Reservoir Dogs (2)

reser 3Today we resume our discussion of Quentin Tarantino’s script Reservoir Dogs. We are using the author’s original draft as the discussion tool. Many of the points made will be invalid when compared with the shooting script.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

This is a tough question. Strictly speaking, the answer should be no—without equivocation. These first ten pages are all dialogue. The story does not move forward one bit.

We can find some leeway for equivocation in the subtextual excuses which justify pages 6-10 [in the original draft]. I made these excuses quite forcefully in the first part of this review. Even with those excuses, however, pages 1-5 still stand as unrelated dialogue grandstanding.

The thing is no one had grandstanded like this before Tarantino. Under the most forgiving critical lens, someone might even be tempted to say Tarantino invented A New Type of grandstanding in this opening 5 pages. Invention should count for something, right? Lord knows scores of aspiring screenwriters have tried to imitate the pop culture refabrications Tarantino puts into most of his scripts. Sadly, it never works in the imitations. [Or, if it did work, it only worked once. Perhaps Guy Ritchie’s career as a filmmaker is owed to his ability to plausibly imitate Tarantino?]

The fact is, objectively, these first ten pages are interesting. Especially if you divorce them from the debates about Tarantino’s status in the cinematic pantheon. I have no doubt that any of us, had this script come to our attention back in 1991, would have sat up straight in our chair… and devoured it in one sitting. We would then have recommended it. And we probably would have wanted to be associated with its production.

The talent on display is legitimate. The fact that this talent is impenetrably self-serving does not diminish its legitimacy. [Also, all talent is self-serving. Perhaps I should give Tarantino credit for being more honest than other talented writers? I don’t know.]

16 out of 20 points.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story? (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) This story has an interesting reveal structure. Summarized to a list, we have:

1. Pages 1-11—the coffee house dialogue hook. This is Tarantino inviting us to his house to admire all his bright, shiny toys.

2. Pages 12-31—Ninety percent of which is Mr. Pink and Mr. White arguing about the details of the heist in the abandoned warehouse which doubles as appointed meeting spot.

3. Pages 32-37—Mr. Blonde finds his way to the warehouse, with a cop in his trunk. He takes charge of the debate between Mr. White and Mr. Pink.

4. Pages 38-46—Mr. Blonde’s backstory with an emphasis on how close he, Eddie, and Joe really are.

5. Pages 46-53—Eddie’s reintroduction into the plot. The main takeaway from these pages is Eddie’s disbelief in the set-up hypothesis of Pink and White.

6. Pages 53-57—Mr. Orange kills Mr. Blonde to keep him from killing the abducted cop. Blonde manages to horribly torture the cop before Orange acts.

7. Pages 58-85—These pages get called out by the [somewhat] misleading Title Card of Mr. Orange and Mr. White. We get a little backstory on Mr. White, but the overwhelming majority of this portion of the script deals with Mr. Orange.

8. Pages 85-90—The only time in the whole script we actually see the heist happen without interruption by characters talking in the movie’s present. The scene is less than FIVE pages.

9. Pages 90-95—The return of Eddie, Pink, and White. They find Blonde dead. Eddie shoots the cop and is unconvinced by Orange’s story of what happened while they were gone.

10. Pages 96-103 The appearance of Joe and the death of everyone [except Mr. Pink].

Anyone who has read this blog more than once knows that I don’t go in for plot summaries. [I’ll leave all those to Carson.] The reason I decided to summarize this plot is because it is so against standard. If Mr. Reeves were reviewing this [and he didn’t know Mr. Tarantino had written it] he would say sequence 8 should be sequence 1. Open with the mayhem and get people interested in the pages and then switch over to the actual story.

From there, in terms of narrative structure, a purist would most likely recommend sequence 7. Freddy Newendyke’s backstory of how he gets involved in the jewelry heist is actually the literal beginning of this story.

Next up would be a condensed version of sequence 1. Give us all the participants and their subtextual bridge into the theme. Some sort of mass introduction is necessary. Of course, eleven pages is far more than necessary, but this is what happens when you write Tarantino style.

We’d wrap up with sequences 2, 3, 5, 6, 9, and 10. All these scenes take place at the warehouse and are temporally straightforward. The aftermath of the massacre in the jewelry store is told in proper sequential order.

This is probably starting to seem like an awful long windup just to get to a straightforward “reveal” pitch. I went to all this trouble because there are so few reveals in Reservoir Dogs. The most important one [Mr. Orange is the rat] comes half way through the script. This script works, and has the tension of a script with a full complement of set ups and pay offs, however, because it separates its major reveal into separate exposure times.

The point when the audience learns Mr. Orange’s secret is half the distance from when the other character’s in the script learn Mr. Orange’s secret.

Sitting here now, in the comfort of my critic’s chair, I have become convinced that this is a fabulous story design. We could all use this structure to tell a story, and it would get us noticed. Think about how well this structure manipulates the audience’s attention. We spend the first half of the script trying to puzzle out the identity of the undercover cop. Tarantino throws us an extra twist by making this person be the character we least suspect—the one who is so critically wounded, he is dying. We then spend the second half of the script wondering when the other characters are going to learn what we already know.

I will go as far as saying any script written with this structure [that is no more than competently written] would generate work for its author. This format guarantees that a reader HAS to finish the read.

So, yes, Reservoir Dogs does dice up its narrative components into non-traditional architecture, but this is NOT the reason the script was a success. This is just Tarantino being Tarantino. I wouldn’t imitate this. My feeling is Tarantino just got lucky. People tolerated the narrative skipping because it matched the early 1990’s cinematic zeitgeist. The true structure of the script is the double-tiered reveal. That is something to imitate. It will always work:

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) I’ve already touched on the engine of this story in the preceding part of this question. Up until the midpoint, the audience is driven through the pages by a compulsive desire to discover the undercover cop’s identity. From the midpoint until Fade Out, the audience is driven through the story by a compulsive desire to learn how much Mr. Orange is going to pay for being the undercover cop.

reser 4That satisfies the audience’s investment in the story, but, if Mr. Orange is the protagonist, what is his engine? (1) You might think his engine is to catch Joe Cabot. Were you inclined to make this argument, I wouldn’t dispute you. Mr. Orange’s desire to complete this action is a good candidate for the title. A lot of the things he does in the script support this idea. Still, I think the real reason Orange struggles through all the pain of the gunshot wound is to see if he can pull off the ultimate heist:

Can he make all these untrusting gangsters trust him?

5 out of 5 points.

Part C) It would be ridiculous to try and argue this script has a decent pinch point. The only line that’s even a reasonable candidate comes from Mr. Orange:

MR. ORANGE:
Listen to me Jeffrey
Andrews. I’m a cop.

He says this on page 56. Of a 103 page script. That far from the end does not a decent pinch point make. I could go through some hoops and invent some argument about two stories and audience expectations but…

I won’t do this because I know this would just be an effort to support a great script on a question with which it really struggles. The fact is, there is no well-defined pinch point in Reservoir Dogs:

0 out of 5 points.

Part D) In the dialogue question, I mentioned my take on this script’s theme involved people not being what they seem to be. This is actually a premise which supports the conclusion of the thematic argument. Sanded for brevity and maximum emotional impact, the message of Reservoir Dogs is:

Trust kills.

As anyone who has read this blog more than once knows, I think the relationship between the number of words it takes to state a script’s theme and the clarity of that theme in the script is mediated by logical necessity. The fact that the theme of Reservoir Dogs can be stated in TWO WORDS means there is no way you can mistake the theme of Reservoir Dogs. The author has woven it into every line and every plot point of his story. Thematically speaking, this script is complete.

If you examine the bullet filled climax of this movie, you can find strong support for this theme in the individual deaths of each of the characters.

Mr. White trusts Mr. Orange—Mr. White dies.
Joe Cabot trusts Joe Cabot’s judgment—Joe Cabot dies.
Nice Guy Eddy trusts Joe Cabot—Nice Guy Eddy dies.
Mr. Orange trusts Holdaway’s judgement—Mr. Orange dies.

The climax leaves only two story strands not directly resolved by the time the last bullet reaches its target:

1. Why does Mr. Pink live?
2. Why does Mr. Orange tell Mr. White he’s a cop?

We can quickly excuse problem one because it actually fits this script’s theme perfectly that Mr. Pink is the only person who survives. Mr. Pink trusts no one but himself. If you’re in a world where the only thing that can kill you is trust, then, if you refuse to trust, you live.

Two is much, much harder. I struggled with it for a while. Sure, it makes for a nice Shakespearean tragedy if everyone dies in the end, but does Orange’s confession fit the theme?

Eventually, it clicked for me and I saw that Tarantino had, in fact, achieved thematic unity with every character in his script.

The reason Mr. Orange confesses to Mr. White is because he trusts Mr. White will disobey the imperative of the Reservoir Dog’s World. He believes Mr. White will forgive him. Mr. Orange is wrong.

Trust kills.

*** This is really a footnote, but I think it’s too important to bury at the bottom of the page.

EVERYTHING in this discussion of theme is dependent on using the original draft as a reference. In other words, changing pages 6-11 is inconsequential in determining the script’s pop culture worth back in 1992 because using the filmed script as reference doesn’t matter to short term discussions.

The script’s worth to the History of Cinema, however, is 100% dependent on referring to the author’s draft. Reservoir Dogs is only a great script as it was originally written.

10 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) The story is not unique. Even though I can’t count myself as a film historian, I still know Tarantino well enough to be sure that almost everything in this script is traceable back to some source other than him. [And if I didn’t just know it, the acknowledgment page would tell me.] However, the double tiered reveal structure is, without question, the most unique way this story could have been structured. The author deserves full credit for making this choice [whether it was done subconsciously or not].

5 out of 5 points.

Part B) If your name becomes synonymous with a style of writing, then [no matter what your overall merits and demerits are as a writer] you have, necessarily, written uniquely.

5 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? (10 points)

I will be hard pressed to invent reasons for why it’s inspiring that Tarantino has given us a theme which tells us our most prized possession [trusting others] is likely to get us killed. Of course, you have to metaphoricize the theme to get any practical use out of it, so let’s give the pragmatic equivalent and see if that makes it easier:

Trust costs.

Yes, that is true. I can endorse that. Still, it leaves us uninspired because the metaphorical equivalent of the script’s resolution [the fact that everyone but Mr. Pink dies] is:

Better to reign in loneliness than suffer the pains of community.

I don’t think this is true. More importantly, the script does not prove to me this is true.

7 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 84

Footnotes:

1. In classic Joel Barish fashion, I took some time with the truth value of this sentence. Is Mr. Orange really the protagonist? A moderately convincing case could be made for Mr. White.

Ultimately, I could not make this argument satisfactorily. Had the sequence initiated by the title card labeled Mr. Orange and Mr. White been [much] more balanced between the characters, a better case could be made.

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