Violence is on our screens, big and small, every week; we are habitual visual carnivores. What we eat up with our eyes, though, is almost always carrion, inert imagery for all its pretensions to a pulse. It's a short list of films that sidestep the conventions and show something that can't be consumed so easily, something that doesn't slip right down. Add Reservoir Dogs (18), Quentin Tarantino's gruelling but exhilarating first film, to the list.
In cinema Greek tragedy's way of dealing with violence, by not showing the acts but only their effects, just looks like a cop-out. We have the technology, after all. What usually happens is either the turning of victims into cannon fodder (if we're supposed to be identifying with the person doing the damage) or the turning of perpetrators into monsters - sometimes both. It shouldn't be unusual for a film to insist on the simultaneous presence of perpetrator and victim in the act, but this turns out to be extremely difficult to manage. Our urge to blot out one or the other is both practised and inherently very strong, as if it was in evolutionary terms a survival mechanism. Fred Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, an Australian film from 1978, is the only successful attempt that comes to mind. When Jimmie, a half-caste aborigine who is consequently rejected by both racial groups, starts to take his revenge on the world, the viewers' sympathies are agonisingly divided betweeen him and his victims, between a scapegoat and a scapegoat's scapegoats. The sharpness of the experience reminds us how rarely this sort of parity exists on the screen - a hundred per cent and zero is the usual division. Even 90 per cent and 10 counts as an unusual cinematic adventure in complexity.
The easiest convention of screen violence to contest is the convention of instantaneousness. Most violence in cinema takes a moment or a flurry of moments, and then we hear the words (reassuring even when we don't want to hear them, because they mean that suffering is over) 'He's dead.' Hitchcock in Torn Curtain most famously reversed this convention, coldly showing as interminable a killing that was in plot terms not just morally justifiable but compulsory. The man being killed spent so long dying, he resisted, worst of all he spoke, continuing to express his existence in speech while existence was being inefficiently dragged from him. Mike Nichols in Catch 22 tried a different tack, not creating a continuous present tense of pain but making a single moment haunt many minutes of screen time. Early in the film he showed a sequence of a young man believed to be only slightly wounded proving to be in a much worse way - when his uniform was loosened so were his insides. Several times in the rest of the film Nichols started running the sequence again, so that the audience tensed, and thought oh no, but he showed the actual atrocity only once.
Tarantino's approach is more headlong, but has the same sort of effectiveness. After a long group scene of bickering dialogue in a diner, we get the film's titles; immediately after that we see a man who has been shot in the stomach writhing in the back of a car. An hour and a half of screen time later, he's still not dead. Long before then, there are likely to be mental volunteers in the audience for a mercy killing squad to finish him off, just to stop the existential chalk- squeaking-on-a-blackboard sensation that Tarantino exploits so unmercifully.
The screenplay, written by the director, flashes back irregularly to the preparations for a jewel robbery that has gone wrong in the execution. Preparations and aftermath converge, but we don't actually see the heist itself. We don't see the diamonds; we don't see the inside of the premises that are raided. The clever jigsaw of this narrative discourages us from noticing the improbability of the set-up. A corrupt business empire like the one we see, its boss sitting in a panelled office between hugely curving elephant tusks, would sustain itself by rackets or drug-dealing in preference to armed robberies, routines rather than spasms of criminal activity.
Never mind. The gimmick of the film is that the burglars don't know each other, and are under orders not to reveal personal information. They go by code names, and their by-play takes the form of convoluted arguments about the meaning of Madonna songs, or the casting histories of TV shows - which suits Tarantino fine because that's the kind of round-and-round, expletive-ridden, everything-and-nothing dialogue that he's good at writing. But when things go wrong, there are substantial questions to be asked, like: who's the rat?
Tarantino raises the stakes without changing the game, so that the characters are still ciphers but every decision becomes life or death. He is lucky to have an actor of the experience of Harvey Keitel as Mr White, to bring depth to something that might otherwise come rather close to the old familiar honour- among-thieves. It's a cheat, frankly, to have one of the other characters be a psychopathic sadist, unsuspected by his team-mates.
This character is responsible for a torture scene that is likely to provoke a steady stream of refugees from cinemas where Reservoir Dogs is shown. It's the only scene, unfortunately, where Tarantino's inexperience as a director shows up. It's as vital that he holds us here as it is for the Russian-roulette sequences in The Deer Hunter to work cinematically (luckily, they were the best edited parts of that entire film). It's no good rewarding our endurance immediately afterwards, with a plot twist (as Tarantino does,) if you have already allowed for the audience's faint- heartedness. Tarantino allows himself the cheap irony of a jaunty 1970s song coming on the radio (it's Stealer's Wheel singing 'Stuck in the Middle With You'), and the camera turns away at a critical moment, which is fatal. If turning away was allowed by the rules of the film, we'd have done it long ago. Tarantino slackens the tension - the agony of can't watch, can't look away - just when he needs it most, and the integrity of his project takes a little time to recover.
There is a sort of nihilistic integrity there, all the same. Violence in the film is often arbitrary, but the suffering it causes is treated as if it had meaning. A quick death in the film is the prerogative, strangely, of the innocent and the unredeemable, of black and white, as if protracted agony had a cleansing aspect for those who are already in a moral limbo, a Purgatory that only they have need of.
Reservoir Dogs isn't quite Crime and Punishment but it is a remarkable achievement for a first film. It is unquestionably an ordeal to sit through, but on the far side of the squirming and flinching there is something almost moral. All right then, yes, rather more Dostoevskian than we have any right to expect.
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