In every Hollywood celebrity interview, there comes that point, after you've navigated the flack-lined labyrinth from holding pen to anteroom to the actual locale of the precious chit-chat, when the subject makes a grand entrance and you just can't help yourself from tumbling into the cliché: "Gee, Famous Person A looks a whole lot smaller than I imagined." So that's the first surprise about Quentin Tarantino: He looks bigger. This is a sizable man, tall and puffy at the edges. Now here's the second surprise: He looks dead.
And not just dead tired, although the evident fatigue is understandable. Tarantino has been out beating the drums furiously for his latest picture, Inglourious Basterds (more on the misspelling later), the Second World War flick whose script was a lengthy labour of love but whose reception, when it premiered at Cannes last spring, was something less than loving. It got a mixed critical response, a cloud in the once-bright history between Cannes and Quentin. After all, the festival unveiled Reservoir Dogs to gushing acclaim and feted Pulp Fiction with its Palme d'or award. Of course, those two films are the instant legends that made their director the wunderkind of the nineties, that spread his influence far and wide for better and worse, and that had his legions of excited fans (me included) awaiting the Next Great Movie. But Jackie Brown wasn't it, nor was the Kill Bill saga nor his Death Proof half of the Grindhouse double feature. All displayed pockets of brilliance, all derived recognizably from his unique talent, but none possessed unalloyed greatness.
America made propaganda movies during the war, and they're pretty darned entertaining. Most were done by foreign directors exiled to Hollywood, and what's interesting is how literate and funny these movies are.
Exactly the same might be said (has been said) about Inglourious Basterds . When the film opens August 21, our wait will continue. Which explains his fatigue - no one toils this hard in the publicity mill unless the mill is needed. Yet his appearance, that dead look, goes beyond mere weariness. Maybe it's the fact he's garbed from head to toe in black - jacket, T-shirt, jeans, right down to those old-school sneakers. Maybe it's the bad dye job that gives his hair a preternaturally noirish sheen. Maybe it's the pancake makeup that, off-white and plastered on for an upcoming bout with the TV cameras, coats his face. Or maybe it's that puffiness and a dark cast about his eyes. Individually, each of these characteristics would be innocuous. But viewed collectively, they conspire to lend Quentin Tarantino an unnerving resemblance to a corpse just bolted from the coffin, and bearing a forgivable grudge against the undertaker's botched undertakings. Damned if he isn't looking like the star pulp in one of his fictions.
Happily, the next surprise proves far more pleasant. Verbally prodded, the corpse awakens and instantly radiates a vast intelligence, the kind of smarts that, even in a brief chat, are so crisp they're almost palpable. Sure, everybody knows that Tarantino is a cinema nerd, that he's a walking encyclopedia of movie lore - good movies, bad, artsy, trashy, American, European, Asian. Yet the revelation is that, in conversation if not always on the screen, his knowledge is tempered with an authoritative judgment that seems awfully wise. Ultimately, you might disagree with his conclusions, but you can't but help but admire their cool delivery.
For example, knowing that his films have been both heavily influenced and widely influential, I toss out that old T.S. Eliot hook - "Good artists borrow, great artists steal" - to see if he'll take a nibble. Not a chance. Tarantino smiles, recognizing the quote, but he ain't biting: "Oh, I've always liked the sound of that Eliot line, but I've never put it under the microscope."
Ditto for the many ideas, some of them intriguing, that float around in Inglourious Basterds . Set mainly in Nazi-occupied France, it's a curious pastiche of revenge fantasy (Brad Pitt heads a lethal unit of Jewish-American commandos), unabashed propaganda (Hitler appears as a venom-spewing cartoon) and wish-fulfilment (the climax has movies, or at least their flammable film stock, literally saving the free world). Deception is its major motif - the deception that lies in performance, in language and in the creative forgery of the movie itself. In Tarantino's war, the real A-bomb is the power of pretend. But he's not about to analyze the fallout.
"All the themes in the movie, whether they be duplicity or the whole propaganda aspect, are subtextual, things that developed when I was writing the characters. My scripts have a big subtextual life, but I never pay attention to that, because when I'm doing my job, it's doing its job too. That's what is underneath. I pay attention to what's on top, trusting that, when I'm done, you can get analytic about it."