January 15, 2008

The Political Theory of Reservoir Dogs

Quentin Tarentino is a director that I wonder about and find difficult to work out: as this review will demonstrate his work alternately frustrates, antagonises and confuses me. To some extent I see him as the most conventional film maker around- he perfectly mirrors the kinds of angst that fill society today and in that sense his films are very interesting- even if because of that they are imperfect and almost unconsciously make points that their director doesn't intend. Reservoir Dogs is a film without much of a plot- there isn't much tension- a heist has gone wrong and about half way through the film we know who has made the heist go wrong. Its characters are deliberately emptied of anything apart from vagueness- in the service of the heist they lose their real names and become Mr White, Mr Orange, Mr Blonde, Mr Brown, Mr Blue and Mr Pink and they lose their identities. We never see the actual heist- we see blood drenched episodes after it, we see the escape from it, we observe the planning for it but the heist takes place off stage. Tarentino wants to frustrate us- he wants us to be 'fucked' with as he said in an interview- he wants us as strangely disorientated as his own character confesses he is by the song Like a Virgin (a point I have stolen from a review by Robin Gleason). He wants us emptied by the gaze of cool and turned in on ourselves reflecting on the hell of being abandoned in a warehouse with five thugs and five guns.

But its hard to get at more than that. Reservoir Dogs is not a gangster film- it is not a film about gangsters, nor about violence. There is violence in it but violence is not examined. Rather it is a film about the experience of being abandoned with a group of people alone and suspicious. It is about loneliness and suspicion. It doesn't really debate the idea of suspision as much as it could because these are characters deprived of their insides- they are characters bleeding their identities out- all of them in a sense are undercover. Rather its about the position of identity and identification within a world filled with isolation. It works by announcing that its main characters have no names, dispositions but no characters, and desires but not identities- they have actresses they fancy but no wives they love. The characters therefore within the movie are characterless, they are deprived of context, abandoned to each others' gaze and abandoned to each others' fear. The film is less a testament to the hell of other people, than to the hell of a state of nature. Its point is not about society- as here there is no society, noone has a role- as about society without social function, society without the state. The criminals abandoned feel the fear that Hobbes argued they would feel and go out in a blaze of gunfire.

There is something postmodernist about this vision- and I take it that Tarentino intends it that way. The dialogue is fractured and the speech doesn't reveal the direction of the plot (a conscious directorial decision on Tarentino's part). Anyone who reveals the truth is penalised by the logic of the plot and by the heist. The undercover policeman is the only good character and yet his raison d'etre is his equivocal relationship with the truth- the fact that he can inhabit and even convince himself of his own lies. Anyone who believes in absolute truth is deceived and the only real truths are found in murder and being murdered. But that postmodernist point leads to a very odd conclusion- because we are back in the world of Hobbes, where words have no meaning but those given them by a sovereign. The kind of epistemelogical anchoring that the boss, Joe, performs when he gives the gangsters their names, their colours, seems essential to the plot. Indeed to take the point further, one notices an echo of Genesis- Joe like God names the entities that he sees in front of him, like God he gives them meaning and when Mr White questions those names, like Lucifer, he brings the whole world down tumbling upon him (only in this case we are talking post Nietzsche so God too can be a victim).

That I think is one of the things that is so dissatisfying about the film- because it demolishes every structure in order to prove that all structure is artificial and that without structure there is only endless violence. In that sense, the film is profoundly conservative. Tarentino's argument is that without roles, human life is nothing but an endless struggle of murderer against murderer- roles and definition give us purpose and life. Its a counter enlightenment point- civilisation cannot be defended because its right, it must be defended because without it everything else collapses. Having said that Tarentino is aware of the fact that every role hides a disrespectful interior- the Gangland boss sits in an old world office and runs numerous businesses. The gangsters themselves laud their own professionalism. Everything that we know and love can be and is expropriated by evil- every role is corrupted but without that corruption, he implies, we cannot exist. The horror of confinement is better than the terror of equality- because equality leads as Hobbes argues to a suicidal desire for self preservation.

Reservoir Dogs attests to the unease of modernity- an unease that we have not dispelled. A central monument to being cool, its politics are deeply reactionary and its message is disquieting. If you are happy to surf on its dialogue that's fine- but sift beneath it and the vision is disquieting, the reality uncomfortable and the vision incredibly bleak. Yeats talked of a long sleep being stirred to nightmare by a rocking cradle- I wonder if Reservoir Dogs is another swing of that cradle.