Movie Review: My Best Friend’s Birthday (1987)
My Best Friend’s Birthday (1987)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Craig Hamann, Quentin Tarantino, Crystal Shaw Martell
Synopsis: A rockabilly DJ’s attempts to buy his best friend a birthday present he’ll never forget goes awry.
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Young filmmaker Quentin Tarantino did nothing to dispel the popular misconception that Reservoir Dogs, the brutal crime movie with which he made his name back in 1992, was his first as a director, but he had, in fact, made a much less accomplished effort five years earlier. My Best Friend’s Birthday was a labour of love for Tarantino and his friends and colleagues from Video Archive; filmed on an ancient rental camera on weekends and with a budget of just $5,000, it would surely never have seen the light of day had its young director and co-star not gone on to better things. And if, by some miracle, it had seen the light of day nobody would have been interested. As it is, only 36 minutes of the film exist. Some accounts claim that the rest of the film – about 35 minutes’ worth – was destroyed in a lab fire, but co-cinematographer Roger Avary claims they just ran out of steam halfway through. Considering they’d been filming off-and-on for three years, it’s hardly surprising.
To be honest, their failure to complete is no great loss for the movie world; My Best Friend’s Birthday is really nothing more than a shapeless mass of film that lacks narrative coherence because so many scenes are missing. Nevertheless, what does exist provides a fascinating insight into the formative years of a filmmaker who has gone on to become one of the most influential of his generation.
Tarantino plays Clarence, a motor-mouth rockabilly DJ with an extravagant pompadour, who tries to set up his depressed best friend, Mickey (co-writer Craig Hamann) with a hooker as a birthday present. Mickey’s not really in the mood, having mistakenly believed the girlfriend who walked out on him had returned only to discover she’d returned to his flat to pick up a tape. To make an awkward situation even worse, she brought along her new yuppie boyfriend who, in a moment reminiscent of Butch’s encounter with Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, unexpectedly emerged from the bathroom at an inopportune moment.
On the evidence of this movie there’s little doubt that Tarantino’s ear for hip dialogue comes from within, but that his skill as a director doesn’t. A conversation with the owner of a cake shop in which Clarence praises Elvis Presley’s acting skills while acknowledging the general awfulness of his movies is pure Tarantino from first word to last, while the silliness of a bizarre reminiscence on how he was prevented from committing suicide at the age of three by an episode of The Partridge Family is tempered by the quality of his writing.
One of the most endearing aspects of any Tarantino movie is the way in which his pure and infectious love for movies shines through in every scene. In My Best Friend’s Birthday this love is succinctly captured in one shot in which a slow pan along the collection of movie posters – The Fury, Chato’s Land, Black Oak Conspiracy, and Squirm – adorning Clarence’s bedroom wall alights briefly on his willing female companion before continuing on its exploration of the director’s cult movie influences.
(Reviewed 6th December 2016)