Nothing around the film has aged quite as badly though as the original reviews for “Reservoir Dogs.” “The only thing Mr. Tarantino spells out is the violence,” wrote Julia Salmon in the Wall Street Journal. “This movie isn’t really about anything,” said the New York Daily News. “It’s just a flashy, stylistically daring exercise in cinematic mayhem.” These are the two canards that everyone seemed to agree upon, and they were the stances on which the Tarantino-bashing industry would be based. One, that his work was ultraviolent, and, two, that it was about nothing more than its own movieshness, with no connection to the real world. This was a myth partly abetted by the director himself, who often told the story of going to Harvey Keitel’s house to discuss the “Resevoir Dogs” script. “How’d you come to write this script? Did you live in a tough-guy neighborhood growing up? Was anybody in your family connected with tough guys?” Keitel asked. Tarantino said no. “Well, how the hell did you come to write this?” Keitel said. And Tarantino said, “‘I watch movies.’”
Both of these metrics—how violent and how realistic a film is judged to be—are volatile commodities on the film-historical stock exchange. Nothing dates faster than “realism,” and today’s “excessive violence” is tomorrow’s cinematic aperitif. The first thing to strike a contemporary viewer of “Reservoir Dogs,” of course, is how comparatively un-violent it is—we see a couple of shootouts, a carjacking, and a cop being beaten up, but nothing that you wouldn’t see today on an episode of “24.” To those coming to the film from the freewheeling mayhem of the director’s later work, it’s a remarkably disciplined feat of storytelling, featuring just as many departures from chronology as, say, “Pulp Fiction”—it’s structure is a nautilus-like series of boxed flashbacks, telling each character’s story in turn—but the flashbacks never feel like flashbacks. You’re never antsy to get back to the warehouse. Without an ounce of fat, at a trim ninety-nine minutes, the movie pierces like a bullet, leaving a clean hole. The infamous ear-severing, which caused so many walkouts, is discretely elided by a pan to a wall, and throughout there is eerie, feline use made of fade-outs, with an implied tick-tock of an impervious fate. The most powerful is the first: from the sight of the Dogs walking in slow-mo down the car lot, their banter about Madonna and tipping etiquette still ringing in our ears, the curtain comes down. We can hear the whimpering of Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) before we see him, squirming in bloody agony in the backseat of Mr. White (Harvey Keitel)’s car. The perennial theme of the heist movie—“the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley” in the words of Robert Burns—is laid bare in a single cut.
So many great filmmakers have made their débuts with heist films—from Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run” to Michael Mann’s “Thief” to Wes Anderson’s “Bottle Rocket” to Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects”—that it’s tempting to see the genre almost as an allegory for the filmmaking process. The model it offers first-time filmmakers is thus as much economic as aesthetic—a reaffirmation of the tenant that Jean-Luc Godard attributed to D. W. Griffith: “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” A man assembles a gang for the implementation of a plan that is months in the rehearsal and whose execution rests on a cunning facsimile of mid-morning reality going undetected. But the plan meets bumpy reality, requiring feats of improvisation and quick thinking if the gang is to make off with its loot—and the filmmaker is to avoid going to movie jail. “An undercover cop has got to be like Marlon Brando,” the detective, Holdoway, tells Mr. Orange:
The things you gotta remember are the details. The details sell your story. This particular story takes place in a men’s room.... You gotta know every detail there is to know about this commode. What you gotta do is take all them details and make ‘em your own. While you’re doing that, remember that this story is about you ... and how you perceived the events that went down. The only way to do that is keep sayin’ it and sayin’ it and sayin’ it.
This is as close to an aesthetic credo as Tarantino ever got, from the intense focus on subjectivity that would turn the structure of “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” into Swiss cheese; his fascination with commodes as the ultimate arbiter of gritty reality; but, above all, his deep, disciplined devotion to spoken English—his dialogue “part Robert Towne, part Chester Himes and part Patricia Highsmith,” as the critic Elvis Mitchell put it. Critics who complain about the lack of reality in Tarantino’s films aren’t listening: reality in his films is received, represented, and reproduced through the ear and the mouth, and, in particular, the filthy, propulsive rhythms of black street vernacular soaked up by the filmmaker when he was a teen-ager in Los Angeles’s South Bay area, and to which he would return when he shot “Jackie Brown,” some twenty years later:
BEAUMONT: I’m still scared as a motherfucker, O.D. They talking like they serious as hell giving me time for that machine gun shit.
ORDELL: Aw, come on, man, they just trying to put a fright in your ass.
BEAUMONT: Well, if that’s what they doin’, they done did it.
ORDELL: How old is that machine gun shit?
BEAUMONT: About three years ...
ORDELL: Three years? That’s a old crime, man! They ain’t got enough room for all the niggas running around killing people today, now how are they gonna find room for you?
People tend to think of “Pulp Fiction” as Tarantino’s essential L.A. movie—only at the intersections of Glendale would it be apropos for Butch (Bruce Willis) to run into Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) while stopped at a red light—but his first three movies are all equally rooted in the nondescript environs of downtown Los Angeles: “Jackie Brown” in the depressing sprawl of ticky-tacky tract houses, strip joints, and malls near L.A.X., “Reservoir Dogs” in the coffee shops and diners of Highland Park, and the funeral home in Burbank which doubled as the gang’s rendezvous point. “Reservoir Dogs,” shot in just under five weeks —thirty days—in the summer of 1991, beneath lights so bright that the fake blood dried to the floor, is much more of a ’hood movie than you probably remember. For all its confinement to that warehouse, you never forget the city outside its door. When Mr. Blonde interrupts his torture of the cop to fetch some gasoline from the trunk of his car, he is followed by a Steadicam, and, as the sound of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” retreats on the soundtrack, it is replaced by the soporific sounds of suburban L.A. going about its mid-morning business: birds, children playing. Tarantino said that the sequence was his favorite thing in the entire film.
Carefully rooted in place, the film is a little blurrier when it comes to time—not so much ageless as occupying its own peculiar pocket of cultural space-time. With their natty black suits and skinny ties, Tarantino’s gang members look like gangsters from Jean-Pierre Melville’s thrillers of the late fifties and early sixties, but they argue like coffee-shop philosophes from the nineteen-nineties, while their pop culture intake—Pam Grier movies, the TV shows “Get Christie Love” and “Honey West”—stretches back to Tarantino’s childhood in the nineteen-seventies.
NICE GUY EDDIE: Remember that TV show, “Get Christie Love” ... about the black female cop? She always used to say, “You’re under arrest, sugar!”
MR. PINK: What was the name of the chick who played Christie Love?
MR. WHITE: Pam Grier.
MR. ORANGE: No, it wasn’t Pam Grier. Pam Grier was the other one. Pam Grier did the film. “Christie Love” was like a Pam Grier TV show without Pam Grier.
MR. PINK: So, who was Christie Love?
MR. ORANGE: How the fuck should I know?
MR PINK: Great. Now I’m totally fuckin’ tortured.
The idea of pop-culture-literate characters is now so ubiquitous that when the prison inmates of this summer’s “Logan Lucky” pause in the middle of a riot to discuss “Games of Thrones,” we barely blink. By the late eighties, thanks to the ubiquity of the home-entertainment revolution that had first given employment to Tarantino and his buddies at Video Archives, pop culture had attained such critical mass that it was beginning to show up on its own radar. On “Seinfeld,” by 1990, Jerry and George could be heard debating whether Superman had a sense of humor or not (“I never heard him say anything really funny”). Just a year earlier, in “Die Hard,” Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber taunts John McClane (Bruce Willis), “Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne? Rambo?” To which McClane replies, “I was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers actually… yippee ki-yay motherfucker!”—the best line of Tarantino dialogue not actually written by Tarantino.
Tarantino’s influence became so wide that it influences the very notion of influence: what had hitherto been an unconscious borrowing or homage was now flushed out into the open and worn as a badge of one’s pop-cultural savvy—intertextuality hits the multiplex. Never mind that Tarantino’s original intent was straightforward realism. Most movie characters, he thought, talked about the plot too much. “Most of us don’t talk about the plot in our lives,” he noted. “We talk all around things. We talk about bullshit.” The gang members in “Reservoir Dogs” talk about Pam Grier and Silver Surfer comics and Madonna lyrics not because Tarantino wanted movie characters who sounded like him and his friends. His first three films are black comedies that drop movie-ish happenings—a heist, a kidnap, an overdose—into the laps of characters who freak out, panic, squabble, lose their car in the parking lot, or miss out on the action entirely because they are on the john. They ask: What if a thriller or a heist movie or a cop movie happened, but it’s participants were too dozy to notice?