When I first saw this, I was the perfect age. An 18 year old student, film enthusiast, living away from home for the first time and thus in the right space for something that promised subversion and a bit of rebellion. I can’t remember much of what I felt about the film, other than I really liked it and stumbled out in to the streets of my university town disoriented but energised, even adrenalised. I remember talking about it with my then girlfriend – who if I didn’t know it by this point, would later (plot twist) turn out to be abusive. She said something that’s stayed with me (although to be fair, because of what I’ve just shared with you about her, quite a bit of what she said and did has stayed with me). “It wasn’t really about anything; it was just really good.” Fair? I’m not sure if it was at the time, and deep into Tarantino’s career I’m still not sure. I don’t remember seeing it again since then. Even so, revisiting it now with a new film from him on the horizon and the video stores he so loved now just a distant memory, I find my reactions to it even more confused all these 27 years later.
During the opening exchange around the diner table, I reflected that though this dialogue was establishing character and the undercurrents of tension within the group which would soon erupt, the apparent misogyny was unnecessary. Like I remember someone saying of Eminem, there’s no doubt Tarantino is clever but there’s precious little evidence that he’s wise. His insistence on putting the n-word in the mouth of white characters is more troubling now, understanding what I do. Tarantino’s insistence on acting in all his own films, in relatively minor parts admittedly, is an early sign of his hubris and inability to hear the word ‘no’ from anyone (if, indeed, there’s anyone willing to say it to him); his complete dearth of acting talent, even in small doses, robs scenes he’s in of the total immersion he so craves for his audience and otherwise can create so brilliantly. He’s no Hitchcock; at least not in this regard.
Nevertheless, I was absorbed against my better judgement, wanting to dislike it but sucked in nonetheless. The threat of explosive, graphic violence is everywhere, but rarely seen. Of course the movie’s most infamous scene of torture allows the camera to drift off to the side as the brutal act occurs, rendering it out of sight (or off-stage … ‘obscene’ as the Greek tragedians would have termed such an unseen event). Does Tarantino know more Greek than we think he does? Whichever way you answer that question – and I’m still not sure – I was so gripped and absorbed in to the tension of the scene that the ending to it I deep down knew was coming was all the same a complete shock. I was open-mouthed. It’s quite a trick to pull off, and a masterful piece of (mis)direction, performance and writing.
It strikes me now that it’s brilliantly edited; an irony that’s not lost now that he’s seemingly incapable of discipline and economy. The reveal of the undercover policeman, and the final standoff, is also a masterpiece in how to achieve much by doing very little; the back and forth structure of the story-telling, filling out character backgrounds in repeating circles, adds a gracefulness to the structure at odds with the bleakness and moral chaos of the film’s story.
What to say, then? The film’s influences and the films it has influenced are even clearer, of course, now. There’s no doubt it’s a clever use of genre tropes. But for all its cleverness, is there any wisdom in there? The question still hangs over Tarantino’s output if he’s cleverly exploring the consequences of nihilism and amorality within the confines of technical skill and increasingly baggy stories; or if he’s just a naive kid who doesn’t understand the forces he’s playing with. For me, what’s clever and brilliant about this debut has dimmed little with age; but knowing what we know now about his career, the questions and dis-ease it provoked at first have grown much louder. One suspects that even Tarantino himself doesn’t know how to answer these questions; that we don’t either suggests his wisdom really does fail to measure up to his cleverness.