Tarantino's Real Debut: My Best Friend's Birthday

Made on a shoestring while he worked in a video store, My Best Friend's birthday is rough at best. But it does show glimpses of the style that, 20 years on from Reservoir Dogs, has resulted in the some of the finest movies of our times...
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Made on a shoestring while he worked in a video store, My Best Friend's birthday is rough at best. But it does show glimpses of the style that, 20 years on from Reservoir Dogs, has resulted in the some of the finest movies of our times...

There’s some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that you can now watch a seldom-seen piece of Tarantino work.

The bad news is that it's rubbish.

It's 36 minutes of black-and-white footage from My Best Friend's Birthday, a movie he made on a shoestring in the mid-1980s.

It was put together long before the blood-soaked and ball-breaking Reservoir Dogs propelled him into the mainstream and established him as the most exciting director of his generation.

My Best Friend’s Birthday was never officially released, but about half of the original 70-minute rough cut surfaced at a few festivals after the rest was destroyed in a fire.

Until recently, it was merely part of the Tarantino legend. The film he made with $5000 when he was working in a video store in Manhattan Beach, California. The one everyone had heard rumours about but never watched. His real debut.

It sees the writer-cum-director playing a man trying to give one of his buddies a birthday surprise – only to see his efforts backfire.

My Best Friend’s Birthday is clearly not Tarantino’s greatest piece of work. It might well be his worst. It is, however, a unique insight into the mind of the man who would go on to make films that, almost 20 years later, are still the benchmark by which others are judged.

Co-written with one of his acting-class pals, the script is comedic – at times, even slapstick.  A lot of it, simply, doesn’t work.

It’s clumsy, badly directed and, judging by his acting, you can see why Tarantino later relegated himself to smaller on-screen roles.

Even the most die-hard fans of the 47-year-old American, frustrated at only having the first half to watch, view it as little more than a ‘throwaway’ piece.

That said, you can spot many of the hallmarks of what would later come to be known as Tarantinoesque: pop culture references, nods to other directors and some great dialogue.

“How long have you been a call girl?” a character asks at one point. “I don't mean that in a derogatory way at all. If you were an underwater welder, I'd say: Hey, how long have you been an underwater welder?”

The emergence of the footage on the internet has sparked renewed interest in the director’s work, particularly Reservoir Dogs, which is approaching its 20th anniversary.

Dogs is the film in which the Tarantinoesque style, unformed and uncertain in My Best Friend’s Birthday, becomes clearly defined.

It pulses with brutal violence (who can forget the ‘ear’ scene), razor-sharp dialogue and nuanced performances. It really is one of the few movies you watch two decades on and think: Yes, that was what all the fuss was about.

Seeing it again now also highlights how bad recent gangster flicks have been – the latest of which (discounting the woefully embarrassing and new-to-DVD Bonded by Blood) is 44 Inch Chest, one of a generation of films influenced by Tarantino.

My Best Friend’s Birthday is clearly not Tarantino’s greatest piece of work. It might well be his worst. It is, however, a unique insight into the mind of the man who would go on to make films that, almost 20 years later, are still the benchmark by which others are judged.

And if nothing else, it’s given us one unforgettable line. “Your ass is grass and I’m the lawnmower.”

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