To go back to the beginning, Quentin Tarantino’s first movie, Reservoir Dogs, revived an old-chestnut plot: six misfits plan a heist, but their scheme breaks down and fate rushes them to an early violent death. This premise had been worked up a dozen times before in French and American film noirs, like Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. The earlier versions obeyed a ruthlessly tight, naive purity of form, with the actors saying the fewest lines possible, and every gesture blown up to be desperate and grand. Tarantino’s characters, in contrast, drove around Los Angeles, nodding to 1970s songs on the radio and delivering monologues. Tarantino, aware that the old story was fondly remembered but drained of life, told it out of order and sprinkled in shallow ironies—on their way to Hell the characters took time out to talk about whether or not to tip a waitress. Often their ramblings seemed to be about the old themes of brotherhood and loyalty, but really they were showcases for Tarantino’s skill at writing dialogue.
Pulp Fiction, on the other hand, turned out to be full of surprises, and these days a genuine movie surprise is so rare that it feels like a gift. After I saw Tarantino’s movie a second time, I began to understand why his arrival has been such an event—why, six months after Pulp Fiction came out, people are still recalling their favorite scenes, still figuring out allusions, and, in some cases, still arguing about it.
Tarantino has maneuvered himself into a position in Hollywood where he can do pretty much whatever he wants. But unlike most of the star directors we’ve had since the 1970s, he doesn’t see himself, thank God, as any kind of messenger—not for art, or the hopelessness of twenty-five-year-olds, or exposing a cover-up. (Tarantino put his finger on this in an interview, when he called Oliver Stone, whose purple adaptation of Tarantino’s script Natural Born Killers he claims never to have seen, the Stanley Kramer of our time.) More important, he is shrewd. He seems to think the way the audience thinks, and to have grasped how sick we are of seeing through every limp scenario in two minutes. He understands that the studios can’t predict what will strike a nerve right now, which frees him from the crippling worry that he will become a hack. A self-starter with energy and half an idea has a shot at getting things done his way.
And there is an idea in Pulp Fiction—or, actually, something harder to come by than an idea. Much more decisively than in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino has tossed out the baggy, inauthentic exposition that pads the standard Hollywood movie. The typical form of a movie, encouraged by dozens of manuals for aspiring screen-writers, is an insipid, mechanical three-act structure. It begins with a “set-up”: there is office prattle early on, say, to establish the lead character’s “position” in the world, and there are planted references to a childhood hurt to establish the central “conflict” that the character is supposed to overcome. Then there is the “confrontation,” in which the lead character wrestles with his or her demon. This is true of all genres, whether the demon arrives in the form of a psychopath the protagonist must capture or a child he or she must learn how to babysit. Finally, surprise, “resolution”—the killer dispatched, the child adopted (or sent on to a better family, if the lesson is bittersweet). Occasionally, when the director and the screenwriter and the actors still believe in the formula, it can move an audience: Quiz Show this year is a good example. But most of the time the plot is neither convincing nor relevant to anyone’s life; nowadays even a convincing scene seems like a miracle.
Instead of a protagonist, Pulp Fiction has a milieu—a scummy underground Los Angeles—and a grab bag of characters. There are Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, thugs working for the crime lord Marsellus Wallace; Mia, Marsellus’s wife; Butch, a boxer working for Marsellus who agrees to throw a fight and then runs out on the deal. The structure is episodic, with attention drifting from one to another character. The episodes occur out of order, so that in one case a character dies and then reappears in a scene that took place earlier, when he was still alive. By my count, if you broke Pulp Fiction down to examine its structure, you would find roughly twelve chunks—a chunk consisting of a scene or a string of scenes that makes up a single unit of action, or episode. Then, if you were to number the scenes according to the order in which they take place in the “real time” of the movie, you would get something like this jumbled looping of episodes:
Opening: 4, 2, 6, 1 (this scene occurs twenty years before the rest of the action in the movie), 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 2, 3, 4 (this final scene in the movie overlaps in time and space with the opening one). The end.
It is impossible to get any paraphrasable “conflict” or “theme” out of this. And yet Tarantino catches something that few directors even think about chasing anymore: the structure allows him to show his characters as helplessly interconnected and helplessly isolated at the same time, and it keeps him from speculating on their motives in crude psychological terms.
And so he gets across a sense of the mystery of the world, and the smallness of the people in it. This is not a new approach, but the old strategy of suggestion; one is reminded of Hemingway’s remark that merely by showing a little piece of ice above the water, an artist can imply a huge submerged mass underneath. Whenever somebody digs up that idea, it’s usually a sign that the old formulas—in this case the romantic comedy, the thriller, the buddy movie, the gangster movie, all the stock American movie genres—are in a state of putrefaction. The movies are rotting, and it’s embarrassing to watch—going to see them is beginning to be as embarrassing an experience, in fact, as going to the theater has been for the last twenty years. In a situation like this, it’s no surprise that anyone who steps in to do some repair work is considered a godsend.
The Hemingway remark reminds me of something else about Tarantino, and that is the confusing way in which he comes across as entirely fresh in his approach but also as the creature of a web of directors and film students and academic film critics and general movie-nut cultists: all the people whose hearts lift at the homages to and quotations from Peckinpah, De Palma, Altman, Godard, the black exploitation director Melvin Van Peebles, the French noir director Jean-Pierre Melville, the Hong Kong action director John Woo, and all the hundreds of traces, and traces of traces, of other movies in Tarantino’s work.
The movie oozes references. To give just a few examples, the briefcase that John Travolta opens with the glowing contents that are never revealed is a reference to The Long Goodbye, the film by Robert Altman, which was, in turn, a morbid 1970s refashioning of The Maltese Falcon. The first words that appear in the credits—the name of Tarantino’s production company, A Band Apart—are a reworking of the title of Jean-Luc Godard’s film about a robbery team of two boys and a girl, Bande à Part; the short-banged black-helmet hairdo of Mia Wallace, the coquettish Uma Thurman character in Pulp Fiction, makes her resemble Anna Karina, Godard’s first wife and the star of several of his films, including Bande à Part. The moment in the spooky, time-capsule 1950s nightclub when Mia Wallace orders her “Douglas Sirk steak, bloody,” must have thrilled critics at The Village Voice, who admire the lurid Rock Hudson melodramas like Written on the Wind and Magnificent Obsession that Sirk directed in the 1950s, although the tag probably sailed over the heads of a good part of the audience.
Pulp Fiction works like a misassembled puzzle, or a nonchalant poor relation of The Waste Land. Each ghost of an old movie points to an emptiness in the present that is never filled in, and in this calculated way the scraps on the screen are made to stand for more than themselves. Still, and this is what is so hard to reconcile, flip Tarantino over and his background is not sophisticated at all—is so commonplace, in fact, as to be emblematic. He grew up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood of Los Angeles called Manhattan Beach, the single child of a single mother, and he dropped out of high school at the age of sixteen, which means that he is completely self-taught. And what was his syllabus? Not academic film journals but rentals from a video store, which he took home at night after his day’s work there as a clerk. Right now, according to Premiere magazine, Tarantino’s favorite recreation is collecting TV memorabilia, and he likes to play a board game that went with the old Laverne & Shirley show.
So the couch potatoes have produced their first genius. I bring up these two aspects of Tarantino the person because I believe that they carry over into his films, and that his films happen, by the accident of his obsessions, which I don’t doubt are genuine, to be in tune with an intellectual, insider elite (with movie critics, mostly) at the same time that they strike a nerve among the lowest of the TV-saturated masses. I also bring them up in the hope that they will help to explain why the third time I saw Pulp Fiction I felt a desperate need to leave in the middle, during Christopher Walken’s long speech to a little boy about the boy’s dead father’s watch, which the Walken character, a prisoner for seven years in a camp in Vietnam, had preserved by sticking up his rectum. Walken tells his grotesque story not in the style you might expect—that of the bitter Vietnam vet—but with entirely inappropriate patriotic bravado. Earlier I had found this perverse stroke to be immensely funny. This time, it seemed ugly.
Now, the feeling I had wasn’t anything like the kind of anxiety that you sometimes carry out of a horror movie or a thriller which causes you to clutch your stomach and look around corners and behind doors. There are perhaps a dozen fights, torturings, and shootings, in Pulp Fiction. According to logic, you might expect to leave the theater in a paranoid mood, and if you happen to go to a diner afterward, you might expect to worry that the adoring young couple in a booth by the window are armed and volatile thieves, and that the two gangly, square-looking men in T-shirts and shorts are contract killers. Yet one aspect of Pulp Fiction—perverse or merciful, depending on how you look at it—is that the world it describes is one you can’t imagine entering. This is a world so far away that you don’t think for a second about the violence in it happening to you.
Tarantino, complaining about some of the more priggish responses to his movie, has asked why his critics don’t appreciate the humor in Pulp Fiction instead of just complaining about the violence. He is right, in a way. Violence can be used to frighten, to titillate, to provoke pity or outrage; its mere appearance has no fixed moral shading. The violence in Pulp Fiction happens to add to the comedy, but it is important to remember that violence can mix with comedy to a deeply moral effect. Think of a story by Flannery O’Connor.
Most varieties of humor in movies—slapstick, romantic comedy, the neurotic-persona comedy of someone like Woody Allen—involve someone’s humiliation. The humiliation may reveal a character’s humanity, or it may ridicule the social arrangements of the day, but the important thing is that someone somehow step on a banana peel. The humor in Pulp Fiction is new in that hardly anyone gets humiliated, and nothing is revealed. (The scene in which Marsellus is raped by a policeman is a possible exception, but other elements, like the suspense of wondering who is going to kill whom, intervene here. The humiliation is refracted, so to speak.) It depends on our unconscious absorption of certain generic situations from popular culture, but it does not intend to parody them. To get it, you have to have soaked up thousands of popular songs, movies, and, especially, television shows, but it is not the same as the humor in something like The Simpsons, which is also based on references to popular culture but is basically satirical, and which, although a cartoon, is far more recognizably human.
In trying to describe the jokes in Pulp Fiction, I fall back on the cold terms that are used to express a science problem. Picture a tank in which millions of molecules are circulating. Each molecule is encoded with information, and every time two molecules touch there is a small reaction, which yields a laugh. For example, Jules Winnfield’s Afro wig is funny not because it makes him an object of ridicule (of all the characters in the movie he has the most dignity) but because the wig’s code tells us that it belongs to a certain picture of Jhericurled criminal black men from the so-called black exploitation movies of the early 1970s. Yet here he is played by Samuel L. Jackson, quoting from the Bible, looking like an amused serpent, and brushing up against Vincent Vega, played by John Travolta—an actor whose code, despite his presentation as a Los Angeles thug within the world of the movie, reads, “emotionally raw teen-ager from New York.”
When actual physical violence occurs, the clash is more pronounced, and the comedy intensifies. The two most shocking episodes in Pulp Fiction also happen to be the funniest episodes, and they happen to have one more thing in common: they are coded to obey the most banal structures of the TV situation comedy. What is funny about the episode in which Mia Wallace overdoses, and Vincent takes her to a drug dealer’s house for help, and the pair toss Mia’s body around like a sack of flour, is that the drug dealer and his wife are a low-life, amoral echo of Ralph and Alice Kramden and all the bickering TV couples who followed them. The fact that the subject of tonight’s argument is a near-dead woman’s blood-and-drool-covered body, and that resolving tonight’s dilemma requires stabbing her heart with a syringe, only ups the ante.
Look closely, too, at the episode in which Jules and Vincent have to clean up after the body of a young man whom Vincent has accidentally shot in the face, causing the man’s head to explode and coating Jules’s car in blood mixed with little scraps of head. The sitcom premise is that a parent or a spouse is known to be on his or her way home, which sends the homebound child or spouse, who has accidentally destroyed an appliance or a cherished heirloom, into a panic. The fact that the disaster in Pulp Fiction is a headless corpse adds extra juice to the reaction, but the joke’s structure would be the same if the splattered head were a diamond wedding ring tossed down the drain. There are still ten minutes left in which to hide the damage, or else.
The effect of all this is a numbness bordering on pathology, but dressed up as something comfortable and familiar. The “guest star” of the splattered-head episode, the person who has to clean up in a hurry, is Quentin Tarantino, who plays Jules’s friend Jimmie, the owner of the house where they take the body. Apparently, when Tarantino was a teen-ager, he wanted to be not a director but a character actor—that’s why he started writing, so that he would have a scene to play. Actually, though, Tarantino is a distracting and stiff actor, simultaneously remote and exhibitionist, with one facial expression, a quizzical squint, at his command. Watching him on screen, you become aware of actors reading from a script. Your attention wanders, and you begin to wonder why, like a reckless, needy little boy, he gives himself most of the nasty lines to deliver. In Reservoir Dogs he told a string of rape jokes, and his appearance in Pulp Fiction would be a long, dull stretch were it not for the shocking number of times he gives himself “dead nigger” to say.
Still, it’s almost touching, this false note, because it lets a little human awkwardness into the picture. Someone who admires Tarantino pretty much without reservation told me recently that his greatness lies in the fact that his movies don’t need the real world. Tarantino’s head is already crammed, this person said, with a complete, distinct universe, which has its own reference points and its own moral compass. It’s almost as if he were autistic.
This was a useful observation, which helped to clear up my confusion about Tarantino. He is original. He has a terrain of personal obsessions to work with, a mistrust of platitudes and back choices, and a natural and rigorous sense of form. He is not, as his more moralistic critics argue, anything as simple as cynical or hip; he has, as the fan of his said, a “complete universe” inside his head.
Of course, one of the main characteristics of autism is a difficulty connecting with other people. Tarantino has said that he isn’t much interested in what just one viewer takes away from a movie, because he believes that the audience as a whole possesses an unbeatable collective genius, that its critical judgment never fails. (It is interesting in this respect that he often brings up Pauline Kael, who of all film critics has been the most attuned to the sensational content of the movies, and to the way in which they anticipate and sometimes create group desires.) For some reason, the audience this year was especially primed to respond to the universe inside such a head—to submit to a new kind of enthrallment that didn’t ask to suspend our disbelief, that allowed us to laugh without being embarrassed and to hold our breaths without being afraid, and that slipped in a titillating reminder that some people call black people “nigger” without asking us to think about what that means. Over and over again we were provoked into responding, but we didn’t have to feel a thing.