Peter Sagal – Aristotle, Quentin Tarantino, and The Signature Stand-Off

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Aristotle, in his Poetics, tried to reveal the underlying structure of narrative art as it was known in his day. It’s just a shame he died 2,300 years before Quentin Tarantino started making movies, because I’m sure he’d have a lot to say about it. So even though the Academy chose to snub his latest oeuvre,  I present my own clumsy attempt at a Tarantinian (Tarantinoian?) “Poetics:”

In general, the simulations of human beings that populate Quentin Tarantino flicks, for all their snappy dialogue, communicate meaningfully only through violence and the threat of violence. The paradigmatic Tarantino Scene proceeds this way: Character A implicitly threatens Character B with a fatal assault. But instead of carrying out that threat immediately, A toys with B, discussing theories of cinema, superheroes or hamburgers, which serves not to charm B but to further terrify him or her. Then, just as maximum tension is reached, the threat is fulfilled, and A does great violence to B, unless of course great violence is done to A first.

Tarantino’s first movie, Reservoir Dogs, is a single playing out of the Scene, as it presents a roomful of desperate men and asks us to guess which of them will kill which of the others. (The answer: all of them.) And it presents within the uber-Scene other shorter instances of the Scene, with variations, as Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) tells the kidnapped cop, “I’m gonna torture you… It’s amusing, to me, to torture a cop,” then weirdly dances around the room to the song “Stuck in the Middle With You,” making everybody really uncomfortable before slicing off the cop’s ear. He is only prevented from killing the cop by a another act of violence.

In Tarantino’s second best movie*, Pulp Fiction, the Scene repeats itself again and again, with variations, interruptions and reversals, from the opening sequence to the last moment:

1. In a foreshadowing variation, Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer chat amiably and kindly with each other in the coffee shop about various venues for robbery before pulling guns and screaming death threats at the customers;

2. In the Scene’s most pure presentation, Samuel L Jackson toys with the hapless crew in the apartment, praising and sampling their hamburgers before killing the terrified victims one by one.

3. In a sublimated variation on the Scene, John Travolta has his date with Uma Thurman — a sequence overtly about sexual attraction but whose tension arises from the horrible violence Travolta will suffer if he touches Thurman. It’s also a sequence that ends with another deferred, anticipated, dreaded act of violence — Travolta punching a needle through Thurman’s sternum. Which, like a surprising number of violent acts in Tarantino-world, is actually an act of affection.

You can look through Tarantino’s entire body of work in vain for characters who communicate in any other way besides hatred, vengeance and threats — even between characters who like each other. The Scene, in fact, is weirdly sexual and affectionate, as it proceeds from meeting and flirtation, into deferral and delay that increases the tension. The question in Tarantino’s movies is never “Does he love me?” but “When will he kill me?”

In Pulp Fiction‘s third story, “The Gold Watch,” Ving Rhames threatens Bruce Willis with  violence, but that threat is derailed by their being captured by the bizarre hillbilly rapists (who apparently relocated from Deliverance to the San Fernando Valley). Willis then threatens and enacts great violence to the rapists, which creates an almost tender moment between him and Rhames, when Rhames forgives Willis’ betrayal in exchange for keeping his own sexual humiliation secret. This decision by Rhames is foreshadowing one of the movie’s most memorable moments, and arguably the single most human thing Tarantino has ever written.

Which is of course, the last sequence, set in the diner, where we return to in the moment after Roth and Plummer have pulled their guns. John Travolta and Jackson are revealed to be there as well, and they pull their own guns, kicking off the most famous of Tarantino’s “Mexican stand-offs” and yet another iteration of the Scene. Here, though, Jackson reveals his decision to not go through with the violence, to leave the Scene unfinished, to choose, for the first time in the movie (and maybe for the only time in Tarantino’s entire output) an act of mercy. It is genuinely moving… although not because of the given reason that Jackson is ‘”tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.” It’s because he’s one of Tarantino’s caricatures trying, and finally succeeding, to become a real person.

*Tarantino’s best movie is Jackie Brown, because it is populated by actual people, as created by Elmore Leonard, who wrote the book the movie is based on. I think that made Tarantino uncomfortable, because he hasn’t either adapted anyone else’s work or made movies about real people since. Kill Bill and Death Proof are self-conscious genre splatter movies, and Inglorious Basterds is just the Scene repeated six times, by my count, but I could have missed a few.

Peter Sagal is the host of NPR’s news quiz, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! heard by three million listeners each week via 520 public radio stations and podcast, and the author of The Book of Vice: Naughty Things and How to Do Them. He is also a playwright and screenwriter, and once wrote Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights without meaning to.

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