Reservoir Dogs is 25

Started by Sleepless, October 11, 2017, 04:23:13 PM

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Check out this great article from The New Yorker.

The Glorious Bullshit of "Reservoir Dogs," Twenty-Five Years Later

Like matching outfits for pop bands, the influence of Quentin Tarantino didn't make it very far into the new century. "He is the single most influential director of his generation," Peter Bogdanovich said, during an event at moma, in 2012, honoring the director, by which time it was customary to add the phrase "for better or worse." To talk of Tarantino's influence now is to do so with a wince or small cluck of nostalgia for that period, somewhere between the launch of the Hubble telescope and the impeachment of Bill Clinton, when you could barely find a coffee shop in Southern California that didn't clatter with the sound of aspiring young screenwriters bashing out talky, violent, blackly comic shoot-'em-ups on their typewriters.

"I became an adjective sooner than I thought I was going to," Tarantino noted, in 1994, when infatuation with his work was at its peak and a host of copycat films were in theatres. These days, with few exceptions, the trail of bickering hitmen, wild-card sociopaths, and hyper-articulate drug dealers arguing about the merits of "old" Aerosmith over "new" Aerosmith has gone cold. The twenty-fifth anniversary of Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," on October 8th, shapes up as an exercise in slightly nervous time travel, like a college reunion, or stumbling on a high-school crush on Facebook.

Nothing around "Reservoir Dogs," though, has aged quite as badly as its original reviews. "The only thing Mr. Tarantino spells out is the violence," Julie Salamon wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "This movie isn't really about anything," the Daily News said. "It's just a flashy, stylistically daring exercise in cinematic mayhem." These are the two canards that everyone seemed to agree upon, and they were the stances on which the Tarantino-bashing industry would be based. One, that his work was ultraviolent, and, two, that it was about nothing more than its own movieishness, with no connection to the real world. This was a myth partly abetted by the director himself, who often told the story of going to Harvey Keitel's house to discuss the "Reservoir Dogs" script. "How'd you come to write this script? Did you live in a tough-guy neighborhood growing up? Was anybody in your family connected with tough guys?" Keitel asked. Tarantino said no. "Well, how the hell did you come to write this?" Keitel said. And Tarantino said, "I watch movies."

Both of these metrics—how violent and how realistic a film is judged to be—are volatile commodities on the film-historical stock exchange. Nothing dates faster than "realism," and today's "excessive violence" is tomorrow's cinematic aperitif. The first thing to strike a contemporary viewer of "Reservoir Dogs," of course, is how comparatively nonviolent it is—we see a couple of shootouts, a carjacking, and a cop being beaten up, but nothing that you wouldn't see today on an episode of "24." To those coming to the film from the freewheeling mayhem of the director's later work, it's a remarkably disciplined feat of storytelling, featuring just as many departures from chronology as, say, "Pulp Fiction"—its structure is a nautilus-like series of boxed flashbacks, telling each character's story in turn—but the flashbacks never feel like flashbacks. You're never antsy to get back to the warehouse. Without an ounce of fat, at a trim ninety-nine minutes, the movie pierces like a bullet, leaving a clean hole.

The infamous ear-severing, which caused so many walkouts, is discreetly elided by a pan to a wall, and throughout he uses fade-outs to eerie, feline effect, with an implied tick-tock of an impervious fate. The first time it happens is the most powerful. From the sight of the Dogs walking in slow motion down the car lot, their banter about Madonna and tipping etiquette still ringing in our ears, the curtain comes down. We can hear the whimpering of Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) before we see him, squirming in bloody agony in the backseat of a car, with Mr. White (Keitel) at the steering wheel. The perennial theme of the heist movie—"the best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley," in the words of Robert Burns—is laid bare in a single cut.

So many great filmmakers have made their débuts with heist films—from Woody Allen's "Take the Money and Run" to Michael Mann's "Thief" to Wes Anderson's "Bottle Rocket" to Bryan Singer's "The Usual Suspects"—that it's tempting to see the genre almost as an allegory for the filmmaking process. The model it offers first-time filmmakers is thus as much economic as aesthetic—a reaffirmation of the tenet that Jean-Luc Godard attributed to D. W. Griffith: "All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun." A man assembles a gang for the implementation of a plan that is months in the rehearsal and whose execution rests on a cunning facsimile of midmorning reality going undetected. But the plan meets bumpy reality, requiring feats of improvisation and quick thinking if the gang is to make off with its loot—and the filmmaker is to avoid going to movie jail. "An undercover cop has got to be like Marlon Brando," the detective, Holdaway, tells Mr. Orange. He goes on:

The things you gotta remember are the details. The details sell your story. This particular story takes place in a men's room. . . . You gotta know every detail there is to know about this commode. What you gotta do is take all them details and make 'em your own. While you're doing that, remember that this story is about you . . . and how you perceived the events that went down. The only way to do that is keep sayin' it and sayin' it and sayin' it.

This is as close to an aesthetic credo as Tarantino ever got, from the intense focus on subjectivity that would turn the structure of "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" into Swiss cheese; to his fascination with commodes as the ultimate arbiter of gritty reality; to, above all, his deep, disciplined devotion to spoken English—his dialogue "part Robert Towne, part Chester Himes and part Patricia Highsmith," as the critic Elvis Mitchell put it. Critics who complain about the lack of reality in Tarantino's films aren't listening: reality in his films is received, represented, and reproduced through the ear and the mouth and, in particular, the filthy, propulsive rhythms of black street vernacular soaked up by the filmmaker when he was a teen-ager in Los Angeles's South Bay area, and to which he would return when he shot "Jackie Brown," some twenty years later:

beaumont: I'm still scared as a motherfucker, O.D. They talking like they serious as hell giving me time for that machine-gun shit.
ordell: Aw, come on, man, they just trying to put a fright in your ass.
beaumont: Well, if that's what they doin', they done did it.
ordell: How old is that machine-gun shit?
beaumont: About three years . . .
ordell: Three years? That's a old crime, man! They ain't got enough room for all the niggas running around killing people today, now how are they gonna find room for you?

People tend to think of "Pulp Fiction" as Tarantino's essential L.A. movie—only at the intersections of Glendale would it be apropos for Butch (Bruce Willis) to run into Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) while stopped at a red light—but his first three movies are all equally rooted in the nondescript environs of downtown Los Angeles: "Jackie Brown" in the depressing sprawl of ticky-tacky tract houses, strip joints, and malls near LAX, "Reservoir Dogs" in the coffee shops and diners of Highland Park, and the funeral home in Burbank that doubled as the gang's rendezvous point. "Reservoir Dogs," shot in just under five weeks—thirty days—in the summer of 1991, beneath lights so bright that the fake blood dried to the floor, is much more of a hood movie than you probably remember. For all its confinement to that warehouse, you never forget the city outside its door. When Mr. Blonde interrupts his torture of the cop to fetch some gasoline from the trunk of his car, he is followed by a Steadicam, and, as the sound of Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle with You" retreats on the soundtrack, it is replaced by the soporific sounds of suburban L.A. going about its midmorning business: birds, children playing. Tarantino said that the sequence was his favorite thing in the entire film.

Carefully rooted in place, the film is a little blurrier when it comes to time—not so much ageless as occupying its own peculiar pocket of cultural space-time. With their natty black suits and skinny ties, Tarantino's gang members look like gangsters from Jean-Pierre Melville's thrillers of the late fifties and early sixties, but they argue like coffee-shop philosophes from the nineteen-nineties, while their pop-culture intake—Pam Grier movies, the TV shows "Get Christie Love!" and "Honey West"—stretches back to Tarantino's childhood in the nineteen-seventies:

nice guy eddie: Remember that TV show "Get Christie Love"
. . . about the black female cop? She always used to say, "You're under arrest, sugar!"
mr. pink: What was the name of the chick who played Christie Love?
mr. white: Pam Grier.
mr. orange: No, it wasn't Pam Grier. Pam Grier was the other one. Pam Grier did the film. "Christie Love" was like a Pam Grier TV show without Pam Grier.
mr. pink: So who was Christie Love?
mr. orange: How the fuck should I know?
mr. pink: Great. Now I'm totally fuckin' tortured.

The idea of pop-culture-literate characters is now so ubiquitous that when the prison inmates of this summer's "Logan Lucky" pause in the middle of a riot to discuss "Games of Thrones," we barely blink. By the late eighties, thanks to the ubiquity of the home-entertainment revolution that had first given employment to Tarantino and his buddies at Video Archives, pop culture had attained such critical mass that it was beginning to show up on its own radar. On "Seinfeld," by 1990, Jerry and George could be heard debating whether Superman had a sense of humor or not. ("I never heard him say anything really funny.") Just a year earlier, in "Die Hard," Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber taunts John McClane (Bruce Willis), "Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he's John Wayne? Rambo?" To which McClane replies, "I was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers actually . . . yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!"—the best line of Tarantino dialogue not actually written by Tarantino.

Tarantino's influence became so wide that it influences the very notion of influence: what had hitherto been an unconscious borrowing or homage was now flushed out into the open and worn as a badge of one's pop-cultural savvy—intertextuality hits the multiplex. Never mind that Tarantino's original intent was straightforward realism. Most movie characters, he thought, talked about the plot too much. "Most of us don't talk about the plot in our lives," he noted. "We talk all around things. We talk about bullshit." The gang members in "Reservoir Dogs" talk about Pam Grier and Silver Surfer comics and Madonna lyrics not because Tarantino wanted movie characters who sounded like him and his friends. His first three films are black comedies that drop movieish happenings—a heist, a kidnapping, an overdose—into the laps of characters who freak out, panic, squabble, lose their car in the parking lot, or miss out on the action entirely because they are on the john. They ask, What if a thriller or a heist movie or a cop movie happened, but its participants were too dozy to notice?

You have only to look at the "Kill Bill" films, from 2003 and 2004, in which blood the color of raspberries spurts comically from the stumps of severed arms and torsos, and B-movie storm clouds hurl B-movie rain, to realize just how much more rooted in reality—in the locales and linguistic idioms of Tarantino's immediate neighborhood—his first films are. "This is the movie-movie universe, where movie conventions are embraced, almost fetishized," the director said. "As opposed to the other universe where 'Pulp Fiction' and 'Reservoir Dogs' take place, in which reality and movie conventions collide." Which is another way of saying that the great comic engine of his early films—between movieish happenings and un-movieish characters—is gone at a stroke. You notice it most when they open their mouths. The characters in "Kill Bill" talk of taking their "satisfaction" with one another, and use the pronouns "whom" and "one" ("When one manages the difficult task of becoming queen of the Tokyo underworld, one doesn't keep it a secret, does one?") like eighteenth-century fops. They sound as if they had swallowed dictionaries.

vernita: Be that as it may, I know I do not deserve mercy or forgiveness. However, I beseech you for both on behalf of my daughter.

"Be that as it may?" "Beseech?" Tarantino's writing always had its higher register, of course, but it was punctuated and brought down to earth by his love of street talk. That is the central clash driving Vincent and Jules's co-Socratic dialogues in "Pulp Fiction."

vincent: Jules, did you ever hear the philosophy that once a man admits that he's wrong that he is immediately forgiven for all wrongdoings? Have you ever heard that?
jules: Get the fuck out my face with that shit! The motherfucker that said that shit never had to pick up itty-bitty pieces of skull on account of your dumb ass.

But "Pulp Fiction," the first independent film to break two hundred million dollars at the box office, had turned Miramax into a mini-major studio, effectively bringing to an end the great indie-studio divide that "Reservoir Dogs" had first bridged: if "Dogs" was the Sundance-workshopped hit that brought guns and genre back into the indie field, "Kill Bill" completed the circle. It was a box-office call to arms that went up against "The Matrix," from a filmmaker who, like his protagonist had, for a while, sought to escape his reputation as the "gun guy."

bill: I'm calling you a killer. A natural born killer. Moving to El Paso, working in a used record store, goin' to the movies with Tommy, clipping coupons. That's you, trying to disguise yourself as a worker bee. That's you tryin' to blend in with the hive. But you're not a worker bee. You're a renegade killer bee. And no matter how much beer you drank or barbecue you ate or how fat your ass got, nothing in the world would ever change that.

Tarantino could be talking to himself. He, like Beatrix, had tried to become a worker bee, make movies like "Jackie Brown"—granular, textured neighborhood films that matured the talent that had made "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction"—but when that movie was seen as "disappointing" at the box office, he retreated, stung, into the "movie-movie universe" and returned with a movie that came good on all the things he had once been accused of—"Kill Bill" is the "flashy, stylistically daring exercise in cinematic mayhem" that reviewers had once claimed to find in "Reservoir Dogs." He became his worst reviews, rather in the manner of a boy who, falsely accused of something, decides that he might as well do the thing for which he has already been punished.

It is the fate of all great filmmakers to become adjectives—and their great challenge to resist, shedding skins like a snake, if need be. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" marks the last film that Steven Spielberg would make in full innocence of what the term Spielbergian meant. Similarly, "Taxi Driver" marks the end of Martin Scorsese's innocence, as "Blue Velvet" did David Lynch's. These days, Tarantino seems engaged less in self-parody than in urgent self-comfort. The further he strays, geographically and temporally, from contemporary L.A.—to wartime France, in "Inglourious Basterds"; to the slave-owning South, in "Django Unchained"; to post-Civil War Wyoming in "The Hateful Eight"—the more he seems to wrap himself in the quilt of genre. But nobody, it is safe to say, is imitating these films. As Jules Winnfield says, in a different context, in "Pulp Fiction," it "ain't the same fuckin' ballpark, it ain't the same league, it ain't even the same fuckin' sport." This killer bee needs to come home.
He held on. The dolphin and all the rest of its pod turned and swam out to sea, and still he held on. This is it, he thought. Then he remembered that they were air-breathers too. It was going to be all right.