SOME kids love Disneyland, but for little Quentin Tarantino, the happiest place on Earth was always a scabby L.A. movie theater. That’s where he could sit in the dark with bloodied samurais, dangerous pimps and zombie brides. His search for the next matinee took him to every freeway and to distant neighborhoods, which is why Tarantino now knows the city like the back of an amputated hand.
Sometimes, it’s even hard for the filmmaker to say where the movie screen stops and the real Los Angeles begins.
“I was watching this blaxploitation movie called ‘Death Force’ at the World Theater, which used to be on Hollywood Boulevard just up from Gower. I’m there watching this movie about these two gangs fighting to take over L.A. They’re pulling a ‘Scarface,’ just killing everyone. Well, two gang members are walking down Hollywood Boulevard and a car pulls up and guns them down right in front of the theater that I’m sitting in! I was like 16, and it remains to this day one of the great moments for me.”
No one mixes art house and butcher shop quite the way the 43-year-old Tarantino does. And now he is sending a valentine back to the vintage exploitation films that have been his lurid muse: This Sunday marks the start of his Los Angeles Grindhouse Festival 2007, a tenderly titled, eight-week retrospective of five dozen deliriously bad films, among them “Autopsy,” “Jailbait Babysitter,” “Chinese Hercules” and “The Legend of the Wolf Woman.” For the uninitiated, “grindhouse” is a nickname for the creaky theaters that would “grind” away their projectors for triple features filled with second-run films, exploitation flicks and foreign-film curiosities.
The films at the New Beverly Cinema are all from prints in Tarantino’s personal film library and, more important, from the reels that grind on in his head and heart. Last week, the director took a break from his labors on his own upcoming film project (that would be “Death Proof,” but more on that later) to talk about the festival and also give a quick tour of his Los Angeles -- the one he lives in and the one that lives in his films.
Not the silent type
Tarantino drives a hulking Ford Mustang that’s painted yellow and black to match the famous fighting togs of Uma Thurman’s character in the “Kill Bill” movies, and the director himself is about as subtle as his ride. While scavenging for a parking spot along Sunset Boulevard, he paid roughly equal attention to the radio and the road.
He talks fast and loud, his synapses are set on rapid-fire mode, and silent places seem to make him itchy. That’s one reason he does much of his writing at Toi on Sunset, the spiky Thai restaurant that is about as serene as a mosh pit.
“It’s the best place to eat after 2 a.m.,” Tarantino said, after parking the Mustang and ordering a steaming plate of veggie curry and a cup of warm sake. Tarantino was fresh from his more official office, which is in a converted house just north of Melrose Avenue. Toi is a hub for Hollywood hipsters, but the place that Tarantino really wanted to talk about was a long-gone movie theater in Carson.
“The Carson Twin Cinema, that was pretty much the perfect grindhouse theater. It was family-owned, this cool old Italian guy ran it, and it was in the Scottsdale Shopping Center,” he said. “They would show ‘Enter the Dragon’ and ‘The Five Fingers of Death’ as a double feature three times a year, because it would always sell out.”
The theater had sticky floors, Samoan ushers and plenty of fights. It’s the place that, once he could get into R-rated films, Tarantino would spend his weekends soaking up Italian horror films, pompom-girl flicks and an endless parade of kung fu fights. The dialogue Tarantino heard from the other patrons stuck with him as much as the cheesy lines from the movies; the racial epithets, drug talk and leering blue chatter taught him the celebrated idioms of his characters in “Pulp Fiction,” “Reservoir Dogs” and “Jackie Brown.”
“I’m never going to be shy about anything, what I write about is what I know; it’s more about my version of the truth as I know it,” Tarantino said. “That’s part of my talent, really -- putting the way people really speak into the things I write. My only obligation is to my characters. And they came from where I have been.”
Tarantino’s mom was only 16 when he was born, and when he hit that age himself, he dropped out of Narbonne High School in Harbor City to chase a career as a filmmaker. A dozen years later, he catapulted to fame with “Reservoir Dogs” in 1992 and, along with Alfred Hitchcock and Spike Lee, is one of the few directors who have shaped a pop-culture persona as big as their films. Whether popping up as an actor in his own films or as a presenter at the Grammys, Tarantino is recognizable as a frenetic, slightly buggy character -- the perfect combination of Lenny and Squiggy from “Laverne & Shirley.”
His true romance with film began at a young age, and it was a little scary from the get-go. “The first movie I went to see, that I remember going to see, was ‘Airport.’ I was like 4 or 5 years old. It was a big, big deal, right? My parents took me. They were very young. We went to Hollywood and we walked up and down Hollywood Boulevard, and it was scary. I mean, to me it looked like there was a lot of danger, so I was staying really close to my parents. But then there was this moment where I stopped to look in a window and they kept walking....”
At this point Tarantino shakes his fists. His eyes get big and crazy, even more than usual. “They came back and got me. But man, if I had turned around and they weren’t there!”
The New Beverly Cinema is like a dive bar without a liquor license or the stools. Tarantino dropped by the revival house after the meal at Toi, and there was a curvy young woman standing on the sidewalk randomly flashing strangers. Inside the theater’s lobby, Rudy Ray Moore, the star of blaxploitation movies such as “Dolemite,” was giving autographs to young hipsters who had come to see a screening of one his movies that night.
Tarantino said he would love to be at the venue every night to introduce each of the films in the coming festival, but he’s in crunch time on “Death Proof,” which is his half of a two-film collaboration with director pal Robert Rodriguez that will be in theaters on April 6 under the umbrella title of “Grindhouse.” While Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” deals with aliens on a rampage, Tarantino’s “Death Proof” is a juiced-up tale of muscle cars and fistfights. Though its sleekness and irony separate it from the cheesy movies that will be screening at the New Beverly, they all spring from the same sordid cinema ethos.
In fact, the festival is a way for Tarantino to draw attention to not only his new movie but also the scruffy works that inspired it. And he scheduled some of his favorites for late April, so he could introduce them and explain why they are so wonderfully bad.
Tarantino said a full third of the films in the festival were made here in the Los Angeles area and that watching the backdrops is a sort of history lesson.
“The exploitation films were made in such an artless way with these big wide shots of Sunset Boulevard or of Arcadia or downtown L.A. or wherever,” he said. “In mainstream films, especially in the 1980s, the Los Angeles you saw wasn’t the real one; it was a character with this back-lot sort of atmosphere. They tried to luxuriate it. In exploitation films, you see what the place really looked like, you see the bars and mom-and-pop restaurants.”
The films of director Al Adamson, for instance, are “almost anthropological,” Tarantino said. The man who made “Brain of Blood” and “The Naughty Stewardesses” may not have had true talent, but his camera caught reality in a way the bigger budget films did not. “I was watching one, and it was this scene at the parking lot of where the ArcLight is now. And I couldn’t believe it. Man, that Kentucky Fried Chicken on Vine near Sunset, that’s been there for 25 years!”
Tarantino used to take the bus to the far corners of L.A. in search of the gritty movies that taught him about violence, sex and culture. He still gets around a lot, but now it’s usually to see one of his own films in different cultural echo chambers.
“I like to go down to the Magic Johnson Theatres to see my movies there. I like to see them in the suburbs, and downtown, just to see how the audiences take it all in.”
Tarantino is as much a fan as he is a filmmaker, and he’s even flirted with buying a Chinatown theater so he can have his own place to run reels of kung fu movies. He revels in dropping by award shows, industry events, film festivals and conventions, any setting that puts him in proximity to an audience that he can pitch his version of pop culture to. Standing in line at the Starbucks across the street from the New Beverly Cinema, he was asked why he spends so much time in front of the camera. “Hey, this is my time. I think in years to come too, people will say that guy got it right. His movies are the ones that still matter.”
The real L.A.
Tarantino is not a good singer, but that doesn’t stop him. Asked his favorite L.A. song, he chews on the question and then warbles an old Ry Cooder tune, “Bop Till You Drop.”
Going down in Hollywood
You better hope that you don’t run out of gas
Down in Hollywood
He’ll drag you right out of your car and kick your ass
Down in Hollywood
Raymond Chandler created a fictional Los Angeles that somehow helped make the actual city more real. Tarantino has done that with his films. In “Jackie Brown,” for instance, nearly every scene was within a 15-minute drive of LAX, and Tarantino scoured Hawthorne to find just the right apartment for his title character, a stewardess who pulls in $16,000 a year. “I needed a place she could afford the rent on but that was also big enough for us to shoot in. The details, man, the real things, that’s what I want.”
One of his proudest moments: In “Reservoir Dogs,” two of his killers discuss Ladera Heights, which one describes as the Beverly Hills for blacks. His partner corrects him: No, it’s more like the black Palos Verdes. “I was watching that in Rome, in a theater, and I’m just laughing. That movie played all over planet Earth, and how many people got that joke? L.A. people got it, and I loved it.”
But sometimes you learn more about a place by leaving it.
Tarantino spent a year in Tennessee one summer. (“That’s what it felt like.”) The whole place gave him the creeps. There was only one theater, a drive-in. It was 1973, the summer of “Walking Tall,” the archetypal hixploitation knuckle movie, which would have been fine, except its hero, Sheriff Buford Pusser, was based on a real lawman from McNairy County, Tenn., and, unlike in L.A., the locals in the Volunteer State weren’t accustomed to seeing themselves up on the screen.
“It played all ... summer ... long.” Tarantino moaned, still clearly exasperated. “Not only did it play all summer long, but after the first night, the projectionist or the owner or whoever, cut out the big baseball bat scene.
“He thought it was too violent! Too violent! Thank God I was there the first night! And then after that, every weekend I would go and expect the scene to be back and it wasn’t there. I didn’t even know you could do that. I didn’t understand what had happened until later. So not only am I stuck in Tennessee watching a movie about Tennessee, but it’s a compromised version of ‘Walking Tall.’ ”
Apparently, it never occurred to young Tarantino that he might simply skip a weekend at the theater instead of undergoing this extended private torture. Regardless, it did leave an impression: “I couldn’t get back to L.A. fast enough.”
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Where Quentin Tarantino hangs out
QUENTIN TARANTINO lives and breathes Los Angeles. Here are some of his favorite haunts:
Grauman’s Chinese Theatre: “I
love New York, but I couldn’t live there day in and day out, because they have sucky theaters there. The Chinese Theatre is fantastic; that’s my favorite.”
6925 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-8186, www.manntheatres.com/chinese
Magic Johnson Theatres: “If there’s one place I like to go to see my movies, that’s the place. A lot of people are into the ArcLight, but I don’t like the rules. I don’t like the fact that you have to sit in assigned seating. That’s the European approach, and I despise that stuff. They’re trying to turn movies into opera. That’s garbage. And you can’t come in late? Hey, my audience is 15 minutes late for everything.”
4020 Marlton Ave., L.A., (323) 290-5900, www.amctheatres.com
Toi on Sunset: “It’s open really late; the food is great. I come in to write. During the day, it’s way kicked back. They always play good music. I can sit for five hours, order some coffee and just work. I’ve been doing that at Toi for 15 years.”
7505 1/2 Sunset Blvd., L.A., (323) 874-8062, www.toirockinthaifood.com
Ye Coach & Horses: “It’s a big Hollywood landmark to me. Tim Roth took me there before I cast him in ‘Reservoir Dogs.’ We went there to talk about the character. It was a lot of fun. It’s a very ‘Mean Streets’ kind of place.”
7617 Sunset Blvd., L.A., (323) 876-6900, myspace.com/yecoachandhorses
Barney’s Beanery: “Whenever someone comes to town and hasn’t been to L.A. before, I like to take them to the Beanery. It’s such a great experience. It’s one of the few places that has been around for so long. There’s one booth there too that I love. It’s a little one, and there’s a post there that kind of cuts you off. It helps you concentrate a little bit too.”
8447 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 654-2287, www.barneysbeanery.com
Larry Edmunds Bookshop: “I like specialty bookstores; they’re a lot of fun. Larry Edmunds is probably one of the best for cinema books. When you ask me my favorite bookstore, I actually think of places in New York, London and Paris. Here in L.A. I’d have to say that one, though.”
6644 Hollywood Blvd., L.A., (323) 463-3273, www.larryedmunds.com
Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee: “That is hands down my favorite place to rent a movie and the place I would say for anyone who wanted to bone up on the grindhouse-type movies. It’s the last man standing. There are a lot of pretenders to the throne, but that’s the real one.”
5006 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood, (818) 506-4242, www.ebsmvideo.com
Uncle Bill’s Pancake House: “The best breakfast places are in the beachside towns, and you know it’s a good place if they close after lunch. A great breakfast place is closed before dinner. Uncle Bill’s is a great place. In the script for ‘Reservoir Dogs,’ the first scene takes place there. We didn’t shoot there, though; it was small inside. But that’s where the script said they were.”
1305 Highland Ave., Manhattan Beach, (310) 545-5177.
Cheap and ample
A “grindhouse” theater was one in which the film projectors just kept grinding away and the marquee was often filled with triple-features that veered into the lurid, the unintentionally campy and the relentlessly violent. Quentin Tarantino was a child of grindhouses, and he’s borrowed their name not only for his film coming out in April but also for a festival at the New Beverly Cinema demonstrating that some cheese can be preserved.
All the films are from prints directly on loan from Tarantino, and lobby cards and posters from his collection will also accompany some screenings. Tarantino will introduce some of the films as well.
General admission prices are $7 at the New Beverly Cinema, 7165 Beverly Blvd., L.A. For show times: www.newbevcinema.com or (323) 938-4038.
Sunday-Tuesday: “The Mack” and “The Chinese Mack”
Wednesday-next Thursday: Italian ‘70s Crime Films: “Machine Gun McCain” and “Wipeout!”
March 9-10: “The Van,” “Pick-Up Summer” and “Summer Camp”
March 11-13: “Rolling Thunder” and “The Town That Dreaded Sundown”
March 14-15: “Chinese Hercules” and “Black Dragon”
March 16-17: Euro Sex Comedies: “Sex With a Smile,” “Sex on the Run” and “The Oldest Profession”
March 18-20: “Brotherhood of Death” and “Johnny Tough”
March 21-22: “Autopsy” and “Eyeball”
March 23-24: “Coonskin,” “Shame of the Jungle” and “Tunnel Vision”
March 25-27: “Pretty Maids All in a Row” and “Revenge of the Cheerleaders”
March 28-29: Kung Fu Double Bill: “Fearless Fighters” and “SuperManChu”
March 30-31: All-Blood Triple Feature: “The Blood Spattered Bride,” “Asylum of Blood” and “Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary”
April 1-3: “The Lady in Red” and “Bare Knuckles”
April 4-5: “The Female Bunch” and “Wonder Women”
April 6-7: “White Line Fever” and “Return to Macon County”
April 8-10: Sexploitation Night: “The Girl From Starship Venus” and “The Legend of the Wolf Woman”
April 11-12: ‘70s Low-Budget Horror Combo: “Slithis” and “Screams of a Winter Night”
April 13-14: Regional Double Feature: “Hot Summer in Barefoot County” and “Redneck Miller”
April 15-17: “The Muthers” and “Fight for Your Life”
April 18-19: “Dragon’s Vengeance” and “Kung Fu: The Punch of Death”
April 20-21: “The Swinging Barmaids,” “The Swingin’ Pussycats” and “The Swinging Cheerleaders”
April 22-24: John Hayes Double Bill: “Grave of the Vampire” and “Jailbait Babysitter”
April 25-26: Back-to-Back Angela Mao: “Return of the Tiger” and “Stoner”
April 27-28: Barbara Bouchet Double Feature: “Death Rage,” “Cry of the Prostitute”
April 29-30: “The Real Bruce Lee” and “Lee Lives Within”