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The "Reservoir' watershed

Published Sep. 3, 2005

Movies never moved quite the same way again after Quentin Tarantino unleashed Reservoir Dogs at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival.

Tarantino's breakneck description of a jewelry store heist gone bloodily wrong didn't look or sound like any film that came before it, although many films since have mimicked his style. Tarantino inverted the formula, placing robbers ahead of cops, and the process altered cinema forever, from the way movies are made to how audiences accept them.

That ouevre is celebrated today with the release of a two-disc DVD set marking the tenth anniversary of Tarantino's film.

Before Reservoir Dogs, directors with film-school diplomas were considered daring if they dabbled in flashbacks or fantasy sequences. Tarantino was a 27-year-old high school dropout and video-store clerk shuffling a time line like a three-card monte dealer, skipping cryptically through unsavory details until it all made sense. The closest things to heroes in the movie were victims. The victims died brutally.

Yet, Tarantino made this amorality seem affable, peppering his characters' profane speech with pop-culture small talk and testosterone threats. And what was the deal with the bouncy 1970s music serving as a soundtrack for this mayhem, especially an immediately infamous torture scene? Were audiences supposed to enjoy this?

The projector broke down midway through Tarantino's debut at Sundance. Romantics say it just couldn't stand the heat. The show eventually resumed, but that stubborn, outdated projector symbolized what American filmmaking had been for decades, and what Reservoir Dogs was doing to it even before the credits rolled.

"I don't think people were ready," said New York Daily News film critic Jami Bernard, who attended the Sundance screening that introduced a new brand of filmmaking from a new breed of filmmaker. "They didn't know what to make of it. It's like the first silent movie when audiences saw the train coming toward the camera and scattered."

Harvey Weinstein stuck around. Weinstein was co-founder of Miramax Films, a then-small film distributor specializing in foreign imports (My Left Foot) and projects deemed too arty for the studios (sex, lies and videotape). By the time Sundance ended, Reservoir Dogs was the property of Miramax, which soon would be owned by Disney, a clear sign of the mainstreaming of independent films.

Two years later, when Tarantino's next project, Pulp Fiction, became the first "art film" to gross more than $100-million, Weinstein proudly announced that Miramax was officially in "the Quentin Tarantino business." That meant, in Hollywood's imitative tradition, everyone else was, too.

Studio executives spent the next few years searching for the next ragtag-to-riches story, just as they once believed any movie with a sea creature would be Jaws and anything with a spaceship would be Star Wars. Film festivals became marketplaces more than showcases for worthwhile works that wouldn't otherwise be seen. Independent films became more commercial to attract distributors, and studios recognized the profit margin in buying someone else's work to sell.

"Reservoir Dogs really was the watershed movie _ and we keep saying for better and worse _ of the independent film movement," said Bernard, author of Quentin Tarantino: The Man and His Movies. "Now there's so many people imitating (Tarantino) that a lot of it's very annoying. But it really galvanized a lot of people's creativity."

Without Reservoir Dogs, there wouldn't be Memento, The Usual Suspects or Amores Perros and that would be a shame. There also wouldn't be Destiny Turns on the Radio, The Suicide Kings, Two Days in the Valley and other forgettable Tarantino clones that wouldn't be missed. Filmmakers often imitate the visceral and verbal rush of Tarantino's films but rarely capture his essence. Now such verbally choreographed showdowns are cliches.

"Quentin makes it look very easy and it's not," Bernard said. "It really does take a particular sensibility and the ability to understand filmmaking grammar in order to get that sensibility across. I've seen countless imitations, even in major movies, of the chatter between characters and it doesn't always work."

Reservoir Dogs co-star Michael Madsen said: "A lot of the imitators of Reservoir Dogs didn't realize how pretentious they were."

More than a caper flick

Tarantino knew somebody who knew somebody who kind of knew Harvey Keitel. Independent filmmakers work those angles whenever possible, but few actors of Keitel's stature in 1991 would have considered joining a $1.5-million project by a first-time director. The connection clicked, and Tarantino got a Reservoir Dogs script into the actor's hands.

Keitel liked what he read, a film noir in broad daylight featuring criminals known to each other only by color-coded aliases. Keitel would play Mr. White, a survivor of a violent robbery helping gut-shot Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) do the same while figuring out what went wrong.

Most of the action occurs in a warehouse where the crooks expected to rendezvous after the heist. That was before Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) started shooting. Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) is certain that someone in the gang is a snitch. Maybe it was the mastermind, Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney), or his son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn). Maybe it was Mr. Brown (Tarantino) or Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker), but they're dead and unavailable for answers. Tarantino shoved these rats into a tight spot to watch them claw each other to death or capture.

But this wasn't just a caper flick. Tarantino's first scene in his first movie established a new form of characterization. First, it wouldn't have anything to do with the robbery. The gang sits around a breakfast table analyzing Madonna's song Like a Virgin and the social responsibility of tipping. Second, their dialogue was brazenly profane and intimidating, turning dirty words into something resembling poetry.

And finally, most uncomfortably, the audience knew it had something in common with these lowlifes. They listened to the same music, watched the same movies and ate the same fast food. The more they spoke, the more sympathetic _ or at least understandable _ they became. Tarantino would make us accomplices, then set up despicable, dark-humored behavior to see how far our loyalties would go.

Keitel signed on, and his name attracted Penn and Madsen, who wanted the chance to act with Keitel after their Thelma and Louise footage was trimmed from that film. Buscemi was a relatively unknown talent who had performed Reservoir Dogs scenes with Tarantino on video while the script was polished at a Sundance Institute workshop. Tierney was an aging heavy whose B-movies were part of Tarantino's encyclopedic film background. Bunker wrote one of the filmmaker's favorite crime novels.

"I don't think any of us really knew what (the script) was," Madsen said during a telephone interview. "We just responded to the material. I think we all just put our trust into the situation because we all dug the characters so much. It was such a cool idea that we wanted to make it work. At that time, that was a new idea. I mean, a million-five to do a film? How can this be?

"But everyone can't be innovative or else nobody would be innovative. There have to be renegades and people who have a unique style so somebody will stand out. Quentin is just one of those guys."

Kung fu creativity

Reservoir Dogs and the ensuing Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown _ also revived recently with two-disc DVD showcases _ are obviously the works of a bona fide film buff, a quality missing from an increasingly formulaic American cinema in the 1980s.

"The people who went to film school wound up not really understanding old movies, anyway," Bernard said. "They were taught a lot abut the business and how to get rich, I suppose, or how to make a movie that would hit the right buttons, which is not the same as being a movie lover.

"(Reservoir Dogs) gave hope to a lot of filmmakers who genuinely love movies and a lot of them are doing really well. Some are Tarantino's friends like Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, From Dusk Til Dawn). He's gone mainstream (with the Spy Kids franchise) but it's mainstream with a very independent sense of humor and hands-on quality."

Tarantino also displayed a cheeky reverence for past genres most critics and film historians dismissed, from blaxploitation to kung fu to lurid drive-in theater flicks. They became his creative points of reference with updated sensibilities for a harsher world.

"Quentin knows every picture that was ever made, who was in it, when it came out and how much business it did, who directed, who produced and where the people who made it are now," said Madsen, who recently completed a role in Tarantino's 2003 release, Kill Bill. "He's got so much information in his head about movies that it's amazing."

Bernard recognizes that kind of devotion in every frame of Tarantino's films, and in his screenplays for True Romance and Natural Born Killers, directed by others.

"There's such joyousness about Quentin's work although some people find it too violent," she said. "What it really is, is fun. He's celebrating pop culture, love of movies, love of genre movies and love of conversation and dialogue. His movies have a joie de vivre that showed other people you could have a serious movie that makes a lot of money and have fun with it instead of it having to be very dry and dusty.

"Quentin made his own kind of movies and he taught the public to accept his kind of movies. You have to be in the right frame of mind to get the humor and once you do, everything's fine."

In the spotlight

Reservoir Dogs made Tarantino a sensation, Pulp Fiction made him a star and Jackie Brown left him overexposed, burning out in the spotlight he continually cast upon himself. Reviewers who compared him to Orson Welles for his early triumphs wondered if Tarantino would turn out the same way _ a legend, then a joke.

Tarantino didn't help his case for posterity by backing buddies with their own Reservoir Dogs ripoffs (Roger Avery's Killing Zoe), releasing a misbegotten farce (Four Rooms) and reviving his personal schlock favorites (Detroit 9000, Iron Monkey) on home video. Tarantino became a brand name that was everywhere.

Then he was gone.

"He's very, very wise about that," Madsen said. "He really knew when to walk away. There's a lot to be said for that.

"But he didn't walk away just to disappear and be cool. He just wanted to disappear because he was busy working. He's been writing, brother, he wasn't trying to hide. He really doesn't operate that way. There's a lot going on in the mind of that boy."

Bernard expects Tarantino's fourth film, Kill Bill, starring Uma Thurman as a vengeful assassin, will prove he's back on track.

"There's always a certain naivete about what fame is going to do to you," she said. "I think his head was turned by the fame.

"He was so caught up in having all the things he ever dreamed about that there was no time left to do the work that creates that atmosphere. He's also a very disorganized person, so he probably had to get his bearings. I hope he's getting serious again."

Coming Thursday in Weekend: Times Film Critic Steve Persall reviews the DVD releases of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown.