Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, January 6, 2014

Director Report Card: Quentin Tarantino (1992)

It's a story a lot of film nerds who grew up in the nineties probably have. I liked movies well enough, probably knew more about them your average video store customer. However, one fateful evening, I rented "Pulp Fiction" and suddenly I became a film fanatic. I drew up lists of everything I wanted to see, starting writing reviews, collecting as much obscure trivia about my favorite movies as possible. I probably would have become a movie dork anyway but Quentin Tarantino's seminal classic sped that transformation along. It had that affect on plenty of people I imagine. Why? The director infuses everyone of his films with his love of the media. He's the film lover's filmmaker. I've been meaning to review his work for years now so, ramblers, let's get ramblin'.

1. Reservoir Dogs

The opening scene of “Reservoir Dogs” is an establishing moments. Eight guys sit around a table in a diner, talking about unimportant bullshit. The way the individuals act in this moment foreshadows how they will act throughout the film. Mr. Pink doesn’t tip because he only watches out for himself. Even when the others insist, he refuses to tip, at the peril of throwing the whole table into an argument. Mr. Blonde is coolly, coldly argumentative. Mr. Orange sits back and observes, watching, listening. Mr. Brown rambles on about a bunch of unimportant bullshit because he’s not important. Mr. White is something of the mediator and the clear leader. Even his responsibility to the group is sidelined by his compassion for the waitresses. Joe, despite his slightly eccentric attitude, is still obviously in control, even Mr. White kowtowing to him. It’s a quick way to familiarize the audience with a large cast.

The diner scene was also an establishing moment for “Reservoir Dogs’” writer/director. In any other crime movie, the thieves would be discussing their heist. In a Tarantino movie, they blab mindlessly about pop culture. The director’s distinctive, immediately recognizable style was quickly emulated by a number of inferior filmmakers. Most would-be Tarantinos adapted the director’s highly stylized dialogue, the references to pre-existing pop culture both within the text and outside it. They saw the dudes in suits and sunglasses, walking in slow-motion to seventies pop music. The violence was influential too. Gun shots blow huge bloody holes, the bright red blood extra visible on white shirts. Mr. Orange spends nearly the entire film stewing in a puddle of his own blood. Most infamously, the cool, in both meanings of the word, sadism displayed by Mr. Blonde was instantly a favorite of high school cinephiles.

However, the imitators missed the intent behind the violence. Yes, “Reservoir Dogs” opens with the guys looking like a bunch of slick badasses, strolling along to “Little Green Backs.” But the next scene is Mr. Orange screaming in agony, bleeding to death in the back of a car. Not so cool now, are they? There’s no camaraderie among the thieves. Once back at the warehouse, they start to argue and bicker. The image of relaxed coolness breaks down immediately, except among Mr. Blonde, the unrepentant psychopath. Ultimately, there’s no honor among thieves. At least most of them. Mr. White is the only one with a conscious, the only person concerned about the injured Mr. Orange. And where does that concern get him in the end? Shot in the heart. The message is clear. Crime doesn’t pay, kids.

 “Reservoir Dogs” is a stylish film, from its word salad title on down. Most discussions focus on Tarantino’s writing and dialogue. This frequently overshadows the director’s visual sense. The visual construction is unobtrusively designed. The most memorable images make good use of the wide lens. The image of a bloody body in the center of a wide, flat room is highly striking, as are the director’s tense close-ups or slow zooms. My favorite moment involves Mr. White and Mr. Pink discussing the situation, the camera watching from the hallway, only Keitel visible from around the corner. During calmer moments, the slow pan around a room is employed. However, action beats are characterized by jangly, nervous handheld cinematography. Later on, the slow pans ramp up the intensity of the moments. It’s relatively subtle. Frequently, you become so absorbed in the characters that you don’t even notice the visual design. As his career went on, Tarantino’s direction would evolve into something highly stylish. For his first feature, the shooting is effectively low-key.

Of course, the screenplay is a hugely important factor. Tarantino has always employed a novel-like structure. The film plays out in clear chapters. There’s that introductory scene, not at the story’s start but instead designed to set the tone. Keeping the heist off-scene is an act of cinematic slight-of-hand. The movie’s not about that, after all, but the breakdown following. The story cuts around further, devoting time to each really important character’s background. We come back to the story after each bit, our understanding of the situation deepened. It’s easy to see, if this was a book, where each chapter break would occur. The writing keeps the audience involved, drawling us deeper into the film’s world.

Probably none of the director’s trademarks had been more pilfered then his immediately apparent dialogue. None of the writing is expositionary. There’s no lazy, boring dialogue here. There’s a musical rhythm to the words, making it funny and memorable. The ways the characters talk inform their personalities, the individuals having personal quirks. Like real people, they tell personal stories, meandering anecdotes.

“Musical” is an apt descriptor since Tarantino’s use of music is hugely famous as well, often talking back and forth with the dialogue. The words of “Stuck in the Middle with You” humorously plead for help while Officer Nash screams in agony. The irrelevance of the song underscores Mr. Blonde’s disinterest in his victim’s pain. The ridiculous “Ooh-ga-chucka” of “Stuck on a Feeling” seems to hint at the tribal, communal bonding the guys undergo while sitting in their car. Finally, cutting from the violent ending to the upbeat tomfoolery of Harry Nilsson’s “Cocoanut” is a sarcastic, sick joke. No call to the doctor is going to make these guys feel better.

Quentin Tarantino is sometimes accused of being cinema’s biggest plagiarist. I haven’t seen “City on Fire” yet but supposedly the similarities are damning. There’s no denying the influence Hong Kong’s Heroic Bloodshed cinema had on the director’s treatment of on-screen violence. This is most obvious in the scene where Mr. White casually blasts through two cops. The ear slicing scene is clearly a quote from the original “Django.” The color based code names are straight out of “The Taking of Pelham 123.” A straight razor pulled from a boot is pulled from “Cruising.” A conversation in a mirror blatantly recalls “Taxi Driver.” Stuff like “Get Christie Love,” “The Lost Boys” and “Fantastic Four” comic books are name-dropped. Maybe QT is the most successful rip-off artist in film history. I, personally, like to think of him as a hip-hop DJ, remixing familiar or obscure references into something new and energizing. Maybe my opinion will change as I consume more of the movies that have "influenced" him. Come back in ten years and ask me again.

Before Harvey Keitel came on board as star and director, Tarantino had planned on producing the film with his own money, casting himself and friends as major characters. While it’s interesting to imagine what that version of “Reservoir Dogs” would look like, I’m real glad Harvey stepped in. (Especially since Quentin’s acting is, let's be kind, best taken in small doses.)  The cast is dynamite, of course, a large reason for the film’s appeal. Keitel gives an excellent performance, playing Mr. White as something like the gangster equivalent of a ronin, a deeply principled man operating in a world without principals. His ritualized murder-suicide at the end makes them even more obvious. Steve Buscemi had kicked around as a character actor for years, and probably still would have gotten famous eventually, but there’s no doubt Mr. Pink was a star-making role for him. The sardonic, rat-like character was a perfect fit for the actor’s charm. Pink’s inherent distrust of the others is obvious in his name. He’s the only one of the central quartet whose real name we never learn. Michael Madsen, too, had shown up in supporting roles here and there before Mr. Blonde doomed him to a lifetime of playing psychos and thugs. It’s a good performance though. Madsen never mistaking Blonde’s sociopathy for legit coolness. Mr. Orange’s character development, involving memorizing a script, is a weirdly meta element, Tim Roth acting as someone acting. Lawrence Tierney brought all of his gravelly charm to his small role while Chris Penn was similarly well-cast as Tierney’s boot-licking son. Of course, you can’t overlook Steven Wright’s running commentary as the K-Billy DJ. Wright’s trademark dry wryness is well-suited to the part.

My exposure to “Reservoir Dogs” came after “Pulp Fiction” changed my life. For years, I considered the director’s premier as a little overrated, better taken as an experiment then a real-deal movie. My opinion has grown over the years, the movie’s depth revealing itself. There’s still one scene I really don’t like though. I get that Vic Vega and Nice Guy Eddie aren’t suppose to be likable. However, the macho dialogue during their scene together can be hard to take. It’s not just because of the casual racism and homophobia. More-so because it’s obnoxious and goes on for way too long. That’s just one of a few scenes that drag slightly. The flashback scenes should have all been like Mr. White’s. Packed with the writer’s rambling, natural dialogue while still being to the point.

“Reservoir Dogs” is a pretty good movie. Like many of the director’s efforts, it operates within the rules of the crime-film genre while constantly subverting and playing with audience’s expectations. It’s not great pulp fiction but it is good pulp fiction. It’s not surprising the film would launch its director into the stratosphere. [Grade: B+]

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