Love and a .45
The influence of Pulp Fiction (1994) writer-director Quentin Tarantino is not likely to go away in a hurry. Filmgoers regularly experience a tidal wave of cheap, funky, independently produced movies from all over the world inspired by Tarantino’s work – his own films Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction, as well as his scripts for True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993) and Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994). On every screen, in every language, at every film festival, criminals pull guns on each other in a Mexican stand-off, crazy teen lovers drive past Pop Art landscapes, hit-men discourse on junk food and junk culture, and everybody yells words such as “pussy” and “nigger” as loudly and frequently as possible.
Tarantino’s best movies have an enjoyable looseness about them, but also a genuine energy and tension – even if (in my experience) they don’t really hold up to repeat viewings and detailed analytical investigation; once tends to be enough to exhaust their pleasures. Many of the films that have come in Tarantino’s wake, however, have the looseness but not the drive – and only a fraction of the cleverness.
The low-budget, independent production Love and a .45 is a shambling movie in an even more precise, sub-Tarantino lineage: the recent tradition of Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell (1987), or those awful things directed by Canadian Bruce McDonald, Roadkill (1989) and Highway 61 (1991). I call Love and a .45 shambling because it exudes a certain studied indifference: the joke lines are deliberately lame. The actors seem to be in it mainly for a lark. Every character seems to be some variety of deep-dish Southern moron. And the plot lazily lurches drunkenly from one violent, blood-soaked improbability to the next.
Some directors have made a personal art out of such a shambling approach: the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, for instance, in his best films such as I Hired a Contract Killer (1990). But where Kaurismäki’s œuvre is droll, funny and finally rather affectionate (in an admittedly bleak way), Love and a .45 is a nastier piece of work. There’s a certain amoral, giggling, couldn’t-care-less air hanging over the whole endeavour, as if it were made by a bunch of stoned 14 year-olds. It’s one of those terminally flip films – it shows you characters getting beaten or blown away, and then makes a gag of it, or whacks some silly grunge song over the top, as if to dare the audience: “You didn’t take that seriously, did you? It’s just a movie, dummy!”
Tarantino’s films (which he likes to call “movie movies”, i.e., movies that refer only to other movies, that have only a movie reality) exude a provocative, tasteless, adolescent aspect, too. But in Pulp Fiction, at least, characters actually make considered choices about whether to intervene in situations, commit a brutal act or kill somebody. These choices carry a certain moral weight, even in the middle of a morally very topsy-turvy world – and Tarantino works out the implications of these choices in some detail. The world of Love and a .45, on the other hand, is completely weightless.
The film is a low-level catastrophe, careening from one pallid Tarantino homage to the next. Watty (Gil Bellows) is a good-natured store-robber who dreams of skipping to Mexico with his blonde beloved, Starlene (Renée Zellweger in a relatively early role). Their dream of paradise is upset, however, by Watty’s sadistic ex-partner, Billy Mack Black (Rory Cochrane) and a pair of thugs called Dino Bob (Jeffrey Combs) and Creepy Cody (Jace Alexander). Starlene, Mack Black, Dino Bob, Creepy Cody: these names are spoken aloud as often and as fruitily as possible. “Well if it ain’t my old buddies, Dino Bob and Creepy Cody!” And the film doesn’t get any deeper than this kind of easy, low-level kidding-around.
Watching Love and a .45 reminded me of what it’s like to listen to a certain kind of grunge music, in the tradition of cult American band The Cramps: all those jokey, shambling, down-and-dirty songs about killing your parents, or surfing while the world ends, whatever. In these songs, the violent and/or outrageous content, the subject matter finally doesn’t matter at all – it’s part of the code of this music, its artifice. All art forms and cultural forms depend on artifice, areas of content that are stylised and made acceptable in some way or other. In the case of Love and a .45, it just happens to be a stylisation of some pretty extreme material.
The action is cut to this order: Watty and Starlene, our dumb-looking lovers, cavort in hotel rooms while thugs gleefully torture people with drills for tattooing and other finely chosen implements. There’s a terribly clumsy tribute to Oliver Stone’s delirious visual effects in Natural Born Killers: our low-life lovers pose stiffly in their car, looking glazed and all postmodern, while luridly coloured, back-projected views of the American landscape flicker in unreality outside the car windows. Also clearly inspired by Stone’s success is the inclusion of a running gag about the mass media: sensationalist Tabloid TV news programs making folk heroes out of glamorous killers. The joke is underdeveloped and also rather pointless, since the film itself is doing exactly the same thing by glamourising the pair. Director C. M. Talkington (whose career hasn’t gone very far since this production) is not being serious here; he’s just covering his arse, in case anyone accuses him of gross exploitation.
Gone are the days, it seems, when films such as Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973) could show young killers, while taking up a double perspective on them. Such modern-classic films allowed us both to share in the demented thrill of crime, and also to see these people and their actions in a broader social context. In Love and a .45, there is no social perspective, no social critique to speak of – only a war of confused quotations from Talkington’s favourite violent movies.
A ham-fisted satire of the hippie era enters mid-way, via Starlene’s parents, Thaylene and Vergil (more name-games), played bravely by Ann Wedgeworth and Peter Fonda. They talk about peace and love and orgasm, about getting smashed and busted, and all that cliché ‘60s stuff. Here, as in many contemporary American movies, the young writer-director seems to have acutely mixed feelings about that special decade in history. He portrays the parents as nutty, foolish figures, deluded idealists. Yet he also betrays an unmistakable (and understandable!) nostalgia for this lost, golden age of free love and hallucinatory drugs. The era is presented as a magnificent dream to which Watty and Starlene eventually gain access. I guess this jumble of contrary attitudes toward the ‘60s is what journos call the characteristic ambivalence of Generation X – that ‘90s generation of young slackers who supposedly wander around believing in nothing, but still want some kind of high. More media cliché, that’s exactly what we need!
It would be easy to feign righteous indignation over Love and a .45, damning it as yet another soulless, meretricious movie that treats violence and death as cool jokes. Yet Talkington understands enough about contemporary youth culture to know that movies are not always serious reflections of society. Sometimes they function just like background music, or a poster stuck up on a kitchen wall – stylish fragments that complement a certain lifestyle or sensibility. Love and a .45 is a poor movie, but I don’t doubt there are a few self-appointed Gen-X slackers out there who will able to vibe on its chosen wavelength better than I can.
© Adrian Martin April 1995