Tarentino biography -- bandwagon or pumpkin?


"Quentin Tarantino: Shooting from the Hip," by Wensley Clarkson. Overlook Press. Illustrated. 312 pages. $15.95 paper, $24.95 hard The breakneck ascent of Quentin Tarantino from video store clerk to Hollywood auteur was nearly legendary even before his first feature film, "Reservoir Dogs" (1992), had been widely released. By now the news feels a bit stale, but it's only lately that enough material has accrued to make a biography of the 32-year-old screenwriter and director a reasonable proposition. Some will protest, in fact, that it is not yet a reasonable proposition.

But the Cinderella plot of Mr. Tarantino's career makes it hard for celebrity biographers not to jump the gun. Tracking his fast path from behind the check-out counter to behind an Oscar podium, this is an irresistible success story for writers and readers alike. And the impulse to tell it while it's still a success story is understandable, since the signs of a backlash are accumulating.

"Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" (1994) justifiably raised great expectations of Quentin Tarantino. With dialogue that sounds at once extraordinarily witty and everyday, and frictionless passages between offbeat humor and shocking violence, both of these films seemed to deeply know what Generation X is looking for at the movies. One after another, they struck a chord resoundingly.

Unfortunately, Mr. Tarantino's recent projects "Four Rooms" (as one of four directors) and "From Dusk Till Dawn" (as writer) have left critics and moviegoers cold. Meanwhile, fawning attention from some quarters of the media threatens to render Mr. Tarantino's outlaw image ridiculous and to alienate his veteran cult audience. The Tarantino bandwagon seems poised to turn back into a pumpkin at any time.

Perhaps in a nervous rush to strike while the icon is hot, Wensley Clarkson has written his new book, "Quentin Tarantino: Shooting from the Hip," in a slapdash manner. This means good news: the book can be read in a happily slapdash manner, with little commitment of time or concentration.

And it means bad: sloppy errors of grammar and spelling (no excuse for misspelling Arnold Schwarzenegger and Spencer Tracy in a movie book) can't but raise questions about the accuracy of the material itself.

That material consists largely of anecdotes and gossip. Most gratifying is all the behind-the-scenes lore about the writing, casting and filming of "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction." Mr. Clarkson tells us, for instance, how the actors felt while shooting the infamous ear-slicing scene in "Reservoir Dogs."

We learn too how its cringe-inducing counterpart in "Pulp Fiction," the infamous syringe scene, was pulled off. (We may begin to wonder whether Mr. Tarantino knows more than one chord.) Readers expecting to find out "Who is the man behind the public face of the world's premier director," as the book's introduction glibly promises, will be disappointed. Mr. Clarkson, a true crime writer who has also written biographies of Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise, interviewed Mr. Tarantino's mother and several friends for the book, but not his subject.

Accordingly, "Shooting from the Hip" is strictly a portrait of the personality; it falls far short of unmasking the person within. Mr. Tarantino's story fascinates because he parlayed an almost pathological case of movie fandom - hours on hours spent in darkened theaters and living rooms - into movie stardom. It frustrates because we can't know at this point whether it is the story of an important filmmaker's emergence, or that of a blinding flash in the pan.

Laura Demanski works at the University of Chicago Press. She is also pursuing a doctorate in 19th century English literature at the University of Chicago. Before that, she worked for Simon & Schuster.

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