PRINT March 1995

Robin Wood

American culture generally enjoys cleverness: it is so much easier to grasp than real intelligence, so much less challenging and dangerous. Cleverness doesn’t disturb, it keeps people happy, gives them “kicks,” it’s all slick fun. And Americans are supposed to be happy—isn’t this the land of equal opportunity, so if you’re not happy it’s your own fault, there must be something wrong with you. Cleverness helps you to forget that things might be different, might be better, that a struggle for change might be desirable and necessary: sure the culture’s shot to pieces, but it’s still good for a laugh if you look at things in the right, the clever, way. Cleverness feeds on and nurtures cynicism and nihilism. Pulp Fiction is a work of phenomenal cleverness and no intelligence whatsoever.

Cleverness assumes a special function in an age of economic collapse and moral, emotional, and psychological confusion and desperation. In the land of the free and happy, despair cannot be ideologically countenanced. There are two antidotes: an abrupt swing to the right, involving the restoration of the Good Old Values (capitalism, patriarchy, the nuclear family), underpinned by a revival of the more debased forms of religion; and, as an alternative refuge, the resurgence of cynicism. The one offers the comforting sense that if you follow the Bible you'll go to Heaven, and people who don’t will go to Hell; the other offers the equally comforting sense that if everything is hopeless and change is impossible, all you can do is have as much fun as possible.

How long will Quentin Tarantino (and the Tarantino craze) last? Pulp Fiction and its companion piece, True Romance, which Tarantino didn’t direct but wrote, do not strike me as representing the kind of creativity that can sustain itself for long. A brief blaze followed by an abrupt fizzle, like those other comets of post-’70s critical hysteria David Lynch and the Coen brothers? Lynch has already sunk below the horizon, and the Coens are sinking even as I write. Creativity cannot survive for long on a diet of cynicism and nihilism, even with the support and encouragement of contemporary critical “taste.” Pulp Fiction has given critics exactly what they wanted in 1994, just as Blue Velvet did in 1986, and Tarantino will doubtless thrive briefly on their adulation—until the next comet appears.

But the issue may not be quite so simple. I have not yet mentioned Reservoir Dogs, and Reservoir Dogs, although discernibly by the same artist as Pulp Fiction, is another matter. The essential difference between the films is epitomized in the two, superficially similar torture scenes: that in Reservoir Dogs is genuinely appalling, while that in Pulp Fiction is clearly offered as funny. (The entire Bruce Willis episode in Pulp Fiction, Christopher Walken’s brilliant monologue aside, strikes me as the low point of Tarantino’s career so far.) The earlier film’s relative modesty and discipline, combined with its force, tautness, and precision, suggest an underlying seriousness of purpose—an underlying intelligence that Pulp Fiction fritters away in adolescent self-indulgence.

The distinction of Reservoir Dogs lies not merely in its formal perfection (the intricately nonchronological narrative structure) and the single-minded rigor with which its thesis (“reservoir dogs” end up eating each other) is worked out, but in its very particular relation to the contemporary crisis of “masculinity.” The threat to masculinity represented by the growing emancipation, independence, and activeness of women has evoked a range of responses in the culture that are mirrored in Hollywood cinema. There has been the attempt (almost invariably compromised and recuperative) to depict strong, “liberated” women, and the corresponding attempt to define a new version of “Mr. Nice Guy,” the sensitive and caring male. The alternative response is the hysterical overvaluation and exaggeration of masculinity represented by Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Norris (often spilling over, at least in the case of the first two, into knowing but uneasy parody that allows us sophisticates to indulge ourselves while not taking it all too seriously). Reservoir Dogs carries this almost to the point of a kind of mass psychosis, the characters (not one of whom remains alive at the end) destroyed by the very drives that make them so destructive.

Women scarcely appear in the film, and are violently treated when they do. The references to them in the dialogue define them exclusively as sex objects. The men’s inability to relate to women on any other level has two inevitable consequences: the total repression of their own femininity, and the constantly lurking threat of homosexuality. Tarantino’s films, and for that matter his interviews, are shot through with homoerotic reference, and sometimes by its converse, homophobia: see, for instance, his celebrated riff on Top Gun in his cameo appearance in Sleep with Me. This becomes most explicit—indeed, to the point of obsession—in True Romance (which was directed by Tony Scott, the director of Top Gun): within the first five minutes we are regaled with the hero’s fantasy of fucking Elvis Presley, and from there the references recur pervasively. The men of Reservoir Dogs, conditioned not to love women, are evaluated in terms of their ability (or in most cases their inability) to love each other. The poles are represented by Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blond and Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White. The former is the film’s explicitly psychotic character, incapable of relating to anyone except by violence. When he slices off the cop’s ear with a razor, his immediate taunt defines the act’s essentially sexual nature: “Was that as good for you as it was for me?” The moment is “answered” at the end of the film by the erotic tenderness with which Keitel cradles the wounded undercover man (Tim Roth), who responds to this sudden and intense intimacy by confessing his identity—whereupon Keitel shoots him. It’s the one moment in Tarantino’s work so far where he discovers a sense of the tragic; it’s also the climactic moment of the film, its culmination and its “point.” Keitel provides Reservoir Dogs with the moral center that Pulp Fiction so conspicuously and disastrously lacks.

When Pulp Fiction appeared, a few reviewers, while frothing at the mouth with enthusiasm, expressed a fear that Tarantino might be “spoiled” by such swift success. To me, the film seems the work of someone already spoiled, but re-seeing Reservoir Dogs gives me pause: a far more distinguished debut film than those of either Lynch or the Coens, it suggests (as theirs do not) a kind of creativity that might survive and develop. In fact there are areas of interest in Tarantino’s work out of which creative development might be possible. One would entail confronting and resolving the implications of the obsessive homoerotic references. Another, which might at first glance appear contradictory, arises our of the commitment to a wildly romantic amour fou that is the main impetus of the screenplays for both True Romance and Natural Born Killers. After all, Gregg Araki fused the two in The Living End, an even more remarkable debut than Reservoir Dogs.