Just so you all know, this was the first paper I wrote in an introductory film studies course I am currently taking. I am aware that the paragraphs are a tad bit too long, but I couldn’t find an effective way to break them up without making too many modifications
to the paper. So, just to save you all some time, Thousand-word paragraphs give me a headache
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Visual techniques used in Reservoir Dogs.
The aspects of a narrative film that define its meaning vary strongly between each individual work. While early silent films relied purely on visual styles to make their aesthetic impact, more recent work can use combinations of visuals, dialogue, and sound to achieve their purpose, whatever it may be. The methods used to tell the story are often of equal importance to the actual plot content itself. Upon closer inspection of any film, these elements can be seen to have a purpose more important than creating a visually appealing product, and actually serve to enforce the key themes and ideas of the film.
The works of well-known director Quentin Tarantino are a prime example of the usage of these elements in filmmaking. Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s first major directorial debut released in 1992, provides us with a clear image of how these various methods are used together to set the general atmosphere of a film, and also how they function to manipulate the emotions of the viewer. Detailing the story of a jewelry store robbery gone awry, the film focuses on the relationship between strangers forced into working closely together. Tarantino shows us the dark reality of major crime, and the bonds and rivalries that result from it. This is achieved by his use of various camera techniques, the strategic positioning of characters, lighting, and set design, making up the overall mise-en-scène of the film.
One of the most prominently noticeable techniques used by Tarantino throughout the film is the strategic placement of his characters. A central theme to the film itself is the relationship between the characters involved, both positive and negative. When looking at the opening scene, we see the group of criminals conferring at a small table in a crowded restaurant. Of note is the proximity of each character in relation too each other. The table is small, the group is large, and it is quite crowded, forcing them close together. This scene serves as a microcosm of their overall situation of being forced to work quite closely with a large group of strangers. By placing these characters in this way, Tarantino figuratively shows the viewer the overall situation these characters are in, effectively establishing a schema for the group’s relationship. This placement of characters continues further on in the film, and provides a more precise understanding of the connection between specific characters. For example, it can be noticed that there is a clear bond between Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), and Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) which is established through the story line itself. Also, there is an intense rivalry between Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), and most every other character, with emphasis on Keitel’s. The relationship between Orange and White is stressed by placing them in situations close together, such as in a small car, or by attempting to aid a friend with a gunshot wound. Even in the film’s final image we see the two close together, with Roth in Keitel’s arms. When we compare these images to those of Keitel and Madsen, the distinction between the two becomes clearer. Most of the major scenes in the warehouse place Madsen and Keitel a noticeable distance apart. Their physical separation throughout the movie works to emphasis the distrust and animosity towards each other. The scenes in the warehouse make this the most clear, having the largest distance in space between characters.
The film’s underlying themes are also displayed in the environments in which these situations that take place, with respect to the actual set design. Beginning with the opening scene in the restaurant, we can see that Tarantino seems to follow a more realistic approach in constructing his sets. Instead of a clean, sterile, well-lit environment, we’re given one that is dark, cluttered, and reflective of reality itself. This realistic approach becomes more visible when making a comparison to Tarantino’s most recent work, Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003). Where Reservoir Dogs has its key scenes in dark, unclean settings, Kill Bill places many of its moments of equal importance in very well lit, sterile environments. In Reservoir Dogs, the set acts almost as another character in the film, especially the warehouse where the majority of the story takes place. The warehouse itself is a large open space, with little inside other than a few objects remaining since its desertion, and the film’s characters. This use of large space serves to stress the importance of the dilemma faced by the characters in the film. While waiting for the solution to their situation, the men are left to wait in the large, vacant building. Its emptiness in itself is symbolic of their circumstances, as it effectively portrays to the viewer the desolation of the group, emphasizing the fact that they are essentially alone in this situation.
The use of lighting in the film also plays an important role in establishing the physical world the film takes place in, and the emotions of the characters. Of importance are those scenes that are set in natural daylight, rather than poorly lit buildings. The daylight works as both a method of contrast between environments, and as a tool to provide emphasis on important scenes in the film. For example, when Madsen’s character leaves the warehouse for a canister of gasoline, our visual senses are shocked by the contrast between the darkness indoors and the brightness outdoors, and we are shown the extreme difference between the character’s current environment and the outside world. This adds to the realist feel of the film by giving us a glimpse of the physical world in which this film takes place. It also serves as a temporary change in pace from the chaos ensuing within the building. An alternate use of daylight in the film is as a device to add emphasis to important moments in the story itself. It can be observed that most of the film’s faster paced moments take place either outdoors, or in vehicles lit by surrounding daylight. When we see Mr. White driving Mr. Orange, who is in the back seat with a gunshot wound, this use of daylight becomes more prominently clear. The light serves to properly illuminate the interior of the car, giving the viewer an unaltered image showing the extent to which Mr. Orange has been injured. Had this scene taken place at night, the effective color contrast between the blood and the car’s interior would be lost. This use of daylight also establishes the theme that the world outside the confinements of the warehouse is not safe, as seen in when each member of the group escapes from the location of the crime. By strategically placing these moments of drama and danger in this particular environment, the viewer makes the association between the outside world being an unsafe place, and can further identify with the characters and their respective situations.
Perhaps the most noticeable tool Tarantino uses in telling his story is the usage of the camera itself in terms of angles, movement, and placement. When we are first introduced to the characters in the restaurant scene, the camera serves the purpose to make the viewer feel involved in the conversation that is taking place. Almost every shot in the scene is taken at eye level with the character on screen, providing a sense of equality and closeness with the character displayed. Also, when the emphasis changes from character to character, the camera often slowly circles around the table to face the character in question, rather than simply quickly cutting to them. Most of the shots in this scene also have a portion of one or more character’s bodies out of focus towards the edge of the image, while the character in question remains in focus. These techniques add to the feeling of involvement in the narrative itself, establishing a sense of familiarity between the viewer and the characters. The camera itself moves as if a real person would, and the constant blocking of our view gives us the feeling of looking over someone’s shoulder to see what is happening. The use of camera placement also serves the purpose to bring the viewer uncomfortably close to situations that are not nearly as socially appealing. Once again, looking at Roth and Keitel in the speeding car, we can’t help but notice that the majority of the scene is filmed from the front passenger seat. While this seems like an obvious choice from a production aspect, it also serves as a tool to force the viewer into being involved in the scene. Of particular note how the camera moves when shifting to and from each character. Rather than simply cutting back and forth between the two men, the camera instead quickly changes direction to face them. By making that choice, Tarantino adds to the personal feel of the film, putting the viewer in the position in which a real person would view the events. The camera’s rapid jerking of the camera mimics the human response in such a situation adding to the feeling of the scene. When looking at Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) fleeing from the police, we see another example how the camera’s movement is used to involve the viewer in the movie. By varying between a smooth side tracking shot and a more unstable frontal shot, Tarantino brings the viewer into both elements of the scene. The tracking shot serves to put the viewer in a more authoritative state, identifying with the police in the situation. The ease of movement and speed of the camera give the viewer an advantage over Buscemi, making them more powerful in a sense. However, when the image switches to a frontal shot, we are brought back to the same level as Buscemi’s character. We are no longer posses this supremacy over him and are now forced to endure the escape from his point of view. This effective instills a sense of pathos in the viewer, as they are truly aware of the challenge he is faced with in the scene.
Through this deeper analysis into Tarantino’s methods of filmmaking in Reservoir Dogs, we can see exactly how the film’s visual style is used to produce its aesthetic impact. The use of various lighting conditions, camera angles, object placement, and set design are not only instrumental in providing a logical and pleasing image to the viewer, but also in stressing the main themes and concepts of the film. By carefully manipulating each of these aspects of the film, the director is given the ability to tell us the story professionally, but also more effectively.
Kill Bill: Volume 1. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Miramax Films, 2003.
Reservoir Dogs. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Live Entertainment, 1992.