All Hail Quentin Tarantino, The Most Influential Film Critic Of Our Time

The mythology of Quentin Tarantino’s “10 films and then retire” promise is so baked into how he’s talked about now that bringing it up again feels a little tiresome. Especially in the context of his latest movie, Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood, which is illegal to write about unless you use the word “elegiac” at least once. So, let’s address this issue from a slightly different perspective: No matter what happens with the Oscars on Sunday, I’m actually excited for Tarantino’s post-director career. Not because I don’t appreciate his work as a filmmaker. It’s just that I’m also a huge fan of his work as a commenter about filmmaking.

Whenever he’s asked about what he’ll do after he retires — assuming that he follows through with the pledge — Tarantino has been remarkably consistent with his answers. This quote from a 2019 interview (to pick a totally random publication) with the Australian edition of GQ is representative of QT’s stock response: “I see myself writing film books and starting to write theatre, so I’ll still be creative. I just think I’ve given all I have to give to movies.”

I want to pay particular attention to the “I see myself writing film books” part. That’s what, frankly, intrigues me the most about his next career: Tarantino’s apparent pivot toward film criticism. Instead of making a movie that utilizes Tarantino’s famously extensive knowledge of film history and cinematic ephemera, he wants to eventually publish books where he can just state this stuff plainly.

Hey Quentin: Criticism pays poorly! Are you sure you want to do this? I’m kidding, of course. I actually believe QT has been doing this all along. Instead of communicating with a keyboard, he has voiced his views on film as a screenwriter through his characters, and as a director via a multitude of cinematic references and homages.

I’ve been absorbing his cinematic opinions since I was a teenager in the early ’90s. In fact, when I was thinking recently about my own sensibility as a cinephile and how it has evolved over the past 25-plus years, I realized that Tarantino has influenced me and many others — sometimes directly, more often as an ambient presence — as much or probably more than any single critic. Like any good film writer, he has a perspective that is consistent and easy to define. He’s not pivoting to film criticism, he’s always been a film critic. And an important one at that.

As far as I can tell, Tarantino never did any time in the freelance trenches as an actual critic. But from early on he found other avenues to assert his opinions on others. In his 20s, he famously worked as a video-store clerk. After he became famous, Tarantino would warmly reminisce about how he was a minor celebrity in his neighborhood because of his film recommendations. “The store was my Village Voice and I was the Andrew Sarris,” he once told Entertainment Weekly, referring to the (relatively) famous originator of cinematic auteur theory.

Around this time, Tarantino became enamored with the writing of another legendary film critic, Pauline Kael. He has often talked about how reading Kael’s review of Jean-Luc Godard’s ultra-chic 1964 crime film Bande à part was a formative experience for him. Initially, Tarantino placed that affection squarely on Godard and his movie, which inspired the title of QT’s former production company, A Band Apart. But eventually, he realized that he preferred Kael’s review of Bande à part to the actual film, particularly this line: “It’s as if a French poet took an ordinary banal American crime novel and told it to us in terms of the romance and beauty he read between the lines.” In one sentence, Kael had summed up what would become a guiding principle for Tarantino’s film career.

(Later, when Tarantino did an infamous cameo in 1994’s Sleep With Me — the only thing anyone ever remembers about Sleep With Me — his monologue about the gay subtext of Top Gun was cribbed from Kael’s review of the film.)

In time, he would grow tired of recommending movies rather than making them. Though as recently as 2019, when he was promoting Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood, Tarantino suggested that if podcasts had existed in the 1980s, and he had the means of gaining a modicum of notoriety just for espousing his opinions, it might have sapped his ambition to become a filmmaker.

Thankfully for cinema, podcasts did not sideline Tarantino’s burgeoning filmmaking career. In 1992, he released Reservoir Dogs, a heist film that wore its influences proudly: Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, and Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick, among other films. Anyone who was unfamiliar with these movies — including young film fans like me — first learned about them from reading Tarantino’s interviews and the reviews of his movies.

And then there were the allusions that Tarantino sprinkled into his script. At one point, during a tense moment between Harvey Keitel and Michael Madsen, Madsen growls cockily, “I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan.” The leap from that one throwaway line to Point Blank, John Boorman’s hard-boiled (and highly Reservoir Dogs-esque) 1967 classic that endures as Marvin’s greatest vehicle, was very short.

Tarantino was even more explicit about his movie fandom in his screenplay for 1993’s True Romance, particularly the scene in which the film’s hero Clarence (Christian Slater) talks movies with the slimy film producer Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek) in order to break the ice before a drug deal. “You know, most movies that win a lot of Oscars, I can’t stand,” Clarence says. “Sophie’s Choice, Ordinary People, Kramer vs. Kramer, Gandhi. All that stuff is safe, geriatric, coffee table, dog shit.”

He then proceeds to praise movies “with balls” that stand as the antithesis of these “safe, geriatric, coffee table” films: “Mad Max, that’s a movie. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, that’s a movie. Rio Bravo, that’s a movie. Rumble Fish, that’s a movie.” Given that Tarantino was talking up those same films in interviews at the time, it’s safe to say that Clarence’s views on movies with balls (as well as the “geriatric” ones) probably jibbed with Tarantino’s own opinions in his 20s. (Unsurprisingly, the lines that slagged off specific films didn’t make it in the movie.)

Through Clarence, Tarantino sketched out his own M.O. as a filmmaker and cinematic thinker. It was a kind of movie poptimism, in which prestige films are treated with skepticism while unpretentious genre and exploitation fare that “deliver the goods” are held in the highest regard. It descended directly from his hero, Pauline Kael, who during her career at The New Yorker was often criticized by detractors for her supposedly plebeian tastes. “She has everything that a great critic needs except judgment,” Woody Allen, who almost certainly preferred Ingmar Bergman to Mad Max, once said of Kael.

But Tarantino would help to mainstream Kael’s ideas about cinema from his own, high perch. (Kael retired in 1991, right before QT’s ascendence.) He reiterated his high art/”bad” taste perspective time and again in interviews, which were required reading for anyone (especially teens and 20somethings) who were blown away by Reservoir Dogs and True Romance and were eager to learn about the films that inspired them.

I first heard about many of my favorite directors from Tarantino, all of whom personified his own “heightened genre film” ethos: Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Sam Fuller, Jean-Pierre Melville. He was the first person I ever read who argued that Tony Scott was a great filmmaker worthy of analysis, and not some Hollywood hack responsible for big-budget spectacles like Top Gun and Days of Thunder. I already knew about Brian De Palma, but Tarantino talked me into appreciating the genius of 1992’s off-the-rails thriller Raising Cain, which he insisted in an interview with Charlie Rose was actually a movie about how Brian De Palma was bored with making off-the-rails thrillers.

The early ’90s were a glory period for these sorts of dense, history-rich Tarantino interviews, when you could come away from one article with many months’ worth of movie-rental picks. In time, however, his fame would discourage him from talking freely about other people’s work, like in 2015 when he sort of dissed Ana DuVernay’s solemn historical drama Selma, regrettably, without having seen the film. Though you can still go on YouTube and hear Tarantino talking at length about movies like There Will Be Blood, Taxi Driver, and Easy Rider with an infectious enthusiasm that feels more akin to film critics than millionaire filmmakers.

Otherwise, Tarantino has kept his film analysis in the subtext of his own work. With Pulp Fiction, he made a case for John Travolta’s undeniable star power far more persuasively than any think piece. With Jackie Brown, he did the same for Pam Grier, while also delving into the oeuvre and aesthetics of ’70s blaxploitation, an underappreciated genre in the ’90s.

A similar, scholarly attention to the inner workings of an outré genre also informs Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (Shaw Brothers-style kung fu) and Death Proof (drive-in muscle-car movies and slasher flicks). For Inglourious Basterds, he implicitly commented on the conventions of the “guys on a mission” movies of the ’60s and ’70s while also talking about movies through his characters more directly than he had since True Romance, specifically 1930s German cinema. If the average filmgoer in 2020 knows anything about G.W. Pabst, it’s likely because of Tarantino.

Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood, of course, is loaded with allusions to film history as well as keenly observed dissertations on the career arcs of mid-level actors in mid-20th century Hollywood. Not only do we get an extended sequence that pays tribute to Sharon Tate’s comic performance in the otherwise forgettable 1968 Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew, but there’s also an astute monologue voiced by Hollywood producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) that illuminates how countless faded TV stars were set adrift by studios casting them as bad guys pitted against hot, young up-and-comers.

His warmest, most pleasurable and rewatchable film, Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood lives up to the goal that Tarantino once set out for himself: “Before I ever made a movie, my mission statement was that I wanted to make movies that, if young people saw them, it would make them want to make movies.” But even more than making movies, Tarantino has inspired so many people to watch movies, in order to see them through his eyes and feel the same joy he does. For a film critic, there is no higher achievement.