*. Enter Tarantino. Enter Tarantino talking. Just a voice, his voice, against a black screen. Talking about chicks who dig guys with big dicks.
*. And in those very first lines a lot — not everything, but a lot — had changed. A meeting of gangsters, dangerous men getting together just before a heist of a jewelery story, and what are they doing? Sitting around a table at a diner, talking. Talking about what? Nothing really. The meaning of pop songs. Whether or not they should leave a tip. Is it any coincidence that Seinfeld, a show about nothing, often introduced by a small group of people sitting around a table in a diner talking, had debuted in 1989? It was the spirit of the age.
*. Put another way, the hoods in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) spend a lot of time hanging out at diners talking too, but could you imagine Robert Mitchum and Steven Keats mouthing any of these lines? It’s like Eddie and Jackie aren’t just creatures from another time but another dimension.
*. But is the dialogue here any less realistic than that in Eddie Coyle? I don’t think so. Tarantino had the rhythm of natural speech down pat, as well as its locker-room mix of obscenity and banality. The dialogue was shocking (a pussy compared to Bubble Yum, a non-tipper being accused of being worse than a Jew, an ex-con accused of having so much “nigger” or “jungle bunny” semen shot up his ass it’s poisoned his brain), but you were meant to laugh at it. It wasn’t politically correct, and indeed offended a lot of people, but it was true to life.
*. In any event, you had no time to think about it because the talking didn’t stop. This wasn’t just an isolated scene of dialogue, but the beginning of a flood. Tarantino’s characters rarely just talk to one another. They perform practised monologues, bicker, squabble, debate, and constantly try to score points. They argue over the meaning of song lyrics, what actress appeared in what ’70s television show, or what colour alias they get to have for their secret gang name. Though they’re quick to draw their guns they don’t actually spend a lot of time fighting or shooting at each other. They prefer to engage in rhetorical combat.
*. A final element to note about the Tarantino voice is that everyone sounds like they’re about fifteen years old. In saying this I don’t want to dump on Tarantino for not being able to write adult dialogue (a limitation that he has expressed some awareness of). The fact is, 1992 was also the dawn of the man child, of “kidult” culture, and such immaturity was entirely believable. In 1992 you could expect to hear a lot of grown men talking like this. Again, it’s what Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza — two boy-men if ever there were — sounded like, albeit without all the f-bombs.
*. We are in a cultural matrix. This is a make-believe world, a simulacrum, a stage, a Hollywood back lot. Reality can only be described by way of obscure cultural references. What does Joe look like? Like the Thing from the Fantastic Four. And why is that funny? Because he does look like the Thing, and because everybody gets the reference. Here’s a guy, Tarantino, who is speaking our language, and it’s hilarious.
*. Everything is borrowed. Everyone is quoting or playing someone else, and they know it. Mr. Orange is told by his handler that “to do this job you got to be a great actor,” and is advised to go for a combination of Marlon Brando and Don Rickles (he later psyches himself up just before showtime by channeling Baretta). Mr. Blonde thinks Mr. White must be a fan of Lee Marvin. Everyone is a comedian with a joke or a funny story to tell. And there’s even a soundtrack of Super Sounds of the Seventies on the radio.
*. Amy Taubin: “everyone in the movie is an actor playing a gangster.” They don’t just want to rob a jewellery store, they want to look good doing it. Notice how many times we see characters checking themselves out in mirrors or combing their hair. We even see Mr. White combing Mr. Orange’s hair, for no reason at all.
*. But as with the matter of immaturity the question is whether this makes the proceedings any less real. And again I don’t think so. This too was the spirit of the age, a zeitgeist that Neal Gabler described in his book Life: The Movie. MTV and VHS were the programmers or the collective consciousness, and we all felt like we were playing the part of our lives to our own inner theme songs.
*. The presentation of people as performers and all their world a stage combines with the spare warehouse set (often shot from a below-grade, “audience” angle) to give the movie a definite Little Theatre vibe. This is reinforced as Joe, the director, calls the cast together to give them all their names (that is, their parts), and when we see Roth practising his lines in various settings.
*. I don’t understand Mr. Blonde. Sure he’s a sadistic thug, but why does he kidnap the policeman if he was only going to bring him back to the warehouse and kill him? The original plan seems to have been to interrogate him about the rat, but after Mr. White and Mr. Pink whale on him for a bit they just drop that idea entirely and when Nice Guy Eddie arrives he informs them that the idea makes no sense anyway. Left on his own, Mr. Blonde doesn’t even try to get any information out of him but just tortures him briefly for amusement before deciding to burn him alive. Flame on.
*. The torture scene made quite an impact at the time, but today’s theatre of cruelty has left its pan-away discretion far behind. What I still like is the way Mr. Blonde wipes his hand on the cop’s shirt. Psychopaths are often quite fastidious.
*. I know none of the gang are doctors, but none of them know enough to wrap some kind of bandage around the wound in Roth’s gut and get some pressure on it so he doesn’t just bleed out? That’s basic first aid.
*. The colour code names are a smart borrowing from The Taking of Pelham One Two Three but . . . in that movie it made sense and worked because nobody knew who the boss, Robert Shaw (Mr. Blue), really was. Here everybody knows Joe and his son Nice Guy Eddie. So if any one of them gets caught the jig is up for all of them anyway because they’re all just one step removed from the mastermind. I’ve never heard this mentioned anywhere but it seems like a major flaw in their plan.
*. I’m not sure why, but I do love those elephant tusks behind Joe’s desk. Is he the reincarnation of Conrad’s Kurtz, come to California?
*. Aside from the voice, the other big game changer was the rearranging of the narrative. This was something very simple (the literary precedents were nearly a century old) but it wasn’t done much at the time in mainstream movies. And yet it’s indispensable to the film. Try and imagine this story told in a linear way and you’ve got just another heist picture with some hip dialogue. But Tarantino knew the rhythm of the composition of his story as well as the rhythm of its speech. It’s what the music is there for too, and if you want to think of Tarantino as a product of MTV as much as of the video store you wouldn’t be wrong.
*. It would set a standard for cool. Our heroes were well dressed men of action and violence — what used to be known as “macho.” They are older, but not so old as to not be hip to popular culture. They may be representative of a “white underclass” (Emanuel Levy) but in their own world they are, or at least aspire to be, successful professionals. It’s only under pressure that their cool breaks down.
*. And yet at the same time, who are these guys? As Levy observes, they are largely without psychological motivation. We don’t know anything about their personal histories. They talk a lot, but not about themselves (a reticence they hold on to even when not operating under alias). Like the characters in the novels of Cormac McCarthy, they are defined by their actions and the way they talk. (And why hasn’t Tarantino filmed Blood Meridian?) There is nothing to be “revealed” about any of them. Is Mr. Orange married? Why does he put a wedding ring on before the heist? Does it mean something, or is it only part of his disguise? The movie just isn’t interested in matters like this. If we’re only watching a bunch of people play gangsters then it’s not important who the actors are so much as how they read their lines.
*. Does Mr. Pink get away? I can’t help thinking of the end of Saw (2004) and the escape of Cary Elwes from a similar morbid set. Such endings are a kind of alienation device, drawing attention to the artificial nature of the story’s boundaries. Once a character gets outside the frame of the film, exits the rear of the stage for places unknown, we can’t follow him any more. He is literally off script.
*. I find the ending with its parody Pietà a bit overwrought. Poor Mr. Orange clearly became too invested in his role, believing himself to really be one of the gang and so bound by their code of honour, with fatal results. But then we get Harry Nilsson singing about putting the lime in the coconut and we’re reminded not to take any of it too seriously.
*. It seems smaller now than I remember. Part of this is due to the fact that it is a small movie, the Little Theatre effect I mentioned earlier. Part of it might also have something to do with how quickly Tarantino was adopted into the mainstream and how imitated his style became. Only a few years later it seemed everyone was making movies like this. Including Tarantino himself.
*. That’s not Tarantino’s fault — if anything it’s a tribute to his success — and he would go on to bigger, better things. Though not for long. Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown I like much more than this film, but I don’t care for anything he has done since Jackie Brown. Unlike Mr. Pink, Tarantino never got out of this warehouse cluttered with the props of the undertaker’s trade. There’s something medieval about all those bodies strewn about the stage at the end, the coffins waiting to be filled and the bag of treasure carried off. There must be a skull, or a film canister, lying in a corner somewhere with a label on it saying “I too live in Hollywood.”