Quentin Tarantino: Rip-Off Artist or Rip-Off Victim?!

VOICE OVER: Eric Cohen
Written by Dan Paradis

Quentin Tarantino is hailed as one of the greatest directors and filmmakers of our generation, but keen cinephiles and movie lovers will notice that his work often borrows heavily from other films. WatchMojo presents Quentin Tarantino: Rip-Off Artist or Rip-Off Victim?! So has Tarantino made a career out of stealing from other filmmakers, or is he a game-changer who has inspired far more than he's stolen? Watch to find out.

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Quentin Tarantino is one of the most successful, and as such, most scrutinized directors of our time. But those with a healthy dose of film knowledge tend to notice quite a lot of similarities between his films and other classics of the medium.

This raises a troubling question: is Quentin Tarantino a rip off artist?

Before we answer that - be sure to check out our Magazine of the Top 100 Movie Moments of the 90s!

Well, if you were to ask the man himself about his generous borrowing of shots & moments from classic films, he’d say something like what he said to Empire Magazine:

“I steal from every single movie ever made. If my work has anything, it’s that I’m taking this from this and that from that and mixing them together.”

That was a short investigation eh? Case closed.

Well, maybe not. Tarantino is clearly a movie buff, so it’s safe to say he’s extremely familiar with the concept of ”homage” – and that, you could argue, is what he’s doing when he shows you something like this [The Warriors] which looks a heck of a lot, like this [Pulp Fiction]

So what is an homage – and what separates the concept from a straight up rip off? Well, “Homage” is simply a fancy French way of saying for homage (e.p.). Homage (e.p.), as you may know is an “expression of high regard” or “something that shows respect or attests to the worth or influence of another; a tribute.” This definition really gets at what a filmmaking homage is all about: a tribute to another piece of work; a clever nod to something the filmmaker wishes to reference, pay respect to or just use in a new way.

As you may be thinking right now, homage is often a subjective term which is open to interpretation. At first glance, claiming something is homage seems like a nice way to excuse the fact that you stole something. If you take the whole plot of a movie from another one - as Tarantino was accused of doing with Reservoir dogs - can what you’ve created be considered an homage? Well, the key here is intent & context.

Think about when you’re quoting your favorite movies with your buddies. One would hope that your intent is not to pass off these quotes as something that you made up. Rather, you WANT your friends to know you’re quoting Star Wars – you want to demonstrate your knowledge of the work and share in the mutual respect and enjoyment of the classic film.

We’d argue that this is what Tarantino is doing. He IS re-using something he likes - sure - but he’s also giving film buffs that are in-the-know a little treat, kinda like he’s quoting his favorite movies in visual form. And he’s not trying to hide it.

Plagiarism - or a ripoff - is going for the exact opposite effect – it’s trying to take something and pass it off as original, or trying to capitalize off of the popularity of an original work by producing something similar. Plagiarism is done in the hopes that you won’t notice, know about or acknowledge the work it is stealing from. Homage is done in the hopes that you will.

For a great, non-Tarantino example of an homage, we have to go all the way back to turn of the century Russia & prohibition era United States. Well, not really… just movies about those time periods.

Here’s a scene from Battleship Potemkin - often regarded as one of the most important movies of all time. If you’re a fan of gangster movies, that baby carriage bouncing down steps probably reminds you of the heart-stopping climax from The Untouchables. I think it’s safe to say that director Brian De Palma wasn’t attempting to steal imagery from the greatest movie of all time and just hope that nobody would notice. It’s much more likely that he WANTS you to notice – to acknowledge the reference and share in the “homage” (e.p.) he’s paying to the Russian silent era classic.

By the way - you gangster movie fans probably recognize that the unfortunate lady in the glasses looks a lot like this poor sap getting a massage in the Godfather. (Shot in the eye scene from The GodFather)

If we wanted to discuss the other end of the spectrum – things that leave the realm of homage and enter the darker territory of copy-cats, knock offs & rip offs – instances of other people using Tarantino’s work is ironically a great place to start.

Film critics often bemoan the huge swath of me-too movies that followed the soaring success of Pulp Fiction – whether it be for their disjointed plot [Go], wordy, expletive laden monologues ["Suicide Kings" (1997)] or casual, brutal violence [Boondock Saints]. This illustrates another important point about what makes a good homage: it really doesn’t work if the thing you’re paying homage (e.p.) to is currently the “big thing in town”. You pay homage (e.p.) to the classics – you rip off the flavor of the week. Remember how many trenchcoats, pleather outfits and bullet dodging acrobatic ladies we got in the few years following the Matrix? Ugh.

With all of this in mind, it’s relatively safe assume that when you go see Django Unchained, Tarantino isn’t hoping that you don’t remember the title sequences from Gone With The Wind. Nope, I’d say that he wants to geek out with the audience and see what they notice; trying to show you just how many movies he’s seen and the things he loved about them.

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