Reservoir Dogs

Reservoir Dogs (1991) writ. and dir. Quentin Tarantino cine. Andrzej Sekula star. Harvey Keitel (White), Tim Roth (Orange), Steve Buscemi (Pink), Michael Madsen (Blonde/Vic), Lawrence Tierney (Joe), Quentin Tarantino (Brown), Eddie Bruker (Blue)

"It's all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick -- the entire song. It's a metaphor for big dicks...."

This is a young man's movie, based on the premise that it's hip to be a voyeur. In the era of Extreme Sports, Reservoir Dogs is an Extreme Movie. It heightens the senses with graphic violence while erasing the need to feel sympathy. It's like a video game where the characters are binary, and their destruction a matter of no consequence because, hey, they're always available in the rerun.

Torture goes better with rock, and guns are a matter of principle. Death is a mimicry, the game boys play when they writhe on the ground, stuntmen in the movies of their dreams. In this unconscious satire of gangsters who shoot because they have guns -- not because they have an objective -- the action is in the cutaways of a previous generation of crime movies.

Bodies remain where they fall, victims continue to bleed. If there's anything clever in this film, it's in the way Tarantino has taken these ignored scenes and constructed his drama with them. The plot is simple, although appears complex due to the withholding of information and a radicalized frame of flashbacks. Essentially it's a heist gone bad due to a setup... generic, almost beside the point.

"Is it as good for you as it is for me?"

Again, in the post-modernist universe the motivation is irrelevant to the Drama -- only Death matters, and the ritual that anticipates it. Mr. Blonde (Madsen) sums it up as he prepares to torture the cop:

Blonde: I don't give a shit what you know or don't know... I'm gonna torture you anyhow. I don't give a shit about your information, heard it all before. Pray for a quick death.

In this reversal of convention (cop interrogated by criminal), the reinvention requires nothing except the ritual. Thus the scene is stripped of politics, reduced to raw psychology, and the spectacle. In this exercise of inhumanity, you wonder if it's a lesson in moral certitude or a manual for torture. "Is it as good for you as it is for me?" says Blonde, grooving to the funky rhythm of "Stuck In The Middle With You". He cuts the cop's ear off, douses him with gasoline, but gets shot unexpectedly by Orange (Roth) who has been lying off to the side, badly wounded, maybe dead.

The warehouse is the real locus of the action, a stage where everyone comes to declaim his innocence, act out his death. You get the feeling that this was a stage play before it was a film script. It's this sense that the actors are always rehearsing that gives the film its avant-garde feel. In fact, Tarantino uses the "play within" device in those scenes where you see Orange the undercover cop rehearsing his stories prior to insertion into Joe's gang.

Again, the action is ritualistic, the reason for the drama forgotten. Because of this theatrical ethos, I can imagine that the actors all thought this was a very cool piece of work.

Maybe it is. As a stage drama, it would function as pure satire. But as a film, the documentary nature of the medium eliminates the satire, introduces propaganda. It's a dangerous medium, a bit like brain surgery. This is why Reservoir Dogs almost ends up as another gun commercial.

  1. Orange is shot (off camera), lies wounded in the back of the escaping car
  2. Pink shoots cop (or cops) as he flees the bungled heist
  3. Orange shoots Blonde
  4. White shoots cops in their patrol car
  5. Orange shoots woman (who has just shot him ie. incident 1)
  6. White shoots Joe
  7. Eddie shoots White
  8. Orange shoots Eddie
  9. White (regretfully) shoots Orange
  10. Cops (eagerly) shoot White

Perhaps you laugh when you see it laid out like this. It would be nice to think that this circle of killings has a point, a rationale behind the orgasm. But intellectually Tarantino is firing blanks because his characters are all game players rather than players with a purpose. Artistically, he's is a symptom rather than an event.

"Before we shove a poker up our ass, I wanna know who's name is on it."

So you wonder if it's possible for Tarantino to create characters without guns. Or even characters at all. This family of celluloid hoods that old Joe, the gang boss, pulls together is similar to the dysfunctional family of the butcher in Harold Pinter's play The Homecoming... but here there's no madonna-whore to pull them together, only pop songs and movies. The closest he comes to depth of character is with White, but even with him, you question his love for Orange. In one scene, and only in one scene, do we see him mentoring Orange. When he shoots old Joe in the finale (to save Orange), his blind faith is difficult to believe.

But of course you don't care, as you know these guns have got to be used. The characters are all losers, steroids whose culture is the coarse expression of bodily functions and sexual aggression. Sound familiar? Their identities are concealed from one another in a convenience not only to old Joe's robbery plan but also (ingeniously) to Tarantino's script. The scene where they gather in the warehouse to hear the plan and receive their code names (colors) is undeniably funny. As they dispute the sexiness of their assigned colors you realize that the inner man of the criminal is a child.

There's a lot of talking and some of the scenes are too long, even if you accept the notion of theatre and stasis. Female consciousness doesn't exist, except in vague homosexual terms. It's a retrofit, a clear example of generational imprinting, where the experience behind the writing comes from the media rather than personal experience or unadulterated imagination. None of this is to diminish Tarantino's undeniable talent for street dialogue and innovative narrative construction, but when his alter-ego character Brown in the opening cafe scene talks about Madonna's song "Like A Virgin" in terms of dicks and metaphors, you might wonder why any of these goons would know what a metaphor is....

But then it's all a sneaky metaphor for guns and movies, isn't it?

© LR '92/'99


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