Inter-connected cinematic universes are not a new innovation, by any means. Anybody who is familiar with film franchises knows that intricate-world building skills are a vital part of creating an engaging universe. Intersecting subplots, hidden relations between various characters and other seemingly random connections contribute towards the immersive experiences that some of those films offer.
Although Quentin Tarantino is not a filmmaker one would normally associate with such extensive cinematic universes, he has been building a universe of his own with inter-connected characters and alternate historical events since his days as a struggling screenwriter.
His early masterpieces like Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994) and even his latest film Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019) appear to be singular works of brilliance at first glance but a deeper analysis reveals that they are all connected in one way or the other.
Here, we explore that world.
Registers of Reality
Tarantino, himself, confirmed in 2016 that the fan theories were true, there was indeed a separate world in which all his works existed but it is a facile reduction to leave it at that. Like many of his films, his cinematic universe is layered and consists of two separate registers of reality. He describes the first register as, “There’s the realer than real universe, alright, and all the characters inhabit that one.”
This is the primary level of the alternate historical narrative that shapes his universe. Most of his major films like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood exist on this level. It also includes Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993), a film that Tarantino and Roger Avary wrote together. This primary level serves as an alternate version of our universe.
If we chronologically arrange the respective timelines of his work, we can see that his cinematic universe begins with Django Unchained, set in the 1850s, and goes on to feature Tarantino’s own imaginative takes of major events in human history like the famous scene in Inglorious Basterds where Hitler is repeatedly shot in the face with a submachine gun. Tarantino also changes the script of history in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood where he conducts an optimistic revision of the assassination of Sharon Tate by Charles Manson’s followers. Quentin Tarantino likes to remember things his own way.
Apart from this primary level of reality, there exists a second register that lies within the first. This acts as an interface between the fictional and the meta-fictional. In the words of Tarantino himself: “…There’s this movie universe. And so From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Bill, they all take place in this special movie universe. So basically when the characters of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, when they go to the movies, Kill Bill is what they go to see. From Dusk Till Dawn is what they see.” Fans had already spotted this connection when Kill Bill was first released in 2003.
In Tarantino’s iconic film Pulp Fiction, Mia Wallace (played by Uma Thurman) tells Vincent Vega (played by John Travolta) about a pilot for a TV series she was shooting where she was playing “the deadliest woman in the world with a knife”, an apt description of The Bride in Kill Bill. Apparently, the pilot failed but the idea for the show was made into a film instead, starring Uma Thurman (or Mia Wallace). Therefore, Tarantino creates a retroactive hierarchy of realities. Characters from the secondary level are present in the first one as “fictional” entities, only existing as a part of the cinematic universe of the first register.
Interactivity in Tarantino’s Multiverse
Once we get a clear picture of how these levels of reality interact with one another, it is fairly easy to spot some of the other connections. More often than not, the characters on the primary level in a film have certain relations to characters in many of Tarantino’s other films that also exist on the same plane. For example, the character of Alabama Whitman (played by Patricia Arquette) in True Romance is referred to in Reservoir Dogs when Mr. White mentions working with a girl called Alabama. This connection is in no way a one-time thing because Alabama also happens to be a drug dealer to film producer Lee Donowitz, the son of Sergeant Donny Donowitz from Inglorious Basterds who is also known as “The Bear Jew”. It is a matter of sheer beauty that Tarantino managed to construct a running narrative that is so congruous and incorporates so many of his works.
There are several other instances in his films when such connections can be established. The surname of Vincent Vega is shared by Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs who is also called Vic Vega. Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs, whose actual name is Larry Dimmick, is apparently the brother of Jimmy Dimmick who is played by Quentin Tarantino himself, in Pulp Fiction. These are all examples of inter-connectivity on the primary level. However, when we explore the mechanisms of the secondary level, it starts to get a bit complicated.
The wife of Christoph Waltz’s character in Django Unchained is called Paula Schultz, the same name that is on the grave in which the Bride is buried in Kill Bill Vol. 2. This should not be happening as the Kill Bill series is a film franchise within the universe of the primary level but it is possible that the reference to Paula Schultz is a meta-fictional, historical reference. Tarantino masterfully blurs the lines between the natures of reality that he creates through such small and intricate details.
Another index of reality that operates throughout Tarantino’s films is the fictional corporate symbols he implements, like “Big Kahuna Burger” or “Red Apple Cigarettes”. These appear on both levels of realities suggesting that a perverse proliferation of corporatism has affected everything that exists. Tarantino’s recurring satirical use of these fictional companies serve the same purpose as the real ones, creating a sense of false familiarity that often influences consumers.
Tarantino has been successful in seamlessly weaving his plots, sub-plots, characters and symbols into the grand narrative structure of his extensive cinematic universe. He has already stated that the next film he makes will be his final one and described it as “epilogue-y”. It will be very interesting to see how his final film fits into his cinematic universe.