Review: If You Like Quentin Tarantino… by Katherine Rife

The new If You Like… series of books from Limelight Editions focus on items that fans of a particular director or musician might find appealing. For example, If You Like The Terminator… called our attention to a number of classic science fiction books, movies, and TV shows. The same holds true for subjects as varied as Monty Python, Metallica, and The Beatles. The full title of the latest entry is If You Like Quentin Tarantino…Here are Over 200 Films, TV Shows, and Other Oddities that You Will Love by Katherine Rife. For Tarantino fans, it is a handy compendium of many of the obscure films he has championed over the years.

First of all, I quite enjoyed this book. But in a way, it is one he basically wrote himself. If there is one thing that people get a little tired of about Quentin Tarantino it is the fact that the guy never shuts up. He talks up forgotten movies incessantly, but you have to give him credit for putting his money where his mouth is. Not only is he a fan of what has come to known as “grindhouse” fare, but he constantly references them in his own work. So in some respects, he has made the work of picking out the movies and other items included here fairly simple for the author.

This is not to take away from Rife’s achievement though, for the book is much more than a simple list of “Tarantino-esque” items. It is also highly informative, and she does mention a number of things that I had not previously associated with his particular “vibe“ (for lack of a better word), but make sense when you think about them.

The format of the book is elegant in its simplicity. She devotes each of the eight chapters to a Tarantino film, beginning with Reservoir Dogs (1992), and concluding with the upcoming Django Unchained. What I actually enjoyed even more than the various “likes” she lists in regards to Reservoir Dogs, is the story of how it came to be green-lit by the studio. It was really a dream come true scenario, and something that almost never happens in Hollywood.

Tarantino had written the script, and gave it to producer Lawrence Bender. When Bender gave it to Harvey Keitel, he actually read it, and loved it. Suddenly, a movie that Quentin thought he would make on a shoestring budget of $30,000 had a major star attached. With Keitel on board, Reservoir Dogs became a major studio project with a budget of $1.5 million. I suppose you could say the rest was history, because Reservoir Dogs was an instant classic. I still watch it at least once a year, it is definitely one of my favorite Tarantino movies.

The various films Rife lists that influenced Tarantino’s script for Reservoir Dogs include Mean Streets (1972), The Killing (1956), and The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974). These are not very surprising choices, but others that I have not seen, and am curious about include Le Cercle Rouge (1970), and Le Samourai (1967).

Reservoir Dogs was a great movie, but Pulp Fiction (1994) was something else again. It was more than a film, it was a phenomenon. I still can’t believe Forrest Gump (1994) won for Best Picture that year. I never tire of watching Pulp Fiction, and it made Quentin Tarantino a household name. Unfortunately, it kind of went to the auteur’s head, and his constant self-aggrandizement became pretty annoying after a while.

The direction the author takes in discussing Pulp Fiction’s forbearers is interesting. She considers it to be a modern take on film noir. This is something I never really considered before. It makes sense, and is one of the reasons I enjoy many of these If You Like… books. Citing classics of the genre such as Double Indemnity (1943), Pickup on South Street (1953), and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Rife offers a different, and welcome new perspective for me about the flick.

Next up is Jackie Brown (1997). Much like Martin Scorese’s Casino (1995), this was a film I highly anticipated. And like Casino, it was one that I was somewhat disappointed by. Successive viewings of both have modified my position a bit. Frankly, my expectations were pretty much off the chart for both. There is certainly no secret about what Jackie Brown was inspired by, the “only in the ‘70s” genre of blaxploitation. One of the great choices Tarantino made in Jackie Brown was casting the beautiful Pam Grier as the lead. Pam was the star of many of the originals, including Coffy (1973), and Foxy Brown (1974).

At this point, I might as well mention what I consider to be the major flaw of the book. Although the subtitle promises TV shows, and “other oddities,” If You Like Quentin Tarantino… is almost exclusively devoted to films. In the Jackie Brown chapter, these include such obvious choices as Shaft (1971), Superfly (1972), and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song (1971). As the author mentions, the movie by Mario Van Peebles about his father’s Sweetback film, titled Baadassss, or How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass (2003) is worth checking out as well.

The two Kill Bill films are next, and the author discusses a great many violent kung-fu movies in regards to them. One surprise was her mention of War of the Gargantuans (1968). It is a movie along the lines of the various Godzilla or Mothra pics, but done with other giant beasties. It’s a great cult flick, and this is the first place I have ever seen it mentioned.

Grindhouse (2007) was something of a box-office flop, which should not have really surprised Tarantino. But apparently it did. Rife lists such low budget classics as Hells Angels on Wheels (1967), Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974), and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) (among others) in this chapter.

The oddly spelled Inglourious Basterds (2009) came next. I always felt that it was an okay movie, but nothing particularly special. The citation of The Dirty Dozen (1967) as a precursor was something I found intriguing though. I have always loved that one, so maybe I should go back and watch Tarantino’s effort again. Rife also mentions a film that I was previously unfamiliar with, the correctly spelled Inglorious Bastards (1978), which is one I need to seek out.

Finally, we come to his upcoming Django Unchained. Since the film has not yet been released, there is obviously no discussion of it. The genre Tarantino is exploring with it is that of the spaghetti western. Sergio Leone is the king, and Rife talks about favorites such as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). These all famously starred Clint Eastwood, but it is Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), starring Henry Fonda that is the real masterpiece. Fonda plays the darkest character of his long career, and the film is considered by many to be the finest Western ever made.

But what about Django? After the original Django (1966), there were countless “sequels” made, but none of them were legitimate. Producers and directors just used the name “Django” as their lead character, and hoped for the best. See Sergio Corbucci’s Django for the real deal. It is truly dark, even sadistic at times, and unforgettable. Django walks around dragging a coffin chained to him, and what is inside will surprise even the most jaded filmgoer.

With the inclusion of a chapter about Django Unchained, If You Like Quentin Tarantino… is about as up to date as is possible. To me, the book works as a detailed account of his many genre obsessions, with plenty of recommendations for the curious. At 200 pages, it is relatively concise, and works as a handy reference tool for those so inclined.

Greg Barbrick

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