It would be hard to think of a more iconic or dynamic early 90s collaboration than Quentin Tarantino and Tony Scott. Tarantino had just burst onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction was only a year away, while Scott had found his voice with Top Gun, but had struggled to find the right vehicle to extend his worldview over his next few films. Moreover, both directors had a powerful and in some ways dissonant obsession with postmodern masculinity. Tarantino saw postmodernism and masculinity as existing in a fraught relationship with one another. While the postmodern director had a vast reservoir of poses and postures to draw upon, these could easily devolve into pastiche, leading Tarantino on a career-long quest to invest his films with the masculine vitality of the 1970s. By contrast, Scott elevated pastiche until it exuded a vitality of its own, and in doing so moved beyond the paranoid action cinema of the 70s to embrace a more expansive and homoerotic masculinity. In that sense, Scott was the more progressive director of the two, both stylistically and ideologically, largely disinterested in the paranoia that drives so much of Tarantino’s oeuvre.
To put these two directors together, then, guaranteed two things. First, Scott’s ever more flamboyant incitements to pastiche would draw out all of Tarantino’s fraught relationship with it. Second, the two would inevitably craft a commentary on postmodern masculinity as it stood in the early 90s. Sure enough, True Romance is an extraordinary vision of the first generation to grow up under postmodernism, to grow up knowing nothing but postmodernism, and to only recognise it as a distinct cultural milieu upon reaching their thirties. Tarantino’s screenplay, the first of his career, captures this shift to postmodern consciousness by opening in Detroit, amidst the wintry palette of 70s New Hollywood, and quickly shifting to the simulations of Los Angeles. Even in the early Detroit scenes, however, we sense this sunnier destination – in small details of the mise-en-scene (a purple car, a red jacket, reflective sunglasses) and in Hans Zimmer’s gorgeous xylophone score, which still rings in my head twenty years after hearing it, on videotape, for the first time, back in high school.
The trajectory of True Romance also traces a shift from the material postmodern cultures of the 70s to the immaterial networks of the 90s, evoking a paradox: the first postmodern generation could only conceive of themselves as such at the very moment when postmodernism peaked, and in peaking eclipsed their capacity to process the past as a discrete phenomenon. Fredric Jameson famously argued the primary symptom of the postmodern was a waning of historicity, a declining sense of the past amidst a present-centric image culture. Right when the characters of True Romance are ready to come to terms with their past, the past vanishes as a category, producing a road film that displaces its destination as it moves towards it. This is not just a vision of the first postmodern generation, but the first generation to come of age during high postmodernism, and takes place in the ineffable instant at which postmodernism itself absorbed and monetised their capacity to recognise it.
As always, Tarantino’s point of entry into this postmodern lineage is fandom. His surrogate here, Clarence Worley, played by Christian Slater, has come of age as a postmodern fan, and uses his fandom to romance Alabama Whitman, a call girl played by Patricia Arquette. Clarence’s great love is Elvis Presley, the King of pastiche, but he also loves Spiderman comics, kung fu movies, and the discourse of fandom itself: “After a movie, I like to get a piece of pie and talk about it – a little tradition I have.” During the stylised opening sequences, Clarence and Alabama’s shared fandom seems to emerge out of the lonely cityscapes of classical noir, here reimagined as nerds crossing paths in the night, fugitive mid-century connections that congeal into the fandom networks that laid the foundation for the early internet. Fandom becomes a bridge between high modernism and early postmodernism, a way of glimpsing a future networked state while remaining embedded in the contingencies of material culture.
However, this materiality is precarious, even in the earliest scenes of True Romance. From the outset, there are televisions everywhere, and as the film proceeds they clutter more and more of Tarantino’s mise-en-scenes, gradually migrating from cinematic surrogates to harbingers of a new networked state. We see this same networked fluidity in the rotation of cameos throughout the film, which begins with Gary Oldman’s flamboyant turn as Drexl Spivey, Alabama’s pimp. Since Clarence makes it his mission to liberate Alabama from sex work, Drexl becomes his first antagonist, and the prototype for all subsequent antagonists in the film. Yet Drexl is also aligned with Tarantino’s vision of white masculinity as well. As a pastiche of a white man performing a pastiche of a rasta, Drexl, and Oldman’s performance of Drexl, stages Tarantino’s career-long negotiation between pastiche and white masculinity. From Pulp Fiction onwards, Tarantino would draw on blaxploitation to resolve this crisis, as if a white man saying “n—–r” were enough to break through pastiche to a “real” white manhood. Here, he seems to pre-emptively parody that process, or envisage his future strategies in the figure of Drexl, whose prosthetic eye and highly self-referential monologue suggests that cinematic white masculinity can only ramify now as a function of total pastiche.
Disposing of Drexl, and fleeing from Detroit, becomes Clarence’s line of flight from postmodernism – a retreat to an older and more authentic masculine identity that predates pastiche. Yet the first step in this process is an epic gun battle with Drexl that sees video tapes and aquaria fly across the screen, reiterating the fluid devolution of material into immaterial culture that informs this pastiche in the first place. Moreover, Drexl’s rasta affectations are the base note for Hans Zimmer’s own Caribbean pastiche, which is so baked into the fabric of the film that Clarence’s attempts to escape from it are doomed before they begin. Or, rather, Clarence’s project is nothing more or less than escaping from the film itself, which might be possible if Tarantino had total control of the project, but becomes impossible once Scott, who announces himself for the first time with the video-aquarium scene, takes command of the second half. In that sense, True Romance feels quite aligned with From Dusk Till Dawn: both films start with Tarantino’s negotiations between masculinity and pastiche, and then proceed to a second director complicating and querying that vision, or turning it into a pastiche itself.
No surprise, then, that the transition between these two halves of True Romance involves arguably the archetypal monologue in Tarantino’s career. Before they leave Detroit, Clarence and Alabama shelter at the house of Clifford Worley, Clarence’s father, played by Dennis Hopper. Clifford’s place is the very nexus of the film’s material and immaterial spaces – from one perspective, squeezed between train line and docks, it’s the stuff of New Hollywood urban decay; from another perspective, it’s already embedded in the network that Clarence and Alabama are trying to escape. Soon after the two fugitives leave, Clarence receives a visit from Vincenzo Coccotti, Drexl’s boss, played by Christopher Walken, who makes it clear he’s going to kill him after he gets the information he needs. In response, Clarence delivers an extraordinary speech to the effect that “all Sicilians are n—–rs.” At this moment, Italian-Americans cease to have hegemony in gangster cinema, even as Clifford makes it clear that they were always black anyway. In effect, Clifford removes Italians as a middle ground between white and black masculinities, much as Elvis purported to be a black man in a white body. On the brink of pastiche, Tarantino makes one last, flamboyant effort to use blackness as a bulwark of authenticity or “realness” against the endless white male simulacra to come.
That might make for a dour, depressing or grindhouse-styled second half, were it not for Scott’s more reparative proposition – that white masculinity was always a simulation, and that embracing this simulation can only generate more adrenalin. Tarantino anticipates this approach in the fairy-tale style of the opening act, where Elvis, played by Val Kilmer, plays a similar role to Dorothy in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. Alabama has only been a call girl for four days when she meets Clarence, who marries her the next day and decides, once they get matching tattoos, to liberate her from her pimp. The sheer improbability of Clarence and Alabama’s postmodern fandom dematerialising into the networked 90s is encapsulated in these fairy tale motifs, much as they are for Lynch, who belongs to a proto-postmodern generation, and so identifies The Wizard of Oz, rather than Elvis, as his foundational moment.
By shifting from Detroit decay to post-industrial Los Angeles, True Romance thus recaps the history of postmodernism in a single trajectory. Upon arriving in the City of Angels, image central, the fairy tale dimension is intensified into a perfectly pitched inanity, while the medium of film itself is translated directly into a new embodied intensity. It’s here that Scott really comes into his own, stretching the edges of widescreen spectacle, and suffusing his trademark heat hazes with fluorescent tones that quickly discard any illusion of naturalism. We witness cinema itself being dissolved back into a more fractured and networked image culture, especially once Clarence and Alabama get involved with the movie industry. In one scene, they contact a film producer while he’s speeding through the canyons in his car, gathering all possible cinematic spectacle into the embodied viscerality that weaves him in and out of traffic until he bursts into road rage, like a bridge between film and digital gaming.
Since digital gaming, and networked culture, didn’t exist then as we currently know it, Scott and Tarantino turn to cocaine – “snow at the end of the rainbow” – as a cipher for this new postmodern image intensity. Clarence quickly learns that dealing cocaine is the best conduit to Hollywood stardom, and actually uses “Dr. Zhivago” as a codename for cocaine, while referring to other films while selling it: “If you want my movie, you have to come to terms with your own fear and desire.” Sure enough, cocaine starts to break down the threshold between image and life, most dramatically when Alabama sees a roller coaster ad on television, and suggests they meet a prospective buyer there, at which point Scott cuts seamlessly to the coaster cresting a great curve, as Clarence seals the deal. This roller coaster takes Tarantino’s picaresque style into the supersonic space of Scott, much as Tarantino’s sensitivity to pastiche incites Scott into his most flamboyant, maximalist outing so far – the best film of his career to date, and still one of the best of his entire body of work. The more Tarantino yearns to break through the pastiche, the more Scott shows his gift for cloaking scenes in pastiche, simulation, hyperreality – layer after layer, interface after interface. It’s as if the whole film took place in the simulacral café in Pulp Fiction, prompting a complete change of face from Clarence, who comes into postmodern personhood at the moment he realises that he no longer hates, but loves, airports, and other amorphous spaces like them.
The tension between Tarantino and Scott culminates with the violence of the third act, as Tarantino reaches for a baroque intensity in an effort to break the plane of pastiche, and Scott simply absorbs it back into ever more flamboyant tableaux. In one scene, a stoner, played by Brad Pitt, is so baked that he’s nonplussed by gangsters waving their guns in his face, and ends up saving himself from violent death by virtue of his sheer oblivion. By contrast, when hitman Virgil, played by James Gandolfini, in an early forerunner of Tony Soprano, tries to take out Alabama, one shot isn’t enough. Instead, against a hyper-lush score, Virgil starts by attempting to contain every possible image and sightline of Alabama. He begins by commenting on her pose and presence, then play-acts her death scene, before she reverses the gaze, mocks his appearance, and tempts him to glance in a mirror for the critical instant she needs to get the upper hand. With even the most lurid violence now subsumed back into Scott’s pastiche, the film plummets into an affective freefall, as we cut to the drug dealer swerving up a windy road, high on coke, having sex with his girlfriend, the cops in hot pursuit.
Once unleashed, this promiscuous and contagious affective energy takes over the whole film, producing escalating bursts of intensity, until we end with the most hyperbolised Mexican standoff of Tarantino’s career – three groups of people, instead of three people – that nevertheless collapses back into a classic Scott joint, as exploding pillows send feathers flying across the mise-en-scene. By this point, Clarence and Alabama are pure image, pure intensity, reaching for something greater and more transpersonal than love, something contained in the three words that Alabama repeats over and over in the final monologue: “You’re so cool, you’re so cool, you’re so cool.” As they head to the Mexican border, and the sun goes down over the Pacific, the film hits its representative horizon, a portal to the postmodern future, and we learn that the couple will name their first child Elvis, in a tribute to the half century that brought them to this point, and as an emblem for the unimaginable half century to come.