Elmore Leonard and the big QT

Last night, I went with a friend to see the Fathom Events screening of Quentin Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs.  As it happens, I also had just finished reading the most recent Elmore Leonard novel, Raylan. The man’s a marvel–87 years old, and writing as well as ever.

I would hardly be the first critic to point out the many ways in which Tarantino’s films have been influenced by Elmore Leonard; I mean, Jackie Brown, QT’s third film, is even based on Leonard’s novel Rum Punch.  But watching Reservoir Dogs on the big screen you can see it so clearly; how much QT owes to EL.  That world of low-life thugs and jailbirds, the sharply profane dialogue, the shocking wit and humor.  Leonard’s voice is more laconic, QT’s more overtly comical, but both write conversation that’s completely convincing, every character sharply delineated by voice and point of view. And both men understand that criminals, on a job, are as likely to talk about movies or Madonna videos or the ethics of tipping waitresses as they are to talk about the job.

And they’re both perfectly tuned to masculine oneupmanship, that casual world of restrained violence and story-telling and the sexist and sexual jokes guys use to establish masculine identity. There’s a scene in Reservoir Dogs, a flashback where Michael Madsen, Mr. Blonde, fresh out of prison, goes back to his old ‘boss’ Joe (Lawrence Tierney), looking for work. It’s an amazing scene: Joe’s office looks very much like a normal boss’s office, except his desk is framed by giant elephant tusks.  And then Joe’s son, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) comes in, and he and Mr. Blonde start busting each other’s balls.  ‘Cause guys do that: establish status and power through the casual insults and homophobic insinuations that constitute male ball-busting. The scene goes on forever–too long really, for a scene that advances the plot hardly at all–but there’s a truth there, and by the end, we know Mr. Blonde, and we’re just a bit afraid of him.  And should be.  He laughs and mock-wrestles, but there’s an edge to it.  Madsen and Penn are extraordinary in the scene; Penn, a sharp guy who has learned the tactical advantage of playing a buffoon, and Madsen, who wears humility like a costume, over a relaxed murderers’ tension.

Of course the acting is what makes Reservoir Dogs: Tim Roth’s cocky and terrified Mr. Orange, Steve Buscemi’s prudent and cowardly toughness as Mr. Pink, and Harvey Keitel hiding an essential compassion under a brutal exterior as Mr. White.

It’s also very Leonard.  He knows that world too; these are characters he has built a career around, and he has his own ball-busting scene in Raylan, the 47th novel in a career that started before I was born.  Raylan Givens is assigned a new partner; they do a certain amount of exploratory prodding, and then they’re okay–they know each other now, and can work together effectively. 

Raylan‘s an odd novel–feels like Leonard wanted to bring back Raylan Givens, but had four different stories he wanted to tell.  After setting so many novels in Detroit, he goes to coal country for this one; Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana. It starts off with Raylan investigating a criminal gang that deals in human organs.  They kidnap rich guys, remove their kidneys, leave the victim iced down in a bathtub, and tell them that for 100 grand they can have their kidneys back.  Great premise for a novel; but then, a third of the way in the book, Raylan solves it, catches and kills the surgical nurse masterminding the plot.  And then Raylan goes on to another case.  It reads more like a series of short stories than a novel, though all these odd cases do sort of tie together–kidney snatchers, stripper/bank robbers, a female mining exec with a taste for violence. All run afoul of Raylan, and pay the price.  Except his final fugitive, a pretty college girl turned poker pro, who Raylan let’s go free so he can date her.

Raylan Givens was originally in Pronto and Riding the Rap–he even got his own TV series–and reminds us that Elmore Leonard got his start writing Westerns.  Raylan’s a US Marshall, but wears a cowboy hat and boots, and his specialty is the quick draw gun duel.  It’s like Leonard wanted to see what would happen if he took a Wild Bill Hickok type old West federal marshall, and placed him in a 21st century urban landscape. Raylan Givens is like Chili Palmer (Get Shorty, Be Cool), a character Leonard liked enough to put in more than one novel.

Back to Reservoir Dogs, though; watching it last night, the character I couldn’t take my eyes off was Mr. Blonde.  Michael Madsen has played a lot of cops and a lot of crooks in his very long career, but I’m not sure he’s ever done better work than with Tarantino, here and in Kill Bill. The most famous (or infamous) scene in Reservoir Dogs is the horrific one where he cuts a policeman’s ear off to the song “Stuck in the Middle With You.” The gang of thieves has captured this cop, and they want to find out if the cop knows which of them is a snitch.  But Mr. Blonde doesn’t care.  He wants to torture and kill a cop for fun.  As he dances to the song, you can see how he’s building up to it, how the psychopathic thrill of murder has overtaken him. That same behavior is straight out of Leonard.  In Raylan, a life-long petty crook named Cuba does the same thing; having never killed before, and with the need to kill two partners who he doesn’t trust, he gets more and more excited, working himself up in anticipation.  Elmore Leonard’s books aren’t about killers, the mechanics of catching them.  He doesn’t write police procedurals.  He gets in their heads, writes about the mental processes of ordinary guys who become killers, or who can’t bring themselves to.  Or about guys who have killed, and become inured to it.  Two great artists who have chosen as the subject for their art what it might feel like to be psychopaths.

Quentin Tarantino has made seven films.  Reservoir Dogs has very much an Elmore Leonard feel–it’s a film about thugs coping with a job gone sour.  Pulp Fiction is like four Leonard short stories which intersect into a single narrative.  Jules, the Sam Jackson character, is very much a Leonard character–a career crook who has a miraculous change of heart, like Jack Foley has in Out of Sight, for example. (A Leonard novel which Steven Soderburgh turned into a pretty terrific film as well).  Jackie Brown, QT’s third film, is, of course, based on a Leonard novel.

It’s like those three films form a kind of Elmore Leonard trilogy.  And then QT went a different direction, became more interested in revenge as a subject matter.  Obviously Kill Bill is about nothing but revenge; the Bride (Uma Thurman), getting back at her former boss and lover, Bill, who nearly killed her.  It’s a great film, but it’s also a fascinating deconstruction of revenge-film genres, especially martial arts films, but also modern Westerns–the Michael Madsen scene a final tribute to Leonard.  Death Proof, QT’s half of the Grindhouse double-feature tribute to B movies (the other half, Planet Terror, made by his pal Robert Rodriguez), is just pure revenge film savagery.  Then came the remarkable and peculiar Inglourious Basterds, a historically revisionist deconstruction of revenge fantasy writ large.  I rather suspect we’ll find Django Unchained to be a companion piece to it.  We’ll know soon.

What both guys seem to get is that the conventional moralism of Hollywood/popular fiction is sort of beside the point of what film and fiction are trying to accomplish.  I mean, Raylan’s a good guy in Raylan; he’s a lawman, but one who understands and relies on the justice of shooting it out with a bad guy, goading him to shoot so he can shoot first.  Beats all that tedious gathering of evidence needed to get a conviction.  And Tarantino isn’t interested in morality at all.  He knows we thirst for revenge, and that we’ll happily accept that in lieu of justice.  He gets that atavism; puts it front and center in his films.  He deconstructs revenge, and then rubs our face in how satisfying we find it.

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