Quentin Tarantino: Mr. Red
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino never went to film school, never even finished high school. That may be why Reservoir Dogs and True Romance were so much fun. Of course, they were also violent enough to make Janet Reno's hair curl. Now come Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers.
The other night, while watching the stultifying post-collegiate comedy/drama Reality Bites, I kept having these inspirational visions in which Reality's scenes of whining twentysomethings were invaded by Quentin Tarantino's quirky killers. Winona Ryder's aspiring filmmaker, sucking on a 7-Eleven Big Gulp and complaining about the sluggish job market, is blown away by Reservoir Dogs' Mr. Pink. Ethan Hawke's insufferably smug grunge rocker, doing a ruinous cover of a Violent Femmes song, is shot in the head by True Romance mobster Vincenzo Coccotti ("I haven't killed a slacker since Lollapalooza '92").
Alas, none of this happens in Reality Bites. Everyone lives. In Quentin Tarantino's ultra-violent crime stories, almost everyone dies. And they do not, as the poet said, go gently. Usually they have to be shot. Their blood doesn't spill so much as it gushes, spurts, splatters, soaks and coats. Sometimes it takes the stragglers an excruciatingly long time to die, but in the end, they get there too. And the really twisted part: Tarantino's movies are hilarious.
At 31, Tarantino is technically a member of the so-called Generation X; in reality, he's a one-man argument that Generation X doesn't exist. The shared habit of pop culture references does not a generation make. Tarantino lifts from the '70s like a lot of other people who grew up in that decade, but he makes his homages from deep inside his own time and place.
I saw Reservoir Dogs at an early screening in 1992, as word was just beginning to filter back from the film festivals about some demented video store clerk who'd made this sadistic yet brilliant heist flick. The opening scene -- a bunch of hoods in skinny ties and dark jackets sitting around discussing, improbably, the semantic mysteries of Madonna lyrics--had me hooked. And then the infamous, brutal torture scene: a psychopath cutting off a cop's ear. It pissed me off royally because I knew it was meant to piss me off. I had to admit, though, that the psycho talking into the severed ear was a distinct touch.
By the time I saw True Romance in a theater, a year later, Tarantino-mania was growing in Hollywood-- he was the latest "bad boy" filmmaker and people were lining up to work with him. Romance offered yet another notoriously offensive scene, this one verbal: Dennis Hopper proceeds to tell a Sicilian mobster who's about to kill him Sicilians are the descendants of "niggers," explaining, in excruciatingly detail, just how this is so.
It's a long, bravado monologue, the most politically incorrect dialogue heard on-screen in recent or even not so recent memory. The crowd around me, stunned at first, soon began to laugh. The laughter grew because of the sheer ballsiness of the scene, and then people in the audience were laughing at themselves because it was so wrong to laugh at something like this but it was hilarious and they were helpless. That's when I realized something crucial and, to the Janet Renos of this world, no doubt frightening about Tarantino: like Jack the Ripper, this guy loved his work.
Tarantino's production company is called A Band Apart Productions--a riff on Godard's New Wave crime film, A Bande a Part: Translated, that's Band of Outsiders. So why am I looking for Tarantino on the Disney lot, spawning ground for White Fangs and Mighty Ducks? Because Miramax, the former indie company that's releasing Tarantino's new film Pulp Fiction, was bought by Disney last year.
I stroll past shrubbery shaped like Mickey Mouse, take a right on Dopey Drive, enter the Pulp sound stage, and follow booming gunshots to the screening room where the sound mix for Pulp Fiction is being finalized. Surf music fills the air--eerie, primitive electric guitar twangs. Tarantino, holding a blonde Barbie doll in a long black dress, stands behind a huge bank of mixing consoles and computers with his crew. He may be a self-professed "film geek," but he is also a big, brawny, dangerous-looking dude. His hair's wild, his stubble appears to be perpetual rather than intentional, and he wears a Queen Lalifah T-shirt under one of those tough-guy long leather jackets favored by Shaft. If this cat came at me in a bar, I'd jump back.
Tarantino and his crew are playing a word game: you say a title with the word "summer" in it, but replace "summer" with "Tarantino." "Tarantino of '42," someone suggests. "A Tarantino Place." "Tarantino and Smoke." I resist the urge to shout out, "Tarantino of My German Soldier." The director himself announces, definitively, "The Endless Tarantino" and laughs. His laugh is a loud, staccato "ha-ha-ha-ha!" He laughs a lot, it turns out.
A Pulp scene flashes on the screen Tarantino has turned to face: hit men Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta blow away some punks who've ripped off their boss. Tarantino decides it needs something--a gasp from one of the doomed thieves just as Jackson casually turns, mid-interrogation, and shoots the other thief on the couch. Suddenly the same scene is running backwards--the bullet is sucked out of the body back into the gun. Then Tarantino walks to the boom mike to do the overdub himself. Watching the action on-screen, he gasps on cue. Then he announces, "I want to do it again. That was too ... breathy." This whole process is absurdly unnecessary--the gunshot is so loud and unexpected that audiences will be doing their own gasping at that exact moment. But Tarantino does it again, and then it's time for lunch.
The only person in Hollywood who might possibly talk faster than Quentin Tarantino is Martin Scorsese. It could have something to do with the endless cups of coffee Tarantino consumes. During lunch at Bob's Big Boy, he's up to at least five before I start counting. He is telling me how he's bigger in Europe than in America, "like David Hasselhoff," and so, inevitably, we segue to his new favorite TV show--"Baywatch." "It's like, such a great show," he says. "I've been lamenting the fact that exploitation movies don't exist anymore, but they do--they're just on television. 'Baywatch' is as good as any Crown International movie, but without the nipples. You get all the breasts, you just don't get the nipples--you can actually see the nipples piercing through--you just don't get to see that little red dot. I've fallen in love with that show. I really want David Hasselhoff to move to the big screen."
"You could do that," I suggest. "You have the power."
"Well, I've been thinking about it," he says. I'll bet he has. After all, this is the guy who cast John Travolta as the star of Pulp Fiction. Naturally, Tarantino has a film geek's justification for this bold move: "I've always been a giant Travolta fan. His performance in [Brian De Palma's] Blow Out is one of my favorites of all time. Why aren't directors taking advantage? He's ripe for the picking. No one was using him the way I wanted to use him."
Here are some of Tarantino's new on-screen uses for John Travolta: He shoots heroin, discourses on foot massage and European fast food, reads Modesty Blaise on the toilet, dances the cha-cha, and kills in cold blood.
"Super Big Boy Combo, ranch dressing," Tarantino tells the waitress, without looking at the menu. "And more coffee, please." (Mr. Pink, in Dogs, wouldn't tip the waitress because she hadn't given him six refills. I wonder if this girl knows the film.)
There are several scenes in Pulp Fiction that could vie for the title of most outrageous, but here's one that has to be in the running: a badass black crime lord named Marcellus gets sodomized Deliverance-style by a couple of perverted hillbillies when he stumbles into their pawnshop. Tarantino explains that he originally wanted to score the scene with "My Sharona," The Knack's 1979 power-pop classic, but he couldn't get the rights. The song turned up instead in Reality Bites--it serves as the musical backdrop for a scene in which recent college graduates bop around a Food Mart with cans of Pringles. "The licensing people had to decide between us and Reality Bites. They ultimately made the good choice," Tarantino says with a laugh. "The song ended up being too comical for Pulp. But it's got a good butt-fucking beat to it." Here the director stands and thrusts his hips back and forth while pumping out the song's baseline: "Da-da-dadadada-da-da-dadada ..." And you know what? He's right.