HOLLYWOOD — Quentin Tarantino is back, making another much-publicized and controversial splash similar to (but with more sociological implications) his one-two punch with “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” in 2003 and “Vol. 2” a year later.
Before that comeback, there was a six-year movieless stretch that followed the nonhit “Jackie Brown.”
His new film, although set in Europe during World War II, has been deemed by some reviewers to have little to do with the war, with Jews, or with the Nazis, but more to do with the writer-director’s personal fantasies and habitual homages to old movies.
The title itself is quirky: “Inglourious Basterds,” both words misspelled to differentiate it from “Inglorious Bastards,” an Italian film that Tarantino had optioned primarily for its title. He admits he tried to use some of that film’s plot but didn’t find it to his taste.
Brad Pitt stars as Aldo Raine, a part-Native American Southerner with a thick accent who leads a group of Jewish-American soldiers who make it their mission to terrorize Nazis — including scalping them, “Indian” -style!
This imaginative film begins with the words, “Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France . . . , ” and the lead character’s name recalls blond and not-too-bright tough-guy movie actor Aldo Ray, whose heyday was the 1950s.
The movie caused a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival in May, partly because it’s set in France, partly because of Tarantino’s penchant for violence and revisionism, and also because the leading lady is a French actress playing what Tarantino envisioned as “a Joan of Arc of the Jews . . . (but) I eventually decided to tone her down, because I didn’t want her to be too derivative of the Bride in ‘Kill Bill.’ ”
The filmmaker, who is of Italian, Irish and Cherokee origin, now admits to some disappointment that “Inglourious Basterds” didn’t grab top honors at Cannes. It won, however, Best Actor for Austrian TV actor Christoph Waltz as the picture’s suave Nazi villain. “I’ve made a star,” exults Tarantino, who’s better known for taking middle-aged former stars and restoring them to past glory, as with John Travolta in the 1994 hit “Pulp Fiction.”
What gave the non-Jewish Tarantino the idea of a film in which Jewish Americans behave like stereotypical “Indians” going after their cowboy persecutors? “I think it’s a not uncommon fantasy, about what if the Jews had tried big-time to get back at the Nazis. I think with my generation of moviegoers and all the movies we’ve seen about that war, it’s a fantasy that most guys have had at some time and certainly that most Jews have had.
“I’ve had dozens of Jewish friends tell me this is the movie they wanted to see — with Jews not just resisting, but taking mighty revenge.”
How does Tarantino respond to charges that his movie, by comparison to “Defiance,” “The Reader,” and other recent World War II-themed movies, is more akin to science fiction?
“Well,” he giggles, “the movies are the movies. They are not nonfiction, for starters. How seriously are they meant to be taken? Depends on who you’re talking about and the topic. When (Italian director) Sergio Leone did ‘Once Upon a Time in the West,’ was that what the west was really like? Or was it his version — the vision and input of that man — and just a dammed good movie?”
Tarantino, a renowned movie buff, is writing a book of movie criticism “that I’m in no rush to complete. But when I see a movie, I feel like commenting on it, and the fact that we live in an age when movie reviews in print are diminishing, that blows my mind. I don’t want to read a review on a computer; I want it in my hand.”
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, Tarantino is known for his eclectic tastes, including non-Hollywood films, which he often rates higher than the American product. His favorite film of the past 17 years, he says, is the Japanese “Battle Royale” by director Kinji Fukasaku. Why of the last 17 years? Because it was in 1992 that Tarantino broke through with his offbeat movie “Reservoir Dogs.” It was heavily criticized as being overly violent. Ironically, though Tarantino says he’s “very much against drugs and violence” in real life, they feature extensively in his movies. How does he respond to the charge that he glamorizes violence and makes it more acceptable?
“Movies from the very start have included violence. It has always seemed a draw for audiences. Very few movies ever didn’t do well at the box office because they were too violent. People seem to get a kick out of violence — when it’s on the screen. I do; my movies are very personal, and I get a kick out of watching it — watching it on the screen.
“Japan, for instance, has had a realistic understanding of movie violence. There was a time when they kind of led the world in violence on-screen, and there was criticism outside Japan about it. But to counter that, Japan could point to its crime statistics, which were much lower than in the West. So maybe watching violence is cathartic. Maybe it does get it out of people’s systems, and keeps it on the screen.”
T arantino’s friend Eli Roth plays a major role in “Inglourious Basterds,” but non-Jewish Brad Pitt has the lead. Was this a commercial choice? And what about Pitt’s widely noted accent, which seems overdone? Is Aldo Raine meant to be cartoonish?
“Part of the fantasy aspect of a movie can be overdoing it. Going over the top,” says Tarantino. Indeed, reviewers have said Pitt seems to be enjoying overacting in this picture.
“I saw Aldo as Southern, someone who because he’s part Native American, has been battling that set of villains, but also down South he’s been battling the (antiblack) racists. So now he has a new arena to perform in. And Brad’s done a fantastic job.”
Part of the film occurs in a movie theater in Paris, and inflammable nitrate film is employed as a secret weapon in the story. Does Tarantino ever worry about his movies being too movieish or divorced from reality?
“Movies create their own reality. Remember that one, ‘Caravaggio,’ where the (Renaissance) painter is wearing a watch? That’s anachronistic, but it’s a part of that movie. It may momentarily jar the viewer, but then it settles into the background and becomes just another part of that movie’s universe — its reality. This (‘Inglourious Basterds’) isn’t a documentary. Neither was (Spielberg’s) ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ This is my movie that I worked on, off and on for several years; wrote, rewrote, cast, talked about, filmed, etc. I’m very pleased. I’m proud of it.”
After a film is completed, Tarantino usually takes half a year off to do nothing and enjoy it. He says he’s not obsessional about moviemaking and that when he’s writing a movie he can still “have a social life, go out with friends, talk about other things,” However, while actually filming, he says: “That’s my world. I’m in it totally, and nothing else much matters.”
Why did he take six years off between “Jackie Brown” and the first “Kill Bill”? He demurs, “Oh, that’s boring. Personal. (What) I don’t want to do is be a director for hire.” Tarantino has written most of his films and alternated between studio-backed projects and “indies.”
Although he seems to have a golden touch with younger audiences, Tarantino’s work is sometimes derided as favoring technique over substance. To this, he replies, “That’s not how I see my films.”
At 46, he’s far from slowing down professionally, or, as they say, settling down personally. “I did have a spell of baby fever earlier in the decade. It didn’t work out. Now I don’t have that desire, I’m real happy where I’m at. Maybe creativity — and satisfaction with your life — removes or delays a desire to have children. Lots of people have a kid thinking to improve their own life, and that doesn’t tend to happen. If you have one, it has to be about the kid, not about you.”
Finally, on the topic of movie violence, Tarantino brings up a point: “When you’re known for it, and you don’t try — foolishly, in my opinion — to top yourself with extra violence, then people can say, ‘Oh, his new movie’s not that violent.’ ” In fact, though some critics have decried the violence in “Inglourious Basterds,” others, starting at Cannes, have commented favorably that the picture isn’t as violent as expected.
“I sometimes try to keep the violence itself off-screen and then bring the result on-screen — which is another cinematic technique. It can be very, or more, effective There are so, so many great things you can do when you’re making a movie, and I try and make each movie as full of everything — techniques and references and personal stuff and new, exciting, unusual stuff — as I can. So I can make it a real kick for me and for the audience.”