It’s a mask that does them little good, which is another of Tarantino’s points. When Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), Joe (Tierney) and Mr. White recreate the three-way shootout from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at the end of the film, it’s utterly pointless. They’re three men who like and respect one another, who have known each other for a long time, but they’re locked into a position where none of them can just lower their weapons and call it off. The only thing they can do is pull the trigger, knowing the others will do the same and then they’ll all be dead. This is the dead end that the image of the movie tough guy inevitably leads to, and those Tarantino characters who cannot escape such cinematic touchstones, who cannot imagine a life beyond their genre stereotypes, inevitably wind up dead: as dead as Dillinger, as dead as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction.
JB: Here’s where we stumble into one of those tricky areas between intent and realization—an area so tricky that I knowingly contradict myself with regularity. On the one hand, I think the intentions of a filmmaker are irrelevant to the film itself. In other words, if a scene is ambiguous to an audience, then it is, even if the filmmaker “knows” the hidden truth of the scene or intended for its meaning to be straightforward. Likewise, if a scene seems to symbolize something counter to what the director intended, then it does. I am adamantly against going back to a screenplay or, even worse, to the original source material (when it exists) to enlighten the meaning of what plays out on screen. (See: No Country for Old Men and the multiple opinions about where Chigurh is or isn’t in that non-confrontation with Sheriff Bell.) On the other hand, though, I also think it’s possible to give a director too much credit. Or, as Matt said to Keith, “the movie you’re describing is much greater than the movie I saw.”
As it applies to Reservoir Dogs, I don’t sense at all that Tarantino is out to demonstrate that macho posturing turned into a life of crime is a road to doom. Not at all. Instead, I believe that QT thinks the three-way shootout is cool, and so he wants to do one, and that’s that. When I picture Tarantino sitting around talking about his movies, and sometimes it feels like he’s doing that as the film is unfolding (Matt said he feels like Kill Bill needed footnotes, but I feel like sometimes Tarantino’s films are those footnotes), well, I don’t picture him talking about character metamorphoses. If those happen, they are afterthoughts for the most part. Tarantino is driven by action and by his cinematic fetishism. And, again, that’s fine. If it works, it works. It if thrills, it thrills. So while I don’t disagree with your analysis of the film, I can’t agree with it either. I can’t say your description matches Tarantino’s aims.
This is another example of how slippery Tarantino is to define. So much of my ability to look beyond my Tarantino Problems and enjoy the films for what they are requires me to approach them as if they aren’t meant for deeper examination. Because, yes, to really listen to Jules come to terms with that bibilical verse that he’s always throwing around in Pulp Fiction is to find greater complexity than Tarantino is usually given credit for. But in doing so, like Fight Club, Tarantino via Jules negates the very spirit with which he sought to entertain us in the first place, and thus seems to disparage his own pop culture sensibilities as well as the audience that falls for them. Ed, I’m not looking to rehash our entire Fight Club debate here. I’m simply suggesting that I’m not sure that it benefits Tarantino to go seeking depth. Instead, as with moments in Kill Bill, perhaps it’s best when depth sneaks up on us and surprises us.
EH: If that’s the case, I certainly find there are a lot of moments throughout his oeuvre that surprise me with their depth and complexity. Sure, he throws a lot of stuff into his movies just because he thinks it’s cool. And, sure, each of his films contains at least a few cringe-worthy moments. (Like that scene in Death Proof where the second group of girls enthuse about getting a mix tape as a birthday present; it’s such obvious geeky guy wish fulfillment. Most actual women, I’d imagine, would simply say, “Get me a real present.”) But I can’t dismiss the deeper currents in his work, either. Anyone who doubts the emotional weight of Tarantino’s films should look closely at the entire Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) chapter in Pulp Fiction, specifically the way the tonal shifts are handled—from the playful, 50s rock movie flirtation between Mia and Vincent, to the sobering horror of the overdose sequence, to the quiet aftermath, in which the visibly shaken Vincent drives an ashen, worn Mia back to her house. Their goodbye is awkward and sad, with a sense of lost possibilities in every word, every gesture. This scene is haunted by the ghost of their earlier flirtation, in the way Mia calmly tells Vincent the joke she refused to tell him earlier, and Vincent gives her a tired smile and then, as she’s walking away, blows her a kiss.
For someone who’s so often dismissed as an undisciplined egotist and a slick stylist, the emotions in Tarantino’s films are quiet and subtle, layered beneath the surface of his pop culture riffing. That’s why I insist that it’s worth looking for the depth in these films. As you note, it’s dangerous to try to guess at intent, and I’ll try not to go there. I have no idea, really, whether even Tarantino takes his films as seriously as I do. But when a filmmaker so consistently explores the same ideas, in film after film, I have to assume that it’s not accidental, that at least on some level he means for those ideas to be there, that he’s not just goofing around. I don’t think it’s an accident that the subtext of identity and genre archetypes and character transformation runs through Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Jackie Brown and, in different ways, Death Proof as well.
In Pulp Fiction, both Jules and Butch (Bruce Willis) achieve redemption and second chances by rejecting the shallow values of their archetypal characters. The latter initially cares only about himself; he expresses no remorse upon learning he killed another man in a boxing match. He simply runs away. The later scene where Butch returns to save Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) is thus a mirror image of the earlier one: with a man dying behind him, he has the chance to run away or to go back and face up to things, and this time he chooses to go back. By not running, he breaks the cycle of endless flight and hiding that was ahead of him. He rejects his man-on-the-run noir story and turns his tale into something else, a blend of a torture/revenge flick, a Deliverance-style redneck thriller, and a noir romance in which he’s able to make his eventual escape without the moral weight of his past dragging him down. Like Jules, he’s been redeemed from a very familiar genre plot, freed to make other choices, to do things differently and undo the mistakes of his past. Some characters escape the loop of Pulp Fiction towards a different life, while others choose to relive the same stories over and over again, trapped by genre and by fate, which for Tarantino are the same thing: genre is destiny.
Maybe I’m reading too much into these films, but my instinct tells me I’m not. Tarantino simply cares too deeply about pop culture, about genre films and trashy B-movies, to treat them lightly. For him, these films are worthy of serious attention, so why shouldn’t his own treatment of this material be equally serious?
JB: Oh, Tarantino has his moments of seriousness, complexity and depth, no question about it, and the Mia Wallace chapter is one of Tarantino’s greatest creations—an almost indescribable blend of B-movie cartoonishness and gritty, affecting drama. Tarantino’s best qualities as a screenwriter and director can be found in that overdose sequence, a textbook example of organized chaos if there ever was one, with Vincent (John Travolta), Lance (Eric Stoltz) and Jody (Rosanna Arquette) swirling around the inert body of Uma Thurman’s Mia. Given my previous criticisms of Tarantino, you might think I’d consider it a too-cute contrivance to have two guys bickering over the responsibility of delivering an adrenaline shot while a woman is dying at their feet, but that’s not the way the scene plays, precisely because Tarantino allows his clever dialogue to complement the action rather than giving it center stage. Simply put: the scene’s urgency never diminishes, and all the angst-ridden arguing of Vincent and Lance plays true to these individually rendered characters who are faithfully acting in accordance to their own established motivations, rather than merely serving the mechanics of the suspense piece (or merely establishing QT’s sense of humor).