Thursday, December 2, 2010


Some say Quentin Tarantino changed the face of contemporary film by combining dark comedy and violence in the same hip mixture, but Arthur Penn did that with "Bonnie and Clyde" back in 1967. Penn's film was a scandalous hit and was met with hand-wringing and condemnation from the upright (uptight?) critics and cultural watchdogs of its day, much in the way "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" shocked and delighted audiences when they were released. Instead of surf guitars and oldies, Penn used bluegrass music--specifically the Foggy Mountain Breakdown performed by Flatt and Scruggs--which served the same purpose as a distancing device, an upbeat lively tune seemingly at odds with the somber subject matter--a hip twist of our expectations. It suggested the film was light and comical, much the way Dick Dale and the oldies undermined the bloodshed in "Pulp," and took us by surprise as we were pulled further and further into the void without the standard Hollywood musical cues helping us understand what we should be feeling. No, this was cold-blooded, and no overly dramatic score would satisfy this new take on American violence.

And violence. Both "Bonnie and Clyde" and the Tarantino films brought violence to a new level--or did they? That's how we experienced it, if it happened or not. In both cases, the films were derided fr their violence and used as examples of how society had gone to hell, how constant exposure to violence had a numbing effect, and how the directer (either one) was making light of a dreadful situation and should be ashamed of himself. The scene everyone remembers from "Reservoir Dogs" is over in a flash, but the scene had such a powerful effect because of a long, tense build-up. The torturer dances around the room to "Stuck in the Middle with You," while brandishing a straight razor. Like the shower sequence in "Psycho," you think you saw more than you did because of effective use of suspense. Plenty of worse things happen every night on television, but you don't feel it like this--so who is really numbing us to violence? Violence is ugly and unsettling, and somehow worse when it's portrayed in an antiseptic TV world where nobody bleeds and no one's hair get mussed. The body count could be higher, but the camera doesn't linger. You'll be safe soon enough, because every few minutes there's a whole rack of advertisements to interrupt the mood. Check out the advertisement for Taster's Choice up above--this you WON"T see on television.

Anyway, Penn didn't beat Tarantino to every punch, and Quentin deserves credit for writing offhand seemingly random dialog, scrambling the chronology, and tweaking the old fashioned genre tropes he's obviously familiar with--having teethed on movies as a film geek working in a video store. In any case, they roasted Tarantino this week and reportedly Quentin drank out of Uma's stiletto. Weird and kinky, sure, but that's his stock in trade. Even so, I'd have preferred a glass.

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