate political turn Tarantino has taken.
In The Auteur Theory: Tarantino’s Blood, Robert Conley writes that a director needs ‘three qualifications’ for someone to be labeled as an auteur: Technical Competence, A Stylistic Stamp and Soulfulness. The first two are thought to be determined easily: basically, are you able to tell it is the director’s film just by watching it? With Tarantino’s films, this is unquestionable- one can pick a Tarantino film without knowing the title of the film. Conley writes that ‘soulfulness is the more abstract idea from the auteur theory, being that you can only gauge this based off individual’s “feelings” of films.’ Tarantino clearly epitomises these three qualities. Each Tarantino film has a distinct feeling, due to elements like sound, mise en scene, style and even genre.
Tarantino has his own authorial signature in all his films – trademark features that make it a typical Tarantino film. He is well known for intertwining pop culture references into witty dialogue, and incorporates elements of other director’s work, specifically, directors that have influenced his own work. Tarantino himself has said that Django Unchained is an affectionate tribute to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. This is evident in the scene where Django kills all of the major Candyland characters. The scene is reminiscent of a huge Sergio Leone standoff, with Django placed on the balcony and the family below in the foyer. By emulating Sergio Leone’s work, it acts as an homage to a director he so admires. Part of what makes Tarantino such an iconic auteur is his ability to fashion eccentric characters and storylines. He has a flair for approaching topics and subjects that have taboos attached to them or which haven’t been looked at in that certain light. Django Unchained received heavy criticism for the excessive use of the ‘n-word’ which according to a review in Variety, contains ‘no fewer than 109 instances of the ‘No word,’ with most of them being used for ‘either for laughs or alliteration’ rather than because of necessity or to add meaning. Tarantino however has since justified his use of the word, proving to critics that he is unashamedly decisive with his authorial decisions and that every line, sound and visual is there for a specific purpose and in order to garner a certain response from audiences.
Tarantino is also famous for his dry wit in his screenplays. For example, in Inglourious Basterds, Colonel Hans Landa, played by Christoph Waltz, is a maniacal character. He speaks in riddles and speaks multiple languages. His eccentric nature makes for an interesting character, even though the audience is supposed to despise him for the fact that he is a detestable Nazi. Each one of Tarantino’s films introduces an eccentric character like this. Another typical element of Tarantino’s films is the element of stardom. Like so many other auteurs, namely Wes Anderson, Tarantino employs the same actors over and over again. Christoph Waltz plays main roles in both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, as Colonel Hans Landa and the German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz. Tarantino’s recasting of these characters further creates a familiarity within his films – the audience is able to associate his films with the stars in it, many being award-winning actors. This strengthens his cult audience and guarantees a good audience reception as well.
Another example of the bold, signature mark of Tarantino is his sheer attention to blood and gore – Tarantino does not shy away from what other directors decide to omit or sanitise. He thrives on displaying blood and guts, by presenting scenes viscerally. This is evident in both the underground bar scene in Inglourious Basterds as well as the wrestling scene in Candyland in Django Unchained, where two black slaves are forced to fight one another to the death using only their hands. The combination of the sound of broken bones, paired with the visual of the splattered, fresh blood on their bodies and on the floor in this scene is overwhelming for an audience. Tarantino purposefully utilises the element of shock to send a message – that violence is a major part of history and was used as a means of survival and for the entertainment of those in positions of power. This violence is so blatantly excessive and overdone that McGee (2012) believes it is ‘almost impossible’ for the audience to walk away from the movie ‘without the feeling that something wasn’t quite right, even for a fantasy”.
Django Unchained is widely considered to be a black film. In terms of blaxsploitation, the term refers to films made by actual black people, which are supposed to show authentic black experience and are made for a black audience. This term is problematic as it implies that white directors are unable to make black films. There are two assumptions here according to Speck (2014), one of essentialism, and the other, auteurism. The essentialist assumption believes that ‘there is a direct relationship between people’s racial identities’ and the aesthetic. On the other hand, the auteurist assumption believes that ‘we can reasonably attribute cinematic authorship to lone individuals.’ While auteurism implies that only Tarantino deserves either credit or blame, Speck says that ‘essentialism tells us that [his] whiteness prevents him from understanding black culture well enough to capture its essence on film.’ None of these claims manage to echo the realities of authorship well, hence there is a divide in the filmic world on whether or not Django Unchained can in fact be considered a black film.
The structure of Tarantino’s films differs from other directors. His films can be seen as a series of vignettes, or scenes, rather than one complete narrative. Conley (Film Matters Spring 2014) writes that Django Unchained is ‘broken up into chapters or “situations” as Tarantino names them’. The purpose of this is to perhaps add some structure, as time is convoluted in the film. The viewer is often asking, when is this happening? Is it in chronological order? Tarantino does this to invite the viewer to think about the historical context and the fluctuating nature of time.
According to Ken Garner (2013), Tarantino uses music as ‘an instrument of irony and authenticity.’ Garner points out Tarantino’s musical priorities in Popular Music and the New Auteur – Visionary Filmmakers After MTV.
Garner writes of how Claudia Gorbman, in her essay “Auteur Music” labels Tarantino as ‘one of those contemporary auteur directors who demonstrates her idea of the melomane, the term taken from the French word for “music lover.” She writes how ‘music is a platform for the idiosyncratic expression of taste, and thus it conveys not only meaning in terms of plot and theme, but meaning as authorial signature itself.’
Referring to the scene with the gramophone in the basement bar in Inglourious Basterds, Garner argues that this scene is a surprising one and that ‘it is unlike any other scene in any Tarantino movie’ due to its conventionality. The music is picked by Tarantino, and is shown simply to ‘authenticate the location period, and nature of the social occasion for the soldiers.’ It is a practical use of sound rather than a metaphorical one. Tarantino’s musical selection in Inglourious Basterds implicates that his authorial signature has changed.
The typical Tarantino musical move would be for him to select short fragments to compliment tension-filled scenes and ones that would signal impending violence. These typically have a slow tempo and are combined with ‘strong rhythmic figures doubled by piano, bass, guitar, or brass with percussion.’ In juxtaposition, moments of actual violence tend either to not be scored or are scored by different kinds of sounds- such as brass or string, or ‘funk rhythms.’ Garner quotes Tarantino in a 2009 interview with Steve Kandell for Spin, where Tarantino says he carefully chooses his own soundtrack in order to “never just throw stuff over it, it’s supposed to be exciting, it’s supposed to rev you up. It’s supposed to get you going.”
In conclusion, while Tarantino’s style has tended to cause controversy and offence to many critics, he is undoubtedly the ‘author’ of all his films, specifically Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. He not only directs but also is involved in all aspects of the filmmaking process, allowing audiences to view his films as his own work. By delving deep into provocative subject matters, stunning audiences all around the world with his excessive use of violence and by planting his authorial signature in each film he creates, Tarantino asserts himself as an unmistakable auteur.
Conley, R 2014 ‘The Auteur Theory: Tarantino’s Blood’ Film Matters Spring 2014, pp. 77-79.
Garner, K 2013, ‘You’ve Heard This One Before: Quentin Tarantino’s Scoring Practices from Kill Bill To Inglourious Basterds’ in Ashby, A (eds), Popular Music and The New Auteur – Visionary Filmmakers After MTV, Oxford University Press, Madison Avenue, NY, pp. 157-176.
Geiger, J & Rutsky, R.L (eds), Film Analysis: A Norton Reader, 2nd edn, 2013, W.W Norton & Company, NY.
Gorbman, C 2007 “Auteur Music,” in Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema, eds. Daniel Goldmark, Lawrence Kramer, and Richard Leppert (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, pp. 149-162.
Hayward, S 1996, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, London, Taylor & Francis [CAM]
Hayward, S 2006, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, 3rd edn, London, Taylor & Francis [CAM]
McGee, P 2012 Bad History and the Logics of Blockbuster Cinema: Titanic, Gangs of New York, Australia, Inglourious Basterds (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).
Speck, O.C (eds) 2014, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained – The Continuation of Metacinema, Bloomsbury Publishing, NY.
Walker, T 2012, ‘Quentin Tarantino accused of ‘Blaxploitation’ by Spike Lee… Again’, The Independent, 26 December, viewed 14 October 2016,