The accusations fly against writer / director Quentin Tarantino of not only making films about films, but also - the more serious charge - of “stealing” from other people's work. That there are obvious borrowings in his works is beyond doubt. One needs to only watch the opening scene from the Inglorious Basterds and be reminded of Spaghetti westerns à la Sergio Leone, while the beginning of Jackie Brown offers the same profile shots as Mike Nichols' influential movie The Graduate, albeit set to different music. So the question remains whether Tarantino is paying homage to cinema or is merely a copy-cat and what - if any - are his contributions to film.
Imitative Pastiche vs Creative Decoupage
Aaron Barlow in his book “Quentin Tarantino: Life at the Extremes” claims that there are mainly two different types of references to other films, pastiche and decoupage. Pastiche freely imitates another work of art; in its depiction it may be bordering on satire, sometime even lacking in the humor department. In fact, pastiche can also be interpreted as a lack of imagination, a failure to come up with new ideas, and hence choosing what another person has done out of laziness or merely because it looks “cool” with no other purpose at hand.
However, decoupage involves more skill, hindsight and purpose. It is a way of organically and creatively incorporating and weaving another person's work and even saying and creating something new through the whole filtering process. Many artists and critics tend to complain that everything has been said and done, yet in decoupage the old is made anew through careful and skillful positioning of particular scenes of reference; these scenes then benefit and add to the work as a whole.
Tarantino falls into this latter category since his references to cinema are not senseless or superficial; they build a body within his own work and are embedded into the history of cinema itself, in the similar way, French director Jean-Luc Godard approaches and deals with the medium of film.
Tarantino's Jackie Brown versus Mike Nichols' The Graduate
To give an example, the opening sequence of Jackie Brown serves more than lip service to the film The Graduate. The former film is, as Barlow shows us, embedded within plot and character of the work. In fact, the film's protagonist Jackie (Pam Grier) is namely the female equivalent of Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) and her relationship to the older bailiff Cherry (Robert Forster) mirrors Benjamin’s fling with Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft).
There are other parallels between the two movies, which demonstrate that Tarantino is using the cinematic references with a consistent reason in mind, while at the same time, adding comment about changes and differences in gender roles across time. Remark that in The Graduate it is an older woman seducing a younger man, while in Jackie Brown, we are dealing with a reversal and the (possibility of a) relationship between an attractive middle-aged woman and an older man.
What is also remarkable here is that Tarantino takes an Elmore Leonard novel and adapts it to his personal needs and vision. For one, he changes the title's name from “Rum Punch” to Jackie Brown referring to the main protagonist the same way the title of The Graduate refers to Benjamin's character in the movie.
In fact, the character's last name of the book is changed from Burke to Brown as a direct reference to the character of Foxy Brown, previously played by Pam Grier in previous blaxploitation films. In addition, Tarantino manages to revive Grier's career and to change the setting and zeitgeist of the 60s - embodied by Simon and Garfunkel - by updating the movie for the more modern era with its song Across 110th Street.
Finally, Tarantino is also commenting about film itself. That is, his movies put the history of film into perspective by looking at it retrospectively. In particular, there are also hints of the classic The Maltese Falcon palpable here in the final scene of Jackie Brown, yet again with a role reversal, namely Jackie being the Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) character.
The New Female Hero in Kill Bill and Jackie Brown
In a similar vein, the movie Kill Bill references various movies as well. Yet while doing so, it is not only paying homage to the works of cinema in the past, it is also modernizing them. Kill Bill, like any other Tarantino film so far, starts off within a genre only to break genre conventions in an original manner, and it equally makes statements about gender portrayed in film.
Both female characters, Jackie Brown and Beatrix Kiddo are a decoupage of various elements of previous female heroes resulting in a strong modern woman that defies gender and even age limitations. They fall into the redefinition of woman and female prowess in the age of women's rights and equality on the big screen and, by extension, in real life.
As such, Tarantino is not a copy-cat; he is an original voice who is in love with the art of film-making and who honors and appreciates film-makers of the past. In addition, his own body of work is a refreshing and significant index in the world of cinema.
Barlow, Aaron. Quentin Tarantino: Life at the Extremes. Oxford: Praeger, 2010. Print.