(Originally published Ocober 23, 1992)
A friend calls from the Sundance Film Festival to say that an unspeakably violent movie has taken the festival by storm. I carry on plucking my eyebrows. “So what else is new?” I answer listlessly. “This is the year of slash and burn. Is it any good?” She grins audibly and tells me that in the post-screening discussion Reservoir Dogs director Quentin Tarantino, a pipsqueak in his 20s from L.A., brazened out questions about a gratuitous torture scene by declaring that he loved violence. I start tweezing furiously and launch into my rant about how sick I am of black-clad film hacks with geometric haircuts who imagine that one splatter pic garnished with a few slow-mo sequences is going to make them the next Sergio Leone and who think that any serious argument about the politics of screen violence is uncool. “That’s my girl,” crows my friend and hangs up, leaving me to stare moodily at two wildly nonaligned eyebrows.
But the fact is that, torture and all, Reservoir Dogs, opening in Los Angeles next week, is one of the most poised, craftily constructed and disturbing movies to come out this year. It’s a fond genre movie that’s forever chortling up its sleeve at the puerile idiocy of the genre: a heist caper without a heist, an action movie that’s hopelessly in love with talk, a poem to the sexiness of storytelling, and a slice of precocious wisdom about life. All this from a first-time filmmaker whose training consists of six years behind the counter of a Manhattan Beach video store, a stint at the Sundance Institute’s Director’s Workshop, and a lot of acting classes. Quentin Tarantino is a self-described movie expert who never set foot in film school and who never wanted to do anything but direct movies. “I’m trying to wipe out every movie I ever wanted to make in the first one,” he says happily.
For Tarantino, derivation is the sincerest form of flattery. His most obvious homage is to the B-movie, specifically to Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 caper, The Killing. In Reservoir Dogs, six smalltime Los Angeles hoods are hired by mastermind Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) for a major diamond robbery. They bond, they josh, they swagger, they kill; the one thing they don’t do is confide. They’ve been chosen because they know nothing about each other; Joe assigns them color-coded names — Mr. White, Mr. Blue, Mr. Orange. When the heist, which we never see, is interrupted by a waiting phalanx of police, the thieves retreat to a meeting place in a disused warehouse. There, with one dead, one missing and one seriously wounded, what’s left of the group plunges into a morass of paranoid recrimination when it becomes clear that one of their number has set them up and another (Michael Madsen) has shot several bank employees for pressing the alarm.
It sounds odd to say this about a film that has a 10-minute torture scene shot in real time, but Reservoir Dogs is a romp: a brave, cocky, enormously self-satisfied adventure in film as manipulation. Tarantino loves to toy with the forms of his beloved action genre; with his favorite themes of professionalism, loyalty and betrayal; but most of all with us, flipping us from laughs to sympathy to horror and back again — he’s the maestro of mood swing. Talk about the cinema of excess: from its opening sequence, in which Tarantino, in a small part as Mr. Brown, entertains his fellow thugs in a café with a psycho-literary interpretation of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” (“Dick dick dick dick dick dick dick … it hurts. …The pain is reminding a fuck machine what it once was like to be a virgin”), Reservoir Dogs throws down a challenge a minute to the politically correct. Its unheroes are a bunch of career criminals who kill cops without batting an eyelid but show a chivalrous concern for innocent bystanders (so long as they don’t get in the way) and spend as much time debating the ethics of tipping waitresses as they do the semiotics of Madonna. Tarantino’s dialogue drips with go-for-it racism, sexism and enough undeleted expletives to gladden the heart of David Mamet. And though he insists that he’s just letting his characters be who they are, it’s clear he relishes the effect they’re going to have on audiences and critics shackled by a decade of what he calls a “square dance” mentality in filmmaking.
Quentin Tarantino shows up for lunch at Denny’s on Sunset and Gower (his choice) driving the world’s smallest rental car. Rumpled in a white T-shirt that says “Tin-Tin in America,” badly in need of a shave and any kind of haircut, he apologizes for being late and applies himself to a meal rich in bad cholesterol. We resume an amiably fractious argument about screen violence that began weeks earlier over the phone from Paris, where Tarantino was attending his film’s international premiere. (Reservoir Dogs has made its money back three times over in world sales before even opening in the U.S.)
Tarantino would just as soon not have an abstract conversation about movie violence; he would rather talk about his movie’s structure. Reservoir Dogs is laid out like an exquisitely paced piece of pulp fiction, divided into chapters and moving back and forth in time to explain the characters and the action. “I’ve always thought that the closer we can hitch movies to books, the better off movies will be,” says Tarantino. “There’s a complexity to a novel that you don’t get in original screenplays. A novel thinks nothing of starting in the middle of its story. And if a novel goes back in time it’s not a flashback, it’s so you learn something. The flashback is a personal perspective. What I’m doing as the narrator is rearranging the order in the way I want you to get the information.”
Tarantino’s a showoff, and he has much to show off, smoothly trading off among black comedy, realism and horror as Reservoir Dogs swims around in time. After 10 minutes of ballsy man-talk around the café table, the credits go up, and the hoods in their black suits and shades saunter onto the streets in slow motion, backed by the Super Sounds of the ’70s score that will provide a hilariously inane counterpoint to the action throughout the film. Cut to a blood-soaked Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) squealing like a stuck pig in the back of a getaway car while a panicked Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), trying to calm him, drives him to the warehouse that will become the center from which the film’s multiple stories fan out.
With the exception of the ridiculously saintly cop he played in Thelma & Louise, Harvey Keitel has never put a foot wrong. He can carry a movie or disappear into an ensemble; in Reservoir Dogs he does both as a team-playing professional for whom loyalty and knowing the rules are paramount. He can also shoot three cops at close range and go for a taco. It’s largely because of Keitel, who was given the script for Reservoir Dogs by a friend of Tarantino’s partner, that the film got made at all. Tarantino had resigned himself to being a “film geek” living on the fringes of the industry and was prepared to shoot the film guerrilla style. But Keitel was so impressed with the script that he not only agreed to star, but helped raise the money to put the film into production and probably attracted the rest of an all-male ensemble any director, let alone a new one, would kill for.
At the Toronto film festival, where Reservoir Dogs wins the specially created critics’ prize for extraordinary achievement by a first-time filmmaker, Tarantino and some of the cast stalk the screenings, dinners and parties in shades and regulation black, backslapping and insulting one another for the benefit of anyone listening. The press conference for Reservoir Dogs could pass for a locker-room booster session. A reporter asks Tarantino why there are no women in the film. I choke back a snort; the movie practically wears a placard saying Girls Keep Out. (There are two women, onscreen long enough for one to shoot somebody before she’s shot herself, while another is pulled through the driver’s window of her own car and left sprawling in the road.) “It would be like women turning up on the submarine in Das Boot,” Tarantino answers sweetly. “There’s no place for women in this movie.” “Thank God,” I mutter under my breath.
Like his film, Tarantino zigzags between boyishness and streetwise savvy. He peppers his speech with “cool” and “man” and other speech disorders of the excitable high-schooler. Yet he thinks aloud with the sharp independence of an autodidact (he never went to college) who has read and seen and thought widely about having had to toe the line for a grade-point average.
A boy who was frightened by Bambi but saw Carnal Knowledge when he was four and understood genre distinctions before he turned 10, Tarantino always chose a movie for his birthday over Disneyland or Magic Mountain. (“And it wasn’t like I didn’t go all the time.”) His mother and the uncle they lived with took him to everything. “The ratings system meant nothing to them. They figured I was smart enough to tell the difference between a movie and real life, and they were right. There was only one movie that my mom wished she hadn’t taken me to, and that was Joe, with Peter Boyle. I fell asleep. She was really happy because she didn’t want her kid to see the cops kill those hippies.
“When I was a little kid, I thought the height of moviemaking was Abbott and Costello monster movies. I was just amazed at the genius of the concept of a horror film and a comedy together — two great tastes that taste great together.” Reservoir Dogs is the work of a man who has lived his life inside movies. Tarantino thinks the death of the mother in Bambi would be much more horrifying to kids than the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs, which would go straight over their heads. Would he show Reservoir Dogs to his (hypothetical) 8-year-old? I ask. He shrugs: “If she [nice choice] reacts harshly and it gives her nightmares, so what? Part of being a kid is having nightmares.”
Here’s how Tarantino explains the mentality of the hoods in Reservoir Dogs. “These guys aren’t like the guys in Goodfellas. They’re not wise guys or gangsters. They’re like Dustin Hoffman in Straight Time: they do jobs. And a big thing in that line of work is professionalism, which is a way to bullshit themselves into thinking that this is an actual job and profession, not just hooliganism.” I ask how he knows this. “It’s just the truth. You read a little of this and you see a little of that. And you know the truth when you see it. The truth makes sense.”
You probably have to be 29 years old to have that sort of confidence in The Truth. But Reservoir Dogs is true to its own imagination, especially when Tarantino stops trying to control our responses, when he lets the genre breathe and allows his characters to expand into life: Steve Buscemi as the opportunist survivor Mr. Pink, sounding off about why he doesn’t tip; Keitel combing his hair in the mirror and lecturing Buscemi on the difference between a professional and a psychopath; Keitel compromising his loyalty to his father figure, Tierney, when he becomes a father to Roth; Madsen and Penn competing for Tierney’s approval and going at each other with homoerotic jock-speak. Toward the end of Reservoir Dogs, there’s a dazzling chain of scenes that pile one virtuoso piece of storytelling on another for the sheer pleasure of playing on narrative voice off the next. “You’re fucking Baretta,” an undercover cop tells himself in the mirror. “They believe every word, cuz you’re supercool.”
Tarantino doesn’t so much write his characters as hover over them, protecting their freedom of expression. “I don’t play God with my work or clean it up. I don’t know what these guys are going to do. I set up the situation and they start talking to each other and they write it. If you had asked me one thing that is powerful about this film, it’s that there is no committee saying yes, no, he can’t do that because that would make him unsympathetic. I think that while the characters come across insanely brutal, they also come across insanely human.”
Yes and no. As an exuberant flirtation with genre, Reservoir Dogs is a fabulous accomplishment, but when it pushes to extremes, it becomes an exercise in spurious, sadistic manipulation. At his most self-consciously “cinematic,” Tarantino is all callow mastery, and nowhere more so than in his favorite scene, in which Madsen, dancing around to the tune of “Stuck in the Middle With You,” gets creative with a razor and a fairly crucial part of a cop’s anatomy. “I sucker-punched you,” says Tarantino, all but jumping up and down with glee. “You’re supposed to laugh until I stop you laughing.” The torture scene is pure gratuity, without mercy for the viewer. “The cinema isn’t intruding in that scene. You are stuck there, and the cinema isn’t going to help you out. Every minute for that cop is a minute for you.” He’s wrong; the cinema is intruding. That scene is pure set piece; it may even be pure art. That’s what scares me.
We’re really arguing not about violence but about the politics of style. It’s partly a question of different sensibilities — Tarantino likes emotional storm trooping, I prefer a slow-building opera — but there are still distinctions to be made between legitimate and gratuitous violence. Tarantino couldn’t care less; he’s an aesthete. “Violence is a very cinematic thing,” says Tarantino, “like dance sequences are cinematic.” Though he appears to have seen every movie ever made (his taste runs from Douglas Sirk to Eric Rohmer), for Tarantino the guys who really do it right are the auteurs of excess — Dario Argento, Abel Ferrara, Brian De Palma, Paul Schrader, all of whom, he says, “go beyond gratuity. They are so broad, so stylistic and so loving towards it that it becomes a justification unto itself.”
His current hero is Hong Kong noirist John Woo (“He’s re-inventing the action movie”), whom Tarantino considers the most talented action director since Sergio Leone, and with whom he’s collaborating on a treatment. I remark that even Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, an exercise in the theater of cruelty if ever there was one, used its brutality to say something about the way the world works, but Tarantino believes that filmmakers who work in his genre often use social relevance as a cover. “John Woo’s violence has a very insightful view as to how the Hong Kong mind works with 1997 approaching and blah, blah, blah. But I don’t think that’s why he’s doing it. He’s doing it because he gets a kick out of it.” While Stanley Kubrick used the social commentary in A Clockwork Orange to get away with one of the most violent movies Tarantino has ever seen, the social analysis was just an umbrella. “He enjoyed the violence a little too much. I’m all for that.”
Tarantino isn’t above covering his own ass. “I didn’t do that [torture] scene just to say, ‘Boy, I’m going to have a boner when this thing comes out,’” he insists. “If you’re with the movie, you feel for these people at the end. Does violence put ideas in people’s minds? It probably does. You can’t make a blanket statement that it does or it doesn’t.” Nine hundred pages of the Surgeon General’s Report on media violence, and countless other studies, agree with him; we haven’t a clue how or if people are affected by what they see on the screen. And shot for shot, there is actually less physical violence in Reservoir Dogs than in any average action movie. Some of the gunplay is very funny (the hoods are a bunch of little boys playing with water pistols that happen to be loaded) and, aside from Madsen’s frolic, you could argue that the brutality in Reservoir Dogs is “responsible” because, like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, it shows violence as it really would be — blood-soaked, panicky, inglorious and slow. But that’s not the point. “I’m not going to be handcuffed by what some crazy fuck might do who sees my movie,” concludes Tarantino. “The minute you put handcuffs on artists because of stuff like that, it’s not an art form anymore.
Tarantino, however, can afford to be the spokesman for art without politics. He’s a straight, white male working in a genre that can do no wrong at the box office, and he’ll never run afoul of the ratings board, which gets less prissy about violence than sex. (How very ‘90s that Tarantino’s backers were untroubled by the torture scene but raised their eyebrows at the racism and sexism.) Critics don’t like talking about movie violence anymore, partly because the debate has gotten so mangled between the pieties of the left and the right, and partly because the celebration of style is an easy way out of taking any position at all.
I wasn’t having fun in the torture scene; from foreplay to climax I watched it through my fingers, and if this wasn’t my job I’d have rushed out of the theater, much as I did when Bambi’s mother died. The torture scene infuriates me because it has no point other than to show off its technique, and to jump-start our adrenaline, which takes some doing these days; we’ve grown so numb to images of brutality that they have to be jacked up to fever pitch to stir us at all. It’s not just Reservoir Dogs. Some of our most talented young filmmakers seem to be specializing in designer brutality: Gregg Araki with The Living End, Tom Kalin with Swoon, Robert Rodriguez with El Mariachi (as yet unreleased, but Columbia has snapped it up for a remake) — all highly stylized films that bring to the hot material of random violence a cool, giggly insouciance. (When women work in this mode — Kathryn Bigelow with Blue Steel, Katt Shea with Poison Ivy — they do it badly.) In the current season, only Nick Gomez’s Laws of Gravity and Anthony Drazan’s Zebrahead have the guts and the heart, as did Unforgiven, to tell a story quietly and with a genuine feel for tragedy.
Reservoir Dogs is far and away the slickest and cleverest of the bunch. Tarantino brims over with ideas for future movies, including love stories and musicals. He has no doubt that he can continue to make the movies he wants within the studio system. “I’m not coming from the attitude that I want to run as far away from the studios as I can, or the attitude that I want to run up to the studios as much as I can, because there’s danger in both. You don’t watch out and next minute you’re Richard Donner. At the same time, if all you do is these little art films for 10 years for a million or two dollars, you’re going to climb up your own ass. When was the last time Nicolas Roeg did a good movie? I’m not ragging on other people, but after I saw Twin Peaks — Fire Walk With Me at Cannes, David Lynch has disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie until I hear something different. And you know, I loved him. I loved him. I think Gus Van Sant, after My Own Private Idaho, has become a parody of himself. A lot of these guys, they’ve become known for their quirky personality, and when they can do whatever they want, they showcase their quirky personality.”
Tarantino has made several dazzling movies at once in his first feature — gangster flick, comedy, character study and horror show — and Miramax, an independent distributor, has let him get away with it. Will his future backers (the studios), who are already crawling all over him, give him the room to make more than a standard action picture? His next film, which will be co-produced with Danny DeVito’s Jersey Films for $6 million, has a first-look deal with TriStar. It’s an anthology called Pulp Fiction, three crime stories for the price of one. After that he joins forces with John Woo — for a musical love story, no doubt.