Reservoir Dogs (1992, Quentin Tarantino)

!! CAUTION !!

When Quentin Tarantino graduated from small-time tastemaking to big-time tastemaking, he fulfilled the youthful dreams of movie and music geeks everywhere, those of us who fawn over the art and pop culture of our era without necessarily having any great creative talent. What this wildly enthusiastic young man gained when he stepped onto a world stage of film festivals and a haphazard independent culture desperately in need of a movement was a stage. He did not suddenly become a formal artist; he wasn’t and isn’t. He is to filmmaking as a party DJ is to music — spinning the tunes you love and the tunes you didn’t know you needed to hear. The great transition in Tarantino’s life, and one of the most visible transitions in modern culture, is the sudden, far-reaching and inescapable scope of his influence. Like if you or I somehow became able to dictate our idea of cool to the entire planet. And say this for Reservoir Dogs: if it’s just as infantile as American Graffiti or Star Wars, two films from another dork just like us, it’s at least slightly more playful about it.

Reservoir Dogs is a cut and paste job like George Lucas’ biggest films. Like a lot of films bigger and better than it, really. Everyone knows the superhero origin story of QT’s rise from lowly video store clerk to big-time A-lister whose world runs on artifice. Recommending The Big Combo and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three to bored New Yorkers isn’t so different, when you think about it, than foisting Reservoir Dogs upon the world and all of its cinematic conversations. It’s a heist movie like The Killing, all story leaps and backtracks (though Tarantino dislikes Stanley Kubrick, he’s admitted to the influence of this specific film), with traces of Rififi (only we don’t actually see the big diamond heist, the best part of that film) and, why not, Clue — the board game, not the film. (The characters have names like Mr. Blonde, Col. Mustard and Mr. White.) It’s pointless to argue that this gargantuan machine in the guise of a small-time, low-budget entertainment isn’t incredibly sleek and proficient. It’s pointless to argue that Tarantino is not, in his heavily marketed and gently condescending way, a genius. Any one of us would love to duplicate for all others the experience we had discovering the things we love and care about; blogs like this one you’re reading are an obvious outgrowth of that impulse. But who except Tarantino and a tiny handful of others has ever managed to magnify that impact? To not merely eclipse one’s influences in fame and success but to become an inevitable facet of the very ongoing conversation he once observed from the sidelines? It’s a hell of a Cinderella story.

As for me, bah, humbug. I didn’t like this in high school — when, arguably, the mind is most ready for Tarantino’s attitudes — and I like it less now. The storyline itself is nothing special, nor are the outsized personalities occupying their strictly telegraphed roles. The withholding of information is interesting; like the noodle incident in Calvin and Hobbes or the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, the central fiasco of the heist itself remains basically unknown to us beyond what’s told in dialogue. We flash forward and backward, but never to that. Even if there’s something frankly uncinematic about being told, never shown, what went on, the aftermath is potentially rich in noirish tension. Instead, it becomes an exercise in gawking perversion, demonstrating that the writer-director was fed on pop culture and movie bludgeonings and passions just like Jean-Luc Godard but free of Godard’s curiosity about his response to it, and of both the arrogance and humility that make a true renegade. A lot of what we see and hear in Reservoir Dogs happens strictly because Tarantino thinks it’s really cool, like tying a hostage to a chair and cutting his ear off, or putting a bunch of badasses at a table in a restraunt and having them discuss Madonna and tipping; this is the man who named the film Reservoir Dogs because he thought it was a neat-sounding phrase. Like Roger O. Thornhill’s middle initial, it means nothing.

With Tim Roth gamely shouting his lies at the camera, flashbacks that tittilate and deceive, and much of the action springing up from a big empty warehouse, this is all highly theatrical — it could nearly be a musical, which might have turned its maudlin male anxieties and stagebound tension into something truly subversive. All of the real revelations here are about the writer-director — not just what movies and music he digs, naturally, but also his weird relationship with African-American culture: the characters speak in an early 1960s, profane vision of “jive” with a hint of Rat Pack glamour, even though nothing about the low-grade operation of this loosely formed syndicate suggests that they can justify such slow-motion, seething hipness. Each characterization is a flat, functional one, strictly acting as a mouthpiece for Tarantino and his infatuation with endless rant-and-rave dialogue scenes that sound like a session of eavesdropping at an acting class. It’s a classic improv trick, really: talk about absolutely nothing, but make it sound really heavy, and oh yes, with “flavor.”

The big, simple cultural grab-bag of Reservoir Dogs did change things, did alter the landscape, did become controversial, did disturb people. But none of that had anything to do with the characters or story. In much the same way that Pulp Fiction is finally four mediocre airport paperbacks strung together and praised because of the string, Reservoir Dogs inherits everything about the actual experience of watching it from other sources, but gained attention because of its violence. There isn’t really much of it, but it gained notoriety for its focal point — a sequence of torture that has generically psychotic Michael Madsen severing the ear of Kirk Baltz, playing a police hostage, as the latter begs for his life. The only thing remarkable about this scene is its lurid, daft pointlessness, because it served its sole purpose: it got the movie attention, no matter how much Tarantino believes he was attempting to “state” something. To boot, the sledgehammer irony of Stealer’s Wheel playing on the soundtrack during this sequence is so ludicrous as to generate a kind of vague nausea. Unfortunately, this has proven perhaps the most influential aspect of this production (see American Psycho and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s smarmy interpolation of Phil Collins and Enya respectively), even though other directors took bigger ideas from the film’s overall concept and made something of them: Bryan Singer forming it into a delectably slimy thriller in The Usual Suspects, Wes Anderson transforming it into the far more humane comedy-drama Bottle Rocket.

Still, this is a fleet and distracting creation — phenomenally edited by Sally Menke (with surely a lot of input from Tarantino) so that even as convoluted as its plot is, it never becomes confusing — and is far better than the more celebrated Pulp Fiction, because aside from the opening scene in the diner it’s extremely focused, somewhat well-plotted (however derivative), and boasts a few good performances that aren’t just people trying desperately to look cool, namely Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn and Kirk Baltz. Harvey Keitel does what little is required of him here well enough, Madsen is a depressing forecast of the performance style more familiar from the director’s next film, and Tarantino should never have cast himself in any of his films — he can’t act, and he’s an extremely irritating presence. Something odd happened long after this, of course; Tarantino proved himself ultimately capable of using his voice for good things — despite a lot of fat, Inglourious Basterds would one day demonstrate his skill at sustaining tension in heart-stopping moments; Django Unchained and Death Proof are not full-on successes but are competent films worth taking seriously; and Jackie Brown is an absolute treasure, a neo-noir caper with warmth, humor, vision and even pathos. In the face of all this, why the surface-level tomfoolery and pandering masturbation of his first two films remain his major cultural benchmarks I cannot begin to imagine.

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