The night before our chat, Tarantino had been at a Museum of Modern Art gala celebrating his work. As he moved around the room during the cocktail hour, it was as if he were at a reunion. Dressed in an elegant black suit, a white shirt, and a skinny tie, the director looked like the character he played in one of his first films, Reservoir Dogs. He greeted his spiritual father, Harvey Weinstein—who produced his last six movies—and hugged Harvey Keitel. Keitel was the first actor to sign on to Reservoir Dogs, and, in all practical ways, he launched Tarantino’s career. After Keitel agreed to star in the movie, Tim Roth and Steve Buscemi also committed to Dogs.
When Reservoir Dogs made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992, it became an immediate sensation: the first action movie for people who thought they were too cool for mainstream fare like Lethal Weapon. They didn’t yet know that Tarantino was not a hipster but a true believer in the power of all films, high and low. He has seen practically every movie ever made and strains to find the good in even the ones he doesn’t particularly admire. And like a biologist out to organize the physical universe, he yearns to create order in the cinematic cosmos. To that end, Tarantino groups films according to his own genres, such as “A Bunch of Guys on a Mission” (Where Eagles Dare or The Guns of Navarone), “Teacher I’ll Never Forget” (To Sir With Love and Dead Poets Society), “Two Girls and a Guy” (Jules and Jim, Bande à Part), and so on.
In recent years, Tarantino has deepened his film knowledge, writing treatises on his connect-the-dots categorizations. In a thoroughly entertaining, unpublished essay, Don and Bob in New Hollywood, he compares and contrasts the tough-guy directors Don Siegel (who was responsible for Dirty Harry and much of Eastwood’s ’70s oeuvre) and Robert Aldrich (who directed The Dirty Dozen as well as the horror-kitsch classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?). The long essay is knowingly appreciative and has wonderful digressions. In one part, Tarantino waxes effusive on Burt Reynolds in Aldrich’s The Longest Yard as “the true embodiment of a redneck pimp daddy…wearing his chest hair like a suit of armor. The scene where Reynolds slaps his sugar mama to the floor shocked the hell out of me.”
Tarantino wrote the essay in 2010, but already he was unconsciously anticipating the complex and explosive reaction to Django. In Siegel’s gritty cop drama Dirty Harry, the protagonist is terrified by a shift in the America he has known. “It wasn’t the government these people were frightened of,” Tarantino writes. “It was society…the ’70s painted a mosaic of America that was unrecognizable to many citizens.” In the same vein but in a different context, Django depicts an America that most Americans want to erase and forget. Although diametrically opposed in their politics, both movies show, as Tarantino writes, “a world gone wild.”