Late last month, the American film-maker Quentin Tarantino finished a first draft of the screenplay for Django Unchained. Following a familiar routine, he handed it over to his regular backer, Harvey Weinstein, and then had a party at his house where his friends could read it, drink champagne and celebrate with him. This now looks set to be his next movie. No one at all is surprised that the 48-year-old Tarantino has finally decided to make a spaghetti Western.
"The spaghetti Western is one of the greatest genres, as far as I know, in the history of the world cinema and definitely in the history of the Italian cinema. The fact is that they've [spaghetti Western movies] never been truly appreciated," the director pronounced when he hosted a massive season of spaghetti Westerns at the Venice Festival in 2007.
When he is asked to pick his top films of all time, Tarantino regularly plumps for Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as the absolute summit of film-making craft and endeavour. "I think a case can even be made that with Leone and [Ennio] Morricone that they are the best director-composer team in the history of film," he commented.
His movies are full of spaghetti-Western riffs and motifs. The bravura introduction to Inglourious Basterds (in which we see the Jewish family hiding out in the Alpine country farmhouse as the Nazis close in on them) owes an obvious debt to the early sequence of the slaughter in 1968's Once Upon a Time in the West. The gangsters in Reservoir Dogs have the same strutting walk as outlaws in Leone's movies. The mix of sadism, comedy and violence found in Kill Bill runs through the Leone trilogy, as well.
Having nodded in the direction of the genre, paying homage to it indirectly, he is to make a full-blown spaghetti-Western of his own. He told one film trade website that the movie was to be a "Southern": that is to say, a Western set in the Deep South. The title echoes the 1966 Sergio Corbucci Western, Django, and its many successors, among them Takashi Miike's Japanese variation on the spaghetti format, Sukiyaki Western Django (2008), in which Tarantino himself had a small role.
Somehow, the screenplay for Django Unchained was leaked on the internet earlier this month. This was the occasion for Tarantino fans to whip themselves up into a mini-frenzy. As always with this particular film-maker, opinion was sharply divided. Some acclaimed the script as a masterpiece. Others (notably the website Obsessed with Film) called it ponderous, excessive and "WAYYYY too long". If the web speculation is correct, the new film will be about a freed slave-turned-gunslinger. There is apparently a plum role for the Austrian actor Christoph Waltz as a Klaus Kinski-like German bounty hunter. The script reportedly deals with racism and the legacy of black slavery in an unflinching manner.
The absurdity of judging a film long before it has been cast, financed or made is self-evident, not least to the director himself. "I just wrote it Tuesday. I wrote it Tuesday. I'm not even directing it yet! I just wrote a script Tuesday, all right? It's just a script. A piece of paper, a lot of pieces of paper – 366, to be exact," he protested a few days ago when the internet speculation about the film and its casting reached its peak.
Nonetheless, the debate surrounding the leaked Django script hints at the dilemmas facing Tarantino at a pivotal moment in his career. He is approaching the project on the back of the commercial success of Inglourious Basterds, which made more than $300m worldwide. The hit came after a string of films that had underperformed, at least by the standards of Pulp Fiction. The fansites haven't hesitated to warn him that for younger, non-Tarantino, non-Leone devotees, a spaghetti Western with a political undertow may not be an obvious box-office draw. Meanwhile, for a film-maker approaching his 50s, it must grow ever harder to summon up the zest to make yet another bad-ass action movie.
In spite of the pop-culture riffs in his work, and the way he proselytizes tirelessly on behalf of trashy movies, Tarantino is not a trashy film-maker. There are layers of subtext and sophistication in his movies that you simply don't find in, say, Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico and Machete. (Nor can you easily imagine him directing a franchise such as Spy Kids.) Festivals fete him and critics savour his work as much because of the brilliance of his dialogue as because of Uma Thurman's aptitude with a sword in Kill Bill or the ear being lopped off in Reservoir Dogs. Alongside the genre directors he so admires, his early enthusiasm for the work of Jean-Luc Godard has been well chronicled. (His production company was called Band Apart, after Godard's film Bande à Part.) Like Godard, he rarely sticks to linear narrative. That adolescent romanticism found in his screenplay for True Romance or in the dance sequence in Pulp Fiction isn't something you'd find in a Mario Bava horror film or in one of the original Django Westerns. The knowing irony and humour that runs through all of his work likewise distinguishes it from many of the B-movies he champions.
No one is expecting Tarantino suddenly to turn his back on genre movies and start making well-heeled costume dramas. By the same token, it must be burdensome to play out the role of the ageing enfant terrible. When it comes to action set-pieces, he has set himself such absurdly lofty standards that it is hard to see where he can go now other than toward feeble self-parody. Once you've shown Uma Thurman dispatching 88 bodyguards and a chain-wielding Japanese nymphet (as Tarantino did in The House of Blue Leaves sequence in Kill Bill), or you've staged the definitive movie car-chase (as he did in Death Proof), there aren't many new stunts left to pull.
It is instructive to compare the filmographies of Tarantino and of Woody Allen. Since his debut feature in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs, the former has directed only seven features. In the same period, Woody Allen has made more than 20 movies. Arguably, this is Tarantino's curse. He has never been the kind of film-maker who can just take a script out of his bottom drawer, dust it down and start shooting. Every new movie he makes is an event, surrounded by hype and bombast. The pressure is always on him to trump what he (and everyone else) did before. In trespassing on Sergio Leone's turf, he is arguably setting himself his biggest challenge yet. How do you go beyond The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West? This is the question that must be tormenting him now.