Quentin Tarantino is famous for his use of pastiche: Each of his movies is jam-packed with hundreds of references to other movies and touchstones from popular culture: Spaghetti Westerns, b-movies, blacksploitation, kung fu flicks... the Muppets?
On a visit to the Museum of the Moving Image’s great Jim Henson exhibition last weekend, I thought I discovered the source for a memorable visual gag in Pulp Fiction. During a short called “Visual Thinking” from Sam and Friends—an early Henson series that ran from 1955 to 1961—Kermit the Frog discusses music with a more short-lived Muppet, Harry the Hipster. When Kermit confesses to Harry that he doesn’t like jazz, a square (or, more precisely, a rectangle) appears in the air over his face (it’s around the 1-minute mark, but the charming short is worth watching in full). The little joke immediately brought to mind the odd moment when Mia Wallace tells Vincent Vega, “Don’t be a…” and draws a square in the air, where the square magically appears.
Was Tarantino making an homage to the Muppets? Maybe, but a bit of poking around online showed that I wasn’t the first fan to make this connection—and that Henson was not the first filmmaker to employ the gag. Rob Getzschman noticed the similarity a few years ago, and wrote an impressively comprehensive history of the mid-air square at the music blog Best New Bands. Several different shows from the period used the gag, it turns out, with perhaps the earliest mid-air square popping up in the 1957 Looney Tunes cartoon Three Little Bops (1957)—and at least two more popping up within the next five years, in The Flinstones (1961) and the opening sequence for The Parent Trap (1961). Henson himself would reprise the sketch for The Ed Sullivan Show and (sans Kermit) Sesame Street.
Getzschman wasn’t able to determine which of them may have been Tarantino’s source, but he did make a handy video compiling each instance:
The video ends with a dotted square and the message “1957 – 1994.” But of course the mid-air square gag didn’t end there. These days Tarantino’s films refer almost as often to themselves as to other filmmakers’ work, and Kill Bill: Volume 1 has Thurman return to the gesture. (It’s around the 6:00 mark below—without the skywriting effect.) I’m reminded of one of the best video essays on Kill Bill, which comes courtesy of the video series “Everything Is A Remix”—a phrase that rings particularly true with Tarantino.
Update, Feb. 22, 2012: Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings has found an even older instance of the mid-air square on his blog. According to Jennings, the square appeared in an Alice in Wonderland parody in the December 1954 issue of what is now Mad magazine.
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