Imitation And Innovation

The heart of this chapter lies in the great and novel success of a film like Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. In terms of classical story forms, Pulp Fiction is a classic gangster film in its generic origin, but this is where the comparison ends. Tarantino also feels free to relate Pulp Fiction to the ebb and flow of movies and television on that popular culture. A character refers to himself as "I'm The Guns of Navarone." Another character portraying a Vietnam veteran recently released from a prisoner-of-war camp, who is portrayed by Christopher Walken, tells a powerful story about preserving a gold watch while a prisoner-of-war. The reference here is to the film that made Walken's career, Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978), where he portrayed an American fighting in Vietnam, imprisoned by the Vietnamese.

Elsewhere in the film, a restaurant is hosted by an Ed Sullivan imitator. A waiter is Buddy Holly, a waitress is Marilyn Monroe, a performer imitates Ricky Nelson. Just as the gangster film is one point of reference for Pulp Fiction, popular culture since 1950 is the other key referent point.

If these were its only narrative virtues, there would be little to write about. Pulp Fiction is also organized around three stories, a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue is continued in terms of time in the epilogue. The time frame then for Pulp Fiction resembles the circle rather than the straight line.

Tarantino uses this frame to break our expectations of a linear treatment of the gangster genre. If the film were linear, the story would follow a rise and fall story line. Given the circularity of the story line, Tarantino can meditate on the pursuit of work and pleasure in the world of the gangster. Both are fraught with a fatalism that underscores the fragility of life and, in the case of one of the characters, Jules (Samuel Jackson), causes him to give up the life for a pursuit that will be more spiritual.

The actual story line is, in reality, three story lines—Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace's wife, The Gold Watch, and The Bonnie Situation. Characters from each story line appear in the other stories. The first story is the story of Vincent Vega (John Travolta), who, with his partner, Jules, proceeds to kill some young dealers who have betrayed their employer, Marsellus. The second part of this story is the "date" Vincent has with Mia (Uma Thurman), Marsellus's wife. This drug-induced date sees Mia overdose and Vincent rescue her with the help of his drug dealer (Eric Stoltz). The overall tone of this first story is a drug-like trance. The killers, Vincent and Jules, approach their work like ministers meditating on life values and loyalty. The second phase is a cocaine-hazed seduction without sex. But playing with fire, whether it's sex or drugs, has consequences. Vincent is always aware of doing the right thing, not crossing over the line. Self-preservation is his philosophy in a profession where the long view is the short run.

The second story is the story of Butch (Bruce Willis). His gold watch has been passed down for generations of heroic but dead soldiers in Butch's family. For him the watch represents the father, and grandfather, he never knew. Butch is a boxer who has agreed to throw a fight for Marsellus, the local L.A. crime boss. Instead, he wins the fight and the money he bet on it. But now Marsellus wants to kill him. His escape is well-planned except that his girlfriend left his gold watch in his apartment. Fate pulls him back in the direction of Marsellus. Back at the apartment to retrieve the watch, he finds Vincent in the washroom, his gun in the kitchen. Butch kills Vincent, but as he escapes, he literally runs into Marsellus on the street. They try to kill one another. Absurdly they are taken into captivity by a pawn shop owner who proceeds, with the help of a friend, to rape Marsellus. Rescued by Butch, Marsellus forgives him but Butch must leave town.

The third story returns to the killing of the first story. It seems there was a hidden gunman in the backroom. He is killed by Vincent and Jules but not before he has fired five shots, all missing their target. Jules is certain divine intervention has saved his life. He will give up the life of crime. With a young black man taken from the apartment, they leave. En route, Vincent accidentally kills the young man, splaying blood and matter all over the car and themselves. Now endangered, they proceed to the home of a friend (Quentin Tarantino). The friend tells them they must leave quickly before his wife returns. They call on Marsellus for help. He dispatches Mr. Wolf (Harvey Keitel) to help set up the situation. He does so, cleaning them and the car for re-entry into the world.

Hungry, they go out for breakfast where the robbery that has begun in the prologue is now played out as an epilogue. Jules has said that he will no longer kill and he advises the robbers how to leave with their booty and their lives. The film ends at this point, although, in terms of chronology, the gold watch story is to take place at a future point.

To understand the imitative dimensions of Pulp Fiction, we look at the references to the popular culture, particularly television. It is not only the references to particular characters, it is also the attitudes expressed. Butch is a product of a "Leave it to Beaver" family and he becomes a boxer, the result of "Beaver" being orphaned. He is the analogue to the persona who grows up without a father; Jimmie (Quentin Tarantino) is a house-husband, a "Mr. Brady" without the Bunch, Marsellus is Othello to Mia's Desdemona, and Vincent is Iago's younger brother—all three are contemporary visions of a 50s Playhouse 90 re-visited in the 90s. Wolf is a George C. Scott character out of The Hustler (1961) and Jules is a character who has walked right out of a Sinclair Lewis novel made for television. The imitative dimensions of Pulp Fiction, although presented with great wit, would not be enough to suggest innovation.

The innovative storytelling dimension of Pulp Fiction has more to do with genre violation. Not only does Tarantino use black humor as the tone for Pulp Fiction, he actually satirizes the form's violence and its fastidious devotion to testosterone. Both Vincent and Jules, although killers, are sensitive to one another and, in Vincent's case, remarkably sensitive to Mia, Marsellus's wife. Their devotion to language, its nuances and its elegance, makes them the most unusual of hitmen. In a story form known for action and a devotion to quick solutions, this obsession with language can only be interpreted as a satire on the male propensity for action. By substituting language for action, Tarantino is also substituting one for the other, thereby undermining a key motif of the genre. Consequently, the shape of the dramatic action becomes less cause and effect and more meditation, even a search for goals.

The result, given the circularity of the narrative and the substitution of dialogue for action, is to shift the narrative heart of Pulp Fiction from material goals to spiritual goals for each of the main characters. First, Vincent simply wants to eschew sexuality for survival; Butch wants a piece of his family, perhaps all of his family, as represented by his father's gold watch, instead of money; and finally, Jules wants to leave the life he leads for a better one; the Lord has shown him the way to save himself—divine intervention, he calls it. Whether any of these characters will indeed find happiness we will never know (although we do witness Vincent's fate: he has a right to be cautious). The key result of the innovations Tarantino introduces is to shift us from a focus on cause and effect, or linear narrative, to a different kind of narrative, a circular narrative. The focus, consequently, shifts to character over action, and to spiritual values over material values. All of this is presented in a tone that allows Tarantino to find humor in a form not known for humor and to step outside the dramatic limitations of the form into a new kind of experience, where a self-reflexive meditation on the medium occurs as well as the narrative.

The layered experience of Pulp Fiction consequently allows us to be inside the film, and outside the film. The result is that Tarantino has moved far beyond imitation to a work that is remarkable for its innovation.

To give some sense of perspective on how creative Pulp Fiction is, we turn to another tri-partite story, Milcho Manchevski's Before the Rain. Set in Macedonia in 1993, Before the Rain is essentially three love stories, two set in rural Macedonia and one in London. Each focuses on a love that is forbidden by the surrounding society and each ends tragically as religious bigotry leads to murder. The combatants in each case are Macedonian and Albanian, Christian and Muslin.

The first story, Words, focuses on a priest, Father Kiril, who has taken a vow of silence. He finds a young Albanian woman in his room. Her hair has been shorn. She looks young, not more than eighteen. She is being pursued by Macedonians who accuse her of murder. The priest hides her, against the wishes of his superiors. The Macedonians search the grounds but do not find her. When she's found out, the priest is thrown out with her. They cannot communicate because each speaks a different language. But a bond has formed. They are discovered by the girl's grandfather and his men. The priest is sent away while the girl is beaten and accused of being a slut. She professes love and runs after him. The girl is killed by her own brother.

The second story, Faces, takes place in London. A British woman, Anne, an executive in a photography agency, has a lover, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. Alexander, the photographer, is Macedonian. He wants her to return to Macedonia with him, but she refuses. She is pregnant by the husband she has left for the photographer. He leaves, and she meets her husband at a restaurant. She tells him she's pregnant by him but stills wants a divorce. In the background, an argument grows in intensity. It is between an ethnic waiter and an ethnic customer. The argument mushrooms. The implication is a re-play of the Macedonian-Albanian enmity in London. Both are thrown out. The angry customer returns and shoots indiscriminately, killing the waiter as well as Anne's husband.

Pictures, the third story, is Alexander's story. He returns after sixteen years to his home in Macedonia. He is greeted by his relatives. Only when they recognize him do they drop their enmity. Everyone seems to carry guns.

Alexander visits Hana, a school friend, a woman he clearly loves. She is Albanian. He is greeted with great hostility but clearly she was the love of his life and he has returned to see if his love is returned by her. Her father is respectful but her son threatens to kill him. He leaves.

Alexander's cousin is killed and Hana's daughter is accused. She asks if he can find her daughter. He finds and releases her, but in doing so, he is killed by his own cousin. The young woman runs off to a monastery, the very monastery of the first story.

The three stories of Before the Rain form a circle of time, another circle of religious hatred, and a circle of love. Each story has the same theme, and in each, the hatred destroys the love. Only time continues, but in Man-chevski's world, it comes full circle, in order to repeat itself with another circle of opportunity, love, and religious hatred.

In each story, the characters of the other appear. And in each story the meditation of the main character fails to puncture the circles.

Like Tarantino in Pulp Fiction, Manchevski has chosen a nonlinear frame in order to layer his story. Where Tarantino used the structure to comment on the form—the gangster film—Manchevski uses the nonlinear frame to create a fable about issues larger than Macedonia or the former Yugoslavia. His goal is to say something about the struggle between the life instinct and the death instinct and to warn us that, in Macedonia, this archetypal struggle is moving towards a victory for death. Manchevski doesn't portray religion or social structures as the enemy. He shows both sides victimized and caught in a circle of self-destruction. In this film, the nonlinear structure and style help Manchevski distance himself from the particular and to suggest the general. He uses the structure to create a modern parable. Manchevski's film is innovative in every way. There is little imitation of story form. He strikes a fresh chord. Although this struggle has been told before, specifically in Elia Kazan's America, America (1963), it has never been told in such a novel fashion. Manchevski's style in Before the Rain presents an ideal example of how a style can be so innovative as to seem uniquely original.

Both these films—Pulp Fiction and Before the Rain—rely on a nonlinear structure to move them beyond imitation and to suggest a new innovative style for film narrative. It is not the case that every story is well-served by this approach. However, as these two films illustrate, the options for film narrative have been expanded by Tarantino and Manchevski.

Quiet Mind Meditational Therapy Life

Quiet Mind Meditational Therapy Life

This is an audio book collection all about quiet mind meditation therapy. This is a great audio course that will teach you everything about meditation therapy.

Get My Free Audio Book


Post a comment