When John Travolta, playing the hit-man Vincent Vega, orders a Douglas Sirk Steak in Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), it's a further acknowledgment of what is already being rendered visually in the film's text. The two stock characters -- Vince Vega, the hitman/henchman, and Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), the boss's wife, are eating dinner together at Jack Rabbit Slims, a restaurant decorated and populated by camp approximations of fifties-era movie stars and rock-and-roll legends. The restaurant's host is an Ed Sullivan impersonator; the waiters and waitresses are impersonators of varying dead stars -- Vince and Mia's is a surly Buddy Holly (Steve Buscemi). The stylized setting is, at once, self-reflexive and integral to the plot, such as that plot is. Vince and Mia are subjects to their boss/husband Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), and must play their roles accordingly (they have been ordered to have dinner together), just as Travolta and Thurman are subject to the conventions of Hollywood, and a past that has allowed for them to exist on screen. Tarantino's setting, and the sequence in it, demonstrate the complexity of any text that exists in the age of film, in the age, as Walter Benjamin calls it, of "mechanical reproduction." The layers, intended or not, are inevitable and infinite. When Vincent takes the stage with Mia for the twist contest, audiences are instantly reminded of Travolta's many preserved cinematic moments on the dance floor. For more astute Tarantino fans the fact that Steve Buscemi, who played the waitress-hating Mr. Pink in Tarantino's debut Reservoir Dogs (1992), is playing the Buddy Holly waiter, is a built-in nod that would seemingly come directly from the director. But the reference to Sirk, infamous director of fifties melodramas, seems to resonate most through the sequence. Like Sirk, Tarantino disrupts the narrative of his film through self-conscious and self-reflexive elements that remind the audience that what is being rendered is fake; and as the audience makes this connection, an aura, that element of original art that Benjamin argued is lacking in film-art, exists in the interweaving of the film and its knowing audience.
Benjamin compares film-acting to the factory worker alienated from his or her product:
The film acknowledges this contradiction in many ways. The sequencing of the film, with its constant jumps backwards and forwards in time, is both a nod toward an avant-gardiste sensibility and a self-reflexive trick that distances the audience from the narrative. The narrative breaks down into three segments, plus a framing segment that occurs sequentially between the first and third segments. The middle segment, titled "The Gold Watch," is sequentially the last "story" to take place. In that piece, Vincent Vega is narratively a very minor character; he is sent to "pop a cap in the ass" of the traitorous boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) but is himself killed, with his own gun, as he emerges from the bathroom in Butch's apartment. The final third of the film, however, returns to an earlier time to tell a story called "The Bonnie Situation." In that segment Vince Vega is still alive; of course, it is only his image that is still alive, reproduced on celluloid. Because Tarantino allows himself the editing luxury to disrupt the narrative, Vince's death takes on far less significance than say, Jack Dawson's (Leonardo DiCaprio's) death in the more traditionally narrated Titanic (James Cameron, 1997). Like the apparitional impersonating figures in Jack Rabbit Slims, the image of Vince Vega lives continuously, and the audience is made aware that the action unfolding is impervious to time; a few alterations in the cutting room and the final image of the film is of John Travolta replacing his gun into his shorts and exiting a coffee shop (likewise, another twelve bucks at the multiplex and Jack Dawson is alive again, falling in love on the ill-fated luxury liner). Is there conceivably a time when the iconic imagery from Hollywood's Golden Age -- Marilyn Monroe's dress fluttering up above the subway grate, e.g. -- will disappear forever, will cease to be reenacted, replayed, gazed upon? It seems unlikely, especially, as Benjamin states, in this age of mechanically reproduced images.
The opening image in Pulp Fiction is, true to it's title, words. The American Heritage Dictionary, New College Edition definition of "pulp" is flashed on the screen:
Of course, such a technique is not new, the most obvious source being Sirk and his films from the fifties, most notably Written on the Wind (1957) and Imitation of Life (1959). Those films, genre-identified as melodramas, or women's pictures, were, at the time, popular explorations of family drama. Embedded in Sirk's films, however, most notably through visual technique, were a constant affirmation of the fraudulent nature of the medium, and hence a criticism of the very ideologies -- capitalism, patriarchy, e.g. -- the films were portraying. Through outlandish color, and purposefully bland acting, and extreme symbolic flourishes, Sirk created a cinematic world that referred most pointedly to itself, and its own artifice. In the article "Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on Family Melodrama," Thomas Elsaesser writes:
So how does Tarantino, or rather, Tarantino's audience, create an aura of originality for a film such as Pulp Fiction that constantly unravels itself as it progresses. Benjamin believed that film, by its very nature, could not contain such an aura, that there was no object that could be ritualized, hence no cultification could exist. Certainly, however, in this day, films are consistently being reinvented by their own cult audiences; these audiences have found a way to turn film into an object. Delving into this subject, I realize that I am about to present an entirely insufficient perusal of cult-movie aesthetics, and that this is certainly a subject worth much deeper digging. That said, I can think of two immediate examples of methods by which cult audiences have reinstated films with an aura of originality. The most instantly recognizable cult-film of today, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975), -- and incidentally one of the characters mentioned frequently in Pulp Fiction is nicknamed Tony Rocky Horror -- is only truly experienced at a midnight showing where it is framed and enhanced by a live show. Because of its appropriation by a cult audience the film itself has almost entirely lost its own identity. The Martin & Porter Video Guide, which catalogues every film available on video, states, "If you're not experiencing this scintillating spoof at a midnight showing, you're missing much of the fun. Audience participation is a key" (Martin, p. 914). The live show means that each viewing is a unique experience that will never be reproduced in exactly the same way, unlike the film itself which is inalterable. Thus the aura of a live experience is transferred to a static film. Another example is when movie revival houses advertise in their programs that they will be exhibiting rare, and particularly fine, prints of old classics. The aura that the reproducible film cannot have is given to a particularly clear print that is then presented to a select few, a cult audience willing to reenter the movie theater to see a film that is no doubt available on DVD. In both of these cases the aura of originality exists not in the film itself but in the interaction between the film and its audience.
This is also the case with the aura of originality in a film such as Pulp Fiction. Mechanically reproduced, existing without an original copy, it must gather any aura it can from the communal cult audience and their particular reading of the text. Some of the reading had its groundwork laid by the film-makers, i.e. references to Sirk, references to other Tarantino films, countless references to the pop-culture iconography that it has sprung from. But some of that reading is original. One theory, born in the cyberspace of web-pages devoted to the film, explains how the glowing entity in the briefcase Jules and Vincent recover is in fact Marcellus Wallace's soul, that he had sold to the Devil for financial success. This theory is explained by the combination on the briefcase's lock -- 666 --, the band-aid on the back of Marcellus Wallace's head -- the Devil removes the soul from the back of the neck --, and the glow of the item in the briefcase, that causes anyone who looks at it to exclaim how beautiful it is. The boys killed at the beginning of the film are the Devil's helpers, and it truly is divine intervention when Jules and Vincent are miraculously not killed when one of the boys unloads a gun directly at them. Tarantino has been asked about this and he states that he, in fact, does not know what is in the briefcase. Such an answer only bolsters a cult-audience's reading of a film-text as an original one. Placed in a new context, Pulp Fiction as a supernatural tale, a battle between God and the Devil, the film regains an aura of originality -- it's been reproduced in a new theoretical light.
When Vince Vega and Mia Wallace first take their seats at Jack Rabbit Slims, Mia asks Vince what he thinks of the place. "A wax museum with a pulse," he replies. It seems an apt definition of film itself. Marilyn Monroe lives on in films via a pulse of electricity but she is no longer flesh and blood. It's the point that's constantly being reiterated in Pulp Fiction, particularly in the restaurant scene, and particularly through the narrative disruptions in time. Unable, and unwilling, to fool the audience with its fiction, the film instead relies on the text that exists with a knowing audience than can see the flow of Hollywood that has culminated in its existence. All that referencing ends up distinguishing itself from others of its genre. In that space between the film and its viewers there may or may not be the aura of originality. If it's there, though, it's sparked by an understanding that nothing can be original in the age Hollywood, Netflix and mechanical reproduction.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations.
Grant, Barry Keith. Film Genre Reader II. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.
Martin, Mick and Marsha Porter. Video Movie Guide 1997. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.