Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Mechanics of Pulp

About ten years ago I wrote a series of papers for an excellent class I took at Emerson College called "The Construction of Taste." The professor was Maria Koundoura and I've since forgiven her for making us sit through Salo. Anyway, I thought I'd put the papers I wrote up on this site. They were all about movies, intertwined with the texts we read for class. I don't really expect anyone to read them (they are long and jargon-y) but when has that stopped me before. Here's the first one:

The Mechanics of Pulp:
Narrative Disruption and the Aura in Pulp Fiction

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:

During the shooting he has as little contact with
it as any article made in a factory. This may contribute
to that oppression, that new anxiety which,
according to Pirandello, grips the actor before the
camera. The film responds to the shriveling of the aura
with an artificial build-up of the "personality" outside
the studio.
(Benjamin, p. 233)

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:

pulp -- 1. a soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter.
2. A magazine or book containing lurid subject
matter and being characteristically printed on
rough, unfinished paper.

Tarantino is both foretelling his themes and acknowledging his source. The difference, seemingly, is the mode. What is not being said -- at least directly -- in the American Heritage's definition is that there is a metonymic connection between the mode and the subject matter. Pulp initially referred to the quality of the paper itself, and was only later associated with the subject matter printed on such "pulpy" paper. Tarantino is attaching that realm to film, and by doing so, he's not just referring to the throw-a-way quality of the stories -- the boxer not throwing the fight, the unwanted corpse in the car --, but also the cheapness of the medium, the mass accessibility. Benjamin, talking about photography, writes that "From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the 'authentic' print makes no sense" (Benjamin, p. 226). It is the same with film; Pulp Fiction is as easily reproduced on film-stock as it will later be on video, and its constant replaying emphasizes its own pulpiness, and also its artifice. Tarantino seems unwilling to completely naturalize the imagined world he is presenting. Instead, he inserts instances of recognized artifice, and self-reference. The Jack Rabbit Slims sequence, with its artificial Hollywood setting, is the most instantly recognizable. There are countless other instances, however. Vince Vega says to Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), "Let's get into character," before the two enter an apartment to perform a hit. Mia Wallace says to Vince, "Don't be a..." and then draws a square with her fingers, creating a superimposed animated square on the screen, a reference from the animated show "Josie and the Pussycats." When Butch takes the taxi from the fight where he has killed his opponent, the backdrop is not only recognizably a rear projection -- it is a rear projection in black and white stock. All of this is reinforced finally by the sequencing of the film, which emphasizes the image of the characters over the imagined lives of the characters. Vince Vega's death is insignificant because it is faked. The reality is that his image (an image that can be moved and placed like a prop) can be replayed again and again, and that is ultimately what pulp is about: the manipulation of images, of stock characters, within given situations.

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:

When Robert Stack shows Lauren Bacall her hotel
suite in Written on the Wind, where everything from
flowers and pictures on the wall to underwear, nail
polish, and handbag is provided, Sirk is not only
characterizing a rich man wanting to take over the
woman he fancies body and soul...He is also making
a direct comment on the Hollywood stylistic technique
that "creates" a character out of the elements of the
decor and that prefers actors who can provide as blank
a facial surface and as little of a personality as possible.
(Grant, p. 362)

This Sirkian effect is exactly what Tarantino seems to be going for in the Jack Rabbit Slims segment of the film. Just as Travolta is being manipulated as an actor, so is the character he is portraying. Benjamin cites Rudolph Arnheim's quote about actors in film: "the latest trend...in treating the actor as a stage prop chosen for its characteristics and..inserted as the proper place" (Benjamin, p. 232), seems to sum up the situation both in Written on the Wind and Pulp Fiction nicely. Both films critique their own genre while also upholding many of the conventions of those genres; and their critique seems to corroborate the notion that they are merely inserting entries into genres already massively reproducible and reproduced.

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.

Works Cited

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.


  1. This was actually really interesting. I can't believe you still have your old papers. I also can't believe you've seen "Salo"-now thats hardcore.

  2. I didn't think I had them either but just found them on the hard drive.

    About Salo, we were not required to sit through the entire movie but we had to start it and we had to make a note of what was happening in the film when we decided to leave.

    I stayed to the end but kind of half-watched the final scene. It's as nasty as you've heard.

  3. What was her endgame with "Salo"? Was it some sort of weird extra credit endurance test or was she trying to show something/prove something in particular?