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Voices from the Collective

Letters from readers about past articles.
The Bad Subjects Collective

Issue #17, November 1994

Discussions on the Bad Subjects list have encompassed a vast array of topics. The most involved of these, however, tend to center on whatever is most current in our cultural and political lives. Last month we presented a discussion — a 'thread' in netspeak — on the build-up to the US invasion of Haiti. This month we give you a taste of the list's cultural side. At the end of September a thread on the difference between standard horror films and their 'art-house' counterparts took on new life with the debut of Quentin Tarentino's eminently 'arty' Pulp Fiction. After a time people turned to other topics, including 'reality TV' shows like Cops. Someone who had waited over a week to see Pulp Fiction noted their disappointment at the thread's early death. With the following post from our departing co-founder Joe Sartelle, however, Pulp Fiction returned to the e-waves with a vengeance. The debate was heated and compelling, and this is how it began.

Date: Tue, 25 Oct 1994 12:41:11 -0700 (PDT)
From: Joe Sartelle <>
To: Bad Subjects <>
Subject: Pulp Fiction: a dissenting view

I saw Pulp Fiction with my partner Carlos last week — we were a little late in jumping on the latest hip pop culture bandwagon, but the hype was too much to be ignored. We were both appalled by the film. I myself was retrospectively appalled also by the celebratory tone of much of the discussion here. All that PF has going for it, IMO, is sheer cleverness and style. It is a tour-de-force performance by a gifted individual filmmaker. But I do not appreciate all that brilliance being used to rub my face enthusiastically in so much moral degeneracy, sickness and sadism. There is no way to enjoy the film without being complicit in all of those things — I know, I enjoyed the movie, much to my subsequent discomfort. But take away the 'genius' of this particular auteur and what you've got is a wallow in sleaze, a movie that exploits an extremely sad and tragic slice of social reality in order to demonstrate the cleverness of the filmmaker (and stroke the egos of all of us who 'get' the cleverness).

I do not believe in censorship. I also do not believe that 'art' should be a sacred preserve that eliminates all questions of the social and moral responsibilities of the artist (which has been the apparent implication of several posts here). Someone noted that all of PF's elements are not drawn from reality at all, but from pop culture — it's all postmodern pastiche, a clever recycling of signs arranged in a creative way. So what? That has always struck me (and others) as a rather intellectual rationalization for the artists' 'freedom' to disdain questions about the morality of his/her art, to say 'fuck you, I'll do what I want.' Which is an adolescent attitude at best. And the appropriate response is not to censor, but to say, 'Fine, do what you want. But I don't have to support it' — or to engage critically.

Just because artists cop out with 'artistic freedom' does not mean that we have to replicate it in our own critical stance. PF was the sickest piece of pop culture I've seen in a long time. I've been an avid consumer of precisely that genre that seems most universally excoriated on this list, the 'Die-Hard' style action film. I'll take the first 'Die Hard' (I'd even take that sick dog of a film 'True Lies') over PF any day. At least they didn't smother me in the self- conscious celebration of hipness unto death, as PF did; they were just milking the formula for all it's worth (and doing a pretty good job of it, too).

Why is it that when 'mainstream' commercial Hollywood studios give us the sort of sadistic violence that we see in PF, that's so often held up (esp. by lefty types) as further proof of the degeneracy of society and the corporate profit motive — but let some 'alternative cinema' auteur like Tarantino dress the same elements up in indie guise, and the anti-Hollywood folks line up to rave (and make a corporate commercial success out of the film)?

But of course, the success of PF exposes the affinities between his genius and the pop culture it derives from. I thought there was nothing particularly original in PF beyond the cleverness of its cinematic rhetoric. It is totally parasitic upon popular culture, and might even be read as a strained effort to be as interesting and emotionally resonant as pop culture through its many strategies of appropriation. (If you can't beat it, appropriate it — the strategy of so much 'serious' culture, just like mass and pop culture). This is a movie that wants to be 'Die Hard' but is afraid of losing its 'cool' in doing so.

But my real point has little to do with the film itself — it's just another extremely interesting document of contemporary culture. What disturbs me is less the film itself than its reception. PF asks us to take aesthetic pleasure in the degeneracy of crime and criminals. The cynicism and ironic detachment it requires for that pleasure borders on an outright nihilism, which may be a subversive stance at some moments in history, but when you live in a nihilistic culture, to mirror the sensibility back (with enthusiasm, as in PF) is to participate in the problem. A mirror is not a critique, although it can be the beginning of critique. But I've seen little about PF that I'd call critique, apart from Nicola's astute questions. Instead, there's been direct and indirect adulation.

At least COPS (and Hollywood movies like Die Hard etc.), with all its myriad problems, keeps alive the notion that there is such a thing as right and wrong, even if we quarrel with how it is defined within the show's moral cosmology. PF, like so much of the hip culture celebrated by intellectuals, encourages us to think that right and wrong are a matter of what you can get away with — be clever enough, cool enough, pop-referential enough, why then *style* can justify the most barbaric of attitudes and practices. Take away the style of PF and you have utter sickness.

You can be clever, ingenious, gifted, stylish, insightful, entertaining — without wallowing in the muck that PF drowns us in.

Some questions for enthusiasts of the film: Would you actually want to live the life of *anyone* in that movie? If so, I recommend therapy and lament the lack of humanity that has clearly characterized your life. And if you wouldn't want to be any of these people, then why celebrate a movie that celebrates their lives? Why would we even *want* to speak up for a movie that asks us to find pleasure in these particularly nasty elements of our culture?

Because we're afraid of looking uncool, I imagine. But if liking PF is what it takes to be cool, count me out. Since when did an aesthetic pleasure in the cruelty, violence and emptiness of OTHER PEOPLE'S LIVES become integral to being cool? (Well, at least since Kerouac's celebration of the 'freedom' possessed by blacks and migrant workers in _On the Road_ — never mind his own freedom to take or leave the life of the underclass as he saw fit). PF is just another case of cultural slumming. Where some have seen critical commentaries on racism, for example, I saw racism cynically excusing itself with its own self-consciousness ('I'm not a racist, I'm just quoting a culture filled with racist attitudes!')

Sounds to me like a reaction-formation on the part of the progressively-minded to their helplessness and passivity in the face of the Reagan legacy and its cruelty, emptiness and violence. Gee, we can't solve the problems of the underclass, but at least we can appreciate its style! Let's watch Menace II Society again!

Joe, trying to contain this rant since seeing PF.

Copyright © 1994 by Bad Subjects. All rights reserved.