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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Forget Tarantino, if you Want a Real Western Watch the Peerless “Johnny Guitar”.

johnny-guitar-movie-poster-1954-1020143876Nicholas Ray’s 1954 film John­ny Gui­tar is one of the tru­ly great west­erns. It’s also one of the first meta westerns.

Once the stranger of the title has rid­den into town, the first scene prop­er unfolds in the saloon. It’s 15 min­utes of pure dia­logue. And it’s one of the best writ­ten, per­formed and direct­ed pieces of dra­ma you’ll ever see.

Absolute­ly every­thing is set up in it. Good ver­sus evil. The two rival gangs, and the abject hatred that their two lead­ers have for each oth­er. The com­pet­ing love inter­ests, and the con­flict that erupts as the towns­folk are faced with the arrival of the mod­ern world in the form of the railroad.

But all of this is turned com­plete­ly upside down by the fact that the two gang lead­ers are women!

Not only that, but the two actress­es in ques­tion, Joan Craw­ford and Mer­cedes McCam­bridge vis­i­bly detest­ed one another.

So every­thing we find in this quin­tes­sen­tial­ly male land­scape is glo­ri­ous­ly under­mined. And the John­ny Gui­tar of the title isn’t the hero at all. He’s just the hero’s love inter­est. Not only that, but he’s played by Ster­ling Hayden.

JG2Hay­den might have been a 6 foot 5 Nordic God. But he was also unavoid­ably threat­en­ing. He would lat­er appear in Kubrick­’s The Killing, as the mad gen­er­al in Dr. Strangelove, the cor­rupt police Cap­tain in The God­fa­ther (who breaks Al Paci­no’s jaw), and as the unhinged writer in Alt­man’s bril­liant hymn to film noir, The Long Good­bye.

Not your con­ven­tion­al hero then. Indeed the whole land­scape is peo­pled by sim­i­lar­ly con­flict­ed, glo­ri­ous­ly Freudi­an archetypes.

So not only is this a gen­uine­ly great west­ern, it also decon­structs all of the ele­ments that a tra­di­tion­al west­ern is made up of. Cru­cial­ly though, this is done by Ray to height­en our emo­tion­al invest­ment in the char­ac­ters involved.

If for instance all Piran­del­lo had done in Six Char­ac­ters In Search Of An Author, was to decon­struct the for­mal ele­ments of the play, instead of using this to accen­tu­ate our emo­tion­al involve­ment with his char­ac­ters, then he would­n’t have pro­duced the sem­i­nal work that he did. Instead of Piran­del­lo, all we’d have got would have been Stop­pard. Clever, but vacuous.

Django-Unchained-wallpapers-1920x1200-2Which, once again, is all we get with the lat­est Taran­ti­no film. He does­n’t deal with real peo­ple, so his films don’t pro­duce gen­uine emo­tions. All he’s inter­est­ed in are char­ac­ters from the movies.

So when John Tra­vol­ta gets killed in the mid­dle of Pulp Fic­tion, you smile and think How ter­ri­bly clever. But when one of your lead char­ac­ters gets killed, you’re not sup­posed to think any­thing. You’re sup­posed to feel devastated.

When Beck­ett, Pin­ter or Sarah Kane explored the for­mal con­structs of dra­ma, they did so to enhance the emo­tion­al heft of the works they produced.

Which is what Ray does here in John­ny Gui­tar. And that’s what makes it tru­ly great. Not the for­mal games, but the emo­tion­al end that they serve.

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