[Warning: this essay has spoilers for Reservoir Dogs (get over it) and I guess a little of Parasite]
So at the Oscars they showed a tiny clip of Mr. Blonde's dancing sequence from Reservoir Dogs in the “most iconic songs” sequence (which then led into the random and somehow sad Eminem performance).
I watched Reservoir Dogs with Phillip a few weeks ago on a boys-only evening. When it comes to showing my kids’ movies, I’m just hoping to keep their attention. If it takes a lot of blood and cursing to make that happen, so be it.
Style x Substance = Hard to Replicate
I sometimes think of Tarantino’s 1-2 punch of Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction as bizarro-world analogous to Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket/Rushmore. In both cases a young filmmaker comes out of nowhere with a wildly inventive, slightly raw first feature. Then they follow up with a little more money and a little more polish and make a borderline masterpiece. And then the rest of the career they have limitless budgets and stars but they largely fail to recapture the originality and authenticity of the first two films.
Unfair? Definitely. Those guys will always have enough style to make their stuff watchable
(for me). But the substance seems to waver. And when I say substance, for me it comes down to characters. Do they feel real, and do I care about them? And however insane the worlds of Rushmore, Bottle Rocket and Pulp Fiction get, I care about the characters deeply, the whole time.
But I was a little disappointed re- watching Reservoir Dogs. I mean it's still hugely entertaining. The style came across in spades, and the actors (all guys) are so great that you enjoy the characters. But I sometimes felt conscious of the effort.
This might be because Tarentino is a victim of his own success. People have tried to emulate/reinvent his style so much that even real Tarantino can come off as a kind of imitation. That was how I felt about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Entertained but not moved.
The Set Up
The beauty of Tarantino, as my wife has pointed out, is that you have larger-than-life characters (thieves, hit men, stunt men) often in life-or-death situations, but talking in surprisingly relatable ways. The opening scene of Reservoir Dogs is the guys at a diner, all wearing their black suits (since 6 guys wearing identical black suits is a good way to keep your crime-planning anonymous), apparently there to talk about this heist they're going to pull.
But we hear no heist talk. Instead there's a heated discussion about Madonna songs (she was just blowing up). Then Mr. White (Keitel) scolds Mr. Pink (Buscemi) for not tipping: "Waitressing is the number one occupation for female non-college educated women in this country." In Tarantino's world, gangsters talk like this.
I didn't realize until this viewing how much the movie itself is about storytelling. Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) is an undercover cop and his mentor explains that telling a believable and entertaining drug story can help you build trust with the guys he’s trying to infiltrate. We actually see him practicing this story over and over like an actor working on a monologue.
Weirdly funny and relatable stories from people (mostly guys) in extreme situations are Tarantino’s currency. And Reservoir Dogs is mostly backstory and stories within stories. To the point that we never see the main action of the plot, a heist gone very wrong.
Phillip said he wanted to have seen the heist, but I like the device of not showing it. It makes you curious. Tarantino gives you WTF moments and then makes you wait before resolving them. He does it even more (and more effectively) Pulp Fiction, where the time shifts throw you off balance and you watch intently waiting for things to make sense. And when they do it's profoundly satisfying and surprisingly moving.
The Take Down
The problem is when you look at it closely, a lot of Reservoir Dogs doesn’t make sense. Mr. White stakes his reputation (and then his life) on the authenticity of Mr. Orange. It’s endearing, and Keitel and Roth sell it well (becomes a quasi-fatherly thing). But it’s also inexplicable. Why should this career criminal trust this guy he just met? Because it serves the story. Likewise Mr. Blonde going insane and torturing a cop gives the movie some of its most weirdly intense moments. But why? Mr. Blonde just got out of jail, having notably kept it together enough not to name his conspirators for his last crime. Why should he go psycho now? Serves the story.
As I work on editing my movie, I’m very conscious of this balancing act of trying to create curiosity and tension while staying true to the characters’ intentions. I called bullshit several times while rewatching Reservoir Dogs.
Finally, and this is way too complicated an issue to just throw in, but there's some racist stuff here that comes off as, well, racist. I guess the idea is these are bad/amoral guys and such guys often talk this way. I call bullshit on this as well. We sympathize with several of these guys and we're meant to laugh these sequences off and quickly compartmentalize (ie: forget) their racism. This stuff was the only thing I regretted showing my son. We agreed it was not okay.
Oscar Goes Dark
I feel like Parasite is the first really great best-picture winning movie in a LONG time (I wiki'd recent winners and stand by this statement). It's got some borderline-cartoon violence towards the end that I would call Tarantino-esque, but Tarantino himself was (openly) ripping off Asian directors from the beginning, so I don’t know who influenced whom. But Parasite has substance in spades. The idea of a family living in poverty systematically glomming off of an entitled one is pretty high concept. As I was watching, I felt like the conceit that the brother gets the sister the 2nd tutoring job felt real and motivated, but then the mechanics of getting the father and mother the jobs felt jarring and unrealistic.
I got over it fast. This is a heightened world and the collision course these families are on is seismic. But throughout all of it, characters were so real and engaging that even when the action went off the rails, you were right there with them. The substance matched the style.
What a First-Time Filmmaker Learns from All This (spoiler: nothing)
Every time I watch a movie while editing my own I feel like I’m reminded that this is what it always comes down to. Style and swagger and surprise can pull you in, but the movies that resonate are the ones with characters who you really care about.
And anyway, I don’t have to worry much about the style over substance problem. I couldn’t afford style. And I knew weird stylistic choices wouldn’t fit my story (there are some exceptions with some weird POV stuff). But for my movie to work, it’s gonna be characters, dialogue and a story that pulls people in and takes them someplace unexpected. Those are the ingredients of just about all the good ones anyway.