50 years, 50 films: Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Our latest film in the series is surely the most influential of its decade.
The New Year rises and we return to our journey through the last half-century of film. Nineteen ninety-two was the year of Unforgiven, The Player and The Crying Game. Let us not pretend, however, that it wasn’t really the year of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. The director is now such an avatar of the age that we hardly need to go over his history: film nerd, video-store employee, self-made auteur. It has become easy to downplay his influence. Even those of us who admire Quentin’s recent pictures admit that they do adhere to a QT brand (so what, John Ford’s film were always John Ford Films). But there is no question that, for good or ill, he invented a school of film-making. Reservoir Dogs made the talky, highly referential geezer thriller a viable option. To this point. it would have seemed slightly naughty to base your film on unacknowledged forerunners (most conspicuously Ringo Lam’s City on Fire in this case). Thereafter, that class of post-modern jackdaw film-making became enormously fashionable.
If you wanted to get all hoity-toity, you could argue that the subsequent retreat into reference, already common in the literary novel, ushered in some sort of Age of Insincerity. There is a workable thesis there. But Tarantino’s best films — and Dogs still looks like his very best — always live lives of their own that require no knowledge of the imagined footnotes. As well as a tipping of the hat to genre favourites, Dogs boasted an admirably tight structure that thrived on temporal hijinks. More that a few amateur companies staged the piece as a taut chamber piece. Individual speeches have became unavoidable audition pieces. And then there is the tremendous use of pre-existing music. Scorsese had been here before, of course, but Tarantino made that process into a veritable art.
We always like to tie our choice of films into the relevant age. There’s nothing here that speaks of the end of the Cold War or weariness at 1980s excess. But the film does play like the first major work to show the influence of the video age. Thirty years earlier, Truffaut, Godard and the other Frenchies made films that spoke of their years squinting at American films in dusty arthouses and fading rerun palaces. Tarantino and his peers were allowed access to an even greater range of films on the new medium and they were promiscuous in their desire to demonstrate the fact. Along the way, this particular video hound ended up inspiring his own legion of devotees. The film does also put the lie to a frequently touted notion that the rise of subtextual references has something to do with the internet. It was all up and running long before those virtual worlds properly asserted their influence.
The picture also had a significant effect on how the industry deported itself. It’s easy to get cynical about the much-touted boom in independent cinema that rode the wake of films such as Reservoir Dogs, Sex Lies and Videotape and The Crying Game. The boys at Miramax — the House that Quentin Built — rapidly became more interested in repackaged heritage cinema than genuinely experimental fare. But that movement did make life easier for irresistible talents such as Hal Hartley, Whit Stillman and (best of the bunch, perhaps) Todd Haynes. We will meet some of those fine oddballs in our continuing travels through a very interesting decade. Keep paying attention.