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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