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October 22, 2002

Film Notes: Reservoir Dogs

Posted by Mike on October 22, 2002 10:47 PM

Part of this term's class, "Writing About Film," involves a short, "impressionistic" essay on one of the movies under discussion. I picked Reservoir Dogs, which is pretty much immune to "impressionistic writing" after ten years of fawning imitation.

I think that what did it for me was having that smart '70s music, and I just felt like this filmmaker thinks this is just really cute, the guy's dancing around. I felt Tarantino's presence even though I knew virtually nothing about him at the time. And I walk out and Tarantino is there and he [Craven makes a helium-pitched, hyper voice]

"Hey, I made a movie too intense for Wes Craven. I'm so happy!" But it was just the filmmaker thinking it was so cool, not talking about being cruel. It was being cruel without being aware. And at another point, I was just, "I'm out of here, I don't want to watch this."

-Scream director Wes Craven as interviewed by Ian Grey in Sex, Stupidity, and Greed: Inside the American Movie Industry

As we first get to know "the rat" in Reservoir Dogs, he describes crime boss Joe Cabot as "The Thing," a radiation-altered mutant from a comic book: hideous and unnatural to a character who doesn't realize the nature of the community he seeks to infiltrate. It's within a broader context of moral disfigurment that Reservoir Dogs is set, with the tolerance of '90s movie audiences toward violence and gore exploited to lovingly recreate the '70s "tough guy crime picture" in a way that had immediate visceral impact and much longer lasting artistic impact on popular movies. Quentin Tarantino added dashes of timeline manipulation, knowing pop culture references, and geek-cred-establishing nods to then-exotic Hong Kong actioners to put together a film that is almost impossible to write about impressionistically 10 years later, because it continues to permeate popular film idiom and because it launched a flood of interest in the forms and styles it referenced. It was its own thing for a few months, during which it enjoyed a run at art houses before being launched into mainstream venues, and then it was inescapable, as was its mile-a-minute, clerk-to-riches director. Now it's almost impossible to imagine Hollywood without the things Reservoir Dogs popularized.

At its core, Reservoir Dogs is a crime movie in a subgenre that enjoyed its peak popularity in the late '60s and '70s. In the Reservoir Dogs universe, hardened criminals work for "syndicates" or "The Organization" and dress a lot like their office worker counterparts in the square world. They have a code they to which they cleave as rigidly as Southern Baptists cleave to their own. They're hard, pragmatic men who respect the relative sanctity of "civilians," ("real people" as Mr. Pink calls them in an early scene, as opposed to disposable cops), but kill reflexively when faced with the prospect of a stretch in prison. They're concerned about their "professionalism," and understand the uses of violence and coercion as well as a carpenter understands saw and lathe, with one darkly funny scene involving Harvey Keitel's Mr. White explaining how to break noses to fix store managers with "Charles Bronson" aspirations before deciding to "go get a taco."

Like the rest of us, the tough guys respect loyalty (Reservoir Dogs' primary complication arises because of misplaced loyalty, and it reaches several peaks and climaxes when loyalty is tested). Reservoir Dogs' spiritual ancestors are The Wild Bunch, Bonnie and Clyde, Dirty Harry (the cop as loosely leashed criminal), and Point Blank.

So lovingly does Tarantino seek to recreate the sense of the B-grade crime flick that he dresses his characters in the characteristic thin ties and black suits of the organization man of 1968, and laces his dialog with references to icons of the form ("I bet you watch a lot of Lee Marvin movies," admires one character to another), and decorates the walls of the one home we see with characters from the Kirby-age of Marvel Comics in the '70s. A continual soundtrack of "super sounds of the '70s" plays above the proceedings (but only inside the warehouse, where our criminal relics play out their ethic at its most savage). The cars are a parade of red paint and white vinyl interiors.

The colors are washed out and muted, as if the movie itself is an aging print, and the lighting is a throwback to a time before the honey-soaked and saturated colors so popular when Reservoir Dogs was released.

So, the same year Clint Eastwood symbolically wrote a final love song to Dirty Harry, Josey Wales, and The Stranger with Unforgiven, Tarantino brought the form back. The same year that A Few Good Men declared the next important social struggle was the exorcism of the throwback warrior at the hands of boy lawyer Tom Cruise and matriarchal Demi Moore, Tarantino recreated a world almost completely driven by retrograde masculinity and almost completely devoid of women except as anonymous figures to be tipped, executed, or passingly dismissed as "fuck machines," saturating his work with bloodshed and brutally frank language that was forbidden the directors who had inspired him, analogous to Chinatown's recreation of film noir with a '70s sensibility.

There are other elements in the mix besides the homage to tough guy criminal movies and their world of inverted morality that both contribute to the feel of the movie and the overwhelming success it enjoyed:

The film's opening dialog is the prototypical pop-culture rant... the sort of bong-inspired analysis a young filmgoing audience recognized from its own beer-addled afternoons in the back yard with mom and dad's appropriated croquet set, comfortable in the knowledge that anything will yield to clever wordplay, both mocking and parroting the disjoint stream of consciousness they had come to associate with deconstruction. Kevin Smith has built a career on the pop-culture rant, which critics have alternately dismissed as "wordy" or euphemized by applauding his "good ear for dialog; and universally damned with "quirky."

By bracketing his film's cheerful '70s pop soundtrack with uber-abject comedian Steven Wright's somnambulent DJ, Tarantino acknowledged and celebrated the overwhelming irony dripping from youth culture idiom. Where Utne Reader fretted just a few years earlier in its special "Post Modernism" issue that it was "time to get back to the good, the true, and the beautiful," Tarantino seemed to argue that, like a college kid in a Salvation Army store, he wasn't done playing in the debris of pop culture moments gone by. He simultaneously established his youth culture cred and earned a pass for a movie that left such a lasting impression in the (literally) visceral gore it trotted out that an action figure designer proudly notes the "earless cop" version of one of his toys during an interview on the 10th Anniversary DVD. A knowing wink, we've learned, excuses a lot of bad behavior if you can convince the scholars of your essential puckishness or ironic intent.

Tarantino also announced himself to a burgeoning "geek culture" raised with VCR's in the house with which to indulge its love of film and newly armed with growing Internet access with which to dicuss its passions. It's impossible to forget the fury with which the film's final shootout was argued in Internet mailing lists at the time, or the agitated aural dissections of Mr. Pink's final moments off-screen. By "borrowing" moments from John Woo's operatic recreations of American crime movies in the form of two-fisted shooting, cartoonish sobriquets, and the classic eye-to-eye standoff of angry, armed men unflinchingly daring each other to shoot first, Tarantino established himself as a film geek's director.. the carefully doled-out facts of his previous employment as a film store clerk endeared him further to the same people wandering aimlessly through the previous year's Slacker.

So that brings us to a few conclusions and a few questions.

It's impossible to not feel some affection for moments of the film, even when they're base. Tough guys pleading the case of a waitress to the non-tipping Mr. Pink remain a comic moment, even if they've been endlessly echoed for a decade. Mr. Orange's doom becomes poignant in a flashback where we watch him try to bolster his courage in a mirror and armor himself with a wedding ring for a wife he doesn't have. Mr. Blonde is charmingly menacing. Mr. White's inverted assessment of the virtue of his fellow criminals, with Mr. Blonde's massacre of innocents being an undisputable credential, is ironic and funny.

It's similarly hard to fault the sheer technique brought to bear. The camera work alternates between the static,wide angles of older, cheaper movies and choppier first-person work that establishes the director's competence in a more modern mode. Tarantino's story-telling abilities and descriptive powers are also on display: it's interesting to note that the film's most violent and brutal scene, one we could almost imagine we saw on screen, was never filmed, but merely described by the characters as they compare notes.

We're also left with some unfortunate questions.

The violence, as mentioned, is shocking. From the growing puddle of gore in which Mr. Orange wallows, to the brutal torture scene played as comic material, to assorted shootings and assaults that leave everyone but Mr. Pink dead, Reservoir Dogs is grotesque, and it's grotesque in the service of nothing discernible unless Tarantino seeks to remind us that "crime doesn't pay," or "loyalty and ethics can bring ruin when practiced in a vacuum," or "live by the sword, die by the sword." But the quote at the beginning of this essay reveals much about Tarantino and his outlook on his creation: it's a matter of pride that none other than Freddie Kruger's creator was chased from a screening, which leaves us wondering if the director is as much an author steeped in a post-modern sensibility as he is a little boy shoving firecrackers up frog butts, ultimately, like Seinfeld, rendering his movie "a show about nothing" except, perhaps, its own sense of style.

Taken in the context of Tarantino's three-film career (hard to believe considering the promsicuity with which he "presents," produces, and allows films to be "from" him on the video store shelves) even more questions are raised. He was invulnerable to critics cowed by the market success of Reservoir Dogs when Pulp Fiction arrived two years later, but he was largely yawned at with Jackie Brown in 1997. That was the same year in which yet another "indie" film convinced us all "mainstream Hollywood was in danger" (Good Will Hunting) and he got out-earned by his own inspiration, John Woo, who appropriated an actor Tarantino himself had resurrected (John Travolta) to make Face/Off which gave audiences more of Tarantino's now-trademark violence than Tarantino himself could probably muster. The questions center around what it means about a movie-going audience that, presented with a director who evolved in a positive direction after a crude but skilled, grotesque but comic initial entry, rejected him when he matured enough to "write women" adequately and grew enough to tell a story outside a narrowly defined world of set-pieces and tricky time-shifting. It doesn't say much nice, especially when he was shoved off the charts by Air Force One, Jurassic Park: The Lost World, and My Best Friend's Wedding; and it puts us in the position of almost pitying one of the last ten years' most profound examples of hype run amok: passed up by a movie culture he influenced for years to come for better or worse.