The Hero Factor
Watching Quentin Tarantino's marvellous anthology of stories, Pulp Fiction (1994), one realises what was missing from True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993): precisely a sense of the everyday, of the banal and the mundane, of things daggy and dorky. Pulp Fiction has a lot of mundane stuff, and it is absolutely hilarious. Hit-man John Travolta accidentally blows the head off a captive in the back seat of his car; the next thirty minutes or so of screen time are devoted to the details of cleaning up the car and getting rid of the body. It's about eight in the morning, so they pull in to a friend's house – not a gangster, but a very ordinary, nervy, complaining guy played by Tarantino himself. An efficiency expert in such matters, played by a suave Harvey Keitel, is called in to direct the clean-up; he drinks coffee and makes phone calls in Tarantino's bedroom whilst ordering Travolta and his sidekick Samuel L. Jackson about. There is almost nothing chilling or tense about this sequence. Like much of the film, it's almost a bent comedy of manners: it all hinges on the fact that, very soon, Tarantino's wife will return home from work, and if she sees a headless body in the garage and a bunch of hoods in lounge room, she'll freak – and none of these tough guys want to deal with the consequences of that catastrophe.
Pulp Fiction has a large dose of Robert Altman's Short Cuts (1993) in it – in the way its various stories intersect in clever, off-hand ways, in the leisurely rhythm and timing of the piece (it's two and a half hours long), in the absolute primacy accorded to the cast, and the very large spaces left open for the actors to develop their characters and performance styles. With this film, it has become absolutely clear that Tarantino's real debt is to a loose American cinema of the '70s, not the virtuosic, hyper-stylised 1980s films of Brian De Palma, Sam Raimi or even the Coen brothers.
Pulp Fiction is even less a thriller than his first film Reservoir Dogs (1992). Once again, Tarantino approaches formula bits of Hollywood genres from an unusual, backdoor angle. He truly practises the kind of 'termite art' once proposed by the great American critic Manny Farber. He skips what in other films would be key bits of action – like the fight which boxer Bruce Willis agrees to throw but then does not, killing his opponent in the process. Instead of this kind of action, Tarantino spends an inordinate amount of time on what people talk about everyday, in cars or cafes or clubs or walking to work (even if that work is murder) – they talk about lifestyle tastes in pop culture, problems of behavioural etiquette, philosophical paradoxes, and a thousand 'odd spot' items of trivial knowledge. "You know what a Big Mac is called in France?", asks Travolta. "Le Big Mac".
Pulp Fiction is also a less violent film than Reservoir Dogs, or to be more precise, a less sadistic film in the way it preys on the audience, priming them for the most horrible spectacles of murder and torture. There is a good deal of dread and menace in Pulp Fiction, but it's played differently, strung out more between those poles of the glamorously savage movie fantasy and the mundane everyday. In effect, this new film shows Tarantino in a more thoughtful, even ethical mode. No longer so infatuated with the thrill of the violent clinch, he's more interested in the precise steps that would lead a person to embark upon an act of brutality. In one of Pulp Fiction's highlights, the story titled "The Gold Watch", we follow Bruce Willis' slow, agonised descent into a hallucinatory nightmare of violence. Quite literally, the film tracks his steps along the very ordinary streets of his home suburb, into and out of his apartment, into a shop, down into a horrific cellar... each stage delivers crueller, and more phantasmagoric twists of fate upon Willis, but also finally an opportunity for this character to size himself up before the implications of what the film calls 'the hero factor'.
Both heroism and anti-heroism feature in Pulp Fiction, but not as grim masculine obsessions, as in Reservoir Dogs and True Romance. The favoured themes of contemporary violent masculine art, from Norman Mailer to Martin Scorsese – crucifixion, redemption, masochistic blood-letting, paranoia, phobias of the self and annihilation of the other – don't count for so much in Pulp Fiction. It is a far more relaxed film in which the gangster-type guys sometimes look very silly, and we are invited to enjoy this silliness. It is also a film of rare physical grace, one that lingers on the strangely affecting dance movements of Uma Thurman, the languid, drugged-out postures of Travolta, the piercing eyes of Samuel Jackson. The film gets into heavy material – drug overdose, near-death experience, sudden unexpected fatalities, and a shameful sexual secret – but always guides us gently back to the comic and the quotidian.
Above all, Pulp Fiction is a rich character piece, far more expansive and satisfying in this regard than Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino has already proven himself a master of dialogue almost in the form of blank verse-beat poetry, but here the dialogue really breathes, rather than simply crackling away like sharp static. The film is part of a current trend in American cinema identified by critic Bill Krohn, away from the '80s obsession with plot and action and towards the primacy of character, a trend which Krohn sees exemplified in Spike Lee's Crooklyn (1994), among others. Pulp Fiction's unique mesh of everyday manners, extreme ethical issues and character depth comes together especially well in Samuel Jackson's role – who, after he has experienced a religious miracle, holds a gun to a stranger's head, and talks his way through the twisted moral implications of his act.
Although Quentin Tarantino still has a fair way to go before his female characters are as rich and captivating as his male ones, Pulp Fiction is extremely gratifying in the way it opens this director's universe up to the baby talk, the everyday needs, pleasures and dependencies of romantic relationships. As some critics have already pointed out, the weirdest and most comic thing about the male world of violence and power portrayed in Pulp Fiction is that everything hinges on the whims of women who seem the least powerful figures of all. Should you give your gangster boss's wife a foot massage? This the kind of intricate ethical question which the heroes of Pulp Fiction spend a lot of screen time arguing about – and for the very good reason that the entire future of their tiny world may rest on their answer, and how they act upon it.
© Adrian Martin November 1994