Profile: Hollywood's hitman: Quentin Tarantino - A sadist or just a stylist? David Thomson on the boy-wonder director of 'Pulp Fiction'

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A FILM by Quentin Tarantino could easily contain a conversation about his name, about how the mother-f----- has the nerve to go around calling himself Quentin Tarantino. It could be a spiffy routine, a double act, between two hookers at the laundromat, or hitmen having breakfast, waiting for their victim to get up and take a shower before they knock him off; the humour in Tarantino is often a matter of the lunatic decorum that attends outrageous actions.

'His name is what?'

'Quentin Tarantino - I wrote it down.'

'Is that a fruit, a mother's boy . . ?'

'. . . or some high-school actor thinkin' he's De Niro?'

'Quentin - that's Southern. But Tarantino is all twirly pasta.'

'Are we in Faulkner South, or just south LA?'

Cut. And in the dark fade between scenes we hear a tired male voice saying, 'This is America. Names don't mean nothin' here.' This, in fact, is a real Tarantino line from Pulp Fiction, his second film as director, which opened in Britain last week, and it turns you back to the first, Reservoir Dogs, where most of the guys in white shirts and black suits have names like Mr Pink, Mr White, Mr Orange.

This is life as a concept, with the people like characters in a board game, or indeed like characters in other films. Life - the real thing, as lived outside the cinema - has taken a holiday, just as much as it does in a Hollywood musical or a Japanese Noh play. As Tarantino once observed of his films: 'Asking where all the violence comes from is like saying where does all the dancing come from in a Stanley Donen film. In real life it is one of the worst aspects of America but in the movies it's fun.'

Many audiences, reared to the idea that realistically depicted violence and heavy swearing are there to suggest 'realism', do not grasp his argument.

They walk out - more so in the United States than in Britain, where Reservoir Dogs was more successful. Or they boo and jeer the director himself, as they did earlier this year at Cannes, where Pulp Fiction won the Palme d'Or. His critics label his trademark - the counterpoint of cruelty and humour - 'designer brutalism'. They fail to be amused by his films' knowing references, their bows to (perhaps thefts from) other films, even if they spot them. They shrink from the idea that, in Tarantino's words, 'violence . . . can be cool . . . it's just another colour to work with'.

They worry about an apparent absence of morality, of not knowing who the good guys are.

They may have a point, but they hardly matter. At the age of 31, Tarantino has become Hollywood's great stylist, a cult, what the French would call an auteur. He stands, in the words of the writer Clancy Sigal, 'at the Hollywood crossroads where guilty laughter and sadistic brutality merge'.

HE WAS educated in the dark of the cinema, watching the films accumulated in 80-odd years of movie-making, and particularly those involving gangsters (American or French) or Oriental martial arts or the kind called 'black exploitation'. By the age of 11 he had seen films - Deliverance, The Wild Bunch - that (then) had the capacity to shock adults. He loved the celebration of a fierce, fatalistic man's world that is often cherished by timid, sensitive boys. He also loved the fantasy; life, then or later, wasn't really his thing.

He was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1963, to a father of Italian descent and a mother half-Irish and half-Cherokee. President Kennedy was shot that year. America saw its innocence passing. Paranoia - the grassy knoll, the assassin at the window - became a birthright, and one you can feel in every inch of a Tarantino film.

Tarantino's parents divorced, and he and his mother moved to Arizona and then to the South Bay section of Los Angeles, to the city's blighted suburbs, caught between the expensive beaches and the dangerous black quarter to the east.

He was a lonesome boy for whom the cinema and television were everything. He longed to make films, perhaps partly because films would transcend all those hazards of life (such as violence and talking to people) that filled him with dread. By the time of his manhood he was possessed by such an intense knowledge of his favorite films that it hid from him how little he knew about anything else.

He worked in a video store, where he treated his customers as though they were his students, and trained for six years to be an actor. That ambition was realised only in small parts, a fleeting appearance in the Golden Girls (although he now appears in his own films), but he found solace for his nerdy impotence by writing scripts in notebooks, endless dialogues of tough- mouth hitmen. Later versions of these became another hallmark of his films, a kind of chanting, grinding, near-poetic talk that overpowers silence and thought.

There are thousands of such kids in America. Most of them never get anywhere, and so they are written off as a little crazy. But Tarantino was exceptional in his perseverance and eventually found his lucky break. The film that became Reservoir Dogs was originally devised as a cheap experiment that would be shot on the streets of Los Angeles in 16mm black and white, with Tarantino and some friends as the cast. Then the actor Harvey Keitel read the script and helped Tarantino raise the money to put it into studio production.

The result was a stylised re- make of a 1940s gangster picture, though with a relish for torture, blood and foul talk that exceeds the conventions of film noir. The script evoked comparisons with David Mamet, and the subject and mobile camerawork with Martin Scorsese. These compliments flattered Tarantino at the time, though today he gets rather tetchy at their repetition; imitation being the sincerest form, etc.

He has also supplied the script for Tony Scott's True Romance, and the story for Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, though Stone allegedly left hardly a word of the original unchanged. It has been an emphatic debut, enough to place Tarantino in the line of startling boy wonders in film that reaches back through David Lynch, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese to Orson Welles himself (still the youngest and most wondrous).

FEW in Hollywood doubt that Tarantino is an expert story-teller, a compelling dramatist. Other aspects of him, however, are questionable. Women hardly exist in his films - he seems more afraid of them than he is of blacks and gays. He is a very self-conscious movie brat. As his fellow film- maker Roger Avary put it: 'The one problem people have with Quentin's work is that it speaks of other movies instead of life. The big trick is to live a life, and then make movies about that life.'

Contrast, for example, Tarantino with the old Hollywood master he reveres most, Howard Hawks. By the age of 31, Hawks had been to college and served in the Second World War; he had been a flier and a racing driver. He had written scripts and made several pictures - nothing as good as Pulp Fiction -but he had learnt to love and lose people. He would make The Big Sleep, which is better and quicker than Pulp Fiction, and 48 years ahead of it. And he would make superb comedies - Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday - as well as heroic raptures such as Red River and Rio Bravo that know no boundary between great entertainment and art.

Tarantino does not seem to know, much less possess, the life alluded to in those films. His characters are all taken from actors and acting classes.

They all talk the same jive, and the actors playing them could swap roles with no damage to the story. It is a safe bet that Tarantino has known few if any gangsters. He has certainly never seen a head blown off. But he treasures every hood from the history of American film.

The director he most resembles is Jean-Luc Godard. Like Godard, Tarantino loves to take old American genres and give them a shot of hip and mannered adrenalin: elegant camera moves adorning gutter talk. Godard excelled at that for seven or eight years. He revolutionised film; and he showed us how the old stories might be camp. Then he went cold, reclusive and academic, and gave up making films.

Can Tarantino change? Hollywood may tempt him to remain the same, the perfect modern moviemaker - brilliant so long as he stays in the dark.

Tarantino himself says: 'Ultimately all I'm trying to do is merge sophisticated story- telling with lurid subject matter. I reckon that makes for an entertaining night at the movies.'

Quentin Curtis, page 26 (Photograph omitted)

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