Blood count rises with Tarantino directing 'ER,'

May 11, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

A 15-year-old boy is running on a playground. He falls and is impaled on an iron bar. It's gory, but the boy is still alive. Who ya gonna call?

How about the medical doctors from NBC's ratings-buster, "ER"? And, just in case the normal blood-and-guts level of that hit series isn't high enough for you, how about bringing in Quentin Tarantino -- Mr. Brains-All-Over-The-Backseat of "Pulp Fiction" fame -- to direct the scene in which the boy arrives in the emergency room of County General Memorial Hospital?

I'm not sure prime-time America is ready for the quirky, goofy gore of the Oscar-winning Tarantino. But, ready or not, here he comes, tonight at 10 (on WBAL-Channel 11), directing an episode of "ER" titled "Motherhood."

Each of the story lines is tied to motherhood -- Sunday being Mother's Day -- but it is the one with the weakest link to that theme, the one featuring the boy and the iron bar, that I'm remembering way too vividly.

First, Tarantino lovingly shows us the incision of the boy's flesh by Dr. Benton (Eriq LaSalle). Then, Benton calls for the "bone saw." After a close-up of the tool and Benton's bloody glove grabbing it, we get to see Benton rev the instrument a few times over the victim.

Most television directors might stop here, but not Tarantino.

He shows us an extra-tight shot of the bloody sternum being sawed. Finally, the piece de resistance: The iron bar is shown being extracted millimeter by millimeter from the boy's body with alternating close-ups of the blood-splattered surgical gloves of Dr. Carter (Noah Wyle) on the stake and long shots to show the stake rising from the victim's chest.

"Very cool," Carter says as the bar comes out.

All the while, another doctor is talking about a patient he had the week before who was impaled on his television antenna when he fell while trying to attach the antenna to his roof. The punch line could have come from a Tarantino script.

Cooler yet, I guess, though I've seen this kind of dark and blood-soaked medical humor done just as well on "M*A*S*H" and "St. Elsewhere." Furthermore, on "St. Elsewhere," it was generally redeemed by a larger vision of human beings behaving with courage and kindness in the face of death and a seemingly indifferent universe. With Tarantino, it's mainly darkness, death, drugs, bad sex, weird conversation, retro fashions and a few chuckles.

Tarantino did not write "Motherhood," so don't expect too much of him in terms of language or vision. And this is, after all, prime-time network television. NBC did not allow Tarantino to share his thoughts on sex with viewers in any special way, for example.

But, in addition to the violence -- which networks have never been as squeamish about as they are when it comes to sex -- NTC there are some Tarantino touches that his fans will probably enjoy.

One goofy sequence features Nurse Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) and Dr. Lewis (Sherry Stringfield) sunbathing on the roof of County General. They are both wearing sunglasses straight out of the 1950s. Somehow, in a matter of only a few frames, he manages to reduce them to a music video -- sunglasses, body parts and a few disjointed words.

This is Tarantino cleverly subverting the genre of television doctor drama, and such directorial devilment is fun to see. But, again, I have the feeling that the only appropriate critical response to the sequence is to say, "Cool, very cool." I mean, so what?

The coolest story line tonight is probably the one featuring Dr. Lewis, her spacey sister, Chloe (Kathleen Wilhoite), and their mom, Cookie (Valerie Perrine).

Chloe goes into labor screaming for drugs and rock and roll. She gets neither, but still delivers a healthy baby with the help of her sister. But guess which of the three Lewis women appears to be the only one capable of taking care of the baby?

Why is Tarantino, the current rage of feature films, directing an episode of a television series? NBC says it's because he's a friend of George Clooney, who plays Dr. Ross, resident hunk.

ka,5 But, really, who cares why he did it? Why shouldn't the rage of feature films direct an episode of the rage of the current television season?

The ratings for "ER," which are usually through the roof, should be through the moon tonight. And there is enough Tarantino to warrant a bit of a buzz. One weird scene involving a fight between female gang members as they are being wheeled into the emergency room might even be considered inspired when (( judged against the usual standards of doctor drama.

But be warned: It's ultra-bloody. It's also wildly uneven in tone as Tarantino wrestles with the straitjacket of servicing an ensemble's worth of characters and their ongoing story lines.

Still, I enjoyed "Motherhood." I just wish I didn't remember the scene with the boy and the iron bar quite so vividly.

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