"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.