Quentin Tarantino: Freak thrills

With the cult film 'Pulp Fiction' he created the cinema of cool and invested the 1990s with his unique brand of violence and quirkiness. Now he's back, and the body count's higher than ever. Samurai-cartoon-gangster-spaghetti-western-trash epic anyone?
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The Independent Online

When Quentin Tarantino became a cultural phenomenon in 1994 with his second film, Pulp Fiction, he did it by breaking all the rules. With it he won the Palme D'Or at Cannes, and established himself as the only Hollywood director as famous as the movie stars he directs. In the process he turned his surname into an adjective - Tarantino-esque - that describes his cinema of cool. At the same time he revived the moribund career of John Travolta, while making the fortune of a fledgling production company called Miramax. So last week's announcement that his latest film, Kill Bill - a martial arts epic - will be cut in half and released as two separate films sounds like typical, maverick Tarantino.

Everything about Kill Bill is out of the ordinary. The first original film Tarantino has written and directed in a decade - Jackie Brown, his 1997 follow-up to Pulp Fiction, was adapted from an Elmore Leonard thriller - the script ran to 200 pages. This was twice the normal length, and took the director 155 days to film on locations such as Mexico and Beijing.

The story features a professional assassin called the Bride, played by Uma Thurman, who co-starred in Pulp Fiction. Shot down on her wedding day and in a coma for five years, the Bride recovers and sets out to destroy her erstwhile colleagues led by the eponymous Bill. That role was first earmarked for Warren Beatty but is now played by another Tarantino "rediscovery", David Carradine, whose own career has sputtered since his 1970s American TV series Kung Fu.

According to Tarantino, Kill Bill, which features 100 deaths in a single scene, is the ultimate compendium of the director's pop-culture obsessions. "You've got to be four different kinds of freak to get the script," he told Entertainment Weekly during filming. "You've got to be into trashy movies and epic movies and kung fu and samurai stuff and comic books and cartoons and spaghetti westerns and gangster movies. Lucky me, I'm into all of it."

But the real surprise is Miramax's decision to release the three-hour Kill Bill as two films instead of one, always a risky strategy. Tarantino is known to have difficulty editing his films ("Quentin can't cut!" says a friend), but Miramax's flamboyant head, Harvey "Scissorhands" Weinstein is famous for ruthlessly editing his director's work. Since Hollywood has already pumped out 23 sequels this year, attracting widespread criticism and diminishing box office returns, many industry observers thought the time for sequels was over. The Kill Bill announcement is one more proof that Tarantino, whose career has combined Orson Welles's fierce independence with Steven Spielberg's popular touch, is special. As Harvey Weinstein said last week, "Miramax is the house Quentin Tarantino built. Because of his stature he has carte blanche."

In the early 1990s, Tarantino's stature seemed assured as Hollywood's young white hope and the crown prince of postmodern cinema. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1963 to a 16-year-old nursing student and a 21-year-old aspiring actor who soon deserted the family, Tarantino was raised by his mother in Los Angeles. He quit school at 16 but his real education was in pop culture, TV, and, of course, the movies. By the time he was 22, Tarantino was the nerd next door, working at a video store in Manhattan Beach for minimum wage, spending every moment thinking, talking and watching movies and trying to write film scripts with his friend Roger Avary (co-author of Pulp Fiction).

There are thousands of such Hollywood wannabes, "fanboys" in Tarantino's own coinage. He sold scripts for Natural Born Killers (he later disowned the film directed by Oliver Stone) and True Romance, then used the money to direct his third script, Reservoir Dogs, himself, initially in 16mm with friends in leading roles. An acting class contact led him to Harvey Keitel who championed the young director and starred in the finished Reservoir Dogs, which has become a cult classic for its high style and ultra-violence, though Tarantino has always insisted the worst violence is suggested rather than shown.

But it was Pulp Fiction that made his name. According to Steven Gaydos, the executive editor of the show business newspaper Variety, "Its impact was huge. This was a film that did big box office [Made for $10.5m (£6m), Pulp Fiction grossed around $250m worldwide] but was also new and edgy and clever and hip, so it appealed to the critics." Ten years on, Tarantino's trademark mix of pop-cultural monologues with brutal violence is more controversial. "Quentin's stuff isn't really about anything," argues Gaydos. "It's comedic and self-referential. The classic Hollywood action movies, [with] people like Peckinpah and Sam Fuller, were very political, and quite profound. I think there's still ambivalence about Quentin's brand of ultra-violence, devoid of any real gravity."

"When Pulp Fiction won the Palme D'Or, it was part of that moment in film history when everyone was interested in American independent films and revitalised by them. But what we ended up getting was a lot of bad Tarantino knock-offs."

At the time, though, interest centred on Tarantino himself. With his cheerful grin, boundless self-confidence, loopy, gangling walk and a face like a cartoon character, he seemed a nice guy, devoid of Hollywood pretensions, who remained accessible to his fellow fans despite his great success - too accessible according to The New York Times which dubbed him "The Man Who Came To Dinner (and never left)" for his endless round of press interviews and appearances at film festivals.

He also insisted on working as an actor, despite terrible reviews, in friends' films and on Broadway in a revival of Wait Until Dark. He directed an episode of the TV series ER, contributed to the anthology film Four Rooms, produced and co-starred in another of his old scripts From Dusk Till Dawn, boosted the careers of protégés such as director Richard Rodriguez and conducted a stormy two-year relationship with actress Mira Sorvino. Otherwise, for long periods in the 1990s, Tarantino vanished from view amid rumours of writer's block and laddish behaviour (there were fistfights in restaurants) and stories asking "whatever happened to Quentin Tarantino?"

He dismisses the gossip, claiming: "I was never going to be a director who makes a movie a year. I don't see how to do that and have a life." After Jackie Brown, a homage to 1960s blaxploitation films and a modest success, he immersed himself in writing a Second World War adventure film, Glorious Bastards, before putting it aside to revive Kill Bill after meeting Uma Thurman at a party. But Tarantino's long breaks between projects mean his latest comeback takes place in a different Hollywood and cultural climate from the days of Pulp Fiction.

For one thing, the Tarantino phenomenon has been repeated, and in many ways outdone, by the Wachowski brothers with their Matrix films. For another, while his first films made big profits partly because they were so cheap to make, his budgets have been escalating to Kill Bill's' $55m (some critics believe the figure is too low). There are also signs of a backlash against the extreme levels of violence that he pioneered and which have now become a wretched Hollywood excess, for example, in last week's US release Bad Boys II. Reportedly, Kill Bill is even bloodier.

Perhaps we expect too much of Tarantino. As Steven Gaydos points out, "an epoch-making, culture-changing film like Pulp Fiction is rare. Welles never had another Citizen Kane or Peckinpah another Wild Bunch. You can have a great career and make a lot of money and never have another film that resonates like that one picture."