My Kind of Psychopath

Michael Wood

  • Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino
    Faber, 198 pp, £7.99, October 1994, ISBN 0 571 17546 5
  • Reservoir Dogs by Quentin Tarantino
    Faber, 113 pp, £7.99, November 1994, ISBN 0 571 17362 4
  • True Romance by Quentin Tarantino
    Faber, 134 pp, £7.99, January 1995, ISBN 0 571 17593 7
  • Natural Born Killers by Quentin Tarantino
    Faber, 175 pp, £7.99, July 1995, ISBN 0 571 17617 8

When Orson Welles said the movies were the greatest train set in the world he probably wasn’t thinking about the toy crashes he could arrange. Quentin Tarantino obviously sees the movies as all kinds of fun, but his screenplays and films are full of accidents, scarcely imaginable without them. It’s not the bloodshed or the blowing away that’s so unusual – that’s just Peckinpah in the city, with a certain lingering on the leaking or blasted body. One of the meanings of pulp, as film and screenplay both remind us, is ‘a soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter’. What’s unusual is Tarantino’s characters’ crazy bad luck, often compounded by their engaging incompetence. In Pulp Fiction, directed by Tarantino himself and released in 1994, a fixed fight comes unfixed; a man on the run meets his chief enemy by chance as he crosses the street; the same man takes refuge in a pawnshop that happens to be run by a couple of hillbilly psychopaths; a couple tries to hold up a café that happens to contain a pair of killers having their breakfast; a would-be sophisticated woman fails to tell the difference between cocaine and heroin and nearly kills herself by finding out. When her companions are trying to bring her round, the stage direction reads: ‘From here on in, everything in this scene is frantic, like a documentary in an emergency ward, with the big difference here being nobody knows what the fuck they’re doing.’ Reservoir Dogs, directed by Tarantino and released in 1992, is all about a botched diamond heist, and how arch-criminals are chronically unable to spot the cop in their midst. True Romance, Tarantino’s first script, directed by Tony Scott and released in 1993, has a big drug deal that ends in a massacre because too many people show up at the party. There is a marvellous three-way stand-off here – drug-buyer’s bodyguards against cops against Mafia – which is repeated in Reservoir Dogs as gangster against gangster against gangster; and the gag about the hero being on the can while the climax of the movie takes place is carried over from True Romance to Pulp Fiction. After the Mafia men torture and kill an ex-cop in True Romance, they discover the information they were after tacked to the fridge. Even in Natural Born Killers, written by Tarantino and directed by Oliver Stone in 1994, which is by far the most brutal of these movies, the violence mainly suggests that everyone and everything is out of control, that no rules apply, and chaos is come again. What interests Tarantino, it seems, is not violence, but fiasco, the sense that life is a mess even in fiction. And then into this mess he introduces not order but style and a peculiar kind of innocence.

This innocence, assumed to be shallowness or pretence, is probably what puts people off, although a simpler reason may be that Tarantino’s characters swear all the time – there are even more motherfuckers here than in Miles Davis’s autobiography – and are more or less impossible to understand. Tarantino has come to be seen as a kind of Post-Modern primitive, neither immoral nor amoral but pre-moral, a kid who loves the shoot-’em-ups in movies and hasn’t even thought about their echoes and consequences in the so-called real world. In this he would be unlike Brian De Palma, or the Coen brothers, who understand and exploit the shock value of violence; and even more unlike Oliver Stone, who has thought about violence and then forgotten what he thought. Tarantino in an interview (the same interview is excerpted in the published screenplays of both Reservoir Dogs and True Romance) seems to give some support to this view when he says he doesn’t take violence seriously, and finds it funny: ‘To me, violence is a totally aesthetic subject. Saying you don’t like violence in movies is like saying you don’t like dance sequences in movies.’

But then Tarantino’s movies and screenplays give the subject a rather different turn from these too easy remarks; and so do some of his other observations:

Violence is part of this world and I am drawn to the outrageousness of real-life violence. It isn’t about lowering people from helicopters onto speeding trains, or about terrorists hijacking something or other. Real-life violence is, you’re in a restaurant and a man and his wife are having an argument and all of a sudden the guy gets mad at her, he picks up a fork and stabs her in the face. That’s really crazy and comic-bookish – but it also happens ... I am interested in the act, in the explosion, and in the entire aftermath of that. What do we do after this? Do we beat up the guy who stabbed the woman? Do we separate them? Do we call the cops? Do we ask for our money back because our meal has been ruined?

One way of reading Tarantino’s movies is to hear them asking us if we’ve looked at the world lately. Not because they are realistic but because the world isn’t. The violence in these films would then not be totally aesthetic, whatever that means, and it wouldn’t be like a dance sequence. It would be a weird mirror, and an act of (perhaps immature) bravado. It would say: at least I’m only in a movie, how about you and yours?

But there is something else in Tarantino’s films, an immaturity which is a kind of cultural achievement rather than a lack. His characters are wonderfully at home in the world of accident. When a woman spills popcorn all over a man in True Romance, he says politely: ‘Don’t worry about it. Accidents happen.’ She says: ‘What a wonderful philosophy.’ The spilt popcorn isn’t an accident, as it happens, but that makes her remark all the more goofily appropriate to this world. The simplest, most perfect Tarantino moment occurs in Tony Scott’s True Romance, at a point where the finished film actually differs from the script. ‘Tarantino’ here would be less the name of an author than the name of an idea about the world, probably shared by many people below a certain age. We shall be lucky if most of them have such benevolent ideas. The hero, Christian Slater, is trying to set up a drug deal, and needs to make contact with the man who will take him to the man. Where are they to meet? He asks his wife, Patricia Arquette, and she says at the zoo in the script, at the roller-coaster in the film. They meet at the roller-coaster, talk business, take a ride. Slater, who has a shaggy black crew cut, and talks and grins like Jack Nicholson without a mind, is shown full face on the swooping ride, delighted, obviously having such an uncomplicated good time that he has entirely forgotten his drug sale and its dangers and his prospects. Or if he hasn’t forgotten them, he is so undamaged by them that he can enjoy the fun of the fair as if nothing had come between him and the best days of his childhood. He and his wife are like that throughout the film: off the wall but happy with life and with each other. They are not bland or aimless, they are skittish and dangerous, but they know fun when they see it, and the pleasure of this recognition is contagious. The roller-coaster shot focuses the mood of the whole movie, everything these characters are able to enjoy and to forget. True romance.

Slater works, or used to work before he found all this cocaine in the wrong suitcase, in a comic-book shop, and loves kung fu movies. Arquette was a call-girl for four days, but only had three clients, and gave it up as soon as she met him. He has killed her erstwhile pimp (Gary Oldman being allowed to overact as if he was the Anthony Hopkins of the underworld) because he didn’t like the idea of the man’s continued existence, and because it’s what he thinks Elvis would have done. When Slater tells Arquette he has killed Oldman, she starts to cry, and Slater gets upset. Is she grieving for this terrible man? Did she love him? She says: ‘I think what you did was ...’ He won’t let her finish, and keeps saying: ‘What?’ He’s distraught, and we’re wondering whether someone’s superego ought not to give her a line about how it’s not right to go around blowing people away just because they used to be your new wife’s pimp. She has two more tries, and then he lets her get to the end of her sentence: ‘I think what you did ... was so romantic.’

Tarantino says he was trying to be Elmore Leonard in this script – ‘although I’m not saying it’s as good’ – and he does get something of Leonard’s pace and complication; something of his sense of the world of cops and robbers too, a place where you don’t know what’s amiable irony and what’s amused sadism. But the title of True Romance, like the title of Pulp Fiction, and like both films themselves, suggests an element that is scarcely ever present in any kind of classy thriller. This is the world of schlock, unapologetic and abundant, no trace of camp here. It’s a dumber place than any scene in Leonard, which is not to say it doesn’t contain intelligent people. Tarantino often looks as if he is satirising the trashy lives of his characters, but he isn’t. He isn’t even wondering how anyone can live them, since he knows. What he is doing, and this is the strange element, and part of what I am calling his innocence, is evoking the ungovernable and (he thinks) unspoiled energies of this world. There is true romance in the stories modelled on True Romance, and the absurd plots of pulp fiction are no more absurd than the plots which structure our lives in politics or business. What would be truly absurd would be to think we could bear life without a plot.

An epigraph to the screenplay of True Romance, attributed to ‘French critics on the films of Roger Corman’, says: ‘His films are a desperate cry from the heart of a grotesque fast-food culture.’ In Tarantino the cry is not desperate, and his characters are capable of quoting this line as a joke. In Natural Born Killers a pretentious film director cannibalises it for a ridiculous interview. But we are listening to some sort of cry from an oddly uncertain territory, where the old markers of intelligence and knowledge are all awry; where the question of whether you prefer the Brady Bunch to the Partridge family, for instance, as Uma Thurman wants to know of John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, is simultaneously a test, a cultural allusion and a send-up of the whole idea of culture.

The funniest moment in Pulp Fiction concerns Harvey Keitel, come to clean up after John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson have made a mess of things. Well, made a mess of a person, actually, turned him into pulp and sprayed him all over the inside of a car when Travolta’s gun went off. ‘You probably hit a bump or somethin’,’Travolta says to Jackson, who is driving. It’s hard to tell whether he is kidding or is himself surprised, but a bump in the road is the least likely of all explanations. The killers hole up in the house of a friend, played by Tarantino himself, and Keitel takes care of things. Actually he seems only to tell the killers how to clean the car, but everyone treats him like a Big Bad Fellow, and he’s called The Wolf. The thing is, they have to get the car in shape and move off from the Tarantino figure’s place before his wife Bonnie comes home, or she’ll give him hell. This is called, on a title-card, ‘The Bonnie Situation’, and no one behaves as if there is anything comic or improbable about these gangsters rushing about for this reason. ‘Your wife, Bonnie,’ Keitel says in his efficient tough-guy mode, referring to a notepad, ‘comes home at 9.30 in the a.m., is that correct?’ Tarantino grunts assent. Keitel continues: ‘I was led to believe if she comes home and finds us here, she wouldn’t appreciate it none too much.’ It’s as if he was taking down the details of a stolen bicycle. In the world of comedy, it’s closest to Stan Freberg’s old parody of Dragnet. Except that it’s not really a parody. No one thinks about the unfortunate man who has been turned to pulp, and when the guys manage to get their minds off the returning Bonnie, they worry about whether the car is clean enough.

What amuses me here, insofar as I can say what amuses me, is the criss-crossing of the flimsy pretext and the earnest domestic behaviour. The effect is to suggest that a desperate ordinariness might inhabit the most extreme of circumstances. And of course there is also the sense that if you can’t get a plausible reason for behaving the way you want to, an implausible one will have to do. Why is that funny? For the same reason black jokes are funny: because you didn’t think you’d be laughing at all. But Tarantino’s jokes are not black. They’re not cool enough, or edgy enough, their delight in the ridiculous is too obvious. When Tim Roth, as the cop in Reservoir Dogs, explains to his mentor that the diamond-heist gang have code-names based on colours, and he is Mr Orange, his mentor repeats the name before his next speech – this is not in the screenplay – and can’t help laughing. ‘Well, Mr ... Orange.’ It’s a tiny moment, but the laughter touches everything: script, situation, acting, violence, real-life crime – can’t anyone stop behaving like an old film? It’s hard to get a grip on things when the ridiculous is so rampant. Or as Joseph Conrad puts it in another situation, it’s difficult to take many violent people as seriously as the incidental atrocity of their methods deserves. He was thinking of Latin American dictators, but the remark applies perhaps even more to Al Capone after he’d seen a few movies.

It’s in this context that we can think about all the talk in Tarantino’s films. The gangsters discuss Madonna in Reservoir Dogs, and have an endless discussion about whether tipping a waitress is the right thing to do.

  ‘I don’t tip because society says I gotta. I tip when somebody deserves a tip.’

  ‘You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. These people bust their ass. This is a hard job ... Waitressing is the number one occupation for female non-college graduates in this country.’

They complain about their code-names, want to swap:

  ‘Why can’t we pick our own colour? ... Tell you what, let me be Mr Purple. That sounds good to me. I’m Mr Purple.’

  ‘You’re not Mr Purple, somebody from another job’s Mr Purple. You’re Mr Pink.’

A mobster in True Romance launches into a thoughtful soliloquy about killing:

Now the first guy you kill is always the hardest. I don’t care if you’re the Boston Strangler or Wyatt Earp ... Now, the second one, while it ain’t no Mardi Gras, it ain’t half as tough as the first ... The third one’s easy. It’s gotten to the point now I’ll do it just to watch their expression change.

This is grisly but lighthearted, like a cartoon. Or like an American movie imagined by Godard, or by Sergio Leone. Haven’t you always wanted a (fictional) killer to talk like that? These jokes have a triple, rapid-action effect. You laugh first, probably, because the lines seem close to college burlesque, these are simply the conversations gangsters are least likely to have. That’s why these guys all look as if they had wandered in from The Blues Brothers; why there aren’t any women, and the men talk of nothing else. Then you remember you haven’t a clue about the conversations gangsters are likely to have, and it’s only a movie anyway. Finally, you decide it might be funniest if gangsters did have just these conversations, and why shouldn’t they? Richard Nixon and his aides turned out to talk exactly like the President Philip Roth had invented in Our Gang.

Tarantino wrote Natural Born Killers after True Romance and before Reservoir Dogs. He says he hasn’t seen the Oliver Stone movie, and while we may not entirely believe him, it’s easy to see why he would say that. The movie is so shrill and gimmicky, so restlessly addicted to showing off the medium by ostensibly showing up the media, that it’s hard to concentrate on anything that’s happening. It’s hard even to watch it. But the screenplay is also different from Tarantino’s other work: less sly, more earnest, going for outrage.

Mickey and Mallory Knox are a loving young couple who slaughter people for fun, including her parents and anyone who crosses their path. After a little pre-credits demonstration of how boundless and pointless their taste for carnage is, we learn that they are now in jail, and are about to be transferred to a mental hospital, where they will be drugged into torpor or maybe lobotomised – or maybe they will just be killed on the way. The transfer is taking place because the prison system can’t handle them – their murder score in the year they have been inside is five inmates, eight guards and one psychiatrist. They are like the Slater and Arquette figures in True Romance, only stripped of all appeal and turned into psychopaths. But the screenplay gets into trouble here, and the movie is never really out of trouble.

American society as depicted in the story is fascinated by Mickey and Mallory. There’s a movie about them, a rock song about them, Mickey is being interviewed for a television series called American Maniacs. There are some great jokes here not so much about the appetite for violence as about the language of contemporary culture. Wayne Gale, the television presenter, says to Mickey: ‘Every week we do a profile of a different serial killer. You don’t mind if I call you a serial killer, do you?’ The actor who plays Mickey in the movie says he has met the man himself and found him ‘a little cerebral for my taste’, although ‘he’s definitely a man who has his moments.’ His co-star says: ‘I didn’t play Mallory the murderer. I didn’t play her as a butcher. I played her as a woman in love, who also happens to murder people.’

Darker jokes, which do have to do with the appetite for violence, flicker around memories of Charles Manson. Mickey worries that his TV ratings are lower than those for a Manson programme, but consoles himself: ‘Yeah, it’s pretty hard to beat the king.’ A group of interviewees for the TV show, identified in the screenplay simply as ‘three long-haired guys’, provides the following exchange:

   ‘Mickey and Mallory’s the best thing to happen to mass murder since Manson.’

   ‘Forty-eight people known. They’re way cooler than Manson.’

The screenplay knows about the enormity of what it’s playing with – the enormity is the point – but it has taken on more than it can handle. There is an amazing scene with a couple of body-builders – they’re called the Hun Brothers – whose legs have been taken off by Mickey and Mallory but who still idealise what they take to be the couple’s Hitlerian philosophy. The gags are more than grotesque here:

  ‘They passed the “edge” along to us.’

  ‘How so?’

  ‘By taking away our legs. Now we have to fight harder to get ahead than anyone else you’ll find in this gym. Probably the whole city ... Now I’m half a man and I’ve got to work like the devil to get whole again.’

  ‘But you’ll never be whole again.’

  ‘Never is a very long time, Wayne ... Even if I don’t have a leg to stand on, I’m going to get up and fight this world until I’m on top again.’

  ‘That’s the Mickey and Mallory way.’

  ‘And that’s the way of the world.’

  ‘They’re just shocking the world into remembering the primal law.’

But when Mickey says he found his vocation when he found a big gun – ‘when I was holding the shotgun it all became clear. I realised for the first time my one true calling in life. I’m a natural born killer’ – there isn’t a gag in sight, and the screenplay itself is in love not with Mickey and Mallory or with killing, but with their immense indifference to the world of others and with the fact that no jail or jailer can hold them. They are like Romeo and Juliet retrained by Hannibal Lecter, a young dream of being tougher than any system. ‘We are enraptured,’ a stage-direction says when the couple get together against all the odds, and the instruments of Mickey’s imprisonment (chains, jail, guards, guns) are at one point described as ‘the symbols of society’. A psychiatrist makes a distinction which is probably untenable but is nevertheless revealing – revealing about the fantasy – between being insane and being psychotic: ‘Insane, no. Psychotic, yes. A menace to living creatures, yes. But to suggest they’re insane gives the impression that they don’t know right from wrong. Mickey and Mallory know the difference between right and wrong. They just don’t give a damn.’ Wouldn’t it be lovely? Ethical incorrectness personified. We don’t have to think of this as a celebration of real-life violence, and still less as an exercise in criminal psychology. But there would be some space between endorsing the fantasy and thinking it meant the end of the civilised world.

The movie is trying to criticise the fantasy, certainly isn’t endorsing it. It’s just that the violence of its technique has the effect of making Mickey and Mallory seem calm and reasonable, infinitely saner than the society which surrounds them; and a lot calmer than the movie which contains them. The screenplay also wants to ask the question about who’s sane, but as some sort of uneasy riddle. Are Mickey and Mallory really crazier than the people who idolise them, or can’t wait to turn them into news? They’re more lethal, but that’s not in doubt, that’s what focuses the question. The problem is that even in the screenplay it’s really no contest. Of course they’re not crazier than a television programme called American Maniacs, and we’re rooting for Wayne Gale to get killed from the moment he appears. ‘We’re not even the same species,’ Mickey says to Wayne when Wayne claims he understands him; and the final implication of the story is that there is no lower life form than a television personality. This is a claim which will have its supporters, but it’s not clear that those supporters will feel any more kindly about moviemakers; and more important, the claim is unusually judgmental for Tarantino, since it shows so little of the delight in cultural crap which distinguishes all his other work, but which lurks only briefly in this screenplay and then vanishes.

The screenplay of Pulp Fiction is better than the movie, I think. I know this sounds bizarre in the light of the film’s extraordinary success. But it’s a pretty obvious film, and the script shows how elegant the plot is beneath the obviousness, and sometimes the conceptual is richer than the heavily staged and photographed. The idea, for instance, of a café where the waiters impersonate Buddy Holly, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Donna Reed, Martin and Lewis and so on, is funnier than the filming of a set where people do this. When Travolta, eating here with Uma Thurman, orders the Douglas Sirk steak, the joke is all the better for being so pointless and casual. And there is a moment where the movie almost loses the precarious balance that all the style and innocence rests on. Samuel L. Jackson, about to kill a man, taunts him and then recites a passage from Ezekiel: ‘The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.’ On the page this is strange enough to bewilder us, and bewilderment is what we need. In the film, Jackson throws himself into the taunting and reciting with such enthusiasm, such a commitment to good old naturalism, that the scene becomes merely sadistic, not complicated at all, a man with a gun baiting a man without one. The film recovers, but it’s a close thing.

Reservoir Dogs, though, is a good screenplay, and an even better film. There are things there you just can’t see in the script, and there are sequences that hang in the mind like terrible but unforgettable old songs, or like stuff you expect to see in your dreams for years. There are longueurs in the film, times when it seems to get lost. This is because the narrative framework, with its elaborate flashbacks, is so intricate that everyone except Tarantino is lost. But just when you think the film is really not going anywhere, you come across Tim Roth being taught a story he is supposed to tell the gangsters in order to ingratiate himself with them. The story has to do with his meeting some cops in a lavatory when he is carrying a bag of marijuana, but it’s Roth’s learning and telling the story that counts. ‘What is this?’ Roth says, looking at the sheets of paper his mentor has given him. ‘It’s an amusing anecdote about a drug deal.’ ‘What?’ ‘Some funny shit that happened while you were doing a job.’ We cut from Roth being instructed to Roth learning his lines; from there to another rehearsal, on some dizzyingly graffitied waste lot; and from there to Roth telling his story to the gangsters. The film then cuts between the telling of the story and a dramatising of the story as if it was happening now; at one point Roth is audibly telling the story to the gangsters while standing inside the story, in the lavatory with the cops. However, the cops are also telling a story ... The cops’ dog barks in slow motion, there are ominous close-ups leading to an entirely unsurprising anti-climax, you feel you are falling through every movie you’ve ever seen. Not everyone is going to like this sort of thing, and some people will hate it. To me it was like the brilliant narrative craziness of late Buñuel, the swift and arbitrary shifts of The Phantom of Liberty, for example, and I was hooked. Tarantino recalls that he almost took this sequence out of the movie – ‘No one cares about this; they want to get back to the warehouse’ – then looked at it again and said: ‘Quentin, are you insane? This is really good.’

This isn’t what I’m going to see in my dreams, though. The grisliest scene in Reservoir Dogs concerns the torture of a policeman by Mr Blonde, played by Michael Madsen. The violence is funny, but it’s also hair-raising, haunting in insidious ways, not like the thuggishness of the moment I mentioned in Pulp Fiction. ‘I don’t know anything!’ the policeman says. ‘You can torture me if you want –’ Madsen says, ‘Thanks, don’t mind if I do’; and does. ‘Now I’m not gonna bullshit you,’ he says, ‘I don’t really care about what you know or don’t know. I’m gonna torture you for a while regardless. Not to get information, but because torturing a cop amuses me.’ This conversation is matched only by the cop’s asking later, when his ear has been lopped off but Madsen is dead: ‘How do I look?’ Tim Roth, now bleeding to death in the same warehouse, says: ‘I don’t know what to tell you, Marvin.’

But what we can’t read in the screenplay, what isn’t in the screenplay, is Madsen’s slight, graceful shimmy as he crosses the room to slash the cop’s face or set the cop alight with petrol. He is moving in time to a song called ‘Stuck in the middle with you’, playing on the radio show ‘Super Sounds of the Seventies’. Madsen is bulky, good-looking; he has taken off his suit jacket, so we can see his gun holster over his white shirt. The screenplay says: ‘Note: this entire sequence is timed to the music.’ This gives us the idea, but not the soft-shoe shuffle. I don’t know why that faint dance movement makes such a difference. It doesn’t make Madsen any less crazy, or the scene any less scary – makes it scarier, in fact. It doesn’t make violence ordinary, but it does give it a familiar, intimate manner, makes it continuous with songs we might listen to and restaurants we might eat in. Because it’s in a movie, we can still smile rather than shriek. This is an actor, this is an invented, angled story. The killer’s little dance is only a metaphor. For what? It’s too easy to moralise, and what I remember is a movement, not a meaning. I’m half-afraid it’s the style I’d like to have if I turned out to be a psychopath, but that’s really immature.