When Orson Welles said the movies were the greatest train set in the world he probably wasn't thinking about the toy crashes he could arrange. Quentin Tarantino obviously sees the movies as all kinds of fun, but his screenplays and films are full of accidents, scarcely imaginable without them. It's not the bloodshed or the blowing away that's so unusual - that's just Peckinpah in the city, with a certain lingering on the leaking or blasted body. One of the meanings of pulp, as film and screenplay both remind us, is 'a soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter'. What's unusual is Tarantino's characters' crazy bad luck, often compounded by their engaging incompetence. In Pulp Fiction, directed by Tarantino himself and released in 1994, a fixed fight comes unfixed; a man on the run meets his chief enemy by chance as he crosses the street; the same man takes refuge in a pawnshop that happens to be run by a couple of hillbilly psychopaths; a couple tries to hold up a café that happens to contain a pair of killers having their breakfast; a would-be sophisticated woman fails to tell the difference between cocaine and heroin and nearly kills herself by finding out. When her companions are trying to bring her round, the stage direction reads: 'From here on in, everything in this scene is frantic, like a documentary in an emergency ward, with the big difference here being nobody knows what the fuck they're doing.' Reservoir Dogs, directed by Tarantino and released in 1992, is all about a botched diamond heist, and how arch-criminals are chronically unable to spot the cop in their midst. True Romance, Tarantino's first script, directed by Tony Scott and released in 1993, has a big drug deal that ends in a massacre because too many people show up at the party. There is a marvellous three-way stand-off here - drug-buyer's bodyguards against cops against Mafia - which is repeated in Reservoir Dogs as gangster against gangster against gangster; and the gag about the hero being on the can while the climax of the movie takes place is carried over from True Romance to Pulp Fiction. After the Mafia men torture and kill an ex-cop in True Romance, they discover the information they were after tacked to the fridge. Even in Natural Born Killers, written by Tarantino and directed by Oliver Stone in 1994, which is by far the most brutal of these movies, the violence mainly suggests that everyone and everything is out of control, that no rules apply, and chaos is come again. What interests Tarantino, it seems, is not violence, but fiasco, the sense that life is a mess even in fiction. And then into this mess he introduces not order but style and a peculiar kind of innocence.
LRB 20 July 1995 | PDF Download