If there is one element that is ubiquitous in the films of Quentin Tarantino that makes them instantly recognisable then it is surely his use of music. Tarantino is known as both a manic cinephile and avid music lover. The meshing together of these two elements become his now distinctive postmodern oeuvre. What most critics seem to latch onto is Tarantino’s incredible cinematic literacy through his vast use of allusions to his favourite films in his work that make up his arguable mastery of pastiche. Pastiche, in short, is the combination of various aesthetic elements usually with the intent of imitation and crucially, it is never mocking. In the context of postmodernity(1) pastiche serves to denaturalise some of the most features in our lives as it takes things that we experience as ‘natural’ and exposes them to be culturally created. This way, it undermines – or at least highlights the creation of meaning and as such makes it more difficult to pinpoint the origin of it.
The whole combination of the right music with the right visual image, I think, is one of the most exciting things you can do in movies. There’s a reason why people remember it in my movies; when you do it right, it’s memorable. – Quentin Tarantino
The genesis of this concept did not originate with Tarantino, he, like many great postmodern authors/auteurs expanded on the work of others before him. I am thinking primarily of people like Stanley Kubrick (At this point ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ is almost synonymous with a space docking), Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen (2).
It is here, that we return to the idea of ‘denaturalising’. Like with “Also sprach Zarathustra” (2001), “Singing in the Rain” (A Clockwork Orange), “Sunshine of your Love” (Goodfellas) and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (Mean Streets) in Kubrick and Scorsese’s work respectively. The pieces of music are not only key textual elements, their meaning is distorted by their iconic appearance in film. Kubrick and Scorsese are a part of so called “New Hollywood” and musical – and narrative – experimentation is one of their areas of cinematic expansion. If Kubrick and Scorsese are part of “New Hollywood” then Tarantino is part of “New New Hollywood”.
Through a sort of Bakhtinian use of heteroglossia, by which I mean the inclusion of different artists and allusions to other films creates a multiplicity of voices and in so doing his film blurs the line between film, song and dialogue. Whenever songs are played in a Tarantino movie (I will mainly be using examples from Pulp Fiction later) they are presented are foreground as opposed to background. In a sense, they do not so much enhance the text, in a way they are the text. I would argue that you cannot hold a meaningful discussion about the themes of Pulp Fiction (or any Tarantino film for that matter) without engaging with its use of music. And that this is unique to Tarantino as opposed to the aforementioned directors.
A terrific example of this ‘denaturalising’ is in the most iconic scene from 1992’s Reservoir Dogs. In the “Stuck in the Middle with You/Ear mutilation” scene, the juxtaposition of the good times associated with the Stealers Wheel’s song and the impending bad times that are about to occur on screen work perfectly. There’s also an element of complicity given to the audience, before the ear is removed we are happily tapping our foot to the catchy song and in a flash, the guy has lost an ear. And we didn’t do anything about it. It’s not a hard science, when it works it works. This scene is cinema at its finest because only a great filmmaker can catch a laugh in one’s throat so effectively, as Quentin plainly says: “it’s memorable”. Additionally, this scene is reworked by Tarantino in Inglorious Basterds with the introduction of “The Bear Jew”: The captured enemey, the cocky protagonist, the extreme violence. It’s all there but in a different context. Tarantino is, of sorts, a curator of culture in his films but by the same token, he is also a creator of culture. It is this line, that when tread by Tarantino, where I believe that he is at his most potent and effective. (3)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
I love you, Pumpkin.
I love you, Honey Bunny.
(yelling to all)
Everybody be cool this is a robbery!
Any of you fuckin’ pricks move and
I’ll execute every one of you
motherfuckers! Got that?
Now, onto Pulp Fiction.
Tarantino’s use of music is undoubtedly cool and his films usually follow suite. None more so than Pulp Fiction. It’s effortless, yet also relentless in its coolness and inexorably, it drags you in. A lot of this stems from the dialogue and the music, and how the music links and punctuates scenes and dialogue. Right from the off we are introduced to two unnamed characters talking at a diner. It becomes clear that they are criminals and they discuss the most effective places and methods to rob establishments. The young man (Tim Roth) comes up with the idea of robbing this here diner and getting the money from the wallets. This has become typical of Tarantino, a sort of observational dialogue of things just under the surface that we may never of thought of. The coming together of two little ideas to create a cohesive one. For example, Stuck in the Middle with You and chopping someone’s ear off. Or what they call a quarter pounder with cheese in France.
Also note the use sentence “Everybody be cool this is a robbery!” which, again, is such a Tarantino-esque phrase to use. Again, the juxtaposition of being cool in an uncool situationThis is also occurs at the end of the film (in the same setting) where Jules says “So, we cool Yolanda? We ain’t gonna do anything stupid, are we?”. This specific use of the word “cool” seemingly book ends the whole film, it’s almost literally wrapped up in its own ‘coolness’.
However, before we can really make sense of where we are and who these characters in this opening scene are we are hit (and I use that word deliberately) by the audacious title sequence. ‘Misirlou’ is now instantly recognisable as “The Pulp Fiction Theme”. It’s loud, up tempo and seems completely out of place, but somehow it isn’t. What most people forget however is that this isn’t the only song in the opening title sequence. We hear the sound of a record scratch and suddenly we are stuck in the middle of ‘Jungle Boogie’. It sounds as if Tarantino is literally changing the record on the film which really distorts the separation between diegetic and non-diegetic use of music.
Another example diegesis/non-diegesis is when the song “Flowers on the Wall” is played when Butch, thinking he has finally escaped the clutches of Marsellus Wallace and promptly celebrating by listening to the song. After his surreal ordeal we are firmly on Butch’s side and are thus partly celebrating with him. This is not too dissimilar to the aforementioned Ear scene in Reservoir Dogs, this is one of the ways that popular music is so affected as opposed to music composed for the film. The latter is made with the intention to compliment a scene, whereas the former is an entity in itself. While Butch is at the apex of his celebrations he unexpectedly runs into Wallace, and yet the music plays on. Tarantino gives us and his characters little time rest after the “Gimp incident” and it’s mainly through his use of music that achieves this effect.
Clearly, it’s difficult to accurately pinpoint why popular songs work or don’t work in films, as I said it either works or it doesn’t. It’s certainly not as clear cut as the thematic relevance of a song, the meaning of the song, the context in which it was produced (and so on) and how they relate to what’s happening on screen. Tarantino himself – not that we should trust him – admits that sometimes he plays it by ear and often relies on blind luck to decide on songs. Speaking about distrust of the author, we cannot fail to mention Roland Barthes’ seminal essay ‘The Death of Author’. Tarantino, I think, defies this theory as his existence and role as the author/auteur is important for understanding the relationship between the film, its score and the audience. Though this is for another time.
Before I end, I’d just like to have a few honourable mentions in Pulp Fiction that I won’t go into that I absolutely love (it is my fourth favourite film after all). First, the “Jack Rabbit Slims” dance scene with Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” providing the dance soundtrack. That scene is basically pastiche heaven and there’s a lot of comical subtext involving Travolta participating in a dance scene. Second, the use of “Bullwinkle Part II” by The Centurians when Vincent Vega is driving his car (with the roof down) through a neon city while out of his tiny mind on drugs. It’s a ridiculously and unfairly cool scene.
Top 6 Tarantino Musical Moments – Yes, 6.
Admittedly, a large portions of this piece is paraphrasing this wonderful essay called “Inglorious Intertextuality”. Go read it if you are interested in this topic as it is far more in depth than this.
(1) I spoke a little more about Postmodernism in the context of Synechdoche, New York here.
(2) Tarantino also cites Sergio Leone, director of spaghetti westerns, as using this technique. But I think I’m within my rights to say that nobody has done this to the scale that Tarantino has.
(3) This is a slight dig at Kill Bill which, for me at least are Tarantino is worshiping himself (and his film knowledge) a little too much and the film lacks any real substance.