A fever of contempt so rampant in our two-bit culture explains how a derivative shocker mocker like Pulp Fiction can be applauded as 1994’s best. Other than the deepening malaise of willful degradation, and an apparent need to revel in it on every level, personifying a scary decline of critical discrimination, is there a way to make sense of Quentin Tarantino’s success? Sure to incite some, yes: the straight cools are honoring an invert for giving in, for becoming one of them—a dunderhead mired in blood, violence, anarchic temperament. But Pulp Fiction isn’t hip nihilism—it’s not a tantalizing device to mock conventions, or re-think them, as Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game did. Quite the opposite: it’s a giant suck up to the boobgeoise of E!. With the repulsive Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has become the butch John Waters. A tribute to a genre Hammett refined and maybe only Raymond Chandler has come close to surpassing—and the only movie in recent years to match the kinky, amoral pleasures of the genre’s shock pungency is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown—Tarantino’s is a picture I wanted to like because I love the mock and recalcitrance that are the lifeblood of middle finger flicks, and because for a while watching John Travolta is cautious joy: Drug-fogged, his Vincent as hit man is the embodiment of apathy—a spaced out, walking-talking warning of brain cells dying from a lack of moral nourishment. Yet is the larger part of audiences whooping it up doing so out of the fear of being uncool, afraid to admit their negative reactions are closer to what they’re really feeling? That Pulp Fiction isn’t really the quasi-stylistic, thumb-your-nose thrill ride it wants to be as much as it is an Ex-Laxer that poops out pop veneration to the sociopathology of our talk show-“it sucks” jive? When Deliverance gets plopped in, the updated sexual sadism isn’t only too obvious, it’s also a betrayal to Tarantino’s own appetites: surely Bruce Willis would be the ripest victim. During the first portion, many viewers are anxiously responding to the faked tension of the souped-up honky-funky dialogue, waiting for the director to make 90s fresh what we know is coming out of old Hollywood. Then comes Travolta’s “reprise,” which sends the picture into a dive of monotony, with perhaps half of us becoming a collective “wax museum with a pulse.” After Willis rides off on his motorcycle with his waify Edith Piaf, my date leaned over to ask “Is that all there is?” I whispered, “Don’t think so. Harvey Keitel hasn’t appeared nude yet.” When Keitel appears, fully clothed, the movie fully expires. Tarantino thinks he’s pulling the rug of irony out from under the mockster mode of the species of the damned he loves. But he’s dumbed-down its fun.

Part of pulp’s success is that much of it is so blurred that not even the writers, actors and directors know exactly what’s going on; a larger part of the success is that the goings-on are so insistently amoral that everything becomes immoral pleasure—like watching Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis get it in Double Indemnity. Underneath the rot is the sleazy satisfaction of reading or watching institutions, traditions, morals get overturned, enjoying how the good and the bad so intertwine that common sense goes topsy-turvy. Originally, Chinatown had John Huston getting plugged; knowing it’s what the audience is preparing for, Polanski reverses expectations. Horribly sneaky, so iniquitously right. The Grifters has a climax so incestuously charged that we’re nearly gasping at its amorality, in a state of shock as we watch wonderful Anjelica Huston obscenely scoop up the money. (And where the credits should have started to roll; instead, Frears tacks on a final of nothingness that lessens the impact of Anjelica’s last act.) What seems to happen in Pulp Fiction is that Tarantino resurrects Travolta as an audience-pleaser. Looking suspiciously out of continuity, what it suggests is that bad boy Tarantino screwed up: his mock turned out to be without the shock effects of irony. He forgot the golden rule in breaking the rules—that mock has to have a real jolt; he can’t even match the comicly rigged outrages and fights that are sine qua non on the blabfests or Waters’ odoriferous sendup of noiry retribution in Polyester. (Tarantino’s re-working of jump cuts and skewed continuity works better in Reservoir Dogs if only as a breather from the excessively longish scenes.)The reprise also stretches the fabric of noir’s dysfunctional logic too far. Had Tarantino really wanted to turn convention upside down, Bruce Willis would indeed have been a victim, and the menacing Marcellus out to get him for reneging on fixing a boxing match would be the one to save Willis from his fate. (But Willis isn’t that secure a star, even if he makes up for his gutlessness by acting very satisfactorily.) Tarantino’s sloppiness de-effectualizes pulp’s mangy canons: while plausible for Uma Thurman tosnort in a ladies’ room, there’s so much time devoted to Travolta smoking hand-rolled cigs that many of us spend our time wondering if they’re joints and watch the way he inhales and look for clues in his glassy eyes. Technology becomes fraud—though most likely a mistake (just one among many that have been well-cataloged on the newsgroups): when Thurman turns off her pad’s alarm system, it really should have been blasting in that, in the next scene, a living room door has been left open. And Travolta crashing a convertible into Eric Stotlz’s house doesn’t arouse the neighbors? Loads of praise are forthcoming over Samuel L. Jackson’s harpy Jules, who, in a saner world, would be branded an “incorrecto” moron for believing dogs eat their own feces, much like pigs. He and Travolta look like “Hard Copy” witness rejects who end up on “Richard Bey” for a meal ticket. Sundering pulp’s juicy syntax, Tarantino manages to provide one joyful moment: Travolta, fleshy, greased to the max and remaining our most irrecusably watchable male dancer, does a stony Twist.

Hammett took pulp fiction to an art form—to Poisonville, the nick-named city that’s the setting for his 1929 novel Red Harvest. And millions of us have been hooked ever since—enjoyably enslaved to the hard boiled defiance and animosity toward “the system,” to the nonchalant crimes, murders and injustices as ways of screwing authority. There’s a powerful need to feel this way—to keep from going bonkers from all the dos, don’ts, nos, absolute nots and accompanying hypocrisies. We were, of course, extending the finger long before now: The most spectacular national dismissal of authority came during the Prohibition, about which we could apply what we learned from our mistakes to drugs. (Instead, we’re attempting to go back—to a GOBigot philosophy, through which morality is espoused by opportunistic defamers, busybodies, crybabies, liars, cheaters, haters.) This may be why Pulp Fiction gets audiences worked up—they know the system is defunct of rationale and accountability: when Travolta’s gun accidentally goes off and kills a captive, there are roars from manywhen they see bits of the victim’s brains splattered on Jules’ hair. It’s succumbing to the madness, a way of shrugging off our own responsibilities in having helped make the world as sick as it is, like the way the bloody masks of Bill and Hillary were the huge Poisonville hits of the 1994 Halloween season. Like the way right wing Christers and no-brain white males find Nazi-in-Brooks-Brothers-drag Pat Buchanan the kind of Pulpit Fiction around which they can burn their crosses of hate. There’s no going back to the daffy dayz of Hairspray.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.