Pulp Fiction, and morality/spirituality in art

Last night, I went to my local movie theater to see the Fathom Events screening of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.  (And let me just say how awesome Fathom Events is.  Operas from the Met, plays from the Royal Shakespeare, MMA fights and old rock concerts; they’ve transformed the movie theater experience.  Power to ’em).  Anyway, Pulp Fiction‘s eighteen years old now; it’s a film I’ve seen many times, but not in a real movie theater packed full of QT fans; when I saw it the first time, eighteen years ago, again in Provo, the audience reaction ranged from appalled to horrified. And that’s kind of interesting, actually.

Because that was me. I was a movie buff even as a kid, and used to go to the old Blue Mouse in Salt Lake to see art films on a regular basis, but I did graduate from BYU, and at least part of me still clung to cultural conservatism. Here’s what I think defines Mormon culture conservatism–it’s a kind of spiritual/moral dualism.  Works of art either invite the Spirit, or they repel it. Some works of art (the Great Works), are good for you, spiritually and morally; they communicate eternal verities, they provide an eternal perspective, they make you a better person, they inoculate you from evil.  But there’s this other category, Worldly Art, that’s nihilistic or amoral or immoral or dangerous, spiritually and morally.  Basically it comes down to the Spirit–you consume good art like you consume the bread of life, but when that bread is worldly, it’s death to the Spirit; it leads to immorality. The most important talk describing this world-view was by Boyd K. Packer: The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord. I didn’t agree with everything in this talk, and I still think it has some value, especially in its appreciation for such folk artists as C.C.A.Christensen, but I used to think the basic point he was making was a valid one.  I thought this worldly/spiritual dichotomy was real–I thought this dualism described an actual phenomenon.  And I don’t anymore. And Quentin Tarantino is one of the reasons.

But Mamet came first.  In grad school in Indiana, I took an advanced directing class.  We were required to direct a full-length play (subject to the teacher’s approval), and to see the plays (and some rehearsals) directed by the other people in the class.  By the luck of the draw, my play went up first–Relatively Speaking, by Alan Ayckbourn.  It was terrible. My approach to directing was dictatorial, and the cast hated me. Other plays followed, some good, some indifferent.  And then one of my friends in the class directed David Mamet’s American Buffalo.

I knew Mamet. Foul mouthed Mamet, amoral Mamet, Mamet the nihilist.  I knew he wrote morally questionable plays about dreadful people who dropped the F-bomb every other word.  The very definition of a Worldly Artist.  And so I went to the performance of the play, not happy about being required to, wishing I could just not go and take the hit in my grade for the class.  I finally decided to go ahead and go, though, because I really liked the director.  He was my best friend in the class, one guy willing to treat respectfully the judgmental naivete of the Mormon guy.

If you don’t know American Buffalo, it’s a play about these low-life guys, Donny and Bobby and Teach, who plan, but are unable to carry out, a robbery.  They’re losers, wannabe crooks, unburdened by morals or, frankly, brains, who are, underneath their bluster, desperate and afraid.  I sat in the theater, laughing and weeping and completely blown away.  I’d never felt that way in a theater before.  Just the sheer, pathetic, truthful humanity of the writing, the pure poetry of raw American dialogue, the sharply delineated characters. It still remains one of the greatest nights I’ve ever spent in a theater.

And it was Mamet.  Amoral, nihilistic, profane, worldly Mamet.  And I realized that the worldliness was the point. That plays are supposed to be anchored in the world, in human experience, all of human experience, not just exalted (and maybe pretty unreal) human experience. The worldly/spiritual dualism dissolved for me, vanished as though it had never existed.  I’ve never thought that way again.

A few months later that same friend gave me an opportunity to direct again, The Diviners, by Jim Leonard.  I decided to take a completely different approach this time, to try humility and not arrogance, to trust the cast, to listen, to never ever dictate, to never ever judge, to trust the material and its essential humanity. To suggest, and to trust. And I loved the experience, and that’s basically how I direct today.

We’re a long way from Quentin Tarantino, I realize, but driving home after the movie last night, I thought about American Buffalo, about Mamet and the whole worldly/spiritual dualism that I have now so completely rejected.  And Pulp Fiction, it occurred to me, is essentially a spiritual film, essentially a religious film. Yes, I know, it’s the most profane of comedies, and it’s irretrievably violent, and it’s about hit men who murder for a living.  But it’s profoundly and beautifully human, and it’s also a conversion story, a story about a violent man who wants nothing more than to stop.  To cut out of himself his own violent tendencies.

I’m going to assume anyone reading this knows the film.  It’s eighteen years old, it’s generally considered one of the most influential films ever made, it’s a “classic”, whatever that means. So let me make the case.

So to begin with, Vincent may be the ‘main character’ (at least in the sense that he’s the only character in all four stories), but Jules is the fulcrum.  Jules drives the action in two of the stories, and the film ends with his ‘conversion.’  Vince and Jules spend most of their conversations talking about their miracle, the way the guy with the hand cannon shoots five times at point blank range right at them, and neither of them is hit. Jules, of course, concludes that God is speaking, to him, through that miracle. In that final scene with Ringo, he repeats, for the third time in the film, the quote from Ezekial:

The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy My brothers. And you will know My name is the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon thee.

And what’s he say?  That he’s realized that he’s the evil man, and that Ringo is the weak, but now God wants him to become the shepherd.  It’s a conversion story.

I was amazed, last night, how many times the number three came up in the film; and of course ‘three’ is an important number in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Some are obvious: Jules telling Ringo to put his gun down on the count of three. A few others: Jules quotes Ezekial 3 times, and he has 3 different interpretations of it. There are three hamburger references–the Royale with cheese, the Big Kahuna burger of Brett’s that Jules takes a bite from before killing him, and the hamburger Mia eats at Jack Rabbit Slims, which employs three tragic movie stars as waitresses–Marilyn Monroe, Mamie van Duren and Jayne Mansfield. And there are always three guys in the car in which Marvin is killed, Marvin and two others. Also that Bruce Willis’ watch had previously been owned by three military forebears, according to the story told so memorably by Christopher Walken’s character.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the various theories regarding what’s in Marsellus’s briefcase, and the meaning of the bandage on the back of Ving Rhames neck.  One theory is that the case contains the diamonds from Reservoir Dogs.  And that Rhames had an unsightly blemish on his neck, and wanted to cover it up.  But one prominent theory is that the case contains Marsellus’ soul, which an enemy removed from the back of his neck.  (Possible, according to a Chinese tradition, apparently.)

I love theories like those, though I’m not sure how seriously to take any of them. At a more important level, though, Tarantino’s film overwhelms us with its sheer humanity, which emerges through the wall-to-wall profanity and violence. These are damaged people, desperate people. I love the whole metaphor implied by the whole Quentin Tarantino/Wolf sequence.  It’s amazing, a huge chunk of the film devoted to cleaning up a car.

To recap: Vince’s gun accidentally goes off while he’s carelessly aiming it at Marvin, a guy who just happens to be in the apartment when Vince and Jules kill Brett. Not wanting to leave a witness behind, they take him along, and he’s sitting in the back seat of their car when Vince asks him what he thinks of Jules’ theory about divine intervention–that the hand cannon gun missed because God intervened.  Marvin says he has no opinion on the matter, when the gun fires, and Marvin’s brain and viscera are all over the back of the car.  So they park it at Jimmie’s (Tarantino’s) house, and Marsellus calls The Wolf (Harvey Keitel) to help get them out of the mess.

So let’s unpack that.  A theological argument leads to accidental violent death. The Wolf is brought in.  A cursory clean-up solves the immediate problem–some scrubbing, then covering up the worst bloodstains with old blankets.  Jules and Vincent are then ‘baptized’ by Jimmie and the Wolf, a sort of mocking parody of that sacrament.  And then the car is dropped off at a junkyard, and the Wolf is rewarded by the sexual favors of the junkyard’s daughter. It’s a parody of religion–exegesis leading to violence, an innocent slaughtered, followed not by repentance but a cover-up, a false mock-ordinance.  But Jules hasn’t forgotten–he and Vince go to breakfast, where Jules suggests a commitment to Jewish dietary laws (he won’t eat bacon because pigs are ‘filthy animals’) and to Jules genuine attempt at contrition; his new calling as ‘the shepherd.’

The film is about that, the faux and the real.  Vince and Mia have a fake-date, win a dance contest only they seem to have entered. It’s all sham–Marsellus has stage-managed their night out, perhaps as a test for them both.  Then comes Mia’s overdose, and what seems like an actual death and resurrection–stabbed by an adrenaline shot, she rises up, gasping for air.  And Mia, dropped off home again, looking like death itself, opens up to Vincent–they have a moment of human interaction, as she tells him the joke she’d earlier refused to share.  A fake relationship becomes a real one.  Just as Butch, torn between his love for Fabienne, his girlfriend, and the world of masculine myth represented by his watch, chooses, without hesitation, the watch.  And finds, and confronts, and connects to his enemy, Marsellus. (Who he saves from terrible violence when he could just as easily choose not to.)

And yes, the film is funny.  Until last night, I hadn’t realized just how astonishingly funny it is.  I’d never had that experience with it, seeing it in a movie theater, with an audience prepared to accept it.  When I saw it the first time, in 1994, the audience reaction, as I recall, was shock. Some people left early.  Nobody much laughed.  As people filed out, some at least were angry.  Did there need to be that many F-words?  And N-words?  And the film was so callous.  So indifferent to human suffering. Last night, though, we just enjoyed it.  And the buzz, leaving, was all about QT’s next film, which we can’t wait to see.

Portrayal does not suggest advocacy.  And F-bombs can be seen as morally and spiritually neutral verbal punctuation. What we want from films is testimony. A vision of humanity, of the world.  And boy does this film witness.

One thought on “Pulp Fiction, and morality/spirituality in art

  1. Bob

    I feel much the same way. Though, I’ve never noticed as much of the symbolism. I would say that the greatest films (or any work) deal with in one way or another the concept of redemption. How do we as the frail damaged beings that we are somehow find a strength beyond our own? How do even the weakest of us step beyond the self interest into sacrifice?
    We empathize with imperfection as long as it is honest. I find that the greatest sin in art is dishonesty. I think that Pulp Fiction is the most honest of QT’s films. I empathize with Jules and Butch and Marsallus because they seem Honest to me. Vince doesn’t ring as honest with me, but it may just be personal prejudice against Travolta.
    It is a beautiful film, and someday when I get the gumption, I am going to use it in a sacrament meeting talk.
    On another note, I think that the dichotomy between worldly/spiritual that was destroyed for you verily exist for other people. I think that we withdraw from the Spirit more than he withdrawing from us. My wife is easily darkened by what she sees. If affects her so emotionally that she is removed from the Spirit. She can’t feel it. I, however, can watch many films that she can’t and gain spiritual insights. What that means is that it would be wrong of me to force her to watch “Pulp Fiction” because I know that for her it would be a wedge. I accept that. We have to determine where that line is for us.
    I run into this a lot as a teacher. An audience that was appalled by the “abundant” swearing in “Crazy for You” ready applauded their daughters as singing dancing prostitutes in “Les Mis”. I don’t think that it is hypocrisy. I think that people have a balance in their head that is that worldly/ Spiritual dichotomy. They place the elements of the production on one side or the other. The elements do not have the same weight for all people. For example, Violence and swearing have virtually no weight for me, redemption weighs a ton that means “Pulp Fiction”= Awesome. But for someone else the swearing weighs a TON (I have students like this) and overwhelms the redemption. I can’t fault them for that. They know better than I do what is going to hurt them spiritually.
    Well, enough of my disorganized ramblings. I like the movie. It moves me.


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