Once in a while, I use a selection from Philip DeFranco‘s “Like Totally Awesome” Film Club to do a review. Mostly because he offers three movies a week, all available for streaming on Netflix. Sometimes these are films I’ve seen and loved. Sometimes these are films I never bothered with. Sometimes they’re films I hate. And, at times like this, they are films I definitely liked but I had issues with.
Okay, I’m just going to say it. I have issues with Quentin Tarantino. I also have issues with other directors, probably Steven Spielberg, more so. But I will not dissolve into a diatribe about why I dislike Spielberg’s directing in a post about Tarantino. I will say this: on the whole, I think Quentin Tarantino actually has some talent. I say ‘some’ because he tends to let the fact that he’s a man get into the way of being a truly great director. Some might say this is a harsh criticism. I am simply saying, “Quentin, could you not be such a blatant sexist? Especially in the opening of Reservoir Dogs?” Because the scene in question, which I will discuss in a moment, I believe sets the tone of Tarantino’s arrogance in general.
This criticism, about being a blatant sexist probably would never have struck me so severely if if hadn’t been Tarantino’s character (played by Tarantino himself), Mr. Brown, saying the words. It is powerful enough to have a character deliver your words, but when you as the write and director play that character and say those words, in the opening of your film, you’re delivering a message. Maybe you don’t realize it but you are. You’re saying, this sentiment is so important to me that I’m not letting another person say it. I want to give the message to you, my audience. Me! So, I find it rather humorous (sad? ironic? just plain weird?) that this great message Tarantino decides to relay to us, his audience, is about the lyrics for Madonna’s “Like A Virgin.” Now the first time I listened to this opening, I was in my early 20s and didn’t pay much attention. The subsequent times I’ve watched the film, it still didn’t strike me as anything, in fact, I almost tuned out their lyric discussion. But this time, for the very first time, I actually listened to what he said. All I could think was: Is Quentin Tarantino an idiot?
In this particular scene, the opening scene, we are in a diner and a group of gangsters are finishing their meal, going through the final discussion of a heist and discussing songs. They all have fake names, hence, Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino). Mr. Brown talks on and on about what Madonna’s song really means. Apparently, his astute analysis is that the woman in the song has had a lot of sex. Okay, I agree with that assessment. But here is where Mr. Tarantino and I diverge on our analysis of the song. He claims that she feels like a virgin because her new love interest’s penis is so long that it hurts her, ‘like the first time’, hence, like a virgin. Only there is no discussion of penis size or allusion to penises in the lyrics of the song. Yes, I spent some time going through it. The song is simply about a woman who is jaded who has actually fallen in love with someone and rediscovers what it is like to have feelings. This makes me worried about Mr. Tarantino. If he is so dense about feelings, can he not even properly interpret a simple song from the mid 1980s? And if his ability to analyze something as straightforward as a Madonna song from her early years is impaired, what does that say about the messages he’s sending in his films? Is he actually saying anything? Or, is his thinking flawed? I would say, in this instance, thank goodness this film isn’t a love story or I would have to walk out. I know one thing, I’m going to have to re-watch True Romance now that I’ve made this discovery about his inability to understand females. Maybe that’s why I’m always struck that the women in his films tend to be more masculine in their approach. And no, it isn’t a bad thing if that’s the case, but I’m wondering if it is because he cannot relate to women — normally. Or at all. Just a thought.
Right after the lyrics debacle, one of the most famous scenes from the film appears: the tipping of waitresses debate. Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) doesn’t believe in tipping. The rest of the guys yell at him that this is how waitresses make a living. We suddenly get a lecture on uneducated women’s socio-economic status in the US. I feel as if I’m being lectured at from an article in TIME magazine. Now, suddenly, Tarantino ‘cares’ about women? If they are in subserviant positions where they know their place and are dependent on men’s kindness? Isn’t how they ended up in those waitress positions in the first place? Either they or their mother’s made a bad choice? Of course that’s not to say every waitress is from some uneducated background. Plenty of women going to school or needing second jobs waitress. But that isn’t the message that’s delivered in the film. Which makes me think, before Tarantino decides to educate the audience, perhaps he needs a bit more of an education himself.
My other criticism of this film is that I don’t feel like there is anything redeeming about any of the characters. Nothing. And while that dislikability of characters became a somewhat popular trope with crime/violent films in the 1990s, especially the early 1990s (think The Last Seduction, 1994), I was less impressed than I felt I should have been with all the critical praise the film got at the time. I remember going to the cinema in anticipation of greatness. I was expecting a commercial Godard. Instead, I just got a violent commercial with a good torture scene, some good music and, the one thing I will give Tarantino credit for, a new signature flashback/cicular narrative style.
The narrative of the film is straight forward. There’s been a botched diamond heist. The surviving members all suspect each other. There are three main things that happen in the narrative after the diner scene: Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) is shot and Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) is trying to get a doctor but these are the days before cell phones. Mr. Pink arrives at the warehouse and essentially tells Mr. White that Mr. Orange is a liability. Mr. Pink shouts. A lot. Soon Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) arrives and he has a surprise, a cop he’s kidnapped during the robbery. SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM.
Mr. Blonde tells Mr. White and Mr. Pink to ditch their cars. Mr. Blonde then proceeds to torture the rookie cop he’s kidnapped in a now famous scene to the Stealer’s Wheel song “Stuck In the Middle With You”. It is a great scene and as far as torture goes, Tarantino builds up the tension between an alternation of long shots, medium shots, close ups of objects, like the razor that will cut off the cop’s ear, the radio that will play the music that is a counterpoint to the terrifying scene unfolding, and finally, the surprise end of the scene which I will not divulge.
While the present narrative plays out, it is intercut with flashbacks informing us how the members of the team met and revealing how the undercover cop got on the crew. Tarantino’s use of flashbacks intercut with the present is perhaps the most clever part of his narrative trope. Instead of a linear story, we start before the robbery, jump to the aftermath of the robbery, jump back to the past as the crew is formed, jump to the present, etc. This jars the viewer which in turn places them in a position of slight confusion as to where they are in the story, what’s happening, and who is responsible for the narrative itself. Perhaps it is because we get multiple POVs that we feel as alienated as some of the cons.
This alienation also plays a key role in the final scene, in the shootout involving Mr. White, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) and Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney). I believe, what made this film such a sensation, besides the torture scene involving Mr. Blonde and the cop, is the fact that they all shoot each other and even our undercover cop is killed. Usually someone survives. In this case, from what we can tell, the obnoxious Mr. Pink is the sole survivor but he gets picked up by the police as he makes his escape (from what we hear offscreen). So, in one sense, Mr. Orange has accomplished his goal. All the bad guys are caught. He just didn’t live to see it. And herein lies my problem, I don’t actually feel bad that Mr. Orange has been killed. Instead, the triple shooting death that comes as a result of Joe shooting Mr. Orange, trumps Mr. Orange’s death, as an individual. But then again, this movie was about a dysfunctional group of gangsters working together and it ended as a dysfunctional group of gangsters dying together. I just believe the whole thing would have been more poignant if there had been some humanity. Somewhere. When I finish watching a film and don’t care that they all died, I start to question why. And it goes back to character, or lack of character, in the film. Yes, these characters were ‘characters’ but they weren’t human. Tony Soprano is human. That’s the difference between a great character and a bunch of mediocre ones that stand alone for shock value.
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