Killing Brando: New Crime Movies Go On Brain Detail

As published in Film Comment.


    Back in the early 50s, a solid decade before Quentin Tarantino was born into Knoxville, Tennessee poverty, Marlon Brando, young and still hard, was re-surveying the horizon of passion for postwar American men. He carved out low swales of improvisatory naturalism here and there, and shaped patches of dark mumbling where rash and grievous outbursts could feel at home with the new Beat preference for the raw over the cooked. Brando made something of a new Eden of, and for, men, but it was a dark and vexed place mostly, the little light there was fighting through to bowers of mossy sex, a subject that Brando (according to Peter Manso's biography, Brando) apparently knew about in spades. Most of the significant male actors who came up after Brando took up his landscaper· ·s mission, laying down the fresh sod of a transition from David Niven and Cary Grant, actors defined by their wit and charm, to stew-fed and unschooled Nixon and Eisenhower loners, dirty cowboys in white t-shirts and baby smiles: Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, even, God help us, up to Sly Stallone and Mickey Rourke all were Brando-ized. All incomprehensible shrugs and gestures, they let inward turns and conscious animal eyes do all their speaking for them.

    Yet, having made the world, Brando withdrew. He became the eminence grise of male expressivity, with Stanley Kowalski's scream in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) its primary reference point. In Streetcar, Brando grafted the toughs from Scarface (1932) onto images of troubled men: Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra types, both frail oddball misfits in From Here to Eternity and The Man With the Golden Arm. (When Sinatra and Brando met in 1955 on the set of Guys and Dolls, the two stars bristled. Manso records one anecdote in which Sinatra, asked by Brando to go over lines together, is said to have replied, "don't give me any of that Actors Studio shit.") In the parts he played, Brando often made characters who combined hard shells with disconnection and daydreaming. From these general attributes, Brando invented a poetry of checked speech and body language whose apotheosis came in The Godfather (1972) a film in which, it's no accident, he played a numb-faced gangster who likes to garden. (He would later parody the role in The Freshman, compressing the Don's deliberate menace into those knuckly, walnut-crushing hands).

    The heat of the Brando image made its impression in the most unlikely places. Al Pacino's gay bankrobber in Dog Day Afternoon (1975) owes as much to Brando as his Michael Corleone does. Robert De Niro's work from Taxi Driver on seems a jigsaw of Brando parts; his Jake La Motta in Raging Bull takes us to palookaville hell and ends the bum boxer portrait that Brando's Terry Malloy first made fine in On the Waterfront. The whole notion of the character who is driven by excess rather than control, heat rather than cool reserve, is almost impossible to imagine before Streetcar. Valentino, his heat all veils and wide eyes, hardly counts.

    The male stuff Brando tapped into and made gush also made Martin Scorsese's career imaginable. The back alleys of sexual anxiety and bullies' rage in Scorsese come from the vein Brando started on, even when spliced and bypassed to suit Scorsese's Mulberry Street memories. When De Niro stands in front of that mirror in Taxi Driver, improvising the encounter that always ends with the tilted neck, the cracked smile and "You're dead now, fuck," the bailing twine of rage that twists around the performance is rooted in Brando, whose Mona Lisa smile, and what Norman Mailer once called his "muted animal voice," lends Travis Bickle's its sick promise.

    Quentin Tarantino, who no one can get enough of now for mostly good reasons (despite the recent predictable backlash), has made two films about disturbed talkaholics whose crimes crank up the male anger Brando made important from boiling to steam heat. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction tend to stick fury and humor in the same corner and let them knock each other out: each film sutures audiences into the characters' ungrown-up pain a little in the way Brando in, say, The Wild One, inveigled viewers into his world of hurt. But Tarantino does it with a funny little mash of elements that jams dangerous male bonding bits from Peckinpah and Scorsese together with weird monologues out of Tennessee Williams and Sam Shephard and then with something all his own, something hilarious and theatrical and wholly new that brings Godard out of avant garde turnaround, sits him down with a five dollar shake and overhauls his overbearing Sartrean revulsion at the consumer world. The resultant combo platter of sampled storylines, guru sophistication and something kin to personal obsession began seriously carrying away audiences at the 1994 Cannes with the force of intoxication.

    Tarantino has said, over and over, that with Pulp Fiction he wanted to take "the oldest stories in the book" and push at them until they became something else. Taking his lead, critics have iinvoked Salinger and Faulkner as well as the nouvelle vague's penchant for spooning absurdity over Hollywood 'B' films of the 1940s and 1950s. But these explanations sound a little like apologies, cooked-up reasons for people to sit in good conscience through the wrench of violence that roots the films (a violence that is also at the core of True Romance, the Tony Scott film Tarantino scripted, and of Natural Born Killers, Oliver Stone's movie based on a Tarantino script). So, what gives? Discard the notion that his films have huge cultural resource and what's left to account for the big box office returns?

    A good part of the reason for the film's success has to be the talk. Tarantino writes characters who dress in suits discarded from Mean Streets but who might have spent their youth with alternative comics and high-sugar cereals: his men yak like Ritalin-starved talkaholics. Guns holstered or in hand, they go on at the mouth, more intelligent than they have any right to be. Yet, speech hooked to speech, all the words line up like cars in a train that's directed to the end-punctuation of automatic gunfire.

    What it seems to be is Brando, unlaced and undone. Listen to John Travolta's Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction and you can hear echoes of a mobile Brando speech pattern under the surface. It's a mumble all right, but a mumble let off the leash, equal parts Barbarino and barbarian. It says, Nothing deep here. It's the voice of a killer who suspects that goofing around is the other half, if not the better part, of valor. Vincent, a well-mannered killer who also shoots heroin, will pee on anything once, just to see. But the kind of talk just to talk is the foundation of Tarantino's new take on the thieves-like-us genre. Characters say everything that's on their minds, usually in pairs as in avante™garde theater, and anything's worth a dialogic divagation from the main road too -- no exchange has too many slow-downs or S-patterns for him. Potbellies, Fonzie, miracles, grace, Netherlandish french-fry garnish: when Pulp Fiction is finished, what Sinatra called Brando's "Actors Studio shit," the inarticulate rage that transformed two generations of male behavior on and off the screen, is pulled down, like a tent-trailer in a hailstorm.

    Forty years after Brando wrote the lexicon for every rock'n'roll actor's hunted look and ambiguously cocked head, Tarantino has smashed it, made all that improvisation, all that Jackson Pollock gesture, Stella Adler breathing and Lee Strassberg memory a collection of museum pieces. And he's done it through long exchanges of dialogue that sound like O'Neill on a heroin bender. But that's cool: the first rockin' actor, Brando didn't give a damn for the theatrical tradition that came before him either: he ripped it up. (In a review of his career in The New Yorker a year ago, Harold Brodkey calls Brando's animal quality his "shitting-on-you wildness.")

    But killing Brando that is, killing the idea that there's anything worth hearing behind the aphasia and the half-thoughts, killing the myth that masculine silence is rippling with something to sayis part of a larger guerilla attack on outworn models of dangerous men that's been creeping up on us for a few years now. Real life mass killers (the ones Tarantino's are cashing in on, kind of) have become cross-cultural celebs with long, detailed biographies that do the speaking for them, and the kind of death we imagine they manufacture has taken hold in the public imagination as something that belongs to us, and that maybe some parts of some of us belong to too.

    Yet with real differences. The recent killers served up by film culture from the real-life cretin that Joe Pesce plays in Goodfellas to Hannibal Lector and the pseudo-documentary serial killers in Natural Born Killers are always shadow and light refractions of the real ones. Shadow and light because, steeped in sprayed gore, they are shocking, but also kind of ironical, as though what they do with human bodies and what they do in mind-and word-games with each other were A and B sides of the same hot single. No character in the culture is more mythological right now than the enigmatic random killer, but his profile (loner, rebel, quiet) was first forged in The Wild One, which made enigma one of the central requirements of a film about masculine violence. But where Brando's Johnny only wanted to rebel against a vague whaddya got, killers now, impulses before anything else, all reactive nervous tissue, are the central symbols of American experience this side of the mainstream. They are Raymond Carver characters grown tired of fishing slime from Yakima swimming pools.

    Until recently, the killer's on-screen personality had fewer options too. The culture's central psycho, the Brando of killers, is Norman Bates. But Norman's nuttiness follows an Oedipal plot about the corkscrew turns that motherlove may take, and in the right light that seems almost seems dopey now. Bonnie and Clyde were maximally mixed-up kids and so, essentially, were the thrill killers, Leopold and Loeb. Killers seem most understandable as explainable versions of ourselves gone wrong, and for particular reasons.

    In the late 60s and into the 70s and 80s the killer evolved. Instead of detailing the lives of misunderstood heroes (Thieves Like Us) or unravelling the minds of derailed crazies (Psycho), films like In Cold Blood, Honeymoon Killers, Taxi Driver, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Badlands and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer began to offer portraits of incomprehensible drifters, disenfranchised garbage collectors, disconnected vets. "I ain't got no plan," Martin Sheen's Kit says halfway through his spree in the brilliant Badlands, saying something about the wild peripheries of the democratic experiment. The killers in these films are not us, they're not even close: they're spectacularly damned figures out of Baudelarian poetry, they are literary weirdos who arrive in a bolus of strikingly fine, maze-y American films late in the decade of assassination when the romance of the American century seems to be drying up.

    In In Cold Blood, Richard Brooks takes Truman Capote's cue and refuses to assign meaning of any sort to Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, who sweep into a small Kansas town in night air and put death on a Norman Rockwell family like handprints on a rifle. A roadside sign in front of the motel where the two criminals are caught has burned-out letters, making the sign read an ominous vacancy of "OOM." But that's about as deep as things got. In a similar sort of way, Badlands shows us Kit standing on a cow carcass, telling his girlfriend he sees visions and dreams of things he can't name. The films are fascinating because these scenes often precede or follow blackly humorous ones. In Badlands, Kit speaks into a rich man's Dict-a-phone during a respite in his cross-country killing and what he says has no reason to be as comic as it is except that it has come from him: "Consider," he says, his voice flat, "the minority point of view. But when the majority is known, try to accept and live with it." It's funny because it isn't entirely foolish.

A decade and a little later, these episodes give way to more terrifying combinations of humor and rage. John McNaughton's Henry (1986), the brilliant low-budget and documentary-like film about Henry Lee Lucas's spree of murders in the 1970s, uses a humor so baleful that it is possible to feel a little afraid of your own impulse to laugh. In one sequence, on grainy home video, Henry's partner Otis records their nocturnal work with a stolen camera. Henry and Otis ambush a middle-class couple and their teenage son in their own home, and we watch the three family members struggle on the floor, their shoes slipping on the wall-to-wall carpeting.

    Through the struggle, even after he has snapped their necks, Otis laughs as though he is only roughhousing. Then, the stroke of genius: a cut re-situates the murders to reveal that what we've been watching is past, that Henry and Otis have been watching their own exploits -- reviewing them, so to speak -- with us, drinking beer and staring quietly, hours or days later. And it's a relief to be away from the screams of violated bodies, from the voyeurism. And it's then you can understand what a dark, dark Warholian comedy this is about the human impulse to watch.

    Remy Belveaux's Man Bites Dog (1992), a rainy black and white faux-documentary about a charming sociopath who heaves victim's bodies into a quarry pond and converses animatedly before and after, over demi-tasse cups of espresso, about architecture, morality and women, is only a little less alarming than Henry. More self-consciously witty, Man Bites Dog maps out the oppositionality in a killer's consciousness, his simultaneous remoteness and proximity. But the film's final image of conscious life is that of a mechanically absorbed gaze: when unseen shooters strike down the killer and crew, the camera becomes the last "living" witness. Fallen on its side, the last few feet spool out, recording the fall of dust in an abandoned warehouse. It's an image of cinematic as well as human disintegration: the film is aborting its attempt to "do" the killer.

Stand-Up Killers

    Tarantino's films come out of some of the same moiling for gold that you see in Man Bites Dog Tarantino has said he admires Belveaux's work and, most simply put, that is their postmodern face. That is, the films revel in laying down for viewers what comes next yet announce their suspicion about telling crime story narratives founded on a "what comes next" aesthetic.

    Different from the big, loaded crime-spree films produced between 1967 and 1974, Tarantino's films don't regard planlessness and plotlessness as significant, nor do they troll off-ramps exemplifying the absence of meaning and hope or a government gone mad. Tarantino characters are more upbeat, they find it hard to stay serious, and their attention spans are so fretted by television time that their stories seem unable to sustain the cultural meaning you might want to find in them. Paying attention to money as well as honing their wit, to killing and keeping an eye fixed on trivia, makes wandering from the point difficult to avoid.

    Consider a useful contrast. Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle logs a lot of television time too. But it's not his friend; it seems to breathe out toxic messages about the world that confirm his sense of himself as an avenging angel. And when one day, falling asleep, he kicks over the set and blows the tube the backward crash becomes a metaphor of his isolation and dementia. The TV too looks tipped back with a cracked white-noise smile, dead and alive in just Travis's sense. Tarantino's characters mostly know what they know via mediation; they know things as they relate to American pop culture of the past 20 years and they like to surf the detritus of their memories of marginal films and buried rock'n'roll and drug culture. That's how they understand things and that's how they feel real.

    At one point in Reservoir Dogs, a film known mostly for ten of fifteen minutes of abject bloodletting, two connoisseurs of minutiae, Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) and Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), supposed to be memorizing the details of a jewel heist, try instead to remember the star of Get Christie Love! (1974). In the back seat of a car they snap their fingers trying to spark a memory. Watching, it's easy to get giddy. Everything about them, aside from the handguns, says car-pool.

    There's something else too, something quick-witted and alive in what they say that carries their talk outside the junk culture they live in, that makes them kin to Sam Beckett or David Mamet, smart deconstructors of conversation. Way, way inside the culture, on intimate terms with its vital organs and main arteries (and unfraid to tickle them or stick them until they gush) these new psychos resemble trivia-mad brainiacs playing out manic sandbox dreams of guns and bigtalk, remembering and dismembering to the crack of doom.

Brando Re-dux

    Reservoir Dogs (1991) was much-disliked and even despised by the country's tonier reviewers for the smile it stamped on its in-your-face Niagara of bloodletting, but it was quickly embraced by students and film addicts looking for the next thing, or bored by Jim Jarmusch's abstractions and Woody Allen's last decade of finger exercises. What was new was the humor that marbled the violence, as in the defining Tarantino scene of the mutilation of a policeman. Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) frugs to Steeler's Wheel's "Stuck In the Middle With You," with more charm than a young, thickset sociopath has any right to possess, flips open a straight razor and, with the slightest discernible shift from dancing to destruction, lays his big body on the cop and saws off his ear.

    This is nobody's idea of fun, and the camera acknowledges the fact by quietly lifting away from the scene to stare at the far wall of the warehouse where the thieves have arranged to meet. When the camera comes back to Mr. Blonde he is holding the ear between thumb and forefinger, smirking in a sulky, wise-ass Brando kind of way. Then, refusing to be either shocked or warmed by his deed, he performs some improv that has nothing to do with the Stanislowski method. "Hey," he whispers into the ear, the cop screaming, "What's goin' on?" The atrocity, for those moviegoers who have fallen hard for this film, is jump-started into humor by that moment, and it is weird how appealing Madsen is in the scene, down to the way, dancing, he dips his head and moves his arms. In this context the brutality, so rattling, is transformed: Mr. Blonde, talking to the deaf ear afterwards, seems to recognize his absurdity. He's been talking to deaf ears all his life. Groping to express the film's vitality, critics have called on Greek and Jacobean tragedy, describing the systemic geometry of the slaughter of each of the principals. But Tarantino serves no ancient masters. In fact, for all the sadism in the new narrative order, the film in many places seems wrapped in Saran. Things, situations, characters feel secondary, and much of the violence seems deferred. Speaking into the ear, Michael Madsen's Mr. Blonde crosswires James Dean's smile with Robert Mitchum's demented preacher in Night of the Hunter. Follow that smile further, as far as cinephilic Tarantino may have, and you might see how Madsen has boosted an expression from the Dean-esque Kit in Badlands. Certainly Tarantino knows how to tickle the collective memory: True Romance rips off Badlands' flat voiceover narration along with its Satie-ish score.

    There's a hothouse quality to the performances too: in Reservoir Dog's most original sequence, Tim Roth, an undercover cop infiltrating the band of jewel thieves, is told by his partner: "Undercover cop's got to be Marlon Brando. You got to be a great actor, you got to be naturalistic." So Tim Roth, the English actor, plays an Angeleno cop who plays a lowlife thief whose true story we have watched him rehearse and perfect to seamless perfection. It's hard to remember a more inspired directorial choice in recent years, and Reservoir Dogs plays the idea hard. As Roth lays out his bogus story to Joe Cappa, Lawrence Tierney, Christopher Penn and Harvey Keitel, we are placed in a flashback of the central scene as it "occurred." Watch Tim Roth being "Brando" in a men's room in a flashback of a made-up story; the episode is a perfect example of cinematic vertigo: truth wrapped around falsehood wrapped around truth, and so on.

    If Reservoir Dogs has Tim Roth's single set-piece story, Pulp Fiction is more or less composed of them, scenarios lifted from some primordial ooze of Prohibition and Depression era pulp writing. Begun, sort of, in situational cliches before their engines rev, the stories have deep and jarring laughs built into them. Spree-crime lovers coffee up and plot the stick-up of a huge diner; a boxer is bribed to throw a fight then doesn't; a sensitive thug steps out with the boss's wife. Tarantino claims he crabbed the story ideas from the old semi-porn magazines, but they're more like riffs on old movies, and even then not really. In the longest story-line, a pair of professional killers talk at length before they shoot their victims, then talk some more, always with the slightly insane politeness of Laurel and Hardy.

    One of the killers worries what will happen when he takes out the boss's wife; there's a rumor that another man has gone through a window for giving her a foot massage. It's something he understands. Wandering as elastically in its way as Slacker, Pulp Fiction nevertheless has a Wellesian bigness. Speeches take off like jet-planes and seem to do the work for Tarantino that improvisation and violence do for Scorsese -- it is schtick that gravitates to savagery. Yet where Scorsese mythologizes the secrets and silences of men, usually composing a scene in each film that is a freezing take on male rage, Tarantino prefers messier and goofier probes, like the exchange between Vincent and Jules about pig filth versus dog filth that Scorsese might have pushed in another direction.

    As in Reservoir Dogs, characters persist in finding it difficult to judge whether a .38 in their face or the bark of someone's order is more annoying. To them, it's all a matter of words, and they grab at them the way Woody Allen characters used to, rivetted by tones and sounds more than by anything happening outside their heads. For all the violence, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are closer to My Dinner with Andre than Raging Bull. Jules, for example, doesn't care if Vincent just blew off someone's face by accident; it matters more that Vincent accept his proposition that minutes before God deflected bullets aimed at them, and it matters that Vincent be convinced. It's key to a lot of Tarantino's characters: they go half-crazy trying to explain nuances large and small to each other.

Stone Alone

As a measure of how Tarantino uses the violence in his stories to do damage to older ways of making meaning, look at Oliver Stone's grievous take on the world of celebrity killers. Pinned pretty accurately by many reviewers as Stone's latest parable of the American fall, with a stick-in-the-mud moral stance about killers as media celebraties, the lapel-grabbing cross-hatch of films stocks and cutting (Anthony Lane of The New Yorker called it "Bonnie and Clyde in a blender") manages only momentarily to divert the old-fashioned explanation that Mickey and Mallory's guncraziness is directly traceable to abuse and dysfunction. Wild on the surface, its creakily dated message is that socially responsible programs could have saved the killers. Even Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which points to the shut-down of the town's slaughterhouse as the indirect socioeconomic source of the killers' desire for new skins to make new selves from, has a funny, self-reflexive scene in which the father sees the chainsaw damage on the front door and yells "look at what you've done!" That's what Stone needs a little of; JFK, almost the same film, was better because almost everyone outside Kevin Costner seemed to have dropped from the land of Diane Arbus. (Plus, in the Kennedy assassination lore about big and small plots Stone caught a wave that started way, way down in the American psyche.)

    Since JFK it seems Stone has spent more time in the black-spine, True Crime isle of the bookstore where he bought Crossfire. True crime's roots lie in the same partly true and partly fiction Prohibition pulp prose that Tarantino draws on and which exploits our collective fears that killers like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson ("the king" in NBK terms) are, like Soviet moles of Cold War fiction, potential behind every thin smile. More than other story forms, crime spree stories beg big answers. Is it possible that child abuse, in some combination with a sensation-mad media and ruinous voodoo economics, manufactures killers? It's tempting to believe it, especially since the alternative choice is to believe that natural born killers exist as surely as three-legged babies. The first theory suggests its own solution (fix the system), but the second, which supposes a pattern of genetic damage as predictable as the flight of swallows, holds out none.

Murder and Transcendence

    Back in 1957, in the first decade of Brando (and Elvis), the year they caught Ed Gein, the Wisconsin cannibal and cross-dresser (and original for Norman Bates), Norman Mailer published an essay called "The White Negro" in which he argued that "the psychopath murders if he has the courage, out of the necessity to purge his violence, for if he cannot empty his hatred then he cannot love."

    Mailer caught hell for writing "if he has the courage," for giving the time of day to the thought that homicide might in some cases be a form of personal growth. It didn't help when years later he helped release the killer-writer, John Henry Abbott, who was out of prison less than two weeks before he stabbed a waiter to death for (shades of Taxi Driver) looking at him. Pulp Fiction, new as a penny, mines a white negro vein in wondering if madmen and brutes might be looking for salvation, just mostly in the wrong places and with the wrong methods and opening gambits. "Who you lookin' at?" Butch (Bruce Willis with a brushcut) asks Vincent. "You, palooka," Vincent replies, cuffing a Terry Malloy type with a Joe Bazooka line. "You, punchy."

    What sets Tarantino apart is that he's smart enough to know how to manage any of his labyrinthine exchanges of looks. Near the end of Pulp Fiction, Jules and Vincent eat waffles in the Hawthorne Grill and talk about God and miracles. Jules believes God has interceded that morning when the bullets fired a few feet away flew either past or through them. Hours later, over pancakes, he says he will leave the gangster life "to walk the earth, like Caine in Kung Fu." Vincent, mouth full of bacon and still chewing on Jules' opinion that pork is filthy, announces, "I'm gonna take a shit." With the best cursing since Glengarry Glen Ross and the most original characters in American cinema since the early seventies (think of Chinatown and The Godfather), Tarantino seems to be blazing a new trail in the Hollywood movie, and, as it looks right now, he's doing it as an insider, one whose dialogue is -- Mailer's old word -- hip enough to begin with God and end with excrement, and whose major characters exit at the end into light. With Harvey Keitel, the eldest and most enigmatic character in both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the exception to the rule, his characters are all post-Brando: their speech lives large, and comes packing.