Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Film Appreciation - Like a Virgin

Cody Hamman looks back on the track at Quentin Tarantino's 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs for Film Appreciation.

Young cinephile Quentin Tarantino had long been trying to figure out the perfect way to get his own filmmaking career started, what would be the right film to be his first film. He had started filming a couple different projects, Love Birds in Bondage and My Best Friend's Birthday, but they had gone unfinished, the footage for both either partially or completely destroyed. He considered directing his screenplays True Romance and Natural Born Killers, but ended up selling them to be made by others. When the True Romance script was passed along to Tony Scott, who would go on to direct that film, it came along with NBK and another screenplay by Tarantino. That third one was entitled Reservoir Dogs, and Scott liked it so much that he wanted to direct it as well. But it wasn't for sale. Though there had been some thought given to the idea of Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop) possibly directing it, Tarantino had decided: Reservoir Dogs was going to be his directorial debut.
Dogs had the perfect set-up for a low budget first film; following a group of criminals with colorful codenames (an aspect inspired by The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) dealing with the aftermath of a diamond heist gone spectacularly wrong, it was a dialogue-heavy story requiring a small cast, most of its action set inside one warehouse location, with flashbacks to flesh out the characters and occasionally widen the scope beyond the warehouse walls. The production started out on a level comparable to other breakout indie films of that time like Richard Linklater's Slacker and Kevin Smith's Clerks, Tarantino had a $30,000 budget and was going to shoot the movie on 16mm, the cast to be filled out by himself and his friends. That plan changed when the script ended up in the hands of an established and highly respected actor. Harvey Keitel.
With Keitel's support, and with him signing on to play the prominent role of Mister White, Tarantino and his producer Lawrence Bender were able to raise a budget over just over $1 million and cast some familiar faces. In the summer of 1991, Quentin Tarantino began shooting his first film at the age of 28. A very successful career was born.

It's no wonder that Tarantino skyrocketed from there. His only film school was a life of watching and studying movies, as well as his experience on the troubled My Best Friend's Birthday, but it's clear in Reservoir Dogs that he had learned a lot along the way. The style he brought to the film and choices he made behind the camera yielded results that are very impressive and would be for someone at any point in their career, the fact that he was just starting out only makes it more so. This guy knew cinema. And music, judging by the awesome soundtrack. He also showed natural ability in writing dialogue and crafting characters, and he assembled a cast that brought his characters to life in a fantastic way.
Each member of the criminal crew stands out in their own way, regardless of the size of their overall role; Keitel as White, Michael Madsen as the bloodthirsty Mister Blonde, Tim Roth as the secretive Mister Orange, prolific character actor Lawrence Tierney and Chris Penn as the boss and his Nice Guy son, convict-turned-author Eddie Bunker in a cameo as Mister Blue, and Tarantino himself as the Madonna-ruminating Mister Brown. But probably the most popular of the bunch is Steve Buscemi as the anti-tipping, alias-complaining Mister Pink.

Buscemi is how I heard about Reservoir Dogs, and the publicity for the movie is how I heard about Buscemi. The first time I saw him, he was an MTV VJ as far as I knew. He was hosting a show on the music channel and seems like he did it for a few days at least. I would come home from school, turn on MTV, and watch this guy introduce videos. I liked him. At a point he mentioned that he had a role in a movie that was coming out soon, and he showed a clip from Reservoir Dogs, a clip of the scene in which Pink finds out that his codename is Pink. I enjoyed it. I was in. When I got a chance, I was going to watch the movie this guy was in.
My chance came soon after Reservoir Dogs was released on VHS soon before my tenth birthday. Despite my age, I was determined to check this movie out, and I convinced my parents to rent it during a visit to a local video store. I didn't have many restrictions when it came to movie watching. Unfortunately, soon after the movie started I ran into an obstacle that could not be overcome: bedtime. It was a school night.
When my mom picked me up after school the next afternoon, I asked her how the movie had gone over. My father was the only one of us who had watched the entire movie the night before, and I found out that he hadn't liked it. The main reason? "They never left the warehouse." He never was a big fan of things outside the norm. When I watched it myself that evening, I enjoyed it much more than my father had.

I remembered Tarantino's name after that and looked forward to his follow-up film, Pulp Fiction, when news started coming out about it. In 1994, I hesitantly checked out a movie called True Romance and was totally taken by surprise at how cool it was. And I noticed that Tarantino had written it. By the time Pulp Fiction reached VHS almost a whole year after it had played in theatres, I was beyond hyped to finally get to see it. Watching it solidified my fandom.
I've been writing my entire life, I started before I could even write words formed with letters from the alphabet, filling papers with stories told in squiggles. My intention was always to write screenplays (and comic books), and eventually I learned how to format a script when my mom ordered bound copies of the Star Wars trilogy screenplays for me from a home shopping channel. When Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, True Romance, and Kevin Smith's Clerks and Mallrats started reaching video in rapid succession, my writing started evolving. The dialogue in these movies was something much different than I was used to hearing, and through watching these movies over and over again, it helped me develop and improve the dialogue in my own work.
Until last year, I had only ever seen Reservoir Dogs on home video. VHS rental, then recorded onto a VHS, then a purchased copy, and finally the 10th anniversary DVD. The DVD came out with variant slipcovers featuring different characters, and I chose to buy one with the Mister Pink slipcover. Last December, Fathom Events hosted a one-night-only 20th anniversary theatrical screening of Reservoir Dogs, and I was there. It was nice to finally see the movie on the big screen, with a handful of fellow fans in attendance. Reservoir Dogs started it all for Quentin Tarantino, and his career has meant a lot to me over the years.

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