FILM COMMENT : Pulp Friction : Director Quentin Tarantino’s movies are best know for their wit and mayhem, but what you don’t hear about is their original take on race.
The recent opening of writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” is a high point in a low age. Already slobbered over at Cannes and genuflected before by the New York press, it is, perhaps more than anything else, a continuation of Tarantino themes thus far missed and another startling aesthetic victory for a small, undeclared American film movement.
By looking full face into the ethnic quirks and racial complexities of our identity, “Pulp Fiction” addresses issues most effectively pushed into the ambiguity, humor and tragedy of art by such different works as “City of Hope,” “Mississippi Masala,” “One False Move,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Six Degrees of Separation.” In that respect, no matter his present focus on the underworld milieu, Tarantino is bringing a large and subtle talent to subjects that have eluded even the most consistently celebrated and publicized American directors of the last few decades.
Tarantino is deeply intrigued by the artistic challenges of the many miscegenations that shape the goulash of American culture and by how powerfully the influence of the Negro helps define even those whites who freely assert their racism. “Pulp Fiction” presents his most recent variations on Carl Jung’s observation that white Americans walked, talked and laughed like Negroes and that the two figures appearing most often in their dreams were those of the black and the red American.
Drawing deftly imposing performances from an ensemble featuring John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman and Bruce Willis, Tarantino brilliantly twists his Jungian themes through the vehicles of cliched crime novel plots until they achieve revelations sometimes so stinging that new life is shocked onto the screen.
The human nuances and surprises in the writing provide fresh alterations of meaning as they render a grittier and ever experience in American film. Those more relaxed integration than we almost alterations reach far beyond the customary racial cliches that thud upon us frame by frame and the hostile or maudlin soapbox oratory that washed all possible eloquence out of dialogue. The viewing experience is familiar and foreign: We feel we’ve seen it and not seen it before.
The virtuosity of “Pulp Fiction” is the culmination of the self-taught 31-year-old Tarantino’s only previous works, “True Romance” and “Reservoir Dogs.” In those first Tarantino screenplays, black people exist the way they do in the films of Martin Scorsese. They are at the edge of things, briefly stepping into view, sometimes important but most often all-purpose inspiration for obsessive racist comments.
Directed quite effectively by Tony Scott in the swiftly cut style, color and lighting of television commercials, “True Romance” clocks the adventures of Clarence and Alabama, a rock ‘n’ roll outlaw couple played with superior perception by Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette. It is at once an ingenious variation on “Hamlet” and a chase film that reaches for the energy of anarchic destruction that defined one aspect of American films between the chaos of Mack Sennett and the patriotic slaughter of World War II Hollywood. That bloody disorder within the dramatic American tale was stretched out even further with “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Wild Bunch,” “The Godfather” and “The Godfather, Part II” and “Taxi Driver.”
“True Romance” is informed by all of that but goes its own way. The twice-quoted “something is rotten in Denmark” means the dope world of casual sadism and murder. We see how the mistaken grabbing of a suitcase of drugs sets in motion a negative democracy of white trash, black street criminals, Italian gangsters, aspirant actors, potheads, Jewish film producers and law enforcement. That social sweep might have been introduced in the drug-dealing montage of stills “Superfly” used, but it has never reached the condition of art this film has.
One essential reason Tarantino succeeds where others bite the dust of exploitation is that he truly understands his crime world within the larger context of culture. Besides cocaine, there are also the deadening mass opiates of rock ‘n’ roll, junk food, the cartoonish gore of martial-arts movies and a set of comic-book conceptions of romance, valor and steadfastness that inspires the violence of Clarence and Alabama, who are either trying for nobility or loyally responding to danger with hysterical, self-defensive rage.
In Detroit, Clarence spends one night with the novice prostitute Alabama and marries her the next day. The film’s central icon is Elvis Presley, the white man who most successfully and joyously “went native” by bringing black pop rhythms into adolescent mass America. Presley is Clarence’s spiritual father. The ghost of the King appears and orders Clarence to avenge his new bride’s honor by killing Drexl, her murdering white pimp. A venomous minstrel, Drexl thinks he is black, sort of a Motor City Mr. Kurtz, a modern version of “going native” the worst way.
In his dreadlocks, with his gold teeth, his scarred face, his strained, contemptuous black speech rhythms and falsetto punctuations, Gary Oldman’s Drexl is much more frightening than his Dracula and inhabits an integrated world of criminality we won’t enter again until “Pulp Fiction.” At their showdown, Clarence tells Drexl before he kills him that his black street mannerisms aren’t frightening, because they don’t include anything that he hasn’t already seen in “The Mack,” a blaxploitation film with Max Julian and Richard Pryor.
When told by Clarence of his deed, Alabama weeps with pulp emotion because she considers the murder “so romantic.” This Shakespearean idea that all the world’s a stage is perhaps Tarantino’s favorite theme. His people are executing roles drawn from mass media or personal contact, most of them miscegenations of style.
This theme is extended when a Sicilian American Mafia don uses torture in an attempt to find out where the newlyweds have run with the dope Clarence unintentionally took from Drexl’s, thinking the suitcase contained Alabama’s clothes. Christopher Walken is the don and Dennis Hopper is Clarence’s father, a retired cop. The don explains that lies won’t work, because Sicilians are “great liars--the best” and that they can read untrue faces better than anybody.
Hopper is then given lines that turn things around through one of the most startling monologues in cinematic history. It is perhaps his finest moment in film. Knowing that he can’t withstand the torture, his character decides to make the don angry enough to kill him. He attempts this through the shrewd use of racial invective, informing the don that “Sicilians were spawned by niggers.” The supposedly startled don smugly demurs.
The father, a former alcoholic and security guard who spends time reading history, then speaks of the Moorish invasion and the sexual pillaging of Sicily, which is why Sicilians don’t have blond hair and blue eyes like Northern “wops.” He asserts that the dark-haired and dark-eyed don’s grandmother many generations back had “a half-nigger kid.” In short, Sicilians are “part eggplant.”
The upshot is that in America, where neither national nor world history are well known, Sicilians who embrace racism are also acting; they are “passing” for white. The don shoots him through the head.
Clarence and Alabama flee to Los Angeles in his purple Cadillac, where he arranges to sell the suitcase of cocaine. The remainder of the film pivots back and forth between scenes of either sadistic or chaotic violence and a telling sendup of self-absorbed Hollywood decadence, from the filthy homes of aspiring actors to the cellular phones and sports cars of drug-dealing producers.
Almost everyone is doing some sort of an impersonation or seeking public recognition, even the cops, who demand credit for “the collar,” the drug bust that will give them their media moment. When Bronson Pinchot’s actor character is caught with some of the coke and made to wear a wire by the police, he says to himself as he prepares to betray his boss, “Elliott, your motivation is to not go to jail.” It is as hilarious as it is harrowing.
‘Reservoir Dogs” put Taranti no behind the camera, where he again showed off his gift for writing the sustained monologue and simultaneously revealed his unique command of narrative time. Tarantino uses a collage of recollected events and establishing flashbacks to move free of linear storytelling as we see a Los Angeles jewelry heist foiled by an undercover cop. Like the Scorsese characters of “Mean Streets” and “GoodFellas,” Tarantino’s thugs talk about black people as repulsive inferiors, but they also accuse each other of verbally imitating their talk and express sexual attraction to Pam Grier types in the middle of a riotous discussion of domestic differences between white and black women.
The racial complexity is furthered by the fact that the undercover cop’s instructor is black and teaches him how to “pass” for the kind of white criminal necessary to fool the robbers. To give his character authenticity, the undercover cop even tells a story that the black mentor scripted and rehearsed with him. The audience of racist crooks swallows it whole.
This is another variation on the tradition of Negro composers and arrangers successfully writing for white bands that performed almost exclusively for white audiences. (This was also reflected in black choreographer Lester Johnson’s tutoring of Travolta for “Saturday Night Fever,” where his character danced in essentially an all-white world, making Travolta into the disco Fred Astaire.) Such events raise the question of what we mean by “white” if, as in America, it’s long gone from any kind of European “purity.” Though one instance of torture in “Reservoir Dogs” goes too far for this writer’s taste, the control of form, the ethnic complexity and the understanding of criminal psychology are outstanding.
The evolution from “True Romance” and “Reservoir Dogs” to “Pulp Fiction” is expressive of a nearly astonishing talent. Tarantino’s dark world of overlapping stories is itself an emblematic development of the filmmaker’s sense of intricate racial counterpoint. Regardless of our color, the coarse and overstated pulp vision is what anchors so many of us and, ultimately, allows common frames of reference. Our opinionated conversations are full of commitment to the failures of feeling that shape the sentimentality and false moxie of popular culture.
Tarantino knows that while those elements are either comical or obnoxiously pretentious in the straight world, they become sinister in a criminal context. He supplies us with a key to how evil works in our time of arrested moral comprehension. Every wrong is justified with an offhanded, narcissistic cynicism, a reflection of the flippant anarchy that gives counterfeit vitality to the mass-market rebellion of our rock and rap world. Even so, the unpredictable nature of chance and of human personality periodically arrives to produce a dissonant, gallows wit.
All of the central characters in “Pulp Fiction” course through a thickening smog of amorality. Their Los Angeles stories lead one into the other, usually focusing on couples--boy and girl robbers asserting their love through petty heists; a pair of seasoned hit men “getting into character” before performing the blood sport of their brutal work; the trusted thug given the job of entertaining Mr. Big’s hot wife; a fighter who agrees to throw a bout but double-crosses the crime boss central to all of the stories, then the fighter and the outraged boss murderously battling their way into a store where they become sudden captives of two redneck sadists and are gleefully taken beneath their own underworld into a homemade hell. As prisoners, these two men discover that, for all their knowledge of hard knocks, murder and corruption, there are arenas of evil where they are equal in virginity to the world’s biggest squares.
So realities tumble one into the other--race into race, class into class--and make us realize, once more, how little separates us in our urban Wild West of contraband, drugs, bribery and professional destruction. In this cosmos of unforced integration, there is a fundamental, hard-bitten morality: The sole taboos are those of the callous, unintentional and indifferent crimes committed against the guilty as well as the innocent. Redemption is possible only through the rigors and dangers of compassion, the essence of a loyalty that reaches down as well as up, to those who don’t understand and to those who do. We also realize that capturing the actual wackiness of American life frees our most insightful artists from the contrivances of surrealism.
Black and white form the central motif. John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, wearing black ties, black suits and white shirts--like the robbers in “Reservoir Dogs"--are the killers working for black Ving Rhames, the millionaire criminal whose white wife, Uma Thurman, wears her hair black and has matching nails. As Bruce Willis flees the boxing arena in a cab, the Technicolor interior is backdropped by black-and-white street scenes. The rednecks take their prisoners into a basement of silver chains and black leather.
Tarantino himself plays a middle-class friend of Jackson’s whose home he and Travolta come to when they have the fierce problem of cleaning up and getting rid of a black corpse after a messy, accidental killing in their car. Tarantino wants them to do it fast and be gone before his black wife returns home from work. Harvey Keitel, a Jewish fixer in black evening clothes and white shirt, speeds to their aid. The Joycean sense of “here comes everybody” is basic.
What makes the film such an accomplishment is the clarity of the characters. None of them, even the cameos, are cartoons. They all have specific visions of the world and most love to talk. Tarantino is one of those bent on bringing back to American film the combination of strong dialogue and open physical dimension that gave Hollywood its greatest moments, those points at which the verbal essence and the stagecraft of spoken theater were extended by the camera’s freedom and range of scale.
Tarantino’s words push the drama and the comedy, reveal the characters and give the violence a power it never has in the periodic disruptions of formula action films, where spectacle gore replaces the dramatic intensification of feeling and adolescent smirks pose as anti- Establishment irony. Even when Tarantino’s people are posturing, they say things that unveil their psychological roots. A real-sounding but expansively rewritten biblical quotation, for instance, prepares the way for a murderer’s unexpected spiritual revelation.
Possibly an ensemble masterpiece, the film contains the finest performances we’ve yet seen from Jackson and Travolta. Each of them brings nuances of remarkable subtlety and rhythm to speech, gesture and facial expressions, forming superb contrasts of sensibility that collaborate for murder, detail a friendship and range into areas as widely removed as theological disputes and discussions of international hamburger quality.
Thurman gives a prickly magnetism to her spiritually mildewed sex kitten, a coke-snorting, failed television star who is bored and taken by the upper-class privilege resulting from her marriage to a widely feared and wealthy criminal. During her evening out with Travolta, Tarantino sends up both Planet Hollywood and our self-congratulatory faux nostalgia for pop trash. At Jack Rabbit Slim’s, the pop museum and restaurant, black and white slides up again--the vanilla milkshakes are called “Martin and Lewis,” the chocolate, “Amos and Andy.” Later, the pampered gun moll’s mistaking one kind of dope for another allows Tarantino to do a stunning reversal of the stake in the heart of the vampire--this time to save a life.
The lumbering crime boss whose girth and heavy voice are metaphoric of his power is done to a sullen fare-thee-well by Rhames (his character’s name, Marsellus, obviously connects him to the Roman references made in “Godfather II” and to the Greco-Roman appropriations of American slavery, when such names were given to chattel). Effortlessly brilliant, Christopher Walken has a hilarious monologue about patriotism, family heirlooms and the honoring of friendship that sparks a moral decision in Bruce Willis’ fighter.
Tarantino then bends a cliche by making the dialogue’s early homoerotic references to one character literal. The avuncular corruption of Harvey Keitel’s Winston Wolf is another in what is an almost endless line of high points in varied styles of contemporary film acting, which includes the work of Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette and Maria de Medeiros.
One cannot be too impressed by what Quentin Tarantino has just accomplished in this time of shrill emptiness and our submission to what has become the sanctimonious profession of ethnic alienation. As they say in the South, Tarantino seems to have been “born knowing.” His “Pulp Fiction” brings a detailed, visceral craft to our culture and makes it clear that he means to join those in our most invincible pantheon.
Even at this point of development we can see what he wants--the epic sense of racial conflict and synthesis John Ford brought to his best Westerns, the “His Girl Friday” snap of Howard Hawks, the inventive social satire of Preston Sturges and the deglamorizing grunge of Scorsese’s finest criminal portraits.
But, finally, the lyrical cynicism and wit of “Pulp Fiction” recall the moral dilemmas of Orson Welles and Billy Wilder. The work of both identified the American tension created by what always opposes the high democratic vitality of empathetic individualism. Our perpetual nemesis is the protean and sentimental mob instructed by the worst of our commercial culture, our greed, our cannibalizing of lacquered celebrity and our narcissistic varieties of xenophobia.