Wednesday, December 05, 2012
MOVIES MADE ME #52: True Romance (1993)
It's not hard to understand why a young movie geek would fall in love with TRUE ROMANCE. It's a movie that boldly asserts that even a socially-inept goofball (who spends all his time rhapsodizing about Spiderman #1 and fucking Elvis) is capable of, and deserving of, true intimacy. It's as naive and yet as sincere as any teenager falling in love with the world one movie, one novel, one comic book, one song, one restaurant, one human being at a time.
Writer Quentin Tarantino imported his own personal passions (for Elvis, Sonny Chiba, too much sugar in his coffee, etc.) into the character of Clarence, a comic shop manager who meets the love of his life and suddenly finds himself in the middle of an Elmore Leonard-style variation on BONNIE & CLYDE or BADLANDS. Clarence is a fuck-up, but his love for spitfire call girl Alabama is as pure as the driven snow. He'll do anything for her... and that includes killing without remorse.
There are plenty of ways Tarantino could have told this anarchic story of two young lovers. In the mid-1990s, it was natural to compare it to David Lynch's WILD AT HEART (1991) or Oliver Stone's NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994). Tarantino also provided the story for the latter, but Stone re-wrote the script and shifted the focus from character drama to the filmmaker's own heavy-handed statement on violence in the media. (Don't get me wrong: NBK is an amazing movie, but it's not endearing in the way that TRUE ROMANCE is.) WILD AT HEART is also a deeply personal statement about searching for a source of light in an increasingly dark world. Lynch has said that it was his reaction to the L.A. riots, his way of saying, "Can't we all just get along?" Speaking for myself, I can't really imagine getting along with Nic Cage and Laura Dern in that movie. I'd rather steer clear.
Clarence and Alabama may be naive as hell, but they have a contagious joie de vivre that makes them likeable even when they're killing people. While watching the movie last night, my wife astutely compared it to the vampire flick NEAR DARK. Death and destruction follow Clarence and Alabama the same way they follow Caleb and Mae in NEAR DARK, and yet the young lovers in both films somehow manage to retain their romantic innocence. In fact, I'd have to say that TRUE ROMANCE is Quentin Tarantino's most unashamedly heart-on-its-sleeve movie, in spite of the fact that he didn't direct it.
Producer Bill Unger wanted Tarantino to direct TRUE ROMANCE as a followup to RESERVOIR DOGS, but Tarantino declined, saying he'd written the script so long ago that it would be like marrying an old girlfriend. Tony Scott brings a very different directorial style to the story -- he relies more on edits for kinetic energy -- but he clearly understands the value of the dialogue and characterizations in the script... and, in light of Tarantino's cachet after RESERVOIR DOGS, he had no trouble assembling a stellar cast of character actors to deliver the goods.
What I realized while watching the movie last night is that every significant character is as passionate about something as Clarence and Alabama are about each other. Gary Oldman's pimp is passionate about power-play. He relishes psychoanalyzing and intimidating Clarence as much as he likes his eggrolls. Dennis Hopper, in addition to having such a strong devotion to his wayward son that he's willing to die for him, relishes insulting Christopher Walken. He does it quietly, casually, methodically (and in the most aggressively un-PC way), which shows how much he enjoys it. He's as restrained as Oldman is over-the-top. You can also see Walken's admiration for the man he's going to kill. He appreciates the calculated brilliance of Hopper's insult, and he appreciates how rare it is for people to maintain the courage of their convictions. James Gandolfini demonstrates the same type of appreciation in the scene where he beats Alabama to a bloody pulp. Once it becomes clear that she will keep fighting until her dying moment, he becomes surprisingly somber. "You got a lot of heart, kid," he says quietly, no doubt thinking that it will be a shame to snuff out that light. Of course, he finds out the hard way that it's not easy to snuff out a four-alarm fire. And that, I think, is what this movie is all about.
Like RESERVOIR DOGS, this is an actor's movie and even the minor roles / characters get their moment to shine. Michael Rappaport, Brad Pitt, Bronson Pinchot, Saul Rubinek, Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn and Val Kilmer all turn in brief but distinctive performances. As a viewer, I like these characters... all of them. They're all having fun. They're all enjoying their lives. For that reason, even though their world is full of violence and mayhem, I like being in this world with them.
Tarantino's only quibble with the movie is the ending. Tony Scott changed the final note so that TRUE ROMANCE resonates as a kind of crazy fairy tale, instead of a hyper-charged slice of life. Scott's rationale was simple: He liked Clarence and Alabama too much to rip them apart. The ending doesn't seem false to me -- partly because the lighthearted score of Hans Zimmer has suggested all along that we're watching a movie where sincerity and passion can tilt the scales of justice. And then there's Alabama's voiceover: "I kept asking Clarence why our world seemed to be collapsing and things seemed to be getting so shitty. And he'd say, 'That's the way it goes, but don't forget, it goes the other way too.'" Throughout the movie, this note just feels right... because, like the characters, the movie has a lot of heart.
Labels: Quentin Tarantino