Friday, April 16, 2010

Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994)

My family has a tradition at New Year of opening the door at midnight to let the old year out and the new year in. I have no idea where this tradition comes from, but we did it when I was a kid. Later, when I became a starry-eyed romantic mystic youth, I expanded on this and used to take a walk in the backyard at midnight, gazing up through the frigid air at the stars or the moon and thinking about the Tennyson poem (which was a hymn in our church) and the line "the year is dying in the night." This caught my imagination somehow, and I found myself thinking about the moment when one year turned into the next as a sort of reality, out there to be grasped if only I could. For several years of this I was convinced that I could feel, in the dark of a midwinter's night, that (say) 1987 had definitively changed into 1988, and that Things Were Different Now.

Now, of course, I realize how pathetic (in the ordinary sense as well as the fallacious one) it was to think that something arbitrary like the calendar could make itself felt in the natural world. But it seemed real enough to me at the time.

The Wikipedia page for Pulp Fiction is one of the things that makes you realize what a fantastic piece of work Wikipedia is. Not only is it informative about the film, it's a great summary of the discourse on the film, which quickly took on a life of its own as the film came to be considered (in Wikipedia's words) "a prime example of postmodern film."

Remember when things were considered "postmodern"? Good times.

Yeah. I spent a lot of time in grad school in 2000 and 2001 trying to figure out what postmodernism is. Now I just don't think there's any such thing. The whole discourse reminds me of what I used to do at New Year: it's people sure that Something's Changing, and desperate to make sure that they're not left behind. Maybe they're sick of the modern world and can't wait for it to pass away and for all things to be made new again, or maybe they're defensive about the achievements of high modernism even as they come crashing down around us, and want to label the age so they can vilify it. Whichever, the term "postmodern," it seems to me, doesn't describe anything but the critic's state of mind (mind you, I'd never say this in polite company, and I can't defend it theoretically: it's just a hunch I have, or maybe a touch of indigestion).

I think what did it for me was reading Tristram Shandy and some Santô Kyôden and realizing that pretty much every quality critics point to in something like Pulp Fiction as postmodern, as uniquely characterizing the cultural moment of that film's production, can be found in lots of premodern or early-modern texts. Self-reflexivity, metatextuality, playful engagement with the detritus of pop culture - none of this was new in 1994, or 1894, or 1794. This kind of thing is part of comedy. Humor will always try to break rules and shock.

Pulp Fiction is a comedy.

(Among other things.)

(This is the pivot point.)

Not that I'm trying to minimize the film's impact or importance, the way it instantly and almost single-handedly transformed global culture (I won't even qualify that with the adjective "popular"). It really is one of the defining moments of the '90s, and that's clearer than ever now that the '90s are history.

And it holds up. One of the less salacious effects of the movie was that for about five years we were deluged with really crappy movies about hit-men and small-time crooks, but even now that the trend has passed, Pulp Fiction still works: Travolta and Jackson's chemistry is as combustible as it ever was, able to start fires in every frame, and their cool is still cool enough to put them all out without breaking a sweat. It's not my personal fave of QT's, but it might still be, objectively speaking (if such a thing is possible), his best, and the one that will still be studied and remembered fifty years from now.

What strikes me watching it again now, having written my series of lame-ass posts on QT's ouevre, is that this - and, I now realize, Reservoir Dogs - are movies about men. Starting with Jackie Brown and going right up through his most recent work, Tarantino's work has been all about constructing female heroism, exploring various permutations (realistic and fantastic) of powerful women. But his first two films were about men - men interacting with other men in various ways, conditioned by power and emotion and even (perhaps mostly) sexuality. Partly it's about coming up with a new definition of male cool - and I am, and always was, as susceptible to this as any other viewer, falling in love with Brother Keitel, especially, at first sight. But I think it's more than that. There's a consistent (across these two films) interest in the dynamics of male partnership, how trust is built or lost between pairs or trios of men, how communication is effected or stymied, how work is done or not done. Distant echoes of the shackled criminals in Branded to Kill, of course, but also of innumerable buddy movies.

This interest in homosociality doesn't disappear entirely after Pulp Fiction; there are elements of it in Jackie Brown (Ordell and Louis) and Inglourious Basterds (the Basterds, of course). But it's drastically downplayed in favor of an examination of female strength and (in some cases) female-female relationships (the Bride and Vernita; Zoe and her friends). Take for example the Basterds themselves: as a group of soldiers there's an obvious opportunity to explore the relationships between them (the whole band of brothers idea), but as much as we get a sense of how they fight, we don't get much of a sense of how they relate to each other as men. It's just not what the film is interested in.


g dawg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
g dawg said...

I would love to hear your thoughts on the films Tarantino didn't direct. Dusk Till Dawn, True Romance, and Natural Born Killers... All such good films... True Romance, especially...

Tanuki said...

Actually, I was thinking of moving on to those, especially since two of them involve other directors I've always loved (Robert Rodriguez and Oliver Stone). Glad you're interested, and watch this space!

g dawg said...

Tony Scott is a pretty bad ass director too, if you ask me.