I've recounted from time-to-time that during my grad school days I didn't get taken in by the sophistries of critical theory: It was patently false, didn't match lived experience, and was little more than a power grab. That's how I saw it. I don't want to get into that further here.
But I did fall into another set of conundrums; what was called narratology. This is a way of criticizing works by how they are structured, and what this structure says about the author's epistemology, ontology, ethics, etc. I got my head so confused in narratology that by the end of the two-year program, I was so utterly confused that I no longer knew what a story was, or how it worked. And I didn't have a hope of writing: Every writing decision, I realized, impacted the overall philosophical underpinnings of whatever I was writing, requiring more and more adherence to these theories, most of which were badly understood or only partially formed in my head. Each decision seemed to open up new forks, and yet limit my choices at the same time. My thinking became dangerously abstract, and it's no wonder that at no time in my life have I ever talked greater nonsense.
Then something happened to me that sort of shook me out of my abstraction: I'm not kidding here, but I had a novel happen to me. Yes, it had a beginning, a middle and an end, and I had the brilliant and penetrating insight /sarcasm off> that a story was a series of events (or a single event) that changed someone. I kept it that simple for a long time, and still do. This person was like this. Then that happened. Now they are like that.
But I got to thinking about the narratology can of worms again because I recently saw Reservoir Dogs on DVD. I'd already seen it, and when I re-view a movie like many other people I let my mind wander. Well, what I started thinking was this. Who knows what happened in the warehouse? When the movie is over, everyone who was in that warehouse is dead, except possibly Mr. Pink. So who is telling the story?
Gotta be Mr. Pink. Everyone else is dead. Thus, the only scenes we know are the ones that Mr. Pink witnessed personally. That means the scene with Mr. Blonde dancing and torturing is either: (1) made up by Mr. Pink, or (2) made up by the author.
Do you see the problems with this kind of thinking? It opens a billion cans of worms. So let's analyze for a moment.
Mr. Pink is the storyteller. (It doesn't matter that there is no voiceover, essentially, this method of narratology assumes it's simply a silent voiceover.) Mr. Pink is the only character to have interacted with every other character at each point in the events. He survives. Thus, he could have imagined the scenes that are missing, e.g., Mr. Orange and Mr. White's bloody escape, Mr. Blonde's torture, Marvin and Mr. Orange's conversation ... oh wait, there is no way he could've known about that. Cops could've told Mr. Pink about Mr. Orange's confession to Mr. White. Mr. Pink also could've learned later about Mr. Orange's shooting of the civilian. The fact that little is known about the death of Mr. Blue actually strengthens the theory of Mr. Pink, simply because Mr. Pink may never have found out about that aspect of the robbery.
So Mr. Pink is relaying the story, somewhere, and he fills in a few bits ... like Mr. Blonde dancing to, "Stuck in the Middle with You" and torturing Marvin the cop. But Mr. Pink hates cops, so why would Mr. Pink relay a sympathetic scene between Mr. Orange and Marvin, where Marvin reveals he knows Mr. Orange is a cop? He wouldn't, unless Mr. Pink has changed. Maybe his time in the slammer has gotten to Mr. Pink, or maybe all the death has gotten to him, and now Mr. Pink is fantasizing about brave cops saving him from the psychopathic Mr. Blonde (i.e., through Mr. Orange's shooting Mr. Blonde.)
See how narratology gets? You have to sit there and look for who could've told the story, who could've known. Answering "the author" is an amateurish answer (in these academic circles) because who is an author, anyway? You have a text to work with. There is an implied author, who is the storyteller created by the story, not the other way around, if you follow. That is, we can know nothing about the actual author of a work, and it's irrelevant to our reading / viewing experience. All we know is what the storyteller tells us about himself/herself through the construction of the story at the the time of writing. The authorial choices are essentially reified by the story, much as an analog recording takes down sound waves. By analyzing those values, or playing back those decisions by analyzing the story, we can work our way back to this storyteller, who is known as an implied author.
Sometimes that implied author is a character in the work. My guess at Mr. Pink as storyteller leads to many interesting theories, but I don't think anyone who watches the movie would say Mr. Pink is the storyteller ... yet if it's not Mr. Pink, then it's either someone beyond the grave, or someone not in the story. If the person is not in the story, then who is it?
Well, Quentin Tarantino of course. Then the questions change: What kind of person would tell us a story like this? What does this story tell us about his or her values? Why is this person telling us this story? What do those reasons tell us about him or her, and what does it say about us?
Like I said, can of worms.
For the record, I think Mr. Pink as storyteller is the most interesting theory. Mr. Pink is in jail, and the movie is Quentin Tarantino the implied author's artful recounting (through Wayne Booth's "elaborate rhetoric of dissimulation") of Mr. Pink's perspective on the crime. Mr. Pink is different because of this robbery gone bad where every single one of his cohorts was killed, as well as a bunch of cops, and he ignored his instincts repeatedly and thus didn't get away. So he's regretful at not getting away with it, and the fantastical Mr. Blonde torture scene is his fantastical horror, which so shocks him that he actually becomes sympathetic for the cops who kill Mr. Blonde and demonstrate loyalty to one another because psychologically even Mr. Pink has to believe there is honor and strength somewhere to save him from the horror that is Mr. Blonde, even if it's among those he purports to hate. That is, Mr. Blonde represents the horror of the id, and Mr. Pink invents a superego (one that he doesn't have) and attributes it to the cops just to rein in the id's extremes as manifested by Mr. Blonde. That's my theory, and if I were writing up a term paper, that's the thesis that I'd use.
Is that what I believe? No, I think a less interesting theory, but more likely one that fits better, is that Quentin Tarantino is the implied author, and that he likes extreme themes, and this allowed Tarantino time to play in his own id-dy sandbox and cope with the violence within himself without getting too hurt.
Note that Tarantino's own character is killed early on in Reservoir Dogs. Movies often have characters that are essentially stand-ins for the audience. Think of the guy who's stuck in the car while the hero drives like a maniac chasing the bad guy, the one going, "Whoaa!" Yeah, that's our stand-in. (By the way, in the Gospels, it's Peter.) Anyway, Tarantino does something brilliant in both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction: He has a stand-in character, and that character gets killed. What he's saying is this: You, the audience, couldn't handle this level of violence. These people are way above where you are ... if you think you can come bursting out of the bathroom and shoot at Samuel Jackson and John Travolta, you'd just miss and these cool psychopaths would kill you. So just sit there while Quentin shows you what you could never handle on your own.
By the way, Ernest Hemingway used the same idea extremely effectively in one of his short stories. He talked about Spanish boys who dream of being bullfighters, and one gets killed foolishly in an accident, and Hemingway's moral is, you'd get killed, too. A genius is special, you know. Bullfighting is not a transferable concept.
And it's true, you know. Tarantino likes to let you know that, too.
So where does that leave us? Well, Hemingway was more plain about his statements. Hemingway was simply saying, you're not as good as these people, and damn shame that, and if you're not as good, cheer with respect those who are as good. He leaves you a little alienated but he's also reining in any potential fantasizing about bullfighting. It's a free life lesson, without getting stabbed by accident while mock bullfighting. Tarantino, on the other hand, wants it both ways. He alienates you subtly, all while attracting you to characters who have few redeeming qualities. He seems to be making statements about violence, yet undercuts himself by a seeming enjoyment of the violence. The issue is unresolved thus in Tarantino's mind, or if you prefer, the implied author's mind. I think the resolution of that tension is found in the music for Tarantino; they've become secular hymns, and he uses them almost like totems. Still, I doubt that's enough for him, or for us, either. But you gotta admit, Reservoir Dogs does make you think ...