Monday, January 14, 2013

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

What are Reservoir Dogs?

I have little regard for an art that deliberately aims to shock because it is unable to convince.
-Albert Camus
    
A director has two choices when faced with the prospect of making a film about robbers. The first would be to follow the successful orthodoxy laid down since The Great Train Robbery was shot in 1903. The second would be to experiment and try to take this genre to new heights (e.g.Goodfellas). Quentin Tarantino, in his debut Reservoir Dogs, does neither. New directors often hide their callow mechanics behind innovative approaches to the subject matter. Unfortunately Mr. Tarantino is not bold enough to be a visionary. He also lacks the directorial command over the medium to produce a conventional gangster film.  The result is a ponderous first feature; amateurish in its obscurity and exploitative in its use of violence and profanity.

Reservoir Dogs is muddled. It is difficult to gauge exactly what Mr. Tarantino, the writer-director, intended. It fails to be a black comedy. This idea, supported by the advertising campaign, might stem from an attempt to mask the absurd plot. There are numerous utterly, unbelievable twists and turns.It is unlikely that any policeman would allow a fellow officer to have his ear cut off and be doused in gasoline before taking action against his aggressor. The dialogue does possess moments of levity but these are far outweighed by the endless sequences of male-bonding and the gruesome bloodletting. This is a "serious" film about male criminals and their codes of friendship and loyalty - a version "Last Tango in Paris" but with a robbery, rather than assignation, as the emotional glue. The plot hinges on a mobster who organizes a group of strangers, all professional robbers, to burglarize a diamond store. The group's anonymity is the source of its strength. If one member is caught he would be unable to rat on his friends because they would be, literally, strangers. This works well against the inherent intimacy involved in organizing and executing a complicated burglary. There is an interesting sequence near the beginning of the film where one of the burglars is shot in the chest. He is being comforted by another who is driving the getaway car. Their manner and trust reveals a degree of intimacy reserved usually for the best of friends. Half way through the scene it is revealed that they are using aliases and are ignorant of each other's names. If only Mr. Tarantino had stuck to his guns and explored this interesting dynamic of total strangers in league with each other. Instead he wanders.

The bulk of the film takes place after the robbery has occurred. Each of the gang members is then portrayed in flashbacks. These sequences begin with a title-card featuring a black background with large white letters indicating the character's alias. The awkwardness of this device is compounded by the randomness of what is presented in the flashbacks. "Mr.Blond" is a case in point. This character is a sadistic sociopath whose sanity is called into question by other members of the gang. His actions have led to the murder of a number of bystanders and threatened the lives of his comrades, not to mention the success of the burglary. Unfortunately Mr. Tarantino feels it unnecessary to offer any motivation for Mr. Blond's behavior. Instead the audience is presented with a lengthy scene showing his release from prison and his good-standing in criminal circles. This information is regurgitated in cumbersome exposition in the closing scene (too bad Mr. Tarantino failed use this approach initially but then again first films are a learning experience).  The "Mr. Green" sequence is equally troubling. (The identifying color might be wrong but I am referring to the undercover cop.) There is a lengthy examination of relationship with his commander (a character who never reappears). The young officer is struggling to learn the part to infiltrate the mobster's burglary crew. He is seen rehearsing his lines in visually stimulating settings. The choice of background, (a rooftop with a scenic view of downtown L.A., then a graffiti covered facade of neo-classical abandoned building) is characteristic of Mr. Tarantino's flair for the utterly random. There is no significance to any of these images but then again there is little or no significance to what is communicated in the entire sequence. Essentially we learn he is a scared, young, undercover cop. Once again a line of exposition would have sufficed. Once again Mr. Tarantino feels it unnecessary to explore motivation. Instead of answering questions and opening up the characters, these meandering flashbacks have the effect of making all the protagonists less intriguing. The more they talk in these irrelevant scenes the more boring it all becomes.

Popular film audiences have the mistaken belief that violence and vulgarity are, in themselves, interesting. Mr. Tarantino tries to capitalize on this misconception with a degree of success. Audiences rarely complain that this talky, laborious film is boring. Perhaps this can be attributed to the mantra-like invocation of the words "dick", "fuck" and "nigger". The opening scene is telling. The group sits around analyzing Madonna songs in a restaurant. The word "dick" is uttered every other sentence. The conversation then turns to one of the group's refusal to tip the waitress. "Fuck" comes into play. After a few minutes they all leave. This is all delivered with self-conscious camera work, tracking around the table in close-up, which has no relation to what little is being said. The sum total is dull, but if it wasn't for all the foul language it would have been duller. There is a pornographic sense of enjoyment in listening to screen character's curse. It is the audio equivalent of seeing a gory movie murder. And don't think Mr. Tarantino has forgotten how much we enjoy that cheap thrill. Violence and profanity have their place and can be used effectively. The Last Detail is a wonderful example of how cursing can highlight the ritual of male bonding. A Clockwork Orange shows that violent scenes can speak volumes in illustrating the brutality of protagonists and the twisted values of society at large.  Mr. Tarantino simply appeals to the worst devils in our nature. In the overall scheme of the film was it really necessary to slice off that officer's ear? Was it vital to the telling of the story to show the, dozen or so, gun shot murders?

The empathy felt toward the protagonists is one of the strongest means of evaluating the success of most fiction films. There are exceptions (e.g.Goddard's Weekend), but a vast majority of features rely on an audience investing their emotions in the characters presented before them. Regrettably Reservoir Dogs failed to establish this bond. The lack of such a connection evidenced in the unfortunate ending. It might have shocked the senses but it failed to reach the heart.  This closing scene features one criminal risking his life for a fellow stranger, who in turn confesses to being a turncoat. There was lots of blood but little reason to care. This can be laid to the major structral failure in the script: the film never showed the development of the relationships among the members of the gang. The bulk of the film centers on the group after the botched robbery. The flashbacks concerned themselves with each individual joining the group. But what about the period of the group coming together to do their work? Aside from the less than riveting opening, there is one other scene in which the team is together. In it the mob boss gives out the aliases. It is  mildly amusing but once again, what is the relevance? Why dedicate the entire scene to a secondary character? The burglars themselves and how they react to each other is of primary importance. Unfortunately there are no scenes in which the audience can see how these men react to one another and how their feeling grow. This omission doomed the ensuing conflicts of loyalty. The closing scene becomes strangely emotionally distant. It is difficult to feel for any of the characters. It is easy to react to the brutality of the scene with the same sense of gratification one receives from watching exploitation films. Producers and directors who unabashedly market films entitled Torso and Chopping Mall are more honest than Mr. Tararentino and a great deal less pretentious.

Perhaps an element of realism could have salvaged this film. Unfortunately the shaky hand of a rank amateur was firmly in control. The parlance and dress of all the central characters was contrived. There was an inauthenticity about "moving the ice", meaning reselling diamonds. Audiences haven't heard gangsters talk like that since the glory days of film noire. The costumes were also fake. Their suits and sunglasses seemed more appropriate for a session with an album cover photographer, rather than a jewelry store heist. The most disconcerting device, however, was the implementation of the radio D.J.. This technique has been employed successfully in such films as Warriors and American Graffiti. The idea is to unify the action and smooth over the transitions with a disembodied disc jockey. In Reservoir Dogs it was a meaningless random distraction. There is a certain method behind the madness. The Big Chill won over many audience members by simply blasting out Motown favorites. Why not employ the same gimmick but move up a decade to the 1970s. When was the last time anyone heard Steeler's Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle with You"? Audiences nostalgically hum along during the mutilation sequence. It is the song, not the film, that has the staying power.

Reservoir Dogs is a particularly apt tag for this picture. Nothing within the film itself offers a clue to the title's meaning. It should come as no surprise that Mr. Tarantino feels it unimportant to explain the origin of the name of his work. Its significance lies in its catchy resonance. It sounds good. For Mr. Tarantino that's good enough.

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