That second film, a cunning satire called Pulp Fiction, not only captured and defined a sly, ineffable contemporary humour, it also created its own genre: the ironic, retro-hip, instant replay Pop Flick, the post-modern, pump-action gorefest - an extraordinary vehicle, capable of recontextualising any reference and refreshing any cliche, and instantly reviving even the most moribund acting career (pace Travolta). Pulp Fiction's critical and commercial success unleashed a new wave of knowing, independent- spirited film-making: suddenly all kinds of previously unbankable, unthinkable, totally unviable projects found their way onto the screen.
Because whatever else Hollywood thought about your profusion of blood- drenched, smack-snorting, bible-quoting, basement torturing, homicidal, cap-popping, monosyllabic buffoons, it loved the bottom line. Made on a budget of $8 million, Pulp Fiction was a world-wide cinematic phenomenon that took an astonishing $250 million gross at the box-office. Like they say, a hard act to follow.
So you - Quentin Nerdmeister Tarantino, supreme overlord of movie geeks everywhere, the ex-video-store assistant who parlayed his trainspotting passion for Kung Fu chop 'em ups, westerns and gangster movies into a glittering career - an Oscar for Best Screenplay and the Palme d'Or at Cannes - you now must come up with the goods.
You've been stalling for three years, trying to chose the right project. In the meantime, you've done precious little that could be described as Tarantino-esque, unless that includes overacting in budget movies. Oh yes, there was an embarrassing guest-host slot on Saturday Night Live, and your contribution to the 1995 flop comedy Four Rooms. To be fair, From Dusk Till Dawn, a gangster-horror whimsy which you wrote, produced and starred in with George Clooney, was well received and did respectable business. But the truth is, people are talking. They're wondering if your hard drive has stalled. The moment of truth approaches.
On Christmas Day, to be exact. That's when Tarantino's much-vaunted Jackie Brown opens in the US, though British audiences will have to wait until some time around next Easter to see it. Basically a sly twist on the Seventies blaxploitation genre, Jackie Brown has a black female star in the title role, in a stylistic nod towards its filmic predecessors, slick sistas-with-attitude movies like Cleopatra Jones, Coffy and Foxy Brown. And in a typically fan-boy gesture, it is the female star of these last two movies, the cult actress Pam Grier who plays Tarantino's eponymous heroine.
The labyrinthine plot, adapted from Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch, will delight the legions of QT fans. Ruthless international gun runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L Jackson) is on the verge of retirement, and looking to smuggle the last $500,000 of his ill-gotten gains into Los Angeles from his Mexican base in Cabo San Lucas. Flight stewardess Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) has been working as Ordell's mule, carrying cash from Mexico to LA. But after being caught by federal agents carrying Ordell's money, plus a drug consignment she didn't even know about, Brown finds herself unexpectedly bailed by Ordell, who seems certain to have her killed. In a risky move, Brown apparently plays ball with FBI agent Ray Nicolet (Michael Keaton), agreeing to cooperate with the feds in a "sting" operation, and subsequently testify against her gun-runner boss. Of course, she's secretly plotting to double-cross both Ordell and Nicolet, leaving them high and dry - or better still, dead - and make off with the money. Naturally, her plan is complicated by the fact that several other characters are thinking along similar lines, including Ordell's extremely violent hoodlum acquaintance Louis Gara, played by Robert De Niro.
So far, the only people to have seen Jackie Brown, outside of production company Miramax and Tarantino's cast and crew, are 200 citizens of Seattle, invited along to an impromptu screening while queueing at one of the city's multiplex cinemas. But according to them, and the various unofficial Internet sites set up by devotees to proclaim the return of their saviour, Jackie Brown meets all the criteria for a bona fide QT experience. There is the trademark use of Seventies funk and pop, with special attention given to soul crooners The Delfonics. Also featured are cult favourites such as Little Feat and Bobby Womack, with an anachronistic smattering of Supremes thrown in for good measure; all will appear on the inevitable soundtrack album, to be released by Madonna's Maverick label (remember Tarantino's "Like a Virgin" monologue in Reservoir Dogs?)
There are other typical stylistic flourishes, too, such as the slick use of Seventies-style split screen, and a section where the same scene is viewed from differing viewpoints, offering three different interpretations of the same events. And though Tarantino appeared in all three of his previous directing efforts, he will not make a cameo appearance in Jackie Brown. Likewise, for the first time, fetish actor Tim Roth is absent from the cast list.
However, as one would expect, the script includes rambling monologues littered with oblique observations on junk culture, and plenty of foul-mouthed and gratuitous drug references, including a speech about how coughing while smoking grass increases the drug's potency. Once again, Tarantino will give middle America a little erection with his persistent use of its taboo nominative "nigga". Indeed, the word is used no less than 30 times in the opening 10 minutes of "Jackie Brown", and at one point Samuel L Jackson's character declares, scathingly, of an LA neighbourhood: "I bet you come here on a Saturday night, you need nigga repellent to keep them off yo' ass." Ordell also claims the quintessential Tarantino-killer comedy line: "When you absolutely, positively, gotta kill ever muthafucker in the room, accept no substitute!"
Perhaps it is not surprising that Tarantino should have chosen to parody the "badass" movie genre. The blaxploitation vibe has been wafting through the smog that passes for Hollywood air for some time, and Tarantino would certainly have been aware of Orion's recent moderate success with Original Gangstas, an all-black action pic with a cast composed almost entirely of Seventies blaxploitation actors, including Fred Williamson (Black Caesar), Ron O'Neal (Superfly), Richard Roundtree (Shaft) and - surprise - Pam Grier of Foxy Brown fame. In Original Gangstas the cast give a knowing nod to their own cinematic past, by playing a bunch of middle-aged former street-gang members who come out of "retirement" to rid their crime-plagued neighbourhood of third-generation Uzi-toting gangsters with no respect for their elders.
As for Grier, though her name may not mean much here, 20 years ago she was one of only three actresses who could open a movie in American theatres - the others being Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli. And with the benefit of hindsight, she has come to be regarded as a proto-feminist icon for her performances in a host of money-spinning, black action movies. More recently she has given strong support in John Carpenter's Escape From LA and Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!.When shooting began in Culver City this summer, Grier pronounced herself "sincerely elated" to be cast in the title role of Tarantino's follow-up to Pulp Fiction, especially "when so few roles are being written for women of colour, under any circumstances." Tarantino, for his part, says that he never had anyone else in mind, and wrote the script specifically for Grier. Indeed, she is also mentioned in Reservoir Dogs, when her role in the TV series Get Christie Love comes up for discussion.
A clue to Tarantino's current thinking can be found in the name of the Jackie Brown production company. The film is made by Miramax and A Band Apart and produced by their specially formed joint company, Mighty Mighty Afrodite - a pun on the title role that earned Tarantino's current girlfriend Mira Sorvino an Oscar, in Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite. And perhaps it is not Jackie Brown, but Tarantino's next movie, which will star Mira Sorvino, that we should be getting excited about. Because the plain fact is that his absolute mastery of form has disguised a lightweight content. Nobody wants Tarantino to turn into Woody Allen, but a little more emotional and intellectual meat on his bloody bones wouldn't go amiss. You can only do so many arch dialogues about burgers and Madonna songs without straying into half-assed self-parody.
This is the real challenge for Tarantino - to elevate his self-created genre, to transcend his cult-movie universe with its larger-than-life characters spouting cartoon lines. Sophisticated and witty though it may be, and beautifully crafted too, Tarantino's work is emotionally cramped. The bandwidth of feeling never broadens out beyond a certain spectrum, the characters develop in terms of plot necessity rather than self-awareness. Thus far, the only Tarantino script to actually confront love and desire, True Romance, did so in the most risibly cliche'd and banal terms - tart with heart of gold meets video-store geek in a doomed-lovers' shoot-'em-up road movie. Even allowing for Tony Scott's ham-fisted direction, True Romance is a strong reminder that Tarantino is much more at home with grotesque and exaggerated emotions like terror, contempt, fury and awe.
So far, he has been little more than inept when dealing with love and intimate relationships, and the subtle emotional states they entail. But his success merely heightens expectations. Will he eventually stop hiding and move beyond scenes of gore-spattered, breakneck determination and highly choreographed dances of death? Will he learn to touch us?
Not this time. Jackie Brown is a Christmas gift for die-hard QT fans everywhere. Let's hope that it's a cracker.
The Unofficial 'Jackie Brown' Homepage is at http://www.silcom.com/riffraff/jackie.htm
THE REAL JACKIE BROWN?
Is this scene, anonymously posted on the Unofficial 'Jackie Brown' Homepage, a genuine extract from the screenplay, as written by Tarantino?
The trunk of a car is opened. Ordell bends down into the trunk and pulls out a pump-action shotgun. Beaumont obviously doesn't want any part of any Ordell game that requires a pump-action shotgun as a playing piece.
ORDELL: Now you're gonna be in the trunk holding on to the shotgun. And I'm going to tell them I'm opening up my trunk to show 'em my goods. I open up the trunk, you pop up, rack that bad boy.
BEAUMONT: Fuck that shit, man. I ain't shootin' anybody.
ORDELL: What the fuck I tell you. You don't hafta shoot nobody. Just hold the gun. They'll get the idea.
BEAUMONT: I ain't gittin' in that trunk.
ORDELL: We only going to Koreatown. You'll be in there - 10 minutes.
BEAUMONT: Uh-uh. I ain't riding in that trunk no minutes. Why don't I just ride with you?
ORDELL: You can't ride with me. The surprise effect is 90 per cent of it.
BEAUMONT: Well, I'm sorry, man, but I ain't gittin' in that trunk.
ORDELL: I can't believe you do me this way.
BEAUMONT: I ain't doin' you no way. I just ain't climbin' in that trunk. I got a problem with small places.
ORDELL: Well my ass has got a problem spending ten thousand dollars of my own goddamn money to get ungrateful, peanut-head niggas outta jail, but I do it -
BEAUMONT: Look, man, I know I owe you -
ORDELL: - Well, if you owe me, git your ass in the trunk -
BEAUMONT: - I wanna help you, but I don't wanna be locked in the trunk of no car.
ORDELL: - You think I wanted to spend ten thousand dollars on your ass?
Beaumont starts to speak -
ORDELL: [continuing] - Answer the question, nigga. Do you think I wanted to spend ten thousand dollars on your ass? Yes or no?
BEAUMONT: Of course you didn't.
ORDELL: But the only way to help you was to do that, so I did it. [pause] Okay, how 'bout this? After we're through fuckin' with these Koreans, I take you to Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles. My treat.
Beaumont smiles. So does Ordell.
ORDELL: [continuing] Just think, man. That 'Scoe's special, smothered in gravy and onions. Get a side of red beans and rice. Uuuummmm, that's some good eatin'.
They laugh together ... then Beaumont says:
BEAUMONT: Now exactly how long I gotta be in this motherfucker?