Pulp Fictions: Some Recently-Deceased Straw Men
Issue #20, April 1995
All of this serves as a preface to noting that this superfine, megahit movie affords some excellent cross-promotional opportunities for severalcurrent independent releases featuring the movies surf acts.
— 'New releases of surf music ride the Pulp Fiction wave.' in Billboard (Dec. 3, 1994) p. 80.
One of the exciting things about Pulp Fiction is how it succeeds in breaking down a lot of barriers that the Spielberg era put up. In its perverse and casual violence, brutal but attractive language, free playwith narrative structure, and above all its focus on crime as lifestyle, it feels as if it is being honest about things we all know are there, even if those turn out to be just more genres. This mix of arty play and thuglife, of underground and underworld, is hardly new. Without dragging in the tired 20th-century points of reference, one could simply point to the brilliant formal innovations of the Medieval French poet, student and murderer Francois Villon. Closer to home, these things were around in popular film in the sixties and seventies (one hears stories about Mean Streets, Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Midnight Cowboy, The Killer Inside Me, The Wild Bunch...); but E.T., Lethal Weapon, and Home Alone seem to have blotted them out, and it is fun to have them back. Student newspapers list 'Five Favorite Quotes from Pulp Fiction,' people feel at home with this movie. In its commercial success (a blockbuster-level $100 million after 26 weeks) and the way it has captured imaginations, it is quintessentially mainstream.
That Pulp Fiction is equally at home in art house and frat house seems another example of the death of that suspicious notion of a secret underground avant-garde, sacred and apart. There was something cheap about it to begin with (the idea of calling shoddy, perverse movies, books and records by the same name one used to describe freedom fighters seemed pretentious anyway) Now that genuinely innovative or tortured bohemian artists like Beck and Nirvana have had chart success, the rigid opposition seems embarrassing, something we can all see through. The head of underground record label Kill Rock Stars (home of Riot Grrl movement heroines Bikini Kill) admits frankly that the music he has devoted his life to is no more meaningful than anything else, 'as political as getting up in the morning.' Naming a respected band known for their prodigious output on independent labels, their musical innovation and unpredictability, as well as their championing of sexual alternatives, Slim Moon remarks that they're really no different from Three's Company. Although Kill Rock Stars' logo is made to look like smudgy typewriter print, and many of the bands on it pay tribute to the heyday of late 70s and early 80s punk, these signifiers screaming underground look like a flavor of retro, one genre among many available.
But if the underground/overground cliche has lost its relevance, the things it evoked have not lost theirs: who gets to be heard? Why do they get to be heard? Do they speak to a community or a demographic, or is there a difference? Can the means of production and the modes of discourse be changed? All in all, a simple charge of 'selling out' seemed to galvanize all those elements much more dramatically.
Still, thinking in oppositions seems easy and cheap, and people engage in it so frequently. Trying to think through history, we come across oppositions that seem dubious at best and pernicious at worst. Virgin/whore, Greek/native, high culture/low culture, mind/body, mainstream/alternative the list runs on forever. It is predictable and a bit nauseating. The mind strains against the oppositions; thought and history together expose them as false. With the advent of cheap, effective birth control, the biological imperatives that let patriarchal societies mark women as virgins or whores begin to lose their hold. With the new convolutions of the record and film industries, similar shifts may be felt. 'The alternative is now mainstream,' magazines and newspapers never tire of announcing. 'Obviously,' one says, a little hesitantly.
But relief at the dissolution of the constricting pair often turns to vertigo. The dynamic that produced the opposition remains in action, and far from being unmasked, it sometimes seems even less clear when the two cartoonish terms are sent scurrying off. Indeed, the tensions suppressed or expressed by the opposition, having now acted to dissolve it, might become even less visible than before, leaving a feeling not unlike waking from a bizarre but portentous dream into a reality that is just as confusing but duller. If it is observed that 'alternative' dissolves into 'mainstream' and vice-versa, one feels that an insight has been gained.
Then one feels momentarily at a loss: the problems haven't disappeared, we just lost a language for talking about them. The tensions, no longer misrepresented, may not really be represented at all. What about identity, solidarity, consumerism? The redescription of culture as a series of increasingly smaller niches, though convincing on one level, utterly fails to get at the changes in who has access to what sorts of production and power.
This is an entirely experimental attempt to see the death of an opposition represented in the cultural discourse, and what that might say about the discourse itself. It is tentative, and cannot truly stand apart from a view of history at the end of the twentieth century, some suggestions for which will be given at the end.
Searching criticism for signs about the status of the 'alternative/mainstream' opposition, Quentin Tarantino's work is a good place to begin. Take Gavin Smith's statement that: 'Reservoir Dogs will...prove pivotal in the history of the American independent film, for legitimizing its relationship to Hollywood genre.' (Film Comment, July-August, 1994, p. 32) We may start with the lopsidedness of Smith's comparison: the whole of independent film, presumably an at least partially autonomous sphere of creation, on the one side, and on the other not Hollywood itself but the problems of labelling within Hollywood! Not (or perhaps more than) a logical error, the lopsidedness disappears when we complete the thought: American independent film embarks on a legitimate relationship with Hollywood genre by becoming a Hollywood genre itself (little probing is necessary to confirm this: Miramax, which put out Pulp Fiction, was purchased several years ago by Disney, and the movie's #1 rating its first weekend was the result of powerful advertising, not word-of-mouth).
Lest I be accused of mere moral or aesthetic handwringing, let me make it clear that I am concerned here with tracing basic changes in the categories we use. If it were up to me, I would like for everyone to see good movies like Pulp Fiction instead of bad movies like Home Alone, in the same way that I would like it if all Ford automobiles had very high gas mileage and conformed to stringent emissions standards. This is the time to make clear that I think Tarantino is simply a superb writer and filmmaker, with his finger on the pulse of American idiom (or at least one American idiom). It is not for nothing that high school students ask each other if there is a sign in front of the house that says 'DEAD NIGGER STORAGE' (a line from Pulp Fiction); it's hilarious.
This movie, a clear sign of the 'alternative/mainstream' opposition's inadequacy, seems to me to point up another distinction, rumors of whose death have already reached us. This is the opposition critic/consumer, — that is, not the conflict between being a member of society and being a social critic, but rather the way in which to criticize today is to consume, and vice-versa. For some external sign of this, we can look at more movies, as well as some critics.
The other interesting and popular violent movie in 1994 was Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. A comparison of Tarantino's earlier Reservoir Dogs with the Stone movie suggests that Tarantino's movies are more likely to emerge as classic works of art, but that this is because Stone is trying heavyhandedly to say something that Tarantino has little interest in.
In the famous Reservoir Dogs torture scene, Mr. Orange lies badly wounded and forgotten in the background, but still in camera view, while the psychotic Mr. White tortures a captured policeman. As Mr. White is about to set the cop on fire, he is gunned down. The camera cuts to a full-on shot of Mr. Orange. Propped up on one arm, he holds a smoking gun. A lump up until this second, he is suddenly the key player in the scene.
Tarantino sets up a classic modernist reconciliation by keeping Roth physically in view while turning him into psychic wallpaper, re-creating the effects that occur in real life when our attention is held on one thing and all others drop out of sight. One might even call this a reconciliation of the subjective and the objective, as Mr. Orange is represented even as he drops out of our attention. The camera, while seeing him throughout, only focuses on him once he has acted, no longer a thing.
Such a masterstroke stands in sharp contrast to the style Oliver Stone employs in Natural Born Killers, where a similar sort of scene is handled very differently. The two mass murderer/lovers, Mickey and Mallory Knox, lie on a motel bed. In order to represent their disturbed private reality, Stone displays a phantasmagoria of vapid pop images on the walls of the room. The passion mounts, and the two lovers speak to each other in intimate tones. But Mickey keeps staring at something out of view.. finally Mallory shrieks, outraged, 'Why do you keep looking at HER!?'
The camera cuts to a bound, attractive young woman trembling in a corner. We have not seen her before; we realize now that she has been there listening, all through the scene. We did not even know they had taken a hostage. Other crime movies make the interaction between bound, terrified hostage and captors take several scenes. But Stone makes representation an issue: he is at Mickey and Mallory's schizophrenic level. Rather than imitating reality, he proves an old point: film shows you what film wants to show. He is very deliberately 'teaching us a lesson' about authority iand perspective: the film director, in whose hands the viewer rests, might as well be a mass murderer for all the responsibility and coherence he shows. As if we need to be told this.
The difference between successful entertainment film and some kind of urgent message about mass media representation seems, symptomatically, to collapse. The current context in which movies are watched acts to contain criticism like this. After all, it seems obvious that they're both just movies at core, and it is unlikely that Natural Born Killers will cause any riots at theaters. Stone's critical products are consumed like anything else, and his criticism is reduced to fairly good, if irritating, art.
On the other hand, Stone is also emphatically, indeed desperately, trying to make the point that some kind of crucial distinction between critic and consumer has collapsed. This is done in no uncertain terms, and repetitively: Wayne Gale, the journalist making a career of Mass Murderer TV specials, joins the murderers; Jack Scagnetti, the celebrity cop who hunts serial killers, turns out to be one himself. The people who are supposed to be commenting on or stopping the problems are in fact engaged in creating them.
This point is actually the least surprising: critical distance is never absolute. We already knew that critics are part of consumer society because they have to buy pens or computers to write their diatribes, at least. What is more interesting is Stone's depiction of exactly how this happens. In a slapstick perversion of the classic 'police at the scene of the crime scene,' Scagnetti examines a gas station where Mallory Knox murdered a would-be lover. The camera instantly picks the shrewd cop out of the mass of police, who are bumbling around doing whatever it is police do at the scene of the crime. Doubtless Scagnetti will find some forensic detail the other cops miss. But in a series of three 'clues,' Scagnetti instead zeroes in on the shape of Mallory's buttocks imprinted on the carhood ('a perfect ass,' he observes), the presence of drool ('saliva droplets'), and one of her pubic hairs stuck in the dead attendant's teeth.
Critical investigation emerges as panty-sniffing. Scagnetti's analysis of significant objects breaks down into an exhibition of his own moronic lust. Of course, the movie is a polemic, and all of the main characters are supposed to be evil and twisted. But this something more than a perversion, and it goes beyond any sort of Heisenberg principle wherein observing the object fixes its identity. Scagnetti does not fix or change the Knox's identities; his involvement goes beyond that, to a consuming desire that is also a total personal identification. This may be one of the more subtle and successful points of the movie. Because there are indications that people are beginning to imagine roles such as Scagnetti's for themselves.
Last summer, after a discussion of the disturbing but fascinating implications of the new shopping malls, requests were made on the Bad Subjects electronic mailing list for postings from a very specific type of individual. Someone native to mall culture, from the suburbs or a place without much traditional culture, who grew up surrounded by the hermetic world of the shopping center. Of course, the person was also supposed to provide articulate reflections on their role as a consumer, but the key point was that the persons attitude was supposed to contain both sincere, enthusiastic consumerism and critical awareness.
Apparently the punchline to this joke does, in fact, need to be spelled out: there is a sense in which everyone on the list (including me) qualified. It can be assumed that nobody present did not dream about beautiful shoes, talk about handsome shirts or interesting, stirring compact discs. We all consumed images, and, being on the list, we were interested in criticizing them. Although it may be argued that some sort of disillusionment or demystification clings to the culture-critical libido, the practical consequences flowing from it, as Stanley Fish would say, are nil.
Perhaps the real hero of this search is the fanzine writer and freelance journalist Paul Lukas, whose small, lucidly-written self-published magazine, Beer Frame, is a kind of holy grail of reflective consumption. Lukas trains a clear eye on products, both ordinary and bizarre, and observes minute or surprising details about them, to show us anew how interesting they are. There is never any question about the function: to produce a kind of self-awareness and active sense of participation in the buyer, who takes responsibility for her or his own pleasure. The 'do-it-yourself' ideal embodied in cookbooks and older punk rock fanzines, both templates for production, becomes a new template for consumption. In Beer Frame, the aesthetic of consumption comes unashamedly into its own; it goes without saying that it is one of the best and most symptomatic magazines published today.
The thrill of Scagnetti's character in Natural Born Killers is dependent on the continued existence of some kind of line of propriety separating analysis from involvement; Beer Frame stands after the death of this metaphor, in the new space that has been opened up. In this new realm of discourse, what used to seem like derailment or non sequitor has become a canonical rhetorical move. Discussions are now possible in which arguments about consumption are resolved or bled of their force simply by pointing back to consumption itself. An attack on Post-Modernism as an art movement could be answered by a detailed and enthusiastic description of a gallery visit. And the fact of this consumption seems to become more determining, because the suspicion is that the critics allegiances are best seen as brand loyalties.
If we regard the 'consumer/critic' opposition (really not very convincing to begin with: English professors are, after all, supposed to 'love literature') as no longer expressing anything very effectively, to be replaced by new and only partly glimpsed combinations, what circumstances are we left with? Or, better, what are the combinations that have left us with these circumstances?
First of all, we are left with an inability to criticize in any meaningful sense of the term. When theoretical discourse seems to end up pointing to the absent object of desire, like a lover inhaling the scent from a departed loved one's garment, its statements are hard to take very seriously. We might say that any kind of useful statements are completely drowned in the clamor of interventions and subject positions, an insistent 'me too!' that keeps our eyes on ourselves. In a First World where many people do not really need, when it comes down to it, to be bothered with politics or history in their day-to-day existence, this seems fairly reasonable.
Second, the increasing subtleties we are faced with make it harder to place ourselves in any kind of social and economic picture even if we wanted to, a function which the notion of an underground and critics resisting a mainstream and consumerism attempted to do, however badly. The resonance of the phrase 'Dead Nigger Storage' in a movie depicting a racially harmonious underworld needs, I hope, only a little explanation to an audience that has only recently forgotten the L.A. riots. Hearing what we might think of as real street language in a popular movie is something of a new thrill. But where is the ghetto we have come to expect in tough, authentic movies with black people? It has been turned inside out: white and black coexist in a world where the explosive, agonizing violence we are told characterizes the inner city is shared by black and white, a source of collective adventure and experience. That the movie is expressing certain real tensions existing in any American viewer, black or white, is shown most clearly by the uproarious scene where Samuel Jackson's character is upbraided by Tarantino's in a rant where the scrawny white man uses the word 'nigger' repeatedly to his hitman friend's face. One does not need to wonder what would happen with two people like that and a word like that under any other circumstances. Relief from those other circumstances, otherwise known as the realities of race in America, constitutes the pleasure of the scene, at least for white viewers.
In a cinema where potential race and class conflicts can show up as gender warfare (as in John Dahl's The Last Seduction) the vertigo we ('we!') feel from the dissolution of social — biological boundaries into genre is a characteristic thrill. But who has the chance to feel it? The core audience for this sort of film, and more importantly, as Paul Lukas has shown us, the people who can really participate in choosing to consume it, may be a newly evolved middlebrow avant-garde. The revolution they participate in is one of radically expanded leisure time in which to freely choose images to bond with.
It is in this regard that Pulp Fiction's Surf music makes so much sense. The explosion of this form in the early 1960's was coterminous with the coming to self-consciousness of a group of young white people who could for the first time celebrate or imagine themselves celebrating their own free time, youth, and their parents affluence. The still-new technology of the electric guitar dominated the sound of this instrumental music and partly accounts for its instant recognizability to post-Nirvana listeners — its hard to argue with the wit and aggression of Dick Dale or Link Wray from a musical standpoint. It is, in any event, this element of vicarious celebration (most surf listeners did not surf, and Dick Dale lives in the desert to this day), muscular and pure, that provides the spiritual link to the movie's content.
Finally, it is this ecstatic freedom to choose far-fetched (and, of course, politically irrelevant) allegiances and life-styles, the spiritual significance of Surf music, that may be most strongly at work in the success of Pulp Fiction. The deliberation and energy with which its viewers identify with the movie is suggested both by the now-cliched image of the college kids getting stoned and going back for their tenth viewing, as well as the amazing truculence with which its fans react to criticism of the movie. An attack on Pulp Fiction is felt as ad hominem. This suggests new answers to the questions of identity and solidarity, but old ones to the questions of the means of production and control of the public or 'popular' arena.
The very stylized and arbitrary nature of the movie does not weaken the personal identification that its fans make; it is what makes it possible in the first place. Its odd, incongruous cool shows the logic of total choice. And perhaps this logic suggests some new sets of oppositions, among which might be: 'self-conscious/naive' or 'aware/unaware,' these both being understood to be categories of consumer. But such guessing games always turn out to be somehow wrong.
Seth L. Sanders attended Harvard College and graduated with a degree in Comparative Religion. He is a Ph.D. student in Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University.