Natural Born Filmmaker: Quentin Tarantino vs. the Film Geeks
October 24, 1994
The blood-red invitation should have read: THE OFFICERS AND DIRECTORS OF THE FILM SOCIETY OF LINCOLN CENTER, MIRAMAX FILMS, VOLVO, AND ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY CORDIALLY INVITE YOU TO THE CORONATION OF QUENTIN TARANTINO AND THE OPENING OF THE 32ND NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL. After all, from the perfumed pages of profile factories to the more judicious cinephilic organs of indie cinema, there have been as many as 20 pieces heralding the 31-year-old director and his second film. That he snagged the Palme d’Or in Cannes this past May didn’t hurt. And if further proof was needed that no filmmaker in recent memory has produced so strong a desire to proclaim him so early in his game as the genius he very well might be, the morning of the ascension the paper of record carried Janet Maslin’s treatise on a canonization: “It must be hard to believe that Mr. Tarantino, a mostly self-taught, mostly untested talent who spent his formative years in a video store, has come up with a work of such depth, wit and blazing originality that it places him in the front ranks of American film makers.”
Raised by his mom on movies — those edgy confounding ones from the ’70s — a junior high truant who spent his time working and playing in theaters, an aspiring actor who decided he’d rather direct, a writer who paid the bills slinging videos in Manhattan Beach, California, Tarantino’s journey is, well, out of the movies. His debut, Reservoir Dogs, smacked the screen hard at its 1992 Sundance Film Festival premiere, then got caught in the crossfire of anxious debates about film violence. With its slowly forming pool of blood and seductively terrifying dance of sadism at its core, it was easy to forget, or repress, the other reasons why it worked a nerve: Dogs was a talkfest with bald, off-color language, it presented a self-conscious actors’ lair with a spare beauty. Even with its intelligently realized picture of the violence that career criminals do, this was a movie’s movie.
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Pulp Fiction, with its hood’s winks and nudges, is even more so. Its three stories about one story structure and scrambled time frame move its boxer and lover, hit man and boss’s wife, lowest-rent Bonnie and Clyde through a world that isn’t so much underworld as Faulknerian with a .38. The L.A. that Tarantino’s thieves and killers inhabit is hermetically sealed: is it possible that Pulp Fiction‘s winning and murderous Vincent Vega (John Travolta) is related to Dogs‘s cruel and murderous Vic Vega (Michael Madsen)? Characters mentioned in passing in Dogs appear in Pulp Fiction as well as in the films made from his screenplays for True Romance, directed by Tony Scott, and Natural Born Killers (which is now in industry lingo a film “based on a story by Quentin Tarantino”). Pulp isn’t the second Tarantino film, it’s the third and a half (with the colliding of approaches and egos in Natural Born Killers factored in). Tarantino doesn’t simply give us a vision, he gives us a world; his touch is auteurist even when he’s not behind the camera.
The French semiotechnicians of the ’80s who wanted to explain American culture to itself have gone down for the count in the bungle de jungle, but Tarantino could have sprung from their eggheads full-grown: the pleasures of cinema’s texts come home to roost. And yet his appeal must also be that though he belongs to the generation that forces universities to curb hate speech and regulate dating practices, he is not of it. If those gestures are puritanical, Tarantino is about the marvelously visceral. (Does anyone really care to imagine how homonyms come into being: reel and real? When Pulp Fiction opened the New York Film Festival three weeks ago, one audience member was sent into insulin shock by a bit of onscreen junkie slapstick. When the announcement came 20 minutes later that “the victim was just fine,” there was no doubt who the perp was.) Tarantino arrives at a moment when the will toward cool is much less suspect than the will toward justice. His brash monologues, complete with racial and sexual epithets, make it easy for Movieline to promote him as the anti–politically correct director, though he’d be unhappy to be so easily used. In some strange way, Tarantino the videodidact is the embodiment of American self-reliance with a hint of transatlantic jouissance. He is a natural born filmmaker.
So on a comfortable September evening, as the high school gym acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall gulped down Pulp Fiction‘s surf and soul soundtrack, me and the Girl Pup awaited, along with the usual suspects, the arrival of the Prince of Pulp. Tarantino, wearing a Dogs couture suit, took the mike to introduce his stars, John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, and Harvey Keitel (“the father I never had”), to name a pack of them; he wryly thanked Janet Maslin and then laughed his utterly gleeful laugh. Pinch him — Quentin Tarantino must be living his dream. One day his trajectory from junior high dropout to Video Archives clerk to cinema wunderkind may eclipse L.A.’s longstanding specimen tale of Lana Turner at Schwab’s. In the meantime, the film-geek-makes-good angle has its own tremendous power.
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A funny thing happened on the way to the coronation, however. A couple of hours before Tarantino thanked Maslin, introduced Lazarus One and Two (Travolta and Willis), and laughed his laugh, Don Murphy called. One of the producers of Natural Born Killers, Murphy was phoning at the suggestion of Chris Gore, editor of L.A.’s Film Threat. It appears, as a film geek rises so might he fall. And while journalist a, b, c, and d spent their spring and summer buzzing around Tarantino’s startling originality, a paper trail of letters to the editor generated by the Film Threat posse, plus a few articles in Film Threat and the British mag Empire, were vehemently accusing him of the crassest kind of theft: plagiarism. Murphy wasn’t phoning to answer Tarantino’s snipes at NBK director Oliver Stone; he wanted to voice his support for Gore et al.’s contention that Tarantino lifted the premise and even shot by shot sequences of Reservoir Dogs from a Hong Kong shoot-’em-up, City on Fire. He was also calling to say: “I would openly celebrate Quentin’s death. I never had a falling out per se, but his actions since become Quentin Tarantino have been diabolical.” Ironically, one of the more stunning indictments of Tarantino came in the form of a video called Who Do You Think You’re Fooling (the story of a robbery) by Mike White. (Gore was only too happy to FedEx me a copy marked “Evidence.”) This completely witty, if self-serious, 20-minute video makes the case for Tarantino’s theft of Ringo Lam’s 1987 City on Fire much in the same way NBC set up GM, but in a style so sleek as to be Tarantino-esque.
Where intimations of originality arise can anxiety of influences be very far behind? What fresh compulsion is this that Tarantino has stirred up in so many, to either locate grand visions in what is so brilliantly second-hand or make great accusations about just how second-hand it all is? Could it be that the very concept of originality is, in this later age of mechanical reproduction, very much at stake? As if it isn’t always. One can quote Harold Bloom — “Strong poets make [poetic] history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves.” Or one can quote Ice-T, Ice Cube, or Cypress Hill. In other words, some acts of theft are highly original. Certainly for a generation of folks present to the quirks of the ‘geist — the radical sampling and unabashed scouring of pop things past that the decade’s most original art form, hip hop, has wrought — Tarantino’s “homages” (his word) or “stealing” (his and Gore and Murphy’s word) seem beside the point. Or to quote my editor: “He stole, so what?”
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It would be easy to write off this creeping film geek bitterness as just so much hand jockey envy. After all, whether or not he is for real, Tarantino is getting some. Secret handshakes aside, however, and in honor of his detractors’ obsessively inspired work, I’ll share with you this particular tale.
“Is this going to be another kiss-ass piece about Quentin Tarantino?” Chris Gore did not sound happy to be given the opportunity to argue his case. Or in his words, “What? The opportunity to get fucked again!” Forget that he mixed his metaphors when he attacked the same mainstream publications that fucked him — L.A. Times, Esquire, Vanity Fair — as “all these pussy news organizations.” And forget that much of his blustery crankiness and humor felt scripted, just the way I hoped it would be (“Mr. Gore, will you please read from page 20 of Film Geek’s Revenge?”). His conviction was fascinating. “Oh, Quentin says he steals from everyone. That’s like Clinton saying he hits on everyone… I’d like to see him suffer for this, it’s reprehensible.” Before the conversation was done, more mention would be made of Clinton, as well as Watergate, Oliver Stone, Clinton, Zapruder, Clinton, Bush, and, yes, O.J., as in; “I have more confidence in the guilt of Quentin Tarantino than I do O.J.… Did you get that?” If it wasn’t clear after the soliloquy whether, as Gore and his band of outsiders contend, Tarantino “remade without credit” City on Fire, about an undercover cop, a den of thieves, and jewelry heist gone awry, it was clear that somehow Tarantino had betrayed this cadre of film buffs and video clerks, the ones who, Gore reminded me, “know what’s going on this country more than the fucking journalists — entertainment-wise.”
More than one person, including Tarantino, has said that stealing from the Hong Kong gunslinging genre is a little like making a bootleg of a bootleg of, perhaps, another bootleg. So what exactly is City on Fire? A three-gun standoff, a cop tenderly confessing his identity to a hood, two-fisted gunplay, a Wild Bunch amble down a city street. Sure, there’s shameless sampling. Sure, I think Quentin Tarantino has no shame. When asked about Ringogate, he hops up. “I’ve got the poster right here.” He holds it up and points: “That’s Danny Lee. Ringo Lam is probably like my second, after Jackie Chan, third favorite, of the Hong Kong directors.” What’s not in City on Fire? Tarantino’s hyperfetishization of cinema, good or bad; the wonderful equation of undercover work with the actor’s craft; the shit talking; the pared-down aesthetics; The Taking of the Pelham One, Two, Three; The Killing. Tarantino takes the last 15 minutes of City on Fire and stretches them into an entire film, remakes them in his own images. Now does that make him a rip-off artist, or does it make Reservoir Dogs a response to the call of narrative cinema?
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All along La Brea, Melanie Griffith sips from a straw and eyes a miniaturized Ed Harris. In the neighborhood where my parents met 40 years ago, Woody Harrelson glares out from behind red glasses, shotgun slung. An uncharacteristic heat wave has just broken in Los Angeles and the sky is a sharp blue without blazing. The bright speckled carp in the garden pond at Tarantino’s place, which was at one time John Travolta’s place, are chipper. When Quentin’s assistant, Vicky, lets me in the corner apartment, the man himself is doing the interview thing on the phone in the next room. Pacing, he keeps a precise metronomic beat with his sped-up chatter. He waves. When standing, Quentin’s head tilts slightly forward in the way I’ve noticed tall guys who love their women friends tend to do, like they’re embarrassed to be just those few extra inches above, like they’re constantly leaning down to listen. And though he listens and laughs appreciatively, Quentin is a talker.
“Yeah, I like to make tapes for friends,” he says in a cadence that is part stoked whisper, part enthusiast patter. His very directed soundtrack for Pulp Fiction is the topic. Like the Dogs soundtrack it comes with snatches of trademark dialogue: the Pumpkin and Honey Bunny bit, the preamble to a hit, Ezekiel 25:17. Quentin is praising Urge Overkill’s cover of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon”; he is pacing and chattering, pacing and chattering. In his movies the rhythm is the same but the insistence becomes vaguely nasty. The wonderfully unpleasant “Like a Virgin” riff in Res Dogs, or the wicked “dead nigger storage” business in Pulp, or his Top Gun exigeewhiz cameo in Sleep With Me — each has an intentional scene-stealing rudeness.
When he finally sits, I’ve been eyeing the living room, the same room that’s been part of the media hajj for the last few months. There’s the outsized Panasonic, the one where journalist a, b, c, and d have watched various flicks and moments of flicks. On one wall there’s a huge True Romance poster from Japan. Patricia Arquette and Christian Slater peer out, some scrawl tattooing Slater’s broad forehead. A couple of stuffed animals rest on the back of the couch, the Tasmanian devil will fall at least twice while we do the interview thing. In the middle of a floor, a foot-high brown bear, looking for all the world like the state flag’s mascot, stands. There are stacks of books, stacks of videos — a fair amount of organized chaos reigns, though the kitsch effect is fully under control.
Quentin looks good and a little scruffy. Homier than the smooth or lean or dark or made-over-for-the-glossies guy. But not so very different than the guy I met at the Toronto Film Festival two years ago. That night, he, his producer Lawrence Bender, producer Terrance Chang, number-one-director-with-a-bullet John Woo, and a squad of William Morris flacks convened in a little restaurant to announce a future collaboration. Tarantino was there with Reservoir Dogs, Woo with Hard Boiled, not the gun maestro’s best but no less over-the-top. Think heartthrob Chow Yun-Fat with a baby in one hand, a magnum in the other, and a hailstorm of glass and bullets and you get the picture. That night, the endearingly, if exhaustingly, talkative Tarantino played superfan to Woo’s supergentleman.
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This afternoon Quentin is reconsidering his superfan persona. So no Panasonic film fest, no tour of the collectibles — the lunchboxes and board games. “There’s been such a concentration on this film geek guy makes good, what a big kid he is, and how he just loves movies, how they are his morning, his noon, and his night.” I look around his apartment and the evidence that they are is everywhere in sight. I think of Dogs and Pulp Fiction, True Romance, and Natural Born Killers. They too confirm affection in extremis. “Oh, he’s just a little encyclopedia,” he mocks. “It makes me wonder if, when I’m with journalists, I’m playing a routine. A character. I think I’m being real. But am I creating a persona I didn’t think I was creating?”
Perhaps this new awareness is in response to the not-so-nice quotes in Vanity Fair, by former pal, coworker, and collaborator Roger Avary (whose debut Killing Zoe taps a similar edgy vein but to less effect): “He knows everything about pop culture. But his greatest strength is his greatest weakness. He is only interested in pop culture… The one problem people have with Quentin’s work is that it speaks of other movies, instead of life. The big trick is to live a life and then make movies about that life.” Or maybe it’s just the cumulative effect of becoming unrecognizable to oneself, that shocking moment when the subject sees that his press doesn’t capture the person he feels himself to be.
“The fucked-up thing about reading your own interviews is that they make you self-conscious about things that you do unconsciously. So after I read three or four things like that I think maybe I shouldn’t mention other people’s movies. Like, I think if that’s what they’re drawing from me, I don’t think that’s all there is.”
Above Quentin, high on a wall directly across from the sofa amid the movie memorabilia, is a small, dark oil painting of a woman asleep on a couch. It turns out that for all the journalists he’s entertained, none has asked him about the painting. It’s the purloined painting. “You know who did ask, and it actually created a big bond between me and him? Eric Stoltz,” Quentin the storyteller takes over. “Eric came over and we were just talking about Pulp and he’s sitting on the couch, he was sitting almost exactly where you are, and I was telling him about my apartment. I was like, ‘Let me tell you a story about my apartment,’ and he said, ‘Wait, tell me a story about this painting. What’s the deal with that?’ I end up telling him the story of my lost love, the one that got away, and I explain the whole thing, and he says, ‘Yeah, I had one of those definitely, but I don’t have a painting to remember her by.’ ” I recount this exchange about the painting of Grace because it is a moment of emotional forthrightness that has nothing to do with movies, except that Eric Stoltz is in Pulp Fiction and that Grace was painted when she’d fallen asleep at a friend’s house — they’d been watching a video.
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The truth is that no one is reducible to the confines of a 3000-to-5000-word article, but Quentin eats movies for breakfast and metabolizes them before he’s slugged his first cup of gourmet coffee. So cut him some slack if, in the midst of articulating a fuller human being, he riffs on Jim McBride’s Breathless (“Yes, yes, I thought, that’s what I want to do, that’s in my head. That’s it, they’re talking about comic books, they’re talking about rockabilly music. They’re not talking about movies but they might as well be.”). Or Abbott and Costello (“If you’ve seen Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, when he picks up that nurse and throws her through the window, he’s dead, she dies. I remember thinking, these are the greatest movies in the world. They’re really funny, and when they’re not, they’re really scary. Two great tastes that taste great together.”) Or when he brings out the red vinyl scrapbook he kept of Brian De Palma clips “To me, Brian De Palma is one of the greatest satirists in American movies, the ‘Be Black Baby’ stuff in Hi Mom! Pauline Kael said De Palma didn’t need to make Bonfire because he’s already done it in the ‘Be Black, Baby’ section.”). Or Howard Hawks, whose Rio Bravo is in every carnation of his 10 favorite films. “Howard Hawks is the supreme storyteller and entertainer. He’s just too damn enjoyable.”) Or Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (“The scene after Tom Hanks gets turned down by Denzel and there’s the close-up and he’s so alone, that shot says what five movies couldn’t. He should have gotten the Academy Award just for that shot. And that last scene is so romantic. The last thing Hanks sees is this man who loves him smiling.”) Or melodrama (“I actually had an epiphany about why people think Reservoir Dogs is so violent watching John Stahl’s Back Street… You’re watching it, and even when humorous scenes are going on the threat of tragedy, of melodrama, is hovering over the movie. This is going to end horribly. She’s gonna get brokenhearted. She’s gonna throw her life away. It’s just not gonna work out.”)
Or Natural Born Killers and Oliver Stone (“Did you ever see the Ben Stiller take off on Oliver Stone Land? Oh, it’s like the Doors arrive and this cheap animatronic Jim Morrison is going, ‘Break on through, break on through,’ and then there’s this animatronic Indian going, ‘I’m an Indian, I represent death.’ There’s a ride, and the kid isn’t tall enough.
And the guard says, I’m sorry you have to be as tall as this sign, but here at Oliver Stone Land we learn to question authority.”) But then Oliver Stone and Natural Born Killers are a different matter. And it seems whenever Quentin has been asked about the movie, which he hasn’t seen, his generosity fails him. “I want to wait till it’s on hotel TV, that’s what I want to do,” he tells me. “I’ve been told by friends who’ve seen it that all the funniest stuff is mine,” he later says at a press conference. Whether Quentin’s plunge into the role of disgruntled screenwriter is another of the causes of Don Murphy’s desire to report the “Tarantino scandal de jour,” I can only guess. Yet, have two sensibilities ever been more different? Stone’s will to meaning, with a capital M, versus Tarantino’s will to cool?
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A few weeks before Quentin dons an orange Hawaiian print shirt to match my blue pineapple job and we head out into the world, I am in a theater on Second Avenue with the Girl Pup, who says, with no particular rancor in her and flat as a pancake, “What he wants is a big black man to fuck him up the ass!” Well, she’s frank if nothing else, and for her a guy wanting it up the ass by a brother is not necessarily a bad thing. “No, think about it…” We are surrounded by fanboys who have probably seen Reservoir Dogs no less than three times and she is reading Quentin Tarantino. The Girl Pup continues somewhat emphatically, “Really, listen what’s his character’s name? Right? Mr. Brown. Brown, shit, ass. And what’s all this anal sex stuff, and remember that Waspafarian Drexyl in True Romance? What was that about? And all this nigger this, nigger that stuff. Hello?”
When I relate this to Quentin, over Pad Thai, stir fry, and the eggplant pumpkin tofu reg (not fried) special, he kind of idles. Then he sort of laughs, at least I think it’s a laugh. For a motored mouth, this is more than a speed bump. And while her riff is not as beautifully rendered as any of his fan-driven monologues, it’s in the spirit of them. And though it takes liberties he’s probably scripted out — too much back-and-forth from the real person to the role he plays — it’s a much better beginning to a conversation about race than any I could think up. Indeed, when I ask Quentin more directly about race in his films, he replies slightly askew to the spirit of my thoughts. “No word should have so much power.” He is talking about the word nigger. I then tell him that Sam Jackson has already answered the question about his free use of racial epithets: “Oh Quentin, he’s above that shit,” Jackson had told a friend. This makes him happy, and he repeats it soon after. And since, being black, baby, I never quite feel above it, I tell him I am wondering if he knows what makes him above all that. A crush on Pam Grier, a deep knowledge of blaxploitation, and an integrated junior high, do these make one above it?
“I kind of refuse to deal with it as this white guy talking about black guys or a black wannabe guy or a white wannabe black guy thing. In my heart of hearts I know where I’m coming from.” But Quentin’s heart of hearts is not easily revealed, so instead the conversation turns to race in some broad sense.
“Some comedian really hit the nail on the fucking head when he said America’s like this ridiculously dysfunctional family and blacks are our stepchildren. ‘You never wanted me, you never liked me, why didn’t you love me?’ the blacks say, and there’s a little bit of white America as the parents looking back and going, ‘Okay we never really did but shut the fuck up about it. Move on.’ ” He laughs and laughs. Quentin loves comedians. Carlin, Pryor, Murphy, even Dice Clay, provide answers to the freedom he feels to, if not to offend, make uncomfortable.
“That same comedian said it totally cracks him up when other black guys say to him that the only reason they’re fucking with O.J. is ’cause he’s a brother. And he says, ‘The reason they’re fucking with O.J. is he might have killed someone.’ ” I tell him the first vision I saw coming in from the airport was a sister selling oversize white T-shirts with STOP SQUEEZING O.J. emblazoned across them. We laugh.
“Someone said to me at Sundance when Reservoir Dogs was there, ‘You know what you’ve done, you’ve given white boys the kind of movies black kids get.’ You know like Juice, and Boyz N the Hood, not Boyz N the Hood so much, but Menace II Society. Blacks have always had those movies.” At least since the ’70s, I think, but don’t argue. “Being bad, looking cool being bad, with a fuck-you attitude. The only time white guys could ever duke it out with black culture when it comes to being big and the coolness of being big is in the ’50s, in the rockabilly days, when guys would walk around with big ole houndstooth coats and big ole hair. That was as big as black culture in the ’70s, and it’s all based on looking cool, looking like a badass.”
Back in New York, when someone asks him in earnest does he hang out with gangsters, I realize the error of my ways. The key to Quentin’s easy familiarity with race, violence, and pretty much anything else resides in the freedom cinema has given him to be, well, a director. As we leave Toi Thai, Quentin pulls out his wallet. It’s a prop from Pulp Fiction, the same wallet that Sam L. Jackson’s hitman as spiritual seeker carries, the same one Tim Roth’s petty holdup man must fish out of a trash bag. It’s the one that says Bad Mother Fucker on it. ❖