Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” released in 1992, occupies its own peculiar pocket of cultural space-time. Photograph by AF archive / Alamy
Like matching outfits for pop bands, the influence of Quentin Tarantino didn’t make it very far into the new century. “He is the single most influential director of his generation,” Peter Bogdanovich said, during an event at moma, in 2012, honoring the director, by which time it was customary to add the phrase “for better or worse.” To talk of Tarantino’s influence now is to do so with a wince or small cluck of nostalgia for that period, somewhere between the launch of the Hubble telescope and the impeachment of Bill Clinton, when you could barely find a coffee shop in Southern California that didn’t clatter with the sound of aspiring young screenwriters bashing out talky, violent, blackly comic shoot-’em-ups on their typewriters.
“I became an adjective sooner than I thought I was going to,” Tarantino noted, in 1994, when infatuation with his work was at its peak and a host of copycat films were in theatres. These days, with few exceptions, the trail of bickering hitmen, wild-card sociopaths, and hyper-articulate drug dealers arguing about the merits of “old” Aerosmith over “new” Aerosmith has gone cold. The twenty-fifth anniversary of Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” on October 8th, shapes up as an exercise in slightly nervous time travel, like a college reunion, or stumbling on a high-school crush on Facebook.
Nothing around “Reservoir Dogs,” though, has aged quite as badly as its original reviews. “The only thing Mr. Tarantino spells out is the violence,” Julie Salamon wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “This movie isn’t really about anything,” the Daily News said. “It’s just a flashy, stylistically daring exercise in cinematic mayhem.” These are the two canards that everyone seemed to agree upon, and they were the stances on which the Tarantino-bashing industry would be based. One, that his work was ultraviolent, and, two, that it was about nothing more than its own movieishness, with no connection to the real world. This was a myth partly abetted by the director himself, who often told the story of going to Harvey Keitel’s house to discuss the “Reservoir Dogs” script. “How’d you come to write this script? Did you live in a tough-guy neighborhood growing up? Was anybody in your family connected with tough guys?” Keitel asked. Tarantino said no. “Well, how the hell did you come to write this?” Keitel said. And Tarantino said, “I watch movies.”
Both of these metrics—how violent and how realistic a film is judged to be—are volatile commodities on the film-historical stock exchange. Nothing dates faster than “realism,” and today’s “excessive violence” is tomorrow’s cinematic aperitif. The first thing to strike a contemporary viewer of “Reservoir Dogs,” of course, is how comparatively nonviolent it is—we see a couple of shootouts, a carjacking, and a cop being beaten up, but nothing that you wouldn’t see today on an episode of “24.” To those coming to the film from the freewheeling mayhem of the director’s later work, it’s a remarkably disciplined feat of storytelling, featuring just as many departures from chronology as, say, “Pulp Fiction”—its structure is a nautilus-like series of boxed flashbacks, telling each character’s story in turn—but the flashbacks never feel like flashbacks. You’re never antsy to get back to the warehouse. Without an ounce of fat, at a trim ninety-nine minutes, the movie pierces like a bullet, leaving a clean hole.