The Uncomfortable Post-Truth Of RESERVOIR DOGS
Reservoir Dogs, though seemingly a time capsule due to having premiered 25 years ago, is actually quite potent in today's post-truth world.
7 a.m. Sunday, blue skies. I’m awake unusually early. I turn to my wife and tell her there is only one thing on my mind: we must go downstairs and watch Reservoir Dogs. It’s been a couple of years and I’m hungry for it. In fact, I’m ravenous.
As we watch, I shift uncomfortably in my seat. I wonder what she’s thinking. I wonder what I’m thinking. We watch the film and through its ever shifting light we look beyond the screen, beyond the camera to where it is possible to grasp the world and one’s own identity with a clarity that proves elusive when we try to perceive such objects directly. Who knew such artifice might sharpen the focus?
The Post-Truth World Arrives (Or Does It?)
My own long standing preoccupation with the role of film in our lives is underpinned by a deeper existential concern about the relationship between life and art. In the past, we may have questioned whether art imitates life or vice versa. Now, we find ourselves in a world where issues of fact and veracity, previously confined to the domain of philosophers such as Jean Baudrillard, form the backbone of satirical TV shows and tabloid news. The post-truth world has arrived and it’s straddling the mainstream media. We’ve all been there: you cast your vote, your head hits the pillow and the next morning the post-truth world, Rapunzel-like, escaped its ivory towers and slid smiling onto your breakfast plate.
Life does seem to have imitated the state of affairs that exists and escalates, somewhat inevitably, from the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs. Arguably, the immediate fall-out of factional austerity politics in the U.S.A. and Europe has been a fight to the bottom on many levels. It seems as though these days everyone is Mr. Pink or the waitress. Everyone loses out because it’s physically impossible to refill everyone’s coffee that amount of times in that amount of time. The system is rigged and it’s not your fault but even where facts are thin on the ground, we can all be certain of one thing: Mr. Pink doesn’t need any more coffee today.
The world’s smallest violin plays the discordant phrases of facts and values colliding. When people talk of living in a post-truth world, they usually direct their ire towards politicians playing fast and loose with the facts, spinning for and against until conflicting arguments seem equally valid or so disparate as to call into question our grasp of reality. In many ways, the whole of Tarantino’s work is derivative and obviously genre-based. Through his films he wears his badge of pride as the movie geek’s movie geek, contributing his own take on traditional forms such as the heist movie. Yet, equally well documented is his tendency to reveal the narrative non-sequentially and to consider the same event from different perspectives.
Fight To The Bottom
Pulp Fiction is often compared to Rashomon in this respect, and it’s no coincidence that Mia Wallace is reading a pulpy-covered version of it in the classic publicity shot. Despite the supposed links between the characters and the contents of the briefcases in Tarantino’s first two features, it seems to me that Reservoir Dogs, an homage to the likes of Kubrick’s The Killing, is much more the post-modern film.
Part of its enduring appeal lies in the fact that so much of crucial significance to the story takes place off-camera and we are forced to piece together the heist itself from the dissonant perspectives of the characters. As they kick each other around the floor over the details and the fallout, the howls and the moans are the death throes of objectivity: the very idea of the occurrence of an event as an independently verifiable external fact is mortally wounded, the most shocking fight to the bottom of all.
The futility implied by the ending allows Tarantino to advance the case that he has made a film that does not merely invite the audience, along with the characters, to cobble together a consensus on reality (in the film), but rather go beyond that to suggest that there is no shared reality. At the very least it is not accessible to any of the characters or the audience, and so the very idea of an objective event having taken place becomes meaningless. In the post-truth world any consensus reached across the wasteland of the warehouse is fragile and likely to be driven by short-term self-interest. In 2017, the remake is staged on the industrially sanitised floor of a distribution centre or storage space.
Facts and Values
Yet despite those relatively rare, although increasingly frequent, moments when constitutional crises arise, concern for the nature of reality and what we can know about it is still a low priority for us, the inhabitants of this post-truth world. The reason why it has slipped into mainstream consciousness is largely to do with a perceived crisis of values. For most people, the horror of post-truth lies not in the nebulous nature of reality, but more shockingly, in the prospect that we are being lied to on a grand scale. Morality is one of the ways in which film is entwined with our identity, and true to the dynamism of the medium, its moral aspects are overwhelmingly varied. Of concern to us here is the morality of the filmmakers, the morality of the content, and the morality of the audience response.
Tarantino, like other notable filmmakers, has been accused of many things. Controversy is part of his shtick. Yet the controversy is particularly acute because of the endless ambiguity in which his films are steeped. Events and characters may be irredeemably depraved, and yet the filmmaker’s defence might be that he does not treat violence, misogyny, and racism lightly; that these are not subjects that can be glossed over, and outrage is more than merited. As for the content, it’s hard to think of a more stereotypically masculine-oriented film – the only women, even barely seen, are ultimately victims entirely enthral to the male narrative. And what of the audience?
What is the content, the script, beyond the intentions of the author? It has to stand and be judged independently on its own merits once it is out of the computer and onto the screen, but the intentions, protestations and defences evinced by the author may yield light on a moral framework underpinning the film. Justifications may serve as signposts to a greater understanding of the work in context beyond the ninety minutes that manifest themselves on screen. The idea that violence should be graphically portrayed, for example, because the alternative is to render it less shocking might attest to a humanist ethic. But in turn, such thoughts lead us to consider the minefield of what constitutes entertainment.
Just as when it is said that to attack the populist press is to denigrate a readership of millions, questions about the validity of forms of entertainment such as Reservoir Dogs raise questions about the morality of the audience. To what extent does the audience engage with the film and how? Are we watching repulsed by the sociopathy of Mr. White and the psychopathy of Mr. Pink? Or are we on the edge of our seats, grinning along with Vic Vegas, urging him to really find out why he came here tonight, despite his feeling that something’s not right?
Blurring The Lines: Pulp Facts
At the Deershed Festival in 2016, I attended a discussion about the philosophy of film. When the conversation beneath the canvas turned to certain films being derided as of little value due to scenes of violence now at odds with common sentiment, I put forward a suggestion previously made by J.G. Ballard. The phenomenal box office success of the disaster movie, with high body counts and carnage on a huge scale, might tell us something deeply uncomfortable about ourselves in terms of what we seek out for fun. It turns out that beneath the fetid canvas, this was a supposition that no-one would even consider. Desperate to dissociate themselves from ever having been anywhere near such films, or protesting that the older members of the audience had always found them repugnant, the topic was quickly dismissed.
In November 1994, returning home to a shared student house in Manchester, I heard the patter of feet behind me, something sharp in my back and a gruff voice urging me to open the door and turn off the alarm. Bungled into the otherwise empty house by a gang of lads, hooded and masked with scarves, I was beaten and bound face-down on the lounge floor. Over what seemed like an eternity, they ransacked every room in the house. My hands were bound behind my back with the flex of an iron and my head covered with my coat, raised for the blade of the kitchen knife to saw into the back of my right ear. The conversation turned from two frantic, excited voices urging each other to “cut his ear off, like the film” to the sudden intrusion of a more mature voice telling them to stop as he didn’t want to “go down for murder”.
Unlike the cop in the film, I escaped with stitches and scars but my ear still intact. I have no doubt the robbery would still have occurred had they not seen Reservoir Dogs. High on adrenaline and narcotics, they would have seized upon whatever cultural analogue was foremost in their minds… or not, the difference is immaterial. Whenever I watch Reservoir Dogs every couple of years or so, I always wonder how I am going to feel about it now. How will it affect me? The uncomfortable truth is that it doesn’t affect me in that way at all. I see the characters for who they are, I don’t have to like them or to acquiesce in glamourizing violence. Though despicable in many regards, they are well drawn and complex characters portrayed for a sophisticated, human audience, who will, like me, empathise with certain aspects of their plight regardless.
Accessory To The Crime?
Does my engagement with this film make me party to the misogynistic, violent machismo of the characters? Am I somehow colluding with the director to maintain a consensus where it’s okay to pass this off as entertainment, a way to spend one’s leisure time? Surely to be exhilarating and dramatic, negative events, crises, drama must occur – that’s pretty unpalatable itself if we even start to analyse it. But it’s part of human life, it’s part of who we are as a species and sometimes it is undeniably gripping to explore this through onscreen fiction.
I found myself wondering if Reservoir Dogs would get made in 2017? Would it have been made in 2007? Pre-crash, pre-Brexit, pre-Trump? The script is notable for its locker-room banter. Strangely, the film seems more redolent of the current world than that of 1992. That’s the peculiar dynamism of the medium and the key component of why it endures. In years to come we’ll be able to glimpse other worlds through the prism of film. It seems apposite to me that in a film where the final scene is totally obscured from view, it’s impossible to have the final word.
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