1990s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

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Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

Read this essay here or listen to it on the Film Freedonia podcast

…and then there was Tarantino.

Not many movies can lay claim to rewiring the zeitgeist. But Quentin Tarantino’s first two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (1994), mapped a major continent of early 1990s cinema. Tarantino’s trumpet first blew at the Sundance Film Festival and culminated at Cannes. The one-time video store know-it-all turned movie world wannabe had made one attempt at filmmaking, My Best Friend’s Birthday, in the late 1980s, but it never saw release because of a severely damaged last reel. When he emerged properly with Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino suddenly became a pop cultural lightning rod, as most everyone who was young and hungry for hard-edged cinema and other permutations of alternative culture in the early 1990s latched onto Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction with fierce and personal fervour. Suddenly every film school student and their dog was making films laced with grungy violence, rapid-fire dialogue, and movie referencing, and a new breed of creator impresario began to emerge. If Jim Jarmusch had staked out the turf for the modern indie film mode and Steven Soderbergh provided the fanfare, Tarantino gave it an adrenalin shot. It was hardly as if Hollywood wasn’t making gritty, violent, smart-aleck thrillers at the time, not with the likes of Die Hard (1988) and Lethal Weapon (1987) recent memories, and Tarantino emerged in the midst of a revival of film noir laced with retro flavour that kicked off several years earlier.
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But there was of course much more to the Tarantino phenomenon than mere revivalism or swagger. Tarantino’s arrival marked the official dawn of self-conscious postmodernism in Hollywood cinema, replete with fancy-pants notions like intertextuality and death-of-the-author recontextualisation, as well as a non-linear approach to screen narrative of a kind mainstream cinema screens had scarcely deigned to employ since the early 1970s. The ‘90s indie movie craze seems like something of a lost idyll now, particularly since the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, who fostered much of the movement in large part on the back of Tarantino’s success for the then-respected Miramax Films. Several of Tarantino’s major rivals in the ranks of those often cited as today’s most important American filmmakers, including Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and Wes Anderson, ran with aspects of Tarantino’s example to leverage their own beginnings, with acts of calculatedly ironic nostalgia and pop culture riffing, whilst many of his talented, more earnest contemporaries fell away.
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Tarantino was hardly the first filmmaker to erect his movies in part as Parthenons dedicated to the movie gods. The French New Wave and the ‘70s Movie Brats had already done the same thing. The open secret about classic Hollywood filmmaking was that the vast bulk of movies were remakes and remixes of others. Take the way an esteemed classic like Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939) leans on a plot quote from one of its screenwriter Jules Furthman’s earlier films, China Seas (1935), whilst Hawks himself happily ripped himself off many times. But Tarantino set about drawing the eye to his, the quotation marks all but neon-lit, his carefully chosen musical cues and references framed with such totemic inference it seemed as if some Ennio Morricone music cue had dragged him out of some deep emotional crisis sometime during his days in the video store. For Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s touchstones, including Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987), Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), weren’t just evident but flaunted. But there was still something bizarre and thrilling about this new cinematic voice regardless, one that remains difficult to pin down after a quarter-century of familiarity and endless imitation, relating to how, despite his films’ magpie’s-nest compositing, Tarantino’s touch proved unique.
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The opening scene of Reservoir Dogs still illustrates that touch in all its unruly, arresting confidence. A group of eight men, all dressed in sharp black suits, seated around a table in a diner, gabbling on as they finish off breakfast and prepare for a day’s work: Mr White (Harvey Keitel), Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr Blue (Eddie Bunker), Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr Orange (Tim Roth), Mr Brown (Tarantino), Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney), and his son ‘Nice Guy’ Eddie (Chris Penn). The blankness of identification and dress is in aid of criminal enterprise, as in The Taking of Pelham 123, but has another, more unusual dimension. Here are eight characters well and truly found by their author, out to prove their vitality in the face of an itchy delete button. Dialogue comes on as a frenetic stew of character definition, pop culture theory and excavation, and socio-political argument, good humour and fraternity, laced with macho showmanship and signals of asocial reflexes and simmering aggression. Where a more classical noir film would use such a scene to make a distinct point about the characters as social animals, Tarantino engages them as both creations in a movie and of a movie: there is no longer a sharp divide between observant diagnosis and analysis of generic function. Hollywood had dedicated itself assiduously to trying to stay with it since the late 1960s, but Tarantino’s arrival suddenly declared the arrival of a hip culture happy in sifting through the detritus of mass-produced entertainment.
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Tarantino made sure the audience knew who he was by casting himself as Brown, who delivers his memorable analysis of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” for the edification of his fellows in identifying its covert theme as one of feminine sexual liberation confronted by new experience in encountering a prick colossal enough to cause her pain again. Hell, some might argue that’s a fitting metaphor for Tarantino’s entire relationship with his viewing audience. More cogently, the notion that all entertainment has subtext and can be interrogated until it takes on new form was hardly novel in 1992, but Tarantino found a way here not just to make his audience aware of it but to make it an actual dramatic value. Tarantino was offering American genre film’s revenge on all those smart-aleck New Wavers who collected Hollywood cinematic tropes in their deconstructive tales of Parisian losers. And yet at the same time he was subjecting the genre movie to another perversion, dragging it into the intimate conversational world of indie film. Tarantino disposed of any worry that a film image could sustain a multiplicity of reference points – that any moment could be at once a movie quote, a plot point, a proper dramatic idea, and a meta joke. The dialogue immediately betrays ardour for the twists of American tough guy argot, a tradition going back to the likes of Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner. Now the lexicon runs the gamut between frat boy attitude – “This is the world’s smallest violin playing just for the waitresses” – to Muhammad Ali – “You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologise.”
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The characters who utter these two lines, White and Pink, define themselves immediately by these different cultural lexicons, by generations and by ideals of wit. The amicable breakfast becomes charged with actual tension and disagreement as Pink refuses to contribute to the tip for the waitress, citing personal scruples: “I don’t tip.” White’s sensibility counters Pink’s cynical distaste for being expected to operate according to a social nicety and cough up a dollar. The dynamic the two characters will enact in the oncoming drama is stated, in the clash between White’s empathy and Pink’s suspiciousness, laced with cultural inference. Pink makes excellent points about the arbitrariness and unfairness of rewarding some workers over others in a mostly, thoroughly Darwinian capitalist system. White has the vote of audience sympathy in observing unfairness doesn’t preclude the necessity of the gesture for those benefitting from it regardless. Joe’s gruff decisiveness ends the conversation with the firmness of old-school patriarchy: the rights and wrongs of a social expectation don’t matter nearly so much as the fulfilment of it for its own sake, to maintain an equilibrium which allows them all to operate. This vignette, droll and incisive as incidental characterisation and a dissection of socio-political attitude, also anticipates the crew’s borderline pathetic need for Joe to turn up and play decisive daddy. But we’re also on the countdown towards the moment when the gun will be aimed at Joe, and down daddy goes.
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The opening titles sequence helped cement the film’s mystique. Tarantino individually identifies his actors as an ensemble of handpicked pros, a description that also encompasses the parts they play, strutting in slow motion through the blandest of conceivable LA locales, the George Baker Selection’s jaunty, jangly “Little Green Bag” on the soundtrack. Tarantino’s ironic approach to movie scoring, using upbeat, retro songs and movie score extracts from disreputable wings of pop culture to contrast moments of savage violence and sanguine cool, is now so familiar a movie strategy as to be a cliché, but at the time the greater part of its impact lay in a similar quality to grunge rock’s arrival in pop music: it was a complete rejection of the slick pretences of ‘80s film styles. His visual method, whilst hardly antiquated, similarly cut across the grain of what film style had largely been in the previous decade, instead somehow managing to shoot the interior of the warehouse where most of the tale unfolds as if it’s a wealth of space out of a Western, the physical attitudes of his actors allowed to hold the weight of the compositions just as their mouths carry the weight of the dialogue.
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The violent undercurrent of the opening scene’s jocularity – “I changed my mind, shoot this piece of shit.” – is fully exposed after the title sequence. Perhaps an hour or so later or even less, White is now found driving a car with Orange a bloody mess on the backseat, shot in the belly during the getaway from an armed robbery of a diamond merchant’s building. An incidental detail here proves endlessly consequential, as Orange calls White by his real name, Larry. White’s sense of friendly responsibility for the belly-shot young team member becomes a point of honour overriding White’s other tribal responsibilities. Tarantino obviously understood one essential aspect of classical tragedy: the spiral into all-consuming calamity is not just caused by clashes of character but by a fatal inability to reconcile colliding value systems. The white criminal underclass the crew represents is expertly observed in a way that highlights their tribal behaviour, whilst many of his subsequent films would deal with the interlocution of tribes. They’re loaned a crisp, professionalised glamour by their black-and-white attire, which they certainly wouldn’t possess if they were dressed like telephone repairmen or the like; if Reservoir Dogs is ultimately a tale of faking it ‘til you make it, a legend of show business expressed through crime flick drag, Tarantino reverses the traffic just far enough to lend his cadre of hoods the aura of movie stars.
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Ironic perhaps, given that Reservoir Dogs put together what might have been the best ensemble of actors for a crime movie since The Maltese Falcon (1941). Old pros Keitel and Tierney matched by squirrelly young talents who had gained notice in an odd sprawl of ‘80s movies, as well as crime novelist Bunker with his laidback aura of authenticity, and Tarantino himself, his young, smooth-cheeked visage resembling a pre-transformation portrait of the Joker found in the three-tone prints of old Batman comic books. Keitel helped get the film made, along with another hero from the American New Wave, Monte Hellman. Keitel’s presence linked Reservoir Dogs with Martin Scorsese’s equally showy, gritty early works, whilst Tierney, an actor whose genuine off-screen ferocity and bullishness had foiled his career and was still intimidating Tarantino during the shoot, gave a palpable connection to the days of classic noir. Hellman might well have felt a shock of recognition in the kinship between Tarantino’s project and his takes on the Western, The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind (both 1966), which similarly subjected genre canards to a deconstructive, vaguely existential whim.
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Tarantino had consciously written a film that could be executed on the smallest budget possible, so the bulk of the movie unfolds in a warehouse somewhere in the LA hinterland, Joe’s base of operations for the heist and rendezvous for the crew. Largely thanks to Keitel’s presence the budget proved big enough to allow punchy episodes of chase and gunplay, in flashback to Pink, White, and Orange’s escapes from pursuing cops, although the actual heist remains only reported in the dialogue. The story, as it proceeds from there, is exceptionally simple, even as the connections and suggestions ripple far. Brown and Blue are dead; Pink, White, Orange, and Blonde make it to the warehouse, although Orange soon passes out. Pink thinks the heist was a disaster because the crew were set up by an informer in their ranks. White is sceptical, and holds Blonde more responsible for unleashing a bloodbath. Blonde has taken a cop, Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz) captive, and the three men beat him. When Pink and White depart to find the stolen diamonds Pink stashed, Blonde goes much further in cutting off Nash’s ear and planning to set him on fire, but he’s shot dead by the revived Orange, who actually is the informant, and explains that although the warehouse is being watched by police, none will come until Joe shows up. When Joe and Eddie arrive, Eddie kills Nash, and disbelieves Orange’s hastily concocted story that Blonde was planning to rip them off, whilst Joe is now sure Orange is the rat. White shoots Joe and Eddie rather than let them kill his friend, but is mortally wounded himself by Eddie.
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Along the way Tarantino pauses to relate how the various members of the crew were drawn together, with White and Blonde clearly old pals of the Cabot clan and sometime employees, particularly Blonde, real name Vic Vega, who just got through a stint in prison after refusing to turn stoolie on the Cabots when he was arrested in a locale filled with their stolen merchandise. Orange is seen going through a kind of performative boot camp to master the streetwise act required to fool the genuine criminals. The authentic members of the crew can be taken as lampoons of up-by-the-bootstraps capitalism, proud of their know-how and professional ethos and dismissive of concerns that get between them and fulfilment. Notably, Joe and Eddie have names and identity as employers the others cannot afford, as captains of their little industry. Joe’s office, with its wood panelled walls and elephant tusks and maps of Venice on the wall, is a cheerfully vulgar seat of power as signified by eras – tribal, medieval, and Victorian. Pink’s sarcastic commentary – “It would appear that waitresses are just one of the many groups the government fucks in the ass on a regularly basis” – makes a play of seeming rudely sympathetic but is actually shorn of class feeling and filled instead with yuppie arrogance, the looking-out-for-number-one philosophy at a zenith. This is expressed in many ways throughout the narrative, even by White who declares that, “The choice between doing ten years and taking out some stupid motherfucker ain’t no choice at all.”
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White is however genuinely shocked and vehement over Blonde’s cold and exacting execution of bystanders and staff in the merchant’s: the rogue psychopath is as much odd man out in the company of professional criminals as the rat, because his purposes have no connection to any rational aim of business. And yet it becomes clear Blonde’s brutality is rooted in the same deep hatred for the forces of justice. The flashback depicting his meeting with Joe and Eddie commences with a joshing session as Eddie gleefully provokes Blonde by suggesting he’s turned queer and black after being raped by black men in prison. This results in the two men wrestling on the office floor, as if they’re ten-year-olds. Blonde’s cobra-like gaze could harbour genuine rage or just a sociopath’s indifference, and possibly Blonde has become a machine for victimising the world in response to the way he feels like he’s been victimised. Tarantino here was taking up an aspect of the gangster film following on from The Godfather films, as this genre depends to a large part on the viewer’s identification with the most palatable choice amongst bastards. White, by comparison, seems comparatively upright, sticking up for friends and operating according to his instincts and experience. The flashback to his and Orange’s flight from the cops reaches its punchline as it’s revealed Orange was shot by an armed woman whose car they try to hijack, and he shot her dead in reflexive response. White’s conviction Orangie is okay is then based not just in guilt or amity, but what he experienced, and what he’s afraid of, knowing full well it could be him slowly bleeding to death.
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The surface interchangeableness of the crew is then steadily contradicted, but they mostly share a very similar identity as white, plebeian criminals, members of the tribe (there might even be a sneaky joke about that in regards to their dress, meant to evoke Jewish diamond buyers) who maintain strict internecine codes and forms of recognition, marked out by brusque contempt for non-members, including of course gross racism. They’re also members of pop cultural camps, however, delighting in yardsticks of cool, toughness, and erotic appeal, many of which cut across traditional borders of social identity, as well as old-fashioned notions of dramatic integrity. White confirms both his age and his ideal when he quotes Muhammad Ali even as he muses contemptuously on the black men he’s known. Orange clearly loves Silver Surfer. They’re all hot for Honey West and Pam Grier characters. Most old-school screenwriters and directors would have portrayed these characters as ignorant on this level, because their terms of reference would have been their own working class parents or friends. Jean-Luc Godard was obsessed with defining the no-man’s-land between his idea of real life and the art forms that obsessed him. Tarantino saw no such space, not anymore: the lens of pop culture is how most people experience the world now, just as they once absorbed national or religious folklores to situate their identities and process emotional experience. And so “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia” is discussed with Talmudic intensity and debates about the actors of obscure TV shows sit cheek by jowl with plotting a robbery and personal ruminations on sex and race.
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Superficially, Reservoir Dogs stands with Jackie Brown (1997) as Tarantino’s most quotidian, grounded work, and yet it’s flecked with nascent aspects of surrealism and absurdism. Tarantino’s gore-mongering scruffiness was already laced with distinct hints of hyperbole: the lake of blood that forms about Orange prefigures the outlandish bloodletting seen in the likes of the Kill Bill diptych (2003-4) and Django Unchained (2012). Connections form with Tarantino’s subsequent films – Blonde is the brother of Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega, White’s ex-lady has the same name as the heroine of True Romance (1993), hinting he could be the older, battle-scarred version of that film’s hero – suggesting a free-floating mythological world in the offing. Pulp Fiction would land as hard as it did in large part because it moved a step beyond Reservoir Dogs in simultaneous celebration and mockery of anatomisation of hipster subcultures and the iconography of a raised-by-TV generation, offering a fictional agora where S&M freaks, hippie dope dealers, beatnik assassins, blaxploitation heavies, bodypiercers, retro freaks, and the by-products of war and suburbia all meet and are diagrammed according to possible usefulness in terms of B-movie storylines. The use of barely-remembered classic rock ditties on the soundtrack, often deployed with a sarcastic invocation that relates to the on-screen drama in a fashion like Greek chorus gone funkalicious, is justified by the characters’ penchant for the radio show K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ‘70s. The show’s host is played by the deadpan ‘90s comedy hero Steven Wright, whose fillips of hype and commercialism – the way he pronounces “Behemoth” in an ad for a monster truck rally is an endless delight – feel like broadcasts from another planet.
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One of Tarantino’s less noted precursors was Jim McBride’s 1983 remake of Godard’s Breathless, which pulled off a similar feat in transplanting New Wave conceits out of the hypercultural climes of Paris to suburban Los Angeles. Perhaps the least analysed side of Tarantino is the ironic realist: particularly in his first three films, his work was deeply rooted in his feel for LA, his love for its sunstruck streets and the rhythms of its downtown conversations. The film’s deeply cynical contemplation of a criminal underworld as a stand-in for urban bohemianism and the artistic demimonde proved, despite not really focusing on such things, weirdly attuned to the mood of riotous dissent in LA at the time. Tarantino’s later work hinges much more on a dance between aesthetic posture and authentic emotion and experience, as in the Kill Bill films or Death Proof (2007), which moved onto another zone of tribal struggle, in their case concerning female protagonists, before his trilogy of historical incitement, Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight (2015), where the narrative centres around historical tribal wars rhymed to different modes of cinema. When Tarantino would to a very great extent remake Reservoir Dogs with The Hateful Eight, the core variance was that with the later film Tarantino would make each character a representative of a different tribe rather than a homogenous group with an odd man out.
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The impact of Tarantino’s directorial approach amounted not just to a scorecard of iconographic flourishes like sharp suits and old tunes. The clear-eyed cinematography Tarantino got from Andrzej Sekula, who would also shoot Pulp Fiction, spurned most of the stylistic reflexes of ‘80s action cinema, with few shallow focal plains and little diffused light or flashy filter work. Tarantino and Sekula instead made heavy use of wide-angle lenses to achieve a more igneous effect, epic even on a small scale. There was a touch of irony in the fact that Tony Scott, a doyen of the ‘80s style of action movie, took on Tarantino’s rewritten script for My Best Friend’s Birthday as the baroquely shot True Romance, which looked good but felt, by comparison, instantly dated, although the likes of Michael Bay would carry over something of that style. Reservoir Dogs wasn’t exactly a work of strict classicism however, and comes on with a visual language both muscular and skittish. Long static shots and standoffish camera placements redolent of Antonioni somehow manage to at once unfetter and trap the energy of his actors, alternated with camera gymnastics betraying the immediate influence of Scorsese and particularly Brian De Palma, as if taking the place of an unseen watching presence thrust in amidst the carnage.
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Reservoir Dogs also established Tarantino’s fondness for circumlocutory structuring, deployed less to evoke, as with filmmakers like Orson Welles or Alain Resnais, vagaries of time and memory, than to engage traditional narrative propulsion in a different fashion. The flashbacks do more than simply explain backstory, but set up each little act in the core drama, resituating expectations and tension. In this regard Tarantino revealed himself as one of the few filmmakers to properly understand the dynamic behind the flashback in Vertigo (1958) and use it as a means of changing the pitch of dramatic intensity. White’s vignette is one of slightly rueful friendliness and straightforward aims and desires. Blonde’s vignette explains his visceral hatred of cops and just about everyone else except for Joe and Eddie. Orange’s doesn’t simply inform us that he’s the interloper or how he got shot but why these two facts are both facets in an extended deed of method acting. Tarantino made no bones about the inherent theatricality of his approach. Many scenes in the warehouse feel like acting exercises. This makes sense, given that the insistent motif in the film is role-playing, and the lurking suggestion what we’re seeing is all a metaphor for Tarantino’s days as a sometime actor and general, would-be Hollywood player. The film quoting is something like the filmmaker’s equivalent of an actor trying out different costumes for different characters, busily donning and shedding guises in the hunt for one that will settle and sell.
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Perhaps the film’s most famous image, of Pink and White pointing guns at each-other in a moment of heated argument, is filmed intimately at first, engaged in the ferocity of the moment. But then Tarantino steps back, shooting them from a remove that strands the men in posturing absurdity, and draws the camera away a few paces to reveal Blonde standing watching them whilst lazily sipping on a milkshake. Blonde is audience, assessing the effectiveness of the performed machismo, and he quickly begins provoking White with his own perfect attitude of supine cool. “I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan,” Blonde comments, nailing down both his and White’s style hero and generic forebear. The chief tripwire of the plot seems to be Orange’s power over White in knowing his name, but this proves to have rather placed him as much in thrall to White. He accepts the rules of his appointed role to the point where he stands around looking anguished and not intervening as White ruthlessly blows away two fellow cops, before Orange shoots a woman and gets himself shot twice for the sake of their friendship. Once he’s wounded, all boundaries between life and pose vanish, and Orange becomes merely a desperate man and White the one trying to get him through it. Fake it ‘til you make it indeed. White’s comment to Joe, “You push that whole woman-man thing too long and it gets to you after a while,” betrays his unease with commitments advisable with his lifestyle, and also offers the slightest hint of homoerotic subtext to his attachment to Orange.
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The longest of the film’s flashbacks revolves around the division between life and art in a way that’s more overt than Tarantino would usually practice in his films. Orange, real name Freddy, wheedles his way into the bandit circle. He sets about mastering, at the behest of his handler Holdaway (Randy Brooks), an “amusing anecdote” for the purposes of furthering his cover. This part of the film might initially seem vaguely extraneous, but it is in truth the very essence of Reservoir Dogs and the mission statement for the rest of Tarantino’s career, as an exploration of the slippery boundaries between act and life, creation and deconstruction. The anecdote relates how Orange supposedly once sweated through a close encounter with cops and a drug sniffer dog in a railway station washroom whilst carrying a large quantity of weed. Holdaway tells him that you have to be “naturalistic, naturalistic as hell” to convince in undercover work. And so Orange’s journey mimics the processes of being an actor – meetings in diners, read-throughs, stagy rehearsals, and finally entering the zone of make-believe so intensely the narrative becomes a mini-movie into which Orange projects himself. The blend of Tarantino’s directing, Roth’s acting, Sekula’s shooting and Sally Menke’s editing is at its most ingenious here, as Orange’s anecdote jumps locales as he works his way through stages of conviction. Finally Orange delivers his highwire monologue before Joe, White, and Eddie, before he is finally glimpsed standing before the cops in his anecdote, recounting it to them.
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The crowning moment of the anecdote sees Orange jab the button on a hand dryer, momentarily drowning the cops’ conversation and drawing their annoyed gaze, including that of their barking dog, but it also seals his victory, both imagined and real: the riskiness of the gesture achieves a perfect simulacrum, and Orange has become so convincing he bends the language of cinematic reality itself. The most notorious portion of Reservoir Dogs, and its initial spur to fame, is the scene of Blonde’s torture of Nash. This scene seems the complete opposite in nature to Orange’s story, as a portrait of authentic and immediate evil. If Orange is the bullshit artist made good, Blonde is cold truth, providing his own soundtrack when he turns on the radio and tunes in for the ‘70s Scottish folk-rock band Steelers Wheel’s song “Stuck in the Middle With You,” with its spry, insidiously catchy tune and refrain of “please” offered as a cruelly deadpan mockery of the cries Nash can’t make with his mouth taped shut. Even here, we’re deep in a zone of performative zeal and competition, as Blonde proves he’s the one with show-stopping moves, the one who gives us what we really want. Blonde’s taunting little dance to the tune as he gets ready to attack Nash with a straight razor suggests he’s having a ball even as he’s nominally the one presenting his literally captive witness with the last word in audience involvement.
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But the most galvanising choice in this scene was to avert the camera’s gaze as Blonde hacks Nash’s ear off, camera again playing bystander who this time has finally found their tolerance limit. The avoidance of bloody pyrotechnics paradoxically makes the moment feel much nastier, partly because it subverts the rules of performance, intimate in refusing to countenance. Tarantino walks the viewer up to the very threshold of unbearable horror, as Blonde’s intention of setting Nash on fire is only avoided by the fusillade of bullets Orange fires at him. This was another superlative piece of sleight-of-hand on Tarantino’s part, as Orange has become virtually forgotten since passing out. Orange’s killing of Blonde feels like a heroic gesture, but it’s one that ultimately costs the lives of nearly everyone left in the crew: Eddie instantly undercuts it when he returns to the warehouse and shoots Nash dead. Much later in his career Tarantino would, in the scene of D’Artagnan’s death by mauling in Django Unchained, walk up to a similar threshold and then shove characters and audience over it. Perhaps it’s the provocateur’s lot to have to constantly ratchet their effects up, but the later film also revises the dynamic seen here with a notable consequence. Django’s self-control makes him in a way party to horror, but also enables his ultimate happy ending; his performance is a matter not just of his own life and death but also for his great love and by extension for all his tribe, where Orange remains to a certain extent a mere dilettante. The relatively green Nash proves to recognise Orange, who doesn’t remember him: his native tribe, that of the police, offers no succour. By breaking character, Orange has doomed himself.
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Except that the film’s very end offers Orange one last way to take his role to the limit, as multiple zones of identity and performance collapse in upon each-other. White’s defence of Orange obliges him threaten to Joe as the old warlord intends to shoot Orange; Eddie aims at White in retaliation, whilst Pink pleads for reason unheeded. Faithfulness works like gravity, drawing people to the most immediate orbit, and the logical end-point of all the macho posturing is reached as the three men gun each-other down, leaving only a shocked and bewildered Pink to look around a stage as littered with corpses as the last act of Hamlet. Pink skedaddles with the diamonds, although the faintly heard sounds from outside suggest he gets cornered and captured by the cops. Orange, now twice shot, confesses to the wounded, gasping, broken White that he’s a cop. By confessing to be a fake, he demands reality, the consequence of that revelation. White cradles his head like a baby and squeals in heartbreak, but seems to deliver the wished-for coup-de-grace, even in defiance of the police who burst in at the last moment and gun him down in turn. By one standard it’s the traditional end of a gangster movie, a portrayal of greed, violence, and treachery on a path to mutually assured destruction. But by another, it’s the ultimate deed of performance. If, as the old canard has it, the only true feat of greatness for an actor is to cross the line into madness, Orange manages the next best thing, to play an outlaw until you die like one.

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2010s, Biopic, Comedy

The Disaster Artist (2017)

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Director/Actor: James Franco

By Roderick Heath

When I wrote about Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003) in 2011, I finished up my commentary with a flourish of mock-epic prose:

The Room finishes, and yet its all-pervading awfulness remained with me. Everything seemed to grow darker, tainted by its touch. The likes of Michelangelo and Leo Tolstoy would have had their faith in creative endeavour shaken by it, and afterwards I started seeing the inner Wiseau in many a great artist, as if all efforts lead into an immense heart of crappiness.

It seems I wasn’t the only person to feel a personal implication of all artistic ambition in Wiseau’s intrepid failure, and to be compelled against my will by this fragmentary, heartfelt yet farcically inept by-product, the misshapen offspring of an intended, serious piece of artistry. Since then, in the strange fate that befalls certain movies, The Room and its manifold absurdities have only gained ground as a common touchstone, a rite of passage for students and movie fans, and its inanities, so beggaring on first viewing, swiftly became old friends – the non sequitur dialogue and plotting, the random impulses of emotion and gesture, the screw-loose bravura and shambolic majesty of Wiseau’s lead performance and the valiantly outmatched efforts of his supporting cast.

After years of speculation and interest as to just how in hell this car crash of a film came into being, Wiseau’s friend/accomplice/bewildered collaborator Greg Sestero worked with writer Tom Bissell to pen and publish The Disaster Artist, an account of the film’s making, Sestero’s adventures as a young wannabe about Hollywood, and his alternately stirring, ruinous, ultimately triumphant acquaintance with Wiseau, in 2013. The book dished a lot of dirt on the production of The Room, and the man who made it. It was also surprisingly entertaining and revealing in its depiction of Sestero’s own period as a try-hard model-turned-actor, a rare portrait of coping with failure in the city of stars after many elusive promises and chances for success, before he reluctantly joined forces with Wiseau for his bull-in-a-china-shop foray into the world of independent filmmaking. Yet it also revealed Sestero by and large just as confused, stymied, and awed by Wiseau’s enigmatic stature as the rest of us. In supreme irony, the book’s often hilarious but just as often melancholy and disillusioned narrative gained accolades Wiseau might have dreamt of, earning Sestero and Bissell awards and now a prestigious adaptation. Yet the book could only have existed thanks to Wiseau’s failure, and the transformation of that failure into an icon of delighted ridicule.

James Franco seems to have empathised. Like Sestero and Wiseau, he’s been the ardent fledgling actor who worshipped at the altar of James Dean, although Franco actually made the leap to playing the legendary star in a 2001 TV movie. Like them, he’s laboured to escape type-casting and prove himself an adventurous and serious artist on multiple fronts, making a string of movies in the past few years that have often been met with withering contempt, although in Franco’s case the often hyperbolic dismissal of his works far outstripped their modest merits or failings, or at least for those I’ve seen. Franco’s directorial efforts up until now seemed mostly happy as marginalia, using his movie star status to bankroll movies as rough drafts of creative endeavour in the same way a budding painter might tear through dozens of pages on sketches preparing for an ultimate endeavour. His film of The Disaster Artist wields ironies in itself, a ploy for a broad audience built around celebration of a niche cult object, working from a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. That said, The Disaster Artist plainly unites several frames of reference already apparent in Franco’s work. Following in the wake of movies like The Ape (2005), Sal, and The Broken Tower (both 2011), it’s a study of troubled and striving creative endeavour. Like Child of God (2013), it’s a portrait of a gnarled, thwarted, inarticulate, furious outcast trying to stake a claim in the world. It follows Interior. Leather Bar. (2013) as a study in the cinema aesthetic itself, conjoined with a contemplation of cultural priorities.

Franco casts himself as Wiseau and his younger brother Dave as Sestero. It’s the sort of idea that seems at first like a Saturday Night Live skit writ large, but proves in practice more like a performance-art conceit, shaded by dint of the brothers’ careful, convincing impersonations of their respective avatars. They render Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero as parts of a fragmented persona, the bland but likeable all-American boy meeting his intense, destabilising, immigrant partner in yearning. Not that the disparity entirely disappears, nor does James want it to. Franco stages Greg’s illustrious first encounter with the typhonic force of Tommy as a momentous epiphany, complete with rumbling, epic scoring suggesting great forces gathering, although what we actually see are Greg’s awkward, rigid performance for a San Francisco acting class and then Wiseau’s unhinged, almost literally scenery-chewing rampage as he offers his own interpretive dance take on the famous “Stella!” scene from A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Most onlookers are stupefied and amused, but Greg is fascinated by Tommy’s energy and willingness to put himself out there, and suggests they play a scene together in class.

Tommy responds by inviting him to lunch and then getting him to read lines in the middle of a crowded restaurant, overcoming his shyness and discovering his inner hambone under the aghast and bemused attention of other patrons. The two men become fast and solid friends, as Tommy seems to be fired up by Sestero’s blonde, cheery inheritance of all natural fortune, and Greg by the older man’s enthusiasm and go-get-‘em energy. They watch touchstone movies together and drive all night to visit the scene of James Dean’s death as a shrine after watching Rebel Without a Cause (1955). On the spur of the moment, Wiseau suggests they both head to Los Angeles and get busy making it as actors, casually revealing that he owns an apartment there they can share. Greg is too thrilled by the idea to pay attention to his mother’s (Megan Mullaly) concerns about Tommy’s intentions, catching wind of homoerotic interest in Tommy’s references to Greg as “babyface” and liking for hanging about with a handsome younger man. Later when they do shack up in Tommy’s apartment he does seem to make a come-on to Greg, only to then laugh it off as a joke. Soon they settle back into amicable, brotherly mutual boosting, but it’s a friendship where Tommy is well aware Greg can only grasp his chances with both hands because his generosity allows him to go for them.

The two men dedicate themselves to the endless, crushing roundelay of auditions and more acting classes, a process that sees Greg quickly snatched up by a top talent agent, Iris Burton (Sharon Stone), purely by dint of his looks. Meanwhile Tommy chafes increasingly against the common opinion he’s got the makings of a terrifying screen bad guy, believing himself far more the stuff of romantic heroism. “You all laugh,” Tommy retorts to an acting coach (Bob Odenkirk) and his sniggering class after one of his performances and resisting their attempts to pin him as a natural heavy: “That what bad guy do.” Soon, with neither of their careers going anywhere, Greg tries to keep Tommy’s spirits up, and he hands his friend a flash of inspiration–the notion of making their own movie. Tommy, with his mysteriously deep pockets, realises he can make it happen. All he needs is a script, so he bashes out his magnum opus and gets Greg to read it over lunch. In his determination to ensure his production has the stature of a great cinematic enterprise, Tommy approaches camera equipment providers Birns & Sawyer and instead of simply renting their gear insists on purchasing all manner of cameras and shooting his movie on both film and video. The staff realise they have a major-league sucker on their hands, and convince him to utilise their small film studio too.

An inevitable point of reference for The Disaster Artist is Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), another biographical drama about a much-hailed cavalier of terrible cinema. The differences between Wood’s adventures as a no-budget huckster and Wiseau’s mogul pretences are as marked as the similarities, however. The Disaster Artist portrays the gruelling shoot for The Room as a process not beset by the fly-by-night anxiety and enthusiastic fellowship Burton found in Wood’s forays, because Wiseau’s money furnishes him with largely competent collaborators and a cast of anxious hopefuls who, just like their self-financed auteur, are hoping to carve a niche for themselves in the industry. And yet the result proves to be just as deliriously out of tune as anything Wood made, stricken with the same fascinating blend of cynical and deeply personal impulses. Tommy tries to encourage the cast and crew he hires to follow him on a grand creative journey, but it soon becomes clear to all involved, even the ever-supportive Greg, that Tommy has no idea what he’s doing, quickly earning enmities with imperial egotisms like a specially constructed personal toilet and turning up late for shoots. He also loses his bravado in performing when it comes time to do it before cameras, spending most of a single day trying to shoot a scene involving one line (All together now: “I did not hit her. It’s not true. It’s bullshit. I did not hit her. I did not.”).

Script supervisor Sandy Schklair (Seth Rogen), who is initially surprised when his pay check actually clears, is obliged to take the film in hand when Wiseau is before the camera, but Tommy studiously ignores his directions and finally, unceremoniously boots him and some other pros from the production. At last, Tommy’s overwhelming desire to realise his perfect fantasy of living in a movie leads to ugly moments like him clashing with the crew when he goes mental over a pimple on the arm of his leading lady, Juliette Danielle (Ari Graynor). Tommy is beset by the simultaneous need to express himself creatively and report his emotional travails to the world, whilst also trying to remain shielded against its prying eyes and judgements, unaware that show business, although a business of image and affectation, also requires a fine human touch to navigate. Tommy never reveals the source or extent of his fortune and steadfastly refusing to reveal his age, claiming to be the same age as Greg. Tommy, like some exploitation movie version of Jay Gatsby, believes American success and self-invention can be extended onto all stages of life, that the image one creates of one’s self can become the reality, and his desire to venture into acting and moviemaking betrays an ambition to escape the aspects of identity he refuses to admit, the foreignness that’s patently obvious to everyone else.

Tommy’s neediness extends to both wanting to use Greg as his avatar in the world but also getting peevish when Greg reaps the sorts of successes he wants, as when he lands a girlfriend in the form of cute bartender Amber (Alison Brie). Later on, when they’re trying to shoot Tommy’s passion project, Greg’s announcement to Tommy that he’s moving in with Amber sparks a tantrum from Tommy that echoes the climactic moments of The Room, except that apocalyptic desolation plays out in life as kicking a few vending machines and cradling a throbbing foot. Greg’s discussions with the other actors about the characters and their possible real-life inspirations suddenly highlights that many of them could be versions of Greg himself, and beyond that, projections of Tommy’s shifting ideas of Greg, possibly the one true human contact he’s had in years. Finally Tommy’s controlling streak manifests destructively for Greg when he refuses to bend from his shooting schedule to allow Greg to keep the beard he’s grown long enough to shoot a role on the TV show Malcolm in the Middle offered to him after a chase encounter with Bryan Cranston. Soon Greg loses his temper with Tommy whilst shooting second-unit footage (such as it is) in San Francisco, prodding him over his own refusal to open up, finishing up with the two men getting into a scuffling, spiteful yet still rather brotherly wrestling clinch in the middle of a scene shoot. After time apart, Greg is stunned to see Tommy’s mug gazing down from a colossal billboard ad in downtown LA, and soon the man himself comes to invite him to the film’s premiere.

With Interior. Leather Bar., Franco and documentary filmmaker Travis Mathews collaborated on a nominal attempt to recreate lost material filmed on New York’s gay scene for William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), footage reportedly hacked out of that film because it was too racy, in the name of reclaiming the world it recorded from the realm of sordid legend. Franco’s interest in film as an artefact in this fashion, the desire to capture lightning in a bottle twice, finds a vehicle here that allows him to extend that kind of avant-garde conceit whilst playing the entertainer. He painstakingly recreates Wiseau’s footage and the hapless acting recorded by it utilising talented, experienced, and famous thespians, including Jackie Weaver as Carolyn Minnott, Juliette’s on-screen mother, Josh Hutcherson as Philip “Denny” Haldiman, and Zac Efron as Dan Janjigian, the actor playing fearsome yet negligible drug pusher Chris R. In much the same way that Wiseau absorbs scenes in Streetcar, Rebel Without a Cause and The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) into his creative lexicon, Franco simulates and transforms Wiseau’s images. At film’s end Franco offers the original scenes alongside his recreations to compare both the success and the failure of the reproduction, the slight variances in timing and actor delivery and camera angles coming with logarithmic variance. Filmmakers who do this sort of thing rarely put their labours on the line in such a fashion, and I get the feeling it’s very much part of what Franco was after in taking on the project, a desire to grab the raw material of this compelling piece of outsider art and disassemble it to see how it works, to apply exacting competence to incompetence.

What Franco lacks that Burton brought to his contention with Wood’s threadbare oeuvre is a definite directorial signature to utilise in mediating the stylistic mimicry. Franco’s shooting style, developed on the run on his many projects, has arrived at a baseline of fly-on-the-wall realism conveyed with darting, often hand-held camerawork, affecting gritty and happenstance casualness. It’s the exact opposite of the tony, polished, yet utterly stilted professionalism Wiseau spent about $6 million of his own money achieving. Franco brings specificity to the work more through the associations he can leverage with his casting and his contexts. But Franco does make some sport out of reproducing elements of Wiseau’s visual syntax. Unsurprisingly for anyone had ever seen the infamous football-throwing sequences in The Room, Sestero revealed in his book that Wiseau barely knew how to play the game and yet fetishized it as a symbol of Americanness, so when the Francos’ impersonations try to play a clumsy game of catch, Franco reproduces Wiseau’s square-on, middle-distance viewpoint, revealing awkward cinema is rooted in incomprehension of what exactly was being filmed. The sweeping view from the roof of Tommy’s LA apartment block is presented as the obvious inspiration for the blue-screen panorama constantly seen in his film.

A prolonged and purely cringe-worthy sequence in which Tommy spots Judd Apatow at dinner in an LA restaurant and harasses him with his garbled reading of a Shakespeare soliloquy, sees the brusque producer squirming in his seat in please-make-this-end discomfort, and then attempt to fix Tommy in the eye and make clear to him that he will never be the stuff of stardom. Franco’s own self-mocking subtext here acknowledges Apatow as the man who gave him his break on the TV show Freaks and Geeks. This scene suggests a closer relative to The Disaster Artist than Ed Wood might be The King of Comedy (1983), Martin Scorsese’s ruthless portrayal of obsessive fandom and its ambition to assimilate the vitality of the famous. Except that unlike Rupert Pupkin, Tommy has the money to make his own show happen, to impose his weird, theoretically romantic ayet actually deeply masochistic fantasies. Tommy’s own likeness to a vampire is a repeated quip throughout, fleshing out the suggestion he sucks the life out of anyone fool enough to come into his orbit, most particularly Greg.

James’ performance as Wiseau has to walk a narrow line, because it must be integral to his approach, moving beyond mere skit-like impression but also conceding its status as performance, to find realism in artifice. He manages to walk that line with impressive fixity, nailing aspects of Wiseau’s persona as his peculiar speech mannerisms where the line between old accent and recent nerve damage can’t be entirely distinguished, the slightly dead-eyed gaze, the anxious, robotic laughs and full-on eruptions of hot feeling that suggest a barely-suppressed volcanic heat at the base of the man’s belly. Dave gives a fun performance playing Sestero, but in many ways he has the harder job in playing the man constantly drawn in the wake of Tommy’s eccentricity. And he can’t quite inhabit Greg: the real Sestero, in spite of his general aura of real geniality and loyalty, looked nonetheless born to play the role of blithe betrayer, with all those sculpted planes to his face under ocean-blue eyes, the entitled surfer boy hunk and white-bread heartbreaker one can so well imagine inspiring Wiseau with existential terror, the being he wants to point to every time someone calls him a villainous-looking dude and say, but that’s what threat looks like to me. The smile Sestero put on when first glimpsed without his beard has a quality of rictus to it; you can see, as he reports in the book, his sinking feeling that all his acting dreams are at an end, and no actor can quite reproduce such a look. Franco ultimately shies away from pushing The Disaster Artist to the extremes of discomforting and dismaying absurdity of Scorsese’s film.

The galling if querulous misogyny that flows through The Room is also for the most part elided, regarded as an aspect of the paranoid general misanthropy. When the cast of the film talk about what Tommy’s trying to get at in his script, Juliette describes Lisa as essentially symbolising “the Universe” and its treatment of him. But Franco makes sure to depict the casting process for the film consists of Tommy getting the young actresses auditioning for the role to jump through hoops of behaviour including actions like blowing on a saxophone and licking an ice cream, filled with salacious innuendo, suggesting Franco knows very well Wiseau displays some of the tendencies that attract men like Harvey Weinstein into the movie business. On the other hand, Franco also notes and entertains gleeful complicity with Wiseau’s desire to objectivise himself on camera, to offer his own flesh, both anxiously and narcissistically, as a paradigm on manhood on screen. And so, of course, the moment in The Room that gains the most appalled groans of intolerance is of course when Franco/Tommy’s butt is displayed in colossal detail upon screen, granting the viewers the sensation less of having gained an erotic moment of self-exposing bravura than the feeling that, well, someone’s just forced a theatre of people to look at his ass.

The book was filled with Sestero’s musings on his pal and his shadowy past and modes of income, which are also left out: like many fans of The Room, it’s the very inscrutability of Wiseau that compels Franco, his status as a fever dream sprung directly out of some Eastern Bloc kid’s idea of an American success story made flesh and compelled by his own warring identities to both risk himself and hide all at once. Given that the 21st century has been so far an age of obsessive public fascination with celebrity, with performance of the self as enabled by technology in in all its illusory promise of instant and easy adoration, it’s certainly not hard to see Wiseau as the age’s court jester, its perfect and perfectly absurd embodiment. Less comfortingly, he might even be a fitting antihero for the Trump age as a man who uses a shady fortune to glorify himself and subordinate others to his will. Wiseau’s collaboration was inevitably required in making the film, probably meaning Franco felt obliged to go reasonably easy on him.

And also because in the end, although hopes are dashed, feelings bruised, fools made, Tommy himself is ultimately the one wounded most, this bedraggled yet weirdly gutsy, prosperous yet pathetic avatar of every weirdo who’s longed to be anointed by a more glamorous world, only to become a figure of fun. “Even if you have the talent of Brando,” Franco has Apatow tell himself as Tommy, “It’s a one in a million chance you’ll make it.” Sestero emphasised in his book the way Wiseau’s efforts added up to a form of therapeutic self-rescue, whilst in Wiseau’s pathos Franco sees something more universal but also quite personal, the lot of every creative person, their desire to reveal themselves, to take risks, but on their own, controlled terms. Where Ed Wood had to imagine a sarcastically triumphant ending for its hero, Franco turns the premiere of The Room, the ego trip as objet d’art no-one ever through would actually make it to a movie screen, as a microcosm of the film’s journey from wince-inducing, career-killing calamity to the subject of horrified fascination, and on to become a source of fiercely beloved merriment and communal joy, its creator suffering through ultimate humiliation only to immediately reinvent himself as the proud maker of a deliberately shoddy piece of punk comedy. Whilst he’s simplified and homogenized the phenomena of Wiseau and The Room to a certain extent, Franco can at least claim, in addition to making them into the stuff of a damn funny and entertaining film, to capture the essence of their curious appeal. And now, thanks to it, you don’t even have to actually watch The Room. But I will. Again.

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