Press Play launches its new director series On the Q.T., about Quentin Tarantino, with a look at his debut Reservoir Dogs (1992). Although it earned plenty of acclaim, the film also sparked two kinds of controversy. One had to do with the movie’s content: its profanity, racial epithets, blood, and torture merged art house and grindhouse traditions in a fresh and unsettling way. The other controversy was aesthetic: Tarantino, a former video store clerk, quoted movie history so ostentatiously—even working pop culture rants into his dialogue!—that detractors accused him of being more of a gifted mimic than a real artist, a charge that has followed him throughout his career.
Funny thing, though: when you look back on the late ’90s and early ’00s, you see plenty of films that desperately wanted to be Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. Truth or Consequences, N.M., Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, The Usual Suspects, Two Days in the Valley, Mad Dog Time, and many others channeled what was presumed to be the Tarantino formula. Yet none of them has had the staying power of Reservoir Dogs. Why? The answer is contained in Reservoir Dogs‘ opening monologue about Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”—delivered by none other than Tarantino himself—and in the scenes of the undercover cop, Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), getting into character as one of the crooks. Put these images together—a lover so good that he makes a sexually experienced woman feel like a virgin, and an actor so good that he fools hardbitten crooks into thinking he’s one of them—and you have Tarantino’s early career: a performance so extraordinary that it stops being performance and becomes an emotional event.
How does Tarantino do it? Press play to find out.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.
Matt Zoller Seitz is one of the founders of Press Play. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism, he is currently the TV Critic for New York Magazine.
Ken Cancelosi is a writer and photographer living in Dallas, Texas. He is the co-founder of Press Play.