Uh-oh. Who's that riding into town, with an expression of gleeful menace on his face, and all the little boys running after him in hero worship? It's Quentin Tarantino, the troublemaker, the connoisseur of badassery, the Billy the Kid of modern film-making. The former enfant terrible will turn 50 this March, but he refuses to toe the line, account for his attitudes, or justify his movie excesses. As Krishnan Guru-Murthy, the Channel 4 news presenter, found out on Thursday evening.
In the course of a chatty interview, he asked Tarantino: "Why are you so sure there's no link between enjoying movie violence and enjoying real violence?" Tarantino considered for a minute before exploding.
"Don't ask me a question like that. I'm not biting. I refuse your question … I'm not your slave and you're not my master. You can't make me dance to your tune. I'm not a monkey."
He said he had no wish to discuss "the implications of violence" because he'd said it all before – that there's no relationship between screen violence and random mass shootings.
But, said Guru-Murthy, "You haven't said why you think there's no relationship."
"It's none of your damn business what I think about that," snapped Tarantino.
"It's my job," Guru-Murthy bravely persisted, "to ask you why you think that, because …"
"And I'm saying no," shouted Tarantino. "And I'm shutting you down."
It was terrific television. A new word was coined to describe the director's outburst: a "tantrumtino". But it was his attitude that startled: his chin-out aggression to people who don't get him and his movies, who drag his luridly beautiful works of art into the light of reality. Don't, he says, blame me for the state of the world.
On 4 January, asked about the most recent school shooting, he said: "Would I watch a kung fu movie three days after the Sandy Hook massacre? Maybe – 'cause they have nothing to do with each other. I'm really annoyed. I think it's disrespectful to the memory of the people who died, to talk about movies."
Tarantino's is the name that most often comes up in debates about the aestheticisation of violence in mainstream film. He deals in violence as entertainment, excitement, energy, mixing it with humour, coolness and great soundtracks. If there's a moral evolution in his career, it's between the violence that professional tough guys inflict on each other, and violence that's justified by oppression.
Reservoir Dogs (1992) falls into the first category, in depicting the aftermath of a bungled robbery and the deadly face-off between the gun-waving hoodlums. Pulp Fiction (1994) explored everyday violence and murder: the chitchat of professional hitmen, a loving couple's discussion about whether restaurants are better to rob than gas stations, the dinner-jacketed guy you call when there's a corpse to be disposed of. These were characters unseen before, dialogue previously unheard; this was utterly distinctive, quirkily personal film-making that messed with the narrative timeline, offered flashbacks, went off at tangents, wove four or five disparate stories into a satisfying whole.
His later films have striven for violence with a conscience: the revenge of the oppressed. Kill Bill (2003/2004) was a baroquely overextended, hyper-stylised hymn to vengeance as a sword-wielding Uma Thurman tracks down and dispatches the people who raped her and left her for dead on her wedding day. Set in the Second World War, Inglourious Basterds (2009) sent a hand-picked troop of Jewish-American soldiers to avenge the depredations wreaked on their race by hunting, torturing, killing and scalping Nazis. His new film, Django Unchained, takes on the issue of slavery in 1850s America and sees a single slave freed and empowered to seek revenge on a villainous plantation owner (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).
His imagination isn't initially spurred by a historical wrong that needs righting, however. The genesis of Django Unchained was his admiration for Sergio Corbucci, an all but forgotten Italian director of spaghetti westerns (The Great Silence, Navajo Joe, Django). When he describes Corbucci's work ("his was the most violent, surreal and pitiless landscape of any director in the history of [the western]"), you can hear him longing to take up the implied challenge. "When I put pen to paper for the script, I thought, 'What will push the characters to their extremes?' I thought the closest equivalent to Corbucci's landscapes would be the antebellum south."
So genre came first, and the theme of slavery second. This has made many critics and commentators – even fellow directors – uncomfortable. The black director Spike Lee went on Twitter to say: "American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. It was a holocaust. My ancestors are slaves. Stolen from Africa. I will honor them." Asked to elaborate, he said, "I can't speak on it because I'm not going to see it. All I'm going to say is it's disrespectful to my ancestors."
Empire magazine, giving it four stars, remarked that the typically sprightly "Tarantino-esque" qualities of cartoonish violence and black comedy sat queasily alongside the realistic scenes of slave lashings, and the scene where two Mandingos have to fight each other to the death. Roger Ebert, the éminence grise of the Chicago Sun-Times, explained that the director is "a student and champion of exploitation films", and that his artistry resides in taking shocking material and "transforming that gut element with something higher, better, more daring. His films challenge taboos in our society in the most direct possible way, and at the same time add an element of parody or satire". Like other critics he praises Tarantino for his lack of restraint. His unchained quality.
Tarantino was a child of the South, born in Knoxville, Tennessee, the son of Irish-Italian parents. His father was an actor and amateur musician who left Quentin's mother, a nurse, before his son was born. His mother took Quentin, aged two, to California and set up home in the LA suburb of Harbor City. Quentin dropped out of high school at 15 to attend acting classes in Hollywood, but left after two years. Then he discovered Video Archives, a rental store in Manhattan Beach, and his life changed. He allegedly watched every movie on the shelves, and discussed with friends which films the public liked to rent.
His break came when he met Lawrence Bender, a tyro producer who suggested he write a screenplay. Tarantino obliged with My Best Friend's Birthday, which he eventually directed. Bizarrely, the film was destroyed in a laboratory blaze – but it resurfaced as True Romance, brilliantly filmed by Tony Scott. In the early 1990s, Tarantino wrote the script for Reservoir Dogs in a three-week burst of energy. Bender sent it to Harvey Keitel, who put money in as co-producer, and co-starred as one of the gang.
With Dogs an instant hit in 1992, Romance released to acclaim in 1993, and Oliver Stone taking up his script of Natural Born Killers, Tarantino was hot as a gun barrel. But he turned down offers to direct, and concentrated on writing Pulp Fiction. It was a sensation, winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes and an Oscar for Best Screenplay along with six nominations, including Best Director and Best Picture.
Things were never as starry again. From Dusk to Dawn, which he scripted and co-starred in (as George Clooney's furtive-paedophile brother), was a ludicrous gangster-vampire gross-out. Jackie Brown was a homage to blaxploitation movies that was made, he claimed, "primarily for black audiences". Other genres to which he paid homage, although few people had ever seen the originals, were wuxia (Chinese martial arts) which spawned Kill Bill, 1970s slasher movies which inspired his Death Proof, his half of the ill-fated Grindhouse project, and macaroni combat, whose most famous exemplar, The Inglorious Bastards (1978), led to his super-violent re-invention in 2009. But public unfamiliarity with the genre didn't stop the movie's success: it grossed $321m worldwide, his most commercially successful movie.
Tarantino has told an online magazine that he plans to make the last film in an Inglourious Basterds/Django Unchained trilogy; it'll be called Killer Crow, about a group of Second World War black soldiers, spurned by the US military, who go on the warpath, killing white soldiers in European military bases all the way to Switzerland.
He may be joking. But you wouldn't want to bet on it. Or argue with him.
Life In Brief
Born: Quentin Jerome Tarantino, 27 March 1963, Knoxville, Tennessee.
Family: Son of Tony Tarantino, an actor and amateur musician, and Connie McHugh, a nurse. He has one half-brother, Ron.
Education: Attended Narbonne High School in Harbor City, LA. Dropped out to attend acting classes at James Best Theatre Company.
Career: Decided he wanted to make films while working at a video rental store in Manhattan Beach. First film Reservoir Dogs was released in 1992. The same year he sold his script for True Romance before writing and directing 1994's Pulp Fiction, for which he won an Oscar for best original screenplay. Other films include Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, and Django Unchained.
He says: "Violence is one of the most fun things to watch."
They say: "Quentin has an affinity for writing horrible things, and then making you laugh. He's making entertainment." Jamie Foxx, star of Django Unchained