True Romance is a 1993 romantic crime thriller written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott. It stars Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette, and has an ensemble cast with Dennis Hopper, Michael Rapaport, Brad Pitt, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer, Saul Rubinek, James Gandolfini, Chris Penn, Tom Sizemore, Bronson Pinchot, and Samuel L. Jackson.
Though the film got positive reviews for its dialogue and characters, it did poorly at the box office. Still, its positive critical reception helped it gain a cult following, and now it’s considered one of Scott’s best films, as well as one of the best American films of the 1990s.
Here are some quotes:
“I had to come all the way from the highways and byways of Tallahassee, Florida to Motor City, Detroit to find my true love. If you gave me a million years to ponder, I would never have guessed that true romance and Detroit would ever go together. And to this day, the events that followed all seem like a distant dream. But the dream was real and was to change our lives forever. I kept asking Clarence why our world seemed to be collapsing and everything seemed so shitty. And he’d say, ‘That’s the way it goes, but don’t forget, it goes the other way too.’ That’s the way romance is. Usually, that’s the way it goes. But every once in awhile, it goes the other way too.” –Alabama, voiceover
“In Jailhouse Rock he was everything rockabilly’s about. I mean, he is rockabilly. Mean, surly, nasty, rude. In that movie he couldn’t give a fuck about nothing except rockin’ and rollin’, living fast, dying young and leaving a good-looking corpse.” –Clarence, on Elvis
“I always said, if I had to fuck a guy… I mean had to, if my life depended on it… I’d fuck Elvis.” –Clarence
“Please shut up! I’m trying to come clean, okay? I’ve been a call-girl for exactly four days and you’re my third customer. I want you to know that I’m not damaged goods. I’m not what they call Florida white trash. I’m a good person and when it comes to relationships, I’m one-hundred percent, I’m one hundred percent… monogamous.” –Alabama
“I eat the pussy, I eat the butt, I eat every motherfuckin’ thang.” –Big Don
Drexl Spivey: No thanks? What does that mean? Means you ate before you came down here? All full. Is that it? Naw, I don’t think so. I think you’re too scared to be eatin’. Now, see we’re sittin’ down here, ready to negotiate, and you’ve already given up your shit. I’m still a mystery to you. But I know exactly where your white ass is comin’ from. See, if I asked you if you wanted some dinner and you grabbed an egg roll and started to chow down, I’d say to myself, “This motherfucker’s carryin’ on like he ain’t got a care in the world. Who knows? Maybe he don’t. Maybe this fool’s such a bad motherfucker, he don’t got to worry about nothin’, he just sit down, eat my Chinese, watch my TV.” See? You ain’t even sat down yet. On that TV there, since you been in the room, is a woman with her breasteses hangin’ out, and you ain’t even bothered to look. You just been clockin’ me. Now, I know I’m pretty, but I ain’t as pretty as a couple of titties.
Clarence Worley: I’m not eatin’ ’cause I’m not hungry. I’m not sittin’ ’cause I’m not stayin’. I’m not lookin’ at the movie ’cause I saw it seven years ago. It’s “The Mack” with Max Julien, Carol Speed, and Richard Pryor. I’m not scared of you. I just don’t like you. In that envelope is some payoff money. Alabama’s moving on to some greener pastures. We’re not negotiatin’. I don’t like to barter. I don’t like to dicker. I never have fun in Tijuana. That price is non-negotiable. What’s in that envelope is for my peace of mind. My peace of mind is worth that much. Not one penny more, not one penny more.
Clifford: You know, I read a lot. Especially about things in, uh, about history. I find that shit fascinating. Here’s a fact, I don’t know whether you know or not, Sicilians … were spawned by niggers.
Coccotti: Come again? [laughs]
Clifford: It’s a fact. You see, Sicilians have black blood pumpin’ through their hearts. If you don’t believe me, you can look it up. Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, you see, the Moors conquered Sicily. And the Moors are niggers.
Clifford: So you see, way back then, uh, Sicilians were like, uh, wops from Northern Italy. Ah, they all had blonde hair and blue eyes, but, uh, well, then the Moors moved in there, and uh, well, they changed the whole country. They did so much fuckin’ with Sicilian women, huh? That they changed the whole bloodline forever. That’s why blonde hair and blue eyes became black hair and dark skin. You know, it’s absolutely amazing to me to think that to this day, hundreds of years later, that, uh, that Sicilians still carry that nigger gene. Now this…[Coccotti laughs]
Clifford: No, I’m, no, I’m quoting… history. It’s written. It’s a fact, it’s written.
Coccotti: [laughing] I love this guy. This guy.
Clifford: Your ancestors are niggers. Uh-huh. Hey. Yeah. And, and your great-great-great-great grandmother fucked a nigger, ho, ho, yeah, and she had a half-nigger kid… now, if that’s a fact, tell me, am I lying? ‘Cause you, you’re part eggplant. [All laughing]
“Do I look like a beautiful blond with big tits and an ass that tastes like French vanilla ice-cream?” –Clarence, to Elliot Blitzer
“Now the first time you kill somebody, that’s the hardest. I don’t give a shit if you’re fuckin’ Wyatt Earp or Jack the Ripper. Remember that guy in Texas? The guy up in that fuckin’ tower that killed all them people? I’ll bet you green money that first little black dot he took a bead on, that was the bitch of the bunch. First one is tough, no fuckin’ foolin’. The second one… the second one ain’t no fuckin’ Mardi Gras either, but it’s better than the first one ’cause you still feel the same thing, y’know… except it’s more diluted, y’know it’s… it’s better. I threw up on the first one, you believe that? Then the third one… the third one is easy, you level right off. It’s no problem. Now… shit… now I do it just to watch their fuckin’ expression change.” –Virgil, to Alabama after beating her
“If there’s one thing this last week has taught me, it’s better to have a gun and not need it than to need a gun and not have it.” –Clarence
Cody Nicholson: [to Elliot] You just made it big time.
Nicky Dimes: You’re no longer an extra…
Cody Nicholson: …or a bit player…
Nicky Dimes: …or a supporting actor…
Cody Nicholson: …you’re a fucking star. You are a fucking star. And you are going to be playing your one-man show for the next two fucking years for a captive audience. And listen to this, you get out in a few years and meet some old lady, get married, and you’ll be so understanding to your wife’s needs because you’ll know what it feels like to be a woman.
Nicky Dimes: Of course, you’ll only want to fuck her in the ass because that pussy wont be tight enough anymore.
Cody Nicholson: Good one detective, right you fucking faggot?
While the title of the film is rather bland (inspired by the titles of such romance comics as True Stories of Romance), it nonetheless introduces a crucial theme running throughout the story: the dialectical tension between reality and fantasy, and how the latter is an attempt to escape from the former, but one which ultimately fails. I’m using the word romance here to mean more than just “love stories,” or “fiction about idealized or sentimental love,” but “a feeling or quality of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life.” It’s an escape from the world of the true.
During the credits, we see visuals of a freezing cold winter in Detroit, with a group of homeless black men huddling around a fire. This is the kind of harsh reality one wishes one could escape from, for example, running away to sunny Los Angeles; but even in a warm, pleasant California environment, harsh reality inevitably follows.
That’s the way it goes, but don’t forget, it goes the other way, too.
Clarence Worley (Slater) begins the movie by chatting (with a woman in a bar he hopes to take to the movies for his birthday) about his idol, Elvis. In fact, Elvis is such a hero to him that he sometimes has conversations in his head with the King as his, as it were, imaginary friend and mentor (played by Kilmer). Clarence speaks of Elvis in Jailhouse Rock as “rockin’ and rollin’, living fast, dying young and leaving a good-looking corpse.”
(Actually, Elvis’s character, Vince Everett, doesn’t die at the end of Jailhouse Rock. What’s more, anyone who knows about the real Elvis knows that he, overweight, did anything but die leaving a good-looking corpse. He was on the toilet, then fell off and lay on the floor in his own vomit. The King fell off the throne and died, but I digress…)
We see in these representations of Elvis the stark contrast between what’s true and what’s romance. (Speaking of romance, Clarence even has suppressed homosexual feelings about Elvis.) Capitalism sells us all kinds of commodities–in the forms of rock stars, movies, prostitutes, comic books, drugs, etc.–as a way to escape into a world of fantasy…but reality always catches up to us in the end.
The girl Clarence asks out to the movies isn’t interested in seeing a triple feature of Sonny Chiba martial arts movies, so he goes alone; but Alabama (Arquette), a beautiful call girl whom Clarence’s boss has hired so he can get laid on his birthday, comes to the theatre and sits with him. ‘Romance’ has returned.
With her, Clarence spends what he feels is the best time he’s ever had with a woman. She is giving him his fantasy: not just in bed, but also in (often) pretending to have the same interests that he has (liking The Partridge Family is part of the act, and I doubt that she’s anywhere near as interested in the first Spider Man comic as he is, either.)
His romance (i.e., of the perfect, beautiful girl), however, is a true nightmare for her. Even though (or especially because) she likes him, she feels the shame of being forced into prostitution by Drexl Spivey (Oldman). She is a human commodity being sold for Drexl’s profit; small wonder she insists on being called a “call girl” instead of a “whore.”
The enjoyment Clarence has had with her has grown into a full-blown urge to rescue her from her life of exploitation. We go back from the true harshness of the capitalist exploitation of women to the romance of saving her from that life; she even says that his killing of Drexl is “so romantic.”
In “A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men,” Freud describes how a man may fall in love with, and thus wish to rescue, a prostitute; the very idea that other men have had her adds to his excitement because in his unconscious he is reminded of his Oedipal feelings for his mother, who he must accept is in a sexual relationship with his father. Clarence’s haunting wish to kill Drexl–even though he can easily just forget about the pimp, since Alabama is safe in Clarence’s home–can be seen as an unconscious transference from Clarence’s father to the pimp.
This transference would make Drexl into a mental representation, for Clarence, of the ‘bad father.’ Clarence obsesses in a fury about killing the pimp. When he confronts Drexl–who upon learning that Alabama is now Clarence’s wife, says this makes the two men “practically related”–Clarence is infuriated all the more. His killing of Drexl (part of the transferred Oedipal fantasy), which upsets his real, estranged father, Clifford (Hopper), causes more psychological conflict for Clarence; but when his father understands just what an awful man Drexl was, and he can accept his son’s killing of him, Clifford can now be fully the ‘good father.’ Clarence’s mentor, ‘Elvis,’ incidentally can be seen as a transferred mental representation of the ‘good father,’ one of the many romantic illusions in Clarence’s mind.
Drexl himself lives in a world of romantic illusions. A ‘wigger,’ he claims that his mother was Apache (Tarantino, pages 51, 65). Big Don (Jackson) and Floyd, two men who are actually black, and whom Drexl will kill and steal a suitcase of cocaine from, chat with Drexl, debating over whether or not it’s manly to perform cunnilingus. Floyd refuses to accept the modern truth that if a man wants to get oral, he should be willing to give oral, too. An extended version of the scene was filmed; the lines can be found on pages 7-11 of Tarantino’s original screenplay.
Drexl imitates blacks, yet he bosses them around (i.e., Marty), and he kills them (Floyd and Big Don). This is like when such musicians as Elvis (arguably) and Led Zeppelin steal the music of black bluesmen and make millions off of it. The white person who appropriates the cultures of people of colour; the man who expects women to service him without him needing to reciprocate–these people are in a fantasy world of romance. They need to be brought back into the world of the true.
Clarence, after killing Drexl, accidentally takes the suitcase of cocaine instead of one with Alabama’s clothes. With this valuable commodity, the two young lovers hope to prosper through a get-rich-quick scheme of selling it cheap to any Hollywood producers that Clarence’s friend, aspiring actor Dick Ritchie (Rapaport) might know.
Having commodities as exchange values in order to get rich is what capitalism is all about. The high that cocaine gives you, the temporary feeling of great confidence, is a romantic escape from the depressing truth of the world, a manic defence–against sadness–that’s in its own way as desirable as the pleasure gained from worshipping movie and rock stars, escaping into the fantasy world of comic books and Hollywood movies, and enjoying prostitutes. Capitalism sells fantasy, and denies us the truth. In True Romance, the suitcase of cocaine, as a coveted commodity, is the film’s MacGuffin.
The reality of capitalism, however, in its legal and illegal forms, is competition over who gets to have and sell the commodities. Hence, Drexl’s demand to “bring [Alabama’s] dumb ass back” to him and into his control. Hence also, the Italian-American mafia’s demand to get their stolen narcotics back.
As I’ve argued in a number of blog posts, the mafia as criminal businesses can easily symbolize capitalism and its exploitation of people. As with any Tarantino script, there is a preoccupation, on at least some level, with racism, which to a great extent is one of the many things capitalists use to divide the working class.
Apart from Tarantino’s fetishization of the word “nigger,” True Romance exploits a number of racial and ethnic stereotypes. The mafia is Italian-American, the blacks whom Drexl kills and steals cocaine from are ‘players‘ who objectify women, Asians are either into martial arts (Chiba) or are violently bloody Hong Kong mafia (i.e., the scene of a movie shown on TV with Chow Yun-fat and another man shooting each other), and the movie producer, Lee Donowitz (Rubinek), who buys the cocaine, is Jewish. [In Tarantino’s screenplay, Italian mafioso Lenny (played by Victor Argo) asks fellow mafioso Marvin, “What’s the Jew-boy’s name?” to which Marvin replies, “Donowitz, he said.” (Tarantino, page 118.) Indeed, Scott’s movie toned down a lot of Tarantino’s use of racial slurs.] Stereotypes are false beliefs about people, often used to flatter oneself at the expense of the stereotyped, and thus are an escape from what’s true.
Speaking of racism, Clarence’s father, Clifford, uses the Sicilian ethnic pride of the Italian-American mafia to get them to kill him quickly; this way, he won’t live to tell their boss, Vincent Coccotti (Walken) where Clarence and Alabama have gone with the cocaine. Saying that “Sicilians were spawned by niggers” is meant to enrage Coccotti into shooting Clifford in the head instead of slowly torturing him into betraying his son. (Actually, though, the notion that the Moors were sub-Saharan black Africans [an idea influenced by such things as modern productions of Othello?], rather than swarthy North African Berbers, is more romance than “history” from Clifford.)
Clarence contacts Dick by payphone, quoting the Big Bopper‘s “Hello, baby!” This is yet another example of Clarence’s preoccupation with popular culture as an escape from the real world. In his hope to sell the cocaine and make a ton of money, we see a contrast with the Big Bopper saying “I ain’t got no money, honey!” This is an ironic contrast between the romance of getting rich quickly and the truth of being poor, as spoken by a rock star, of all people.
Dick’s dreams of being “a successful actor” are similarly a romantic fantasy, especially given how awful his TJ Hooker audition is. Dick’s roommate, stoner Floyd (Pitt) smokes bowls to escape the truth of his wasted life. In fact, Floyd likes to imagine that he can beat up Virgil the mafia man (Gandolfini), so far detached is he from reality. Virgil, in turn, has a male chauvinism that blinds him to the truth that Alabama’s fight reaction, to the trauma of a beating, is strong enough to kill him.
In Tarantino’s original script, after having killed Virgil, Alabama is reciting a version of St. Francis’s prayer while hitting dead Virgil’s head with his phallic shotgun (Tarantino, page 91). The prayer seems self-indulgent at first, but it is another example of the theme of contrast between idealized fantasy (e.g., unconditional Christian love) vs. reality (the need to kill a killer).
Shotgun-wielding Alabama in this scene is the strong phallic woman, the phallus in turn being a symbol of power, the lack of which gives rise to desire. In the capitalist world of haves and have-nots, there is plenty of lack to be desired, and the romantic fantasy world of pleasure generated by the commodities of drugs, prostitutes, and pop culture (Hollywood movies, Animal Crackers, burgers, etc.) is an attempt to fill that lack.
Sissy Elliot Blitzer (Pinchot), who can’t even go on a roller coaster without throwing up, and who is bullied by Donowitz, tries to escape his pathetic life by enjoying some of the cocaine while driving fast with a girl named Kandi. The truth of the world soon comes to ruin his romance in the form of a policeman stopping him for speeding…then seeing cocaine all over his face.
Two cops modelled after Starsky and Hutch (Tarantino, page 95), respectively Officers Cody Nicholson (Sizemore) and Nicky Dimes (Penn), put the pressure on arrested Elliot, who breaks down and tells them about the drug deal between Clarence and Donowitz.
As I argued in my analysis of Reservoir Dogs, cops represent the extent to which the state intervenes in capitalism. As such, there’s a hazy distinction between them and the mafia as far as personifications of capitalism are concerned. They’re as inclined to murder and abuse others as any mafioso would. All that matters is getting ahead…realizing the American Dream…
Nicholson’s and Dimes’s interest in busting Donowitz et al for the drug deal isn’t in stopping ‘the bad guys’: it’s in furthering their careers. Ruining the lives of Alabama and Clarence (the latter being someone Nicholson twice admits to liking because he’s “wild” and “crazy”) makes no difference to these cops: they just want the collar, that is, credit for the bust.
When Clarence, Alabama, Dick, and Elliot are in the hotel elevator, and Clarence points his gun at Elliot’s face, sissy Elliot wishes someone would take him away from this true, cruel world, would come to his rescue and take him to a safe, ideal world of romance, then “everything would be all right.” Instead, it’s Clarence’s threats that are not true.
When they all go into Donowitz’s hotel room, they meet Monty and Boris, the movie producer’s bodyguards, both armed with Uzis. Combine this fact with Donowitz’s involvement in drug dealing, and we see how the Hollywood business empire is a mafia unto itself (consider all the allegations of sexual misconduct, including pedophilia, against celebrities, to see my point). Liberal Hollywood is as capitalist and exploitative as any other modern business or institution.
Again, instead of facing this dark reality, Clarence would rather focus on talking about Vietnam war movies: Coming Home in a Bodybag, produced by Donowitz, is one of Clarence’s favourites. He tells Donowitz that he knows Vietnam veterans who have endorsed the film; Donowitz says “veterans of that bullshit war” praising his movie “makes the whole thing worthwhile.”
Here we have the typical Hollywood bourgeois liberal, paying lip service to acknowledging the horrors of capitalist imperialism while making millions from the war movies he produces. As Donowitz says to Clarence earlier, during the conversation on his car phone: “I am on this earth to make good movies. Nothing more, and nothing…well, maybe less.”
Clarence convinces Donowitz to buy the cocaine, and the bust finally happens. The Italian-American mafia, after having learned where the hotel is from stoner Floyd (who, having just smoked a bowl, must be having the paranoia high of the century from seeing all those guns pointed at him!), kick in the door to the hotel room, and now three groups of trigger-happy men–cops, Donowitz’s bodyguards, and the mafia–are in a Mexican standoff.
In sharp contrast to this true tension, Clarence is in the bathroom taking a piss and having another imaginary conversation with ‘Elvis,’ that is, he’s experiencing another of his romantic escapes from reality. When he comes out, though, reality will hit him in the head…or rather, scrape against it.
Officer Dimes demonstrates something we all know too well: cops are just as inclined to murder as anyone else; he deliberately shoots and kills Boris in revenge for killing Nicholson. Dimes also shoots at Clarence, making Alabama shoot the cop in revenge.
When the shooting is over, the only survivors are Dick, Alabama, and Clarence…though in Tarantino’s original script, the bullet that grazes Clarence‘s eyes kills him, too (Tarantino, page 128). Before dying, he says he can’t see because of the blood in his eyes: this is how Mr. Brown, played by Tarantino, dies in Reservoir Dogs; for when he wrote the script for True Romance, he identified with Clarence (page x). Scott liked Clarence too much to let him die, though, so he arranged for a happy, romantic ending instead.
Now, Tarantino’s unhappy ending focuses on the true, rather than the romance, which is why I agree with him that his ending is better. Our fantasies are always interrupted by harsh reality, in how, for example, capitalism sells us fantasies to make us think we’re escaping a reality we cannot escape.
In the original ending, Alabama, despairing over Clarence’s death, leaves the hotel with Donowitz’s money and drives away in Clarence’s car (pages 132-133). She stops at one point, breaks down and cries, then puts his pistol in her mouth (page 133); but she decides instead to live after reading the napkin on which is written, “You’re so cool.” Then she gets out of the car, takes the briefcase of money, and walks away from the car forever (page 134).
Reality is harsh, but not hopeless.
Quentin Tarantino, True Romance, London, Faber and Faber, 1996