CINEMA / Blood and guts in the diner

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The Independent Culture
LEWD, bad and dangerous to view, Quentin Tarantino is the least categorisable, most troubling director in cinema today - too talented to dismiss, too volatile to embrace. The hype that greets his every move hardens you against him; and yet his films, for all their gleeful triviality and wanton violence, have a way of winning you over.

The follow-up to Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction (18), sounds unappetising: a woman overdosing on heroin, a man having his head blown off in a car, a homosexual rape. But Taran tino serves it all up with such verve and insolent humour that halfway through the blood-spattered main course, you realise you're having a good time.

Pulp Fiction is a portmanteau movie with a difference. Its four narratives overlap, the characters wandering between them. Tarantino's writing tends towards glittering cameos rather than fully-fledged heroes, but if the film has a leading man, it's John Travolta. Drowsier than usual, he plays a heroin-injecting hood who, along with partner Samuel L Jackson, acts as a vicious odd-job man for their big-shot boss. In the first story, Travolta is ordered to take the boss's glamorous wife (Uma Thurman) out for a night on the town - and has to avoid falling for her. Meanwhile, the boss, in the second story, is being betrayed by a boxer (Bruce Willis), who resists throwing a fight for him. The third story returns to Travolta and Jackson, disposing of a dead man whose brains have been blasted over the inside of their car.

If all this sounds familiar, it's not surprising. Tarantino's game is to take classic pulp stories and give them a new, unexpected spin, usually in the direction of real life. The Bruce Willis boxing episode, for instance, springs from a noir staple, best treated in Robert Wise's film The Set-Up (1949), in which Robert Ryan refused to go down in a fight. But Tar antino starts where Wise ended. He shows the fighter on the run after the bout. The qualities that served the boxer (named, bluntly, Butch) in the ring spill over into life outside it. In an archetypal Tarantino scene mixing gags and Grand Guignol, Willis escapes with his life from a sado-masochistic dungeon, and returns to wreak vengeance on his assailants with a Samurai sword. The perverse honour of the ring urges him on.

Such violence may put you off going to Pulp Fiction. There is no avoiding it; but it is worth pointing out that though Taran tino is wilder and more outlandish (and frankly, more imaginative) than other directors, he is rarely more explicit.

He operates at a dangerous interface between farce (which has always dwelt on physical cruelty) and brutality. He is fascinated by life's grotesque haphazardness. There is a scene in which a character returns to his house and finds a machine-gun in the kitchen. He picks it up and puts a piece of bread in the toaster. The gun's owner returns from the lavatory. A face-off.

Suddenly the toast pops up, chiming with a retort of gunfire, as the finger jumpily squeezes the trigger. The intruder has taken his last pee. The scene is both appalling and hilarious.

I don't think Tarantino glories in violence. But he does rather glibly accept it. He is skilful and sensitive enough to show violence's terrible impact (coming close to cinema verite in his shooting of a harrowing diner hold-up.) But he is not interested in asking where his characters' viciousness springs from. Harvey Keitel has a wonderful cameo as the Wolf, a smoothie in a bow-tie, whose job it is to clear up the unforeseen disasters of gangster life - inconvenient corpses and the like. But compare Pulp Fiction with two earlier Keitel gangster pictures, Mean Streets (1973) and Fingers (1977), which perilously explored the pathologies of their hoods, and you see how little interest Tarantino has in the mind behind the gun.

There was a sequence in Reservoir Dogs in which the gangsters argued over which was their favourite Lee Marvin film. And yet Marvin who, as a soldier, actually experienced the most appalling physical combats first- hand, is the antithesis of Taran tino. As an actor, Marvin brought to his villains a horrified intimacy with the worst aspects of mankind. Tarantino's take on violence is more casual and less concerned. I doubt Marvin would have cared for it.

Tarantino may not have much of a moral sensibility, but what he does have is an ear like a satellite dish, tuned in to all the crazy trivia of pop culture and the fractured rhythms of contemporary speech. His dialogue is a perky pleasure ('When you little scamps get together you're worse than a sewing circle,' Thurman upbraids Travolta). And he gaudily invigorates the language of menace ('I'm gonna get medieval on your ass'). If there is a problem it is that his characters often sound the same. Like their creator, they spend their lives debating the merits of junk foods and pop lyrics - albeit in a wonderfully baroque way. It reaches its nadir when Willis and his girl chat in bed about the differences between a pot belly and a paunch -Tarantino's idea of sexual intimacy, but surely not many other people's.

Pulp Fiction looks set for the sort of polarised reaction provoked by Reservoir Dogs and the Tarantino-scripted True Romance (1993) - delirium or disgust. If you can wade through the gore and the discarded syringes, you reach a set of sparkling performances, some fabulously tacky decor, a classic wig (Sam Jackson's Afro-variation jheri-curls) and a pricelessly slow, twisty dance between Travolta and Thurman. Not enough for a masterpiece, but more than adequate for a good night out.

The Client (15) is the best of the John Grisham films so far - though that is not saying much. Joel (Falling Down) Schumacher would have made a proficient studio director in the old Hollywood, and here he has avoided the tedious plot manoeuvres which entangled other directors in The Firm (1993) and The Pelican Brief (1993). He is also aided by engaging, slightly tongue-in-cheek (ie cheque-in-pocket) performances from Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon, as two attorneys scrapping over the testimony of a boy who has witnessed a Mafia lawyer's suicide - and learnt his secret. Jones as the ballsy, ebullient FBI huckster, whose eyes are more on a political career than the boy's welfare, has his usual advantage of not caring whether we like him (we don't). Sarandon, as his cheapskate opponent whose own children have been taken into care, stares at us with those brimming eyes, and settles into raddled earth-motherhood. The South, as ever, in Grisham films, is a travesty - all smoky, jazzy restaurants, sharp suits and Elvis souvenirs. But at least the film is vaguely dramatic, if not plausible or meaningful.

The latest film by the veteran Claude Chabrol, L'Enfer (15), is a study of sexual jealousy. A hotelier (Francois Cluzet) suspects his beautiful wife (Emmanuelle Beart) of having an affair. His ignorance is ours too, and we have the same itch to know. But jealousy is such a dehumanising emotion, that inhabiting this obsessed mind leaves us looking at a cardboard - if disturbing - world.

8 Seconds (12) is a rodeo movie about a shy, toothy, good- natured boy (Luke Perry) who is supremely good at clinging on to the back of a bucking bull for eight seconds, and often longer. The credits will reveal that this is the true story of the late Lane Frost, a rodeo world champion. A series of his home movies at the end are more vivid than anything that precedes them.

Just space to recommend three re-released masterpieces to Quentin Tarantino.

From Robert Bresson's Lancelot du Lac (1974, PG) he could learn that film can have graver subjects than junk (for Bresson, the death of the Middle Ages) and that carnage can be the more telling for being ritualised - likewise love. Jean Cocteau's 1949 Orphee (PG) and Le Testament d'Orphee (1959, PG) could teach him that death may be a luscious dame rather than a grizzled hood, and that not all the cinema's poetry need stem from the gutter.