It is hard not to view the recent legal tussle between Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino in pugilistic terms. Ostensibly there was no more at stake than the rights to Tarantino's screenplay, Natural Born Killers, written in his years as a struggling scriptwriter, and now notoriously filmed (and altered) by Stone. Faber and Faber in this country, and Grove Atlantic in the US, had planned to bring out Tarantino's original script in January of this year. But Stone and the producers of NBK objected, arguing that in selling them the rights to the film, Tarantino had surrendered the publishing rights as well. It wasn't until last Monday that Faber was finally able to publish Tarantino's NBK. A common enough legal dispute, but one spiced up by being contended by two of the heaviest hitters in Hollywood, whose styles of film-making - united only in controversy - represent alternative paths of radicalism for US movies.
Faber rushed out NBK within a week of getting the legal green light, having had their operation on stand-by for months. Their haste was understandable. Tarantino is a publishing as well as a film phenomenon. His screenplay sales have expanded a traditionally meagre market. Pulp Fiction has now sold about 100,000 copies; Reservoir Dogs 50,000; True Romance 20,000 (another 90,000 were distributed free with Premiere magazine); 18,000 copies of NBK have been bought by bookshops. That is a total approaching 200,000 - the figure clocked up by Faber's other sales champion, Alan Bennett's Writing Home. Faber's previous most popular screenplay was Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective, which sold 30,000 copies.
Who buys all these scripts? Do amateur dramatic groups put on Goodfellas (15,000 sales) for their Christmas panto? More likely, fans snap up Tarantino's screenplays as much for their souvenir value, wanting a hip sort of holy relic, as for their unique pith and pungency. Faber's use of large mug- shots of Tarantino, in Reservoir Dogs-style dark suit and tie, on the covers of NBK and True Romance, may have been prompted by legal restraints on the use of stills. But it suggests the promotion of a pop star rather than an auteur.
The first point to make about Tarantino's NBK script is that it's not very good; the second is that it's a lot better than Stone's film. In an introduction to the script of True Romance (which Tony Scott directed), Tarantino explains that both it and NBK were written to be his own directorial debut. NBK certainly reads like an apprentice work. If you'd received it to assess as a movie proposition, you'd have recognised the immense promise (you hope), but turned it down. It has the canny dialogue and dark exhilaration of Tarantino's later work, but less control. Yet there's a touching sincerity in the script that is totally absent from the film. Tarantino has said of his decision not to direct NBK and True Romance: "I think of them as old girlfriends: I loved them, but I didn't want to marry them anymore." You can understand, then, his chagrin at NBK getting screwed by Oliver Stone.
NBK (for those lucky enough not to have seen it) is about a pair of serial- killer sweethearts. The movie chronicles their crimes, capture, imprisonment and eventual escape - and the escalation of their perverse celebrity. Stone's argument - proclaimed so loudly and insistently that no viewer could miss it - is that the media are complicit in these crimes, their amoral prurience having destroyed society's sense of reality. Stone makes his point with a pell-mell of shooting styles - film, video, television. But without any logic in their use, the film becomes a promiscuous mess. Tarantino's script is much more disciplined. There are fewer styles of shooting, and each makes dramatic sense (a hold-up in a 7-Eleven store is shot throughout by a security camera, where Stone uses a stylistic kaleidoscope) - while also casting light on our culture of viewing.
Stone has squeezed the subtlety out of Tarantino's script. The script's mercurial tone - now a Tarantino trademark - shifts between humour and horror, romance and savagery, perceptiveness and derangement, wisdom and naivety. Of his killer Tarantino says: "Restrained as he is by the symbols of society (the chains, jail, guards, guns, jumpsuits), he remains a dangerous, intimidating, and fascinating figure." There is insight there, a curiosity about character missing from Stone, even if it is tinged with infatuation. And Tarantino's violence is more complex than Stone's - both appalling and hilarious. In the 7-Eleven shoot-out, Tarantino switches between realism and cartoon knock-about. First: "Mickey shoots a customer who lies on the ground screaming." Then: "Mallory blasts a female customer, holding a Big Gulp. She flies into the comic-book rack." As in Marx's theory of history, the first time is tragedy, the second farce.
Tarantino's Grand Guignol gags lay him open to accusations of anarchy. But his NBK is much more serious and responsible than Stone's. His theme is suggested in a speech cut in the film. A slyly written psychiatrist analyses the authorities' treatment of the killers:
"Well, what they decided to do was to set up a kangaroo medical court that found them crazy. Then they get them transferred to Nystrom Medical Asylum or Lobotomy Bay as it's referred to in psychiatric circles. Put 'em on a strict dope and electric-shock diet, and Mickey and Mallory cease to be a problem to anybody except the orderlies who clean out the bedpans, which, if you want to see them get theirs, is all well and good. But there's something being said here ... What the board is saying is 'We give up'. Mickey and Mallory ran amok in polite society. They were put in an alternative society and they ran amok there, too. All the powers that be can't deal with these two kids. And whatever can't be assimilated has to be terminated."
That last line is very much the approach of Tarantino's detractors to his films - and it should serve as a rebuke to them. Tarantino's subject is extremity, and he has the boldness to look it in the eye - and often laugh at it - while others turn and wish it would go away.
And yet Tarantino isn't a message movie-maker. Where Tarantino hints, Stone bludgeons - the difference between an artist and an egomaniac. "To me the best thing about him is his energy," Tarantino, who claims not to have seen NBK, has said of Stone. "But his biggest problem is that his obviousness cancels out his energy and his energy pumps up his obviousness." Tarantino's wit deflates portentousness, and his acute ear ensures that his wild fantasy is grounded in reality. Some of his dialogue is even more fun on the page than on the screen. Too much of it has been heedlessly cut by Stone, such as a London fan's verdict on the killers: "Their cause is each uvver!"
But Tarantino's virtuosity may carry as many dangers for American film as Stone's crudeness. There are already signs that his parodic style is rendering traditional genres obsolete. And Stone may be the man to redress the balance with his forthcoming Nixon, whose script is said to be both riveting and perceptive. Whatever these two heavyweights go on to produce, it is a shame their recent bout produced a film that is anything but a knock-out.
! 'Natural Born Killers' is out now (Faber, pounds 7.99).Reuse content