In Which Pulp Fiction Gets Spoiled

09/26/2016

THE SUITCASE

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first: What’s in the damn suitcase?

Vincent gazes into the abyss

It’s Marsellus Wallace’s soul. What, you thought it was a nuclear isotope or the head of Alfredo Garcia? I can’t take credit for this one — it came to me by way of a forward in the early days of email, wisdom from the beyond. It was making the rounds. (That’s how things were back then, kids, we had this glorious new technology that allowed us to communicate at unprecedented speed and we used it for the more efficient distribution of chain letters.) The moment I read it I knew it was right. Sure there’s all these little bits of apocryphal business that point in that direction — the rather prominent band-aid on the back of Marsellus’ head, from where the devil was apparently said to extract his due; the combination on the suitcase; the way Travolta and Roth are transfixed by the beauty of its contents — but what immediately sealed the deal for me is how that idea relates to and transfigures our understanding of what the film is about.

Because one of Pulp Fiction‘s recurring concerns is a staccato conversation about relativism, cultural or otherwise. “They got the metric system, they don’t know what the fuck a quarter-pounder is.” Vincent and Jules live in a world without stable values. This could be as far as it goes: no good, no evil, everything is permitted, get whatcha can an get out. But then they really do get a sign from God — they’re shepherding a lost soul through the actual Valley, after all — and God points straight toward the exit. Jules takes it, and lives; Vincent doesn’t, and dies. The narrative is designed to make that less obvious.

See that’s the joke: Tarantino, the enfant terrible and alleged nihilist has smuggled a critique of just that thinking into his magnum opus, he’s really a moralist of the oldest sort: it’s not that there’s nothing in the suitcase, or some annihilating vision, or the inescapable truth of our mortality, or the diamonds that last reservoir dog got away with; it’s that there’s the one thing that really counts in the suitcase, the proof of the moral order. If Tarantino’s characters are often thought of as pretty shady greys, turns out morality really is black and white, Manichean, absolute.

Everybody knows Sam Jackson’s favorite passage from the Bible:

The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of charity and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper, and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.

Ezekiel 25:17 is, of course, mostly fabricated, and better yet, lifted from an old Sonny Chiba show. If the soul is real, if it can be traded, taken, tainted, then at some point we may all have to choose if we’re shepherds or wolves.

But lets get to the more interesting shit. Let’s talk about the watch.

 

THE WATCH

“The Gold Watch” is the film’s centerpiece, and the oddity of the odyssey mostly goes unappreciated. The sequence begins with a bewildering cut to a whacked-out old-school kids show. Then we realize the show’s actually being watched by a kid in the way-back-when; then his mom interrupts to introduce an unexpected visitor. Christopher Walken was a POW with said kid’s dad in “that Hanoi pit of hell;” dad didn’t make it, and now Walken is here to honor dad’s last wish. Dad, Major Coolidge, wanted his son to have a family heirloom: a watch his own father had carried through World War II, and his father before him had purchased the day he shipped out to France to fight in the first World War. The scene is shot for maximal weirdness; I’d swear there’s a slight fish-eye effect, if such a thing is possible; the angles all seem mildly warped, and Tarantino’s camera gives us the perspective of an awed child. And then Walken hands it over, and a bell clangs, and Bruce Willis jolts awake on the table in his locker room, right before being called in to a bout we know he’s supposed to throw. The whole scene was a dream, a primal memory.

Watching it again years back, I realized something about the story seemed really familiar. As Walken describes it, Willis’ grandfather, Dane Coolidge, actually died in World War II during the Battle of Wake Island, but just before he bought it he handed the watch off to a gunner on an Air Force transport to pass on to his infant son. The gunner’s name was Winocki. I woulda sworn I’d heard this before. I couldn’t place it. It nagged at me. I racked my brain (no, really racked it: strapped the neurons down and stretched ’em til the myelin cracked and the axon nearly split). And then it came to me.

Air Force is an under-appreciated Howard Hawks movie shot during the war to rally the home front. It’s better than its propagandistic provenance suggests: set in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, it follows the proverbial bomber crew as they hop from island to island, always a step behind the Japanese. I have dim memories of planes looming forth from the fog of war. At some point they touch down on Wake Island, where a Marine facing death hands a crew member played by John Garfield a watch to take home to his son. The name of Garfield’s character? Meet Winocki.

Everybody following so far? The dream sequence is actually built around a reference to an old war film. Tarantino’s tracing his own genealogy, establishing his pedigree. All the alleged hyper-violence for which he’s taken so much flack dates back a lot further than his own work, and he’s placing himself in that tradition, showing us how it plays out in the present. He’s even woven in his own childhood: Great Grand-dad Coolidge purchased the watch in (and was presumably from) Knoxville, where Tarantino did some growing up, and Butch Coolidge/Bruce Willis is clearly growing up without a real father figure, raised on TV, just like Tarantino.

So when Bruce wakes up on that slab, this is the legacy bearing down on him as he heads into the arena: not just absent fathers and contorted masculinity but the whole history of violence, of America’s wars, of their simulated and sublimated reproduction on the home front.

And then things get really weird.

Cut, and Bruce is jumping out of a second-storey window in a back alley that could only look a little more like a Hollywood stage set, a taxi that looks like it’s out of a Howard Hawks film waiting below. Turns out instead of going down in the fifth like he was supposed to, Bruce has not only won the fight but unintentionally killed his opponent. “How does it feel to kill a man?” the cabbie asks him. “I couldn’t tell ya. I didn’t know he was dead until you told me he was dead.”

Here’s the thing: throughout the ride, the background we can see going by through the cab’s windows is in black-and-white. Willis even inexplicably tosses most of his clothes out the window of the cab, as if to draw our attention to the exterior (I’m far from the first person to point this out, though it seems like a lotta the audience still manages to ignore it). It looks like old stock footage from the days they’d use rear projection to create the illusion actors were driving.

Butch in the Uncanny Valley

So from the dream, we move into, through, this liminal realm, still traveling inside the film of another era, our perceptions contained within, circumscribed by, its representation, not quite aware of the consequences of actions, not fully conscious.

Tarantino doesn’t stop there. After Willis makes it to the motel where he’s hiding out with his girl, he jerks up the next morning (now we know the dream haunts him). The TV is on, and we see his girlfriend repeatedly reflected in the images emanating from it. Dreams and reality mingle.

Then Willis discovers she accidentally left his father’s watch behind when she split their place. He has to go back. He drives over, parks the car, slinks alongside a building and into a vacant lot, and here we watch a few of the rare exterior shots in Tarantino’s films. Fine, on one level these serve a narrative purpose: Tarantino wants to show us Willis is being cautious and approaching the home he left behind indirectly. On another level they give us a rare sense of reality, of where this is all taking place, of something besides the chatter and the characters on whom Tarantino’s camera obsessively focuses.

After everything goes sideways just like you’d expect (and completely over the top in a way maybe only Roger Avary coulda imagined), the crucial moment comes when Willis could walk away; instead he turns back to rescue someone he’s arguably better off leaving to die. And like Vincent Vega and Jules Winfield, he becomes a finder of lost children, a shepherd of the weak, his brother’s keeper. In search of the watch he kills not one man but two, and with intent. Now he knows. “The Gold Watch” is a transmigration. From an old Hollywood dream to the b&w cab ride to the last mundane exterior shot of the street as Butch and his girl take off, leaving LA and the movie. This is a journey from the surreal to the real, a baptism in blood.

Fanon would be proud. The way to escape the simulacrum, to exit into reality, to achieve self-actualization, is killing with intent (which is ultimately within the simulacrum; Tarantino’s aesthetic choices are savvy enough that you know he’s gotta be aware of the contradiction). That’s what lets Willis finally leave behind a life of scrapping and scraping by, of trying to live up to a dead ideal.

CATHEXIS • CATHARSIS • SYNTHESIS

Backtrack. Remember, at this point in the film we don’t actually know what went down after Jules and Vincent executed Big Kahuna; I just tossed that out up front to lure you in. After Willis and his girl ride off, the film cuts back to Jules and Vincent. It’s only then that we witness the maybe-miracle, and their argument over its significance.

The watch is, of course, a symbol: Willis leaves his girl behind to retrieve it, and channels his libido into his capacity for violence. But of course it’s also a timepiece, a piece of time, a totem of the linear progression the film eschews and the history it syncretizes, American cinema’s long torrid romance with violence. Once Willis has reclaimed the watch, we watch the stretch of the story we’ve been missing, the lost time that in some sense a lotta the film has pirouetted around.

“I never gave much thought to what it meant,” Jules says. What he and Vincent lack is intent, consciousness. They may’ve done the right deed, but it mighta been for the wrong reason (still the greatest treason, as the man wrote). Now he’s thinking it through. We know, at this point, what happens to Jules and Vincent; it’s Pumpkin and Honey Bunny whose fates are in the balance. The showdown is all fear and trembling, and pity (the speech even pleasurably enhanced) it’s not accidental Vincent is placed in the position he is, that we enjoy his strange life after death, and the giddy release of the crashing surf guitar.

If the watch is linear time ticking away, mortality, the suitcase holds the promise of a life after death, or at least a life greater than this one. The synthesis is cinema.

I remember seeing the posters wheatpasted around town (this was how we used to find out about shit before the internet, kids) and vibrating with excitement. Tarantino was back! Uma Thurman was in on it! Pulp Fiction! The shock of the new has worn off, but its best moments are still joyous.

Twisting