No man was ever more appropriately named than Quentin Tarantino. Seventeen-year-old Connie Zastoupil christened her infant son in 1963 by mixing high art with low and then infusing the blend with an arrogant, here-he-is-and-he’ll-change-the-world bravado. “I wanted a name that would fill up the entire screen,” she told Vanity Fair in 1994. “A multisyllable name: Quen-tin Ta-ran-ti-no.” His first name was lifted from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, but it was also inspired by the Burt Reynolds character, Quint, from Gunsmoke. And his last name? She made it up. It just sounded cool. Can it be so perfect? Quentin Tarantino’s mother named him with the same spirit that permeates Tarantino’s movies: Lift the good stuff, no matter where you find it. Make up the rest, as long as it’s cool.
Next month comes Tarantino’s long-awaited Kill Bill, his fourth movie as a director and his seventh as a screenwriter (counting Natural Born Killers, for which Tarantino declined to take screenwriting credit, but not the movies he has script-doctored). Almost 10 years after Pulp Fiction, and six years after Jackie Brown, it’s easy to forget the Tarantino craze that struck the nation—and the world—in the mid-1990s. For several years after Pulp, you couldn’t attend a movie without hearing the characters yammer about the finer points of mass culture. (The nadir may have been the animal-crackers exchange between Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler in Armageddon.) Even before Pulp, Tarantino exerted a wide influence, and not only in Hollywood: To cite just one example, Kurt Cobain thanked him in the liner notes for In Utero.
Now, for the first time in his wunderkind career—at 40, he’s actually past the wunderkind stage—Tarantino is facing real questions about his skill as a writer and a director. Like: After Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix movies, will yet another kung fu movie choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping seem tired? Given Tarantino’s time in the wilderness and the middling box office gross for Jackie Brown, are there enough Tarantino fans left to make Kill Bill a big hit? How will it fare in the Oct. 10 critical face-off with the Coen brothers’Intolerable Cruelty? Is Tarantino becoming a cult director, or will he again achieve mass appeal? But the most interesting question has gone largely unasked: Will this movie finally put to rest the whispers that Tarantino can’t write a screenplay by himself?
Kill Bill, after all, may be the first Tarantino movie that’s pure Tarantino. Jackie Brownwas an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, and much of Tarantino’s early work is alleged to be a collaboration with his fellow former video clerk, Roger Avary. In the 1997 book Killer Instinct, Natural Born Killers co-producer Jane Hamsher charges that Tarantino and Avary co-wrote an 400-page script called Open Road and that Tarantino cannibalized it for his Natural Born Killers and True Romance screenplays, as well as the screenplays for the first two movies Tarantino directed, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.On his Web site, Avary doesn’t go that far, but he grumbles about receiving only a story credit for the Pulp Fiction screenplay. He says Open Road was an 80-page script; that he considers True Romance “to be partially mine,” though he received no credit; and that Open Road “had many bits that came and went into other scripts—like so many info-kernals [sic]that would eventually find their way into Natural Born Killers, Pulp Fiction, and probably several other, as yet unproduced, Quentin Tarantino films.” Avary also claims to have written the bit about the homoerotic subtext of Top Gun that Tarantino was acclaimed for in his cameo in Sleep With Me. As for Reservoir Dogs, Avary says, “I couldn’t even tell you what I wrote. Just blather.”
Tarantino’s defense of himself for using Avary’s material hasn’t been stirring. In Pulp Fiction, “There is only one scene that has pure Roger dialogue,” Tarantino told Los Angelesmagazine in 1994. “It is the scene in the bathroom, where Bruce [Willis] explains everything he’s going to do. I love that scene. I suppose Roger has little lines interspersed throughout that story. But that’s the only full-on Roger scene.” And as far as that Top Gun speech goes, well, yeah, it was Avary’s idea, but Tarantino told the magazine that it was a collaboration. “We would do the routine at parties together,” he said. “Anyway, a lot of the things I talk about in Sleep with Me were my ideas.” Not exactly heartening from an artist who was accused of plagiarizing City on Fire, a 1987 movie by the Hong Kong director Ringo Lam, for his film debut. (Tarantino admits being influenced by City on Fire, but he denies ripping it off.)
To be fair, no one disputes that Tarantino is an immensely gifted writer and director. Even Avary writes on his Web site, “Quentin is without question a genius.” In a 1994 Playboy interview, Tarantino displayed the observant sensitivity that marks his writing and his movies. He described the tension between a man and a woman when a man walks behind a woman on a city street:
Is this guy going to do something? What’s going on here? They’re feeling it. And guys feel it too. I feel it. And I’m like, Hey, I’m just walking down the street. I just happen to be going the same way. I’m walking behind this woman, and she’s thinking I’m a rapist. And now I’m feeling guilty for being a rapist when I haven’t fucking done anything. So now I’m feeling guilty and feeling a little angry because I’m minding my own business. Like, I’m sorry I’m walking behind you. And she’s thinking, Why the fuck can’t I just walk down the street? All of a sudden there’s this tension and anger about nothing.
It’s that kind of careful attention to the quotidian and the banal that led critic Ron Rosenbaum, in a 1997 Esquire article, to herald Tarantino as a 1990s F. Scott Fitzgerald. “His tough-guy act, his tough-guy actors, and his blam-blam moments may disguise it, but Tarantino is an aesthete, a Fitzgeraldian observer of the delicate dance of social interaction,” Rosenbaum wrote. “Because, at his best, in the interludes between the blam-blam, he’s a genuinely curious philosophic investigator of manners and morals, more akin to a novelist of manners such as Jane Austen, say, than even to Fitzgerald.”
But Jane Austen never made a kung fu movie. Unlike Tarantino’s first three movies, Kill Bill is said to have a minimal amount of the stylized dialogue that has become his hallmark. Beneath the violence and the cool soundtracks, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown were mature stories about loyalty, about forgiveness and redemption, and about love. How will Tarantino achieve his goal of merging “sophisticated storytelling with lurid subject matter” (as he told the London Times in 1994), when the characters hardly talk? (Daryl Hannah, who has a role in Kill Bill, has made an oblique statement that “the story evolves through the fight scenes and grows and changes. It’s hard to explain, but that’s what I noticed. It’s really striking.”) Tarantino is so enthusiastic about movies that it’s often hard to figure out what he doesn’t like, and that enthusiasm bleeds into his work: He’s notorious for not wanting to cut stuff from his films, which may explain why Miramax head Harvey Weinstein recommended that the three-hour-plus Kill Bill be divided into two volumes; the second half will be released in February.
In an interview with Charlie Rose during the peak of Pulp Fiction fever, Tarantino asserted that his key strength as a filmmaker is his storytelling, which comes from an intuitive understanding of what the audience wants. “Because you’re a writer?” Rose asked. “More as a viewer,” Tarantino said. “I was betting there were other people like me out there.” Kill Bill is Tarantino’s double-or-nothing bet.