2010s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (2019)

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Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Quentin Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs, all the way back in 1992, was a film about acting in crime film drag where Tim Roth’s antiheroic Mr Orange was the prototypical Hollywood wannabe, working to become his role so deeply all lines between life and performance vanish, immersed in a game of whose tough guy act ruled. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, his ninth film, inverts that proposition to a great extent: it’s a film explicitly about acting, intersecting with crime and other random and inescapable cruelties of life, and the feeling when that gravity you’ve been defying through the transportation of creativity suddenly kicks in. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood sees Tarantino returning to the climes of Los Angeles he recorded in his first three films, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction (1994), and Jackie Brown (1997), albeit a recreation of a remembered city, the one of Tarantino’s childhood, recreated in such fetishistic detail it constitutes an act of conjuring. As ever in Tarantino’s cinema, fantasy and reality are blended to a delirious and unstable degree, but this time nominally subordinated to a pastiche of the familiar true crime ploy of outlaying narrative as a succession of checklist items in terms of who did what, where, and when.

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Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood revolves around one of the most infamous episodes in modern crime, by extension often regarded as an authentic pivot in the psyche of an epoch: the conversion of the counterculture dream into a nightmare by the marauding of Charles Manson’s “family” of young, disaffected disciples, events that refashioned not just Hollywood’s social landscape but in the whole relationship of celebrity culture to the world beyond. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood’s title pays overt heed to Sergio Leone, one of Tarantino’s singular heroes, but its resonances go right down into the psychic life of Tinseltown and its misbegotten children. Tarantino’s narrative befits such fairytale associations, offering a revision of familiar history mixed with character dramas enacting a legend of renewal in a triumph of hope over experience. It also evokes the strange relationship between Hollywood, which was entering a crisis point at the time the film is set, and the filmmaking world Leone represented, in particular the Spaghetti Western. Today known for a rich and peculiar annex of pop culture, that mode was at the time so generally deplored and regarded as a synonym for cheap and nasty that one of Tarantino’s central characters, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), is left distraught by the proposition of turning to it for career extension.

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Tarantino rose swiftly to the top of the heap of eager young independent filmmakers in the 1990s not just for his postmodern nimbleness and evil comic sensibility, but for his eagerness to resurrect the careers of actors out of favour for whatever reason. Tarantino’s belief in the special connection between actor and role, audience and on-screen avatar, brought immediacy and amity to his bricoleur excursions. Tarantino’s time as a struggling young talent who turned to acting to try and make a few bucks seemed to have honed such identification as well as armed him with some of the core themes of his oeuvre. Tarantino highlights the likeness between the industry schism of the ‘90s where once-mighty, now-waned stars like John Travolta and Burt Reynolds took their shot in indie film, and the more urgent upheaval of the late 1960s, where Hollywood almost collapsed in on itself with backdated product, a breakdown that also cheated many interesting and promising performers of the careers they seemed to deserve. Dalton is glimpsed at the outset in his heyday as the star of the TV show Bounty Law, being interviewed along with his stunt man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

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By 1969, agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) is trying to talk Rick into going to Italy, as Rick’s career faltered after his decision to leave Bounty Law and try for a movie career, and now he’s trapped in a succession of guest roles as bad guys in TV series, a punching bag to build up new stars. Rick’s great consolation is that he owns his house on Cielo Drive, nestled in the groves of Beverly Crest, with new neighbours in Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). “I could be one pool party away from starring in a Polanski movie,” Rick notes. Sharon’s career, in sharp contrast to Rick’s, is just taking off, ushering her into the jet set. The bulk of Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood unfolds on a single day in February ‘69, as Rick struggles to keep an even keel whilst playing the villain in a pilot for Lancer, a new Western being helmed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond).

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After buying a fateful first edition copy of Tess of the d’Urbervilles for her husband, Tate takes time out to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew (1968) in a downtown theatre. Cliff has fared in even more undignified straits than Rick, living in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theatre and working as Rick’s chauffeur, professional buddy, and general dogsbody because he can’t get any stunt work, for reasons that emerge later in the film. Whilst driving around town, Cliff repeatedly encounters lithe, gregarious, jailbait hippie Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and finally picks her up. He agrees to drive her out to the Spahn Movie Ranch, a rundown former shooting location for Westerns where she lives with a peculiar gang of fellow waifs and weirdos. Pussycat is disappointed their beloved chieftain Charlie isn’t around, but Cliff is nostalgic to see the Ranch, where he and Rick used to shoot Bounty Law, and wants to talk to the owner George Spahn. But Spahn is laid up blind and guarded by a squad of young women who keep him sexed into submission, of which the most aggressive is Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning). Cliff runs the gauntlet and chats with George, who doesn’t remember him, but upon emerging finds one of the young men in the gang has put a knife in one of his car tires.

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Tarantino grows his story out of the tempting morsel offered by the Manson Family’s residence at the Spahn Ranch, one of those details of history charged with layers of irony. The Ranch’s decaying state spoke of the sharp decline of the once-booming production of Westerns for both movie screens and TV, of which Rick and Cliff become avatars. Pop culture at large is being reinvented and colonised by a new sensibility represented by the so-groovy Tate and other exalted beings she’s glimpsed partying with at the Playboy Mansion, colourful and urbane rather than terse and rustic. The Family’s resemblance to the kinds of ruffians beloved of Western plotlines, a gang of disaffected and free-floating cultural exiles under the thumb of a lowlife posing as a guru, comes sharply into focus as Tarantino shoots Cliff’s arrival at the Ranch as a variation on Clint Eastwood’s arrival in town in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), threat vibrant behind every gesture even without an apparent cause. One reason that Manson’s onslaught lodged so deep in the psyche of Hollywood wasn’t simply because he bade his followers invade their mansions and desecrate the bubble of their community, but because he seemed to have fashioned a grim alternative version of the fantasy dynamics of the town, the great male visionary with his small army of rapt followers and pliable harem. The damage his female followers inflicted on Tate wasn’t simply execution but a wrathful act of blood sacrifice that punished her not simply for being successful, beautiful, and exalted in the world but for being their counterpart.

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For most of its first half, however, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood barely touches on the Manson cult, instead drifting with its central characters in their various spaces of labour and lifestyle. Cliff sighs his way acquiescently through odd jobs for Rick but loves tearing about the streets of the city in his car with the radio cranked in the meantime. Tate puts her feet up and gets to enjoy the movie, beholding herself transmuted into movie star gaining laughs and cheers from fellow patrons and all the fruits of a job well done. The Family girls wander the streets salvaging food and scrap whilst in a beatific bubble, seemingly happy as fringe dwellers in the great society, a little like Cliff, who proves receptive to their presence, aware of them as weird fixtures around the LA scene. Rick, even in the midst of personal and career crisis, has a wellspring of professional skill he can tap. This approach to narrative signals Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood as much closer to a character study than a standard plot-driven thriller, where the time and place are also a character.

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Rick’s career is also a compendium of anecdotes, many with unhappy endings, as when the star of Lancer, James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), asks if it’s true he almost got the lead in The Great Escape (1963). Tarantino mischievously offers digitally altered sequences inserting DiCaprio-as-Rick over Steve McQueen, as Rick grudgingly mumbles his way through explaining what happened. Acting is an eternal hall of mirrors filled with alternate selves, prospects grasped and missed, integral to an industry that needs the star actor as interlocutor between audience and art but also beset by ambiguity, a job with less security than the average mailman knows even for a man like Rick who’s colonised the dream life of a generation. The actor’s image achieves immortality, but the actor certainly doesn’t. By contrast Cliff is at once more curious and pathetic. Sent by Rick to fix his aerial whilst he shoots the Lancer pilot, Cliff drifts into a reverie recalling when Rick guest-starred on The Green Hornet, when Rick finally managed to talk the show’s stunt supervisor Randy (Kurt Russell) into giving Cliff the chance to possibly get some stunt work on the show, only to get lippy with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) as he showed off to the other stuntmen and accepted his challenge to a fight.

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Cliff as stuntman is the working stiff supporting the star show pony, the one who, whilst still immersed in the reflective glamour of the movie world, nonetheless has to put actually body and soul on the line for the construction of effective and convincing action cinema. Thus the stunt artist exists in that nebulous zone between fantasy and reality Tarantino loves plumbing. Lee is a taunting object for a man like Cliff not simply as a potent rival but as one making the leap from one caste to another: Lee has not just usurped his position but also achieved the ultimate promotion. So Cliff stokes Lee’s famous temper and they come out of it tied in terms of hits laid, although the fact that Cliff left a great dent in a car he threw Lee against seems to prove him the victor. Randy’s wife (Zoë Bell) interrupts them and gets her husband to throw Cliff off the set. Tarantino cuts back to Cliff as mutters, “Yeah, fair enough,” in the sure realisation and acceptance that even if he did get another chance he’d surely find a way to screw it all up again.

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This sequence reveals much about Cliff, including his genuine ability as a fighter as well as confirming all his talents for self-sabotage. It also deliberately begs many questions, as it’s revealed the big objection to Cliff is a strong rumour that he murdered his wife. A flashback is even added as Cliff recalls drunkenly handling a spear gun on a fishing trip with his wife who was just as soused and abusing him, but whether Cliff actually meant to kill her or some ugly mishap happened out of focus because of the booze isn’t shown. This all seems to explain a lot about Cliff’s situation. And yet the way Tarantino deploys it lodges it firmly in an ambiguous zone, affecting the way others regard Cliff in his memory and yet, much like his impression of Lee, possibly so non-objective that it’s hard to trust – compare it to the way Tate remembers Lee as a gracious tutor. Rick certainly doesn’t seem to believe Cliff killed his wife, but then again he’s so joined at the hip with Cliff, so reliant on him as a friend and helpmate, that he hardly counts as objective either. This is unusual territory for Tarantino who, whilst always engaged in a slippery dance between realist and fantasist postures, usually avoids engaging in destabilising the integrity of his storytelling in this manner. Much as a movie like Kill Bill (2003-4) had the undertone of a tale created by the child of a single mother designed to mythologise their parent, it maintained the rules of that fantasy.

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This disquiet in Cliff’s background lends a troubling aspect to what otherwise seems his easy-to-idealise valour in all other respects, as a near-forgotten war hero, a loyal pal and manservant to Rick, and unswayed enemy of Manson’s antisocial thugs. This is certainly in keeping with Tarantino’s general disinterest – the women of Death Proof (2007) and Django excepted – in the kinds of unsullied knights pop culture prefers, or at least likes their dark days well-hidden. Like his previous film, the often aggressively misunderstood The Hateful Eight (2015), Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood needles our laziness as viewers over who we assign sympathy to in movies and why and the kinds of myths we like swallowing and why. Most of Tarantino’s narratives have revolved around characters who can be hero or villain depending when you meet them. It also invokes awareness over the treacherousness of the history he’s engaging, with the tendency of the members of the Manson Family to blame each-other for heinous acts and the various forms of apologia attached to them depending on one’s personal and socio-political sympathies, as well as Polanski’s swift trip from tragic lover to exiled creep. The Manson murders were a long time ago now, and yet they still retain relevance, still inflecting aspects of the zeitgeist from political discourse to the difficulty as a film viewer to be had in watching Tate’s body of work, short of roles worthy of her startling beauty and comic talent.

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Rick’s career is explored with such fanatical detail, from his spot hosting and performing on the TV music show Hullabaloo to his B-movies like the Nazi-roasting war flick The 14 Fists of McCluskey, for which he learned how to use a flamethrower, to the point that we know his oeuvre better than many a real career. This serves not just Tarantino’s delight in pastiche but also his larger narrative target. Rick’s body of work is replete with echoes of Tarantino’s own – Bounty Law depicts a professional bounty hunter a la Django Unchained (2012), The 14 Fists of McCluskey offers a simplified version of Inglourious Basterds (2009) – and the feeling that Tarantino’s facing down his own middle-aged, mid-career demons through Rick repeatedly surfaces. Tarantino’s no longer the coolest kid on the indie movie block, but to all intents and purposes an establishment figure who’s taken some licks in recent years and facing the challenge of constantly trying to outdo himself when it comes to outré provocation and trying to mature without sacrificing his specific cachet. More immediately, Rick’s attempts to hold himself together in the course of shooting his guest role seem almost trivial given the forces waiting in the wings, and yet they’re all-consuming to him and vitally important in terms of his profession, a gruelling study in shattered confidence duelling with professional pride and abused talent.

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Rick is confronted with a preternaturally smart and disciplined eight-year-old co-star, Trudi (Julie Butters), clearly a kid with everything before her and impatient with his old-school affectations. Rick bursts into tears as he tries to explain the plot of a Western novella he’s reading to her as he sees the likeness to his own lot in the hero’s struggle with aging and wounding. This moment doesn’t simply acknowledge a metatexual commentary but makes an active aspect of the story, Rick knowing full well as he explains it to Trudy exactly how it reflects his own story and also connects with a very specific instance in Western movie folklore, the bullet in the back John Wayne’s character in El Dorado (1966) stands in for his aging, a reference that comes full circle in the finale as Cliff takes a similar wound that will also compel him to act his age. “’Bout fifteen years you’ll be livin’ it,” Rick mutters as Trudi tries to console him over his wane, reflecting both his own awareness that as a female actor Trudi’s up against even more daunting forces than him and also taking a momentary pleasure in the cruelty of acknowledging it, stealing just a tiny flame of her magic back from her, before his shame kicks in. It’s one of the best bits of writing Tarantino’s ever offered, not just in terms of the way it characterises Rick but also in the way it registers in terms of the larger narrative. The Manson Family will attempt to do just the same thing in far louder and more pyrotechnic terms, and the likeness echoes again as Rick’s role on Lancer is playing a vicious criminal mastermind with a coterie of henchmen.

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On set, Rick struggles to get through a lengthy scene with Stacy, and unleashes a torrent of abuse at himself once he’s back in his trailer, aghast at his inability to do what he’s known and prized for. This moment drew me back to Orange rehearsing his legend in Reservoir Dogs, as if we’re seeing the other end of a train of thought for Tarantino, the contemplation of what mastering such skill means at different ages, the fantasy of transcending self finally and inescapably exhausted, but with the bitter kicker that the only answer is to recommit to it. So Rick returns to the shoot newly galvanised and attacks his next scene with such gusto even Trudi is bowled over. Such are the absurd and yet inescapable measures of an actor’s gravity. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood posits what could have happened if the Manson Family had targeted someone a little more capable of taking care of themselves. The key precept here is a great one: acting, especially in the language of old-school machismo, is often written off as an inherently phony art for creampuffs and pretty boys. And yet the Hollywood of the 1960s (and now) would have been filled with people who really could fight, shoot, ride, and do many a difficult and dangerous thing, and many lead actors were, then and now, rewarded to the degree that an audience sensed something authentic about the way they handled the world – no-one doubts, for instance, that Lee could have won just about any fight in life even if many a barstool brave could, like Cliff, fancy himself as the one who could take him.

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Tarantino offers a system of rhyming vignettes binding together the real and the imagined in these terms. Tate defeating an opponent in The Wrecking Crew wrings applause from the audience she sees it with, and she learned her karate moves from Lee, whose tutelage of her is briefly glimpsed as one of the film’s most cheery, fleeting visions of two ill-fated people alight in their youth and ability. Later Cliff and Rick’s honed skills will be used in a more immediate and consequential way which the audience knows is both total fiction and yet palpably real in the viewing context. Where Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014) dealt with an LA left paranoid and punch-drunk in the aftermath of the Manson killings, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is a prelude where the possibility of something malignant and dangerous is only slowly registered and reality is just starting to lose a certain shape. Manson himself (Damon Herriman) is only glimpsed once in the film, appearing in Polanski and Tate’s driveway seeking Dennis Wilson, who used to live there, looking like just another weedy, hairy hipster. Tarantino stages the finale with Cliff under the influence of acid and has trouble being sure, when he’s confronted by the Family members, whether he’s hallucinating or not. In his Lancer role Rick is called upon by Wanamaker to remake himself in a vaguely hippie image with buckskin jacket and Zapata moustache, adopting the new apparel of the popularly perceived reprobate. Rick himself doesn’t like hippies either, in large part because he senses accurately they’re part of the forces corroding his career as well as decorating the corners of his town with strange sounds and smells.

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Cliff is easier-going in that regard, buying an acid-soaked cigarette off a hippie girl (Perla Haney-Jardine) for eventual delights, and laughing indulgently as Pussycat bawls at a passing cop car. But Cliff’s intrusion upon the Ranch sees a collective of gangly, unwashed drop-outs gaze at him like irritable marmosets from the old mock-up frontier cabins. This spectacle changes the film’s tone subtly but radically as something enigmatic and dangerous manifests amidst the otherwise entirely ordinary world we’ve been watching, and suddenly we’re in one of Tarantino’s classic, patient suspense situations. A scene like the beer cellar shoot-out in Inglourious Basterds depended on a sense of the unexpected suddenly and steadily turning an apparently straightforward meeting into a slaughter. Here Tarantino plays on the audience’s presumed awareness of the various signifiers here and there, like the names Spahn and Charlie and Tex, to lend menacing undercurrents to a situation that otherwise seems borderline silly, with the mistrustful youths ranged about like Hitchcock’s crows and Squeaky playing hard-ass watchdog. Cliff is unfazed by the attitude turned his way but also not aware, as the viewer is (presuming the viewer knows anything of the Manson story), of the kind of danger he’s in.

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Cliff eventually does manage to chat with Spahn (Bruce Dern), who proves aged, cranky, and barely aware of who Cliff is. He’s also an elder avatar for Cliff himself, a physically ruined and impoverished old stuntman, used by the Family in a way that surely feels like beneficence to him. When he fixes on Clem (James Landry Hébert) as the one who knifed his tire, Cliff beats the shit out of him and forces him to change the tire. The cliquish, self-cordoned sensibility of the Family – the adoring girls of the gang signal their sympathy to Clem and hurl abuse at Cliff – is noted with a fastidious sense of black comedy mixed with a sharp understanding of the rituals of such a gang for whom their own expressions of violence are considered honest and those of others unforgivable offences, crashing against Cliff’s complete indifference to such signs, a natural loner who’s long since mastered the arts of surviving that way. One of the Family girls rides up to fetch Tex Watson (Austin Butler), the most murderous of Manson lieutenants, who’s off running riding trail tours: Tex’s speedy ride back the Ranch transforms him into the quintessential Western henchman dashing to save a useless underling, only to find Cliff already driving away. Jose Feliciano’s cover of “California Dreaming” rings on the soundtrack, pursuing the various characters on their journeys back home with a note of wistful longing: the adventures of the day are passed, and what’s left is the mopping up.

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Rick and Cliff’s experiences are counterpointed throughout with Tate’s, free and easy on the Hollywood scene, somehow managing, despite the fact she lives right next door to Rick, to exist in a different universe. Rick and Cliff finally catch sight of her and Polanski in their convertible entering their driveway, like a glimpse of the anointed. The couple’s arrival at the Playboy Mansion for a party is a glimpse of a moment’s idyll, the apotheosis of a period in-crowd with so many of them doomed to an early grave. Tate dances with Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass whilst Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) watches and explains to Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker) the strange situation Tate lives in with husband Polanski and former fiancé Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch): “One of these days that Polish prick’s gonna fuck things up and when he does, Jay’s gonna be there.” There’s a suggestion Tate’s living arrangement with Polanski and Sebring was essentially a ménage a trois, but Tarantino keeps a wary distance from engaging with that. There’s a surprising gentlemanly streak to the way Tarantino lets Tate retain her almost too-good-for-this-world lustre, and not replacing her visage in her movies with Robbie’s. Tate gently mocks Sebring for his penchant for listening to Paul Revere & The Raiders and enjoys using her new if still fledgling star status to get herself in to The Wrecking Crew screening. Tate has no reason to worry about the disparity between herself and her screen self, recreating her on-screen movements from the audience in muscle-memory of the acquired skills and thrilling to the impression of cool reflecting back at her.

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Late in the piece Tarantino introduces an amusing codicil to the way the entwined yet distinct Tate and Rick stories relate, as it’s revealed both Tate and Sebring are fans of Rick’s and too shy to breach the distance between them. TV, cheap and unglamorous, is a nonetheless a common lexicon for everyone. Watching The FBI ironically unites Fromme and Spahn and Rick and Cliff, the latter two watching Rick in one of his guest roles as another bad guy: these stark little morality plays join the highlife to the lowlife, planting different seeds for cultivation. Tarantino spins this as he finally shifts focus onto the murderous crew Manson sends out to Cielo Drive, with Tex in command and including Susan ‘Sadie’ Atkins (Mikey Madison) and Patricia ‘Katie’ Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty). As they work themselves up for the oncoming attack after being abused by Rick for driving their old and noisy car up his street, they latch on to a motive, the felicity of killing actors like Rick: “We kill the people who taught us to kill,” Atkins raves in increasingly demented enthusiasm in a vignette that captures the pseudo-radical morality of the Manson clan whilst also hinting Tarantino’s having a sideways swipe at the rhetoric often swirling around his films.

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It’s passing inane to note the obvious, that Tarantino deeply immerses himself in not just the movie business but specific wings of that business that have long tended to obsess him. He makes a show like Lancer, a second-string The High Chaparral or Bonanza, central to his plot precisely because of its virtually forgotten status and thus a fitting totem for pop culture’s mysterious melding of the ephemeral and the perpetual. Tarantino even allows Atkins that much grace in grasping an aspect of a truth. The little myths and legends we absorb day in and day out as consumers of such fare, so vital in the moment and readily discarded, are part of our substance whether we like it or not. Rick’s anxiety is made clear precisely because he knows he’s being actively written out of the mythology of his day remembered to less dedicated movie and TV buffs. What’s most interesting here is the way it frees Tarantino up on other levels, with a story structured and sustained in a way I’ve never quite seen before. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood often seems scattershot as it’s unfolding, when in fact many apparently random vignettes and details prove carefully designed, in an attempt to deliver an entire film that’s one of his long, slow burns. Even a digression depicting Cliff in his trailer feeding his dog, has a function in this regard beyond simply noting Cliff’s shambolic life: we also see the perfect control he has over the pet, and like Cliff it’s a lethal weapon awaiting a signal to attack. By the time Tex and the others finally stalk the night in black clothes with butcher knives in hand, they’ve become actuations of fate stalking our heroes as well as very real terrors.

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When Tarantino resumes his story six months after the long day he’s described, the season has shifted. Rick has been to Italy, shot four movies that even gave Cliff a chance to recover his mojo, and is returning home married to Italian starlet Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo). The great days are over: Rick has no idea if his sojourn will bring him more work so he’s looking at selling his house and tells Cliff he can’t employ him anymore. So the two men get roaring drunk before returning to Rick’s house and Rick lights up that fateful acid cigarette, and the doors get kicked in. Finally all of Tarantino’s gestures large and small reveal their larger pattern: Rick and Cliff have been granted as much solidity in their existence as Tate, Sebring, and their friends Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson) and Voytek Frykowski (Costa Ronin), their movements ticked off as part of the same historical ledger, the grim stations of the true crime calvary doubling.

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The way Tarantino twists the true story of the fateful attack on Cielo Drive to his own purposes isn’t that hard to predict but still arrives as a set-piece of blackly comic ultraviolence as Cliff in an acid daze smashes Tex and Krenwinkel to bloody pulps, and Rick, shocked by the bloodied, sceaming Atkins crashing through his window and into his pool, grabs the first weapon on hand, which proves to be that flamethrower from The 14 Fists of McCluskey. As a climax this is of course similar to the finales of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained with a similar blast of gruesome, schadenfreude-tinted catharsis not just in the absurdly hyperbolic destruction of a truly malignant enemy, but also in releasing Rick and Cliff and even the bewildered Francesca from feeling like guest stars in their own lives. That part of Tarantino’s oeuvre which has long felt inspired by MAD Magazine reveals the depth of the influence in the way he transposes those old “Scenes We’d Like To See” strips into his movies. Indeed, the more one knows about the real brutality of the killers the more punch there is to it. Tarantino can make the revenge fantasy as nasty as he likes and still it cannot compare to what was really done to Tate and her friends.

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And yet this also made me wonder if Tarantino might have done better to swap his signature absurdist bloodshed for a harder, more realistic battle, all the better for breaking the spell of dark magic the Manson Family managed to weave about itself despite all. But as catharsis it still packs such a giddy, outlandish punch it’s hard to care too much about the distinction. The real brilliance of it becomes clearer in the subsequent scene as Cliff and Rick take leave of each-other not in any paltry parting but a scene of heroic gratitude and kinship. Rick encounters Sebring, brought out by the disturbance to the gate of Sharon’s house. Rick explains what transpired to the startled and fascianted young man, and gaining exactly the sort of potentially career-changing rapport he’d hoped for with Tate, who’s been saved. Sebring, as a fan, even grasps why Rick had the flamethrower. This particular revelation managed somehow to make me laugh and tear up all at the same time, as it finally becomes clear what Tarantino’s been trying to describe, for all his love of posturing as a cynical bastard. He knows well that part of us still longing to be saved by our heroes, even long after we learn what clay we’re all made of.

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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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