Interest in the recent birth of Leo Tarantino should go beyond the gossip columns. Here’s how his father, film director Quentin Tarantino, explained the scene in “Pulp Fiction” in which John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson arrive at the home of their friend, played by Tarantino himself, with the body of a young man they killed by mistake in their car: “They’re afraid of their mom coming home. You spilled shit on the carpet – clean up the mess you made from screwing around.”
Those two kids, we recall, summon the help of an elegant, hedonistic, unflappable father to save them: Mr. Wolf, played James Bond-style by Harvey Keitel.
“Now, Harvey Keitel is almost like my father. And in the movie," Tarantino said in an interview, referring to the film “From Dusk till Dawn,” "me and George [Clooney] have to dominate Harvey.”
In Tarantino’s first feature film, “Reservoir Dogs,” Keitel also plays a father figure whose “son” hurts him. Immediately after the opening credit sequence there’s an intimate scene in which Keitel is driving and clutching the hand of a wounded and frightened undercover cop (Tim Roth); the blood of the young police officer drenches the car, like the blood of the young man who was accidentally shot in “Pulp Fiction.”
Keitel, playing a veteran criminal, tries to reassure the person he mistakenly thinks is a fellow hood and promises him that all will be well. He calls him “kid.” At the end of the film, after he discovers that the Roth character lied and betrayed him, he kills him.
“My movies are painfully personal," Tarantino said in another interview, "but I’m never trying to let you know how personal they are. It’s my job to make it be personal, and also to disguise that, so only I or the people who know me know how personal it is… it’s my job to invest in it and hide it inside of genre.”
Underlying this protective layer is a wound that constitutes the violent but emotive heart that beats in the films of Tarantino, who has never met his biological father. When he was 3, his mother married a musician who displayed devotion as a stepfather, but divorced his mother and abandoned them when Tarantino was 10.
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Subsequently, Tarantino didn’t manage well with authority, dropping out of school at the start of ninth grade. At the age of 16 he started to work as an usher in a hall that screened porn films. He never studied filmmaking, but taught himself how to write scripts and how to direct.
In large measure, it is to these biographical facts that Tarantino owes his originality and innovativeness. No one taught him, so he was compelled to carve out his way on his own – and succeeded.
After the 1980s – a difficult decade in cinema history, when the homogeneous and repressive studio system forced fixed standards on filmmakers that emasculated them – Tarantino appeared on the scene with his original vision, leading a revolution of independent cinema in the 1990s. The large, ponderous studios, managed by a disconnected older generation, father figures who demanded that filmmakers toe the line and whose sights were set mainly on money, didn’t know how to make films for young people. Tarantino knew. He soon spawned many imitators, and in that sense became a father himself.
A moving reversal
Tarantino rarely disclosed the connection between the plots and the characters in his films and his personal life. However, he did reveal that “True Romance,” for which he wrote the screenplay, was his most personal work and that its protagonist, Clarence (Christian Slater), is based on him.
In the film’s most famous scene, the “Sicilian speech,” Clarence’s father (Dennis Hopper) withstands torture and refuses to betray his frivolous son, who had become entangled with criminals. Instead of revealing where his irresponsible offspring is, he explains to the elegant Italian mafioso (Chistopher Walken) that the Sicilians’ forebears were “niggers.” The mobster, assailed with the assertion that his father’s origins are inferior, loses his cool and shoots the father to death.
Clarence’s (i.e., Tarantino’s) good father doesn’t abandon his son and doesn’t betray him, but sacrifices his life for him. The creative imagination here offers a moving reversal of what happened to Tarantino in real life. As in “Reservoir Dogs,” it’s the son who trips up the father and brings about his death.
As a young, unknown actor, Tarantino added a false detail to his resumé, according to which he supposedly had a small role in a film by Jean-Luc Godard. He chose the ultimate work of betrayal of a father – “King Lear,” which Godard directed.
Like Mr. Wolf, the male protagonist of Tarantino’s film “Jackie Brown,” Max Cherry, is a type of rescuing father. He puts up bail to keep young offenders out of jail. Again the blame lies with the young. It is only himself who Cherry, in the sad final scene, doesn’t find the strength and the daring to set free. Instead of looking after himself, he chooses to go on looking after others.
Max Cherry is played by Robert Forster, whom Tarantino brought back from the recesses of oblivion in this film, as he did with other actors of the generation above him, among them John Travolta and Michael Parks. (In this connection it’s interesting to consider that the director’s biological father, Tony Tarantino, is an actor who never managed to escape anonymity.)
Only in “Kill Bill,” Tarantino’s fourth film, does the reality reversal ostensibly cease and the fictional plot conform to the biography. Bill (David Carradine), the father figure, is the agent of evil. But even here the reversal is not complete. The female protagonist’s name, Beatrix Kiddo, declares her childishness. Kiddo (Uma Thurman) learned the secrets of the assassin’s profession from Bill the way one learns from a father.
At the start of the film, it is she who abandons him; accordingly, Bill tries to murder her. He’s the one who is filled with rage and violence after being forsaken. The victim is not the child but the father. It’s not the father who is blameworthy or is the betrayer, but the daughter or the son. Here and in all the other films.
Thus, meaning and sense are conferred on suffering and punishment – and the order, logic and justice that were absent from the life of Tarantino the boy are restored. Sometimes it’s emotionally easier to assume nonexistent blame than to acknowledge the fact that life is unjust and that suffering is random and meaningless.
This is how things look from the viewpoint of Kiddo and Bill’s daughter: She grew up without a parent of the same gender as she, namely a mother, who was supposed to have been a role model for her. But again: It’s not the mother who was to blame. On the contrary: Her loving, beneficent mother did everything, including waging war against lethal enemies from one end of the world to the other, just to return and embrace her.
There are two other girls in who see their parents murdered before their eyes. One of them, O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), also embarks on a campaign of revenge. Tarantino has hinted that the other, the daughter of the assassin Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), will set out on a mission of vengeance in “Kill Bill 3,” the last film of his directing career. The concluding note of his oeuvre, like the other films, will thus also translate anger over loss of a parent into a fantasy of violence on the screen.
Tarantino, the Zionist
The wound also lurks in Tarantino’s subsequent pictures. In “Django Unchained,” the benevolent father figure from the first films returns. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) buys the freedom of the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) and teaches him the bounty hunter’s trade. Toward the end of the film, Schultz is killed before Django’s eyes. Again, the father dies because of the son.
In “The Hateful Eight,” a black major in the army, Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), tells a Confederate general (Bruce Dern) how he tortured, raped and murdered his son, and says to him, “Beggin’ for his life, your boy told me his whole Life Story. And YOU was in that story, General."
The son told Warren that his biggest mistake was telling him that the general was his father, which is much more to the point in the context of this essay. In other words, what brought about the son’s horrific death was the fact that he was proud of his racist father and tried to emulate him, instead of disavowing him and carving out an independent path, values and life, more worthy than his father’s.
In the view of Tarantino himself, as he told his friend, director Robert Rodriguez, in an interview, the film of his that people will be talking about 20 years down the line is “Inglourious Basterds.” Like Tarantino’s other films, “Basterds” is a revenge fantasy that deals with compensation, making things right and reality reversal. Hitler is killed in the film, literally, thanks to the cinema. Imagination overcomes what really happened.
“They’re not just any Jews [in 'Inglorious Basterds'], they’re American Jews,” Tarantino stated when the film was released. “They’re Jews with entitlement. They have the strongest nation in the world behind them. So [they’re] going to inflict pain where our European aunts and uncles had to endure it.”
For good and for ill, this was also one of the central themes of Zionism: to transform the Diaspora Jew into a strong, masculine being capable of bearing arms, defending himself, avenging his enemies – and creating an alternative reality for himself. After all, the Jews, too, suffered from an absent father who abandoned them, until they grasped that they had to take their fate into their hands.
Taking all this into account, the choice of the name Leo – lion – for Tarantino’s, and singer Daniella Pick's, Israeli son seems almost self-evident. After all, the full correction cannot be achieved in the imagination, only in reality: when the abandoned child stops rejecting things with the excuse that he has to concentrate on making films and becomes a father himself.