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Writer-director Quentin Tarantino doesn't like to explain the title of "Reservoir Dogs," his scabrously funny and wildly gruesome debut film (now showing at the North Park Theater). The most he'll do is quote a definition provided by co-star Lawrence Tierney.

"While we were filming," he says, "this journalist from Germany came down just to interview Tierney -- the rest of us could all take a hike, he didn't care. He asks him, 'Zo, vat is zee meening of "Reservoir Dogz"?' And Lawrence answers (mimicking his gruff growl), 'Well, you know, "reservoir dogs" is a very famous expression in America for dogs who hang around the reservoir.' "

Whatever its genesis, the title is perfect. Postmodernist Jim Thompson by way of Warren Zevon, "Reservoir Dogs" is better seen than described, so as not to spoil any of its surprises. It's a heist movie without the heist, beginning after an elaborately planned jewelry store robbery has gone awry. One by one, the eight professional thieves who worked on it reconvene at their hideout and rip into each other, trying to figure out what went wrong, who was killed and who ratted to the police.

Discussing his movie over a Foster's lager in the lounge of a Toronto hotel earlier this fall, the ebullient 20-something Tarantino is a walking billboard for his favorite films: he sports a "Juice" baseball cap and proudly shows off a garish "Toxic Avenger" watch. He reminds you of an overgrown kid for whom moviemaking is an extension of playing Batman in a bath towel cape, leaping off the front porch to do battle with the kids pretending to be the bad guys. Tarantino and his distributor, Miramax Films, have been taking "Reservoir Dogs" around the festival circuit, hoping to build a buzz before releasing it to theaters. (The strategy paid off: at the Toronto Festivals of Festivals it was named Best First Feature by a panel of international critics, who called it, "A spectacular debut that combines a brilliant narrative sense, an expressive use of space and an insightful direction of actors.")

Word of mouth has been essential to providing a range of opinion about the movie, because many early sanctions ignored the humor and focused exclusively on the strong violence that nearly got "Reservoir Dogs" an NC-17 rating.

"That's changing now," Tarantino notes. "New York magazine described it as a black comedy, which I got a kick out of though I don't know if that's 100 percent accurate; I know it's really funny, and I know that you're supposed to laugh through the whole movie until I stop you from laughing. But I like that the humor is being recognized. I've watched the movie with audiences who didn't know they were supposed to laugh -- they've heard that the movie is so rough, so violent, it takes awhile before they realize they're allowed to laugh."

One of the funniest bits, a thoroughly obscene speculation into Madonna's sex life via the lyric of her song "Like a Virgin," is delivered in the film by Tarantino, who plays a small part. Written in the mid-1980s as an audition piece when he was studying acting, it's sheer coincidence that it opens this movie at a time when Ms. Ciccone's sex life is riding high on the book and album sales charts.

Despite some talk of lawyers, he's not worried about Madonna taking umbrage at his outrageous interpretation (which couldn't possibly be cleaned up enough to get into print here). "She knows about it, and she's gonna see it and tell me whether it's true or not. And there's no doubt in my mind whatsoever," he grins, "she's gonna come to me and say, Quentin, you're 100 percent right, I was laughing my a-- off when all these 14-year-old girls were singing that song, 'cause that's exactly what it was."

Tarantino wants his movies to interact with the audience's imagination, which is why he won't nail down the title. "People tell me all the time what they think it means," he explains, "and they're so creative, I just love it. I'm constantly astounded by their imagination. But the minute I say what it means, it becomes official. I want to keep that creativity coming. That's the healthiest process there is."

That process was very much a part of Tarantino's plan in devising the film's flashback structure. "The movie gives you the answers first, then later you find out the questions. And I don't think you're ever bored, but you're curious, you want to know what's this all about.

"When you're planning a film, 100 percent of it is understandable to you. After it's finished, if you've done a job and it's not a confusing movie, viewers are at best going to get 80 percent of it. There's 20 percent of it that's open to interpretation. And that 20 percent that the audience brings to it is great. That's what solidifies movies as art."

The Alabama-born Tarantino says he's wanted to work in movies ever since he used to go to the theater with his father, walking in on the middle of movies and sitting through the next show until they got to the point where they came in (a pattern "Reservoir Dogs" ironically emulates). He studied acting for six years while doing television and the odd film role, but eventually discovered that he was on the wrong path.

"I realized that I was different, from a lot of the other actors in my classes because I was a film buff, I understood its history, while they could have cared less. That didn't compute to me, not to care about the history of your art form. And I also began to recognize that my real heroes weren't actors, they were directors, people like Brian DePalma, Sergio Leone. So I basically changed my life's major."

In the late 1980s, Tarantino began writing screenplays while supporting himself as a video sales clerk. The script for "Reservoir Dogs" was read by Harvey Keitel, who felt it offered "a new way of seeing ancient themes of camaraderie and betrayal and trust and redemption." He liked it so much that he offered not only to star in the film but to co-produce it. Shortly after that Tarantino, who had never been to film school, was accepted into the Sundance Institute Director's Workshop, where he and co-star Steve Buscemi worked on scenes from the script under the scrutiny of directors Sidney Pollack, Terry Gilliam, Volker Scholondorff and Monte Hellman.

While some of his earlier scripts have recently been put into production, Tarantino promised himself that he would never write a script for anyone else after he got his own career as a director off the ground. He happily reneged on that promise, when a chance arose to work with Hong Kong's John Woo, director of the cult classic "The Killer."

"He's just such a hero of mine," Tarantino enthuses. "As far as I'm concerned, he's making the best action films bar none since Sergio Leone -- he's reinventing the genre there in Hong Kong. And I like the responsibility of bringing him to the American market unfiltered, not a halfway John Woo, but John Woo for the people who love him, no holds barred. I love action movies like his but I don't necessarily want to make one myself right away. But being able to get one of these out of my system and having the man do it, who could ask for anything more?"

While it's already a critical hit and well on its way to cult status, "Reservoir Dogs" isn't likely to be a huge money-maker. That's fine with Tarantino. "This movie isn't meant to be everything for everybody. I made it for myself, and everybody else is invited. When you deal in violence, some people aren't going to like that. When you deal in slapstick comedy, musicals, some people aren't gonna like that. That's totally fine. Nine out of 10 people in America won't see this movie. But it cost so little to make (about $1.5 million) that it'll do well -- in fact, before it even opened the people who put up the money made their investment back three times over selling it around the world. So far as I'm concerned, the movie's a smash, because the people who took a chance on me have been paid back in spades."


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