An unhealthy intimacy with violence

After a two-year wait 'Reservoir Dogs' is finally available on video. Tim de Lisle thinks it shouldn't be
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The Independent Online
TO TALK about a film being "released" is to use a term so commonplace, we hardly notice that it is a metaphor. This week, it will be a little more obvious. Reservoir Dogs is finally being released on video - released as in let out, set free, like one of the hoodlums that it portrays.

It has already happened - in the video trade, release dates are not to be taken literally. At your local video shop, the posters are in the window, the cardboard cut-out is just inside the door (man holding machine- gun), and the tape is on its way to No 1 in the rentals chart.

Reservoir Dogs, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, opened in British cinemas in January 1993 and would normally have reached the video shops that summer. But it was refused a licence by the British Board of Film Classification, on the grounds that "in the present climate" - the aftermath of the murder of James Bulger - it was unsuitable for viewing in the home. The distributor, the multinational giant PolyGram, re-applied several times. Meanwhile, Reservoir Dogs played on in cinemas. Late last year, it was still showing on 77 screens. In April, the censor relented.

On Friday, two south London teenagers were found guilty of armed robbery. They had held up two newsagents after watching Reservoir Dogs (in the cinema, presumably), and sniffing amyl nitrate. One of the boys was 14, the other 17. For good measure, the 14-year-old had committed a third offence, against his mother. He put a gun to her head, stole her purse, and told her, "Mum, you are dead, you bitch." Both boys got two years. They told police they wanted to know what it would be like to be the characters in Reservoir Dogs.

I never saw Reservoir Dogs when it first appeared. I caught up with it last month, on its final night of regular screening in the West End. I lasted half an hour, then walked out.

The film induced a remarkable mixture of revulsion and boredom. It is about an armed robbery which is interrupted by the police. The robbers don't know each other, and use codenames - Mr White, Mr Blonde, and so on. The plot is driven by the need to find out which of them has "squeaked". The language is what is generally called strong - ie, feebly repetitive. Fuckin' this, fuckin' that, fuckin' borin' after a while.

The robbers are predictably violent, and unexpectedly garrulous. They have conversations that you'd be more likely to find among film students. They hold debates: a short one about the meaning of Madonna's song "Like a Virgin", which is mildly amusing, and a longer one about the ethics of tipping waitresses, which should be heard by anyone who looks back fondly on their days as a student.

But I didn't walk out just because it was tedious. I walked out because it was uninvolving. There wasn't a character in sight who was interesting, let alone sympathetic. The violence was casual and callous. So along with the boredom and the revulsion went a kind of despair.

I had only ever walked out of two films. One was Crocodile Dundee II, but that was because my wifecouldn't stand it. The second was True Romance, written by Quentin Tarantino but not directed by him. It had the same problem as Reservoir Dogs: dislikeable characters, dispassionate violence, no fun. True Romance, too, has just been let out on video. It's being plugged by Woolworth's.

However, I liked the idea of Tarantino - this young maverick whose films are successful without being conventional, and who so excites his generation that when he gave a platform interview at the National Film Theatre recently, all the tickets were sold months in advance. And I didn't like the idea of censorship, for all the usual reasons. But Reservoir Dogs had not been banned, merely restricted to the cinema. I came out of the MGM Panton Street in London feeling strongly that this was the right decision. The censor should have stuck to his guns. Reservoir Dogs is not just another violent thriller. It occupies a unique position among bloodbaths. It's cool. The killers are dressed to kill: sharp black suits, sunglasses, white shirts and thin ties. And it's famous. The film's catchphrase - "let's go to work" - may not be Raymond Chandler, but it caught on. The poster is a best-seller, and so is the T-shirt. So are parodies of the T-shirt: walk around Belfast and you see shirts saying "Reservoir Prods".

If you were, say, a streetwise 12-year-old, you'd have been aware of Reservoir Dogs for some time. But you wouldn't have seen it, and neither would your friends. Now all you'll need is someone's elder brother or sister to go to the shop for you. Soon, if you haven't seen it, you're going to be the odd one out in the playground.

It can be argued that bans don't work. If there isn't an official video release, there will be an unofficial one, bootleg copies changing hands at inflated prices. Reservoir Dogs itself has been a case in point. But when did you last see a bootleg promoted on the Underground, in the national press, in high-street windows? And just because the censor can't wholly stop something is no reason to support it.

Allowing a film into the cinema and not on to video may look like a fudge, a committee compromise. But a fudge is when someone says yes and no to the same question. In this case, the British Board of Film Classification was saying yes to one question and no to another. Is the film suitable for viewing in the cinema? Yes. Is it suitable for viewing in the home? No.

This is a perfectly respectable position. Cinema and video are more different than they may appear. To go and see a film takes energy and commitment. You have to make a decision, and a journey, and an investment. You're with other people, you see the film in its entirety (unless you walk out), and you see it only once.

Video can change all these things. Some are just differences of degree: the shop is nearer than the cinema, the price is pounds 2 instead of pounds 6 or pounds 8. But there are also differences of substance. You can watch the film alone. You can be your own editor, freeze-framing, rewinding. You can watch the policeman being tortured 10 times in a row, consuming the scene like a pop video - which is how, with its knowing soundtrack of "Stuck in the Middle with You", it was filmed.

And if you're not alone, there's another set of hazards: people drifting in and out of the room, children sneaking a look, death and gore turning to wallpaper.

There is no hard evidence that violent films make for a more violent society. But some instinct tells us that they shouldn't be seen by young people, and especially not when the bloodshed is accompanied by glamour. The Bulger killers may or may not have seen a horror film called Child's Play 3 on video. They undoubtedly didn't see it in the cinema. Reservoir Dogs is going to be seen by a lot more children than Child's Play 3 (now withdrawn) ever was. We need a new rule for films like this: they should be seen only by consenting adults, in public.