Saturday, September 24, 2005

Four Los Angeles county sheriffs and a German shepherd

Last night, for the first time in a good long while, I watched Reservoir Dogs. Like most movies I really like, I'd begun to take it for granted that it was a great movie and no longer gave any thought to what made it so. Seeing it again (for the first time), I realized that, other than a weirdly sloppy deep-focus shot about three quarters of the way in, the movie is basically perfect. I'm of the opinion that, generally speaking, acting in a movie is not quite as important as most viewers think it is. Above all, film is an artistic medium; it is a marriage of picture and sound in which the actors are little more than another of the director's tools. Whether he was aware of it at the time or not (I can't say for sure), Tarantino made a brilliant move by completely subverting this notion and actually making Reservoir Dogs about performance.

In addition to serving as a showcase for marvelous acting jobs by all involved, the film's story is itself about acting. None of the robbers participating in the heist know each other, so they're all trying to act as tough as possible in order to impress one another. Acting. Additionally, they're all going by fake names in order to preserve the secrecy of their identities. They are each pretending to be Mr. White, Mr. Pink, Mr. Blonde, or whatever color it is they've been assigned. Acting. On top of that, Mr. Orange is an undercover cop, so he's doing twice the acting that everyone else is. He's pretending to be a criminal who's pretending to keep his identity secret. For this role, he rehearses, learns lines, and otherwise works to get into character.

At no point is this element of performance more clear than during the episode surrounding the commode story. Orange's boss makes him memorize "an amusing anecdote" about a drug deal that he can repeat to the criminals he's trying to win over and the manner in which the film illustrates Orange's process of learning and then recounting the story is nothing short of brilliant. Orange's boss, with all his idiosyncracies - his penchant for bandanas, communist iconography, open vests, and oddly colorful meeting places - and his flair for the dramatic, seems much less like a law enforcement officer and much more like a theatre person. Like a true director, he molds Orange into the perfect actor; the story becomes so real to Orange that when he finally tells it to the group of criminals he's trying to infiltrate, he can actually see himself in the story, acting out the words that he's worked so hard to memorize. When he describes his emotions, however - something that takes time in the process of the storytelling but, in the real-time of the story takes less than a second to act out - it's the Mr. Orange in the story who takes over the narration, describing his "character's" emotions to the other fictional characters in the story. In this move, Orange embodies the character of the film; he makes the story more real for himself by actually making it about his performance rather than the events of the story.

There are other cool performative elements to the film, but it would take far too long to describe them all. Tarantino's work is a constant invitation to this type of analysis, which I suppose is what makes him a great writer/director. The viewer continues to enjoy the film long after it's over.

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