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."
Nicely parried, Mr. T. However, the broader subject of propaganda does strike a chord and, consulting his inner film historian, he's off and superbly running: "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, with the sparkling dialogue you find in the thirties and forties. Like Fritz Lang's Man Hunt , with Walter Pidgeon, or Hangmen Also Die! , also by Lang, with a script by Bertolt Brecht, about the killing of Heydrich. Or Renoir's This Land is Mine , his anti-Nazi film. Or there are really fun ones like Leonide Moguy's Action in Arabia and Paris After Dark. There's even a movie called Hitler: Dead or Alive , about a millionaire who puts a bounty on Hitler and three Chicago gangsters, led by Ward Bond, go to collect it."
Tired he may be, but all this (and more) is spoken in flawless paragraphs with seamless ease. Impressive. So is his reply when the inevitable larger question is raised. Can propaganda, whose job is to sell an idea, ever rise to the level of art, especially if the peddled idea is odious? This is where Tarantino pushes his cool judgment button. Who he attacks and who he defends are notable. First, the attack.
"Well, if the sold idea is odious to you, then the answer is obviously no. The one example, and I don't consider it artistic but other people do, is Birth of a Nation . That was done exactly as propaganda, between D.W. Griffith and Reverend [Thomas F.]Dixon who wrote it, with the hope of turning whites against blacks and raising the Klan again. And it worked. In fact, the burning cross was never a symbol of the old Klan until then. It was a screenplay invention. So that's a case where odious propaganda got out there and the Klan, now with its burning cross, was reborn. Yet that film has its apologists."
Now the defence, of Hitler's documentarian, Leni Riefenstahl, or at least of her ode to the Berlin Olympics: "The idea behind Olympia , there's nothing odious about that at all - that's actually Riefenstahl's biggest claim to some sense of brotherhood. It's obvious she didn't feel about blacks as Hitler did because of the way she shot Jesse Owens, and the way she lived her life later."
Riefenstahl lived a very long time later, until the ripe age of 101. Her last work, Underwater Impressions , is a pretty nature film. So, among her many debatable legacies, she's also proof of the adage that, "Old directors never die, they just become photographers." Tarantino, 46 now, has recently revealed some sensitivity on this very subject, insisting that, "Directing is a young man's game," and even hinting that he'll "hang up the megaphone at 60." Pressed on this, he doesn't back down.
"In the history of cinema, you just have to look at the filmographies. Take any 10 directors that you like, and look at their last three or four films. It got really brutal when the older Hollywood directors were edging into the decades of the late sixties and seventies, and really making these ridiculously out-of-touch movies. Now our older directors aren't making out-of-touch movies, but they really don't feel like the ones they were making earlier."
Any exceptions? Tarantino offers no concessions to the likely American suspects, to Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg or Francis Ford Coppola. Instead, he briefly cites Prizzi's Honor , made late in John Huston's career, and then heads for foreign ground: "The single best exception is a Japanese director called Kinji Fukasaku, who was the Spielberg of Japan, not because of his material but because he's really commercial. The last film he did, in his seventies, was Battle Royale , and it's the best movie of the past 20 years."
That's quite a claim, almost as brazen as the final line spoken in Inglourious Basterds , when Tarantino's screenplay signs off with these words: "I think this just might be my masterpiece." And does he? That smile again, through the makeup, and then more cleverness: "It's not for the chicken to speak of his own soup. Maybe three years from now I'll have more of an opinion. But, really, it was just meant to be a line for people to have fun with."
As for the misspelling in the title, that too is more fun: "It's just an artistic stroke." Just like the stroke on his T-shirt. My time is up but, throughout the dwindling quarter-hour, I've been struggling to decipher the lettering on that black shirt, mainly hidden beneath the buttoned sports coat. Only when I'm leaving, one press hound gone and another already starting to bark, does Tarantino open up. Literally. He flings apart the jacket, sticks out his chest, roars with transparent glee and makes his last testament. The shirt reads: "YOU BASTERDS."