Saturday, February 21, 2015

Reservoir Dogs

Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs is a simple movie that possesses surprising depth. It is also an homage to tough-guy noir and crime caper movies. It revels in the masculine and the gory; it is blood-soaked and yet about brotherhood. It is about the surprising tenderness that tough guys can feel for each other and the oblique and odd and funny ways they end up expressing it. It is about pop culture, it is a satire, a send up, but also an homage to a certain type of movie making. It is funny and suspenseful and postmodern and, most of all, it tells a compelling story.

The movies, and books and TV are, for me, portals into dimensions, to times and places, where I could otherwise never go. Or to places I would like to go, but will never get the chance. Or to places I don’t know how to get to, or would be too afraid to go to even if I knew the way.

The foreign land this movie transports me to is the macho criminal underworld, a country of only the hardest of hard guys. These guys have balls as big as those of a brass monkey’s, they are alpha males, top dogs, they could survive any prison, being stranded in the desert, the longest forced march, the darkest night time of the soul (if they even possessed one of those). I’m in awe of these guys, at the same time they repulse me—what freedom to not be afraid of the mundane things that frighten us less masculine types—cops, nuns, mother-in-laws, the IRS, mean dogs, the guy on the subway who won’t stop staring at you!

Lawrence Tierney, playing Joe Cabot, is the quintessential hard-boiled character. Even near the end of his life, playing the mastermind of a jewel heist pulled off, or bungled, by a group of criminals right out of the old noir movies Tierney starred in during the 30’s and 40’s, he looks and acts as if he could beat down the lot of them between drinks and telling stories about the other young punks he has beaten down in other buckets of blood in other tank towns, different places all, and yet somehow all the same.

Tierney and the crew he commands are guys who make their living outside the law, who follow an outlaw code, who have pledged to live a life of crime, to live fast and die young and make a good- looking corpse. There are no women in this movie, no girlfriends or wives or mothers, no femme fatales, none. The only time we get even a glimpse of a woman is in a strip club, and when one of the “dogs,” on the run from the aforementioned botched robbery, tries to hijack a car, only to have the female occupant reach into her purse and plug him in the guts with a bullet. He goes from victimizer to victimized in the brutal second it takes for her to pull the trigger.

Even when they haven’t been thrown together to do a job (and certainly not when they are getting gut shot by women) these guys seem to be the kind to prefer the company of other men. And when they are together, what they like to do is tell stories. Interesting that Tarantino makes stories a central theme in his story—this kind of self-awareness and self-commentary is very postmodern, in a movie that is in some ways old-fashioned, and in other ways certainly is not. While the intricacies of the dark plot are pure old fashioned noir, the focus on the gore, and the way that the pain of being shot and tortured robs these men of their prized masculinities, is not.

In reading reviews of this movie, I was struck by how they mentioned it “stylized” and “eroticized” violence. It certainly did! The scene where Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) tortures a cop while dancing to Stealer Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” is disturbing, but also gives you a kind of frisson that is undeniably like pleasure. And I felt guilty for laughing when, after cutting the cop’s ear off, Mr. Blonde talks into it, saying “what? Did you hear that?”

Funny also is the way that the gangsters ramble on about pop culture, and have discussions that are of a type that a more metrosexual guy might have. When Mr. Pink won’t give a waitress a tip, Mr. White lectures him on how waitressing is the only way an undereducated single mother can hope to make any type of decent living.
It is funny, but there is a bonhomie to the banter, to the interaction of these boon companions, a kind of fellow feeling, that makes it seem like they, unable to relate to women, or cops, certainly, or civilians (anyone who is not a cop or a crook), find the need for closeness and connection that they can’t find anywhere else in this seemingly casual and offhand repartee.

Another funny thing about the movie is the prickly vanity of these extremely macho guys. When Steve Buscemi’s character learns he is to be Mr. Pink (Cabot decides to give them all code names so they won’t be able to rat each other out later) he is distraught. Mr. White tells him to leave it alone, and he says “that’s easy for you to say, you’re Mr. White, that’s a cool name.”

When Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) infiltrates the gang, he wins their confidence with a story about trying to stay cool with a shitload of drugs on his person while a group of nearby cops listen to one of their number tell a story himself, and the cops’ German Shepherd eyes Mr. Orange suspiciously. Mr. Orange’s mentor tells him he has to own that story, to make it his own, to know every least detail and nuance of it until it becomes real to him. And he does. And Tarantino does it with this movie, which was as real to me as real life. Even when the movie steps back and references TV and popular music, which serves to remind us that the movie itself is just pop cultural entertainment, I was enthralled. I wanted to know if Mr. Orange was going to be found out, if Mr. Blonde was going to kill the cop, if Mr. White and Pink would kill each other.

What of the reviews of this movie, which has gone from cult classic to icon in the twenty odd years since it was made? I read one said that the movie was about homosexuality, another that it was about feminism’s threat to traditional “manhood”, a third that it was about how there is no absolute meaning in a postmodern world, a fourth that its meaning was all about redemption through pain and suffering, and finally one that said it was about how the gangsters want to go “straight” and become real people, but can’t.

Tarantino himself said he wanted only to make a good movie. And he did. We have an instinctive sense of what a story is, and what a good one is. It comes from our unconscious, and the message we get from it is pleasure first, followed by meaning. The pleasure we get from it is clear and powerful if it is a good story, because it appeals to something deep within us. The meaning comes after that initial aesthetic response, and is often not as clear. And if you are a critic, you often want to make the meaning more complex of abstruse or esoteric than it is or has to be so you can justify yourself as someone who has some special insight that the normal moviegoer doesn’t have. This leads to a lot of weird critiques, to be sure.

Is Reservoir Dogs about the male fear of homosexuality? Is the scene about the black woman who crazy glues her abusive boyfriend’s penis to his stomach about the fear of strong women? Are the racist and homophobic remarks the gangsters make a comment on the dominant white male culture, whether it be criminal or not? I would say that it could be all those things, but that Tarnatino didn’t say to himself, before he made the movie: “Ok, now I need a scene where I can comment on homosexual panic, or male fear of the feminine, or about male insecurity about penis size, or on the honor, or lack thereof, among thieves, or on how popular culture may be intellectually barren but is still fascinating, lending itself as it does to a camp treatment that is hard for a movie maker of a certain time and place to resist…” No, he set about simply to make a good story. To shoot good scenes. He may have then chosen and ordered and edited those scenes with some idea of what the “meaning” implicit in those choices and arrangements was, but the story came first. And therein lies art—not in the message, but in the story. The story, of course, contains the message, but it is also more than that. And the “goodness” in a good story is a much rarer thing, and harder to find or explain, than any message. Tarantino knows that.

© 2015 Mike Welch

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