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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

shit man, you nailed it. whew! and bravo!
seems to me Tarantino belongs to the same class of postmodern moralists - Michel Houllebecq, Lars von Trier, Dibakar Bannerjee and maybe [though i doubt - you'll know better] Damien Hirst