Quentin Tarantino is a brilliant name for a movie director. "Quentin" sounds a bit cardigan-and-slippers. Then it whams you in the gut – a bit like his films – with a fiery Italian surname. "Tarantino" makes me think of hairy spiders and a manic dance called the tarantella, which gets its name from their bite. I know its actual meaning is prosaic, suggesting his father's family has links with Taranto in southern Italy. (So does the spider.) But that turns out to be rather a good metaphor: both his name and his films promise more than they deliver.
Anyway, the director was in London last week, for the premiere of his new movie, when he suffered a meltdown on Channel 4 News. It's a gem: during an interview with the mild-mannered Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who asked him about possible links between on- and off-screen violence, Tarantino started waving his arms and told the presenter he was "shutting your butt down". (He also insisted "I'm not biting", which sounded like, but probably wasn't intended as, a witty reference to his surname.) I was surprised to hear Tarantino tell Guru-Murthy that he wasn't his slave but, then, slavery is the theme of Django Unchained, which he was in the UK to publicise. "I'm here to sell my movie," he gabbled. "This is a commercial for the movie, make no mistake."
It wasn't, actually, and I already had doubts about going to see the film after watching the trailer. (Leonardo DiCaprio, what are you doing in this "ironic" revenge drama where characters joke over toppling corpses?) Now I'm sure I need never go to another film made by this unappealing egomaniac. Extreme violence has been Tarantino's leitmotif since Reservoir Dogs, and he must have expected it to come up in the wake of the Sandy Hook and Aurora mass shootings. The US Vice-President, Joe Biden, invited representatives of the film industry to talks in Washington about gun violence last week.
My own view is that the effect of screen violence in real life isn't an open-and-shut case. I don't think there's a provable direct link, except in the case of a few deranged individuals, but it does have a desensitising effect. I squirmed through Reservoir Dogs, hating its conflation of violence and cool, but I was even more disturbed to hear people around me laughing during the notorious torture scene. Fans of Tarantino's films tend to describe them as amoral, which seems to me a way of letting him off the hook.
I've always believed he hides behind genre, using its conventions as a cover for scenes of sickening brutality. When he does attempt a moral framework, it usually turns into a revenge fantasy. (Note to critics: female characters beating and kicking a man to death isn't feminism.) I know he won an Oscar for the screenplay of Pulp Fiction but that was a long time ago. Thanks to Channel 4 News, the cat's out of the bag: Quentin Tarantino is 49 going on 14.