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Quentin Tarantino on his 'Basterds' influences

Quentin Tarantino talks about the films -- both renowned and obscure -- that influenced his 'Inglourious Basterds.'

February 16, 2010|By PATRICK GOLDSTEIN >>>

Most writers, musicians and filmmakers are delighted to talk about the biggest influences on their work. After all, for artists, the influences from their youth are usually the subconscious fuel that drives their imagination.

And when it comes to cinematic influence peddling, no American filmmaker has spent more time yakking about the movies that made him fall in love with movies than Quentin Tarantino, whose Oscar-nominated "Inglourious Basterds" is crammed with hundreds of references to obscure old films of every shape, stripe and size.

Quentin Tarantino: The Big Picture column in Tuesday's Calendar section, about the films that influenced Quentin Tarantino's film "Inglourious Basterds," misspelled Marlene Dietrich's name as Marlena. —

So when I decided to start an informal series of interviews with Oscar-nominated talent about the varied influences on their work, it seemed like a no-brainer that Tarantino should get the first turn in the spotlight, since no filmmaker since Jean-Luc Godard has worn their influences more on their sleeve. Since he made his debut with "Reservoir Dogs," Tarantino has populated his work with borrowings and homages to everything from film noir and martial arts films to Japanese animation and spaghetti westerns, not to mention a long-forgotten 1939 B movie that actually kills off Hitler that Tarantino discovered in an old videotape rack at Safeway.

But as it turns out, after all these years of happily giving it up for his favorite filmmakers, Tarantino has become deeply conflicted about discussing the sources of his influences, in large part because Tarantino's honesty has often been used against him by critics and bloggers when they want to belittle his films or blame the filmmaker's endless parade of movie references for the swarm of mindless Harry Knowles-style fanboys who now dominate the online movie scene. In the course of a long conversation the other day, Tarantino managed to go -- in a matter of minutes -- from saying he "loved having influences" to saying that he was "unbelievably annoyed" with critics who used his reliance on influences as a way of trashing his movies.

For critics, a game

After checking out some of the critical feedback to Tarantino's films, I began to feel his pain. In the course of an otherwise admiring review of "Basterds," Roger Ebert argued that judging from the way Tarantino photographed Melanie Laurent near the end of the film, focusing on her shoes, lips, dress and facial veil, "you can't tell me [that] he hasn't seen the work of the Scottish artist Jack Vettriano." (Cackling with laughter, Tarantino's response was a resounding: "No.")

But the critic that really got under his skin was Salon's Stephanie Zacharek, who in the course of reviewing "Kill Bill" said the movie felt as if Tarantino "were holding us captive on a moldy postgraduate couch somewhere, subjecting us to 90 minutes worth of his favorite movie clips strung together, accompanied by an exhausting running commentary along the lines of 'Isn't this great?' "

To say that Tarantino finds this aggravating is an understatement. "Here's my problem with this whole influence thing," he told me. "Instead of critics reviewing my movies, now what they're really doing is trying to match wits with me. Every time they review my movies, it's like they want to play chess with the mastermind and show off every reference they can find, even when half of it is all of their own making. It feels like the critics are IMDB-ing everything I do. It just rubs me the wrong way because they end up using it as a stick to beat me down with."

Once he got that off his chest, however, Tarantino was happy to share, in great detail, some of the key influences on "Inglourious Basterds." "I love having influences because I want people to get excited when they see something in the film or hear me talking about it and then actually go see the movie that inspired me in the first place," he says. "For example, the whole opening scene in 'Basterds' is completely and utterly taken from the first appearance of Angel Eyes [Lee Van Cleef] in 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.' That's why it has that whole spaghetti western vibe.

"So I was really using the whole feeling and mood from a scene in another movie, but what happens is that it becomes my scene with my actors and my way of telling the story and I feel like I somehow make it my own."

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