Sunday, April 05, 2009

‘Stuck in the Middle’: Dance, Movement, and Reservoir Dogs

What follows is a presentation I will give at the Popular Culture Association annual meeting in New Orleans, LA this coming Wednesday:

"I don't see what the big deal is. Everybody steals from everybody; that's movies.” From Swingers (Doug Liman, 1996), that line comes just as homage to Reservoir Dogs commences. And it’s true, though the ‘if everybody does it, it must be OK’ logic is a little strained. It’s not the purpose of movies to be original, but to be entertaining. And to be entertaining, one must work with audience expectations, which means working with the successes of the past. Instead of creating something new, one must make the old new—itself an old piece of advice. ‘Make it new,’ ordered Ezra Pound, revitalize. That’s where art lies.

Seventeen years may not seem a long time in the larger stream of things, but Reservoir Dogs has been a focus for film students (in particular) as well as film scholars for what amounts to a generation. It’s old. We’ve fallen into assumptions about it, and about Tarantino, perhaps making the film stale in some eyes. ‘Everything’s already been said,’ one might complain as even another presentation on the movie appears. And that may be. Certainly, as James Agee reports Mack Sennett as claiming, “Anyone who tells you he has discovered something new is a fool or a liar or both” (Agee on Film, 398). But that doesn’t mean we should shut up, that we can’t contribute to the conversation. David Bordwell, after all, following Kristin Thompson, uses the concept of revitalization to change the focus on film from the past four decades from “post-classical,” signifying a break, to “hyperclassical,” a term of embracing the old—in effect, making it new. That’s what Quentin Tarantino does in Reservoir Dogs in respect to the motions of classical Hollywood.

The movies, of course, are all about motion. And about audience. And about relationships between parts. Think of the commode scene in Reservoir Dogs. We have a story on paper, an exposition of how the story should be told, a rehearsal, the telling, and the showing—all with motion and interaction between tellers and audiences. We have story and audience: a movie. Almost a century ago, the psychologist Hugo Münsterberg wrote about the viewer of film, “the motion which he sees appears to be a true motion, and yet is created by his own mind" (The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, 70). Good filmmakers, people like Edwin S. Porter, Mack Sennett, and D. W. Griffith, already knew this, of course. And we do, too, recognizing that the motion we see not only appears to be a true motion, but is the capture of a true motion, even while it is created in our own minds.

We can easily go back to Eisenstein, for his discussion of montage, to confirm this. Filmic motion is a creation of motion, a dance, a depiction itself in motion or an illusion that the audience helps create through its assumptions. Munsterberg wrote:

Everybody knows how difficult it is to read proofs. We overlook the misprints, that is, we replace the wrong letters which are actually in our field of vision by imaginary right letters which correspond to our expectations. Are we not also familiar with the experience of supplying by our fancy the associative image of a movement when only the starting point and the end point are given, if a skillful suggestion influences our mind. (66)

Adding the viewer to an already complex weave of filmmaking and you get, to mix a metaphor, pied type. Untangling it, or managing to return the letters to their appropriate bins, begins to feel as unlikely as solving Rubik's cube. The motion comes not just from the filmmaker or the film, but from the viewer, making even atempts at outlining it dangerous.

Complexity is just the sort of thing Quentin Tarantino loves. Raveling and unraveling, and doing both at the same time, he plays with the audience—in all senses of the term—not just the film. He plays with dance, motion and violence, and with the conventions both of film viewing and filmmaking, constructing movies that end up like ships solid enough to withstand just about any wind blown towards them and with anchors lowering deep within the traditions of filmmaking in Hollywood and France, in particular.

But let’s step back away from his work for just a moment.

The rumble at the end of the first act of West Side Story, where Riff and Bernardo die; Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” from On Your Toes, with the death of a woman and the threat of further killing coming from the audience in the film; Gene Kelly’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” from Words and Music, with an added death; the “Girl Hunt Ballet” from The Band Wagon, with slaughter aplenty at the end. All of these, from classical Hollywood musicals, are as violent as anything in Reservoir Dogs. Yet they don’t get the reactions that Tarantino does—and they never did. No one says they won’t go see a musical because of the violence, yet many refuse Reservoir Dogs. Yet all five of these movies use violence—and dance and music, though Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde moves in the amateur way any of us might—and do—to songs on the radio, unlike the professional, choreographed (and distancing) steps of the others where the music is non-diegetic. Of course, it is just this difference that creates, in part, the impact of the “ear” scene, making reactions to the violence greater than in any of those other movies I’ve mentioned—on the level of simple and visceral revulsion, at least. The fantasy element, represented by dance, has been removed—as has the joy of watching skilled artists—stripping away the distancing that we’ve learned to use to keep comfortable, the excuse for violence when the act is portrayed through art and explicitly as art. Here, the art comes through Madsen’s utilization of an apparent lack of dancing skill and the apparent artlessness of camera motion, yet the presentation has much in common with how dance is filmed in classical Hollywood musicals, with long shots allowing concentration on the skill of the performer.

Of course, all of the older dance numbers are sanitized in other ways, presenting the violence in the Hollywood manner de rigueur prior to Bonnie and Clyde and still influential today. Sure. There’s no sign of blood in any of them. But that’s not the point. All of these older films are stylized. Sure. Both in terms of dance and of film… but, even with its seeming artlessness, is Reservoir Dogs not stylized? We’re not talking realism here. Though the language of Tarantino’s characters may accurately reflect the way people talked at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, there’s very little else about this movie that rises to any level of realism, even as practiced in Hollywood. Look at the dress: those suits and ties. Look at the pseudonyms, Mr.’s White, Pink, Orange, Blue, Brown, and Blonde. Look at the plot: the whole heist is preposterous, as is the father/son team behind it. Look again at the plot: it’s so well woven that it screams (intentionally screams), ‘look at me; look at how well crafted I am! No loose ends here!’ That’s not even a feint towards realism. That’s tight artifice—and proud of it.

Yet there’s a lot else in the film that is loose: talk, motion (both of actors and of the camera), body parts, a door latch, and even a balloon on the street. And loose stories are told after the fact—or, at least, stories designed to give an appearance of looseness to the filmmaking. That balloon? Supposedly an accident captured and kept. That door flying open? Simply shows the brilliance of a cast that could keep on going in face of the unexpected and of the quick-thinking Harvey Keitel, who simply walks away from the camera and closes the door as the scene continues. Another story claims that the panning away from the ear-cutting was necessitated simply by inability to create a visually realistic cutting.

All three of these touches are brilliant, as are numerous others in the film, creating a tension between plan and execution, tightness and looseness, that’s reflected in action, in construction, and in unfolding. Each creates a sense of motion beyond the purposes of that tight plot, adding a counterpoint that reduces any message of control—a counterpoint that allows Madsen to produce a sense of insanity strong enough to make us forget, as we view, that we are being carefully manipulated by a writer/director with an almost obsessive knowledge of the minutiae of film. At the beginning of the sequence, for example, Madsen moves over to Tim Roth’s character, who has been lying silent and bleeding for quite some time, reminding us that Roth is still there. Why? Because Roth, Mr. Orange, is going to shoot Mr. Blonde quite soon, and conventional Hollywood continuity requires that the surprise, startling as it may be, immediately connects back in the viewer’s mind to a causal agent. Rather than the camera doing it gratuitously, Madsen can do it—gratuitously—and get away with it: Since the moment he pulled the straight-razor from his boot, our viewer focus has narrowed to him; if nothing else, his extra time with Orange serves to heighten the tension as we wonder just what he is going to do to Officer Nash, who sits tied to a chair and gagged with duct tape.

It is here, in the illusion of loose, almost random motion in a situation highly controlled, that the heightened tension of the violence—or the perception of violence—emerges. Along with it comes the power of the scene to evoke viewer reaction more powerfully than do most traditional Hollywood depictions of violence, where the impact is screened by convention, by dance, or by some other mediating factor. The spinning away from expectation (while actually heightening the expectation), more than the violence itself, generates the shock.

“Hold still, you fuck,” says Blonde as he cuts of Nash’s ear—but it is the camera that obeys, having glided away from the action. It now centers on the junction of two walls and the ceiling of the warehouse as Blonde completes his cutting. Blonde then comes into the picture that had moved away from him, holding his straight razor and the ear, examining both somewhat pensively before walking back out of the picture muttering, “Was that as good for you as it was for me?” After that comes the famous bit of Blonde talking to the ear: “Hey, what’s going on?” followed by, “Hear that?” to Nash. The “ear” scene, which runs about six minutes, has a long Average Shot Length (ASL) of 15 seconds, a number that would be longer still were it not for a couple of shot/reverse sequences showing the reactions of Officer Nash to Mr. Blonde's antics. The longest shot is the nearly minute-and-a-half of Blonde retrieving a gas can from his car. The shortest is just one second.

From the start of Blonde’s dance to his speaking to the ear, we only have nine shots, mostly shot/reverse between Blonde and Nash, wide on Blonde as he dances, close on Nash’s face as he watches (and as we watch with him). The longest shot is the hold on the blank walls as the ear comes off, nearly 30 seconds.

That, by the way, foreshadows the final shot of the movie, where Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White slides out of the frame, held still, once he is, well, shot.

Step back again for a moment, so we can set up the role of the camera and its motion, a Max Ophüls sort of role, and its importance here as a moving spectator—as one of the characters in the film, a Mr. Clear, if you will. There's no action at the start of Reservoir Dogs, though there's plenty of movement—by the camera, that is. It circles the table in the diner, eventually resolving into a shot/reverse sequence when Joe Cabot and Mr. White squabble over the address book and then again when the question of the tip is discussed, having already started to pounce on the traits that will be associated with each member of the group, all but two identified by color-related pseudonyms, and all but those two dressed in black suits, white shirts, and thin black ties. Traits we get: Mr. Blonde, devoted to Joe Cabot yet exhibiting a strain of happy, charismatic menace; Mr. White, sure of himself enough to be willing to risk the wrath of his boss Cabot, strong enough to have gained Cabot's respect—quite empathetic and emotional, he could be the perfect husband; Mr. Orange, quizzical, quiet, somehow out of place, a wife in need of protection; Mr. Pink, with little sympathy for others, strong-willed, but willing to put aside his own ideas to work as a team player; Eddie Cabot, strong but none too bright. Also present are Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue, but one talks stupidly and the other not at all—both clearly to be dismissed by the viewer as insignificant to story and plot.

In The Way Hollywood Tells It, David Bordwell suggests that one of the results of the ‘intensified continuity’ that has developed since the fall of the studio system is reliance on editing and camera motion for the dynamics of a conversation-driven scene. While Tarantino, as often as anyone, does draw attention to the camera here and elsewhere in the film (as I have said, almost making it a character as much as it is in Tony Richardson’s 1963 Tom Jones), he uses camera motion as only one of his means of constructing a scene, of providing its dynamic. In the commode-joke discussion between Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange and Randy Brooks’ Detective Holdaway, Brooks almost dances around the stationary Roth, himself becoming both camera (dancing around the subject) and action… a situation somewhat reversed when Roth rehearses the story before Brooks, who now is still (and still the camera) as Roth moves on an impromptu stage.

What’s most brilliant about Tarantino isn’t any one particular device or style or subject, but that he takes everything that the Hollywood tradition has to offer, mixes in what he has found in the nouvelle vague, Hong Kong cinema, and cheap genre pictures, and creates something out of it all that we, as audience, find refreshing. He does follow Pound, making him (in my view) much more a product of a modernist or, in film-studies terms, a classicist tradition.

Beyond that, but important to mention, Tarantino is a story-teller in a sense pre-dating modernism or movie classicism. Though some viewers don’t see it—and it is easy to lose things in a Tarantino movie, for much is always going on—there’s always a point he’s trying to make, or a number of them. In Reservoir Dogs, he explores the thin line between the professional and the psychotic and the relations between each and the personal. His characters, in other words, aren’t simply devices for furthering his plot; his plot, here and elsewhere, furthers understanding of character—and not just these individuals, but human character in general. The same is true of his use of motion. Next month, his latest movie, Inglourious Basterds, will premier at Cannes. If Tarantino’s past is any indication—and Tarantino is all about the past, or about making the past into the future—this movie, too, will fall squarely into the classical Hollywood tradition, but will again make it new—and will scare the pants off of the many people who will be unwilling to look beyond the surfaces to the pointed story, for the telling, for all its pyrotechnics, is never just the thing, not to Tarantino. The story is.

Thank you.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Pro/Am Collaboration In Reporting: Is It Really Needed?

What follows is a contribution written by Aaron Barlow for a roundtable at the the Southern States Communication Association annual meeting in Norfolk, VA on April 3, 2009:

Collaboration depends on acceptance of certain assumptions, of course, including that both parties bring something of value to the effort. Given that and my title, you might think that I am going to argue against collaboration, saying that the amateur journalist just doesn't bring enough, that he or she isn't needed, even in the contemporary atmosphere of change and expansion in journalism. But I am not claiming that. In fact, I am not going to propose anything about collaboration at all, for I don't know what the best route for the future is, or if collaboration might be part of it. What I do know is that the amateurs, right now, carry the power in interactions with professional journalists; it is they who control the situation. So, instead of arguing that amateurs are the ones in need (though they may well be), I am going to suggest what many bloggers and citizen journalists have already suggested, that it may be that the professional is no longer be needed, that the fears of journalists over the past decade concerning the future of their profession are justified. Collaboration in reporting, as many see it, may merely be a way of keeping on life support a profession that has seen its day. Perhaps we should, as some have suggested, lay it to rest along side carriage-makers, milkmen, and Linotype operators. Starkly put, what may be feared by journalists for their careers may not be something that the general public need find troubling. The reporter running around shouting “The end is near” may be rousing up nothing more than a yawn. And the public may even be right to yawn.

Though journalists like to take it back a century further, in the United States their profession is not even two-hundred years old. It began with the “correspondents” of the 1820s but only became something distinct and recognizably so from the 1840s, with the rise of the penny press, developing on through the Civil War. The “freedom of the press” of the First Amendment does not, in fact, refer to a particular profession. Bracketed by freedoms of speech and assembly, it was meant, like those, as a non-specific political freedom—for newspapers, in those days, were inherently political creatures. That is, they weren't about politics, but were involved in politics. Only later did the idea of the disinterested observer in the press come into being, an idea that, as we know, never really took hold, ballyhoo for “objectivity” notwithstanding.

What do we lose, if we go back to a situation like that of the America before the advent of the journalism profession, one solely of “citizen journalists” reporting the news? Do we lose self policing by trained specialists? It could be argued that journalists have done little of that, and poorly, even embracing into the profession people with no training and no respect for the ethics of journalism... recently even going so far as to leave it to a comedian like Jon Stewart to take the profession to task, as he did with Tucker Carlson on Crossfire soon before the 2006 election, and as he did with Jim Cramer of CNBC just recently. Sure, it can be argued that neither Carlson nor Cramer is “really” a journalist, that they just play one on TV, but most of the profession certainly has accepted them, even embraced them. And it took bloggers to draw attention to Jeff Gannon, who had been attending White House press briefings for a year on day passes before anyone called attention to this male escort posing as a journalist. Members of the press corps, who had been rubbing shoulders with him for months, had either said nothing or were incurious. Not much gatekeeping going on there!

Do we lose the research skills of the professional if we turn to the amateur? The first response might be, “What research skills?” Yes, I. F. Stone spent hours a day sifting data, but he was well outside of the mainstream of professional journalism; few are willing to spend the time and effort delving into something that might turn out not to be much of a story anyway. Rudy Giuliani, on hearing complaints about the closing of the New York City Hall pressroom, responded that the reporters should be out gathering information rather than waiting for someone to bring it to them from his office. And he had a point: too much of modern journalism has been that waiting for someone to give something or for something to happen—and then spinning it for the purposes of impact. Is it any wonder that journalists are seen by the general public as little more than ambulance chasers? Is it any wonder that the play The Front Page has been filmed three times?

It's not the research that thrills many journalists, if we are honest, but the ballyhoo. Walter Burns, in The Front Page remake His Girl Friday, presents the real draw of journalism to a recalcitrant Hildy Johnson: “You've kicked over the whole City Hall like an apple-cart. You've got the Mayor and Hartman backed against a wall. You've put one administration out and another in. This isn't a newspaper story—it's a career!” The question the rest of us outside of the profession have been asking, silently, for the most part, is should this be a career. We're not convinced.

When access to information was limited, when only a few could view an event live, perhaps it was important that there be designated professionals to bring news to the rest of us. By the 1990s, however, many had come to see the transporters of information as a filter as well, and were starting to feel more than a little discomfort with the quality of the information delivered—a feeling that, in part, led to things like the first attempts to bring about collaborations between journalists and their public. A few journalists, having seen what was happening, attempted to bridge the gap that was growing between themselves and their audiences, to break across the custodial moat that had been dug around the news.

These attempts failed, through no fault of the journalists involved, but because the journalism business quickly found itself facing challenges whose nature could not have been imagined at the beginning of the decade, challenges growing from technologies that were suddenly providing information and making it available to everyone at an astonishing pace, challenges that diverted attention from just about every prior attempt by journalists to bridge the gap between journalist and public. Suddenly, the directional force was reversed: it was the public swimming through that moat, the shaky rope bridges earlier thrown over the gulf by journalists ignored as people sped through the water using technological devices that, they had recently discovered, were theirs for the asking.

For journalists, a tactical retreat (at least) was necessary. They couldn't control what was happening at the edge so backed up, some of them digging in to fight, others (realizing the futility of the battle) trying to find paths to a truce, some way of merging forces, of convincing these people who have invaded their territory not to wipe them out completely. To convince them that, yes, the journalists still do have a role to play.

Unfortunately, when people start whining that they are still relevant, they generally aren't.

But it's too easy to make the case for the irrelevancy of journalism these days, to say that collaboration is nothing more than a way to preserve a few careers while an entirely new and non-professional paradigm for journalism emerges. To do so would be to ignore the realities of our society and our economy, both of which are money driven, and both of which cherish professionalism. We can see this today: the blogs are providing a springboard to professionalism in journalism and financial reward, not to concerted and sustained amateur effort. Even young and well-trained journalists, those who have not yet broken into the field, are recognizing that it is through blogging and “citizen journalism” that they can make their marks. Energetic and confident, neither they nor the amateurs now on their way to professional status will ever be satisfied with a collaboration where they don't have either free rein or equal status with the older professionals.

In other words, they have little reason to want to collaborate.

There needs to be a reason for collaboration, not simply a desire—and certainly not simply a desire to protect jobs and careers. In the 1990s, when civic or public journalism was first broached, it was ignored or sloughed off by many journalists, by people who saw no need to share the professional responsibilities they felt they were upholding. Why should they have done otherwise? Few people worthy of note were criticizing the news media—and those who were could easily be ignored. The signs of incipient failure were there, of course—declining revenues and readership, listenership, and viewership—but there was nothing yet actively invading the world of journalism. The moat, deep and wide and serene, seemed uncrossable.

That has changed, of course, and now it is the amateurs and those trying to break into the field who have the upper hand. But they aren't approaching the professionals for collaborative projects, not very often. It is the professionals, for the most part, who are doing the approaching, hoping to be noticed, hoping to make a positive contribution in this new world.

But what are the professionals offering, in their moves towards collaboration, that the so-called amateurs really want? The professionals know—or think they know—what they amateurs need (writing, editing, and research skills, and understanding of the legal and ethical considerations important to journalism, etc.), but have they really considered what the invaders want? That's the question, probably the most important a journalist can be asking about the field today.

If professional journalism is to survive—and I do think it will—it has to start seeing itself comprised not of leaders but of followers, acting as the caterers and not as the hosts. Only then will collaboration really begin to work, with the “people” in control and the journalists in a service role. Few journalists are going to like this, but I do believe that collaboration, with the journalist the junior partner, may just be the key to the survival of the profession. What that will look like, I don't know—but I am sure that the possibility is one that today's decision-makers in the profession need to face squarely, even though doing so may bruise their egos. If not, the profession may, in fact, become nothing more than a curiosity for historians.

Thank you.