“Are you gonna bark all day, little doggy, or are you gonna bite?”
25 years later, this is the line from “Reservoir Dogs” that most stays in the mind — no small feat, given how quotable Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece of mafioso banter is. Maybe it’s because it signals the violence to come from Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), whose stuck-in-the-middle-with-you torture sequence has lost none of its disturbing luster — or perhaps it’s because, nearly three decades later, it almost reads as a statement of intent from Tarantino himself.
The film first made landfall at Sundance in 1992, making it a fitting opener for the most recent edition of NEXT FEST. Now in its fifth year, the weekend-long affair brings a curated selection of Park City offerings (all of them from the NEXT section, natch) to Los Angeles. Screenings are frequently paired with musical performances — Sleigh Bells will play before Marianna Palka’s “Bitch” — as well as intimate conversations.
Before fully looking ahead to the future, Sundance first celebrated its past last night. And while films like “Gook” and “Lemon” may not be directly indebted to Tarantino in general or “Reservoir Dogs” in particular, they’re part of the same tradition that he helped establish way back when. What could be more emblematic of the ‘90s indie-film boom than a video-store clerk becoming one of his generation’s most important filmmakers after making his debut at Sundance?
Tarantino was on hand for the “Reservoir Dogs” screening, as were two color-coded cast members: Misters Blonde and Pink (Tim Roth); all were there to celebrate QT being presented with the Sundance Institute’s Vanguard Leadership Award. Both the ceremony and the 35mm screening played to a packed Theatre at Ace Hotel, a Downtown Los Angeles outpost that’s become a hotspot for cinematic soirees in recent years — it’s also where “Twin Peaks” premiered in May.
Whether in his scripts or in person, few can bark like Tarantino. He was all gratitude as he accepted the award, mentioning that he was “thankful to be a Sundance alumni in good standing” before talking about both his and the film’s connection to Los Angeles. “I’m an L.A. boy,” he said to cheers, and “the movie is a Los Angeles movie. There are New York crime films and other crime films, but this is a Los Angeles crime film” — a tradition he said he was proud to be a part of, not least because of all the movies he grew up watching at theaters all across L.A. county.
Tarantino’s first connection to Sundance came before “Reservoir Dogs” was even a movie. “That time at the Directors’ Workshop in ’91 doesn’t seem that long ago to me,” he said, but the eclectic body of work he’s produced in the decades since suggests otherwise: Tarantino’s speech was preceded by a video tribute that included well wishes from such collaborators as Zoë Bell, Steve Buscemi, Kurt Russell, Roth, and Madsen. All of them looked older and wiser than they do in the films they made with the singular writer/director; the scratchy 35mm print of “Reservoir Dogs” likewise showed the effects of time.
Tarantino isn’t the only revered figure who will be speaking this weekend. Peter Bogdanovich and Ava DuVernay are set to chat about Alex Ross Perry’s “Golden Exits” and Justin Chon’s “Gook,” respectively; the latter won the NEXT Audience Award in Park City earlier this year, while “Golden Exits” is Perry’s second Sundance premiere after “Listen Up Philip” (which also played NEXT FEST three years ago).
NEXT FEST has emerged as one of the most exciting moviegoing weekends in L.A. these last few years, and could be a model for similar endeavors in the future. Independent films have a difficult time finding an audience amid the city’s traffic and sprawl, leading more and more exhibitors and festivals to make screenings events unto themselves.
Performers like Lizzo and guests like America Ferrera contribute to that atmosphere, but movies themselves thankfully remain the main attraction — and NEXT FEST has no shortage of films worth braving the freeway for.