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?

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