Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Pulp Fiction, Morality Play

Not long after Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction was released, I wrote a piece for a small magazine arguing the film had a moral centre that was being missed. I elaborated on that idea years later in a lecture to a film club. In anticipation of the release of Django Unchained (which will, I hope, soon come to India as Django Uncensored), I'm putting a version of that talk on my blog. Christmas Day feels appropriate for it. I've cut the essay drastically, but it's still pretty long. However, since the film is now an established classic and nobody else appears to have written about it from this perspective, I believe it's worthwhile having it online in some form.

I argue in this essay that Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is a profound as well as subtle ethical exploration. The three main male characters represent three central tendencies in European moral thinking: the Christian, the Aristotelian and the Hedonistic. The film bridges the divide, highlighted by Nietzsche, between Greek and Christian ideas of virtue. While such a bridge is not unsual in itself, the film deviates from tradition in affirming the virtues of pride and sacrifice in individual characters, while denying those virtues any general or universal validity. Whereas the Hollywood tradition of virtuous heroes performing virtuous deeds is simplistic and politically fraught, Tarantino separates subjective from objective, allowing for the approval of noble impulses without a consequent approval of the actions which result from these impulses.
Since the making of Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s moralism has become progressively more overt. Perhaps this is a result of the failure of critics to appreciate the moral basis of his most important film. His recent, obvious manifestations of moralism lack the power of his 1994 classic, which communicated itself to audiences even though they may not have be aware of its ethical roots.

The Critics
Quentin Tarantino’s first two films, Reservoir Dogs, made in 1992, and Pulp Fiction, released in 1994, quickly established him as the most influential director of the decade. As screenwriter or executive producer, he piloted a number of other films, such as True Romance and Killing Zoe, which, together with a host of similarly themed movies like The Usual Suspects created a popular new genre. Typically, these films were violent and funny, stylish and hip, and focused on criminals, often groups of them rather than individuals. It was called, by one biographer of Tarantino, ‘the cinema of cool’.
Tarantino’s films and their clones were appreciated by audiences and critics alike, but also came under attack for their perceived lack of substance, and their use of violence. Charles Taylor, film critic of the left-leaning web magazine Salon.com wrote, “For me, the effect of Pulp Fiction isn't much different than the effect of any big, impersonal action picture. The audience knows from the start that everything has been set up for effect and that there's nothing to believe in or care about.” At the other side of the political spectrum, John Gautereaux, of the conservative Christian organisation Neopolitique, excoriated Tarantino’s perceived nihilism in an essay titled This Dog Has No Reservoir. Gautereaux began by acknowledging the stylistic accomplishments of Pulp Fiction, but complained that “Today's movie audiences, although quite knowledgeable, seem intent on being entertained, not challenged.” He compared Tarantino’s characters unfavourably with those of Frank Capra, director of loveable screwball comedies from the 1930s: “While Capra's films are tagged as 'say-something' movies, Tarantino's have nothing redemptive to say, even to themselves.” About Tarantino’s characters, he wrote: “no matter how many humorous catch-phrases they utter, his characters say nothing transcendent. Tarantino's characters are primarily interested in surviving the here and now.”
Mary Kenney of the left-wing British tabloid The Daily Mirror. Kenney wrote that Tarantino’s films were “disgusting, violent, repellent, dangerous to young and unformed minds, childish, irrational, horrible, agonising, and distressingly like something out of a Nazi nightmare where human beings are subjected to every degradation just for the hell of it."
A few critics had recognised that the tale of trust and betrayal in Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs, had a moral basis. The Christian overtones in the relationship between a robber (Harvey Keitel) and a cop pretending to be a robber (Tim Roth) were too obvious to be ignored completely. Moreover, these themes were already familiar in the work of two other Catholic, Italian-American directors who, like Tarantino, were preoccupied with tales of underworld violence: Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese. Scorcese had always been open about the Catholic underpinning of his stories. They aren’t propaganda for the Catholic cause, in the manner of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, but revolve around and question certain persistent issues in Christian myth and ethics. Since trust and betrayal are central themes in the story of Christ it was easy to incorporate Reservoir Dogs into the Italian-American gangster movie tradition of Scorcese and Coppola.
In which case, why not see Pulp Fiction in a Christian moral context as well? How could John Gautereaux claim that “Tarantino's characters are primarily interested in surviving the here and now”? Doesn’t one of the characters, played by Samuel Jackson, mouth lines from the Book of Ezekiel? (Mixed, Tarantino style, with a quote from a karate flick starring Sonny Chiba) Doesn’t he undergo a religious conversion which makes him rethink his entire way of living? And doesn’t he undertake the most elaborate exegetical exercise in the history of Hollywood, when, near the end of the film, he considers different interpretations of that paragraph from Ezekiel?
Somehow, the form of Pulp Fiction, its humour and many conscious absurdities, prevented critics from allowing Jackson’s character any significant moral purpose. The film’s title itself seemed to announce its lack of depth, referring as it did to a cheap paperback genre of the 1950s. Maximilian LeCain, an Irish film-maker and writer, one of the few to actually consider the Christian connotations of Pulp Fiction, quickly dismissed the whole thing as a sham: “The lazy, dishonestly moralistic about-turn that Tarantino makes with Samuel Jackson's 'redemption' in Pulp Fiction is ultimately of little consequence amid the self-satisfied posturing of that film because the full extent of its 'moral vision' is no more than immanent glibness.”

In my view, the character played by Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction represents the Greek virtue of pride, while Samuel Jackson represents the Christian virtue of sacrifice. Through these two characters, we feel a commonality between the opposed virtues of the two ethical systems underpinning European thought. I say opposed because, while Aristotle considered pride the greatest virtue, Christianity deemed it a deadly sin. For the Greeks, pride was an essential aspect of greatness, though it could cause a hero’s downfall if it became hubris. The qualities the Greeks valued, not just pride but courage, justice and honour, could be termed masculine virtues. In fact, the word virtue is derived from the Indo-European root ‘vir’ meaning, simply ‘man’. Virtue has the same root as words such as virile, and also werewolf. ‘Vir’ became ‘wer’ in Old English, so werewolf meant ‘man-wolf’. The Sanskrit word ‘vira’ meaning man as well as hero, is also derived from the same root.
 Consider the first time we see Bruce Willis, or Butch Coolidge as his character is named. He is being offered a packet to throw a fight. Marcellus Wallace, a gangleader who is fixing the fight, speaks a lot about pride (Starting 2.10 in this clip). He attempts to convince Bruce Willis that “pride never helps, it only hurts”, that Butch will have to forget his pride for material gain. In the event, Butch refuses to throw the fight, thuse re-asserting the power of pride. Later in the narrative, when he and Marcellus run into each other, he throws Marcellus's words back at him along with a few well-aimed punches, "You feel that sting? That's pride fucking with you" (1.40 in this clip).
It could be argued that pride has nothing to do with Willis’s actions. He makes a lot of money betting on himself at a minimum risk to his life. However, the narrative develops in ways that highlight pride over mercenary plotting. Though he knows Marcellus will be looking for him after being double-crossed, Butch returns to his home to retrieve the heirloom that is the source of his pride: a gold watch worn by his warrior father and his warrior grandfather before him, and originally purchased by his great-grandfather Erine Coolidge just before he set sail for Paris to fight in the First World War.
The way Tarantino deals with the story of the heirloom is crucial to my understanding of his moral innovation. The history of the artefact is related by an army officer who survived the Vietnamese POW camp that claimed the life of Butch’s father. The story begins conventionally, one may even feel emotionally involved in it at the start. But it rapidly becomes funny, ridiculous and finally scatological, with an account of Butch’s father hiding the watch in his rectum and then dying of diarrhoea. By this time, it has lost all pretensions to gravitas. The only person in the world who takes the heirloom seriously is Butch himself. This split between the audience’s view of the watch and Butch’s own is enhanced in a scene where Butch discovers his girlfriend has failed to pack the watch in preparing their getaway. He keeps repeating that the watch was, “beside the table drawer on the little kangaroo”. Though Butch himself is distraught, the audience is diverted by the absurd kangaroo. We feel Butch is doing a brave thing by going back, but feel no connection with the object of his quest, the watch next to the kangaroo. Tarantino divorces our attitude to Butch’s motivation from our attitude to his goal.

Exactly the same split takes place on the Christian side of the story. Jules (Samuel Jackson) undergoes a conversion after six bullets, which should have killed him and his friend Vincent (John Travolta), end up hitting the wall instead. Vincent sees it as happy chance, perhaps helped along by the extra heavy gun the shooter carried. He takes with a pinch of salt Jules' conclusion that God diverted the bullets from their fatal path. Later on, when they’re sitting in a diner, and Jules mentions he is thinking of the miracle they witnessed, Vincent responds; “The miracle you witnessed. I witnessed a freak accident.” Jules says, “You’re judging this the wrong way. You don’t judge stuff like this based on merit. Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is I felt God’s touch.” In this exchange, quite explicitly, a distinction is made between subjective experience and objective reality. The moral worth of a subjective experience cannot, in Jules’ framework, be judged by objective standards. Just as the subjective value attached by Butch to his watch cannot be judged in objective terms. The decisions Butch and Jules make are absurd and heroic at the same time.
The decade before Tarantino’s emergence saw the emergence of a succession of violent movie franchises. There was Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo; Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Predator and Commando; and Mel Gibson’s Mad Max and Lethal Weapon series. Bruce Willis himself topped the box-office charts with three installments of Die Hard. Each of these was a bad guys versus good guys story. The hero is a good guy who does good things. The villain is a bad guy who does bad things. In other words, heroes are both subjectively as well as objectively noble, and villains are subjectively as well as objectively nasty. We can see the political ramifications of this kind of thinking. Rambo fights the Vietcong, then goes to Afghanistan and battles on the side of the brave Mujahideen, (including, presumably, Osama Bin Laden). Rambo’s nobility is founded upon the audience’s sympathy with his actions as well as goals. Perhaps not coincidentally, all these heroes of action franchises, as well as the pioneer of the genre, Clint Eastwood, who played Dirty Harry, are supporters of the militaristic Republic Party, even as much of Hollywood prefers the Democrats.
My suggestion is that, by deliberately severing the connection between subjective and objective nobility, Tarantino finds a way to allow us to accept the idea of the heroic, even the proud, hyper-masculine warrior, without getting tangled in George Bush style ‘you’re either with us or against us’ kinds of ethical simplification. Precisely this innovation makes Pulp Fiction an extremely difficult film to read. We have grown so accustomed to seeing noble motivation matched with noble objectives that we find it hard to accommodate a new vision into our moral framework. The consistent conflation of the sublime and the ridiculous in Pulp Fiction makes it tempting to dismiss the film as entertaining sound and fury signifying virtually nothing.

Before concluding I’m going to briefly, and tentatively, extend this argument to the third major character in Pulp Fiction, Vincent Vega, played by John Travolta. If we try and place Travolta’s character within the great ethical systems, one would put him in the category hedonist-epicurian. He talks continually of material things, of drugs, and food, and fast cars, and clearly enjoys all of these. His storyline offers him the prospect of a night spent with the alluring Mia, played by Uma Thurman. But he backs away from the promised fulfillment of hedonistic desire. Talking himself out of sleeping with Mia, he uses moral terms, telling himself he shouldn’t do it because it would involve wronging a person who trusts him, namely Mia’s husband Marcellus. However, given his preoccupation with the story of Antwone (a Samoan who was thrown from the fourth floor by Marcellus, perhaps because he gave Mia a foot massage) we know that what stops Vincent from proceeding is not moral consideration but plain fear. He is being dishonest with himself. Vincent is the only one among the three main characters who fails to follow to its logical end the dictates of what one might term the governing philosophy underpinning his character.
Tarantino’s non-linear narrative is peculiarly suited to the employment of irony, and one of the most telling uses of it is in the final sequence, just before Samuel Jackson gives away all the cash in his wallet to a robber, in a manner reminiscent of such Christian classics as Hugo’s tale of the Bishop’s candlesticks from Les Miserables. Vincent has been arguing strenuously against Jules’ intention to to give up the criminal life to seek a deeper meaning in his earthly existence. Vincent repeatedly tells Jules he is going to up as a bum. Viewers have no idea what will become of Jules after completes his final task of delivering a briefcase to Marcellus; but they do know that Vincent ends up dead in a toilet, shot by Butch Coolidge. I am not suggesting we take Pulp Fiction as a film with a moral, rather than as a moral film. But the story of Vincent Vega certainly reminds us that just because you play safe doesn’t mean you stay safe.

A few more critics on the amorality and insubstantiality of Pulp Fiction.

“The way that [it] has been so widely ravened up and drooled over verges on the disgusting. Pulp Fiction nourishes, abets, cultural slumming”. Stanley Kaufmann, The New Republic

“The fact that Pulp Fiction is garnering more extravagant raves than Breathless ever did tells you plenty about which kind of cultural references are regarded as more fruitful—namely, the ones we already have and don't wish to expand”. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

“Tarantino represents the final triumph of postmodernism, which is to empty the artwork of all content, thus avoiding its capacity to do anything except helplessly represent our agonies.... Only in this age could a writer as talented as Tarantino produce artworks so vacuous, so entirely stripped of any politics, metaphysics, or moral interest”. James Wood, The Guardian

“A succulent guilty pleasure, beautifully made junk food for cineastes... Pulp Fiction is a terminally hip postmodern collage… the film's tone is buoyantly amoral”. Forster Hirsch

“That's why Pulp Fiction was so popular. Not because all audiences got all or any of its references to Scorsese and Kubrick, but because the narrative and spatial structure of the film never threatened to go beyond themselves into signification. The film's cycle of racist and homophobic jokes might threaten to break out into a quite nasty view of the world, but this nastiness keeps being laughed off—by the mock intensity of the action, the prowling, confronting, perverse, confined, and airless nastiness of the world Tarantino creates”. Robert Kolker

Friday, December 14, 2012

This morning's accident

A common morning story. A large Chevrolet is double parked in front of my building, leaving only one lane free for two-way traffic. A Maruti Dzire goes past the Chevy in a hurry, just as a taxi driver backs out of the driveway of the building opposite my home. The taximan, looking out for vehicles coming from his left, doesn’t see the Maruti driving in the right (ie. wrong) lane, and reverses into it. The Maruti is dented, the taxi, an old Premier, unmarked. The Maruti’s driver demands compensation, the taxi driver refuses, suggesting they go to a police station to sort everything out. In India, the person who suffers most in an accident is always a victim, the facts of the case don’t matter. Having seen close-up what happened, I explain to the people gathered below my balcony that the real culprit, the man who had double parked, has driven off. But that doesn’t stop a fight from breaking out.
The driver of the Maruti is Marathi, the taxiwalla from UP. The home state of the men becomes more important than the way the incident played out. A man on a motorcycle taking his young boy to school stops to figure out the language situation, and begins to abuse the taxi driver. Emboldened, the Maruti driver slaps the taxi man, something he’d never do in a one-on-one match up against his tall and well-built antagonist. The cab driver, knowing he’s in the Marathi manoos heartland, does not retaliate. He says, “How will beating me help. I have no money to pay you. Let’s go to the police station”. The man on the motorcycle continues shouting. “Speak in Marathi, motherfucker”, he says to the ‘bhaiyya’, though everybody present understands Hindi perfectly well. His boy shrinks away to the edge of the back seat, on the verge of tears.
The old Shivaji Park civility is not entirely dead. A gentleman in his late fifties intervenes, insisting the shouting and beating stop. A woman calls out from a balcony backing him up. I say again it wasn’t really the taxi driver’s fault. Had there been one or two more aggressive MNS types in the crowd, the safari-clad gentleman would’ve been told to shut up, and the fight would’ve escalated. But the scales happen to be evenly balanced, and the situation clams down. The drivers go off to the police station.
I think of the hundreds of insults that North Indians face in Bombay each day. By now, after years of this treatment, every poor or middle class person from UP and Bihar must feel unwelcome, and sometimes unsafe. The question is: if North Indians stop coming to this city, and if some of those already here leave, will it increase opportunities for Marathis? A Marathi rickshaw owner with cancer doesn’t think so, and his story is instructive. It’s not as if Marathis are actively seeking to drive autos and taxis, and being deprived because of an influx from the north. Protectionist laws and the assault on North Indians have only led to fewer taxis and autos plying, inconveniencing commuters.

Meanwhile, opposite Shiv Sena Bhavan, the largest towers ever built in Dadar are being sheathed in glass. The complex, now called Kohinoor Square, used to be Kohinoor Mills. The 4.8 acre plot was purchased by Raj Thackeray (who later sold his stake at a fat profit) and Unmesh Joshi (son of Shiv Sena leader Manohar Joshi) in 2005 for 421 crore rupees (over 75 million USD). Nobody knows where Thackeray got that kind of money, but as long as he defines enemies for his followers to target, they won’t ask questions; and they won’t understand that, if this city is in many ways unlivable, it isn’t because of northerners coming here to work hard for a living, but because of builders who’ve corrupted politicians of all parties, and most bureaucrats, and subverted planning, infrastructure augmentation and public housing projects. You won’t hear Raj Thackeray say much against builders; after all, he’s a proud member of that fraternity.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Kali's temple and town

I just spent a day and a half in Calcutta, a city that always makes Bombay look good. The deficiencies of the capital of what was once India’s most industrialised state became apparent days before I got there, when I found all three-, four-, and five-star hotels booked out. Obviously, synchronising my visit with the start of the deciding test of the India-England cricket series didn’t help, but what kind of metropolis has so few upscale lodgings that the barmy army and maybe some suits attending conferences can take over every single room in town?
Plan B was to look at the B&B ratings on Tripadvisor. I found a room available at Relax Inn, which turned out to be perfectly satisfactory.
Ten minutes into my ride from Calcutta airport, I asked the driver for his mobile phone number. He told me he possessed no cellphone.
Me: No phone? But what if there’s no parking where I alight? How will I know where you are?
Driver: I’ll be around.
There was no parking outside Relax Inn. Having checked in, I came out to give the driver instructions, but he had already gone off to find a parking spot. When I was ready to leave for my first appointment after freshening up, I asked the doorman if the driver had returned to tell him where he was parked. He had not.
I called the car rental agency’s number on the receipt.
Me: I think the driver has left.
Him: No, he must be there.
Me: But how can I find him?
Him: Look around, I’m sure he’s there somewhere.
Luckily, autorickshaws are plentiful in Cal.
On my way back from the first meeting, I stopped at a chemist to buy a razor, toothpaste and stuff I’d forgotten in my hurried packing. It was an impressive looking branch of the chemists’ chain Frank Ross. Eight men were at the counters when I entered, each wearing a green jacket embroidered with the Frank Ross name, each sitting at a computer looking like he was doing work of national importance. I saw two customers, neither of whom was being served. When I asked if they could sell me a razor, one of the men gave me a can’t-you-see-I’m-busy look. Eventually, a ninth man appeared from the stock room, and I asked him for a disposable razor.
He said, “We only have packs of four. It’s a Buy 3, Get 1 Free promotion.”
He took a strip of Gillette Prestos off a hook and held them out.
Him: See, four for 54 rupees.
Me: I’m sure you can sell them individually as well. They must have individual prices.
Scrutinising the packaging, he found each razor was priced at 18 rupees. But then he shook his head.
Him: If I sell you one, then who will buy the remaining three?
Me: The same people who buy them when there is no special offer.
He looked at me with a pitying expression. Obviously, I was the only idiot in the world who would buy a single razor when four could be had for the price of three, but the man was generous enough not to say so. He told me, only, that he could not offer me the razor I desired.
A corner shop sold me a Gillette Presto without hassle. Back at Relax Inn, I found my driver had reparked next to the lodge, and was ready to ferry me around. He couldn’t understand why I hadn’t scoured the neighbouring streets looking for him.
The next day, I decided to begin at the Birla Academy, which was hosting an interesting show curated by Shaheen Merali. Getting there, I found the place opens only between 3 and 8 pm. I had consulted the website in advance, but the people who built the elaborate site obviously felt that stuff like opening timings, or even the address of the place, didn’t merit mention.
Next stop was the Kali temple at Kalighat. I’d never actually been inside, since I avoid functioning temples as far as possible, but with time on my hand, I braved the gauntlet of flower sellers, guides and touts. I lost count of the number of people who tried taking money off me between the gate and the sanctum. Every few steps somebody would insist shoes had to be removed at that spot. One man screeched as I passed him despite his warning, as if I’d broken a dreadful taboo. The temple has no official footwear storage, so one is forced to leave slippers and shoes in the care of shopkeepers. They refuse money for looking after the shoes, but ask you to buy a garland or some other item of worship, which I refused to do. Finally, I found a man willing to watch my shoes for five rupees. As I looked for the entry queue, a man asked if I wouldn’t rather pay 100 rupees and gain instant access to the sanctum. I said I’d wait in line.
“It will take three hours”, he said.
“Obviously your goddess has nothing against lying”, I wanted to reply, but ignored him. In the end, it took about forty minutes for me to get my five seconds in front of the startling icon with black face, red eyes and a massive golden tongue hanging out of its mouth. The Kali temple is relatively modern, having been built in the 19th century, and features a domed sanctum, which means it is a little larger and better ventilated than most garbhagrihas. The sanctum’s walls are painted yellow, stained with soot, clad with white tiles at the lower reaches, all of which gives it the feel of an old-style Irani restaurant kitchen. The idol is held in a cage in the centre, above which is a canopy shaped like the hood of a kitchen’s exhaust. As our line slowly wound around the room, pressing against the wall, priests went round thrusting flowers into hands, daubing and smearing stuff on vacant foreheads, and generally ensuring that every individual in line contributed to the temple kitty. Periodically, our line would stop as VIP guests, which meant anybody forking out extra dough, were thrust in from the exit point for an expedited darshan. In the brief time I was given to examine the idol, no fewer than five entreaties / demands for contributions rang in my ears.
“Give me fifty rupees. Ten rupees”
“Don’t give me anything, give it to the temple. Put it in the donation box”
“Put money in this box, in the box”
“You haven’t made a contribution. Give me something.”
It’s a pity that workers in businesses such as Frank Ross Pharmacy have a statist perspective. Rather than government employees, they ought to model themselves on the Kali temple’s priests, who are perfectly mercenary, single-minded in their determination to get some cash from each person who enters their domain. OK, I’d prefer it if businesses left out the cheating, the harangues, the stealing, but no business does that without proper regulation, and temples are among the least regulated commercial operations in the country.
I suppose the money-grabbing at the Kali temple was no worse than I’ve encountered at Puri Jagannath or the shrines that dot Pushkar lake. On the other hand, Kalighat offers neither the architectural delights of the former, nor the marvelous atmosphere of the latter.
As for the city as a whole, I'm amazed I’ve never disliked it. In fact, I’d even concede I am a little fond of Calcutta. It has character, a certain laid-back gentleness, and retains the core of a great city in its monuments, parks, and museums. It doesn't hurt that the place is cheap (everything in Bombay costs about 50% more), and the inhabitants fond of fish, red meat and liquor (though alcohol is reasonably priced, Calcuttans don't drink themselves under the table in the manner of Goans and Keralites). Also, there are plenty of smart, good-looking women around (so what if backcombing never went out of fashion here?). Right now, citizens are feeling pretty depressed, having hopped out of the frying pan of Communist rule and landed in the fire of Mamata Bannerjee’s lunacy. It’s always wrong to believe things can only get better. Like Iranians discovered when Khomeini took over from the Shah, things can always get worse. And yet, Calcutta does seem to be developing fast, particularly in areas close to the airport like Salt Lake and New Town. The development is very much in the Gurgaon mode, all tower blocks and malls, with none of the sense of community that still defines neighbourhoods in Calcutta proper; but that’s preferable to the dilapidation and decay whose depiction has provided lucrative careers for so many painters.