I will give my mother nothing, Quentin Tarantino said last week, to no surprise. He is now 58; when he was born, his 16-year-old single mother Connie was working double shifts as a nurse. But such shared reality doesn’t touch Tarantino; he is very modern, and he sees the world only through himself. He is less a film director than a memoirist who makes films.
He told the podcast The Moment how, when he was a child, his mother said: “This little ‘writing career’ that you’re doing? That shit is over!” It has plagued him all these years, although it helped his work. Connie sounds like a Tarantino character when he remembers to let women speak.
He remembers it. “And when she said that to me in that sarcastic way, I was in my head, and I go: ‘OK, lady. When I become a successful writer, you will never see one penny from my success. There will be no house for you. There’s no vacation for you, no Elvis Cadillac for mommy. You get nothing. Because you said that.’”
Fans should be grateful for this fury. There is no director so engulfed by it and no director who was so obviously raised not by parents but by cinema itself. He is the god of men who live in the dark. He will not analyse it — he can’t — but his nine films are, at heart, an account of an unhappy childhood in which the child delivers the antidote to himself, as if by needle into his veins: pulp fiction.
People who believe his work has no emotional core are wrong. His emotional absence — his denial, his fury — are the core. He is his tragic hero hiding from his own pain. He said so himself. Films, he says, exist to make you “high”. If he is an addict, he knows it. He says he will stop after ten films.
Tarantino wants to be versatile and is now trying fiction too. His novel of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is just out. I read it, but fiction is not his form. Why waste a life spent in the movie house? The book is a series of digressions into film criticism, with broken tough guys and idealised women performing cameos, like mutilated dolls chatting on a copy of Total Film magazine.
Tarantino writes about women as if he has never met one. But who could teach him about reality? His father Tony Tarantino — a spiv, a failed actor who appeared in Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre — left Connie before Quentin was born. She named him after Quint, the Burt Reynolds character in Gunsmoke, and Quentin in The Sound and the Fury. She worked 16-hour shifts to support her son, once leaving him with his deranged alcoholic grandmother in a trailer park in Tennessee. He used it though, as he used everything: terrible things happen to Tarantino characters in trailer parks. Their eyes are plucked out. They are eaten by snakes.
He was always a writer. For Mother’s Day he would write Connie stories in which she died at the end like Queen Lear. “You don’t really mean it, do you, Quentin?” she asked him. “Of course not, Mom,” he replied. “I feel real bad about it, but that’s just the way the story turned out. You’re still the greatest mom, even if you had to die.”
She didn’t but others did, at least in his mind. He tore his GI Joe figures limb from limb and, according to his biographer Wensley Clarkson, smashed his puppy’s head against a wall. (Yet Connie said he loved this dog and I believe it.) When he was seven, Connie took him to see Deliverance, with its scene of male rape. Whatever it did to him at the time — Connie told Clarkson, “I honestly do not think it harmed him in any way” — he later rewrote it for Pulp Fiction.
Connie was right in one sense. He won an Academy Award for writing Pulp Fiction, with Roger Avary. Connie treated him as an adult, and he turned trauma into art. When he was arrested for parking ticket violations and sent to LA’s county jail, she refused to bail him out. He is not without resources. Instead, he began to write Natural Born Killers.
As for Tony Tarantino, he was not in Quentin’s real life, but he is everywhere in his cinema, behind every bar room door, in every grave, or loitering out of shot. Quentin’s era is Tony’s too; his characters have all the swagger and deceit of the Tarantino hero. Here, on film, they meet at last because — as with the mutilation of the women — it is safer that way.
He took his father’s name too. He says it was because it sounded “cool” (and he now regrets it) but “cool” is barely a word, let alone an explanation. Is it, rather, a seeking? He has only met his father once and the encounter sounds like a fragment of a Tarantino film. What else could it be?
He told the WTF podcast: “So one day I was in a cafe, I’m ordering something and all of a sudden, he is just there. And he’s like, ‘Hi. It’s me.’ And I look up, and I knew exactly who it was. And I go ‘Ugh. I knew this day was going to come.’ And he goes, ‘Yup. That day is today.’ And he goes, ‘May I sit?’ And I just looked at the table, and I waved him away with my hand. I looked at him when I said, ‘Ugh.’ And then I just looked at my plate and waved him away. Just go, just go. And he went.” If it were a movie, there might have been a beheading, or a confidence, but Quentin learned it young: real life isn’t that accommodating.
Instead, he can only be explicit — and truthful — about Hollywood’s dedication to itself. It has nothing to teach us about reality, and neither does he. Instead, he takes the cinema that nourished him to its logical extremes. By making films not about life, but about cinema, Tarantino exposes it for what it is: a collection of sad archetypes and dreams we know will not come true. If we are disappointed, it is because we are disillusioned. Watch Tarantino and an art form that once comforted you lies, like his own innocence, in fragments.