Miller's Crossing vs. Reservoir Dogs

There is about as much sense in pitting one good film against another as there is heart and humanity in a wrestling picture...
So I will come clean and say that I believe Miller's Crossing is the superior film of the two. It may be hard to find a clear, justificatory line of reasoning through the hype surrounding the phenomena of Coen and Tarantino as writer/directors, and the critical drumming that has helped inflate this hype. In writing for contrast, there is a temptation to align forces with this criticism and fuel the romantic fire which regards the Director as the modern day artist and visionary par excellence, whose obsessions and manias form the myth of total cinema - crowning its elite like renegade artistes at the pinnacle of pure expression... and registering sadness and embarrassment with their eventual decline into mediocrity and paid pedestrianism.

Below: Have you seen this man?
It has come to be that the Director, in being wholly and critically answerable for his vision, becomes the only index for criticising a film; I don't mean from press papers and festival promotion guff or from sheer exuberance at transcending the video store, but that the director is confused with the art itself; that the bias of studying film has become the study of directors, thereby creating a notion that people should spend cinema dollars in accordance with who directed a film. For sheer ease of critical reference, the critics agree, nothing beats the auteur's intended meaning. And once you start talking about directors as auteurs, it naturally follows to further prune them into simple categories, signature riffs and predictable routines. This cult of the director is one thing, but the only thing that matters is the film itself - I mean the work has to be rescued from all association with its personnel (which sounds ideal considering the sycophants who think cinema exists only for the sake of award shows, as the reward of such and such a remarkable group effort). Only the work is primal. All critical perspectives should be in service to the work and its method and intents, irrespective of its creators and visionaries - the product over its producers. This obviously requires a more objective form of writing on cinema, away from the ramble, the rave and the review. Away from the critical idea of director as hero and saviour.

I want to compare the language worlds of Miller's Crossing and Reservoir Dogs - because each strikes unique cinematic grounds and emphasis in this respect, and because the directors directed as scriptwriters. This is not so as to load my rhetoric with a pet theory on cinema and literature, like isn't it amazing how many parallels there are? - but to argue that the textual aspects of these scripts provide a useful vantage from which to spin contrastive thoughts about the potential of cinematic art - not to make obscure literary allusions, but to tie together some aspects of the continuity between all forms of expression, to weave together new meanings and perspectives.

Films can be all the more artistic when their style earns the viewer's belief - through a particular vision, narrative and convincing perspective (assuming the cinema can be didactic and aesthetic at once, or rather, that it can engage the whole gamut of attention and experience). This happens when all the cinematic forces (mise en scene, soundtrack, cinematography, script and drama etc) work harmoniously to create an aesthetic or realistic effect, by making a depicted scene appear more significant or beautiful as an experience than it would in grey reality. For example, Steiner's jumps can be shot and narrated to become the actions of a divine artist. I think this hyperbolising is possible since we dream: we can regard the act and content of dreams to sometimes be purer in vision than the everyday forms we hold or behold. Dreams are fantastic or grotesque, madness is absurd and theatrical; but there is always a logic at work in them, whether it be the familiarity of forms as symbols, or the latent meaning we only unearth later - there is always some form, method or order - an additive narrative that inflates significance beyond their simple elements and facts-. And whilst dreaming, we are utterly willing to believe these expressions of desire or meaning. Likewise, the artistic world gives an inkling of a secondary or alternative world and perspective - a world possibly more significant than the grey one we inhabit - where a meaningful order is narrated into an experience through an avenue of believability.

This cinema of transportation and relative realism is almost reliant upon a representation of secondary worlds, on created dreamscapes which are convincing purely by structure, style and language. Fictive worlds are never far removed from realism, and vice versa - each has its own manipulations and tools. Such secondary, artistic worlds are convincing because they are relatively self-sufficient: that is, its players behave and believe in it, it has a mise en scene and language world of phrases, quirky quips or particular codes that are logically consistent with itself. When asked "what's the rumpus" a film character cannot refer to the reality of the viewer and reply "my, what a kooky question" or laugh at it's old-school gangsterism - he has to uphold the world of that language, which could, for all we know, be more consistent and ideal than our so-called reality, if not far more convincing when we have to think about it.

In the language world of Miller's Crossing, these phrases and quips have a habit of returning or being turned around, all in service to the plot and hence believable, as though they have a life or plot of their own. The art of the film consequently comes to reflect some elements of the world we know, just like people use the same, borrowed phrases over and over again. In Reservoir Dogs, the dialogue holds a particular narrative sway which turns the genre around and upon itself, as a kind of directorial levelling that assimilates all the aspects of cinema conviction and persuasion into a witty veneer of referentiality, drawing out the viewer's expectation into the function of its vision and meaning. Its language constantly refers to the viewer's world. The director becomes more intrusive as an irony than a writer - so that his presence is everywhere in the film (not just literally): he is in all its codes, stories and retromanias like a great expansion or realisation of his personal world. In simpler terms, Reservoir Dogs can only reflect its creator's consciousness, a singular perspective seeking expansion by unravelling and undermining its genres, where everything has only to be logically consistent with this directorial vision. As a result, the case for the director as hero flared again.

In Miller's Crossing, the reality is the film - all its players are narratively distinct and convincingly individuated; whereas in Reservoir Dogs we don't believe in reality anymore, we are trapped in some post-modern exercise in relativity - the world become primary-colour comic-book. The players have to tell stories emphatically; in Miller's Crossing the world is narrative. Its story is so dense it requires several viewings, in Reservoir Dogs we understand the text immediately because the film addresses us as viewers ("I bet you love Lee Marvin films") and as survivors of the 70s. But what has this to do with convincing perspectives?

Reservoir Dogs does not need to convince through isolated worlds of text and language because it is a film about film lover's worlds, and how their expectations can be crossed and layered with self-referentiality and conscious intrusions of the many realities of cinema and pop cultures. And yet it draws on the same dramatic appeal and want of believability that typifies the garish colours of comic-books, albeit glossed with smooth raps and cooky quips and the generic myth-mongering of the fraternal world of hoods and gangsters. It is a film talking about its own genre through the director. And so, when we think about it, is Miller's Crossing, but less consciously so - it feels more like its direction takes a back seat to the script and is all the more effective as a script achievement, with less naked exaggeration. Ironically again, the violence of Dogs begs great realism, whilst the perpetual punching bag of Tom in Miller's Crossing is comic-book.

Again, one must wonder what questions of conviction and reality have to do with this, but each film has countless similarities and yet remains so polar, that either the future direction of cinema lies in rewriting the fineprint and discussion of genre conditions, or in making the cinematic tool more precise and delicate in its expressive potential and subtlety.

The amount of similarities between the two are manifold beyond genre studies: the discourses of papa gangster on ethics and trivial pop points (tipping and shaving), the suggested codes of loyalty and heroism; the intelligence of good plays and sleuthing the rat; the soundtracks of the heroes (for irony and comment) - and the idea that there is no lowest rung in cultural hierarchies - the "high" culture is the gangster world of loyalty and wit. Reservoir Dogs is an obvious gangster film for the nineties, deliberately located after the 70s when the kitsch of childhood can be called pop again; with over- or undertones of noir and keen violence... Likewise the obviously accurate historical location of Miller's Crossing in prohibition times, with its otherworldly language (familiar though obscure) and background programming of genre demands: Italian and Irish gangs, tommy gun artists, a cool and super-intelligent hero who is fallible yet infallible, a girl worth fighting and dying for.

Importantly, it's in how each film relates its script as an entry permit to an enclosed exercise in expressive potential, or as an exit from written genre demands into the self identification of viewer with director, that the boldest difference resides. The question of which we'd rather believe in enters the bebop world of personal attitude and opinion, auteur hype etc.

In Reservoir Dogs the pop points are always talked about or analysed in various stories, but in Miller's Crossing they are enacted or self-standing (compare the two endings: total destruction vs. the final integrity). Here there is a consistently relative pop at work, like the caricature gangster's spoiled obese son, the one-liner of the two identical migrants at the Mayor's, the bag-wielding lady in the Shenandoah club, the symbolic integrity of the hat - a novelistic recurrence of motifs. All the rest is seriousness, the threat of a bad grift coming back to haunt, and the recurrence and repetition of beatings and lines - those who can afford to mince words get the lead, etc. But again, the idea of pop that is so emphatic in Reservoir Dogs (music, movies and guns) can go a long way to expose the pop motifs of Miller's Crossing, and vice versa, in terms of how they stand in the narrative. Think of the tommy gun artist... the cigar that dies not and the ballet of bullets... all to the score of Danny Boy. Joe from Reservoir Dogs would tear up the scene if given the chance to do the same. Joe's depth of father-figure-hood goes relatively unquestioned; he's always telling the boys how it is ('like a bunch of young broads in a school yard') - whether it's on tipping, colours or the highway. Leo admits the odd bad play but commands the same respect of his sons. The discourse of papa gangster.

Tom seems to survive the bad plays of loyalty (the bad plays of fate?) only because he is a master of the language of Miller's Crossing - because he has a mouth on him, because the script is focused through him and his language, and because he is a professional to Dogs' pop amateurs - with individuated control over his language world compared to a descriptive telling of stories and lines.

The question of difference between these two films becomes a matter of preference for either a wholistic language fabric or a popular and universally accessible surface which facilitates plot and action, where effect is meaning. Then it becomes: is critical impact and appraisal of a work of higher value than the believability of its narrative? And why should these matter - or why do we like the cinema so much? No doubt because we all want to become directors.

Afterthought: It is strangely ironic, that when a film is considered very post-modern and beyond, that its director is heralded an auteur; like, hasn't the perspective of the author as a dead fiction extended to our comprehension of the other arts? Now more than ever, what is most clearly wrong with the critical understanding of cinema is that we cannot extricate ourselves from the convenient hole the auteur theory has dug for us. Historically, this can go a long way in explaining the negative cinema of today, where a new film offers little more than a reinterpretation or a recapitulation of tried and true cinema formulae, where the only creative directions are those that openly exploit the failure and relativity of these formulae. It is easy and almost inevitable to establish the postmodernity of an auteur, but we make no move to diffuse our lame reliance on the institution of the auteur - because it will always be easier to talk about Hitchcock's films rather than individual works; and because we still dreamily hallow an ideal of artistic individuation, like some privileged or God-given gift of expressive genius. It is further ironic that the writer of cinema died long ago, before the director took the reins of all critical rights (or King of the World status). There are exceptions amongst the hard-boiled gangster traditions, but these have remained exceptions to the rule of studio authority and intervention as manifest in the director (I cite the newspaper-based mediocrity machine in The Player). One could also argue for the new elite of made-to-measure reverse-novelisations avec Michael Crichton and John Grisham, but how can we ever after differentiate good writing from the rampaging river of shit that flows from these talents? Sure there are awards for best screenplay etc. The reward of all those other people without whom the film wouldn't have existed goes a little to correct the imbalance toward writers, but for all the wrong reasons. What to do? Back to the theatre? Back to independents? Less money, more dialogue? More talent at the creation and reception stages? Maybe a greater sense of animosity contra billing rights? Someone, at least, is getting paid for Primary Colours. The great levelling effect of modern mediocrity is that the quality of every new film seems party to a veneer of homogeneity indexed by its marketing expenditure, and how quickly the kids will go back with the script and mouth the already camp soundtrack dialogue. When everything becomes indexed to pop, the big evolutions in original cinematic quality become rarer and harder to detect. Maybe there is hope for writers and scenarists yet.

rino breebaart
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