Friday, February 7, 2020

My Felonious Valentine: Stephanie Crawford on True Romance

“It’s just that after I see a movie, I like to go get a piece of pie and talk about it.”

Getting blood out of leopard print and velvet fabric is a kind of hell that’s only worth enduring for True Love™, and thankfully, True Romance is all about that kind of sacrifice. One of my favorite things about this movie is its title. Directed by the late muscle-in-his-marrow Tony Scott and written by a baby Quentin Tarantino and unquestionably an action film, the title could have been smug and ironic and gotten away with it, but its romance is, well, true. To paraphrase The Princess Bride, this is a kissing book.

Though True Romance is stuffed full of bloodshed, a lot of conversational exchanges only a bigoted psychopath could relate to, and plenty of dark misadventure, it’s largely an intensely optimistic and even goofy ride: The film gives off an aura of it careening, arms windmilling, into scene after scene.

We open with Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) sitting in a bar, chatting up a woman. As he talks at her about how great Elvis is, she doesn’t end up going on a date with him even though they both agree that, given the right circumstances, they’d both fuck him. Clarence is a looker, but he doesn’t really fit into the 1990s’ cool, detached guy sensibilities. It’d be too easy to label him a geek, though, and it’s inaccurate anyway regardless of his hobbies: As the movie goes on, we see that he’s incredibly gifted in social situations, almost as if he’s directing the thing like a movie as he goes. No, Clarence is a romantic, and while this reality doesn’t exactly eschew romantics, it sure as hell makes them pay their dues.

Narration from new-to-the-biz call girl Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette) is what truly opens the film and also introduces her as a character. It’s a naive, starry-eyed soliloquy about love. There’s something beautifully pure and Coen Brothers-esque about it in the way it’s so aware of how quaint it’s being⁠—hell, she even uses the word “ponder” and she’s talking about Detroit. Its underscored by an iconic plinking Hans Zimmer score over scenes of homeless men in the snow, letting the audience that this bang-bang-shoot-’em-up movie is gonna be kinda sweet too. If you’re like me, this relaxed you. It’s very difficult to be sincere and heartfelt right off the bat, especially in a movie featuring this much cocaine violence and cocaine slapstick. Pulling that off without yanking the audience out of the movie or ruining their taste for the rougher stuff only looks easy.

Finally, those two crazy kids meet in the most romantic place outside of a bookstore: a movie theatre. Alabama breaks every rule of popcorn palace etiquette during birthday boy Clarence’s viewing of a Sonny Chiba The Street Fighter marathon, but she’s so sweet about it, and Clarence is so sweet to her about it that, gosh, we’re just kinda sweet on them now too.

That first date, the pie, and conversation after the triple feature, followed by the tour of the empty comic book shop Clarence works at… that was a fantasy kind of date for me when I first saw True Romance, and I’ll admit, it still is today. I’m not breaking new ground when I point out that “awkward, undersexed guy has the beautiful, experienced woman fall in love with him based only on his unique guile” is a wish-fulfillment trope and then some (especially with the classic Playboy centerfold kind of questions Clarence lobs at Alabama over their pastry) but I have to admit that part of why I’m so forgiving of it here is that I’m very much a Clarence. Sheltered, good-natured but not that with it, very fixated on our respective pop culture interests… let’s just say if Alabama dumped popcorn into my lap, I probably would have swooned too. Tarantino wrote this when he was 25, and he said that he hadn’t had a “real girlfriend” at that point. I mean this in the nicest way possible: That fact is intensely obvious when watching Alabama and Clarence’s relationship. If somehow, someway, someone thrice-divorced could have written this kind of dynamic, then I suspect it would have ended up getting fumbled in translation. I think Scott saw how earnest young Tarantino was and chose to protect that while still making it such a tasty Tony Scott film. Spoiler alert: This was a very good marriage.

So with that said, after broad, sure declarations of eternal love right away, before we’re even 20 minutes into the film, those crazy kids are married and getting Sailor Jerry-style love tattoos. That’s the thing about True Romance: It doesn’t believe in running out the clock. Even in their newlywedded bliss, Clarence gets a bee in his bonnet about roughing up Alabama’s ex-pimp, sight unseen, after hearing him mentioned once, in a scene after the wedding tattoos (goaded, of course, in a bathroom by a ghostly Elvis played by Val Kilmer) who assures him that “every pimp in the world gets shot.” It’s an outrageous scenario that only plays as low-key with action movie logic at play, but the movie is kind enough to show us what an uncontrollable monster pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman) is, plus we know Clarence is just being old-fashioned and protective, so we’re on board.

What follows is bloodbath after rollercoaster ride after exploding cocaine after bloodbath. It’s a lot of fun nonsense, all of it as smooth as eggs thanks to the little universes Tarantino includes for all his characters. The best is with Clarence’s father, retired cop Clifford, played with a disarming tenderness by Dennis Hopper. They’ve been casually estranged for a few years, but it’s still an instant embrace between the men and then Alabama, and that fatherly loyalty⁠—trepidatious as is⁠—gets him embroiled in their trouble all because he tried to help them. Cue Christopher Walken.

Through it all, the young, pure love never wavers. Neither ever suspects the other of trying to pull a fast one or of having any secrets, which is a real timesaver, as neither of them actually obscures anything about themselves or have malicious intent in their respective hearts. The world around them is rated a hard R, but their love is a teenage fairytale, and it’s like a bulletproof magical bubble that protects their hearts at all times. When reality does break through, it’s only to claim an eye or a few teeth, but never their vows.

Tony Scott didn’t want Tarantino’s original nihilistic ending, feeling the film didn’t “earn” it, and “I love these two kids and I want to see them get away.” I’m with him. The movie did merit its beautiful, sunset-colored happy ending even more than it earned its brutality in my eyes. True Romance is a candy-and-gore-colored valentine (do I legally have to use valencrime here?), a celebration, really, of having an unflappable belief in another human being no matter what the circumstances, and that’s still a beautiful and important thing to aspire to. The shoot-out at the end is incredibly well-done and satisfying, no argument, but can any of that compare to Alabama writing Clarence a love note of “You’re so cool” on a napkin while she waits for his sleazy Hollywood producer drug distribution meeting to end?

Amid the chaos of that day, when all I could hear was the thunder of gunshots, and all I could smell was the violence in the air, I look back and am amazed that my thoughts were so clear and true, that three words went through my mind endlessly, repeating themselves like a broken record: you’re so cool, you’re so cool, you’re so cool.” - Alabama Whitman, the true romantic.

Stephanie Crawford is a writer, editor, and podcaster living in Las Vegas. Check her out at Dread Central, Screamcast, F This Movie or be smart and keep up with her work at House of a Reasonable Amount of Horrors and follow her on Twitter @scrawfish

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