This week marks the 20th anniversary of Reservoir Dogs, so in commemoration, we decided to take a closer look at Quentin Tarantino’s celebrated debut.
Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction will be returning to theaters this December, as one-day commemorative events. For more details and ticket information, click here. The Tarantino XX: 8-Film Collection will be available in stores on November 20th. Pre-order your box set now.
When Dogs was first released in 1992, the world had yet to be “Quentified.” It would be another two years before Tarantino broke through onto the mainstream with Pulp Fiction, and another decade before the release of his double-stacked, Kung Fu-Spaghetti Western opus, Kill Bill (Vols. I and II). Moviegoers at the dawn of the 1990s were completely unfamiliar with Tarantino’s voice, unprepared for his pretzel-shaped sense of time, and unacquainted with his unique brand of absurdist realism.
These, of course, have since become hallmarks of the Tarantino oeuvre, and all three are on full display in the above clip – one of several scenes that have since become iconic. As he would in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino chooses to open his feature not with a traditional credit roll, but with a seemingly quotidian, post-meal conversation.
It unfurls, in fact, with a non-diegetic near whisper, Tarantino’s trademark nasal timber opening the scene before we even see the film’s first image. With the faint clink of coffee cups behind him, the director, assuming the role of Mr. Brown, softly delves into his famously x-rated interpretation of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” setting in motion a carousel of expletive-laced conversation that meanders from obscure 1970s trivia to the socio-economics of tipping.
Most will likely remember the sequence for its razor-sharp dialogue and casual comedic delivery – and for good reason. It’s exactly the brand of semi-neurotic, pop cultural argumentation that would course throughout Tarantino’s subsequent films, and ultimately become one of his stylistic trademarks. Equally important, though, are the tools Tarantino uses to ease us into his universe.
After issuing his thesis statement on “Like a Virgin,” the images begin rolling, with an off-center shot of Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen). It’s an establishing shot, insofar as it immediately establishes space and setting (in this case, a diner), but it’s certainly not all-encompassing. We’re dropped in the middle of an ongoing conversation, at the tail end of what appears to have been a heavy meal. We don’t know what time of day it is; we don’t know what city we’re in; we don’t even know what year it is.
Rather than capture all of his principals and context from a wider, stationary perspective, Tarantino chooses to fill in the blanks more gradually, placing the viewer directly behind his left shoulder, and allowing the camera to slowly pan counterclockwise around the table. This, in effect, is his way of telling us that he has a story to tell, but it won’t be straightforward. It won’t be handed to us on a plate. We’ll have to work our way up to the “big kids’ table.”
In retrospect, it’s nearly impossible to imagine this scene unfolding from any other perspective, but Tarantino’s choice is an important one. In placing his lens directly behind the table and panning at a snail’s pace, he at once brings us closer to, yet farther away from the action. We’re close enough to eavesdrop on their conversation and begin forging ties with these characters, but, somewhat paradoxically, not really far enough to fully grasp what’s going on, who these men actually are, or why they’ve found themselves at this particular restaurant.
Here’s an interesting counterfactual: Consider how this scene would’ve felt had the camera been placed directly on the table. From this vantage point, we would have felt like a real part of this inner circle, as if we were another chromatically-named gang member. Even if Tarantino had maintained his pachydermal pan speed, we still would’ve had clear, direct views of our protagonists. Instead, we’re relegated to the sidelines, from which each character is only partially visible, their faces obfuscated by shoulders, chairs, and heads.
This slow pan anchors much of the scene’s cinematography, but there are some variations. After panning right, the camera seems to jump to a different part of the table, before continuing its rightward march. It changes direction at one point, shifting to the left, and occasionally zooms in on certain characters, even if they’re not speaking. It even begins moving right at one point, but angles slightly leftward to Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), giving us the illusion of moving our body one way and our head another. It’s a subtle, yet elegant touch, and one that subliminally humanizes the audience.
But what does this all amount to? In a word, tension.
Sure, the dialogue may be chummy and the setting relaxed, but the entire sequence is predicated upon juxtaposition. We’re presented with a group of rough-looking men, but they’re talking about Madonna. We feel entirely present, but not at all participatory. The scene is largely stagnant — no one leaves until the end, no new characters enter the frame — yet there’s a persistent undercurrent of activity: a fan whirls around just above Tarantino’s head, Mr. Pink picks away at the last remnants of his toast, cigarettes are lit, cigars are fondled.
Perhaps most important, though, is the way the director implicitly calibrates our moral compass. Every character takes a turn to chime in on the conversation and they all seem to hold strong convictions, but we’re never sure whether there’s one with whom we really should be aligned. Each man has his share of stage time in the absence of a singular figure around which the narrative unfolds. By decentralizing his cast and constantly shifting the focus of his camera, Tarantino suggests a moral ambiguity that, as we’ll soon find out, permeates the entire film.