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The Killing Fields (on Reservoir Dogs)

by Dan Jardine

In the late 70s and early 80s Dan Jardine completed a variety of undergraduate degrees in English, History and Political Science before moving on to become a teacher of English Literature. A writer whose primary online affiliation with Apollo Guide (www.apolloguide.com) has been a long and fruitful one, he has also recently added his name to the long list of online bloggers (djardine.blogspot.com).


"Am I the only professional here?"
--Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi)

We all remember the scene. Here we are, more than a decade removed from the film's release, and I suspect that, if asked, most people who've seen the film only once would cite this as the one scene they remember. It's the one that appears dead centre of the film, temporally speaking, which I suppose adds some ironic commentary to Tarantino's choice of song at the moment ("Stuck in the Middle With You"). But when a straight-blade wielding Michael Madsen (Mr. Blonde) begins to soft shoe across the warehouse floor and karaoke to the sounds of K-Billy Radio with a twisted smirk on his face, the knot that's been in your stomach from the moment the opening credits end and a writhing, howling and blood-splattered Tim Roth jumps out at you from the screen, that terrible dead weight in your belly that's been festering and bubbling takes on new dimensions and gravity as it seizes hold of all your vital organs, taking hostage of your senses and daring you to keep your attention focused on the images before you.

A murderous sociopath is left to his own devices to torture information out of a cop. He's got a gun, a straight-edged razor, some matches and a gallon of gasoline, and Tarantino's going to make you watch him in action. Now remember this: Reservoir Dogs is Tarantino's directorial debut. What you're being forced to watch-in many ways, you in the audience are strapped to your seat in the same way that this poor cop is--the kind of scene that not only makes or breaks a film, it could very well make or break a burgeoning filmmaker's career. As one cop remarks to another as they watch fellow undercover cop Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) climb into a car with the jewel heist conspirators, putting on screen this kinda of potentially offensive, off-puttingly sadistic, seat-squirming, stomach-turning shit takes "balls the size of Gibraltar."

At a technical level, the scene is beautifully shot, edited and paced. For example, the way Tarantino's camera cuts away just as Mr. Blonde cuts off the cop's ear, like Scorcese in Taxi Driver when he pans the camera away from Travis on the telephone as he gets dumped by Cybil Shephard, and, in one of the most macabre examples of humour in all of Tarantino's films, focuses on a hand-scrawled note over a low-hanging doorway that reads "Watch Your Head," is pretty clever stuff, since absolutely everyone I ever talk to about this movie swears they saw a man's ear get severed at this moment. But trust me; it doesn't happen (on screen, anyways.)

More significant to Tarantino's overall statement, however, is how he forces grotesque close-ups of the cop's ravaged face on us before the man gets tortured by Madsen, so we can all see the effect of the beating he's taken. Like Peckinpah, Tarantino wants us to see that this level of violence has consequences, kids. Perhaps more importantly, he wants us to share in the cop's terror. Not just because he wants us to piss our pants (though that can never be far from Tarantino's mind at any time during this scene), but also because he wants to engage our empathic horror. Up to this point in the film, the cop has always been framed in long shots, which naturally emotionally distances us from him, but now, just as the most grotesque things are about to be done to the cop, Tarantino suddenly gives us that man's terror, full-frame. Only an inhuman (or agenda-driven) viewer would dare argue that Tarantino is glorifying the violence (or desensitizing audiences to it) in view of how he uses the camera here.

Tarantino's choice of music, already alluded to, is terrific-a semi-obscure song from a one-hit wonder (Steelers Wheel) but not only that, he does something completely unexpected with the music in this scene as well. When he follows Mr. Blonde out of the warehouse and to his car, where he keeps the gasoline, the music stays in the warehouse, and as we step out into the daylight, we hear the ambient sounds of the neighbourhood-the traffic, birds. Suddenly we're taken out of the perfectly choreographed pressure-cooker, and allowed to breathe some fresh air, gather our senses, so we can think about what has and is about to happen. There's a real theatricality to the move, like the moment of comic relief that Shakespeare liked to toss into his tragedies to let some of the steam out. He'd then start rebuilding the tension, so that when the pot blew, it went sky high. But t his kind of move doesn't come without risk, because if you aren't careful, you risk losing the momentum of the scene, taking the audience out of the moment, loosening that knot you've spent the first half of the film building in the audience's gut.

But when Madsen opens the trunk, and pulls out the canister of gasoline and heads back to the warehouse, is there anybody who could convincingly argue that this scene's tension hasn't risen noticeably as a result? When Madsen opens the door just as the drummer pounds the cowbells, you've gotta know that the bells are tolling not only for the poor tortured cop, but for everyone of us in the audience who's sat through this indescribably horrific scene, and now must watch as Mr. Blonde applies the coup de grace. And just as we're about to wet our panties in anticipation of something absolutely Buddhist-monks-in-Vietnam unthinkable, just as the whole scene promises to explode in a cloud of nihilistic Clockwork Orange-level ultra-violence, who should come to the rescue but Mr. Orange.

The whole thing plays out over some of the most effective three minutes of screen time that I've ever experienced in a movie theatre. In fact, even though he's made more popular films (Pulp Fiction) and even more accomplished ones (Kill Bill), there may be no other scene in Tarantino's catalogue that reverberates with audiences like this one. It distills down for us the essence of what Tarantino is as a filmmaker. And, as a result, the scene exemplifies for me why Reservoir Dogs remains his most singularly and viscerally effective effort as a director. Perhaps because the film remains so tightly-focused on these characters in their absurdly challenging situation. Perhaps because the movie was filmed on the cheap and on the fly, so there was no time to piss around with different approaches or different takes. Whatever the reason, this is the one QT film that always manages to rope a knot in my stomach and, over the course of the film's 100 minute running time, keep a firm grip, pulling, twisting, tightening and re-tying it.

Distilling Art from Artist

The recent theatrical release and only moderate popular success of Kill Bill Vol. 2, partnered up with the home video release of Vol. 1, left me wondering whether Tarantino's recent films, the first of which was a delirious and bloody brilliant paean to global lowbrow cinema, and the second, while flawed, still potent and emotionally engaging, would have been more successful if their auteur had been a less obnoxious public figure. Which further led me to consider whether we'd be better off knowing absolutely nothing about the personal lives, public pronouncements and private proclivities of the folks whose work in movies we admire (or detest.) Wouldn't the movie-going experience be more likely to be untainted w/o the knowledge that the people making the film were first grade assholes? In QTs case, as with many, many other media-savvy folks in the business, this is complicated by the fact that he not only welcomes the spotlight, he's rigged the thing with 3000 watt bulbs and operates the generator himself. I mean, c'mon, showing up as a guest judge on American Idol? To be fair, he has more qualifications as a purveyor of popular musical than at least two of the regular judges on that show's panel, but still, other than brazen self-promotion, what purpose does such an appearance serve? Does QT really thing that there is a large, untapped KB audience in the milquetoast-y audience that forms the core of the AI demographic? And, if so, could it be more clear that QT is off his meds again?

Leaving aside the question of whether a certain level of prickliness is an important ingredient in a committed artist because it is pretty much besides the pt in this argument, let's look at the allure of personal attack masquerading as criticism. Simply put, it is so much easier to dismiss individuals than it is to study and analyze their work. I return here to the old adage that shallow folk gossip about other people, while sophisticates talk about ideas, issues, and values, and I'm left to wonder if some of us aren't being just a little lazy and an awful lot superficial in our critical approach to film. There is certainly an immediate emotional satisfaction to this sort of criticism because we feel justified that the people who piss us off ought to have their work denigrated (hate the artist, dismiss the art). And consider how challenging it is for us to dislike an artist for his personal qualities and yet admire him as an artist (or vice versa-did Hitchcock get an easier ride cuz he cultivated that whole lovable curmudgeon schtick? Is criticism of Tom Hanks films softened because he's such a great guy?). These sorts of conflicting interests force us to confront aspects of ourselves that we may find discomforting, but if we inhabit the spirit of Whitman, we'll be large enough to contain these vast and multitudinous contradictions.

In a perfect world we'd know as little as possible about the private lives of our artists. Still, I'm compelled to recognize the futility of such a hope. In this age where surveillance equipment is microscopic, where satellite shots from outer space offer clearer pictures of people cavorting in my neighbor's hot tub than my 100 dollar digital camera, where we bask in the warm glow of the 24-hour information service that is the internet, and where the public embraces the Patriot Act like it's the Holy Grail, it's clear that ignorance-just another word for paranoia, according to HS Thompson--is no longer an option. It appears that the best we can hope to do is minimize the impact of such information on the purity of our aesthetic enjoyment of art. And like most of you, I am a victim of Pop Culture's overweening need to peer into the lives of the rich and famous. In this land of 24/7 infotainment I once allowed myself to be seduced by the easy virtue of scandal sheet journalism, but now it's the morning after, and I've got a scummy taste in my mouth. All of this by way of admitting that my current one is not the position I came with, but one I have arrived at. And so I say it is time to turn your back on all that is fashionable about being in the know. Time to retreat from the continuous blare of satellite sound and cable fury. We've got to stand up to the tide of meaningless blather that is distracting us from what really matters (Hint: The Art Itself) . It is Time to Signify Something. This is not a proscription for intelligent film criticism so much as a cry for all the gossip-mongerers disguised as critics to grow up. If you are letting personal vitriol infect your ability to look at the work's aesthetics, you need to take a step back and ask yourself why you are in this biz.

But still and all, once the information is out there, can we (should we) ignore it? Is there a parallel in the field of book adaptations-those who haven't read the source material have a "purer" experience of the film than those who have read it and come in with all sorts of preconceptions? And just as the adaptation wouldn't occur if novel hadn't been successful, so too a movie star's success plants 'em squarely in the public eye, where they can use their popularity to enhance career. But this double-edged Damoclean sword of publicity can also be turned against 'em because we love to build 'em up just so's we can tear 'em down. Plus, there's also the whole prurient interest thing to be considered; while we wouldn't dare to do some of the things that celebrities indulge in daily, we get vicarious thrills out of hearing about it.

Despite all the distractions, I remain firmly in the "artist is dead" camp. Once the work is produced, it no longer belongs to the artist, but to the audience to whom it has been gifted. Anything an artist says about the work, whether process or product, needs to be taken w/ the proverbial grain of salt at best, and is completely irrelevant at worst. Of course, like any gluttonous cinephile I gobble up every director DVD audio commentary I find on my plate, but I don't consider this hypocrisy so much as skills-sharpening scholarship. Like any movie-lover, I am interested in hearing about a director's inspirations and influences, plus I find it interesting to line up my own reactions and interpretations of the film against others-good art should be a dialogue of sorts, no? Still and all, most of the time I find that director's commentaries are only marginally informative, and often degenerate into banal chatter about the work-a-day processes of filmmaking. I much prefer discs like those in the Criterion Collection that are often graced with the commentaries of scholars in the film community. Their intellectual rigor and emotional distance from the making of the film usually results in a much more satisfying audio experience.

Of course, it ain't all so black and white; there are ethically challenging areas here. Looking at Roman Polanski, for instance, we see someone who has had a long and wildly varied career, with, at one end, films as viscerally charged and thematically complex as Repulsion, Chinatown and The Pianist, and at the other, movies as deeply flawed and misguided as The Tenant, Ninth Gate and Bad Moon. However, his current legacy appears to be not cinematic, but rather his very public run-in with the law in California and his subsequent flight to Europe in order to escape prosecution for allegedly drugging and raping an underage girl. Now, these legal troubles don't seem to have hurt his career at all, as last year's Oscar for directing The Pianist surely attests, but I know that for every frame of every Polanski film that I've watched since his case became public, I remain aware of what this man has admitted doing with young girls. My ability to really enjoy his work is permanently corrupted. As the father of two girls, I'd sure want to know if he moved into my neighbourhood, so doesn't that make me something of a phony bastard to simultaneously desire that I be able to view his films w/ a mental blank slate allowing me to remain unaware of his alleged pedophilia? And should I even be implicitly sanctioning the work of a man who has engaged in such despicable acts? Tough questions all.

Charlie Chaplin, who may have lived in a "simpler time" where he didn't have to be concerned with how his every move was going to become public knowledge, managed to flourish despite inclinations startlingly similar to those of the currently-vilified Roman Polanski, and it was only when his politics became a front-and-center issue that he wore out his welcome in H/wood. While the appetites, fetishes and exploits of his contemporaries, such as Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, are legendary, who is remembered more for the shame of his trials than the films he produced, I still see in Chaplin a lesson for the ages. When I'm watching his greatest films, like City Lights or Gold Rush, I'm not thinking about his sexual escapades with pubescent girls, but about the unique way he had of tilting his head in order to frame his smile at just the right coquettish angle. Should I feel guilty for loving the films of a man only a couple degrees of behavior removed from the likes of Roman Polanski? Well, since the public and history have vindicated the Robert Mitchums of our world, whose career was thought endangered when he was busted for marijuana possession, as well as the Charlie Chaplins, who knows? Maybe it will even look kindly on the ethically-challenged moves of the Woody Allens or the repugnant inclinations of the Roman Polanskis. So what I guess I'm trying to say is that in the end, mebbe it is with Chaplin that we learn the ultimate lesson and in which we can take the final solace: In this, as in all things, Time Will Out. Today as we pass judgement on the Artist we ought to be reminded that in fifty years audiences will be adjudicating the quality of the work itself.

I guess that in the end it comes down to this: Critics are often heard to complain about things that "take us out of" a movie, whether it's internal, such as an anachronistic bit of set design or piece of dialogue, a poor performance by an actor, or external, like a lousy projectionist, a terrible sound system or a disruptive popcorn munching, television-bred, mouth-breathing chatty audience. Well, getting distracted by your personal distaste for the people working on or in the film also qualifies. In the end, good art transforms and transcends. It lifts us out of our daily mire, and makes us a little bit better. Knowledge of the filmmaker's private proclivities and predilections is mostly an impediment to this experience.

So, how can you deny to yourself that the media over-saturation/attitude/behaviour/eating habits of a director like Tarantino act like fingers down your proverbial and personal chalkboard? You can't. But you can control how much such nonsense you bring yourself into contact with. While we may find ourselves gleefully swept up by the tornado of news fed to us by the infotainment industry, we should remind ourselves that it is ok to stand back and unplug. Of course, all of this would all be a lot easier if guys like Tarantino would just, in the words of Hole City's gadgetgirl, drink deeply from the warm cup of Shut the Fuck Up. Anyways and regardless, if an artist is a misanthrope or a misogynist, a pedophile or a cannibal, well these are things that I might want (or need) to know if I was going to enter into close proximity or a relationship with that person, but is otherwise outside the realm of my interest as a consumer of this individual's work However, unless the individual in question is a felon-at-large, a danger to the community, well, I just don't wanna know about it, all right? Talk amongst yourselves. I've got better things to do. Like watch a movie.

 
Reservoir Dogs