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“The Things You Gotta Remember Are the Details”: Reservoir Dogs and the Fragility of Memory and Meaning in the Nineties…

It’s always interesting to understand how much of being one of the defining artists of a cultural moment is down to understanding the zeitgeist, and how much of it is down to simply being in the right place at the right time.

This is not to denigrate the incredible skill and talent required to be perfectly positioned “in the right place at the right time”, as any amount of sustained success requires both a great deal of determination and an incredible amount of talent. Quentin Tarantino is undeniably determined and impressively talented. Tarantino has a unique knack with dialogue, a keen understanding of genre, and a fine appreciation of the history the medium. It is hard to imagine a world in which Tarantino would ever have been unable to parlay those skills into some form of success in filmmaking.

Still, there are very few directors who were so perfectly in step with the nineties as Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino is a writer and director who emerged almost fully formed, to the point that many critics and pundits would argue that his first two films are the best films in his filmography; Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. (As an aside, there are a not-insignificant number of pundits who would argue that Tarantino’s best film was his third, the underrated Jackie Brown.) It seems fair to describe Tarantino, however controversial his legacy and however divisive his modern films might be, as a defining nineties filmmaker.

(As an aside, it should be acknowledged that Tarantino arguably had something of a similar moment towards the end of the first decade and into the second decade of the twenty-first century. Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight are films that have generated a lot of polarised debate, but they also seemed very much on-the-pulse in terms of the tensions and anxieties that bubbled to the surface of American popular consciousness at towards the end of the twenty-tens. However, that is perhaps a debate for another time.)

Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction speaks specifically to a collection of nineties anxieties and uncertainties that seem only to have crystalised in retrospect, as if working through an existential crisis that the decade didn’t realise it was having in real time. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fictions are stories about memory and meaning, and how fleeting the human understanding of a chaotic world can be. They are stories about the breakdown of social order, and of trying to find some way to navigate increasingly turbulent and unstable times.

They are films that embody the tensions of nineties as effectively as Forrest Gump or the films of Oliver Stone or Chris Carter’s work on The X-Files and Millennium.

There are lots of notable things about Reservoir Dogs, from the fact that the first voice that the audience hears is that of the director through to the particulars of its relationship with the rest of Tarantino’s filmography. However, in terms of plot and genre, it is notable that Reservoir Dogs is a heist movie in which the heist takes place entirely off-screen. It is the story of a bunch of thieves who organise a daring robbery of a jewellery story that goes horribly wrong, but without any scenes set in the jewellery store.

To be fair, part of the issue might be budgetary. Reservoir Dogs was shot on a famously tight budget, explaining why so much of the film unfolds within a warehouse; a large empty space that was available to Tarantino without having to worry about outside factors intervening. Nevertheless, the film includes dozens of sequences set outside the warehouse; including various scenes of the characters driving and even an impressive action beat focused on Mister Pink as he desperately tries to escape the disastrous shout-out.

The decision to obscure the robbery is a conscious one, as the film jumps around in time. The audience witnesses both the lead-in to the robbery and the aftermath of it; the audience witnesses the characters being brought together, and the characters then turning on one another. These sequences are often extended and detailed, luxuriating in the finer details of interactions or dialogue. There is an extended conversation between Mister White and Mister Orange going through how to manage a crowd, and a sequence in which Mister Blonde visits Joe after an extended stay in prison.

However, what is also remarkable about Reservoir Dogs is how carefully and studiously it avoids the particulars of the plan, outside of the advice that Mister White gives to Mister Orange. The film repeatedly focuses on the characters in the build-up to the heist, but they never seem particularly focused on the task at hand. At one point, it looks like the film is about to offer the sort of stock exposition dump (complete with blackboard) that one expects in a movie like this, only for the characters to get bogged down in an argument about colours.

Joe struggles to control his recruits, to impose a sense of order on them. He even draws attention to how little attention they are paying to the actual planning. “You guys like to tell jokes and giggle and kid around, huh?” he goads. “Giggling like a bunch of girls in the schoolyard. Well, let me tell a joke. Five guys sittin’ in a bullpen, San Quentin, wonderin’ how the f?!k they got there. ‘What did we do wrong? What shouldn’t we have done? It’s your fault, his fault–‘ All that bullsh!t. Finally somebody says… “Wait a minute. While we were planning this caper… we just sat around tellin’ f?!kin’ jokes.” Got the message?”

It is interesting to contrast this level of chaos with the attention to detail expected in similar sequences in other heist movies. Kevin Spacey offers some Southern charm and flair to Doc’s exposition dumps in Baby Driver, a perfect example of the sort of scene that Tarantino is explicitly denying his audience. Similarly, Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna offer much more conventional detail-oriented exposition in Heat, reflecting Michael Mann’s more detail-oriented approach to scripting.

In Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino seems to repeatedly suggest that none of this actually matters. The morning of the robbery, the characters bicker over breakfast about a variety of things that have no impact on the heist; the ethics of tipping, the meaning of Like a Virgin, the identity of a strange name in Joe’s little black book. Even with a daring high-stakes heist looming on the horizon, the characters of Reservoir Dogs lack any meaning or focus. They have no drive, no purpose, no sense of direction.

Indeed, if the characters have little sense of the plan heading into the heist, they have no idea what happened coming out of the heist. The audience is intentionally kept in the dark about what unfolded during the robbery, forced to make sense of the competing narratives proposed by the characters. In the warehouse after the fact, Mister White and Mister Pink argue about how things actually occurred. Even in that strange postmortem, the two struggle to construct a coherent narrative of the botched raid.

“Let’s go through what happened,” Mister White suggests. “We’re in the place, everything’s going fine. Then the alarm gets tripped. I turn around and all these cops are outside. You’re right, it was like, bam! I blink my eyes are they’re there. Everybody starts going apesh!t. Then Mr. Blonde starts shootin all the –“ Mister Pink cuts him off, countering, “The cops didn’t show up after the alarm went off. They didn’t show till after Mr. Blonde started shooting everyone.” Mister White is insistent, “As soon as I heard the alarm, I saw the cops.”

The characters struggle to piece together what happened, much as the audience does. The narrative structure of Reservoir Dogs is intentionally fragmented and disjointed, offering little snippets of information that hint at the larger picture. In this way, Reservoir Dogs suggests the fallibility of memory, the way in which it is prone to bend and distort, in which it can be cheated and manipulated. Characters in Reservoir Dogs are often struggling to understand the world in which they find themselves, their own memories failing even as K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies pumps out actual recordings of earlier times.

This confusion extends beyond the heist itself. Characters in Reservoir Dogs argue about everything, with no real certainty on any point. The movie’s opening scene has Mister Brown searching for meaning in Like a Virgin. Later on, Nice Guy Eddie tells a story to Mister White, Mister Pink and Mister Orange in which he cannot remember any of the details. Discussing “Lady E”, Nice Guy Eddie can’t even remember who she reminds him of. “You know who she looked like? Christie Love. ‘Member that TV show Get Christie Love? She was a black female cop. She always used to say ‘You’re under arrest, sugar.'”

However, Nice Guy Eddie can’t remember who played Christie Love. “What the f?!k was the name of the chick who played Christie Love?” Mister Pink asks. Nice Guy Eddie suggests that it was Pam Grier, but Mister Pink corrects him. “No, it wasn’t Pam Grier, Pam Grier was the other one. Pam Grier made the movies.” So, if Eddie can’t remember who played Christie Love, how can he remember who “Lady E” reminded him of? Memory is a funny and unreliable thing, porous and malleable.

Even beyond that, Nice Guy Eddie can’t even remember the essential details of the story that he’s telling. He tells the story of how “Lady E” avenged herself on her lover, prompting Mister Orange to ask, “What would he do? You mean like beat her up?” Nice Guy Eddie responds, “Nobody knows for sure what he did. We just know he did something.” It’s a very vague story, with absolutely no details to anchor it. However, nobody involved in this rhetorical exercise seems particularly bothered by the complete absence of detail or substance.

Reservoir Dogs contrasts the vagueries of Nice Guy Eddie’s stories with the specificity of Mister Orange’s own tale of crime gone wrong. At one point in the movie, Mister Orange regales the assembled criminals with an incredibly detailed story about a drug deal that almost went catastrophically wrong. He remembers every detail of the story, to the point that he can actually visualise it. The audience steps into the bathroom with him, a flashback within a flashback, just as real as any of the flashbacks focusing on Mister White or Mister Blonde.

There is just one catch. Mister Orange’s story never happened. It is made up. It is a script that he memorised, because he is an undercover cop. However, in memorising that script, Mister Orange is able to create a memory that is more tangibly “real” than the wandering narrative crafted by Nice Guy Eddie. The fictional story that Mister Orange has constructed is so real that it might even convince the audience. With that flashback, it becomes as substantial as any of the flashback sequences involving the other characters. Mister Orange’s lie is as real as the truth, if not moreso. It’s more convincing than Nice Guy Eddie’s.

There is a powerful sense of meaninglessness running through Reservoir Dogs, as if none of this actually matters and none of the characters can trust their own experiences. Mister Orange kills Mister Blonde to protect the police officer that is being tortured, only for Nice Guy Eddie to kill the police officer anyway. Mister White kills his old friend Joe to protect Mister Orange, the man that he as loved as a son, only to discover that Mister Orange is an undercover cop. Mister Pink manages to survive the final shoutout, only to run outside and possibly get killed off-screen.

This blurring of fact and fiction, of reality and unreality, the pervasive sense of confusion and absurdity, in some ways might be seen to prefigure the boom in “virtual reality” movies towards the end of the decade, those popular feature films in which characters confront the reality that everything that they ever believed in was completely false and that the world itself is just an elaborate illusion that does not conform to the rules that they impose on it; The Truman Show, The Matrix, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor. In some ways, the chaos and uncertainty of Reservoir Dogs paves the way to that.

It also taps into some of the core fears and anxieties of the nineties, the sense of uncertainty that permeated popular consciousness after the end of the Cold War. The Cold War had provided a concrete ideological framework for American popular culture by providing an opponent against which the culture could define itself. It provided a clear dichotomy, and that dichotomy provided a sense of meaning and purpose. There were two poles, and so each could be defined as existing in contrast to the other. The end of the Cold War changed all that.

In the nineties, the United States was the sole global superpower. It towered over the geopolitical landscape. Liberal democracy and capitalism were triumphant. This was what some described as “the unipolar moment”, but also “the end of history.” It is a point at which American cultural values stood unopposed and unchallenged. That also meant that there was nothing to help define them by opposition. Meaning had to be derived through some other mechanism than stark contrast. As a result, the nineties became a period of introspection and reflection.

Within that, there was a larger preoccupation with questions of memory and history. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that that this occurred almost fifty years after the end of the Second World War, the conflict that had defined American identity during the twentieth century. Veterans of the conflict would have been entering their seventies and eighties, many passing away. The conflict was slipping from living memory, perhaps explaining efforts to further entrench it in memory during the nineties through films like Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line, or even miniseries like Band of Brothers.

(It is perhaps informative that the Second World War plays a small recurring role in Tarantino’s filmography. In True Romance, producer Lee Donowitz is attempting to make a film about his father’s role in the Second World War, arguably touching on that theme of memorialising the conflict in popular consciousness. In fact, the audience eventually got to meet Donnie Donowitz in Inglourious Basterds, which itself plays like a fevered and distorted remembrance of the Second World War.)

It should be noted that cultural memory itself was malleable during the nineties. Even the memory of the Second World War, the cornerstone of “the American Century”, was contested and debated. There was a minor controversy in 1993 when people realised that a portrait of a Nazi war criminal was hanging in Ohio State University. The library at Brooks Air Force Base had to be renamed in 1995 for the same reason. Around the same time, the Smithsonian would get drawn into a heated debate about a planned exhibit that would touch on the question of the morality of bombing Hiroshima and Negasaki.

During the nineties, it was not just the war itself that was fading from memory. The Holocaust was slipping from living memory, perhaps explaining the high volume of films that hoped to preserve the tragedy for future generations; Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, Jacob the Liar. Again, this attempt to preserve the memory of the atrocity beyond the lives of those who had lived through it was also reflected in attempts to gather recorded testimony from survivors, such as the attempt spearheaded by Steven Spielberg during the decade.

It should be noted that this was the decade when Holocaust denial arguably went truly mainstream. Perhaps tied to the embrace of postmodernism in academic circles, it became increasingly acceptable for people to question whether the systemic massacre of the Jewish population by Nazi Germany had ever taken place at all. David Irving would engage in a very high-profile lawsuit against Deborah Lipstadt in 1996, in response to her 1994 book, Denying the Holocaust: An Assault on Truth and Memory.

In an even broader sense, the nineties saw some of the core narratives of American history and identity under scrutiny as part of a broader cultural war that attempted to define American identity. Public debates took place about the role that slavery had played in the foundation of the nation and the horrific genocide of the Native Americans orchestrated by the European settlers. These arguments fundamentally undercut the country’s cultural memory and challenged a lot of the assumptions that many Americans held dear.

It seems too much to suggest that all of this is bubbling through Reservoir Dogs, particularly given the film’s somewhat loose approach to issues of race and its liberal application of various racial slurs by the characters without any real self-awareness. (There is a reason why Jason Reitman staged a reading of the film with a majority black cast, after all.) However, these ideas seemed to be simmering though a lot of nineties popular culture, most notably in films like Forrest Gump, or the work of creators like Oliver Stone and Chris Carter, who were very engaged with the idea of narratives of history and the fragility of memory.

Indeed, Tarantino’s later work suggests a strong interest in this idea of cultural memory as it relates to the Second World War in Inglourious Basterds or to the Civil War in Django Unchained or The Hateful Eight. It seems fair to trace these connections back to the tighter focus on the same themes within Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, which are both stories about personal (rather than societal) narratives and memories and histories. As difficult as it might be to connect Tarantino’s early body of work to his more recent output, there is strong thematic overlap.

Like many evolving directors, Tarantino is arguably taking a theme that is deeply personal to him and applying it to wider culture in his later films; Christopher Nolan would expand themes of identity and narrative from personal stories in Following or Memento to sprawling urban and national epics in The Dark Knight or Dunkirk, and Wes Anderson would apply the personal traumas of Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums on a larger scale in The Grand Budapest Hotel or Isle of Dogs.

Even beyond that, there are occasional traces of the more socially conscious director that Tarantino would become in Reservoir Dogs. Against the contemporaneous backdrop of the Rodney King case, and with the knowledge of his later support of “Black Lives Matter”, there might be said to be something pointed in the writer’s insistence that “a few cops” in the Los Angeles Police Department don’t count as “real people.” Of course, this is Tarantino casting himself as a young provocateur, but there is some of that mistrust of authority baked in from the outset.

And then there’s the handling of race. Much digital ink has been spilled about Tarantino’s use of race, a lot of it more eloquent than anything that will be found here. Tarantino’s fascination with the “n-word” is problematic, especially given his literal use of it in Pulp Fiction. Indeed, Reservoir Dogs is full of racial slurs from the criminals, many of which feel like a grotesque indulgence from Tarantino, particularly in the context of a film written and directed by a white guy with a majority white cast.

At the same time, perhaps there is something more to it, just beneath the surface. It is telling that the only black character in the script is Mister Orange’s handler, who effectively schools him on how to play a hardened criminal. Holdaway is effectively coaching Mister Orange’s performance, suggesting that Tarantino is aware of the awkward politics of what he is doing. Mister Orange is ultimately another white guy appropriating African American culture in the age of Vanilla Ice.

During the aforementioned briefing sequence, Joe makes one of those racial slurs. However, he also explains why he has to be the one to assign the colours. When Mister Pink suggests that the gang could pick their own colours, Joe is having none of it. “I tried that once, it don’t work,” he relates. “You get four guys fighting over who’s gonna be Mister Black. Since nobody knows anybody else, nobody wants to back down.” This feels about right. In the end, there is no Mister Black, just a bunch of characters appropriating black speech and black language. It’s admittedly very shallow, but it suggests some self-awareness.

With this recurring focus on the chaos and confusion of the modern world, it would be tempting to describe Tarantino as a nihilist. In fact, many of his critics do. That said, there’s certainly a stronger moral framework in his later films, where bad things unquestionably happen to bad people. Aldo Raine gets to kill Hitler and carve a swastika into the head of Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. Django gets to rescue Broomhilda and burn down the racist institution of Candyland in Django Unchained. Even in The Hateful Eight, Marquis Warren seems to forge a meaningful friendship with Chris Mannix and gets to see justice served.

In contrast, the morality of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction is less concrete and more abstract. These are films focusing on criminals and violence men, and so it seems inevitable that violence is visited upon them. It can often seem cruel and sadistic, and many innocent people are caught in the crossfire. However, in more broad terms, there is a clear morality at play. In Pulp Fiction, Jules survives the narrative by renouncing his violence while Vince dies due to his carelessness. While Butch’s recovery of his watch is not linked to his rescue of Wallace, it is suggested to be part of his larger heroic journey.

In Reservoir Dogs, the bulk of the cast ends up dead. Mister Orange kills Mister Blonde. Mister White kills Mister Orange, but not before killing Joe and Nice Guy Eddie. The police kill Mister White. Mister Pink flees the scene with his ill-gotten gains, but the audience can hear the sound of sirens and gunshots in the background. Mister Brown and Mister Blue both die during the robbery itself. Even Marvin Nash ends up tortured by Mister Blonde and then killed by Nice Guy Eddie. There is no hero in the film.

Then again, the film repeatedly makes this point. Reservoir Dogs repeatedly stresses to the audience that these are not nice people, and that they have done horrible things. When Mister Orange refers to one of his sources as “a good guy”, Holdaway corrects him. “Long Beach Mike is not your friend. Long Beach Mike is a f?!king scumbag.” It’s a very morally absolutist judgment, but one that is in keeping with Tarantino’s view of morality. Inglourious Basterds suggested that the only “good German” was one murdering Nazis, and Django Unchained had Schultz berate Django for feeling sympathy for a mark.

The criminals in Reservoir Dogs are horrible people. Mister Blonde decides to torture his captive not for any reason, but for his own amusement. “I don’t really care about what you know or don’t know,” he tells his victim. “I’m gonna torture you for awhile regardless. Not to get information, but because torturing a cop amuses me.” Similarly, while Mister Orange bonds with Mister White, the movie occasionally throws his own violent nature into sharp relief. Joking around as they plan the heist, Mister White explains the art of crowd control.

“If you get a customer or an employee who thinks he’s Charles Bronson, take the butt of your gun and smash their nose in,” he instructs his young ward. “Drops ’em right to the floor. Everyone jumps, he falls down, screaming, blood squirts out his nose. Freaks everybody out. Nobody says f?!kin shit after that. You might get some b!tch talk shit to ya. But give her a look, like you’re gonna smash her in the face next. Watch her shut the f?!k up.” It is clear that Mister Orange is intrigued by this raw masculinity, the machismo of Mister White.

However, it quickly takes a more graphic turn. “Now if it’s a manager, that’s a different story. The managers know better than to f?!k around. So if one’s givin’ you static, he probably thinks he’s a real cowboy. So what you gotta do is break that son-of-a-b!tch in two. If you wanna know something and he won’t tell you, cut off one of his fingers. The little one. Then you tell ‘im his thumb’s next. After that he’ll tell ya if he wears ladies underwear.” Mister Orange is very obviously repulsed, as if caught off-guard by the brutality of it. Mister White doesn’t even notice. “I’m hungry, let’s get a taco.”

With all of this, perhaps the most moral character is Mister Orange. After all, he is introduced as a relative innocent. He spends most of the movie bleeding to death. He is later revealed as an undercover cop. Suggesting his importance to the narrative, Tarantino positions his flashbacks latest in the film, providing the climax of Reservoir Dogs. In many ways, Reservoir Dogs is building towards the reveal of the back story of Mister Orange, explaining what he is doing in that warehouse and why he is bleeding to death. The other characters all ended up there because they were violent criminals.

It is towards the end of the flashbacks that it becomes clear what Mister Orange did to deserve his death. During the panicked escape from the jewellery story, he and Mister White attempt to carjack an innocent woman. In a panic, the woman shoots Mister Orange, inflicting the wound from which he suffers for the rest of the film, even though Mister White makes a point to stress that the wound is unlikely to be fatal of itself. However, acting in the moment, Mister Orange fires his own weapon and kills the woman. She is an innocent. She is, to quote Mister Pink, “a real person.”

Reservoir Dogs is consciously building to that moment. The death of the woman is the end of the last flashback in the film, and so seems designed to provide the audience with an important piece of information to help them make sense of the film. Indeed, the camera lingers tight on Mister Orange’s face, as if to suggest that even he is struggling to process what he has done. As with other moments in the script, it is mirrored and contrasted. Mister Pink also carjacks a female driver, but he doesn’t kill her. His hands remains clean of that particular sin. It seems almost as if that moment itself damned Mister Orange.

Perhaps there is meaning in Reservoir Dogs. It just eludes the characters.

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2 Responses

  1. Darren, what a great breakdown of Reservoir Dogs! I grew watching those QT films on VHS in the late 90s and you brought some fresh perspectives that I never noticed before (most notably how Mr. Orange ‘earned’ his death. So obvious in retrospect but I never looked at it that way). And, for the record, Jackie Brown may not be his best movie, but from a sound perspective, it’s a perfect movie. I can have that movie play in another room and enjoy like I was spinning a record.

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