Every great artist has a trademark, a personal stamp that underscores a work of art. Think Spike Lee’s floating effect, Stanley Kubrick’s stare, and Quentin Tarantino’s trunk shot. Tarantino and the trunk shot go hand in hand like Russell Simmons and an oversized baseball cap.
If you’re wondering what this has to do with N.W.A, then we’re not looking at the same picture. Aside from the obvious similarities between N.W.A. and Quentin Tarantino (both are synonymous with provocative art), both employed the trunk shot in their respective coming out parties.
N.W.A.’s Trunk Shot:
Four years before Tarantino made his directorial debut with 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, illustrator Helane Freeman helped N.W.A. create an iconic artwork that would become as important as the music behind it. The cover art for Straight Outta Compton not only summed up N.W.A.’s mantra, it also captured the cultural zeitgeist of the 1980s. We see a menacing group of guys standing in a circle, towering over their victim. Eazy-E is pointing a pistol at you. It was an apposite cover to accompany N.W.A.’s in-your-face brand of hip-hop. And it was shot from the victim’s perspective. We would later see Tarantino make a refined version of this shot his trademark throughout the 90s.
Tarantino’s Trunk Shot:
If you’ve ever seen a Tarantino flick, you’ve seen a trunk shot at some point. He typically inserts it in a scene where a character pops the trunk to retrieve or dump something (usually a live human body). He then places the camera in the trunk and shoots from the perspective of the trunk. The brilliance of this shot is that it always occurs within the flow of the movie. You never get the impression that he’s crafting specific treatments as an excuse to plug a signature shot. In fact, some of the best scenes in Tarantino’s films happen to be the trunk shots. My favorite is this spoiler-ready exchange between Chris Tucker and that “ponytail-wearin’ motherfucker” in Jackie Brown.
It’s worth noting that Tarantino sometimes employs a variation of the trunk shot that doesn’t actually involve some poor soul getting slammed shut in the trunk of a car. For example, see Inglourious Basterds (below) when Brad Pitt’s character engraves a swastika on the forehead of a Nazi soldier. As you can see, he manipulates the camera so that the frame is shot from the soldier’s perspective.
Let’s be clear. Neither Tarantino nor N.W.A. invented the trunk shot. Film historians often point to Anthony Mann’s He Walked by Night (1948) and Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood (1967) as the earliest examples of the trunk shot. Scorsese used this shot several times in 1990’s Goodfellas. But it was Tarantino who popularized the trunk shot, as evidenced by its appearance in many of his movies, notably Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Jackie Brown.