Pulp Fiction, opiate for the masses

Pulp Fiction.

Pulp Fiction is the perfect pick-me-up movie. It’s ideal for dipping in and out of during a pandemic as an alternative to chocolate and alcohol. What it isn’t though is a film, never mind one of any discernible depth.

It’s inhabited by movie types played by actors famous for the movie types they’ve previously played. And it’s written and directed by someone steeped in popular culture, and specifically in Hollywood culture. 

So it’s a glorious playground for any number of layered and endlessly self-referential games, as characters and actors alike, and of course the writer director, play and act against type. The way Tarantino achieves this is by dispensing with story. 

With no protagonist, and hence no one to root for, there’s no goal, no heart’s desire for us to desperately hope that our hero will one day attain. With no story to worry about, Tarantino is free to appear to play with the conventions of storytelling. It’s extremely clever, consistently funny and endlessly knowing. What it isn’t though is ironic.

Dramatic irony arises when we know more about what the character is doing than he does. And it results in a reversal that profoundly affects the fate of the character, and acts as a judgement on the decisions he took to produce that reversal. But it only arises when you care about what happens to the character. And that only happens when your characters are part of a story that we the viewer can become involved in. 

‘The Bonnie Situation’, the one dud, is a thank you to Harvey Keitel, and an excuse to allow the director some unwarranted screen time.

If there’s no story, you’re never going to care about what happens to any of the characters. When, for instance Travolta’s character gets killed, it’s amusing rather than tragic. And that, crucially, is not a spoiler. Because knowing it won’t in any way spoil your enjoyment of the movie.

Yes it’s also shocking. But not emotionally shocking, intellectually so. You’re shocked, in an impressed way, that Tarantino should have broken the rules of drama so cleverly. But he hasn’t broken any of those rules because it’s not an actual drama. It’s a collection of seven, free standing sections, that are made up of various distinct and independent scenes that you can dip in and out of, depending on your mood. 

John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson.

And it’s precisely that absence of emotional depth that makes it so instantaneously enjoyable. As Adorno complained of horoscopes, it asks nothing of you. And provides you thereby with an immediate, uncomplicated hit.

It’s like listening to a greatest hits album. You know that the pleasure that that affords is a guilty one. That instead of investing the necessary care and consideration that an album proper requires, you’re cherry-picking the songs that were the most accessible, that is to say the hits. And deep down, you know who greatest hits albums are aimed at; teenagers.

As a grown-up, you know that all clichés are true and that you only get out of life what you put into it. And that that is as true of art as it is of everything else. The greater the work, the more work it requires of you. 

But, for whatever reason, right now you just don’t have the energy. What you need this second is release. An uncomplicated, undemanding, instantaneous hit. So you turn to cinema’s perennial teenager; Tarantino.

So many memorable scenes, so little story.

Paradoxically, and indeed ironically, what Pulp Fiction anticipates and opens the door to is the very thing it’s celebrated as having been the last stand against. It presents a flat, comic book universe peopled by types, that move in and out of interchangeable and free-standing scenes that make absolutely no emotional demands on the viewer whatsoever.

Pulp Fiction wasn’t that last of an era when grown-ups were catered for at the cinema. It was the beginning of that era’s end. It’s a teenager’s film, and a very male one at that, for anyone who finds themselves momentarily in a teenage frame of mind. 

You can see the trailer for Pulp Fiction here.

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“Robin Wright” in “The Congress”.

Harvey Keitel and Robin Wright in The Congress.

Harvey Keitel and Robin Wright in The Congress.

The Israeli film maker Ari Folman shot into international prominence with the haunting Waltz With Bashir in 2008. Folman, who is one of the head writers on the hit TV show In Treatment, needed to revisit what he’d done as a teenager. As a young soldier he’d been part of the Israeli army’s appalling assault on Sabra and Shatila, when they invaded the Lebanon in 1982.

But the only way he was able to peer into the dark recesses of his psyche was by using the cloak of animation, which acted like the dark of the confessional box, allowing him close his eyes and re-imagine what might have happened there.

The Congress is his much awaited follow up. And it’s an almighty mess. Robin Wright plays a version of herself, who is forced to sell the rights to her digital self so that the studio can go on to make the kinds of films with “her” that they’d like to, without having to actually deal with the moods and tantrums of the actual human being.

Robin Wright as Buttercup with Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride.

Robin Wright as Buttercup with Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride.

But then the film veers wildly into wholly improbable sci fi territory, which it can only do by retreating into animation. And not just any old animation, the kind of far out animation that’s meant to make you fondly recall The Beatles in their Yellow Submarine.

I wish I could tell you that it were just too ambitious. But none of its Big Ideas are in any way explored, they are just bullet points in bold. Will CGI allow Hollywood studios dispense with Talent all together? What’s more important, success or your family? Will future generations be incapable of communicating other than through a screen? Is the digital realm this century’s heroin? Our only means of avoiding the drudgery and disappointment of our daily lives? Etc, and so on.

Worse again, it’s entirely humourless. Imagine what fun Woody Allen might have had with the idea of separating the actress from her digital self. Come to think of it, he did have that idea, in his criminally undervalued The Purple Rose Of Cairo.

Woody Allen's much funnier The Purple Rose Of Cairo.

Woody Allen’s much funnier The Purple Rose Of Cairo.

The Congress is like that episode of the Simpsons when Homer is encouraged by his half brother to design his own car, which itself was a re-working of an old Johnny Cash song. If you take the best bits from your favourite films (or cars) and mould them all together, all you end up with is a dysfunctional eyesore.

Robin Wright and Harvey Keitel are two of modern cinema’s finest actors. Even more remarkably, both have managed that rare feat of navigating the treacherous waters between a large number of small, independent films, interspersed with the occasional more commercial enterprise. Happily, in ten years’ time, no one will remember that either of them had anything to do with this. You can see The Congress trailer here.

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