Copyright © 2012 by James Clark
For a film as steeped as it is in gore and spectacular violence, Reservoir Dogs (1992) rather strangely, it seems, treats the wide-eyed viewer, as very much also a listener, to a profusion of loaded and intertwined terminology (with associative and equally elusive visual imagery) elucidating the catchy commotion. Its post-literacy market may settle for finding out how the mayhem culminates; but another, more rigorous avenue obtains here, notwithstanding its being deserted.
On the supplement to the DVD of Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino cues up a run-through about film figures who are important to him. Then, irrepressible and infectious comedian that he is, he proceeds to trash such names as Jean-Luc Godard and John Woo. “I’m beyond them now…” Conspicuously absent, of course, is the real deal here, Robert Bresson—no laughing matter to be sure, but dear to our comedian’s heart, nevertheless. Before getting into our take of the film’s intro as embracing King Arthur’s Roundtable as engaged by Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (1974), let’s take a listen and a look to the young auteur’s GPS as pointing straight at Balthazar at Risk. There is a flashback to one of a group of men intent upon someone else’s diamonds (or Holy Grail). This figure petitions a crime executive and old friend for the means to get set up in a respectable job to satisfy the demanding boss of the halfway house he’s entangled in, as not fully released from a stint in prison. The former authority figure conjures the priest who sponsors Gerard’s rehab in Balthazar. His feminine son (who knows just the easy touch of a job to do the trick) brings forward the baker’s wife. Cutting back to the main narrative, where the petitioner gets on with the blood bath Arnaud prevented Gerard from visiting upon the donkey, there is a blackened screen and a dead-voiced stoner-DJ, introducing Bresson’s beast of burden, who gets briefly mixed up in show biz and therein also encounters a simpatico elephant. “This is K-Billy Radio, with more Super Sounds of the 70’s… And if you’re the twelfth caller you win two tickets to the Monster Truck Extravaganza being held tonight at the Carson Fairgrounds, featuring Big Daddy Don Beaudine’s truck, the Behemoth.”
We see the Behemoth in his death throes, lying prone on a field of flesh, on a tattoo on the forearm of another member of that gang who evinces equilibrium far outpacing that of Gerard and that of his progeny here, Mr. Blonde. The tattoo is a light tan color and not large, but it is on display for all to see, for quite a long time, as the bearer rests his arm on the steering wheel of his car while going over the steps to acquiring the treasure, with his teammate in the coordinated operation. That teammate is about to assume Balthazar’s position of dying from a gunshot wound, and we are to find that he is afforded far more genuine affection from the tattooed gentleman than Balthazar ever enjoyed.
First off, we come upon a group of men around a table at a restaurant, and we see them in such close-up forms, their faces variously obscured and alternating with swatches of the back and shoulders of their black suits, that it is the cacophony of their insistent speech that takes over. The camera continually circles the table, in a counter-clockwise direction and at considerable speed, lending even more strange urgency to the disputes flaring up. Someone is embroiled in establishing a contrarian sense of pop-queen Madonna’s hit, “Like a Virgin.” He brusquely interrupts the circumspective Mr. Blonde, who wants it known that his is a perfectly normal sensibility. “The girl’s very vulnerable. She’s been fucked over a few times…” Bristling with impatience for respectable gambits, the confidence all-star maintains, “‘Like a Virgin’s’ not about some sensitive girl who meets a nice fella… That’s what you read about. It’s really talking about a girl who meets a guy with a dick…The entire song’s a metaphor for big dicks. It hurts. It hurts her. When this cat fucks her it hurts. It hurts like it did the first time. Hence, ‘Like a Virgin.’” This self-satisfied autodidact is in turn cut off by the executive/priest/king who does not, of course, wear the funereal team uniform but shares their motif of quality coitus. “You guys are making me lose my train of thought… (He flips through an address book.) Oh, that little Chinese girl, Toby…” Whereupon the guy bent on contrarian reading yells, “Dick, dick, dick…It’s like, ‘Whoa, Baby!’” Another member, like the King, far advanced into middle age (the others inhabiting early middle age, with the exception of the prince, “Nice-Guy Eddie, who would seem to represent the Dark Ages of sitcoms, especially one with a beaver), charges onto the field, opining that Madonna’s “early stuff… like ‘Borderline’ is all he can stand. Cutting through this limitedness as somehow unbecoming, lacking chivalry, one of the crew (the tattooed chap, as it happens) grabs the date book from the leader’s hands, and the latter protests, “Gimme that back!” The underling, quite a bit saucier than conventional hierarchy would tolerate, replies, “Are you going to put it away?” “I’m gonna do what the fuck I want to,” is the retort King Arthur was unlikely to have uttered. In pushing self-conscious macho even farther, the corporate guy who’s certainly not shy about precipitating on-the-job friction, confirms that this is a loose (at best) alliance. “Well, then, I’m afraid I’m gonna have to keep it.” The guy (Mr. Blonde) who opted for the traditional outlook upon Madonna, shifting gears a bit in this spillage of testosterone, pipes up, “Hey, Joe. Want me to shoot this guy?” Laughter ensues, and he’s clearly out of luck if he thinks he can keep up with Mr. Sharp Tongue, who smiles and tells him, “You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize.” Through the appreciative laughter for that statement of hierarchy, a sort of wimpy looking guy (who had given the time of day to Eddie’s ladylike change of the topic to that of the joys of K-Billy Radio—going into transports about hearing an old favorite, “Heartbeat is a Lovebeat”) starts mouthing off about refusing to be railroaded by Joe (who’s covering the check for the breakfast) into, along with the others showing off the energies supposedly gracing their life, kicking in a buck for the tip. “I don’t tip because society says I have to.” He’s assailed by the morning’s most assertive personality, this time running a variation on his wake-up call about cheap sexual bravado: “You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. These [waitresses] bust their ass. This is a hard job…the main way a non-college educated woman can make a living, and it’s all about tips…” Joe, on returning from paying for the meal, snuffs out this little revolt by leaning on the fretful guy who complained that the waitress only refilled his coffee three times, when he was expecting at least six refills. “Alright,” he says, beginning to show us a characteristic pivot toward survival at all costs by currying favor with the most dangerous figure confronting him (while still attending to imagery of brave defiance), “Since you paid for the breakfast. But normally I would never do this.”
Back in some sense of control, Joe barks, “Alright ramblers, let’s get ramblin’!” But these would-be action heroes have already been shown primarily with a view to their ennoblement as individuals, not as experts in securing material wealth. However cheesy their breakfast overtures may seem, it is their enunciation of that priority, in a gradually gathering plethora of allusions to the visceral crises introduced by Bresson, which has primed our attention. Those far less than sterling knights of the round table swagger across the ample, LA parking lot to their chargers, a Tex-Mex number adding its macho simplism to their donning their shades as the credits roll. And even before the borderline band goes into its fade-out, we start hearing cries, faint at first, but, as the distant vision of their reaching their vehicles is ripped open, becoming full-bodied, as emanating from a back seat where the least assertive of the breakfast guests (only offering a feeble claim to have been convinced by the anti-tipper and demanding his dollar be returned, an idea Nice-Guy Eddie quickly squelches) sprawls on his back, writhing and discharging blood at a fierce pace. His distressed gut having been ripped apart by a gunshot, we the viewers are light-years away from following any narrative line coming out of the rambling ramblers, and instead our guts are put into play concerning the plunge toward death of this horror and pain. (Tarantino’s unorthodox approach to filmmaking has been variously described—“non-linear” particularly coming to so many lips—but I think “metaphysical,” after Metaphysical Poetry, in its super-charged metaphors, shock, and primordiality, might be more on the money.) The sliced-up rambler calls out to his partner in the driver’s seat, racing them away from the scene of the deadly moment. “I’m gonna die!” he gasps, his trunk a scarlet swamp seeping out to the upholstery as he rolls his body in vain reflex to find a peaceful attitude. His hands are saturated in red gore, and that color has been transferred to the driver’s free hand holding his passenger’s hand as he tries to bring him to some semblance of nobility. The driver, as it happens is that scourge of bad form, seen in action during the breakfast; and he soon demonstrates in this disconcerting moment the perseverance with which he applies himself to loftiness and love. On hearing his associate reduced to child-like fear and panic, he snaps out, “I’m sorry… Can that shit! Right now! You’re hurt real bad. But you aren’t dying…” When the man whose face is twisted in agony counters, “I’m dyin,’” he fires back, “Hey man, I didn’t realize you had a degree in medicine!” The almost delirious casualty gasps out, “It’s scared the shit out of me, Larry… I’m gonna die!” Larry adjusts his pace here to a more dogmatic overhaul of the wreckage: “You’re gonna be OK! Say it! Say it! Say it!… Correct?” “Correct…” the blood-soaked and blood-smeared figure recites with a degree of difficulty heavily impinging upon the viewer.
At this point of particulate boiling over, I think it becomes necessary, for the sake of confirming the hidden but not entirely inaccessible topspin of this race into horror, to anticipate a set of keywords in play but not yet explicitly revealed by the narrative of the round table. Joe had brought this coterie into effect, replacing their “Christian names” with a set of aliases to ensure anyone captured would have nothing to spill about his partners. It is the aliases of the two figures now before us that we need to know in order to rise to the possibility of savoring a very different set of characters, in Bresson films, against whom they have been measured for the sake of lifting this K-Billy romp into an astounding saga of the ways of resoluteness and nobility. The beguiling smooth-talker is known as “White,” a designation that might comprise his being a white-out due to having heavily absorbed the whole color spectrum, all the moves on the board. (Old friend Joe would know of his White Knight propensities, and no doubt that is the major factor in the narrative choice. This determination would fill out his get real performances regarding chivalry at the round table.) Another dimension of that name—one of several which Joe rattles off as if at random, but in fact cagily, cannily replete with a grasp of the character of each carefully scrutinized player—which Joe could not have had in mind, but which Tarantino (another kind of boss, who has inserted himself into the mob as Brown, the guy whose far-out reading of “Like a Virgin” [and everything else] is wittily seen to be shit), through years of wolfing down DVDs in his early-days day-job at a video rental shop, clearly looks to, is the white-robed young (somewhat renegade) priest who, almost alone in Trial of Joan shows some decency and respect for the heretic, going to considerable lengths to tease her away from the flames (hence, “hurt real bad… but you aren’t dying”). The young cleric, an exponent of the theoretical professionalism of Catholic architectonics, had put it rather kindly to Joan that she wasn’t equipped to (as he felt) dabble in deep matters better left to theological heroes. “Your vision’s betrayed you, Joan…” White rallies his traumatized, abruptly circumscribed pal, the youngest of the lot, “If you’re through givin’ me your amateur opinion…” The victim is Orange, a compound of red and yellow, flaming courage exposed to the temptation of fear, Orange has been placed within the orbit of Bresson’s heroine/heretic, and the narrative goes on to show (in flashbacks) his rigorous and thrilling fieldwork as an undercover policeman (and devotee of justice) preparing to infiltrate Joe’s toxic kingdom, an Anglo-Saxon redoubt in the polyglot crosswinds of LA, the alien perspective of which the sometime Brits casually assault with racist epithets. As if exposed to a relentless inquisitorial panel, Orange lies ensnared in the back seat while White verbally pushes him into a frame of mind able to countenance overcoming (or otherwise surviving) the deadly situation. “Say it! Say it!” (Recalling, “Recant! Recant! Recant!”) Just as Joan, crumbling beneath the weight exerted, acknowledges (for a while) that her visions were chimerical, Orange rasps, “OK… I’m gonna be fuckin’ OK…”
As things go from bad to worse, Orange eventually tells White he is the author of the ambush that seriously spoils Joe’s and everyone else’s day (including his own), and White puts a bullet into his face at close range. The emotive turmoil of that incident is enfolded into the work’s major function of illuminating an excruciating affair of guts, encompassing courage, perseverance and love. (The rod distributing deadly heat would recall the iron cross which the white-clad priest raised into Joan’s face as the flames began to bite.) From Lancelot to Joan, the antithetical factor gradually announces itself. There is, as we have already touched upon, one more figure (as it happens the thematically paramount component) haunting this tale of savagery. From a flashback we find that Orange is shot during the course of a crime he was not committed to, and from a bullet sent from out of left field, from, to be precise, a gun-conversant woman driver whose car White and Orange commandeer for their escape in the aftermath of wrecking their own car during the ambush. White transports him to a warehouse owned by Joe (recalling the many barns that Balthazar takes shelter in). (We see on one panel of the double door they stagger through the designation, KING, as part of a NO PARKING notice.) Shrieking in pain from the exertion, Orange begins squealing, “Larry! Larry! (White, we learn later, having divulged his real name in response to the dying man’s attempt to feel closer to the one who has shown him kindness). As they approach a ramp that must serve as a hospital bed, White calls out to Orange, “Who’s a tough guy?…You’re a tough guy! We made it! We have fuckin’ made it! Look where we are! We’re in the fuckin’ warehouse!” Orange gasps, “Larry, I’m fuckin’ scared man… Can you hold me?” Larry embraces the back of his head and his shoulders as he lies on the ramp. He wipes his face with a handkerchief, and combs his hair, which makes Orange laugh painfully. Orange’s crooked smile only increases the tension suffusing this advancing into a storm. Momentarily braced, Orange is able to attend to a plan of action. “Larry, bless your heart for what you’re tryin’ to do…” White anticipates the new-found thrust of his friend’s rally, and cuts it off with, “I can’t take you to a hospital…” “Fuck you, Larry! Dump me out front…I’ll do the rest…” Within that jangle of challenging disappointment, White has to deal with the sudden incursion of the bitchy non-tipper (now super-bitchy, due to the foul-up and its obvious origin in an infiltrator), captured by mot-juste-Joe in the alias, Pink, leaving Orange sprawled on that hard, sloping terrain, a situation begging comparison with the fertile calm and constancy of the donkey’s last moments. (Balthazar’s misadventure includes his appreciation of affection from Marie, a figure whose dividedness leaves her a fickle, disappointing force [the film tracking her increasingly distracted brushing of Balthazar’s hair]; and his being spirited away from the butchery agenda of Gerard, by an utterly undependable wino, Arnaud. The raging flood of resentment and hate about to devastate the tidy room, with its sign, “Watch Your Head,” draws our recollection to the donkey’s dying amidst a flock of sheep paying the most undemonstrative homage to his rightness. [Recall that Joan dies with desperate hopes of a host of well-wishers just around the corner.])
As enmeshed in a wildfire of compromising energies, Orange brings to us his own chilling and rich discovery of the outer reaches of the harshness of existence. Calmed by his new friend, he declares, “I was panicky, but I got my senses back now.” Into this sightline comes a flashback of his prepping for this assignment by rehearsing junky twitches and tropes with a superior officer who sports a Maoist cap to keep people guessing. As such he re-enacts the training regime which Lancelot undertakes en route to being ambushed when the chips were down. Orange is, like Lancelot, Joan and Balthazar a rare instance of devotion to justice, an almost quixotic practitioner of a form of chivalry that surely puzzles most of his colleagues on the LAPD, as demonstrated by an undercover-car team following his drive to the restaurant that day (explicitly regarding him as nuts), while listening to a rock number self-parody of dumb beasts, “Hooked on a Feeling,” on their radio. On a roll of his own toward some appointment with dignity, White chimes in with a bit of voodoo science in celebrating the dying man’s quasi-remission with a story that the gut is the place in the body that can most withstand injury. (He had several times during this blood bath held out the shaky notion that the King [as inattentive to such matters as Joan’s King and exploiter] would see to Orange’s getting medical attention. The substantive errancy of that broadcast [and his skittishness about delivering his critically wounded friend in its risking becoming a spicy news flash of arrest on K-Billy Radio] must be tempered by his cogent supportiveness of the crucial prospect of resilience—the gut, in one important sense, indeed being able to turn around horrific faux pas.)
Rather than dwell upon what advantageous results might ensue from the thwarted effort, the narrative lingers over resilience levels of other players on the field, as eliciting new factors about the struggles of Orange and White. In Pink, this filmic crisis introduces a type of resilience well perceived and labelled by Joe. Able to emit almost non-stop, shrill, acrid self-satisfaction (bathos) without registering self-injury, he garrulously launches that preoccupation with shallow outcomes the film’s scenario pointedly discredits. “Somebody fucked up big-time. We got a rat in the house. Let’s try to figure out who the bad guy is.” Whereas his lust for revenge runs apace, but gets nowhere, Joe’s character sketch holds out the expectation that such a bimbo would always come away with the loot and be plum satisfied with it. “I got the diamonds…I stashed them…” Someone else who always got away was church choir soloist, Gerard, the psychopathic charity case who could not abide the donkey’s being far more composed and attractive than he was. Pink being bereft of finding anything about his life needing augmentation, he does not in himself activate that vein of insectile perdurance; but his denunciatory agenda does not fail to identify and vilify someone who does befoul the range of a Ken and Barbie success story. Pink often, within the shambles of the aftermath, decries the absence of “professionalism” around him; and he finds no one less professional than Joe’s absurdly dysfunctional charity case, Mr. Blonde. He asks White, “Could you believe Mr. Blonde [gunning down most of the helpless staff of the diamond warehouse]? You can’t work with a guy like that.” White quickly joins that rant, also citing the importance of professionalism. But this slide has been offset by his rallying Pink: “Are you cool?…Relax. Have a cigarette. Run some cold water over your face…”
Mr. Blonde materializes at the building White recalls being referred to as the “rendezvous,” sending forth some France and some broad irony. He obtrudes upon White and Pink, guns drawn and glaring at each other, far less than cool. White has gotten himself into an intrinsically embarrassing vigilante tailspin—“You better start talkin’, asshole!”—most welcome to the savage’s sustaining a persona of soft-spoken congeniality, as he slurps an ice cream soda through a straw, confirming, too, that he had had some French fries earlier, en route to the rendezvous, the place of meaningful interaction. That he also feels himself to be able to outface those around him with more investment in an ongoing wellbeing rather than a go-for-broke killing, is well capsulized by his taunt in the face of White’s lengthy scolding, with its implication that some remedy for the outrage is possible (even though he had declared earlier, more to the point, that Blonde’s presence in this work was “the stupidest fuckin’ thing…What the fuck was Joe thinking?”), “Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie, or are you gonna bite?” (That priority of biting links to his issues about needing a job, as very distinct from the “real work” he hungers to return to.) A striking example of what he calls real work comes to light when he silences the barking of White and Pink in taking them out to his car where he has stashed a bound-up young cop in his trunk. Dragging the prisoner into the warehouse, Blonde is quietly amused to behold the critics of violence happily kicking and punching the helpless opponent to the point of considerable bloodshed, in hopes of discovering the identity of the bad guy. But here we know it is only a matter of time before the new Gerard does something totally sickening, giving us a taste of his resilience in being constantly pleased with himself as a vicious savage. Beholding the cavernous room now containing two immobilized, bleeding upholders of humane order, we realize that the presence of the donkey has been doubled—to, with Orange, magnify the elemental tasks of courage and love to which we have been consigned; and, with the young man about to be slaughtered by a quintessence of historical outrage, to magnify the imperative of effective retaliation intrinsic to love. Left alone at the suddenly even more darkly ironic “rendezvous,” while Pink, White, and Joe’s pretty-boy son (whom pretty boy Blonde [the female designation by Joe spot-on again] tries to fuck while rough-housing in Joe’s regal office) go off to fetch Pink’s stash of diamonds—the solid constancy of which looks out upon wobbly beings with a vengeance—Blonde tells the prisoner—bound to a chair—“Alone at last…I don’t care what you know [about the rat]… Guess what? I think I’m parked in the Red Zone. I’m going to torture you anyway. It’s amusing to me…” With K-Billy Radio pumping out, “I’m Stuck in the Middle with You,” as rendered by Stealer’s Wheels (“Clowns to the left of me, Tokers to the right…”), the voice of benign normality tapes the prisoner’s mouth, pulls out a switchblade, does a few little dance turns and slashes off the donkey’s right ear, holding it up to his face for inspection, pretending to whisper into it and tossing it on the floor like an overripe tomato. Then he fetches a can of gas and splashes it over the man shrieking at the stake. His victim, now freed of his duct tape pacifier, repeats a line from Bresson’s Joan. “Don’t burn me! Please!” Doubly amused, Blonde brandishes his lighter, creating the kind of frenzy Gerard elicited from Balthazar. Then, from his presumably sidelined deathbed, Orange reaches for the gun he had put aside on being deposited on the ramp/hospital bed, and blows him to bloody pieces, emptying the clip and then pretending to level another shot, a familiar little trick this time spooking the Gerard here just before he exits a world history that really needed his riddance.
Whereas the final moments of Reservoir Dogs might seem to be a rerun of Jacobean revenge drama as emitting so angry a level of cynicism as to feel compelled to leave the audience with a massive body count at the final curtain, there is, to keep our eyes on the real prize, a riveting last episode of the entwined fortunes of Orange and White, as masterfully disclosed by Tim Roth and Harvey Keitel. Before embarking on the big sting, Orange is shown assembling his gear at his flat, which includes, by the door, a naive, handcrafted paper Cross—serving to bring into play the Cross of twigs Joan acquires when death becomes insistent. He regards himself at length in the mirror, and then states, relying on TV cop, Baretta, “You’re not gonna get hurt. Because you’re cool.” He also checks out his bowl of loose change, finds a wedding band and puts it on. Also on the way to destiny, White has explained to Joe that he no longer sees Bama, “a good little thief,” because, “…you push that woman/man thing, it catches up with you in a while…” In contradistinction to domesticated love, both men have become embroiled in a far from efficient rendezvous with an uncanny love that enflames their sense of comprehensive imperilment and fertility. Ironically, it is Joe who kicks this matter up yet another notch, with his puncturing the suspense about the identity of the rat. The diamond couriers now back in the barn, and the subject of slaughtered Blonde whizzing about (Orange citing the latter’s cruelty and Nice-Guy Eddie shooting the victim to show how little weight such a point carries with him), the barely vocal donkey goes on to fabricate a screamingly implausible story that Blonde intended to shoot them all and take off with the loot. Thereupon Joe opens the door marked King and gets down to some kingly problem-solving, nailing the identity of Orange and meeting White’s pugnacious incredulity with (big surprise, this), “You don’t need proof when you have instinct.” Attempting to counter this increased pressure (Joe’s gun already pointed his way) within a current of already delirious pressure, Orange loses it still further (from out of a now startlingly vast pond of blood): “I swear on my mother’s soul, I’m not a cop!” Truly Orange, when all is said and done, but, in his wavering, this warrior for some huge and ungraspable sense of dignity cannot be discounted. (In the few moments they are alone, Orange learns that the young cop [Marvin Dash, a name seemingly looking to dynamics] knew full well who he was, but from out of that staunchness he is dismayed to hear him complain about the slowness of his colleagues to come to the rescue. “I’ll be disfigured for life!” “Fuck you!” Orange gasps. “I’m fuckin’ dyin’. Don’t pussy out on me, Marvin.”) Joe, Eddie and White come to a deadly impasse, firing at the same second, with White surviving just long enough to trail his stream of blood into Orange’s pond. Touched by his friend’s loyalty to, as he only unsteadily understands in its volatility, a fellow seeker after truth, he would be further confused by White’s cradling his head, now as challenged in breathing and vision as he. Thus he once again hits the wrong note—“Larry, I’m sorry…I’m a cop…” Larry begins to squeal in being torn between a newly emergent grace and a past too absorbing to dismiss. He discharges the execution as though he were putting down a beloved pet, a donkey perhaps, being mourned as Balthazar never was. The tardy coppers, there at last, drill him out of the frame, but not out of our recognition and reflection.