BOOTLEG FILES 571: “My Best Friend’s Birthday” (unfinished 1987 film by Quentin Tarantino).
LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube and other online video sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A crummy early work by a major filmmaker.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Maybe as a special feature on a future DVD release of a major Tarantino flick.
Anyone who is a devotee of Quentin Tarantino is familiar with the legend behind “My Best Friend’s Birthday,” his notorious first effort. If you believe the story, this film was shot over a series of weekends between 1984 and 1987 while Tarantino was still an employee at a retail store called Video Archives. But the completed 70-minute version was never seen because, according to the legend, the second half of the film was destroyed in a film lab fire. Thus, all that remains is 36 minutes of the film’s first half.
It is a great story that recalls other tantalizing films by legendary Hollywood talent that were lost in fires, most notably the Tod Browning and Lon Chaney collaboration “London After Midnight.” There is just one problem with this story. According to Roger Avary, the film’s cinematographer and a fellow Video Archives employee, it is not true.
“It was simply never finished due to loss of steam,” said Avary. Indeed, Tarantino never identified the film lab where the destruction supposedly occurred. And considering that Tarantino has been known to tell fibs about the early years of his career – most notably in his phony claim of having a role in the barely-seen Jean-Luc Godard version of “King Lear” – one could easily conclude that Avary’s version is closer to reality than Tarantino’s.
But whatever the case, “My Best Friend’s Birthday” would probably have not been a very good film if the project was ever completed. The surviving footage calls to mind some of the indie films of the mid-1980s and early-1990s in terms of the no-budget monochrome visual style – think of Wayne Wang’s “Chan is Missing,” Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It,” Gus Van Sant’s “Mala Noche” and Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” – but it lacks the vivacity of those well-received classics. Instead, “My Best Friend’s Birthday” comes across like a loud home movie anchored by one considerable talent and populated with others that are significantly lacking in talent.
The concept of “My Best Friend’s Birthday” is the comradeship between rockabilly radio disk jockey Clarence Pool (played by Tarantino) and his pal Mickey (played by Craig Hamann, who co-wrote the script). Mickey’s girlfriend has dumped him right before his birthday, and Clarence decides to cheer up his pal with a special present: a sexy call girl named Misty. But Misty’s pimp is unhappy about her decision to work without his supervision, and he pays a violent call on Mickey. And Clarence has his own problems when ordering a birthday cake – especially when he gets into a protracted argument with the baker over Elvis Presley’s acting abilities.
From a filmmaking standpoint, “My Best Friend’s Birthday” is atrocious. Tarantino worked with a $5,000 budget, but the production looks like it was made for $5 – stagnant camerawork, muddy sound, and dull editing create a dreary vision. And despite endless pop culture shout-outs in terms of production design (with one-sheets of cult movies hanging on walls) and obviously unauthorized samplings of tunes ranging from Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” to The Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz,” the film is trying to evoke an aura of coolness that it cannot create on its own terms.
Even worse, Tarantino populated the film with friends and acquaintances that were terrible actors. Hamann is photogenic as Mickey – Tarantino’s camera lovingly lingers on him as he emerges soaking from a shower – but he has no personality as a performer. Allan Garfield, Tarantino’s acting teacher at the time, plays a dull straight man to Tarantino’s motor-mouthed character in the birthday cake scene. Crystal Shaw, as the call girl, gives the impression that she cold reading her lines from cue cards. And Al Harell as the pimp looks and sounds like someone who was abruptly yanked off the street and plopped before the camera with no preparation.
But the real energy here is Tarantino, who appears to have used “My Best Friend’s Birthday” as a calling card for his smart-a*s writing and frenetic acting. Consider the monologue he wrote for himself in his first scene, when his character recalls a childhood trauma that ended quite happily.
“I was three, but I remember like it was yesterday,” says Tarantino’s Clarence Pool. “Out of the blue, I felt depressed for no reason whatsoever. Just this dark cloud hanging over my head. I was gonna commit suicide. I was actually gonna commit suicide. I was gonna go open the bathroom, I was gonna fill a tub of hot water, and I was gonna slice open my veins. I was actually gonna, I mean I was gonna do it! Now for a three year old to be thinking’ like that, that’s really depressing. And you know, what saved me was ‘The Partridge Family.’ ‘The Partridge Family’ was coming on – I really wanted to see it. Okay, so I watch ‘The Partridge Family,’ then I kill myself. And, uh, well I watched it, and it was a really funny episode, it was the one with Danny getting in trouble with a Mob wife. But, it was a really funny one, and uh, and I didn’t feel like killing myself afterwards. It was, it all kinda worked out.”
Steve Puchalski, editor of Shock Cinema and my choice for the best film writer of our time, probably defined “My Best Friend’s Birthday” best. “This often seems like the Rosetta Stone of his future career,” wrote Puchalski of Tarantino’s first film. “All of the influences and answers are here, crammed together into one big hodgepodge. There are obscure film-references galore, Aldo Ray jokes, discussions about the genius of DePalma, Clarence’s foot fetish confession, and Quentin gives himself a romantic scene with Misty, whose career choice was inspired by Nancy Allen’s w***e in ‘Dressed to Kill’! … He even squeezes in a lame martial arts showdown between Mickey and Misty’s black pimp, Clifford.”
Tarantino reworked some of the concepts from this film into his screenplay for the 1993 hit “True Romance,” but that later film was far more violent and nastier than this silly early effort. Over the years, Tarantino has acknowledged the film’s existence without taking any special pride in his work. He dismissed it as a “Martin and Lewis type of thing” – an odd statement, considering the film has no resemblance in style or substance to Dean and Jerry’s silly old films – and he has made no effort to squelch its appearance in bootlegged videos and unauthorized online postings.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.