THE PATH OF THE RIGHTEOUS
February 19, 2007
The films of Quentin Tarantino caused a stir back in the early nineties. In rapid succession he established himself as new and unique voice in American cinema: Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Natural Born Killers and finally Pulp Fiction all displayed an idiosyncratic style that continues to mark later films like From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill Vols 1 and 2.
I remember as a film journalist having a couple brief differences of opinion with other people working for the then fledgling Inside Film magazine. One in particular with an editor who bluntly refuted my suggestion that he was a moralist: “He’s totally amoral”, she said, something like that anyway.
As Australian film criticism is essentially practical: is it a good film or alternatively how do you make a film. I never had an opportunity to elucidate my assertion. This piece attempts to do that.
Reservoir Dogs came to this country in ’93. One year out of the academy’s warm bosom I had a lot of trouble getting work and was still writing film reviews for student rags. During these few months the (arthouse) market was flooded with a fistful of independent and gun-crammed projects all tagged with critical superlatives about this or that writer-director’s claims to be Scorsese’s heir.
Mostly they were boring cliché plagued tripe riddled with the clumsy references that film schooled disciples of Godard mistook for cleverness. I began to hate the Thursday morning tedium of this stuff and sitting in the dark waiting for Reservoir Dogs to begin I was supremely jaded, irritated by the cheesy soundtrack pouring thru the sound system. Here we go. Another next Martin Scorsese. Not!
“What is this stupid fucking music.” I grumbled wishing I was somewhere, anywhere where I might get paid more than thirty bucks for the skills acquired thru years of education.
The cheesy shit was Harry Millson, from the first famous Tarantino soundtrack: he put de lime in de cocoanut and drank ‘em bot’ up….
The curtain rose and within thirty seconds I knew this was going be something different. Before the black switched to a picture you heard the voice of the man himself : “Let me tell you what “Like A Virgin’s” about. It’s all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick.
I was paying attention.
Reservoir Dogs had everything: Tarantino’s pulp culture riffs, his cheesy-cool soundtracks, his off-colour sexual humour and the ultra-violence that is at once stylised and highly realistic. This is well-established.
Typical attitudes to his films are expressed by, say, Daniel Kane comparing Pulp Fiction to Titus Andronicus:
For example, in Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction, atrocities are committed for a variety of barely articulated reasons, and time itself is subverted when characters we thought dead unexpectedly reappear in unannounced and unarticulated flashback sequences. The ‘point’ in Pulp Fiction seems to be pure stylization, where violence is presented as spectacle without an underlying moral message.
(from “The Virtue of Spectacle in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus” in Connotations.
Or again from the conservative National Review Online, Rich Lowry asks us to consider:
…the iconic film of the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. It includes a scene of the rape of a man imprisoned and kept as a sexual slave, which prompted laughs in theaters. The victim, ‘The Gimp,’ became a figure of fun. Tarantino’s latest, the Kill Bill movies, present the same romance of power and violence, arbitrarily and stylishly wielded. Cruelty, Tarantino tells us, can be fun.
This is the standard take on Tarantino. He’s the visual gangsta rapper. Riffing off cool lines and spectacular kills for the blood-hungry. The thing is whilst that’s true the idea that the whole thing is a pointless exercise in visceral thrill is untrue.
So let me tell you what Pulp Fiction’s about. It’s all about three guys who do a good deed. But the deeds are unequal. In each story the hero puts in a righteous performance but his motivation for doing so and the nature of the deed ascends each time in its nobility.
The first three scenes of Pulp Fiction set up the nature of its moral universe. It’s a violent, selfish and decadent place. Pulp Fiction begins and ends in a restaurant. Two lovers discuss their future. It’s apparent that they stick places up for money. Despite this they’re genuinely in love and polite. The woman sincerely thanks the waitress for refilling their coffee. She smiles when the waitress corrects her lover’s cry of “garçon” ordering more. “Garçon means ‘boy’”, retorts the waitress, surly. A little snippet of the soul-destroying dignity assault of hospitality work, indicating perhaps the motivation of Pulp Fiction’s dramatis personae to their lives of crime. “What then day jobs?” asks the woman when the man insists they stop robbing liquor stores. “Not in this life.” he replies.
But liquor stores? Too risky he says. One of his objections is that although he doesn’t want to kill anyone the liquor store situation is going to end up putting them in a position where it’s us or them.
So he suggests restaurants. She likes the idea and spontaneously they hold the place up.
The next scene features two gentlemen discussing the finer points of European culture: “They’ve got the metric system they don’t what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is”, “in France you can buy a beer in McDonalds” and most especially “it’s legal to buy it, it’s legal to sell it, it’s legal to carry it but that don’t matter ‘cause get this. In Amsterdam it’s illegal for the cops to search you.” And for those who haven’t seen the flick (see it if you want to get this piece) the ‘it’ is hash.
They then discuss an anecdote about their employer having dropped an associate out a high story window for giving his wife a foot massage. They argue about whether a foot massage means something. Then they enter an apartment and proceed to slaughter people!!!!
Moral movie?? I’m nuts right?
Pulp Fiction is stuffed to the brim full of criminals. No-one in the entire movie is not somehow complicit in or associated with crime, betrayal, killing, all of the above. Not one of them live according to the codes of normal behaviour. No-one is innocent. This universe is a place of self-indulgence, lawlessness and naked power unchecked by modern ideas about justice. There is however a moral code. This code is made clear in the second scene of Pulp Fiction’s first episode.
Jules and Vincent walk into an apartment where three college-looking guys are eating breakfast. These guys, by appearances, actually do live in the normal world. But they’ve stolen something of Wallace’s and have hence crossed into the moral universe of Pulp Fiction. Far from immoral, this world is Old Testament. An eye for an eye: a world ruled by power.
In the American system of justice the accused has a right to defence, to reasonable doubt. The judge and jury will take into consideration extenuating circumstances. If condemned to die a prisoner has a long appeals process, a chance for clemency and at the very least a last meal. All denied to the college boys led by the big-brained Brett.
Jules enters, eats Brett’s hamburger, drinks Brett’s beverage and when Brett tries to explain “how fucked up things got between us and Mr. Wallace.” Jules answers by shooting his friend.
He then pronounces judgement. “You were saying something about best intentions?” He asks. Brett’s intentions don’t matter as they might in a modern court of law. There are no witnesses and no appeals. Jules recites the famous “Ezekial 25:17”:
The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.
Then he shoots Brett to death.
The violence of this scene is not so much exhilarating as terrifying. Normal suburbanite types seeing this picture in their local multiplexes, air-conditioned and snack-stuffed, will identify with Brett and his friends. These are the closest any of the characters get to people they know. The others, plucked from the underground pantheon of American mythology, are beyond their experience of reality. These people are facsimiles of the violent world of crime that suburbia seems designed to insulate its inhabitants from. In the event that a nice, normal middle-class boy gets himself into trouble there’s always the expectation that he will be able to talk his way out of serious retribution. He’ll get a suspended sentence, a slap on the wrist or maybe some community service.
When Brett tries to enter into civil negotiations with Jules he gets no such indulgence. Jules replies: “My name is Pitt. And you ain’t talkin’ your ass outta this shit.
The essence of ancient justice: no mercy.
- The First Story: “Vincent Vega and Mrs. Mia Wallace”.
After hearing that Wallace threw Tony Rocky Horror out of a window for massaging Mia Wallace’s feet we get the idea that Wallace is the jealous type. Therefore Vincent, who Wallace has asked to take Mia out while he’s away on business, has reason to be nervous.
This story is a kind of musical sequence. Mia and Vincent meet and go to Jack Rabbit Slim’s a restaurant catalogue of 1950s simulacra: Buddy Holly the waiter, Ed Sullivan the MC etc. It’s the 1950s without the associated innocence, Vincent’s taken smack and Mia’s snorting coke. They hit it off and win the twist competition or at least get the trophy, later in the film a radio announces that it’s been stolen from Jack Rabbit Slim’s.
Back at her place the fun continues and Vincent wrestles with his conscience in the bathroom. This story resembles old chivalric romances. A knight motivated by unrequited (or at least Platonic) love for his Queen is motivated to perform all sorts of daring do. However in Vincent’s case the motivation is more self-preservation. Mistaking his heroin for coke she snorts it and overdoses. Vincent’s actions are the desperate and comical endeavours of a man who’s trying to avoid becoming a ‘grease spot’.
Anyone familiar with drug ‘culture’ particularly the sub-variety of smack enthusiasts would be amused to see the eagerness with which Vincent’s drug dealer and his wife strive to assist Vincent in this endeavour, not! Both of them are completely unconcerned for Mia’s welfare and simply want her out of their lives. This story illustrates the iniquities of the selfish. The omnipresent power of Wallace is their motivation, his power illustrated by Mia’s willingness to keep mum about the incident: “if Marcellus knew about this incident, I’d be in more trouble than you.” Vincent’s good deed is ultimately the one that saves his own arse.
- The Second Story: “The Gold Watch”.
The prequel to this story is Captain Koon’s monologue to the young Butch Coolidge. Koons presents Butch with his birthright, a gold watch first bought by his great-grandfather before setting sail to fight in World War One. The watch is passed from father to son in a series of wars until it finally reaches Coolidge via a period being concealed in the rectums of his father and Koons. The episode lifts the tone of the story from one of pure power and hedonistic indulgence to the realm of honour. Although the sense of honour isn’t delivered sans irony. Major Coolidge died of dysentery concealing the watch up his bum undermining the great chain of warriors story with toilet humour suggesting maybe the macho trip isn’t exactly what it thinks it is.
Then we see Butch start out of his dream-recollections. It’s the night of the fight. As we’ve seen by now Butch has been paid to take a fall. This mythological riff straight from the 30s is reinforced by his name ‘Butch Coolidge’ suggesting tough early 20th century American machismo is contradiction to his claim that in America names don’t mean shit.
He’s been paid to dive but he doesn’t. Instead he kills his opponent and jets in a cab. On the way to a motel on the outskirts of town he stops at a payphone and we know his motivation. He spread the word about the fix and then bet large on himself. He’s cleaned up.
He makes back to the motel where his girlfriend Fabienne is waiting for him. This is his soft spot. Tarantino described this character as basically an arsehole except when he’s with his girl. The next morning he shows us how true this is. Discovering that Fabienne’s forgotten to collect his gold watch and he throws a fit tearing up the room. He calms down and goes back to his apartment to collect the watch.
It’s here that the theme of this episode enters the picture. Honour. It’s not just a watch but a symbol. The original script describes an Olympic silver in Butch’s apartment. That isn’t important. The watch is. It’s the embodiment of his honour, his birthright. Thus he risks death going back to his flat to retrieve it.
It’s at his flat that the second theme of the episode comes into the picture: power. Power is never absolute. It’s relative to the situation. In the first scene in which Butch appears, he’s insulted by Vince Vega who’s higher up the food chain than Butch. The insults are unprovoked and undeserved. Vega’s just throwing his pecking order weight around and he pays for it.
Back in his flat Butch gets his watch and makes breakfast only to notice a machine gun on the counter. He picks it up as Vega comes out of the toilet. One wonders: if Vega’d been more polite would Butch’ve killed him. The question’s academic. Vega dies as he’s lived – by the gun.
The situation dictates the power. Butch gets into a fight with Wallace in a pawnshop run by the rednecked psycho Maynard. Maynard knocks ‘em out and both men end up trussed up, S&M style. Wallace is first selected for rape by Maynard’s dominant mate Zed.
Butch escapes but cannot leave Wallace to his fate. Honour. The honour is brought into high relief by his choice of weapon: hammer, baseball bat, chainsaw? No. This deed requires a weapon of comparable nobility: the katana.
Butch’s decision to rescue Wallace earns him a reward that he has no right to expect. He rescues his worst enemy out of a sense of justice. He has become “he who shepherds the weak thru the valley of darkness”. No reward is to be expected, it is, however, given. Wallace tells him: “there is no you and me. Not no more.” The good deed has been done but on a higher level. Butch performs the deed not for self-interest. He potentially risks the opposite. This is strictly an ‘in the name of charity and goodwill’ task. The essentially Christian motif: love thy enemy, is underscored by the fact that Wallace, is, for a short while anyway, the Weak. The most powerful cat in Pulp Fiction’s fucked-up world is also its most pitiable victim.
- The Third Story: “The Bonnie Situation”
This story brings around back in a circle. All of the action takes place, in ‘real’ time between the end of the first story’s second scene and it’s third. It climaxes back at the restaurant of the prologue.
We open up when Jules is giving his Ezekial 25:17 speech to Brett. But we’re in the apartment’s bathroom where another college boy is scared to death and wielding a huge gun: the legendary .357 magnum.
The boy bursts in on Vince and Jules and unloads on them hitting nothing. He gets blown away. Jules’ ally, the informant Martin, another preppie type albeit black is freaked out by the happening. Vince wants him to shut-up. This is all normal as far as the Pulp Fiction universe is concerned. What isn’t, is Jules’ revelation. He believes that he’s still alive because “God came down and stopped these motherfucking bullets”.
Vince doesn’t believe him. And the argument continues in the car where Vincent accidentally blasts Marvin in the face. At this moment we’re back in the amorality of the surface of the life in Pulp Fiction. Marvin’s death isn’t tragic. It’s funny.
Far from being upset about the loss of his friend Jules is simply concerned that they’re going to get caught: “Cops tend to notice shit like you’re driving a car drenched in blood.”
They go to Jules’ friend Jimmy’s house and here the power relations are inverted once more. Jimmy, a suburbanite looking guy has the power. It’s his house. He tells Jules’ off: when you came into my house did you notice the sign out the front that says dead nigger storage? Jules, unflinched by white Jimmy’s use of the ‘N’ word replies: “No, I didn’t.” Jimmy says: ”That’s right. ‘Cause it ain’t there. ‘Cause storin’ dead niggers ain’t my fuckin’ business!
Once again and for the rest of the flick Marvin’s death is comic. He simply doesn’t matter. Jimmy’s big concern is that he doesn’t want to get “fuckin’ divorced”. He’s not interested in the whys and wherefores of the dead nigger.
The story raps up with Winston Wolf helping to solve the problem. Vega, in this story demoted from hero to comic sidekick, is the essence of the buffoon. Having caused the problem, he exacerbates it by soiling Jimmy’s towels with blood and then objecting to Mr. Wolf’s curt orders.
But problem solved. The car is cleaned up and disposed of. The episode is a display of professionalism by Jules and Wolf as against Vince’s clumsy egotism. Morality is suspended for most of the third story. After Jules’ revelation Marvin gets shot creating the type of problem that crime has become organized to solve. Escaping retribution. However the theme of the story is resurrected when Vince and Jules have breakfast together.
The subject comes up when Jules gives his spiel about not eating pork. “Pigs eat and root in shit. I don’t eat anything that ain’t got sense enough to disregard it’s own faeces.” In reply to Vincent’s question about whether dogs, also eaters of shit, are filthy Jules makes the witty reply that dogs have personality and that a pig would have to be ten times more charming then Arnold on Green Acres to cease being considered a filthy animal.
The conversation then turns from light to serious.
Jules has decided to give up ‘the life’ and walk the Earth. Vince thinks this means he’s decided to be a bum: “without a job, a residence or legal tender that’s what you’re gonna be. A fuckin’ bum.” This alludes to the materialist aspect of morality that Tarantino would address in his next picture Jackie Brown: how can you be good when you have to make a living in a dirty world.
Nevertheless Jules means it and what happens next proves it.
‘Pumpkin’ and ‘Honey-Bunny’ hold up the restaurant. They go around collecting wallets and when they get to Jules he gives up his wallet but declines to let them have Wallace’s briefcase. The result is a Mexican stand-off with ‘Pumpkin’ held by Jules at gunpoint. Once again the power relationship has been inverted. ‘Pumpkin’ and ‘Honey-Bunny’, love-crazed armed bandits encounter a truly bad motherfucker. Ironically in their endeavour to rob restaurants thereby cutting down on the hero factor, they’ve stumbled into the face of a deadly hitman. Lucky for them he happens to be going thru a transitional phase.
He asks ‘Pumpkin’ if he’s read the Bible. Answering the predictable no, Jules recites Ezekial 25:17 confessing that he’d never given much thought to what it meant. Now he contemplates. Maybe your the righteous man and maybe I’m the shepard and it’s the world that’s selfish and evil.
Maybe we’re the good guys and the bad guys are out there. This is in essence the quasi-moral stand of so-many pseudo-religious fire and brimstone types in the world. Scores of them thump broadcast Bibles on Sunday morning for large cheques whipping their fans up into a frenzy of we’re the good and out there it’s them who’re the bad.
But as Jules says that shit ain’t the truth.
The truth is: “you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying Ringo, I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd”.
This is the final and most noble deed. The act of mercy from the man who’s felt the touch of God and submits before Him. Having been confronted with his own mortality and been given a second chance contrary to the rules he’s always played by he switches from the Old Testament code of vengeance to the New Testament , American style. He who walks the Earth with a Bible and a gun. I can’t wait ‘til Tarantino makes the sequel.
People might argue with me. Yeah alright but that’s just Pulp Fiction. It’s just your interpretation man. I never said it wasn’t. I still think I’m right. Jackie Brown’s about a woman trying to make it in the evil world, Kill Bill’s about fundamental justice that is to say revenge and Reservoir Dogs?
Reservoir Dogs plays on the conflict between ethics and morality. The thieves’ code – don’t tell me your fuckin’ name – is broken by Mr. White out of empathy for his wounded comrade. Ethical codes are often set-up to counter the general human dictates of morality (think the obligations of a criminal defence attorney). The thieves’ code is set up to ensure that operations go smoothly with minimum risk of incarceration.
White breaks the thieves’ code and goes so far as to challenge his boss’s correct surmisation that Mr. Orange is an undercover cop. The film climaxes with Orange breaking his own code to tell White the truth resulting in their deaths.
Honour, codes and morality are constant themes in Tarantino’s work. They lie under the surface of the ‘ain’t it cool’ exterior. I don’t mean to say Tarantino sets out to write moral stories necessarily. He’s an intuitive artist who follows his own notions of what’s cool, deploying a pastiche style suggested by Godard and filled by the realm of video store titles untrammelled by a University lecturer’s notions of good taste. To Tarantino Pierout Le Fou is the same as Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Love Song or Enter The Dragon. His approach to movies is the same as his approach to music. His taste is the naive discrimination of the autodidact.
But movies are stories. They follow the same thematic motifs of stories throughout time. Thru them we work on the contradictory questions of life. What is good and what is bad. How do we make our way uncorrupted in a corrupt world. The biblically inaccurate Ezekial 25:17 passage in Pulp Fiction actually comes from a Sonny Chiba film. Tarantino understands movies and hence he understands their themes. His movies do for the modern audience, stripped of its innocence by media, what more wholesome fare did for our forebears.
Sure violence in his films is cool. It’s fun. This is a fact that crusaders for moral cultural products refuse to confront. The world isn’t like a Frank Capra movie and we know that now. You can’t bullshit us. In response to the accusation that gangsta rap makes crime look glamorous the consumate, original gansta rapper Ice T. once retorted: that’s because it is.