In fandom, as in friendship, it’s first-name terms that count. Norman Mailer saw fit to call a book Marilyn, and Elton John sang goodbye to “Norma Jean”. Film directors tend not to inspire this kind of personal love. Instead, they attract appreciators, connoisseurs and, if someone is reduced to their surname, it testifies either to distinctive work or global fame – and in some cases both.
We don’t hear about Mendes or Fincher or Scott, but ever since Pulp Fiction won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1994, and showed that Reservoir Dogs had been a harbinger rather than a fluke, people have been talking about Tarantino. There is no confusion over who the name refers to and no ambiguity about what it connotes.
Talky films with two-word titles (Kill Bill, Jackie Brown, Death Proof, one quarter of Four Rooms, and Inglourious Basterds make up the rest of his work as writer-director). A world with its own mode of speech and style of delirium. And more particularly: shuffled chronology, heated discussions, nerve-jangling confrontations, humour at odd moments, briefcases full of booty (diamonds, money, light), people pointing guns at people who are pointing guns, shots that look up from car boots and out through doorways, the use of late ’60s and ’70s music, a gift for the portrayal of hysterical contingencies, and an ability to rescue moribund careers, though in some cases for no longer than the duration of a film. (Pulp Fiction marked John Travolta’s return to the A-list; Jackie Brown not only revived but gave Robert Forster his greatest role, as the bail bondsman Max Cherry.)
Tarantino loves actors and, at first, he wanted to be one. He dropped out of high school to enrol in acting school. But before long, he had dropped out of acting school and was working in a video store. When he wasn’t watching films, he was discussing them with colleagues such as Roger Avary – who would later share the screenplay credit, and Best Original Screenplay Oscar, for Pulp Fiction – and studying the film reviews of Pauline Kael as if, in his words, “they were class assignments”.
Like Kael, Tarantino saw cinema as a romantic, hedonistic, have-it-all form. Sergio Leone’s wildness appealed to him more than Stanley Kubrick’s precision. And in his own work, he loves the close-up – on needles and matchsticks – as much as the wide shot – of fields and motorways; slow-motion as much as swift zooms; the lateral track as much as the advancing Steadicam. For him, going too far, trying too hard, doing too much are things to aim for rather than avoid.
Like his sensibility, Tarantino’s public persona is characterised by irrepressible enthusiasm, a boyish bonhomie. He is all violent hand movements and elongated vowels. The joy in his bones makes his whole body shake. He wears a monk’s hairstyle and talks with a preacher’s passion, and in a preacher’s tone, about what he does and doesn’t like, often going into explanatory raptures about the directors he admires – himself among them.
Tarantino was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and raised in Torrance, California; he is of Italian, Irish, and Cherokee extraction, grew up in a middle-class suburb but claims he attended a “mostly black” high school. It’s a very American mix, and juxtaposition has been crucial to his work’s appeal. Knowingness coexists with sincerity, glamour with rawness. He brought an untamed quality to the heist film, the buddy movie and the gangster thriller. On the other hand, at a time when independent films were concerned with exploring new subject matter – black youths (Spike Lee, Matty Rich), homosexuals (Rose Troche, Gus van Sant), slackers and wasters (Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, Jim Jarmusch) – he showed what low-budget cinema could learn from the studios, about storytelling, mood, even social portraiture. It was a tightrope act but he pulled it off, achieving commercial success without losing his cult credibility, and securing the long-term devotion of the producer Harvey Weinstein, who described his old company Miramax as “the house that Quentin Tarantino built”.
In his early films, Tarantino evoked both the films he watched and the world he knew, life as depicted by Hollywood, but also life as lived in the less glamorous districts of Los Angeles County. He took familiar types – hit men, bank robbers – and gave them personality; his characters have opinions about matters irrelevant to the plot. Perhaps the best-known and best-used form of juxtaposition in his work is that of the analytical and the throwaway. Reservoir Dogs opens with a group of men, identically dressed, sitting in a coffee shop debating the meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”. (It is Tarantino himself, playing Mr Brown, who comes up with the most extended and persuasive reading.) High-flown language – Biblical or Latinate – comes out of low-life mouths, and the friction produces a frisson. Samuel L. Jackson, Tarantino’s favourite actor, has often been called upon to confound our expectations; he is not the kind of actor who conventionally uses words such as “repugnant”. All manner of details conspire to create the audience’s sense of what we should or shouldn’t expect. And just when we think we know where we are, Tarantino complicates things. In Pulp Fiction, a hit man has to clarify that he is using “take care of her” in its colloquial rather than specialist sense, while another character says she is going to “powder my nose” before going for a line of coke during dinner. Things are never wholly innocent, or wholly soiled.
Tarantino’s treatment of violence has prompted charges of amorality. He loves weaponry and the rituals of killing. But his stories, for all the emphasis on luck, are shot through with an almost Victorian moralism. For the most part, criminality comes to no good. The revenge story has become his favourite kind of narrative, though it isn’t only his characters who are righting wrongs. Tarantino’s last film, Inglourious Basterds, showed cinema – in the form of a film star, a critic and the manager of a cinema – toppling the Nazis, who had used the medium for malign ends. This time around he has made good on another omission, telling the story of American slavery from the black perspective.
But Tarantino, who will turn 50 in March, has not only grown more righteous with age but more impudent too, as Django Unchained shows. The film concerns a lapsed dentist and an ex-slave working as bounty hunters in the American South in the late 1850s. At one point, the amusing revisionist scene in Reservoir Dogs in which the robbers bicker about their code names is recycled in broader terms in a scene in which a bunch of Klansmen complain about not being able to see through their white hoods.
Once again, he has defied convention with his choice of actors: Don Johnson, the long-lost star of Miami Vice, appears in a small role; Leonardo DiCaprio is cast against type as the villain, the plantation owner and amateur phrenologist Calvin Candie. And Tarantino has called up actors we know he likes, among them Michael Parks, Samuel L. Jackson and himself. Making his second appearance in a Tarantino film is Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar for his performance as the Jew hunter in Inglourious Basterds. Waltz has a rubber face that can harden suddenly into viciousness, but his performance is essentially comic. Not sounding like an English speaker – he is Austrian – Waltz can surprise us in the way that Jackson did in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, and a surprising amount of the humour in Django Unchained comes from him saying things such as “regardless” and “vaguely”. The new film marks the first use of “tad” in Tarantino’s work – “a tad overzealous”, to mean totally out of control – though Woody Allen saw the word’s potential as long ago as 1977, when Alvy Singer, a nervous passenger in Annie Hall’s slaloming Beetle, says that she is driving “a tad rapidly”.
Tarantino’s originality consists at least partly in his style of indebtedness. He has made collages out of collages. Django Unchained is a straight pastiche, a piece of film-historical taxidermy – an old-fashioned western with a modern liberal bias and added anachronisms. In Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, Tarantino was spurred into resourcefulness by the practical limitations of a real place, so it is disappointing to see him trade in his topographic scruples for the aroma offered by broadly familiar settings. Titles such as “somewhere in Texas” refer not to social spaces but to old back lots and sound-stages, districts of Movieland. There have always been different sensibilities competing for dominance in his work, but since his tribute to the “grindhouse” films of the 1970s, Death Proof, a shift has occurred. Nowadays he seems less concerned with meeting the criteria laid out by Max in Jackie Brown – “something that starts soon and looks good” – than with making films that match Vincent Vega’s description in Pulp Fiction of the 1950s themed restaurant at which he “takes care” of Mia Wallace – “a wax museum with a pulse”.
Leo Robson reviews films for the FT
‘Django Unchained’ opens in the UK on January 18