Let’s get something straight right off the bat: I don’t like violent movies, especially violent movies for which the violence is pretty much the movie’s only raison d’etre and the stock plot is simply an excuse to carry it. It’s not so much a moral issue with me, though I’ll admit I do tend to side with those who believe that while onscreen depictions of mayhem may not exactly lead to actual mayhem, they do collectively desensitize us to it. But larger societal implications aside, for my own selfish movie-going and entertainment-dollar purposes, it’s just that extremely violent movies either creep me out to the point of physical revulsion, or, more often, simply bore me to tears. And neither of these sensations is one I generally care to spend my hard-earned cash to experience. The more stuff explodes and the more guns fire endlessly, the more my eyes tend to glaze over. I mean, how many times can one watch stuff blow up and be “entertained?” It’s at times like these, when I mistakenly arrive for a movie too early and find myself a captive audience to trailer after trailer full of deafening wall-to-wall “action,” that I’m reminded how different the world must appear to those with a Y chromosome.
Regardless, as I’d been forewarned about the extreme violence in Reservoir Dogs, despite the film’s critical acclaim, I made a point to give it a miss. Which was all the more reason why the instant affection I felt for Pulp Fiction caught me so completely by surprise. For anyone who for some inexplicable reason has not yet seen this extraordinary film, go out right now and rent it. I’ll wait…
Everybody back? Okay, good. Since you’ve seen it, you know it’s one masterful piece movie-making, with a long list of virtues: the humanity, the inhumanity, the wit, the complex plotting and loopy structure which so cleverly plays with time; the catchy, enveloping retro soundtrack; the crazy, meandering, hilarious, simultaneously banal, yet absurdly compelling dialogue; the striking visual style; the crackling pacing and edge-of-your-seat suspense wherein practically every scene is a matter of life or death for somebody; the characters who are violent lowlife thugs yet whom we come to truly care about, brought to life by actors giving knowing, career-changing performances. It’s all rather like a magic trick, or as others have commented, like a virtual shot of adrenaline. All of that is sensational and exhilarating and has been lauded repeatedly over the years, but here’s the more subtle thing which I realized in hindsight maybe I loved about it most of all: its treatment of women. And that’s when it first dawned on me: Quentin loves girls. And by that I mean he actually likes them. Big deal you say, most men do. Au contraire, mes amis. In fact, I’d wager that, sadly, there are an awful lot of men in Hollywood who don’t really like us very much at all, which is what makes Tarantino’s work in this respect all the more refreshing and interesting.
While the men in Pulp Fiction–Bruce Willis’ fighter, Butch, and John Travolta’s and Samuel Jackson’s loquacious career hit men, Vincent and Jules, respectively–are clearly the stars of this show, the women are by no means incidental, nor are they stupid or simple, or sentimentally idealized. They’re much more complicated than that. Some are seriously bitchy and some are sweet; some are savvy and some naive, one seems a true psychopath, and at least four in this picture, despite all of that, are adored. They are, in a word, human.
As the movie opens, a couple of thieves are sitting in a diner, quietly debating their next criminal endeavor. They also happen to be lovebirds. Ever-supportive of one another’s work, the man makes a point of complimenting the woman on her quick thinking during their last hold-up, wherein they robbed a liquor store and she had the presence of mind to also steal the customers’ wallets. Arriving at the conclusion that there are plenty more wallets to be had right on the spot, they decide to pull their next heist then and there. But before they do, they exchange a couple passionate kisses and she sweetly intones, “I love you, Pumpkin”, to which he tenderly responds, “I love you, Honey Bunny.” Then, Pumpkin jumps up and announces to their fellow patrons that this is a robbery, and Honey Bunny goes him one better with, “Any one of you fucking pricks move and I’ll execute every last motherfucking one of you!!” Talk about your partners in crime.
Lines like those are certainly attention getters, but of all the brilliant dialogue in this movie, somehow a little throwaway line of Rosanna Arquette’s is one of my favorites, and one I find myself quoting from time to time. Arquette plays “Jody,” the edgy, aggravated wife of drug dealer Eric Stoltz’s “Lance.” When Vince shows up at their suburban abode to score some heroin, Lance, after pointing out the pros and cons of various varieties, mentions he’s out of balloons and calls to his wife in the other room for some baggies. Moments later she shows up at the door with them and hands them to him, which, as he’s busy chatting with Vince, he doesn’t acknowledge. As he closes the door in her face, she pipes up, “Thank you, Jody.” Something about the way this little detail of mundane married life irritation was incorporated into the scene always tickles me. Granted, Jody’s clearly no walk in the park either, but married to a drug dealing man-child who whiles away his days (and nights) munching cereal and watching cartoons in his bathrobe, it’s almost like Tarantino’s saying, “I mean, really, can you blame her?”
By contrast, there is the lovey-dovey relationship between Butch and “Fabian,” his “beautiful Tulip” girlfriend. Most of the interaction between these two is of the silly, tender, baby-talk variety; they seem to adore each other, if in a child-like (or is that ‘ish’?) way. But when, in a more serious moment, she acknowledges that she knows they’re in danger, and he tells her he loves her “very, very much” we believe he really means it. Regardless, we also know this guy is pugilist, and one who’s capable of killing, albeit inadvertently, so when he discovers that in spite of his many reminders, Fabian has forgotten to pack his most prized possession, his father’s heirloom watch, there’s a brief scary moment where we wonder what he might do to her. Despite the ferocity of his rage, though, he manages to quickly rein it in. He apologizes for getting angry, sweetly wishes her a good breakfast and promises to be back soon as he heads off to retrieve the watch, knowing that doing so may well put his life in danger.
But while Butch and Fabian may be sugary with each other to the point of tooth decay, probably the most genuinely touching moment in the film between a man and a woman belongs to “Mia,” (Uma Thurman), as the mobster Marcellus Wallace’s wife and Vincent. She may be a gangster’s moll, a failed actress and a drug addict to boot, but there’s a gravity to her, and a poignance about her abandoned dreams. Contrary to the cliched version of this sort of character we often see elsewhere, she’s no fool and no bimbo.
Travolta’s Vince goes into his evening with her fully forewarned about what happened to the last employee who was seen to be getting a little too friendly with the boss’s wife, so he’s on guard to be “good company,” as requested, without crossing the line into flirtation. It’s a tightwire walk and he knows it, and lends the sequence a lot of its tension. But perhaps because he knows he has no chance to score, they actually develop something of a genuine rapport which ultimately seems, for lack of a better word, heartfelt. At the end of their, to say the least, extremely eventful evening together, which includes her accidentally OD’ing and his bringing her back to life via an adrenaline shot to the heart, (some interesting symbolism there for those so inclined), Vince takes her home and drops her off. After they both agree that, as Vincent puts it, “Marcellus can live the rest of his life and not ever know about this situation,” the two shake on the deal. Then, after her back is turned and she disappears inside, he stands there a moment alone and gently blows her that beautiful, slow, melancholy kiss.
Finally, there is “The Bonnie Situation”. After Vincent–oops– accidentally blows the head off another criminal colleague, creating one hell of a mess in the Chevy Nova in which he, Jules and the now-deceased Marvin are riding, the guys need a place to hide out and figure out what to do next. They wind up taking temporary refuge at the home of one “Jimmie” played by Tarantino, who very reluctantly agrees to host them while they try to clean up the car. What’s especially amusing about this sequence, in the midst of all the comic horror and chaos, is that the real threat that’s looming, the urgent ticking clock that they’re all trying to beat, is not the cops or a detective hot on their trail or even a competing crime boss, but the arrival home of Jimmie’s beloved wife, Bonnie. She’s a nurse who’s due back from work in less than a couple hours, and who will be none too pleased to come home to find what Harvey Keitel’s fixer, “Mr. Wolf,” succinctly describes as, “a corpse in a car minus a head” stashed in her garage. Getting impatient, Jimmie lays down the law to Jules and Vincent, “Don’t fuckin’ Jimmie me, man, I can’t be Jimmied. There’s nothing you can say that’s gonna make me forget I love my wife. Now she’s workin’ the graveyard shift at the hospital. She’ll be comin’ home in less than an hour and half. Make your phone calls, talk to your people, then get the fuck out of my house.”
Since Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has gone on to direct six more full length films: Jackie Brown, Kill Bill (Volumes 1 & 2), Deathproof, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, (due out Christmas, 2012).
Of Jackie Brown, David Ansen of Newsweek wrote, “The tale is filled with funny, gritty Tarantino lowlife gab and a respectable body count, but what is most striking is the film’s gallantry and sweetness,” referring to the bittersweet almost-romance between Pam Grier’s Jackie and the smitten, world-weary bail bondsman played by Robert Forster. Glenn Heath with Slant called it, “Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece on unrequited love.” But for those of us paying closer attention, those qualities really weren’t so unexpected after all. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that in their own quiet, unobtrusive way, they’re almost as much a hallmark of Tarantino’s work as are the chatty thugs, the blasting retro soundtracks, the profanity-laced, loopy dialogue and over-the-top violence and gore. They just don’t call as much blatant attention to themselves. It’s not for nothing that his first studio produced screenplay was called True Romance. Furthermore, in 1995 Tarantino helped write and was featured in an unabashedly romantic video for the song, Dance Me to the End of Love, an entrancingly beautiful and evocative love song by none other than Leonard Cohen.
From Pam Grier’s savvy and resourceful Jackie who manages to outwit both the feds and the gun runner boss after her, to Uma Thurman’s ruthless, avenging Bride in Kill Bill, to Melanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus, the Jewish daughter orphaned by the Nazis and relentlessly determined to seek revenge in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s sisters are doing it for themselves. But the women in his films are often powerful not only in the actual physical sense, but also in terms of their intelligence, determination and even often, though certainly not always, their significance in mens’ lives. And for the record, a few are also free to be as shallow and idiotic as the boys, (see Bridget Fonda’s perpetually stoned surfer chick in Jackie Brown, who does ultimately get offed by the dim bulb henchman played by Robert De Niro. It’s a rather shocking moment in its mundane suddenness, but you can’t say you’re really going to miss her.)
I suppose it’s possible that Tarantino’s influence in this “empowering” regard has been overstated in some quarters. Back in 2009, New York Magazine published a brief chart detailing “Quentin Tarantino’s Girl Power” and asserting that, “Despite his video-geek-frat-guy bravado, Tarantino’s films are as much about female empowerment as the macho shenanigans of tough guys. Honest.” But with Deathproof, Tarantino’s half of the double feature Grindhouse with Robert Rodriguez, there were grumblings amongst critics and movie-goers alike that it was as old school exploitative as any of the movies to which is ostensibly was an homage. That may be true, this is the one film of his that I’ve reserved the right to skip to this day, but if one swallow does not a summer make, one cheesy exploitation film, itself a kind of caricature of caricature, does not a misogynist make either, at least not in my book.
Even Reservoir Dogs, which in the line of duty I finally made myself watch, opens on a note of empathy for women. I found it interesting that a film which is so testosterone-heavy begins in a diner with a conversation about, of all things, how hard waitresses work and how they deserve to be tipped.
After opening with a vaguely crude, though not mean-spirited debate about Madonna and the origins of “Like a Virgin,” Reservoir Dogs soon settles in and introduces us to the players– seven guys around a table who look like your average car salesmen– via an extended argument regarding the tipping of waitresses. When they’re each asked to throw in a dollar for the service, Steve Buscemi’s character flatly refuses, defiantly declaring that he “doesn’t tip,” then is immediately challenged by the rest of the gang at the table. “You don’t care they’re counting on your tips to live…” The lively debate continues back and forth, with Harvey Keitel taking the lead for the pro-tip team. “You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. These people bust their ass, this is a hard job. Waitressing is the number one occupation for female non-college graduates in this country. It’s the one job basically any woman can get and make a living on. The reason is because of the tips.” But Buscemi is intransigent, that is until finally the head of the operation comes back to the table and demands that he cough up a buck.
Let me point out the obvious here and mention that this conversation is not accidental. Any creative person knows that the blank page or blank canvas is just that– a tabula rasa– where the possibilities are truly limitless, and thus everything that ultimately winds up on it is a considered decision. Tarantino could’ve had these guys argue about virtually anything under the sun, and out of all those myriad options, he chose to focus on the fact that waitresses, (waiters are not mentioned), work hard for their money and deserve tips. The irony that we soon learn these guys quibbling over a buck and its moral significance are ruthless thieves makes it all that much sweeter.
I once went to see Tarantino speak. Well, that’s not quite true. Actually, I’d gotten tickets to see Sofia Coppola speak at a screening of Lost in Translation, another movie I truly loved, when it was up for awards season. And Quentin Tarantino, of all people, turned out to be the interviewer and emcee. On the face of it, it seemed an odd choice, she being the yin to his yang as a filmmaker. She makes movies which are supremely feminine, (not feminist– feminine); films that are slow and delicate, quiet, nuanced and graceful, slightly dreamy. What fascinated me was how utterly taken he was with her work– and, I might add, it appeared, with her. It didn’t surprise me when not too long thereafter I heard they were dating.
It’s common knowledge amongst those who pay attention to such things that Tarantino was raised by a single mother, and that his closest longtime collaborator, his editor, was a woman named Sally Menke. Menke, who tragically died last year of heat stroke while on a hike, is described by Tarantino in the DVD interview for Grindhouse as, “hands down my number one collaborator.” There he notes, “I write by myself, but when it comes to the editing, I write with Sally. It’s the true epitome, I guess, of a collaboration because I don’t remember what was her idea, what was my idea, we’re just right there together. The final draft of the script is the first cut of the movie, and the final cut of the movie is the last draft of the script.”
Appreciating what a solitary, isolating occupation editing can be, Tarantino started an endearing tradition of from time to time unexpectedly breaking in while shooting and saying hello to her, and having his actors do the same. After her death, a couple collections of these “Hi Sally” outtakes made their way onto the web. I dare you to not tear up at the heartbreaking sweetness of them, particularly the one from Inglourious Basterds. http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/28/sally-menke-film-editor-for-tarantino-and-other-directors-is-dead/
Perhaps in everyday life it’s an entirely different story, I have no way of knowing. But from Jody to Mia to the beloved offscreen Bonnie and nameless offscreen waitresses; from Uma Thurman’s justifiably vengeful Bride and Pam Grier’s clever, graceful Jackie Brown to his real-life collaboration with Sally Menke and the credit he went on record to accord her long before he knew he was to lose her all too soon, I know this much: at least in terms of his art, Quentin loves girls. In fact, he loves women. And even though we may be grading on a curve, here in Hollywood– hell, let’s face it, in the world at large– that is no small thing.