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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