Tangerine Tarantino

on Thursday, June 2, 2016

*Warning: contains spoilers. 

Pulp Fiction is a movie described as a cult classic, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. To my mind those were two reasons good enough to give it a viewing. I was curious to see why the film captured the imagination and approval of the movie-going public.

Watching a Tarantino film feels a little like going to hear your favourite preacher. His sermons are delivered from the hip, no punches pulled, and like any good speaker, he revisits his key points from various angles. So it is in Pulp Fiction that the plot progresses through a series of vignettes told in the personal struggles and foibles of a string of characters. Like the frames of a comic book, events unfold in graphic detail, blood spattered and liberally laced with dark humour, full of villains and victims.  Yet despite the various individual dramas, there is a common thread weaving its way through each tale, and the web is satisfyingly spun into a whole at the last chapter with all loose ends neatly tucked away.

However bizarre their personalities, Tarantino is intensely interested in the humanity of each protagonist, careful to give them characteristics that will endear them to his audience despite the fact that they are all brutally flawed.  They are accurately summed up in the definition of 'pulp' given in the beginning titles as "containing lurid subject matter ..on rough unfinished paper." Vinny is a cold-blooded assassin and hopeless drug addict, but also often soft spoken, an intelligent thinker with a sense of humour, and most importantly, dedicated to his job and fellow assassin Jules, and employer Marcellus. His charm and courtesy win us over despite the fact that he's a 'bad guy'. We can't help but admire his loyalty and affability. Then there's Mia, manipulative, crack head wife of the local gangster boss, who is likeable for her sense of fun and seeming naivety. She is careless with people in a manner reminiscent of Daisy Buchanan or Marylin Monroe, and in case we don't get that, the similarly helplessly flawed, too soon deceased idols Monroe, James Dean, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley appear in the background as nightclub entertainment.

Having established permission to take the film out of the grip of reality at any moment via consistent injections of black comedy, Tarantino relieves the pressure at key moments by crossing to the absurd. It is distressing to see Mia become the victim of an overdose, her life further endangered by Vinny attempting to cover his own ass rather than get her to hospital. Her life unexpectedly saved, we find ourselves feeling stupid for worrying. Conversely, in case we got too attached to Vinny, Tarantino wipes him out in an unceremonious blunder with no fanfare or heroics to mark his pivotal role in the film. He is as careless with the fates of his characters as...well as what? Or who?

Jules is a hardened assassin without the refinement of Vinny. His penchant to quote scripture as a priestly administration of last rites to his victims makes him Tarantino's version of the avenging angel. As the film progresses, there is little to like about Jules, until the moment of his epiphany. Narrowly escaping death when a nervous kid shoots at him point blank and misses, he concludes that God's hand is upon his life and determines to quit killing. The very next scene sees the situation reversed for the unlucky Marvin who is accidentally shot in the face. Good karma and bad karma apparently. Jules's redemption from devil to wandering prophet is crowned with a final dramatic choice on his part to be the salvation rather than the damnation of a pair of incompetent criminals. He recites once more his favourite verse from Ezekiel, giving it some new interpretations, mouthpiece perhaps for Tarantino's musings on the good and bad of humanity. His re-reading of the scripture to assign the role of 'shepherd' to the gun, then himself, neatly excludes the possibility of 'God' filling that role, and in fact leaves it as a choice, albeit a noble one, for those humans with the capacity to be good to take up or leave.

It is the complexity of Tarantino's characters that enables him to draw contrasts that beg questions like 'what is good?' Jules and Vinny compare the purity of animals, recognizing that there's more to it than just dirt, "I wouldn't go so far as to call a dog filthy but they're definitely dirty. But, a dog's got personality. Personality goes a long way." Some positives balance out the negative. Butch the boxer is initially introduced as an unethical, self serving thug with a temper and not much of a brain. Once again though, his tenderness towards his girlfriend and exaggerated sentimentality over his father's watch tend to mitigate his faults. He also experiences a point of crisis resulting in actions we would have considered out of character, when he refuses to abandon a former enemy undergoing violent abuse. Thus he chooses a 'good' or 'right' course of action despite our expectations. It's another chance for the director to demonstrate a belief in the possibility of human beings to choose good over evil, or sacrifice over selfishness.

In a film overflowing with selfish hedonism, the overwhelming theme remains the inherent ability of mankind to be the catalyst for salvation. Tarantino's take on it: Each person, no matter how flawed has the ability to step out of expectations and stereotype to be a force for goodness. Of course the opposite also holds true, a point he illustrates in the character of Zed, a man who wears a sheriff's badge and has a penchant for kidnapping and mercilessly using people, a hideous portrait of human perversion dressed up as respectable.

Pulp Fiction is an experience at times deeply distressing, at times touching and often outrageously entertaining. Tarantino the orange robed preacher has done his work well, leaving the world a film that displays the true art of a brilliant director, as well as a cast of memorable, deplorable characters, and a good dose of cynical thumbing of the nose at the idea of a caring Creator. In Tarantino's tangerine world, the chance to play God resides in each man. What an irresistible thought to leave with his audiences.