Thursday, May 5, 2011

Pulp Fiction and the Threat of Persuasion

(DISCLAIMER: This is my final paper for a course I took this past semester called Narrative Ethics. The class necessarily mandates a moral engagement with narratives, an attempt to investigate how moral theories are reflected through stories. As such, I had to take into account extreme points of view and analyze them, so it might come across as preachy or superior. However, I should stress that as much as it's fun to pick apart Tarantino, I think Pulp Fiction is his best work yet.)

The notion of media as an influencing factor on the lives of viewers in America is a topic that has been endlessly debated ever since the advent of motion pictures. The moment the Lumiere brothers pointed their camera at an oncoming train, it caused mass hysteria and fear, the idea that the visual illusion was actually an extension of real life. But it didn’t just start with film; stories, in general, have forever had a curious ability to shape the lives of the participant. Because deeming any narrative an effective one means evaluating a level of participation we have with the story, the very act of consuming narratives becomes one in which we are complicit in the acts of the characters. As a result, this can lead to a certain kind of passivity in the viewer that allows stories to have an almost subconscious authoritative sway.

Filmmaking in the late 1900’s and early 21st century has taken a particularly radical turn towards depicting violence and other matters of human debasement in an extremely graphic, unapologetic manner. As a result, there has been a rise in critical concern about the control narratives have over the morals and behaviors of viewers, particularly young and impressionable ones. The history of this discourse hit a fascinating point after the release of Quentin Tarrantino’s Pulp Fiction in 1994, a film that picked up where other controversial American narratives like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Clockwork Orange (1971) left off, presenting drugs, violence, and urban crime in a hip and irreverent way that pushed several buttons in the sensitive psyche of America. Of course, there was also an entire counterculture that worshipped the film for its adventurous and fearless spirit, which is precisely where much of the anxiety arose. If so many films have a positive impact on audiences for their joyful and wholesome qualities, did Pulp Fiction represent an instance where the film’s ambiguous attitude towards the story’s depravity and the simple bravura with which it presented this depravity actually negatively impact the moral pulse of the audiences who loved it?

The answer is not so clear-cut, but the question certainly provides a great deal of room for contemplation. There’s no doubting that Pulp Fiction, in light of what a sheer provocation that it is, is destined to have some impact on the viewer. Whether this is a positive or negative one, or somewhere in between, is heavily dependent on several different things: the actual moral stance of the filmmaker and the ultimate trajectory of his narrative, the ability for the viewer to actively engage with the narrative to a point where they can decipher the moral stance at the heart of the film, and all the inevitable contradictions that can arise in the aesthetics and tone of the film. Essentially, the response that a film like this receives hinges massively upon how intelligent and sensitive both the filmmaker and the audience is.

After so many years of study and repeat viewings, it’s become somewhat clear that, at heart, Tarantino has no intentions of simplistically promoting the horrible actions of his characters, that he’s not just presenting a subversive narrative to ape people of their sense of moral grounding and position them in the minds of psychopathic criminals. In fact, if one watches reasonably closely, Pulp Fiction is quite obviously structured as a violent spiral towards ultimate salvation and a sense of existential renewal. If it’s not openly criticizing the acts of its characters – namely Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), Vincent Vega (John Travolta), Ringo (Tim Roth), Yolanda (Amanda Plummer), Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), and Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), among many others – then it’s at least suggesting that at the end of the film they have decided to seek a new and perhaps better path, one of righteousness and non-violence. If the startling violence, swearing, and racial slurring is what sticks in the mind of the viewer, it’s only because Tarantino allows the bulk of the film to center around such aspects before exorcising them in the final moments of grace, not because he necessarily prefers those elements and wants them to be the most influential.

Yet it’s also clear that they are the most influential ingredients of Pulp Fiction, and the comparatively meager portion of righteous renewal at the end of the film is but a small side note to the rest of the film’s hypnotic onslaught of depravity. After witnessing an hour and a half of action-packed killing, drugging, boozing, and disrespecting, a viewer is less likely to see the ideological undertones of the final scenes than they are to see them in a strictly narrative sense as a way to tidily and calmly “complete” the story. A young, impressionable viewer in particular – that is, a viewer without a nuanced understanding of filmmaking and simply without such a long history of experiencing narratives – is prone to being swept under the spell of Pulp Fiction’s admittedly gripping narrative momentum, happily lost in the maelstrom of action to the point where they are not actively thinking about the story’s implications as it flies by. As a result, the turnaround of Jules Winnfield, Vincent Vega, Ringo, and Yolanda in the concluding scene of the film is not going to register beyond the domain of a narrative maneuver. Put in other words, the viewer will not see it as anything with a carefully chosen meaning, a meaning that puts to shame all the actions these characters performed earlier in the story.

What they will see, potentially, is how cool and suave Vincent and Jules are when they murder someone for pay, how naturally Mia Wallace snorts cocaine, and how easily Ringo and Yolanda go about executing an intended robbery. This is because Tarantino’s stylistic palette has a way of perhaps unintentionally celebrating the same acts he goes on to subtly condemn later in the film. An enduring issue at the center of this kind of filmmaking is how one goes about cinematically representing behaviors that are not virtuous, and in this instance Tarantino has a hard time not making these scenes seem fun and exciting, if not always rewarding. His swift editing, bold camera movements, and big close-ups that allow the viewer to see the casual thrill in the character’s eyes as they execute another job manage to sometimes feel like the equivalent of a sporting event. In the first scene when Jules and Vincent murder a group of guys who betrayed their boss Marsellus Wallace, the anticipation builds with Jules’ impassioned recitation of a Biblical verse right before he fires repetitively at his human target, at which point Tarantino cuts dramatically between the bloody body and Jules’ seemingly guiltless mug. It’s very easy to see the sickness of the act if one is able to pry themselves out of the film’s immersive rhythms, but if not, the scene comes across as celebratory and justified, as if Jules’ target got the revenge he deserved.

There are other ways, however, that Tarantino attempts to quickly prove that the characters’ behaviors were not as easy and faultless as they might have seemed. In the subsequent scene, Vincent mistakenly pulls the trigger on one of their surviving hostages in the backseat of their car, forcing them to make a decision about what to do with the bloody corpse in broad daylight. It seems like a small effort on Tarantino’s part to provide some sort of punishment to the two hitmen, yet it’s still not too earth shattering a predicament for them. Also muddying up his cause is the generally casual tone with which he presents the scene. Vincent and Jules are so relaxed about their accidental killing – not to mention more concerned about the fact that they might be arrested than about the fact that they just killed an innocent due to a careless mistake – that it’s almost as if Tarantino doesn’t see it as a problem either. Here, in the context of media persuasion, Pulp Fiction verges ever closer to ethically questionable by treating human life as a mere inconvenience to these smug and self-satisfied characters. If Jules and Vincent’s dialogue wasn’t so hip and coolly conversational, the scene might play out as an instant condemnation of their cruelty. But because they are shown as relaxed and fun guys to be around, the intent of the scene is harder to pick out and the negative influence becomes that much more powerful.

To say that Jules and Vincent actually influence the morals of a viewer is to say that their charismatic personas are so desirable that their behaviors are equated with achieving such a persona. For the impressionable viewer, personality and action can merge into the same entity of attraction, such that racial insensitivity, murder, and drug use are perceived as OK because in many instances they are presented as such in the context of the film. Quickly, a behavior or viewpoint reflected through the characters in the film becomes a behavior or viewpoint that a viewer actively tries to incorporate in a real-world situation in an effort to achieve the same kind of fully realized sense of self that Jules and Vincent possessed. The extremity of this adaptation can certainly vary among viewers, in that one individual might only take with them some of the character’s mannerisms or slang words whereas in a much more severe case an individual could even end up murdering someone.

The latter is a situation that has never, to my knowledge, been explicitly documented, at least in the context of Pulp Fiction, but the possibility seems to not be beyond the scope of imagination. All of this depends, of course, on the pre-existing moral compass of the viewer before watching the film as well as their ability to discern the fundamental ethical questions a narrative attempts to engage with. Given the adequate circumstances of a viewer with a firm sense of moral opposition to the uglier behaviors endorsed by the characters, Pulp Fiction reveals itself more noticeably as a film that aims not to negatively influence viewers but to propose a situation where immoral characters find themselves choosing a more honorable route through life, a route that values self-actualization and the avoidance of harm to others. When Jules refrains from shooting Ringo in the final moments of the film and lets him go peacefully, likening the whole affair to the same Biblical verse he used in his earlier killing, Tarantino is framing the whole narrative as a healing device, a way to forgive those who have allowed themselves to behave wrongly.

Thus arises the elusive difficulty of a work like this: even as its narrative poses as a celebration of moral fortitude through the final choices of its characters, it can still contradict itself through the very progression of the narrative. As much as Jules’ refusal to kill Ringo is not represented as “uncool”, the actions that precede this big decision are demonstrated as “cool”. This puts the viewer in a tough situation, perhaps a situation that is itself concerned with ethics: passively let the narrative entertain you as it was designed to and at least consciously let go of the will to deconstruct, or maintain a critical detachment and observe the narrative’s ideological leaps as they occur. If moral footing exists to begin with, both options should result in an identical response whether positive or negative, but if a moral template for reacting to the world is not yet developed, a narrative like Pulp Fiction can run the risk of doing as much damage as a more wholesome narrative can do good.

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