FILM / Reservoir dregs: And to think they compared Tarantino to Dostoyevsky. Adam Mars-Jones on Pulp Fiction

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Reservoir Dogs still looks like the great American film of the decade, but Quentin Tarantino's second film as writer-director shows him already deep in the territory of self-parody. There hasn't been such a disappointing follow-up since the team responsible for My Beautiful Laundrette delivered Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.

Themes from Reservoir Dogs show up abundantly in Pulp Fiction, but not only do they not work in their new setting, they make Tarantino's previous triumph look like a fluke. Where the careful construction of Reservoir Dogs justified the extremity of some scenes, providing a belated context for pain, Pulp Fiction is simply cruel, tatty, empty and smug. And to think some critics compared Dogs to Dostoyevsky] The film is made up of three interlocking stories, but all the characters are criminals or their hangers-on. Often these people discuss subjects of slightly abstract interest - why, for instance, a Quarter-Pounder in a Parisian McDonald's should be called a Royale - in the immediate run-up to, say, an execution. In Reservoir Dogs similar conversations (notably one about the nuances of Madonna lyrics) took place because gang members were under oath not to discuss personal details. In Pulp Fiction the rationale seems to be they lapped it up last time.

A criminal milieu offers Tarantino highly simplified motivations for violent action (greed, revenge, habit). When he sets himself to devise something more complicated, the best he can come up with is a dumb joke: Butch the boxer returns to his apartment, knowing he is likely to be ambushed there, to retrieve a watch that is his sole link with his father. This noble man, a prisoner of the Vietcong, had kept the watch up his anus for five years and then - on the point of death from dysentery - passed it on to his best buddy to conceal in his own orifice for a further two years. If this strikes you as wildly funny, yet also plausible as the background motivation of someone whose fate is supposed to concern us, you won't feel sorry for Christopher Walken's flashback cameo, where he delivers a monologue and the long-suffering timepiece to a five-year-old Butch.

In Reservoir Dogs the attempted robbery which generated the entire plot was not itself shown. In Pulp Fiction there are similar stylised absences, but they invariably correspond to things we wouldn't actually believe if we were shown them. Examples: a group of preppies who in unspecified circumstances double-cross a crime boss, stealing something infinitely precious from him, and then sit around waiting to be traced and punished.

The scene of their punishment, which occurs early in the film, is like a deliberate coarsening of parts of Reservoir Dogs that were gruelling but also dramatically cogent. Two hit-men bicker about hash bars in Amsterdam, then one of them, in a clear echo of the line 'Let's go to work' from Dogs says, 'Let's get into character.' The persona they are to project must be of gratuitous savagery, willing to inflict pain for the sake of it. Here the film gets seriously stupid, since the hit-men are in fact gratuitously savage, and do inflict pain for the sake of it.

Their job is to locate the precious missing briefcase, which takes about 10 seconds, and settle scores for their boss. The scene is there solely to put the screws on the audience. It falls apart in the memory, as a manifestly absurd way for professional executioners to carry out their duties.

The briefcase, when opened, emits a mysterious light and a low grinding noise reminiscent of the end of the world. Yes, it's the suitcase from Kiss Me Deadly - as reprised in Repo Man - and in a sense it's the kiss of death for Pulp Fiction. There's a world of difference between rendering homage and nicking someone else's McGuffin. Tarantino needs to be in charge of his chosen art form before he can afford to be blowing kisses to other directors, on a paying audience's time.

The other strident film reference in Pulp Fiction is also an unwise career move. Butch seems to have got clean away from his pursuers, and stops in his car at a red light. The gang boss whom he has mortally offended promptly crosses the road in front of the car, glances over at him and does a double-take. This recapitulates a moment from Psycho, where Marion Crane's boss spots her driving out of town when she's supposed to be off sick.

At least in Psycho it's plausible that her boss should be out on the street, whereas the character we have been shown so far in Pulp Fiction is someone who has absolutely everything done for him by minions and gofers. But now we're supposed to believe Mr Big pops out to Teriyaki Donut for a box of pastries and two styrofoam cups of coffee.

More to the point, the moment Tarantino chooses to quote from Psycho is the clinching shot of a long campaign whereby Hitchcock, with feline patience, secures audience identification with a not particularly likeable character.

This is actually the first moment when the camera represents Marion's point of view, something that the canny director has abstained from in the first part of the film. Forget about big knives and scary showers. What happens to Marion is so devastating because, at this deceptively trivial moment, the audience makes an apparently free choice of her point of view. We have chosen to occupy a place in the film that ceases to exist.

But the road-crossing moment in Pulp Fiction doesn't in the least put us behind Butch's eyes. It's a quotation that disregards the meaning of what is quoted, and that is something closer to Philistinism than connoisseurship.

It's pure film- buffery, swank in a vacuum.

Actors like Tarantino's dialogue, and he is well served by John Travolta in particular. But there is now coming to be something mannered about the way his lines mix directness and a paradoxical formality. Examples: 'If I'm curt with you, it's because time is a factor.' 'That goes against the entire idea behind piercing.' 'So by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, he'd cease to be a filthy animal?' These lines are spoken by five characters who vary in race, age, background and gender, but they have a definite family resemblance.

A script editor, if Tarantino was humble enough to submit to one, might sort some of this out. Such a person might also persuade him either to devise an explanation of how a character whom we have seen drenched in blood, stripped, hosed down and dressed in borrowed clothes comes to produce a clean, dry copy of Modesty Blaise to read in the lavatory of a cafe immediately afterwards, or drop the intrusive reference. He, or better yet she, might also tactfully point out that the convincing relationships in Tarantino's films tend to be between men - male bonding, honour among thieves - which is fine, but makes the homophobia of Pulp Fiction seem like a particularly violent form of denial. As in The Silence of the Lambs, it seems to be OK to represent gay people as kinky, murderous psychopaths these days, so long as no one calls them anything nasty. Blow 'em away, slice 'em up with a samurai sword, just don't call them faggot. That wouldn't be liberal.

There are some coldly clever scenes in Pulp Fiction, and Tarantino hasn't altogether lost the knack of churning an audience up. It's just that this time there's no point. And yes, this page, this column, this me heartily repents of having described Reservoir Dogs as Dostoyevskian in its vision.

It turns out that Quentin Tarantino came up with his Dostoyevsky knock-off by mistake, on the way to his true mission in life: turning out reproduction Mickey Spillanes.

'Pulp Fiction' goes on general release from tomorrow (Photograph omitted)