Reservoir Dogs

You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize

In celebration of twenty years of filmmaking on the part of Quentin Tarantino (and the upcoming release of his newest film, Django Unchained, which I’m tempted to dodge family holiday obligations in order to see), I was finally able to see Reservoir Dogs, a film that has topped my list for the better part of a decade, in the theatre for the first time.  Instead of the theatre’s usual shameless ads and blockbuster trailers, viewers were shown the original trailers for Quentin’s previous films (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, etc.) and a bunch of Tarantino trivia.  There were also ads for a new Tarantino Blu-Ray box set, but as Miramax hasn’t yet realized that not everyone has/needs/wants a Blu-Ray player, I tuned out.  The VHS-DVD transition was organic and took decades.  Stop trying to force the next magic discs on us; forcibly rendering the current generation of technology obsolete creates endless waste and yard-sale fodder (plus you’re expediting the takeover of the machines).

It occurs to me that despite my years-long love of Reservoir Dogs, I have yet to write a word about it.  I’m not sure what I can say that hasn’t been said in the past twenty years, but it would seem that in a case like this, people want to know if an old movie “holds up.”  Of course it does, dummy.  But this has also been a big year for anniversaries and re-releases and general love for the cinema (look at the Oscar winners from February): with the somber 100-year anniversary of the Titanic sinking, the film holding its namesake was screened in theatres for the first time since I was in eighth grade.  With twenty years of Quentin behind a camera, we get to see ‘Dogs and Pulp Fiction in the theatre again.  The best part of the overall experience, maybe, was that several moviegoers around me had not seen the film.  They knew Quentin’s name, they’d probably been told that filmmaking was forever changed after his first two films, they’d heard of Mr. Blonde, but hadn’t actually sat through what Quentin once referred to as his equivalent of Kubrick’s The Killing and what many consider to be the greatest independent film of all time.  The reactions, which included gasps, cackles, and plenty of audible occurrences of  “jeeeeezus” said it all.

Reservoir Dogs is a heist film without a heist.  We begin in a diner, with a bunch of guys in identical black suits – Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino), and Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker) – eating breakfast and hashing over the meaning of Madonna songs.  The exceptions to the suits are the two “bosses”: Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn).  The “diner scene,” as it’s known, has come to be one of the most quotable sequences in film history.  I’ll spare you direct quotes (because your friends surely haven’t), but the scene remains a diamond of screenwriting that sets a precedent for the rest of the movie: dialogue, not contrivance, deepens characters and pushes scenes forward.  Buscemi’s legendary “tipping” vignette is something few of us can avoid thinking about while computing gratuity at a restaurant.

I have always considered Reservoir Dogs to be two separate films.  The diner scene (i.e. everything before George Baker’s “Little Green Bag” and the famous slow-motion walk under the opening credits) is one film, whose attack, rising action, conflict, and resolution are all composed and accomplished through dialogue.  Then, we’ve got a relentless crime film.  Keitel’s character, Mr. White (arguably the only character with any sort of conscience, and I include the police characters in that statement) drags a gut-shot Mr. Orange into a warehouse where Joe, the boss, has instructed everyone to rendezvous.  After Mr. Pink arrives, we learn (through dialogue) that something went wrong with what was supposed to be a simple, two-minute robbery.  An employee set off the alarm, Mr. Blonde executed several innocent people, Mr. Orange was shot by a civilian during the getaway, a legion of police showed up out of nowhere, and Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue were killed.  Most of this, at least at the outset, is not shown, and we are left to imagine the horrific events.  White and Pink deduce that someone in the group must be a rat (i.e. an undercover cop).  White rules out Orange, who is slowly dying from his wound, and doubts that Joe knew anything about the setup.  Mr. Blonde, who casually arrives drinking soda from a paper cup, dismisses their theory, dodges questions about why he became a psychopath at the jewelry store, and reveals that he has kidnapped a police officer (Kirk Baltz), whom the trio savagely beat for information (and also out of boredom, as they are to wait for Joe and Nice Guy Eddie to meet them for further instruction).

Through a series of flashbacks that play like the three acts of a stage drama (complete with titles over a black screen), we witness Joe’s recruitment of Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, and Mr. Orange, each of which reveal something else about where the story is headed.  The film’s events (in the present) are pushed along by accidents and severe mistakes, which turns the film into a comedy of errors that is anything but funny (as much as we may laugh and grin at the amusing dialogue).  The biggest mistake since the initial heist happens when Eddie decides to leave Mr. Blonde alone with the unconscious Mr. Orange and the tied-up cop.  This gives way to the iconic “ear-cutting scene,” which many exclusively remember Mr. Blonde (and Madsen) for, and which rendered “Stuck in the Middle with You” virtually unlistenable without picturing Blonde’s sadistic antics.

The longest and most well-crafted of the flashback acts belongs to Mr. Orange, who is revealed to be the informant after gunning down Blonde in defense of the cop, and contains the only story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-a-story I’ve ever seen done on film (Inception doesn’t count).  The story plays out violently, yet controlled, when the others discover Orange’s identity, and the final smash-cut to the credits and Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” leaves the audience fatigued, somber, and still thinking.  Consider the fact that in 2012, the most expensive of indie films (the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas) can only accomplish two of those.

The film’s violence is the primary struggle of the film’s detractors, aside from the rough and unapologetic language.  It’s not because of gratuity or the sheer amount of red Kool-Aid seen smeared all over the backseat of Mr. White’s car and the floor of the warehouse; it’s because the violence is portrayed in such a realistic and disturbing way.  Here, we do not have James Bond twirling around and gracefully blasting supervillains over bridges with only a hole in the enemy’s shirt to indicate damage taken.  Here, people bleed when shot, the wrong people die, and the cops aren’t the good guys – in fact, without police involvement, no one would have been injured (much less killed) in the heist.  An anecdote told by an L.A. Sheriff in Mr. Orange’s flashback in which he finds humor in verbally brutalizing and threatening to kill a “stupid fucking citizen” still haunts me more than most of the shooting.  The film’s realism is also bolstered by the fact that there are very few, if any, reshoots and retakes.  Most of the shots are long and wide.  Buscemi, speaking at 100mph, stumbles over lines and loses his breath.  Tierney, bookending his career as a crime actor, repeats lines and thinks so hard about what he wants to say that we’re not sure he’s actually acting.  The lack of jump cuts makes us forget that we’re watching a scripted film and not just a bunch of guys in a room trying to find their way out of a life-and-death predicament.

To those who count the film’s disturbing portrayal of violence as rendering the film somehow unwatchable, I’ll say this: you should not be comfortable while watching Reservoir Dogs.  Not at any point.  Not even when you know what’s coming.  I’ve seen this movie dozens of times, and I have yet to eat during it or to find amusement in the in-and-of-itself facts of what happens.  Discomfort during a movie like this, the act of looking away when a guy has his face slashed by a straight razor, might be a glimmer of hope in disguise: perhaps we are not completely desensitized to blood and gore and murder, not when it’s shown to us as it actually exists.  I called out the violence of Cloud Atlas for being gratuitous and unnecessary, but in that case it’s done for a different reason – Reservoir Dogs is not an action epic nor a film during which to cheer; it offers more than violent spectacle.  There are no stylish flourishes during shootouts.  There’s cinematic artwork involved.  There’s something you can take away besides fatigue, but you’ll have to decide for yourself what that is.

Reservoir Dogs is a 101 course on film structure, and its re-release will net a few new fans for Quentin (not that he’s got a deficiency).  The re-release is also a breath of cool air for those of us who just want to see a higher ratio of good films to disappointments when we go to the theatre; for the rest, maybe it’s a nudge into the correct queue line.  All that’s left is for the corporate theatres to mimic this event and put a serious damper on all the shameless advertising.  Blu-Rays reign supreme?  Tell that bullshit to the tourists.

Reservoir Dogs (1992); written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, and Michael Madsen.   

The Lie

It’s a soul-crusher

I once gave a lecture on T.C. Boyle’s selected work, noticing various patterns in sentence structures and descriptions – namely that Boyle employs techniques intended to dazzle or surprise the reader.  One of his newest short stories, “The Lie,” goes against the grain and harkens back to stories such as “Without A Hero,” in which an unsympathetic (if not altogether loathsome) male protagonist wallows in his failures and allows them to color everything in his life, most notably his personal relationships; these stories, when compared to spectacles such as “The Human Fly” (in which a Hungarian daredevil straps himself to the wing of an airplane) or “Big Game” (wherein an anthropomorphic elephant battles yuppies in an African game ranch located in Bakersfield, California), seem almost underwritten, and their character/dialogue-centric narratives lend themselves well to something we can’t seem to get enough of – movies based on books.  Director Joshua Leonard seems to agree, having adapted “The Lie” into a recent feature film, an official selection at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Setting aside my feelings about literature being watered down to passive media, I am expressly skeptical about films adapted from short stories.  How do you remain “faithful” to a text that can be read multiple times in a half hour while converting it into a ninety-minute visual experience?  My favorite example is 1987’s The Living Daylights, one of the better James Bond films, adapted from an Ian Fleming story in which Bond decides against executing a spy because he develops a soft spot for her.  The film version covers these events in about fifteen minutes, then launches into an action film: three major villains emerge, there’s a KGB conspiracy, and Bond cultivates a romance with the woman (played by Maryam d’Abo).  When my mother called and told me, “The program guide says there’s a new movie based on a T.C. Boyle story,” the very thought prompted a familiar tang of the heartbreak Timothy Dalton induced in me all those years ago.

Boyle’s story is narrated by Lonnie, a married twenty-six year-old father with a dead-end video editing job.  One day, he wakes up and decides, after watching his wife, Clover, a law student, complete her morning routine in an old Cramps t-shirt for the thousandth day in a row, that he will take the day off.  Radko, Lonnie’s tyrannical Slavic boss, knows what’s coming.  “Let me guess?  You’re sick?”  Having a bad reputation for taking time off and no sick days left, Lonnie claims that his baby has a terrible fever and that the family is at the hospital.  After enjoying the day, which most notably includes a homemade dinner and quality time with Clover, Lonnie repeats this process the following morning, except this time he panics and says the baby has died.  Clover, thinking of changing her name, in part because she isn’t “who she used to be” and partly to push Lonnie to the edge, knows nothing about the lie.  Lonnie accomplishes shockingly little during his days off, but when he returns to work, his coworkers have put together some money for his family.  Once Clover discovers his deception and the money, she confronts Lonnie, who decides to walk out the door rather than explain himself.

Joshua Leonard’s film version stars himself as Lonnie, along with Jess Weixler (of Teeth fame) as Clover, who has a much larger and more sympathetic role to play in the film.  Where Boyle’s Clover appears as a sort of mannequin with no described features and an inexplicable habit of instigating fights, Weixler’s Clover is on her husband’s side, loves him, and is understandably stressed about juggling work, school, and motherhood.  The couple is portrayed as nature-friendly, laid back, and a bit hippie-ish, whereas the text only hints at their pasts (Lonnie was once in a band and loved to snowboard, and Clover’s parents were hippies).  Here, their personalities are on the table, we can see the view from both sides, and Lonnie’s lie is fueled by far more than laziness – his extra time with Clover is an opportunity to, as he says, “press the reset button.”

Even in the film’s early scenes, it’s evident that the filmmakers have closely read the source material.  Even Clover’s punk-rock t-shirt is preserved (although in the film it’s changed to Crass, another punk diamond from the 70s; Cramps tees are likely in short supply).  Ancillary characters and background details are occasionally shifted and used to further the story in interesting ways.  Tank, a loser friend mentioned in the story, has a larger role in the film.  He’s still in a band with Lonnie and is starting his own line of organic edible face moisturizers, which he calls Face Food (something you’d think Boyle would have come up with if you hadn’t read the story).  Played by Mark Webber, Tank is bit of an enigma.  He lives in a Winnebago on the beach.  A VW bus is often parked near him, and when Lonnie and Clover ask on separate occasions who has been visiting, he says, “Some things are better left unspoken.”  He also acts as the movie’s ironic voice of reason, often spouting sagely advice to Lonnie.  On Lonnie’s first day off, the duo record a song together for the first time in years.

Lonnie: “I wish I could do that every day.”

Tank:  “Lonnie, I wanna tell you a story.  There’s a young man walking across a field and he runs into an old man who’s planting an apricot seedling.  He asks the old man, ‘Why are you planting such a new tree?’  The old man says, ‘Because I live each day as though I will never die.’  Then the young man says, ‘Well, that’s funny, because I live each day as though I will die tomorrow.  Which one of us is right?'”

Lonnie: “What does that mean?”

Tank: “Think about it, bro.”

The song they record is a transcription of Lonnie’s feelings on his trapping life, and this is obvious to everyone but Lonnie himself (he simply thinks it’s catchy): “It’s a soul-crusher, crushin’ my soul/it’s a soul-crusher, baby/waking up every day and playing this role/you love the soul-crusher, but it crushes your soul/you hate the soul crusher ’cause it kills your goals.”  Forget lyrical adroitness; this song has been extruded directly from Lonnie’s heart.  In a fantastic scene that shows almost nothing but Clover’s face for over a minute straight, Lonnie plays the rough track for her, and the fluctuations in her expressions (specifically when she knows Lonnie is watching her reactions) showcase her steadfast support of her husband even when she knows his creative work is a bit corny and probably not going anywhere.  It’s interesting to note that the phrase “soul-crushing” appears in Boyle’s original story, which may have inspired the jam.

Two important women aside from Clover appear in the film: Tipper Newton plays Jeannie, a secretary who is initially nitpicky about Lonnie’s work, but after news of the baby’s (fake) death spreads around the workplace, she becomes dejected and sallow.  Her inner tumult is evident, but she and Lonnie’s other coworkers must keep themselves composed, and Jeannie’s way of coping is to bring Lonnie lattes and cannoli; she even delivers a homemade quiche to Lonnie’s home. Eventually, she brings herself to call the house, and when Clover answers the phone, the lie is outed.  Alia Shawkat appears as Seven, Tank’s phantom girlfriend, who doesn’t show up until the second-to-last scene.  She relates a story of her own to Lonnie; the scene is shot with nearly the exact angles of the scene featuring Tank’s story, but Seven’s tale isn’t a shopworn parable; it is something that actually happened to her, and although the “meaning” of the scene is nebulous, it weighs much more heavily than Tank’s attempt to be insightful.  It’s a beautiful piece of reel.

Seven: “I love Portland.  I met an owl there once that really showed me where to go.  You know?”

Lonnie: “You met an owl?”

Seven: “Yeah.  Or it met me.”

Lonnie: “Right on.”

Lonnie’s other coworkers from the story also make effective appearances in the film: Radko (Gerry Bednob) is appropriately irascible, shouting over Lonnie’s every word.  Joel, played by Kirk Baltz (who famously had his ear sliced off in Reservoir Dogs), is more warmhearted, upset at having to take heat for Lonnie’s shortcomings at work, but who gladly covers for him after the supposed tragedy takes place.  There is a wonderful scene in which Joel seems much more grieved about the baby’s death than Lonnie (and understandably, considering that the former thinks it’s real), and seeing Joel’s sadness, we wish Lonnie had never told the lie.  This scene, along with another in which Joel and Radko present Lonnie with the collected donation money, provide a revelation that we hope Lonnie absorbs: these coworkers, people he imagines punching in the face every day, are actually quite giving and sympathetic, and consider him not only a part of their work family, but a dear friend.  Lonnie eats the cannoli, sure, but does he care that they care?

The film’s ending is heavily revised.  The original text of “The Lie” is cut off as soon as Lonnie’s deception is unearthed, preventing any real conversation or drama – how will the family move on from such a debacle?  I’m a big fan of anticlimax, but I needed another scene, and I do wonder if Boyle had anything to do with the film’s denouement: after the argument, Lonnie tearfully explains that he’s unhappy, that he’s stuck, that he wants more than anything to take care of Clover and the baby but has no idea how to do so with an unrewarding job and dead dreams.  “My music sucks,” he admits.  What follows is what he needed all along (and something we do not receive in the original): Clover’s feelings.  “What I’m doing sucks pretty bad too,” she says.  She’s not unhappily married, she’s not considering running away, but she’s buried beneath books, diapers, and the demands of her work, just like Lonnie.  The film is capped with a wonderfully organic “riding into the sunset” sequence, gentle, but assured.

I love titles like The Lie, titles that attempt definition, focus, and identification of a keystone.  In the film, it’s still pretty clear what the titular Lie is, but other lies are sprinkled amongst it: Lonnie’s career as a video editor; his hopes of making it as a musician (does he really believe he can go on tour at this stage of his life?); the couple’s “friendships” with wealthy pre-baby acquaintances; the thought that indie-rocker/hippie Clover’s true calling is law school and pantsuits.  Weixler’s performance stands out, and she radiates multitudes during a scene in which she gives Lonnie a look that, as Boyle writes, “spare[s] nothing.”  The filmmakers, using Boyle’s text as a storytelling springboard rather than copying it event-for-event, nicely round out their rendition of the story, and whether or not it represents Boyle’s vision, we must, as always, see the book version and film version as incomparable mediums.  Fading out on a stuttering blue landscape and seating us in Lonnie’s decrepit station wagon, The Lie spares nothing.

The Lie (2011); written and directed by Joshua Leonard; based on the story by T.C. Boyle; starring Joshua Leonard, Jess Weixler, and Mark Webber.