One… two… three seconds. It’s the one thing you don’t expect to come out of Quentin Tarantino’s mouth: nothing. The question that’s stopped him in his tracks is the question we always ask. The only question that matters, really.
Tarantino loves movies. He loves watching them. He loves reading about them. He loves making them. And maybe most of all, he loves talking about them. But ask him to explain why – what is it you love about movies? – and the most famous motormouth in movieland has to stop and think.
“It’s funny,” he muses, “because movies have always been my favourite artform, and favourite form of entertainment, since I was a little boy. If somebody was going to give me a cool day where I could do whatever I wanted, usually I would pick some R-rated movie that I couldn’t see on my own. I was actually given that choice once by an aunt: Disneyland? Magic Mountain? ‘I want to go see Blazing Saddles. And you’ve got to take me to see Blazing Saddles!’ They were like, ‘I can’t believe that kid. He picked the movies over Disneyland…’”
That kid will be 50 in a few months. He still picks the movies first. It’s just that now the movies have become his Disneyland. “I am living a dream,” he agrees. “I am ridiculously lucky. That boy who made Reservoir Dogs wanted the life I live. I don’t have to pinch myself to wake up. I’m doing it. It’s a great feeling. You know, I’ve got a really nice house. And every once in a while I walk around that nice house and I think, ‘Wow, my imagination bought this.’”
It’s two decades since Reservoir Dogs saw a 29-year-old Tarantino swagger into our cinematic consciousness – in slo-mo, with a kicky soundtrack behind him – and grab greatness between his teeth. But with the enfant terrible of cine-cool on the brink of a half century and with his Spaghetti Western riff Django Unchained hitting cinemas, it’s time to stop and think.
“Oh god, you get to 20 years and you can’t help but get reflective,” he nods. “But now it seems like the whole industry is building up around that. I’m starting to get lifetime achievement awards, they’re coming out with a big boxset of my movies and critical retrospectives of the work done so far… So it’s all making me reflective about everything.”
There’s an immensely poignant moment in Bridge On The River Kwai when Alec Guinness wistfully notes: “There are times when suddenly you realise you’re nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents.” Just maybe, this is that time for Quentin Tarantino – that brief moment at the top of the mountain where you can see how far you’ve come and where you have left to go. So what’s the judgement?
“Pretty fucking good so far. That’s my take on it.”
That’s it? Right from the start, Tarantino has always loved to analyse – was ‘Like A Virgin’ really about a big dick? – but he won’t self-analyse for our benefit. The interesting thing about Tarantino isn’t how much he talks, it’s how little he gives away. “Well, I’m not really the one to put it in a nice little Easter basket for you and tie it up with a bow,” he says. “That’s your job.”
Fine. Let’s start with feet. When Tarantino met Uma Thurman to cast her in Pulp Fiction, he reportedly offered her a friendly foot rub. Marsellus Wallace threw Tony Rocky Horror out of a window for doing the same thing. Feet are dangerous, sexy things in Tarantino’s world. Bridget Fonda’s seductive, ringed piggies seduce a killer in Jackie Brown. Thurman’s paralysed toes become screen-filling to(e)tems in Kill Bill. Kurt Russell gives Rosario Dawson’s feet a tongue’n'tickle in Death Proof. Christoph Waltz ominously undresses Diane Kruger’s in Inglourious Basterds. And there’s QT himself using a vamp Salma Hayek’s feet like a tequila-flume in From Dusk Till Dawn. We could go on, but you get the picture. He’s a sole man.
Not that’s he’s admitting it today, mind. “If you want to potray somebody moving, you show their feet walking,” he shrugs. “It creates a staccato effect… and you’re moving… and good! If I had a lot of shots of people where the camera is just past the shoulder, it doesn’t mean I have a shoulder fetish. You want to see feet? Watch The Virgin Suicides. There’s a lot of feet in that movie.”
“But just to go back to the 20-year thing,” he cuts back in. “I’m pretty clear-eyed about my own work. I know when I did it and when I didn’t do it. But one of the things that really allows me to say, ‘Pretty fucking good so far’ is I always wanted to be the same director who made Reservoir Dogs, 20 years down the line. I’m pretty fucking different from the boy who made that movie. But the director is still connected. You can see the guy who made Reservoir Dogs in Django Unchained. There’s an umbilical connection.” But just what is that connection? What have QT’s films taught us?
Cinema for Tarantino is not about ‘life’, as it is for Francois Truffaunt and Martin Scorsese. And yet it has been his life for the last half-century. He was an only child, born when his mother was just 16. After his father left, she raised him on her own – and going to the movies was cheaper than a babysitter. It was the ’70s, the great New Wave for Hollywood that saw Hopper, Scorsese, DePalma, Coppola, Lucas and Spielberg write a new rulebook for American cinema. Tarantino found some new fathers.
Montage: he quit school at 16 to study acting and took a job as an usher at a hardcore porno theatre; he was arrested for stealing Elmore Leonard’s crime novel The Switch from a bookstore; he spent his twenties working at the Video Archives that would provide his famous film knowledge; he came of age as the Sundance kid with his instant-cult-hit debut Reservoir Dogs.
Jump cut: Tarantino lives alone in Beverly Hills in a house with a movie theatre in it. He’s never been married and he has no children. His last serious relationship was with Sofia Coppola in 2006. He’s been a lone star most of his life. He’s comfortable with that, too. It’s him and the movies, the way it always has been.
The movie theatre isn’t the only important place in Tarantino’s house. “My pool. I keep my pool nice and warm, so I can go into it no matter how cold it is outside,” he says. “There’s this thing that I started doing when I was writing //Inglourious Basterds// and it’s become part of my artistic process, every night. I go in my pool and just think. I think about what I’ve written and I think about what I’m going to write tomorrow. It’s strange, because it’s become really important to me. Think about the day. Think about tomorrow. Then get up. I really like doing it. I’m cut off for a while. I feel the loss.”
He’s a Samouraï lying awake in his bed, a cowboy silhouette in the doorway to a family home where he doesn’t belong. So it’s not surprising that unlike the films of Scorsese, another chatterbox movie-yoda, families are never central to Tarantino’s work. No one in his oeuvre ever really connects with anyone. Pulp Fiction is an entire film about cosmic near-misses and dings.
It’s the closest thing he’s made to one of the Coen brothers’ postmodern movies – rich with ultraviolence, intertextual winks, offbeat comedy, iconic characters and quirky dialogue – but the ciphers in Coen Country point to something mysterious and more than themselves. QT’s films seem to lead only to other films.
Then again, would you want it any other way? The one time he tried to be someone else, he made Jackie Brown, his ‘mature’ movie, his least memorable film and the start of six years in self-exile. Now he’s doing his way. And as his endless descendants – most recently, Guy Ritchie and Martin McDonagh – keep reminding us, nobody does it quite like Quentin.
Reaching back through cinema history – from the Shaw Brothers to Spaghetti Westerns, from Japanimation to Jackass – Tarantino has a unique ability to make everything old become new again. It’s much more than nostalgia. He recaptures things lost in the past (it’s hard to imagine a QT sci-fier) by turning them into the future. Foot fetishism? Probably. Footage fetishism? Definitely.
He’s one of our most vital defenders of both film history (saving 35mm from the rise of digital) and film criticism (“What the internet has done is destroy film criticism”). The outlaw has become the sheriff, the teacher and the priest. It’s not a job, it’s a calling. “I thought, ‘If you want to do this, you have to do it with the dedication that a lawyer has towards law or a doctor has towards medicine,’” he says. “The fact that nobody else is making you do it, doesn’t mean you don’t do it.”
Truth is, without QT as our hyperbolic historian, we all would have seen less movies. Would softcore cinephiles ever have rumbled Ringo Lam, Lady Snowblood or Django? Funny how much faster you learn when someone’s pointing a Hattori Hanzo sword at you. As life rushes carelessly into a digital future, Tarantino saves us from leaving things behind. Stop. Rewind. Play.
Every Tarantino movie is a restoration, a revision and a rediscovery. Everything he touches – songs, actors, weapons, even colours – re-emerges with QT branded big and bold on its hide. Django Unchained is a Spaghetti Western only as much as Reservoir Dogs is a heist movie, Kill Bill is a kung-fu flick and Inglourious Basterds is a war film. Genre is just a springboard that acrobatically launches us into a space that’s very much Tarantino’s own.
He can write dialogue so sharp you could lose an ear listening to it, but few recognise how expertly he controls silence. When he finds an actor who understands the power of the pause, his greatest scenes flex with perfectly judged ellipses that vibrate tension, terror and comedy to tremendous effect. The incredible, riveting opening to Inglourious Basterds as Colonel Hans Landa traps a rat is as good as it gets.
“I do throw scenes that affect the audience,” says the director. “You actually hear noise coming from them. I’m trying to evoke something from them.” In fact, it’s tough to think of a Hollywood director who’s given us more great scenes than Tarantino. But they increasingly struggle to prop up movies that just keep getting bigger.
Where Reservoir Dogs was a lean 99-minute noir, Kill Bill was a whopping 222-page script that spilled over budget before being carved in two. Inglourious Basterds, a screenplay so sprawling that it took 10 years to chisel down, was his longest movie yet at 153 minutes. Django Unchained runs 12 minutes longer.
Worth mentioning, also, that James Cameron is perhaps the only other director in Hollywood who writes such ripsnorting roles for women – Django Unchained is QT’s first film since Reservoir Dogs with a male lead. Cameron once declared to his then-wife Linda Hamilton: “Anybody can be a father or a husband. There are only five people in the world who can do what I do and I’m going for that.” You get the feeling that Tarantino would empathise.
QT’s love affair with cinema has produced eight celluloid children that, though they may not throb with obvious human heart, have unquestionably, irresistibly been made with passion and feeling. From Marsellus Wallace’s heavenly briefcase and hellish band-aid to Kill Bill’s yin/yang encyclopedia of cinephilia, Tarantino wants you to look as closely at film as he does.
Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega is the brother of Reservoir Dogs’ Vic Vega. Mr White worked with Alabama from True Romance. Kill Bill is basically Pulp Fiction’s TV show Fox Force Five, down to Mia Wallace in the starring role. Eli Roth’s Bear Jew in Inglourious Basterds is the father of the movie producer Lee Donowitz in True Romance. Everyone smokes Red Apples cigarettes.
There’s a theory that Pulp Fiction is secretly structured in a chronological alphabet of pop-culture winks, opening with a conversation about Amsterdam and ending with that last line, “Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.”
There’s an even better theory that all Tarantino’s films take place in a world where World War Two ended when Adolf Hitler was machinegunned to pieces in a movie theatre by Jewish commandos instead of chomping a cyanide pill in his bunker. Either way, rewriting 20th-century history so that cinema saved the world is – if not his masterpiece – QT’s most audacious stroke so far.
So how does Tarantino want history to remember him? “One of the great filmmakers of all time,” he deadpans. But seriously. “One of the great writers of the century.” He’s serious. “Why would I not want to be remembered as one of the great filmmakers of all time?” he continues. “I actually said that after Reservoir Dogs. We’ll see what happens, but that’s what I want. I have self-doubt. But I don’t have fear. I’m not afraid of doing anything artistically and I’m not afraid of failing.”
Or of retiring. He’s already talked about walking off into the sunset after a 10-movie smash-and-grab on greatness. He can see the boxset now – all killer, no filler. He doesn’t, he says, want to be Billy Wilder, cranking out an erratic filmography of classics and clunkers. Coincidentally, Billy Wilder died on Tarantino’s birthday in 2002. That year, QT was shooting Kill Bill and taking ecstasy on the Great Wall Of China.
“It’s just the idea that I don’t want to be an old director, trying to get a job, making crappy movies,” he says. “It’s not a concern, because I’m not going to do it. Oh, who knows what I’ll do in another 20 years? I’ll probably be writing novels and film literature and essays.” He adopting a Capote-esque accent: “Aaah’ll become a man of letters…”
But for now? More movies. Making them. Watching them. Talking about them. Loving them. “You know what I haven’t seen?” he buzzes with enthusiasm. “I opened up a copy of your magazine today and there was a big review of The Devils inside it. I literally have the video starring me in the face right now! I’ve had it forever and I’ve just never seen it. I’m glad that I have interesting holes like The Devils that I can really be excited about.”
And so, the great film study of Tarantino’s life continues. Three decades on from the video store, his enthusiasm is as youthful as it ever was. But does he sometimes worry that all this filming isn’t good for you? This time there’s no pause, no doubt. “Would you ask Van Gogh, does he look at too many paintings?”
Publication: Little White Lies