Tuesday, December 04, 2012

MOVIES MADE ME #51: Reservoir Dogs (1992)

In 1993, my best friend Ben and I used to go to our local video store every Monday.  They had a deal where you could rent seven movies for 50 cents each.  Between the two of us, we rented 14 movies for the week.  We weren't watching movies.  We were consuming them.

That's how we discovered RESERVOIR DOGS.  I think Ben watched it first, because I remember watching it alone, getting about halfway through, and calling him to talk about it.  I couldn't make it through the movie... not because I was put off by the violence (which was the case with a lot of initial viewers), but because I was too excited to sit still!  I remember vividly my reaction to the scene where Harvey Keitel, a gun in each hand, casually unloads on a cop car.  There's nothing flamboyant about his actions.  He's just doing what he has to do.  Tim Roth watches, horrified, but does nothing.  The two men, dressed for a funeral, walk away from the bullet-riddled cop car, the siren still blaring loudly -- demanding some kind of emotional reaction.  The two men offer no reaction.  I was doing all of the reacting.   I couldn't hold it in.  I suddenly wanted to tell everyone I knew about this movie.

I suspect that a lot of early reviewers may have been just as excited as I was by the pure cinematic energy of the scene, then disgusted by the "moral implications" of their excitement, and finally angry at the filmmaker.  I can understand that, but it didn't make me think that RESERVOIR DOGS was "sick."  It made me think that Tarantino was the most compelling filmmaker of his generation.  I was adrenalized not simply by the onscreen action, but by the storytelling.  I was enthralled by the dialogue (juvenile, yes, but hilarious), the unconventional narrative structure (which Tarantino calls novelistic), and the amazingly assured way that the filmmaker controlled the tone of his scenes (often funny, sometimes shocking, always somehow believable in their you-can't-make-this-shit-up absurdity).  I watched the movie over and over again, and my amazement continued.

Within a few weeks, I had memorized the dialogue for the opening scene.  (I admit I had a little help from the published screenplay.  Some of the overlapping bits are nearly indecipherable.)  Ben and I used to quote it casually like we were in some kind of invisible acting class.  That's right.  We were geeks.  And it gets worse... We started keeping scrapbooks (not one, but two dueling scrapbooks) of news clippings and magazine articles related to Tarantino's forthcoming movies.  That was the level of our obsession.  We forced all of our friends, and even a few family members, to watch RESERVOIR DOGS.  When my dad got to the Michael Madsen / Stealer's Wheel torture scene, he got up and left the room, saying simply but curtly, "I don't need to watch this."  I think that was the moment when I realized that Tarantino wasn't for everyone.  He was for us -- a generation of seen-it-all movie geeks looking for something new.  Something that didn't follow the usual formulas. 

The endless news clippings and magazine articles pointed the way to other films that might whet our appetite.  We gravitated toward anything and anyone that Tarantino claimed as influences: Howard Hawks, Jean-Luc Godard, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Paul Schrader, Brian DePalma, Abel Ferrara, Dario Argento, John Woo, THE KILLING, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, POINT BLANK, THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, JOHN CARPENTER'S THE THING, etc.  He became our film school teacher.  All of this "study" left me with a vague notion of how to make a movie: Indulge yourself on the things you love, learn what you can from your obsessions, then fuse those lessons with the truths you know from personal experience.  Make the fantasy real.  Let it live in your world.

In a 1992 interview with Positif magazine, Tarantino says, "People come up to me and say, 'You write great dialogue,' and I feel like a fraud taking credit for it.  It's the characters who write the dialogue.  I just get them talking and I jot down what they say.  To me, dialogue is very, very easy.  As long as I care about the people and I know them, they just go off.  And that's why my dialogue is about things that don't have anything to do with anything." Later, he told LA Magazine: "I don't play God with my work or clean it up.  I don't know what these guys are going to do.  I set up the situation and they start talking to each other and they write it."  The characters in RESERVOIR DOGS are constantly improvising, the way we all improvise every day, in everything that we do.  The difference is they're doing it with total self-confidence.  That's what makes this such an endlessly exciting film.

Tarantino XX begins TONIGHT!


  1. Yes, that introductory moment with a filmmaker that strikes a chord with you is simply awesome. There's pre-[insert name here] and the stunning world afterward. Great to see MOVIES MADE ME back, Joe. Well done.

  2. Thanks, Michael! Your James Bond restrospective was great! At first, it made me want to write one of my own... but then I realized that my list would be so similar to yours (and for most of the same reasons) that there was no point...