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Paging Mr. Tarantino!

After a two-year swing with celebrity, is the whiz-kid ready to direct again? Many in Hollywood hope so.

August 25, 1996|Elaine Dutka | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

After the critical acclaim and box-office success of his second film, 1994's "Pulp Fiction," director Quentin Tarantino was hailed as the patron saint of American cinema, a video-store-clerk-turned-filmmaker whose singular, edgy vision provided an alternative--if not an antidote--to Hollywood mediocrity.

Mixing comedic pop culture riffs with snappy dialogue and graphically stylized violence, the director created his own genre and was hoisted on a pedestal here and abroad. Shortly after "Pulp Fiction" was released, it overtook Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective" to become the best-selling screenplay in British publishing history. When Tarantino submitted to an on-stage interview at London's National Film Theatre, 3,000 ticket applications arrived from members alone. "Pulp Fiction"--an $8-million film that took in $210 million worldwide--brought with it the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or and an Oscar for best original screenplay. With only two complete films to his credit, the director has been profiled in three full-length biographies.

Then, last year, things turned. Apart from directing an episode of TV's "ER" and a segment of the aimless 1995 film "Four Rooms," he was never behind the camera. Instead, there was the blaxploitation film retrospective he hosted in Nottingham, England; those critically panned performances in forgettable films such as "Destiny Turns On the Radio" and "Girl 6"; a co-starring stint as Margaret Cho's boyfriend on an episode of "All-American Girl"; and a poorly received guest host shot on "Saturday Night Live."

After watching that show, New York Times film writer Caryn James compared the director to the Man Who Came to Dinner, wondering when he planned to go home. "How did so talented a director go into overload so fast?" she wrote. "Paradoxically, by acting as if he really did only have 15 minutes of fame, he provoked a career backlash that didn't have to happen."

For those impatient for a major offering from the peripatetic Tarantino, there's news on the horizon: He's writing an adaptation of crime novelist Elmore Leonard's 1992 "Rum Punch"--the story of a Palm Beach gunrunner who hooks up with an ex-con in a money-laundering scheme--that Miramax Films co-chair Harvey Weinstein "is 90% sure" Tarantino will start directing in January. By following up a monster hit with a smaller-scale film ("Rum Punch" will be made for about $5 million), Tarantino is diffusing the pressure--consciously or not, heeding the advice of the venerable John Ford.

Tarantino is also writing an original screenplay whose subject has been kept under wraps. Weinstein, who has a long-standing relationship with the director, describes it only as "Krzysztof Kieslowski meets 'Pulp Fiction'--a smart thriller full of random encounters and life theories, but fun rather than pretentious."

Friends of Tarantino, 33, say he's been recharging his batteries, mentoring young filmmakers, building a relationship with actress Mira Sorvino . . . generally just enjoying himself. Careers are long-term propositions, they note, judged in decades rather than years. No one blinked when Robert Zemeckis took a break after his '94 blockbuster, "Forrest Gump."

Maybe not. But a hungry film industry and the media that cover it wanted to know what Tarantino had done for them lately. Screenplays for his directorial debut, "Reservoir Dogs" (1992); "True Romance" (1993); "From Dusk Till Dawn" (1996)--as well as the story for "Natural Born Killers"--were all completed before the Tarantino phenomenon.

Some in the business regard him as a kid in a candy shop--indulging his fantasies and squandering his talent.

"If you're looking for Quentin Tarantino to be a traditional director with all his oeuvres, you're probably looking in the wrong direction," said one Hollywood producer. "As a child of the People magazine culture, he's become what he always wanted to be: a star. Movies take a couple of years to develop before they hit the screen. If his split focus isn't detracting from his filmmaking career, it certainly is postponing it."

The topic was raised at a June 11 news conference announcing Tarantino's formation of Rolling Thunder, a group that, with the help of Miramax Films, intends to salvage and distribute 1970s exploitation pictures such as "Switchblade Sisters" and foreign film festival releases like "Chungking Express" that otherwise might not get exposure. The director, who dazzled the crowd with his encyclopedic grasp of film, seemed considerably less comfortable when his life became the focus.

Asked if he was spreading himself too thin, Tarantino bristled. "By playing a one-day part in this movie and another one-day part in that movie?" the T-shirted director asked in his rapid-fire machine-gun style. "And how is [the creation of Rolling Thunder] taking away from me doing my art form?"

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