Movies January 2002

Ready for Action

Despite seeing on television news what used to be confined to action movies, audiences have been flocking to them, perhaps eager for the illusion of control they offer

Film Culture was the name of an arcane critical journal, but those two words always make me think of the goo from candy and spilled soda that accumulates on the floors of movie theaters, and then of the habits of those of us who spend so much of our lives in theaters that others must think us indigenous to them—candidates for ethnological study. One of our most cherished customs is seeing movies in the early afternoon or very late at night, when the rest of the world is working or getting ready for bed.

The first time I saw Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992), on a weekday afternoon soon after it opened, about a third of the audience seemed to be young black males—an unfamiliar presence in art houses like the one closest to me in Philadelphia. If these kids had been lured by the promise of reckless bloodshed, they weren't disappointed. "Damn," one of them cried out in seeming approval on several occasions when a round of bullets hit a human target. (Sometimes it was a drawn-out "Dey-em," other times a quick "Dang!") Although I was used to this sort of thing, from having seen so many action movies with integrated audiences in multiplexes, where expressions of astonishment by teenagers are pretty routine (and often prompted by lavish on-screen displays of money, drugs, or stolen goods, rather than by carnage), others in the audience apparently were not. Several people turned to see where the noise was coming from—at first alarmed, then amused, and finally just annoyed. The only ones who paid no mind were the young men who made up about another third of the audience, whose intense concentration suggested that they might be film students weighing the logic of Tarantino's edits or keeping a running count of his allusions to Hong Kong action movies. They looked as if nothing short of gunplay in the aisles would break their trance.

I remember wondering if these two groups of young men were seeing two different movies—and which of those movies I was seeing. Possibly a third. A scene from Reservoir Dogs that many people recall with a shudder (actually, a scene they only think they remember, because the camera moves away a horrible second after the squeamish in the audience have closed their eyes) is one in which a hoodlum slices a cop's ear off with a razor and then douses him with gasoline. The dialogue that people tend to remember from the movie involves the crayon aliases—"Mr. Brown," "Mr. Orange," and so on—that the leader of a gang of criminals assigns to the total strangers he has brought together for a heist. These aliases are a way of keeping anybody from ratting on anybody else. The wonderful Steve Buscemi—a bug-eyed, motor-mouthed actor who slightly resembles Don Knotts and plays many of his parts like Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife with a coke habit and a rap sheet—objects to being called "Mr. Pink," because he thinks it makes him sound gay.

The bit of dialogue from Reservoir Dogs that made a lasting impression on me is from a scene that finds Harvey Keitel dragging Tim Roth, who is noisily bleeding to death, into the gang's warehouse hideout. "Come on," Keitel says. "Who's a tough guy?" Unaware that Roth is an undercover cop, Keitel is making one last attempt to bond with him, man to man. But his tone is that of a father giving a pep talk to a little boy who has fallen off a bike and skinned his knee. It's as if what he most wants is to get Roth to stop his caterwauling. Roth gives the right answer. "I'm a tough guy," he yowls through his pain, and there you have it—the real subject matter of Reservoir Dogs and practically every other movie ever made about lowlife bruisers. They're okay with breaking any law except the unwritten one about keeping your mouth shut, which includes not letting on when you're hurt.

Self-consciousness of this kind can be detrimental to a movie. Yet Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) was a masterpiece largely because of its self-consciousness. It was the definitive 1940s film noir, even though it was made three decades later and depended on a final twist that would have been taboo in the days of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. And sometimes, as with Tarantino's articulation of the most basic and knuckleheaded of male codes, a line or two of movie dialogue will be so knowing and full of sass—so clearly meant as a comment on the movie and others in the genre—that I find myself glancing around the theater to see if anybody else caught it.

We expect witty flourishes from Tarantino, who is extremely literary, even if his idea of literature is some people's idea of trash, and whose characters talk and talk and talk—whether it's John Travolta, in Pulp Fiction (1994), going on about what the French call a Quarter Pounder with cheese, or Samuel L. Jackson, in Jackie Brown (1997), delivering an impromptu lecture on the relative merits of various automatic weapons. What's surprising is to find ourselves laughing along with the script in an action blockbuster of the kind made for an international market, where the assumption is that any dialogue not essential to the plot will be lost in translation—and is probably over the heads of most audiences anyway.

Presented by

Francis Davis

"If I go to a concert and I'm supposed to be reviewing it, and I'm taking notes, I sometimes wind up jotting down as much about the audience as I do about the performers," Francis Davis recently told The Atlantic in an online interview. "I'm interested in what music means to people: what does it signify to them?" A contributing editor to The Atlantic since 1992, Davis's interest in the social and intellectual significance of jazz, musical theater, pop, and blues has brought a unique depth to his career as a music critic and historian.

Davis's writing career began to take form in the scripts he wrote for a Philadelphia public-radio show (which he also produced and hosted) that specialized in playing out-of-print jazz. When his scripts evolved into more sophisticated jazz criticism, he started submitting them for publication and became a staff writer at a small New Jersey newspaper. Since his first article for The Atlantic, "The Loss of Count Basie" (August 1984), he has authored seven books: In the Moment (1986), Outcats (1990), The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People From Charley Patton to Robert Cray (1995), Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century (1996), Like Young (2001), Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (2002), and Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader (2004)

Davis writes for a variety of publications, including The Village Voice, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Stereo Review. A 1994 Pew Fellow in the Arts, he teaches a course in jazz, blues, and folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently working on a biography of John Coltrane and a history of jazz.

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