Sunday, December 20, 2015

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right: How RESERVOIR DOGS Gave Birth to the Quentin Tarantino Mythos


The story of Quentin Tarantino is also the story of the life and death of the American independent film scene of the early ‘90s. If at times Tarantino seemed to spring forth from a rich, self-created mythology (lower class Tennessee boy turned self-taught auteur savant), he also, inadvertently or not, came to embody a near-mythological figure in that milieu, simultaneously a savior and bringer of annihilation. His wild success helped to transform Miramax Films from an indie stalwart into a box office juggernaut (maybe it was the Weinstein’s collective id from which the QT mythos sprung; as Bob and Harvey noted in a recent New York Times interview, he’s definitely the convergence point of their two sensibilities). Yet it also paved the way for its acquisition by Disney, a corporate assimilation that soon occurred with the other major art film distributors until there was nothing left of those purveyors of mid to low-budget films. Indie film’s first true rock star director, the guy who made the art house a new hangout for aspiring hipster cineastes and would-be cool kids, and who served as a precursor for the DIY culture that has both enabled career freedom and been used as a cudgel to cripple job security, upped the ante for success so much that the film scene from which he was spawned would never fully recover.  

And that split diopter nature is telling, because most matters of the QT legend tend to cleave audiences and critics down the middle. As he hitched his star to the old school ballyhoo machine that was the Weinstein brothers reign, he bridged the gap between the art house and the grindhouse. Yet his success spawned a phalanx of much lesser imitators, and threatened to turn him into (as Jane Hamsher predicted in Killer Instinct, her memoir of co-producing Natural Born Killers) “the George Gobel of directors, famous for being famous.” Tarantino’s unabashed love for self-promotion often hasn’t helped his case, although among modern directors, only Martin Scorsese has used the celebrity bully pulpit more effectively to evangelize for the universal, democratic power and value of the cinema.

And, of course, there’s the matter of authorship and originality that has dogged Tarantino throughout his career. Perhaps no other contemporary director of his stature has aroused such conflicted thoughts on the matter. Filmmaker and critic Mike White provided what seemed to be the most damning indictment early on with “Who Do You Think You’re Fooling”, his meticulous takedown of Reservoir Dogs as direct ripoff of Ringo Lam’s City on Fire. Entire websites have been devoted to cataloguing the references to other films in his canon; the result of plowing through some of these lists can be a bit depressing. Former writing partner Roger Avary, with whom he won the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for Pulp Fiction, endured such a contentious fight for authorship of that film that he swore off working with Tarantino for fear that he would too freely appropriate his ideas.

But maybe QT has been ahead of the curve all along (see Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence.”) In a 21st century culture where the electronic information flood threatens to drown us all, how do we discern where our influences end and our original creations begin? The former English teacher in me wants to inveigh against plagiarism at every step, but the arts are sticky territory where being too dogmatic about such matters ignores the limitations of the form. Is it really possible to create original rock music some fifty plus years into a form that ripped off rhythm and blues postures in the first place? And even though film is still a relatively young art form, it has a long history of recycling and renewing itself for a new generation. He might not have the decades long critical veneration of the French New Wave (one of his admitted inspirations), but it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump from QT’s cinematic melting pot to Godard’s noir riffs or Chabrol’s Hithcockian stylings. To me, he’s always been somewhat of a filmic DJ, gifted with the ability to combine and remix previously created materials into a heady brew that is both entirely reverential to the source and still wholly of its own.

Like it or not (or maybe that should read like him or not) Tarantino has become an institution, both domestically and abroad, one of the enduring filmmakers of the last 25 years. And he’s managed to outlast many of his contemporaries and flash in the pan wunderkinds, continuing to create films that cross pollinate lurid thrills and an infectious love of language. So as he prepares to unleash The Hateful Eight (an old school 70mm epic that doubles as an intimate chamber piece), it’s intriguing to look back at his peripatetic career, and at how all of us got to this point.

For as shocking as it was upon its release, the first things that strikes you upon watching Reservoir Dogs today is how classical, how almost reserved it is. Of course, budgetary matters dictated much of that relative reserve (as they also did with Pulp Fiction); before Harvey Keitel intervened as a co-producer and star, Tarantino’s original concept, borne out of years of failed stabs at a career, was to shoot the film in 16mm for $10,000. But can you imagine Reservoir Dogs as anything other than the extended theatrical piece that it is? As with most first time directors, QT pours a lifetime of influences into his script, influences that still permeate his writing to this day. Boil down his subsequent films to their essentials and you’ll find many of the themes that fueled the dramatic fire of his debut feature: loyalty, violence as an almost genetic imprint, professionalism and the failure to maintain it.

And that deep, conflicted, pulsating sense of masculinity. Which is not to say that Tarantino hasn’t always had a strong feminist streak in him as well. His work with Uma Thurman and Pam Grier has yielded some of the most memorable, nuanced alpha females of the modern canon. But the often hyper-masculine drive and the distinctly male code of honor has coursed through all of his work. Yet again, that critical split comes into play: this long-term obsession has been viewed both as an auteur’s preoccupation and a continual retrograde wallowing in juvenilia. It could also be observed that the aforementioned Mr. Scorsese has trod this territory throughout much of his career as well. But despite his working class Queens roots, Marty has always worshipped at the altar of the European film masters, keeping his appreciation for B-films at a slight distance, which has endowed even his most guy-centric films with a sheen of class. Despite his early fandom of Godard and other foreign filmmakers, QT’s deep love of junk culture and the trash aesthetic has shaped his métier like no other, while simultaneously cursing him with the whiff of cultural disdain. One man’s trash, another man’s treasure, etc. etc. etc.

Reservoir Dogs plays around with masculinity and its various permutations in ways that defy much of the critical opprobrium often wielded against Tarantino. Yes, there are bursts of intense anger, frustration expressed through Smith and Wesson 659s brandished as if samurai swords (another nod to QT’s film fan roots.) Indeed, the central arguments in the film invariably end up with these angry, angry, men sticking those most phallic of objects in each other’s faces. But these Freudian conflicts reflect many aspects of the masculine impulse. And they cut both ways: like most of Tarantino’s films, the violence is both thrilling and horrifying.  Messers Pink, Blonde, and White threatening each other with gats is both invocation of enduring archetypes of male coolness and critique of the oft-futile nature of said archetypes (all this metaphorical dick waving ultimately delays any real solution to the quagmire in which the crew is stuck.) In one of the film’s key flashbacks, there’s humor to be found in the gay-baiting banter and homoerotic wrestling between Nice Guy Eddie and Vic Vega (the cartoonishly masculine elephant tusks which bracket Joe Cabot are a nice touch as well), but viewed in retrospect there’s more than a hint that the scene also subtly reveals the damage that prison has wrought upon Vic’s tough guy psyche. He may have been a loyal soldier to Joe and Eddie, but the psychopath who turns the diamond heist into a murder spree and then tortures Officer Marvin Nash is a different beast altogether, almost suggestive of an unveiling of the casual misogyny and sadism at the heart of characters played by Madsen ancestors Lee Marvin, Ralph Meeker, etc. At the film’s conclusion, Joe laments that he didn’t trust his gut in evaluating Mr. Orange, but the blind spot he really ignores involves his old protégé and the havoc that lies inside him.

Of course, he’s not the only major character whose loyalty creates a fatal blind spot. Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White, the seeming epicenter of professional cool, ends up dooming the crew’s whole enterprise with his misplaced affection for Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange. He also provides the hyper-masculine Dogs milieu with a relationship steeped in a very feminine emotionality. To paraphrase Mr. Blonde, there’s a lot of barking amongst these dogs, so the moments in which White and Orange slowly form their bond in the second-half flashbacks are a nice counterpoint, a relative quiet amidst the shouting and violence. One of my favorite moments in the film, perhaps in all of Tarantino’s oeuvre, comes early in the plot, when Keitel cradles the critically wounded Roth on the ramp of the mortuary/warehouse in which the bulk of the action takes place. As Roth whimpers at the prospects of his encroaching death and the possible revelation of his true identity, Keitel (in intimate close-up) softly runs a comb through his hair. It’s such a poignant moment, a subtle display of tenderness that would be completely out of place in the aggressive conversations and arguments that form the majority of this very male crew’s interactions. And it lends a profound gravitas to the film’s concluding moments, in which Roth confesses his ruse to the exsanguinated Keitel, whose teary-eyed sense of betrayal leads to his murder of his betrayer, an act imbued with the qualities of both a mercy killing and an act of retribution for the violation of the code of loyalty. Once again, Tarantino cuts it both ways: it’s hard to tell where the former motivation ends and the latter begins (an ambiguity that is further emboldened by the unheard words that Keitel whispers into Roth’s ear right before he shoot him.)

Ah, those aggressive conversations, though! The hallmark of the Tarantino universe, the hook that has always landed viewers whose jollies aren’t automatically attained through graphic bloodshed. As I mentioned before, QT is clearly a man engaged in a long-term love affair with language (he does like to hear himself talk, after all.) The enduring appeal of his filmography lies in how, like David Mamet on trucker speed, he creates a vernacular and a patois all his own, but given life by his casts. In the right hands (or, more appropriately, mouths), his dialogue rings as a perfectly natural manifestation of these characters’ psyches. I sometimes fantasize of a future QT project devoted solely to Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson, who are to the director as William H. Macy is to Mamet, holding a discussion in Tarantinoese for two hours, a My Dinner with Andre riddled with bullets. Bodies are dispatched in gruesome fashion throughout the QT canon, but characters often find their true violent power in their words.

This penchant for yakking finds its most memorable expression in Reservoir Dogs’s famous opening diner scene, a masterpiece of concise character building that, in retrospect, serves as an almost elegiac reverie and a pinpoint foreshadowing of the paths these men will tread. So much of the pure enjoyment of Tarantino’s scripted conversations, and a factor that also hooked audiences to him from the beginning, is in how they fill in the blanks left in most other crime and action films, portraying the extended bull sessions that most people have when they’re on their way to and from their jobs. But the beauty of these digressive confabs is how they often establish trenchant character traits. On its surface, this diner scene consists of debates about Madonna’s lyrical intent, the meaning meaning of 70s one hit wonder songs, and the ethics of tipping. Look closer, though, at what each character reveals through this patter. Tarantino’s motormouth Mr. Brown opens the film with his “Like a Virgin” monologue, but that’s about all he has to offer, just as his character will be dispatched in short form (well, he and Eddie Bunker’s Mr. Blue, whose sole contribution to the plot is a few lines of response in this scene before supposedly meeting his demise off screen.) Mr. White’s strident defense of waitresses as underprivileged, beleaguered laborers establishes the somewhat misguided empathy that he will apply to Mr. Orange. Mr. Pink’s principled refusal to tip establishes his own twisted code of honor, professionalism, and self-interest, one which will theoretically keep him alive until film’s end, but which will also keep him around as the heist aftermath descends into chaos (it’s telling that the film’s first flashback is of Pink running away from the cops, the lone wolf looking out for himself, yet inevitably fleeing into a much worse situation, his code dooming him to bounce between dedication to himself and his professional brotherhood.) Laconic tough guy Mr. Blonde jokingly offers to shoot Mr. Pink, and the close-up of him smirking while making a gun with his fingers proves to be haunting on subsequent viewings, the seemingly coolest guy in the room harboring a deep reservoir of chaotic violence. Joe’s gruff fatherly instincts in forcing Pink to tip establishes his level-headedness, but the comedic matter of his absent-minded tour through his address book also prefigures his inability to properly read Orange and Blonde’s worthiness for inclusion in the plan. Eddie’s inability to grasp that Vicki Lawrence is the killer in “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” hints at how he won’t quite be able to read the heist’s pitfalls until it’s too late (and also mirrors his father’s blind spot for Vic.) And Mr. Orange? He blends into the background, supplementing the other conversations but never starting his own, a chameleon in the midst of the authentic criminals.

The oft-imitated camera swirl of this scene is a testimony to one of the relatively unsung heroes in the Tarantinoverse: the late cinematographer Andrzej Sekula, who also shot Pulp Fiction and QT’s segment of Four Rooms. The masterful Robert Richardson has become Tarantino’s cameraman of choice, and his expressionistic, stylized tendencies are a perfect fit for the gradual expansion of a filmography that has grown more epic in scale as it’s progressed. Sekula’s style, though, is very fitting for the more intimate, low-level character dramas of the first two films. In Dogs, he utilizes a handheld style throughout much of the narrative, effectively turning the audience into the ninth member of the crew, peering from afar at White arguing with Blonde in the warehouse bathroom, following Blonde to his car mid-torture scene. The camerawork is subdued, but also reliant on a three-dimensional sense of blocking that further enforces the theatrical qualities of the film. In several instances, characters are framed against a backdrop of three coffins standing upright, a harbinger of doom that they pay little attention to.

That torture scene…that infamous torture scene. I’ve seemingly been dancing around it throughout this essay as much as Michael Madsen dances around Kirk Baltz before he moves in for the kill. Some critics point to this scene as ground zero for the sadistic glee they accuse Tarantino of engaging in with much of his screen violence. And his use of Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” (which now brings to mind ear-slicing every time I hear it on the radio) certainly adds a goofy patina onto the stomach-churning tableau featured here. But again, it’s Tarantino cutting both ways, forcing the audience to laugh and cringe at the same time (more on this when we get to Sam Jackson’s first Ezekiel 25:17 spiel next time.) There’s something inherently cool (in a very male way) about stylized violence of this sort. And there’s also a disturbing sexuality to Blonde's enthusiastic mounting of his captive when he slices off his ear (aural pleasure, anyone?) QT tapped into his culture junkie demeanor in using the novelty songs of his youth as ironic counterpoints to the action of his scenes, which also lent an enormous appeal to the 70s obsessed Gen Xers who became enthralled by his films in the early 90s (although as his career progressed, he moved more toward appropriating the soundtrack cues of his youth as musical accompaniment.) His usage of this song in this instance creates a tableau that serves as the awful power at the center of the film, a nexus of pain from which the twin threads of the film spin out.  Before it, we’re lulled into thinking that the conflict we see will be standard heist movie fare. After it, we’re finally exposed to Freddy Newandyke’s backstory/Mr. Orange’s origin story, a tale that will lend retroactive weight to the bickering that we’ve already seen.

(As side note to these proceedings, and one which we’ll explore more extensively in later essays in this series, goes out to the phenomenal work of the great Sally Menke, QT’s editor until her untimely death in 2010. Tarantino often credited her with providing the nurturing, feminine counterbalance that he needed in his films, and her work became almost co-authorial with his. Note here the masterful way in which she intercuts “Stuck in the Middle…” with Sekula’s camerawork in this scene, the lyrics almost serving as beat for beat narration of the gruesome proceedings.)

It can be easy to forget now, but Reservoir Dogs was only a modest hit on the art house circuit in 1992. But the word of mouth that built around it gradually spread. How many times in the year after did I heard about that ear scene? Or about the non-linear, quasi-literary storytelling that this punk kid brought to a low budget crime film? That buzz would build the foundation for what would become Tarantino’s master class, the first fully realized manifestation of all of his cultural obsessions and thematic preoccupations, a series of interconnected tales weaved together in a layered portrayal of the Los Angeles underbelly. In just a few short years after his arrival in the art film world, Pulp Fiction would change the rules of the game forever.      

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