Seventeen years ago, when Reservoir Dogs was setting American cinema on fire, Quentin Tarantino drove up to his favorite watering hole, a Hollywood Denny's, in a tiny Geo that I mistook for a rental car. During a scheduled hour-long interview that stretched into nearly three, I nagged him about the casual violence in his debut film, which, in retrospect, is a bit like getting on Lewis Carroll's case about the lack of realism in Alice in Wonderland. Tarantino heard me out, then politely set me straight, positioning violence as one of cinema's key aesthetics and reeling off a list of admired forebears and contemporaries who, like him, trafficked in blood and guts because both they and the audience "got a kick out of it." Of Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino said happily, "I'm trying to wipe out every movie I ever wanted to make in that first one."
Some would say he went on to make that movie over and over again; others, that he's one of world cinema's premier auteurs. Either way, today, a surprising number of his contemporaries — among them Hong Kong director John Woo, his hero from way back when — have either dropped off the map or are struggling to stay in the game. For his part, Tarantino has become a durable superstar, crisscrossing the hazy line between studio and indie darling with a steady output (notwithstanding a six-year break between Jackie Brown and Kill Bill) of big successes (notwithstanding Death Proof) under his belt. All but one of his films have come from original scripts he wrote himself, and every last one is a loving homage to the infinite elasticities of genre. But the question remains: Are his films any more than that? And do they need to be?
Back at the same Denny's, by request, we tuck into a brunch guaranteed to set the triglycerides soaring, while the sight of Tarantino causes a young woman with fluorescent orange hair to clap her hand to her mouth and let out a long, sighing "Ooooh." In the booth next to us, a handsome African-American man lolls patiently for an hour and a half, wearing an air of studied indifference. When he can bear it no longer, he jumps up, introduces himself, and offers to send his body of work to Tarantino, who graciously responds with his agent's name and, with equal grace, declines to give out his e-mail address.
We talk about his new film, Inglourious Basterds — misspelled to distinguish it from the title of a 1978 exploitation romp by Italian director Enzo Castellari that Tarantino optioned — about a unit of court-martialed American soldiers who escape from custody and end up in a heroic struggle against the Nazis. In the Tarantino version, the "basterds" have become American Jews (his friend, Eli Roth, plays one of them with a thick Boston accent), headed by a part-Native-American, heavily Southern-drawled hick enjoyably overplayed by Brad Pitt. These may not be the first movie Jews to turn Apache (see Blazing Saddles), but they're surely the first to scalp Germans in real-time.
Inglourious Basterds — which played to mixed reviews at Cannes this year, perhaps diluting Tarantino's well-known love of film critics — has next to nothing to do with Jews, Nazis, or World War II, though Winston Churchill has a funny cameo and Goebbels a minor, if crucial, role as a twisted auteur of nationalist cinema. It's a highly entertaining, graphically bloody, and woozily romantic romp — another personal credo that, perhaps more than any other movie Tarantino has made, doffs its cap to almost every film genre known to man, and continues to touch on, if not exactly explore, his perennial themes of professionalism, loyalty, and betrayal.
Inglourious Basterds is unlikely to pacify critics who dismiss Tarantino's work as a callow triumph of technique over substance, or argue that he makes lazy use of chapter headings as a poor stand-in for narrative structure, though they'd have a hard time calling him a hater of women on the basis of the movie's vengeful Jewish protagonist, Shosanna Dreyfus (played by French actress Mélanie Laurent). And who could cry misogyny on a man who, in conversation, drops the tidbit that he's currently working his way through a biography of pioneering American filmmaker Dorothy Arzner while watching her entire oeuvre?
This time, I know better than to engage Tarantino in another debate about cinema brutality, a discussion that leaves him more indifferent than insulted. But I'm curious about whether, midway through his forties, he has changed his thinking on what he wants his movies to be about. Upon this line of questioning, he doesn't clam up. He does his best to comply, insisting that his movies are "painfully personal." But no matter where I try to steer him in the direction of real life, the conversation always veers back to the process — genre, craft, and the sorry, but never hopeless, state of cinema today — that remains the love of his life.