Reservoir Dogs

Reservoir-Dogs_510Today’s script comes to us from writer/director Quentin Tarantino. I assume his name counts as enough of an introduction that I can dispense with further author biography. I chose Reservoir Dogs for review because, without qualification, I think this is his best effort. My two prior reviews of Tarantino scripts have been lost, but they both scored very high. Will this be the script that finally gets Quentin over a 90 on the Joel Barish Scale of Objective Screenplay Worth?

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Tarantino is one of those people who just knows how to write dialogue. And when I say “knows” I mean: he has a phonetic grasp of how to write lines that conjure their own momentum. Although this attribute is a gift to him by the God of Small Things [aka, Idol of Writers], we can learn a lot by studying what he does… instinctually. We can then steal those instinctual techniques of his and make them our own. [We will console ourselves during this process by remembering Quentin is a horrible speller and we are not. The God of Small Things does, indeed, balance Her books.]

Part A) Although it takes a while to get to it [a point in the author’s favor], there is a lot of exposition in this script. Tarantino has “his ways” and somehow the exposition never jars the read. The first example of “good” exposition comes from page 17:

MR. WHITE
You really think we were set up?

MR. PINK
You even doubt it? I don’t think we
got set up, I know we got set up! I
mean really, seriously, where did
all those cops come from, huh? One
minute they’re not there, the next
minute they’re there. I didn’t hear
any sirens. The alarm went off, okay.
Okay, when an alarm goes off, you
got an average of four minutes
response time. Unless a patrol car
is cruising that street, at that
particular moment, you got four
minutes before they can realistically
respond. In one minute there were
seventeen blue boys out there. All
loaded for bear, all knowing exactly
what the fuck they were doing, and
they were all just there! Remember
that second wave that showed up in
the cars? Those were the ones
responding to the alarm. But those
other motherfuckers were already
there, they were waiting for us.
(pause)
You haven’t thought about this?

Not only is this exposition about the events which happened during the jewelry store robbery, it’s also a monologue which takes up two thirds of the white space on the page. Can you imagine if you submitted a script with an expository monologue two thirds of a page long? Your lines could be ten times as brilliant as Tarantino’s and they’d still tell you to cut them. So, how does Quentin get away with it?

He does two very interesting things which I’d not noticed other writers do before reading this script. Which means, by an act of Tarantinoesque prestidigitation, we now have new techniques for inserting exposition into our script’s without taking the reader out of the read. The first begins when Mr. White asks the question:

MR. WHITE
You really think we were set up?

It ends when Mr. Pink redirects at the conclusion of the monologue:

You haven’t thought about this?

The exposition works here because it is delivered as an argument to get Mr. White to believe Mr. Pink’s explanation of the events. In real life, when we ask someone a question, we expect them to answer it. Tarantino uses this fact about speech to get specific details into his script about the robbery. He then reminds us that what he is doing is legitimate by having Mr. Pink follow up the event chronology with a question directed back to Mr. White. This question implies [subtextually] it is ridiculous Mr. White has not arrived at this conclusion on his own.

Summarized, the dialogue transaction has three steps:

1. Character X asks Character Y a question about a conclusion Character Y has stated about Event A.
2. Y backs up his conclusion by stating the facts which surround Event A.
3. Y then asks X something to the effect of ‘how can you not see my conclusion is correct.

This is a fantastic tool to add to your arsenal when you HAVE to put exposition into your script.

I want to look at one more example even though it comes only two pages later [19], because I think it demonstrates a separate [but related] technique you can bring to your own writing:

MR. WHITE
Okay, let’s go through what happened.
We’re in the place, everything’s
going fine. Then the alarm gets
tripped. I turn around and all these
cops are outside. You’re right, it
was like, bam! I blink my eyes are
they’re there. Everybody starts going
apeshit. Then Mr. Blonde starts
shootin’ all the –

MR. PINK
That’s not correct.

MR. WHITE
What’s wrong with it?

MR. PINK
The cops didn’t show up after the
alarm went off. They didn’t show
till after Mr. Blonde started shooting
everyone.

MR. WHITE
As soon as I heard the alarm, I saw
the cops.

MR. PINK
I’m telling ya, it wasn’t that soon.
They didn’t let their presence be
known until after Mr. Blonde went
off. I’m not sayin’ they weren’t
there, I’m sayin’ they were there.
But they didn’t move in till Mr.
Blonde became a madman. That’s how I
know we were set up. You can see
that, can’t you, Mr. White?

We are getting more information about the heist in this exchange. There is no doubt this information is expository. So, why doesn’t it bother the ear?

Because Mr. Pink and Mr. White are arguing about the details of the robbery gone bad. They are trying to assemble, from the contents of their memory, an accurate record of the way events unfolded. Since it is critical to the story of the script that this record be as accurate as possible, it makes contextual sense for these characters to pore over the details until they both agree on The Version of events that took place.

Whenever you feel your script can’t go forward without exposition, you can take either of these techniques out of your toolkit and use them. They will always work. Just ensure they fit the context of your story the way the cited examples fit their contexts.

This script contains a moderate amount of exposition. The narrative structure [of discussing past events without showing them] guarantees it will contain more than the average screenplay. Tarantino does a brilliant job of integrating his expository passages into contextually appropriate situations. We can all learn from his example:

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) Before we get to subtext, I think it’s worth noting that this script is only 103 pages long. The Tarantino who wrote Reservoir Dogs was not yet the writer/director who built Miramax Films [by delivering unto the Weinstein’s, THE Pulp Fiction]. He was still no more than a talented screenwriter with just enough pull to get a director’s chair thrown at him. This makes Reservoir Dogs the most restrained of all the Tarantino scripts which he directed himself. It’s restrained enough to only be 103 pages long, but it’s still a partly unrestrained Tarantino film because it opens with an ELEVEN PAGE “coffee shop” scene that is [undeniable] screenwriting sacrilege.

The man writes a scene of [wildly] unrelated dialogue which takes up MORE THAN 10 percent of the script’s page length… and they let him direct? Why? In the name of everything that is sacred about our craft, WHY did the people with the money allow this guy to be the exception that proves the screenwriting rules.

Maybe the people with the money realized [subconsciously or not, it makes no difference] that Tarantino’s dialogue is outstanding because it is filled with subtext. People who naturally write lines filled with subtext are the diamonds in the fields of screenwriter zirconium. The people with the money hate to admit it, but they need people who can write. Occasionally, something has to underlie the marketing, or audiences will start to get suspicious.

Whatever the reason budding screenwriter Tarantino was allowed to be writer/director icon, Quentin Tarantino, the fact remains that we’ve got an eleven page scene of unrelated dialogue which opens this script. If we can’t justify it through the subtext, then we can’t justify it. If this is the case, and, for the first time, ever, Dialogue Icon Tarantino will lose some dialogue points.

I will focus my critical lens on the back half of the scene. The “Like a Virgin” discussion has concluded, and Mr. White [or is it, Mr. Pink?] is about to let the table know his position on tipping waitresses. [I will begin by breaking the scene into parts and talking about them individually. It will take a while to get to the reason for doing this.] From pages 6-11:

JOE
I’ll take care of this, you guys
leave the tip.
(to Mr. White)
And when I come back, I want my book
back.

MR. WHITE
Sorry, it’s my book now.

JOE
Blonde, shoot this piece of shit,
will ya?

Michael-Madsen-in-Reservoir-Dogs-michael-madsen-21997066-462-198Mr. Blonde shoots Mr. White with his finger. Mr. White acts
shot. Joe exits.

I started the scene citation with these lines because it becomes vitally important later that Joe and Nice Guy Eddy [Joe’s son], are closer to Mr. Blonde than they are to the other robbers. Mr. Blonde’s status within the color group has to be highest. By addressing this pretend request to shoot Mr. White to Mr. Blonde, Joe subtly identifies the person at the table he trusts the most. Even though it’s just a joke, Joe will [and by paternal connection, Nice Guy Eddie will], when it matters most, take Mr. Blonde’s word over everyone else’s.

NICE GUY EDDIE
Okay, everybody cough up green for
the little lady.

Everybody whips out a buck, and throws it on the table.
Everybody, that is, except Mr. Pink.

NICE GUY EDDIE
C’mon, throw in a buck.

MR. PINK
Uh-uh. I don’t tip.

NICE GUY EDDIE
Whaddaya mean you don’t tip?

MR. PINK
I don’t believe in it.

NICE GUY EDDIE
You don’t believe in tipping?

MR. BROWN
(laughing)
I love this guy, he’s a madman, this
guy.

Now we get to the reason why I’ve broken the citation into pieces. If you compare this version of this scene [the above was what was filmed] to the version Tarantino actually wrote, you will observe radical discrepancy. The argument that develops about tipping in the original script takes place between Mr. White and Mr. Blonde. Mr. Pink interjects with the line about “the madman” and it is directed at Mr. White. That one jokey line of Mr. Pink’s becomes crucial later in the script when Mr. Pink repeats it, for real, in relation to Mr. Blonde. This is the already quoted:

MR. PINK
I’m telling ya, it wasn’t that soon.
They didn’t let their presence be
known until after Mr. Blonde went
off. I’m not sayin’ they weren’t
there, I’m sayin’ they were there.
But they didn’t move in till Mr.
Blonde became a madman. That’s how I
know we were set up. You can see
that, can’t you, Mr. White?

My guess about the discrepancy between drafts is that those involved with the production through it didn’t make sense for the lines in this tipping debate to be attributed as they were in the original script. Mr. White is the closest thing the script has to a hero. The powers that be must have thought it out of character for him to be saying not tipping waitresses was a good idea. On the flipside, Mr. Blonde is the villain. He can’t be associated with sticking up for minimum wage earners, that would also be out of character. Wouldn’t it? Oh, and Mr. Pink [with his John Holmes/Madonna interpretation] is the perfect guy to stick with the no-tipping policy. It makes sense [to the people with the money] in terms of Pink’s character.

Something like this is what I think happened to Tarantino’s original draft. If I had to guess, I’d say he allowed the changes to go through because he wasn’t YET The Quentin Tarantino. He couldn’t stand up to the actors and producers who were telling him his lines, while brilliant, didn’t make sense as they were originally attributed.

The actors and producers were dead wrong.

The revisions to the tipping scene DESTROYED the subtext. They turned this five pages of seeming randomness into five pages of actual randomness. The theme of this script is going to end up centering on not knowing people as they really are. It is ESSENTIAL to this set-up that we initially dislike Mr. White and like Mr. Blonde. By screwing with the attribution, the collaborators on this script’s filming process eliminated the subtext inherent in this scene. They also eliminated its need to be in the movie.

Fortunately, for screenwriter Tarantino, we are not grading him on what he filmed, we’re grading him on what he wrote. What he wrote was filled with subtext. [If I ever invest in the necessary adobe upgrade I will post the original scene next to the filmed scene in the comments. It’s worth reading through it to see how drastically the scene changes EVEN THOUGH no actual lines were changed. If I ever get the chance to interview Quentin, question number one will be—Who changed the tipping attribution in Reservoir Dogs?]

Since, the change in line attribution ruins the subtextual message of the script, I will edit the filmed script version back to the original script version and then post the rest of the scene all in one piece. I’ll put the original attributions in brackets beside those filmed to aid in comparison:

Everybody whips out a buck, and throws it on the table.
Everybody, that is, except Mr. Pink [Mr. White].

NICE GUY EDDIE
C’mon, throw in a buck.

MR. PINK [Mr. WHITE]
Uh-uh. I don’t tip.

NICE GUY EDDIE
Whaddaya mean you don’t tip?

Mr. PINK [Mr. WHITE]
I don’t believe in it.

NICE GUY EDDIE
You don’t believe in tipping?

MR. BROWN [Mr. PINK]
(laughing)
I love this guy, he’s a madman, this
guy.

MR. BLONDE
Do you have any idea what these ladies
make? They make shit.

MR. PINK [MR. WHITE]
Don’t give me that. She don’t make
enough money, she can quit.

Everybody laughs.

NICE GUY EDDIE
I don’t even know a Jew who’d have
the balls to say that. So let’s get
this straight. You never ever tip?

MR. PINK [MR. WHITE]
I don’t tip because society says I
gotta. I tip when somebody deserves
a tip. When somebody really puts
forth an effort, they deserve a little
something extra. But this tipping
automatically, that shit’s for the
birds. As far as I’m concerned,
they’re just doin’ their job.

MR. BLUE
Our girl was nice.

MR. PINK [MR. WHITE]
Our girl was okay. She didn’t do
anything special.

MR. BLUE [MR. BLONDE]
What’s something special, take ya in
the kitchen and suck your dick?
They all laugh.

NICE GUY EDDIE
I’d go over twelve percent for that.

MR. PINK [MR. WHITE]
Look, I ordered coffee. Now we’ve
been here a long fuckin’ time, and
she’s only filled my cup three times.
When I order coffee, I want it filled
six times.

MR. BLONDE
What if she’s too busy?

MR. PINK [MR. WHITE]
The words “too busy” shouldn’t be in
a waitress’s vocabulary.

NICE GUY EDDIE
Excuse me, Mr. White, but the last
thing you need is another cup of
coffee.

They all laugh.

MR. PINK [MR. WHITE]
These ladies aren’t starvin’ to death.
They make minimum wage. When I worked
for minimum wage, I wasn’t lucky
enough to have a job that society
deemed tipworthy.

NICE GUY EDDIE
Ahh, now we’re getting down to it.
It’s not just that he’s a cheap
bastard –

MR. ORANGE
It is that too –

NICE GUY EDDIE
It is that too. But it’s also he
couldn’t get a waiter job. You talk
like a pissed off dishwasher: “Fuck
those cunts and their fucking tips.”

MR. BLONDE
So you don’t care that they’re
counting on your tip to live?
Mr. Pink [Mr. White] rubs two of his fingers together.

MR. PINK [MR. WHITE]
Do you know what this is? It’s the
world’s smallest violin, playing
just for the waitresses.

MR. WHITE [MR. BLONDE]
You don’t have any idea what you’re
talking about. These people bust
their ass. This is a hard job.

MR. PINK [MR. WHITE]
So’s working at McDonald’s, but you
don’t feel the need to tip them.
They’re servin’ ya food, you should
tip em. But no, society says tip
these guys over here, but not those
guys over there. That’s bullshit.

MR. BLUE [MR. ORANGE]
They work harder than the kids at
McDonald’s.

MR. PINK [MR. WHITE]
Oh yeah, I don’t see them cleaning
fryers.

MR. BLUE [MR. BROWN]
These people are taxed on the tips
they make. When you stiff ’em, you
cost them money.

MR. WHITE [MR. BLONDE]
Waitressing is the number one
occupation for female non-college
graduates in this country. It’s the
one job basically any woman can get,
and make a living on. The reason is
because of tips.

MR. PINK [MR. WHITE]
Fuck all that.

They all laugh.

MR. PINK [MR. WHITE]
Hey, I’m very sorry that the
government taxes their tips. That’s
fucked up. But that ain’t my fault.
it would appear that waitresses are
just one of the many groups the
government fucks in the ass on a
regular basis. You show me a paper
says the government shouldn’t do
that, I’ll sign it. Put it to a vote,
I’ll vote for it. But what I don’t
do is play ball. And this non-college
bullshit you’re telling me, I got
two words for that: “Learn to fuckin’
type.” Cause if you’re expecting me
to help out with the rent, you’re in
for a big fuckin’ surprise.

MR. ORANGE
He’s convinced me. Give me my dollar
back.

Everybody laughs. Joe’s comes back to the table.

JOE
Okay ramblers, let’s get to rambling.
Wait a minute, who didn’t throw in?

MR. ORANGE
Mr. Pink. [Mr. White.]

I don’t think I’m over analyzing here when I note that NOTHING other than the attribution was changed in this scene, and those changes KILL the entire scene. Mr. White is the Man of Principle [he will prove it, dramatically, at the end] not Mr. Pink. Mr. White is the only one sitting at that table who would dare to not tip a waitress based on some higher-order ideas he has about gratuity. The point about Mr. White is that he knows not tipping the waitress is a silly thing to do. He persists in not tipping her because he can’t see any other option beyond doing what his heart tells him is right.

If he will do this over a tip, what will he do when lives are on the line? That is what made the tipping scene relevant to the rest of the story. I have to believe Tarantino knew this, designed the scene to tell this information to the audience, and the changes to the scene [which, ultimately, destroy its value] were not his idea.

To further see this is true, think about the way the scene ends. Joe orders Mr. White to contribute and Mr. White IMMEDIATELY folds. Mr. White does what Joe tells him to do—no matter what he believes about principle. We also need this information here [at the beginning], or there is no poignancy later in the script when Mr. White disobeys Joe for the sake of Mr. Orange. Without this tipping set-up, there is no disobedience reveal.

The scene in the script is brilliant and well worth your time in studying. The scene in the film is trash. I would love to know who was responsible. Since we are talking about the script and not the film:

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) Mr. Tarantino’s script is expertly individuated. You could trace this through Mr. Pink’s use of the word “madman”, or in the speech patterns he gives to Holdaway to get the audience to believe in him as a “good guy”. Any fair analysis based on the way Mr. Tarantino individuates his characters in Reservoir Dogs would surely end with all points awarded.

I do not wish to be [entirely] fair.

Basically, I’ve had it with Quentin’s ambiguous treatment of racism in his films. This does not mean I think he, or his films, are racist. Neither of them are. However, Mr. Tarantino constantly shines his light on the racist elements of human nature, and never points to a solution. One could read his scripts and end up concluding human racism is an Eternal Fact About Humans. We can never get past it.

I do think Tarantino includes racism in his scripts because he sees it in the world, he thinks it’s wrong, and he knows it would be a form of lying not to include it. I also think he believes recognizing something is a problem, AND INSERTING IT INTO THE CONVERSATION, is the first step in finding a solution. In regard to those two facts, Tarantino has been a positive light in the fight against racism.

On the other hand Tarantino shocked the world by tossing the N word into this script 23 YEARS AGO. All these years later, he’s still tossing racist words around [as though they are artistic toys available only to people of a certain talent] and he has not advanced the discussion one little bit more. It is time, in my opinion, for Tarantino to write something serious about race, or TO STOP WRITING ABOUT RACE.

In  Part B of this review I declined to hold the individual script responsible for the failure in its collaborative aspect. In this part I decide I will hold THE Tarantino responsible for beginning something in this script which he has not deigned to finish after a quarter century of opportunity. Unfair, yes. Appropriate, absolutely.

6 out of 10 points. [This failure should probably cost him more.]

Look for part two of this review later in the week.

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