Saturday, July 31, 2010

True Romance (1993)

Continuing with the coda to my Tarantino project, I come to, oh, hey, True Romance. Written by Tarantino, directed by Tony Scott.

I liked this a great deal at the time; now, not so much. It has a lot of strengths, and a few debilitating flaws. It seems to me, and I could be wrong, that the flaws are mostly a matter of Tony Scott's style. Tony Scott has never done much for me, I'll admit, and this movie crystallizes why.

The strength of the film, and why I rate it as a key entry into QT's oeuvre, is that the characters and the plot set forth the Tarantino aesthetic, at least that aspect of it that ruled the decade of the '90s, in perhaps its clearest form. Small-time crooks with a fantastic sense of retro style, quirky meta villains, snappy profane dialogue, violence. The romance between Clarence and Alabama is the romance between Clarence and everything he loves, between Tarantino and everything he loves. Clarence's opening monologue (which marks the film indelibly as a Tarantino thing): if I was going to sleep with a man, it would be Elvis. There it all is.

I suppose it's to Tony Scott's credit that this comes through in the film loud and clear. The central love triangle of Clarence, Alabama, and the rockabilly aesthetic is right there to see. But where the film falls down for me is in Scott's refusal to allow that aesthetic to dictate the film.

Take the music, for example: if Clarence worships (almost literally) Elvis, then why isn't there any Elvis on the soundtrack? Why instead do we get Charlie Sexton and Chris Isaak? Because Elvis is old-fashioned, while in 1993 Sexton and Isaak sounded up-to-date, pop, and Tony Scott is all about the pop.

I don't think that's entirely a bad thing, in general - Scott's cutting-edge MTV sheen is undeniably pretty, and it's appropriate for some things - but it's at odds with Tarantino's retro aesthetic. What it means here is that as well-rendered (and acted) as the story is, we're mostly outside the characters observing their aesthetic, not inside participating in it with them.

There's one exception, and it proves the rule. When Clarence and Alabama call his friend in Hollywood from the phone booth in the desert, then make love in the phone booth, "Chantilly Lace" is playing on the soundtrack. This is appropriate: this is, I imagine, just about like QT would have done it. For the first time we can really feel the way these characters see themselves. But it's isolated. Most other times, the soundtrack is conventional and up-to-the-minute fashionable for 1993 - moody synths and strings, modern beats.

It's not just the music, of course. It's the camera angles and lighting and editing; it's just that the music's what I feel most comfortable talking about. When it comes to the rest all I can say is that, vaguely, the film looks like a lot of other things that were happening in the early '90s, and it looks like it's trying to look that way, while QT's movies famously look like they're trying to look like things that were happening twenty or thirty years before.

I don't know if this is a choice or not. As I say, the central relationships are so well-realized that I suspect Scott's decision not to invest completely in their aesthetic is a choice - it's still his movie, after all. But in other cases, I wonder. Gary Oldman's pimp character, the white guy who thinks (?) he's black, is classic QT, but Scott rushes his scene so much that we're not even sure if he's supposed to be a white guy who thinks he's black, or if we're supposed to think that he is black. Scott handles him like any other villain. I can only imagine how Tarantino would have handled this scene, drawing it out for all the uncomfortable irony and surreal humor it implies.

Which is pretty much how I feel about the movie as a whole.

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