Sonic Style and Audio-visual Balance in Quentin Tarantino Movies

Quentin Tarantino is not a musician; he is a melo­mane of a filmmaker (Coulthard, 2012). He “would much rather work with a music director than a music composer” and he usually takes time to explore existing records and songs from several sources and painstakingly injects songs and soundtracks into scenes instead of hiring a music composer to do the work, though he gets certain songs and music pieces composed for specific parts in some of his movies. Music in every single film of Taranti­no is a hotchpotch of pieces painstakingly selected from myriad sources, and none of his films has a sound person deciding the whole of its sonic fate. “I just don’t like the idea of giving that much power to anybody on one of my movies,” Tarantino said in an interview (Milian, 2009). And importantly, he writes the dialogues of his films himself, basically designing their voice and speech-sound landscapes.

Given the fact that Tarantino is filmmaker, not a musician, this idiosyncratic way film-sound prac­tice summarized above poses a couple of important theoretical problems. One is: how does the collec­tion of original and pre-existing scores and songs in each of his films constitute a self-conscious style if each collection does not result in a random cacoph­ony? The question can be appreciated more if we keep in mind the fact that the pre-existing pieces were composed with no other purpose in the com­posers’ mind than what they had during their com­position, and also obviously that Tarantino’s mak­ing use of them was not what the composers would ever have imagined.

The other is: if Tarantino, despite his obsession with music, is basically a filmmaker, and if he can be considered a filmmaker with melomania or in short a melomaniac filmmaker, then how can a sound-film proponent (in a wistful response to probably rather mistaken sound critics) consider the examples of sound use provided by Tarantino films as confirming the extreme claims of sound advocates maintaining in a passionate response to sound critics that sound in movies build its own world independent of the visual elements? It should be noted here that we see music from a whole new angle where “all sounds belong to a continuous field of possibilities lying within the comprehensive do­minion of music,” the sonic universe is the new orchestra and anyone and anything that sounds is a musician (Schafer, 2012).

The former question has to do with auteurism which was the dominant way of looking at films from the late 1940s through the early 1970s until the birth of a new theoretical paradigm in film studies. The latter problem stems from a rather subtle source associated with varied understandings of the concept of the cinema and what constitutes it. We will deal with the first question.

Constitution of the Sonic Signature of Tarantino
The nature of the cinema conceived of as an increasingly composite work of collaboration of skills from multiple fields far more than it used to be considered so in film studies until the ear­ly 1970s has justifiably undermined the politique des auteurs—the auteur theory, as Andrew Sarris (1967) calls it; however, the role of the director as the creative center, coordinator, manipulator, or­ganizer and processor of the multifarious creative forces involved in filmmaking remains unchanged. Without the creative focus where all creative strands going into filmmaking converge to produce the cinematic work of art, the creative strands fall apart incoherently, without establishing formal relationships among themselves required in them together constituting a form or a pattern; i.e., the movie. The role of the film director still remains as central creative designer of the film project, with the other creative contributions by each of the other creative forces having to fall into their respective slots in the overall design. The undermining of the auteur theory, thus, does not result from reduced importance of the director, but from the increased acknowledgment of the other creative forces and their sine qua non contributions, which reconfig­ures the understanding of the relationship that obtains between the director and the other talents on the one hand and among the other talents on the other, calling for the re-examining the in/appropriateness of the director solely being credited with authorship of the film.

The criticism leveled at the term auteur for unduly piling up all credits on the director is reasonable considering the collaborative nature of the medium summarized above; however, while the term may be inappropriate, at least politically, the director’s cre­ative role is such that he takes each of the creative strands, adjusts and fits them in an idiosyncratic artistic style of his own into their respective slots in the overall design of the film and thus this roles gives an overall signature to the film and where the director has made more than one film, this signa­ture transcends individuals films and spans across his oeuvre. None of the other creative talents rise to this level, to the level where one has to handle more than one’s own strand to make at least a min­imal multiplicity. There is often an artistic continu­ity in the work of the other creative talents running through all the films they work in, but this continui­ty is too much ruptured and inflected by the various director’s individual creative strokes towards their own designs for it to form a significantly identifi­able pattern conceivable as constituting a stylistic body of a single person’s work.

Style or mode is inextricably associated with the act of doing, and everybody has a characteristic style of doing the same thing in the same way. As the filmmaker is the agent that mixes, coordinates and manipulates multiple creative threads and molds them together into a whole body and textures it as the finished film, it is how he executes these that leaves the impression as style on the film. This overall style, to this magnitude, that runs through the filmmaker’s oeuvre is something unachievable by none of the creative talents.


Figure 1: Shoshanna’s theater wall window looking like an eye


Figure 2: Shoshanna putting eye-liner on her eyes

What we have so far discussed is about the whole body of a film and the oeuvre of a filmmaker. A problem arises when one single thread of contri­bution that repeats in the body of the film (such as sound, dialogue, production design, costume, light, etc.) is studied along the auteurist lines in associ­ation with the director when he has not made that contribution. How does the director have a claim of stylistic authorship or ownership over such an element, say music, when he has not composed it? That the same argument provided above holds good here as well will be clear when the production of these contributions and how they find their place in a particular movie are looked at in an evolutionary or historical fashion. This paper will discuss sound and this is especially true in the case of Quentin Tarantino movies in which sound is a multiplicity of myriad singularities taking part in the formation of a grand texture and pattern.

The soundscape in Tarantino’s films is a multiplic­ity, or in other words, a composite—he, as noted above, painstakingly selects pieces of music, songs and other sounds from a wide range of sources from existing records to samples of especially de­signed or custom-made pieces to on-location re­cordings. Selection is never random but is guided by a principle or grand design—it involves inclu­sion and exclusion. If the whole universe of sounds is an orchestra of multitude of tracks, then the se­lection of specific tracks and customizing them to fit to a specific set of artistic grids takes a predeter­mined design on the part of the filmmaker. No two filmmakers, like any two individuals, would make equal selections and equal adaptations of the selec­tions in their films. Tarantino has his own plan for his films and he does the selection and the adapta­tion in his own artistic idiosyncratic ways. We can listen to the songs in Tarantino movies in all the three ways of listening—casual, semantic, and re­duced (Chion, 2012)—but the latter two make are more appropriate in Tarantino’s scheme of things in the movies. For example, the semantics (i.e., lyrics) of the David Bowie song ‘Putting Out Fire’ in Inglorious Basterds (Tarantino Q. , Inglorious Basterds, 2009) adds fire to the part (Chapter Five) of the movie by providing an epic accompaniment to Shoshanna’s fiery preparation for the retaliatory plan to burn all the Nazi leaders including Hitler locked inside her cinema theater.

See these eyes so green
I can stare for a thousand years
Colder than the moon
Well it’s been so long …

… I’ve been putting out the fire with gasoline
See these eyes so red
Red like jungle burning bright
Those who feel me near

I’ve been putting out the fire with gasoline
Putting out the fire
With gasoline

The lyrics weaves well with the visual elements to texture that part of the film appropriately—the window Shoshanna stands pensively at looks like an eye and the camera gets close to her own green eyes more than a couple of time when she draws an eye-liner around them. The dominant color shades in the scene are of red.


Figure 3: Basic spectogram of David Browie’s ‘Putting out Fire’. Comparing the thickness of this spectogram with that in Fig. 4 would be of great interest and revelation. This one is a slow bass-heavy song, while the one in Fig. 4 is light-stepped, quick-tempo one.

In a reduced mode of listening, the song’s quick tempo and its pitch and frequency of the sound waves have psychologically an angry and impatient effect on the listener.

The use of Bowie’s ‘Putting Out Fire’ (the theme song to the 1982 horror film Cat People) is interesting in another sense as well—Tarantino has no qualms about ditching period-specific music in fa­vor of a contemporary tune that perfectly fits the mood of the scene. How Paul Schrader (Cat Peo­ple, 1982) and Quentin Tarantino adapt the same song to their own requirements show how different filmmakers may use the same sound material to shape their films’ soundscape in their own distinct and characteristic ways.

Each of Tarantino films abounds with such use of song and music. One among many examples in Kill Bill (Vol 1) (2003) is the opening scene—the Bride (Uma Thurman) lies on the floor, broken tooth and bloody of the face and staring up at her assailant. We hear the sound of a gun being pulled and see from the Bride’s face what is coming. The gunshot goes “bang” and blood splashes on the floor and Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Bang Bang’ (1966) lament begins to unfurl slowly:

I was five and he was six
We rode on horses made of sticks
He wore black and I wore white
He would always win the fight
Bang bang, he shot me down
Bang bang, I hit the ground
Bang bang, that awful sound
Bang bang, my baby shot me down
Seasons came and changed the time
When I grew up, I called him mine
He would always laugh and say
“Remember when we used to play?”
Bang bang, I shot you down
Bang bang, you hit the ground
Bang bang, that awful sound
Bang bang, I used to shoot you down
Music played and people sang
Just for me the church bells rang

Again the song works at both the semantic and the reduced level weaving closely with the visual and overall narrative of the film to shape and texture the body of the film. The same is true for ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ from Stealers Wheel (1973) in Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino Q., 1992): Well, I don’t know why I came here tonight

I got the feeling that something ain’t right
I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair,
And I’m wondering how I’ll get down those stairs
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you
Yes, I’m stuck in the middle with you,
And I’m wondering what it is I should do
It’s so hard to keep this smile from my face,
Losing control, and I’m all over the place
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you
Well, you started off with nothing,
And you’re proud that you’re a self-made man
And your friends they all come crawling,
Slap you on the back and say,
Please, please.
Trying to make some sense of it all,
But I can see it makes no sense at all
Is it cool to go to sleep on the floor?
‘Cause I don’t think that I can take anymore
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you
And you started off with nothing,
And you’re proud that you’re a self-made man
And your friends they all come crawling,
Slap you on the back and say,
Please, please.
Yeah, I don’t know why I came here tonight
I got the feeling that something ain’t right
I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair,
And I’m wondering how I’ll get down those stairs
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you
Yes, I’m stuck in the middle with you
Stuck in the middle with you
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.


Figure 4: Basic spectogram of the beginning of Stuck in the Middle with You. The the spikes, frequency and volume of the dark area running horizontally across the spectogram differ spectacularly from those of Putting out Fire in Fig. 3.

The lyric goes well with what happens in this tor­ture scene quite in a sarcastic way which accen­tuates the sarcastic nature of Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen). Mr. Blonde has a police officer tied to a chair in a warehouse. There is another secret po­lice officer in the guise of a criminal lying on one side injured badly from multiple gunshots in a fir­ing earlier that day. Mr. Blonde tapes the former police officer’s mouth, turns on the radio and plays this song and he dances before he all of a sudden jumps to him and goes to town on the poor cop’s ear with a razor blade. The film text would never be the same for the worse without this song and Mr. Blonde dancing to it.

As is clearly evident from the above examples, songs and the very minimal sound tracks used in Tarantino films are not extraneous to the tissue of the film’s body. In Tarantino’s hand they become so integral to the film’s tissue that even the existing recordings attain an aura about themselves after their being used in Tarantino films as if they were composed especially for these films. Nobody who has watched Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill (Vol 1) would ever listen to ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ and ‘Bang Bang’, for example, without remembering the scenes in these movies.

What I have so far argued is summarily that while Tarantino is not a musician, he selects his music recording from a wide range of sources, including some and excluding the others, and builds a hotch­pot of soundscape specific to each film. Though the songs in each single film are composed not by one single composer, the selection is done so pains­takingly, meticulously and fastidiously that these songs fall right into their places in the continuum of the diegetic world of the each film’s soundscape. This mode of soundscape molding transcends in­dividual films of Tarantino, and there is a stylistic characteristic born of this mode that runs through all of his films, and that is Tarantino’s sonic style.

Theoretical Audio-visual Divide and Taranti­no’s Unitary Practice
Almost to the extreme opposite of the extreme positions that critics of sound, misled by the infamous four and a half fallacies (Altman, 2012) took at the beginning of what we retrospectively and with a consciousness of film history call talkies, many proponents of sound, perhaps cornered unwittingly by the arguments of the former camp, have taken positions arguing that sound has a meaningful presence in the cinema independent of the image. Talkies have been down in history for almost a century now, and considering the fact that sound-image has been together for so long that it would be no more normal (except in certain exceptional and purposeful conditions stated one way or the other) in our cultural circumstances for films to be devoid of sound, it seems reasonable to believe that the debate over sound in movies should already have ceased by now. Unfortunately, however, though the debate is no more there in practice (at this tech­no-cultural moment of ours, what can be considered cinema is no more made with the absolute exclusion of either sound or image, if we consider as cinema a whole body of work projected as a black screen at the speed of a specific fps), there seems to be no let-up in theoretical literature. Given the ninety-year old practical reality, the arguments of sound detractors feel more like an over-stretched sense of nostalgia while the responses from the proponents of sound seem rather a repetitive reply to the dead sound critics of back then given rather wistfully and passionately because the detractors’ sharp criticism about the time of the introduction of sound in movies could not be answered satisfactorily contemporaneously.

Tarantino gives as much attention to visual elements as to sonic elements, but very importantly often not simultaneously–there are times when there does not seem to be so much for visual experience that you can shut your eyes and experience almost the whole of what is there in that part of the scene, and there are times when there does not seem to be much so much for aural experience that you can just turn off the volume or cover your ears and experience almost the whole of what is there in that part of the scene. Given this fact, the theoretical arguments of both the advocates and the critics of sound in film seem to be lopsided, each camp holding too extreme positions to be true in the light of the body of practical works incontrovertibly recognized as movies.

The cinema is unmistakably a composite art form phenomenologically reaching the audience in the form of the bundles of audio and visual data during an experience span from ti to tii. This span is crit­ical because the cinema exists temporally spread across the careen and in its unfoldment on the axis of time, from ti to tii, each of the myriad elements constituting along with the other elements the ex­perience of the cinema has its time of presence at one specific point p beyond which it is absent giv­ing way to the presence of other elements. The cin­ematic experience is not each one of these points, but the play of presences through the unfoldment of elements across the span of experience. The cin­ematic experience, thus, is a gestalt experience— this experience is constituted by a unity of multiple phenomenological elements conceived as function­ally more than the sum of these disparate (though related) elements.

It follows from the above argument that during the experience span (in other words, run time) of the cinema, there can be moments when sound and vi­sual elements are isolated from each other. Many filmmakers use this to heighten the emotional im­pact of specific film moments. The beginnings of both Kill Bill installments are only the sound of the Bride breathing in pain without any correspond­ing visuals. Vol 1 has the major and a very short opening credit roll, while Vol 2 (2004) has only the major and the rest is complete darkness, lasting almost for a minute. Known mainly for rapid-fire dialogue exchanges, operatic profanity, extra-loud operatic gun-fights and ceaseless pop culture refer­ences, Tarantino movies have precisely timed bouts of complete silence (Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997), and Inglorious Basterds (2009)), where one can just turn off the volume and experi­ence those parts of the scenes. However, the expe­rience span cannot be completely devoid of either sound or image without damaging the concept of the form a hypothetical work thus produced claims to belong. Practically, however, there is no cine­matic work devoid of sound or image completely, meaning that the films practices we know so fare, including the so-called silent films, are guided by unitary principles quite contrary to the sound-im­age divide we see in theoretical debates.

It thus follows that sound and image have an in­separably symbiotic relationship in the cinema and neither is subordinate to the other. That said, we have to agree that sound and image relationship in a film is not fixed but dynamic—the relationship remains in a flux and the requirements of the film’s emotional progress keep circumstantially reconfig­uring the relationship. In other words, a film does not give flatly equal treatment to both sound and image every single moment of its runtime—one would be dominant at one point and the other at another time and at other times they would have equal presence.

This property of the cinematic medium allows Tarantino a lot of freedom to shape his visuals and sound in the ways unique to himself. Known for graphically stylistic violence on the one hand and rapid-fire dialogue exchanges on the other, Taran­tino movies have parts where nothing visually worthwhile happens, and where nothing sonically worthwhile happens. When there is nothing visu­ally worthwhile, there would be superbly beautiful sonic events happening. These sonic events, espe­cially dialogues, may not enhance the events (they often are meaningless), but they are worthy in their own right. Short and crisp, rhyming and repetitive dialogue lines delivered with well-timed paus­es and nuances that “tend toward the aphoristic,” (Coulthard, 2012) they are pure verbal esthetics, a kind of conversational poetry. Examples include:

Move a little strange, you’re gonna get a bullet. Not a warning. Not a question. A bullet. (The Hateful Eight, 2015)

It’s better than safe. It’s death proof. (Death Proof, 2007)

To my brother Budd, the only man I ever loved. (Kill Bill (Vol 1), 2003)

Once we’re in the enemy territory, we’re gonna be doing one thing and one thing only—killin’ Nazis! (Inglorious Basterds, 2009)

We ain’t in the prisoner-takin’ business, we in the Nazi-killing business. And business is boomin’! (Inglorious Basterds, 2009)

Zed’s dead, baby, Zed’s dead. (Pulp Fiction, 1994)

Whatever with your whatever. (Death Proof, 2007)

That’s what Winston does—he finds people. He don’t want to be found. (Jackie Brown, 1997)

Alright ramblers, let’s get rambling. (Reservoir Dogs, 1992)

Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. Now you have my attention. (Django Unchained, 2012)

Your name is Buck, and you came here to fuck. (Kill Bill (Vol 1), 2003)

It don’t matter if you can see. It only matter if the horse can see. (Django Unchained, 2012)

If you shoot me in your dream, you better wake up and apologize. (Reservoir Dogs, 1992)

I’m serious as a heart attack. (Jackie Brown, 1997)

Every man owes me one hundred Nazi scalps. And I want my scalps. (Inglorious Basterds, 2009)

Coulthard observes these phrases that operate as musematic riffs—memorable, catchy, and best described as single-level structures designed for immediate cognition—also work in conjunction with longer phrases that are equally characterized by echoing, rhyming, repetition, and the use of regular metrical rhythms, usually iambic or anapestic (Coulthard, 2012). We can consider the Bride’s speech in Kill Bill (Vol 2):

Before that strip turned blue, I was a woman. I was your woman. I was a killer who killed for you. Before that strip turned blue, I would have jumped a motorcycle onto a speeding train… for you. But once that strip turned blue, I could no longer do any of those things. Not anymore.

Or this one from Inglourious Basterds:

And the Germans will be sickened by us. And the Germans will talk about us. And the Ger­mans will fear us. And when the Germans close their eyes at night and their subconscious tor­tures them for the evil they’ve done, it will be thoughts of us that it tortures them with.

The names of Tarantino’s characters are also son­ically interesting and their sounds are important for characterization as the name themselves, as the famous naming scene in Reservoir Dogs indicates. They are usually single-syllable and consonant-heavy (e.g., Budd, Bill, Joe), homophones (B.B., Elle, Jules), catchy descriptors (Nice Guy Eddie, the Bear Jew, Sex Machine), or alliterative and/or rhyming two-word phrases (Marsellus Wal­lace, Jungle Julia, Huney Bunny, Hattori Hanzo, Vincent Vega, Winston Wolf). Besides the catchy names, the titles of Tarantino’s films are short and memorable phrases—Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fic­tion, Kill Bill, Django Unchained, Death Proof, Inglorious Basterds, The Hateful Eight, among others.

We can conclude the paper with Coulthard’s obser­vation of Tarantino’s overall directorial sonic style. In Tarantino’s films

sound effects and noise work in conjunction with dialogue and music to create multivalent soundscapes that make it difficult to determine whether any sound can be classified only as an effect or a musical cue. These crossovers make connections between sonic elements and indicate the extent to which the soundtrack as a whole (rather than just music cues alone) takes on an identifiable character and style, a style that in Tarantino is most easily described as one of repetition and rhythm. Stressing rhythmically regular, repetitive, and percus­sive popular music, Tarantino’s sonic style also emphasizes the equally rhythmic qualities of vocal and sound effects: rock and pop beats in­teract with rapid-fire dialogue and the noise of car engines, sword hits, punches, or gun shots. Put simply, Tarantino’s films create an acoustic universe dominated by precise rhythms, tones, and textures that reverberate across the sound­scapes. Words and music echo and rhyme in Tarantino’s films their repetitions reflected in the reiterations of homage and referential borrowing that constitute his visual and audio style (Coulthard, 2012, pp. 166).

Works Cited

Altman, R. (2012). Four and a Half Film Fallacies. In J. Sterne (Ed.), The Sound Studies Reader (pp. 225-233). Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Fries, C. (Producer), Bodeen, D., Ormsby, A. (Writers), & Schrader, P. (Director). (1982). Cat People [Motion Picture]. USA: Universal Pictures.

Chion, M. (2012). The Three Listening Modes. In J. Sterne (Ed.), The Sound Studies Reader (pp. 48-53). Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Coulthard, L. (2012). The Attractions of Repeti­tion: Tarantino’s Sonic Style. In J. Wierzbicki (Ed.), Music, Sound and Filmmakers: Sonic Style in Cinema (pp. 165-174). New York, USA: Routledge.

Milian, M. (2009, August 22). Quentin Taranti­no’s method behind ‘Inglourious Basterds’ soundtrack mix-tape. Retrieved December 9, 2016, from Los Angeles Times: http://la­ inglourious-basterds-quentin-tarantino.html

Sarris, A. (1967). Interviews with Film Directors. New York, USA: Avon Books.

Schafer, R. M. (2012). The Sounscape. In J. Sterne (Ed.), The Sound Studies Reader (pp. 95- 103). Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Bender, L. (Producer), & Tarantino, Q. (Director). (1992). Reservoir Dogs [Motion Picture]. USA: Miramax Films.

Bender, L. (Producer), & Tarantino, Q. (Director). (1994). Pulp Fiction [Motion Picture]. USA: Miramax Films.

Bender, L. (Producer), & Tarantino, Q. (Director). (1997). Jackie Brown [Motion Picture]. USA: Miramax Films.

Bender, L. (Producer), Tarantino, Q. (Writer), & Tarantino, Q. (Director). (2003). Kill Bill (Vol 1) [Motion Picture]. USA: Miramax Films.

Bender, L. (Producer), Tarantino, Q. (Writer), & Tarantino, Q. (Director). (2004). Kill Bill (Vol 2) [Motion Picture]. A Band Apart: Miramax Films.

Quentin Tarantino, R. R. (Producer), Tarantino, Q. (Writer), & Tarantino, Q. (Director). (2007). Death Proof [Motion Picture]. USA: Dimen­sion Films.

Bender, L. (Producer), Tarantino, Q. (Writer), & Tarantino, Q. (Director). (2009). Inglorious Basterds [Motion Picture]. USA, Germany: The Weinstein Company, Universal Pictures.

Stacey Sher, R. H. (Producer), & Tarantino, Q. (Director). (2012). Django Unchained [Mo­tion Picture]. USA: The Weinstein Company, Sony Pictures Releasing.

Richard N. Gladstein, S. S. (Producer), Taranti­no, Q. (Writer), & Tarantino, Q. (Director). (2015). The Hateful Eight [Motion Picture]. USA: The Weinstein Company.


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