Volume 10, Number 1 (January 2013)
Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Baudrillard’s Perfect Crime
Dr. Randy Laist
(Department of English, Goodwin College, Hartford Connecticut, USA).
Pulp Fiction, frequently been identified as a postmodern film, has been called “one of the paradigmatic texts of the postmodern movement” (Morton, 2012); a “terminally hip postmodern collage” (Hirsch, 1997: 360); an example of the “‘inventive and affirmative’ mode of postmodernism” (Constable, 2004: 54); and “the acme of postmodern nineties filmmaking” (Kokler, 2005: 264). Jean Baudrillard is the postmodern philosopher whose writings most aptly describe the semantic landscape of Quentin Tarantino’s film. Baudrillard anticipated the style of aesthetic pleasure Pulp Fiction elicits from its audience when he observed:
Today, where the real and the imaginary are intermixed in one and the same operational totality, aesthetic fascination reigns supreme: with subliminal perception (a sort of sixth sense) of special effects, editing and script, reality is overexposed to the glare of models. This is no longer a space of production, but a reading strip, a coding and decoding strip, magnetized by signs. Aesthetic reality is no longer achieved through art’s premeditation and distancing, but by its elevation to the second degree, to the power of two, by the anticipation and immanence of the code. A kind of unintentional parody hangs over everything, a tactical simulation, a consummate aesthetic enjoyment [jouissance], is attached to the indefinable play of reading and the rules of the game ( 1993: 75).
With its meticulous sheen of glossy appearances, its urbane and allusive banter, and its comic violence, Pulp Fiction celebrates a carefree post-historical giddiness, as if the whole business of reality had finally been superseded. In the post-reality period, people are characters in movies, conversation is an exchange of pop culture references, and conventional value structures do not apply.
Although its characters are ostensibly criminals, it would be absurd to categorize Pulp Fiction as a crime movie in the conventional sense. Its gangster characters are thinly veiled actors, carrying on obsessive conversations about mass-culture within the orbit of Hollywood. As the title of the movie makes clear, the characters are “playing gangster” as a nod to the genre they are pretending to occupy, but it’s a half-hearted nod, as no one makes any attempt to behave in any way that is remotely gangsterish, even by Hollywood standards. Also in contrast with the atmosphere of “real” gangster films, the criminals of Pulp Fiction do not inhabit a marginal underworld; rather, the whole world of Pulp Fiction is the underworld, there being very little evidence of any “overworld” for the underworld to underlie. Everyone who appears in the movie is in the condition of totalized criminality. The criminal acts themselves, however – the murders, the rigged prize-fighting, the diner hold-up – are not the focus of the film; the crime that creates a fraternal community among Pulp Fiction’s characters is the crime Baudrillard described in the preface to The Perfect Crime as “the murder of reality” ( 2008: xi). Baudrillard’s turn of phrase here suggests that the totalization of the kind of hyperreal sign-scape depicted in Pulp Fiction is premised on a secret act of death that is then concealed from public view. But, as Baudrillard explains, “crime is never perfect,” and throughout Pulp Fiction, forces of death continually threaten to undermine the gossamer superstructure of hyperreal exchange. While the postmodernity of Pulp Fiction’s madcap surface is easy to identify, this hyperreal atmosphere exists in a sustained tension with signs of mortality, inexchangeability, and reality. The film itself is a kind of conspiracy on the part of the characters and the director to suppress the specter of death through their shared commitment to an aesthetic sensibility characterized by a free-flowing circulation of pop culture references.
This hyperreal sensibility is epitomized by the interior design of Jackrabbit Slim’s, the 50s nostalgia bar where Mia Wallace takes Vincent Vega on their famous date. Tarantino’s script calls it “the big mama of 50’s diners. Either the best or the worst, depending on your point of view” (Tarantino, 1996: 51), Vincent sums it up as “a wax museum with a pulse,” and the signage on the restaurant itself indicates that Jackrabbit Slim’s is the “Next best thing to a time machine.” Indeed, Tarantino’s fantasy diner takes the concept of the 50s restaurant and launches it into outer space. Not only are there movie posters on the walls and rock and roll on the soundtrack, but the wait staff is made up improbably of iconic lookalikes, the dining booths are made out of vintage cars, and “The picture windows don’t look out into the street,” as Tarantino’s screenplay explains, “but instead, B & W movies of 1950s street scenes play behind them.” No wonder a milkshake costs five dollars! The TV-screen windows suggest that the sheer density of popular culture references concentrated in this one location may be enough to warp the texture of the world outside, making over external reality in the style of retro chic. Indeed, in the parking lot of the restaurant, Mia is able to use her fingers to sketch an extradiegetic square, as if the reality-warping effects of the restaurant has absorbed the couple before they have even set foot inside the establishment. More fundamentally, the entire universe of “cool” that is the real subject of Pulp Fiction itself emanates from the Babel of images, media figures, and fashion accessories on display at Jackrabbit Slim’s. As the decade that witnessed both the “birth of cool” and the birth of the consumer-based economy and of mass-media culture, the 50s is the primal scene of postmodern culture and, like the primal scene described by Freud, the historical veracity of the memory of the period is less important than the vivid position it occupies in the structure of self-awareness.
Tarantino’s 50s, like the 50s of conservative American politicians, is as cartoonish a representation of a historical period as the cartoon mascot who towers over Tarantino’s 50s diner is of an actual jackrabbit. The cold war, the red scare, and the Civil Rights movement are replaced with Zorro, Marilyn Monroe, and Donna Reed. In the Jackrabbit Slim’s dimension, fictional characters and historical figures rub shoulders in a way that is analogous to the less pulsating wax museums described by Umberto Eco in his essay “Travels in Hyperreality” in which “the logical distinction between the Real World and Possible Worlds has been definitively undermined” (1986: 14). Through a transfiguration of reality similar to that suggested by the replacement of the world outside Jackrabbit Slim’s with televised street scenes, the “wax museum history” of the 50s diner insinuates itself into the atmosphere of the movie as a whole to become the definitive ontological setting for Pulp Fiction’s characters.
The dialogue of Pulp Fiction’s characters, the clothes they wear, and even their personalities are composed of a collage of references to popular media culture. Although not all of Pulp Fiction’s allusions are to the 1950s, they are all decidedly non-contemporary, clustering predominantly around the nostalgic golden eras of the 30s, 50s, and 70s. Unlike their real-world 1994 counterparts, the denizens of Pulp Fiction live in a world where everybody smokes, nobody uses a CD player, and there is no internet. These stylistic characteristics of the Tarantinoverse mark it off as belonging to some alternate reality devoid of the superficial trappings of 1990s paraphernalia. Paradoxically, however, this alternate dimension provides a suitable setting for a film that is recognizable as an extremely contemporary work of cinematic art, one capable of defining the zeitgeist of its particular historical moment. Of course, to the extent that Pulp Fiction does reflect its cultural moment, it does so not because of its mimetic realism, but precisely because its “Jackrabbit Slim’s” approach to reshaping reality as an explosion of media references echoes the ontological dislocation characteristic of the age of media saturation. Tarantino’s retro aesthetic manages to isolate the essence of fashion itself due to the circumstance that, as Baudrillard explains, “Fashion is always retro … It always presupposes a dead time of forms, a kind of abstraction whereby they become, as if safe from time, effective signs which, as if by a twist of time, will return to haunt the present of their inactuality with all the charm of ‘returning’ rather than ‘becoming’ structures” ( 1993: 88). What is fashionable, what is stylish, what is cool is defined by images and objects which have been detached from history and from all political engagement, circulating in their own solipsistic orbit of hip indifference. The densely allusive atmosphere of Jackrabbit Slim’s is an elaborate spectacle that has no effect on the story, but is simply one of a series of settings in which the characters can engage in conversations which themselves constitute a litany of pop cultural allusions jumbled together in Jackrabbit Slim’s style. The diner is the prototypical setting for Tarantino characters, just as it is for the characters in the definitive televisual expression of 90s hyperreality, Seinfeld. In both cases, the diner serves as a neutral background for long conversations “about nothing” (as they used to say on Seinfeld) in which the wit of the repartee is an end in itself. Pulp Fiction and Seinfeld both represent the art of conversation gone orbital, flying free of the weight of dramatic, narrative purpose that conventionally grounds film and television dialogue and finding a new momentum in the jouissance of dialogue itself as a free-floating pleasure that has been liberated from the gravity of history and story-telling alike.
The theme of floating signifiers is elaborated in Vincent and Jules’s conversation about the meaning of a foot massage, and epitomized in the film’s central icon of floating referentiality, the glowing briefcase. The question of whether Antwan Rocky Horror deserved to get pushed out of a fourth-story window hinges on the semantic value of a foot massage. Vincent sums up the crux of his debate with Jules on this matter: “You’re sayin’ a foot massage don’t mean nothin’, and I’m sayin’ it does.” In the hyperreal economy of Pulp Fiction, the exchange rate of everything is debatable. The indeterminacy in the relative value of cunnilingus and pedal rub-down reflects the wider moral chaos in both the movie and in the Baudrillardian society in which “All the great humanist criteria of value, the whole civilisation of moral, aesthetic, and practical judgment are effaced in our system of images and signs” ( 1993: 9). The sign-value of a foot massage is in a state of crisis because, in a field of total exchange, moral borders are arbitrarily defined according to different free-floating sign-systems. But whereas in his description of Europe, Vincent had luxuriated in the hyperreal circulation of signs without referents, he recognizes a foot massage given to the boss’s wife as signifying a very specific referent: the violent result of this signification serves as a clear indicator of its reality. Mia, however, later reveals that the foot massage that Vincent freights with such mortal significance never actually happened, and she casually demolishes the whole line of reasoning that led Vincent to convince himself that foot massages could harbor such lethal significance. Nevertheless, Vincent’s passionate defense of the signifying quality of foot massages in his debate with Jules, however, establishes a motif throughout Pulp Fiction that when objects fall out of the precessional orbit of total exchange, they become charged with danger and death.
In Symbolic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard theorizes that the plasticity of the hyperreal sign-scape is made possible by the elimination of death from the social order of exchangeability. “Political economy only exists by default: death is its blind spot, the absence haunting all its calculations. And the absence of death alone permits the exchange of values and the play of equivalences” ( 1993:154). In Samoa, Antwan Rockamora’s ancestors might have practiced a pattern of social rituals that would have established a system of reciprocity between life and death, but in L.A., as Tony Rock Horror, he exists in a postmodernity in which promiscuous circulation renames him after a densely allusive pop culture phenomenon, and in which death takes the form of objects that resist circulation, such as the boss’s wife. The plot lines of Pulp Fiction’s sub-narratives – “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife”, “The Gold Watch,” and “The Bonnie Situation” – are all structured around the deadly aura that emanates from the inexchangable object as represented by Mia, the watch, and Marvin’s corpse. It is as if the wild intertextual game of Pulp Fiction can only exist insofar as it manages to avoid and indeed, actively to suppress any admission of death, the deliberate exclusion of which is necessary in order to sustain the pataphysical high-wire dance of hyperreality. This impression is reinforced by the pattern running throughout each of the sub-narratives that each of the stories concludes with a secret agreement to censor any acknowledgement of the deathly incident: Marsellus never needs to know about Mia’s overdose, Butch is ordered to not tell anybody about his and Marsellus’s run-in with Maynard and Zed, and Bonnie will never know about her husband’s participation in disposing of Marvin’s dead body. This recurrent pattern of inexchangeability, death, and suppression provides the narrative structure that organizes the free-flow of hyperreal dialogue throughout the movie. In the same way that Jackrabbit Slim’s is able to weave a retro collage by tacitly dismissing the fact that Marilyn Monroe and Mamie Van Doren are both dead, the entirety of Pulp Fiction describes a hyperreal orbit propelled by the giddy denial that what it orbits around is the black hole of death.
The manner in which Pulp Fiction’s discursive dialogue is a coy dance around death is expressed very clearly when it becomes evident that the occasion for all of Jules and Vincent’s badinage about European McDonald’s restaurants and lethal foot massages has been an execution job on a group of young guys whose lethal crime, like Tony Rock Horror’s involves the misappropriation of an inexchangeable totem object. The identity of the glowing contents of the briefcase that Vincent and Jules retrieve from Brad and his companions at the beginning of the movie has been a source of much internet speculation among Pulp Fiction aficionados. Could the briefcase contain the diamonds from Reservoir Dogs, the Elvis suit from True Romance, or even Marsellus Wallace’s soul? Of course, what is really inside the briefcase is the ecstasy of the commodity, the pure glowing McGuffin, Lacan’s petit objet a in its most absolute form. With its surreal aura, its unnamability, and the basic impossibility of conforming to any literal interpretation, the briefcase is a locus of blatant unreality and, as such, it is the model for all the commodities of cool, items the value of which is not established by what they are, but by the way people look at them. The briefcase exists beyond the edge of the movie’s teeming kitsch-scape as the numinal object that everything else aspires to become. As such, it is a motion-generator, like all McGuffins and all objects of desire, without being anything in itself. Jules and Vincent’s playful patter has all been moving toward this glowing object, and within its vicinity, the conversation about hamburgers with Brad superficially mirrors the earlier conversation about hamburgers with Vincent, but the matter of the briefcase transfigures the meaning of the conversation: it is now explicitly a conversation about the imminence of death. When Vincent, and later, when Pumpkin, looks into the briefcase, they are struck dumb – one of the only two occasions in the Pulp Fiction universe when anyone is at a loss for words, the other one being upon a sudden, brutal death, as when Brad’s apology is silenced by Jules’s abrupt execution of Brad’s roommate. While Jules and Brad can exchange banter about hamburgers, the briefcase is beyond the limits of social exchange. If the briefcase’s magical presence seems to gesture toward another kind of movie than the kind of movie Pulp Fiction is, it is precisely because its symbolic role in the film is to suggest an object beyond the limits of language or representability: the “blind spot” in hyperreality. As Brad and his partners discover, the encounter with the inexchangeable object is a deadly one. Brad’s death takes place off-camera, as do many of the acts of violence in Pulp Fiction, equating Brad’s unseen death with the unseen contents of the inexchangeable briefcase.
Although the briefcase technically changes hands, moving from Brad’s cabinet and into Vincent’s possession, the briefcase has always belonged to Marsellus Wallace in a way that prefigures the sense in which, although Vincent will take Mia out to a restaurant, there is a deadly prohibition against any attempt to possess her definitively. The figure of Marsellus combines monopolistic power over all of the plots of Pulp Fiction with a shadowy invisibility (at least until his vulgar exposure in the basement of the pawn shop) in a way that evokes the unrepresentability of his briefcase and the unrepresentability of death itself in a hyperreal collage. His wife, in stark contrast, is the hyperreal subject par excellence, capable of schooling John Travolta himself in the ways of Tarantino-cool. The improbability of the relationship between Mia and Marsellus, she with her television pilots and hipster lingo and he with his intimate command of death, reflects the sense in which hyperreality is improbably married to death as its “excluded other.” At the same time, the comic discrepancy between Mia and her husband lends a visual emphasis to the manner in which marriage – with its outmoded proscription against the free exchange of sexual relations – is discrepant with the aesthetic, moral, and economic values of the movie’s hyperreal postmodernism. More than anything else, Mia’s marriage is a game, designed conjointly by Mia herself and the screenwriter with the intention of trapping some hapless protagonist like Vincent in the narrative web woven by the plot point of her inexchangeability. Free-floating hyperreality never congeals into a narrative. Events only shape themselves into narrative around loci of significance that are weighted differently than the rest of the circulating junk: the forbidden object, the unattainable object, the impossible object. When Mia first appears before Vincent, Vincent supposedly sees her face, but Tarantino shows us her deadly, inexchangeable feet, as if to suggest that, whereas her personality may seduce us into shifting patterns of hyperreal circulation, her character is “grounded” in her status as a totemic McGuffin of death.
The first time we see Mia’s full face, it is illuminated in the neon glow of the Jackrabbit Slim’s signage. Mia is the human correlative of Jackrabbit Slim’s, wearing her moll identity as one of the many signs she (or her screenwriter) employs to establish that she is a queen of the Tarantinoverse, not so much because of the deadly power she has married into, but more importantly because of the semantic prestige the moll enjoys as a stock figure in an esteemed film genre. As far as the narrative is concerned, Mia’s debunking of Jules’s rumor that Mia was responsible for Rocky Horror’s defenestration should defuse the narrative tension created around Mia’s aura of deadliness. She manages to retain her deadly signification and support the narrative of danger that structures her date with Vincent, however, through the semantic value of her Chanel Vamp nail polish, the brand name of which refers back to a history of cinematic femmes fatales, and her pageboy haircut, reminiscent the iconic bob worn by Louise Brooks as the prototypical deadly damsel in Pandora’s Box. Even the way she eats a cherry or, in the words of the screenplay, “wraps her lips around the straw of her shake” (Tarantino, 1996: 57) is weighted with an innuendo defined by fifty years of rock and roll iconography. The personality of her character and her role in the narrative are both characterized by “seduction” as Baudrillard described it: “a spiral swerving toward the sphere of the sign, the simulacrum, and simulation” (1983: 79). She seduces Vincent by mirroring his hip speech, his hyper-familiarity with pop culture, and even his clothes, but this seduction is structured around the mortal prohibition against their consummating the relationship. As in Baudrillard, seduction is a double-helix, the opposite coil of which is “a spiral of the reversibility of all signs in the shadow of seduction and death” (ibid.). The mood indulged by Mia Wallace, by Jackrabbit Slim’s, and by the movie as a whole is one of free-floating circulation of interchangeable signs, but the movie is structured around episodes of resistance from a vestigial kind of reality that continues to intrude into the hyperreal atmosphere, warping the characters’ activities into tense narrative traps. But these two spirals of seduction are also co-reliant. It is necessary that Mia be unavailable in order for the cool between Mia and Vincent to exist. Cool always gestures toward sex, but sex itself is not cool. Sex is like the contents of the briefcase, which are not to be seen directly, but which take their meaning from the looks people give to them. As Mia admits, the allusive and entertaining banter between Mia and Vincent is a frantic dance around the “uncomfortable silence” of death. When they take to the empty dance floor at the center of Jackrabbit Slim’s, they perform a terpsichorean rendition of their verbal dialogue. Their dance, arguably the most memorable dance sequence from any movie from the 1990s, is a kind of anti-dance; it is to dance what Jackrabbit Slim’s is to the 1950s, a syncretic precession of styles and poses. It is “dance” in quotation marks, and, simultaneously, it is also “seduction” in quotation marks. Deprived of the possibility of exchange, of sexual possession, and, in short, of any possibility of a reality, Vincent and Mia mirror each other’s embodiment of infinitely circulating pop culture allusiveness.
When Tarantino transplants Vincent and Mia from the public space of Jackrabbit Slim’s, where they exist as part of the hyperreal upholstery, to the interior of the Wallace home, a visually stark white space which seems to leave the couple alone in a void, their mock-dancing abruptly ends in an “uncomfortable silence” that threatens to collapse into the forbidden exchange of sex. Vincent retreats to a bathroom mirror, where his conversation with himself about masturbation enacts the same retreat into empty circulation that it describes. Mia, in an act which itself mirrors the theme of the deadly exchange, commits the forbidden exchange of swapping heroin for cocaine and consequently brings a proactive death sentence down upon herself. It is as if Vincent and Mia are so hyperreal in their ontological nature that the possibility of sex, with its qualities of embodiment, nature, and consequentiality, constitutes an existential threat to their very survival. Rather than serving as a moralistic rebuke, however, Mia’s morbid condition releases her from the gravitational pull of the sex narrative and returns her to her proper role as a kind of human plot point. When Vincent stumbles upon her OD’ing figure, Mia is once again a circulating mannequin of signs. Vincent is able to convince Lance to let her into his house because she is Marsellus Wallace’s wife. Mia plays the role of comic prop as the men practice stabbing her with a hypodermic needle in a hyperreal transmogrification of the sex Vincent is not having with her. The possibility of seeing Uma Thurman’s nipples, which might be anticipated in a story in which sex were permissible, is reworked into the red magic marker spot over Mia’s heart, reminiscent of a boy’s anatomically naïve drawing. Lance’s wife’s spectatorial pleasure in the brutal treatment of Mia’s body is a mirror of the audience’s same relief that the hyperreal momentum of the story has been rescued from sex and death and returned to the heightened plane of the pure circulation of images. When their night is finally over, Vincent and Mia agree to suppress the whole narrative of sex and death, consensually banishing it from the Tarantinoverse altogether and leaving the world safe for hyperrealism. Mia’s parting joke, her dialogue from “Fox Force 5,” rewrites the whole incident as the scenario of a cancelled television pilot, a show that never aired. The joke is both Mia’s and Tarantino’s, serving to “cancel” the narrative of sex and death, even as it implies that Mia and Vincent have been deathless, sexless television characters all along.
The theme of televisual ontology is addressed directly in the opening shot of the following sequence, which is a full-screen close-up of a television image. The shot exemplifies the extent to which the entirety of Pulp Fiction is saturated not only with references to television, but with the mood of television itself as its own peculiar style of reality. The close-up of the television screen turns out to be a point of view shot belonging to young Butch, who apparently spent his childhood the way all Tarantino characters did, sitting two feet in front of a television screen, cultivating a perspective that conflates film image, television image, and perception itself. In fact, the story of “The Gold Watch” weaves references to Tarantino’s own childhood into its cartoonish narrative of boxers, gangsters, and hillbillies. Although the story for the Butch sequence is attributed to Tarantino’s co-writer, Roger Avery, “The Gold Watch” reads like Quentin’s cryptic autobiography. Most evidently, Butch’s plan is to return to Knoxville, Tennessee, the city where his grandfather originally purchased the gold watch and the place of Quentin Tarantino’s birth. When Butch and Marsellus are abducted in the Mason-Dixon pawnshop, a prominently displayed Tennessee license plate suggests that Butch has actually returned to Knoxville after all, albeit in the form of a demented parody of Deliverance. The theme of Southern identity addressed in the pawn shop episode also alludes to the fact that Quentin is named after Quentin Compson, a character in the tales of the definitive novelist of the demented South, William Faulkner.
Quentin Compson’s most famous appearance in Faulkner’s novels occurs in the second chapter of The Sound and the Fury (1956) which, like “The Gold Watch” sequence of Pulp Fiction, begins by establishing the character’s relationship to his ancestral watch. When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight oclock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said, Quentin, I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdam of all human experience which can fit your needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s (1996: 93). It is easy to imagine that Tarantino conceptualized Butch’s story as his own interpretation of Quentin’s father’s enigmatic speech. In Faulkner’s novel, each tick of Quentin’s ancestral watch echoes with the nihilistic vision of time articulated by his father – a temporality that is a vast mausoleum of empty events that fall away into meaningless death. In Tarantino’s film, the ancestral watch is similarly freighted with the death of Butch’s absent father and, more broadly, with the cyclical futility of a human history that is a succession of disastrous wars. The long history of the watch related by Captain Koons invests the symbolism of the watch with allusions to the blunt facticity of “old fashioned” reality: paternity, genetics, shit, the body, war, suffering, and time. The sense in which the watch is an artifact from the real world is expressed in the manner in which the television show young Butch is watching is turned off so that the watch can be introduced into Butch’s life and into the narrative. On the other hand, however, as Butch listens to Captain Koons’s story, his face wears the same expression of serious attentiveness it wore as he followed the cartoon antics of a television eskimo, suggesting a level of continuity according to which the symbol of the Real is being assimilated into the worldview of a hyperreal generation. Christopher Walken’s performance in the role of Captain Koons further inflects the manner in which the reality of historical time and death symbolized by the watch is being reinscribed into a performative terrain of allusions, particularly to The Deer Hunter, a film that has been as influential in informing the popular attitude toward Vietnam POWs as Deliverance has been to informing media stereotypes about the South. Quentin Compson’s watch occasioned nihilistic despair because it suggested that time erased all human endeavor into a meaningless negation, but Quentin Tarantino’s watch is a locus of pop nihilism in which the existential void of inter-exchangeable time is replaced by a posthuman landscape of inter-exchangeable media references. The sting of nihilism is anesthetized when the meaninglessness of life (depressing) is supplanted by the meaninglessness of media images (fun). Whereas Quentin Compson’s watch was a symbol of a fractured temporality fraught with suicidal despair, Quentin Tarantino’s watch marks the time of a fractured temporality capable of bringing John Travolta back to life – both diegetically, through the temporal inversion of the movie’s story lines, as well as extradiegetically, through the movie’s success in revivifying Travolta’s career by picking the actor out of the pop cultural scrap heap and recycling him back into circulation.
Like the glowing briefcase and like Mia, Butch’s watch is an uncanny object that makes the world safe for exchangeability by itself existing in a state of inexchangeability. When Butch notices that the watch is missing, the significance of the watch’s singularity – its irreplaceability – once again disrupts a television program. In his frustrated rage, “Butch picks up the motel TV and throws it against the wall” (Tarantino, 1996:110). Simultaneously, the absence of the watch disrupts the plotless pop-culture-reference-strewn banter between Butch and Fabienne, a long dialogue sequence which, devoid of any narrative significance, is sustained only by the momentum of the actors’ charm. Fabienne’s vision of a Tarantino paradise – a diner where you can order whatever you want 24 hours a day, even pie for breakfast – is disrupted by the deadly imperative associated with the inexchangeable object. Likewise, the televisual momentum of Butch’s stock noir predicament – he is a boxer who didn’t throw a fight he was paid to throw – is derailed into unpredicatable territory by the problem of the watch’s inexchangeability.
The watch, it turns out, is easily retrievable, but Butch’s pursuit of the totem object veers into a confrontation with the forces of reality and death that the watch emblematizes. When Butch shoots Vincent and slams his girlfriend’s car into Marsellus, he is still participating in the economy of circulating characters that governs Pulp Fiction’s hyperreal aesthetic economy, but when Butch and Marsellus find themselves abducted by the proprietor of the Mason-Dixon pawn shop, they seem to fall out of the symbolic order of Pulp Fiction altogether, descending into the movie’s only true underworld, what Morpheus following Baudrillard called “the desert of the real” (Baudrillard  1994: 1). The pawn shop, with its shelves of rusty consumer objects, is what Jackrabbit Slim’s might look like if it fell out of orbit. It is a junkyard version of Jackrabbit Slim’s, a collage of cultural detritus, the cloacal ass-end of the consumer image-scape. Whereas Jackrabbit Slim’s presented cultural objects in an electric swirl of glamor and gloss, the Mason-Dixon pawn shop is a hell of disenchanted objects. The pawn shop is an arena of debased circulation, the circulation of dead objects, the nihilistic zone of indifferent exchangeability that Quentin Compson’s father referred to as “the mausoleum of time,” and it is this place of death that threatens to appropriate Butch’s watch and, indeed, Butch himself. Zed and Maynard’s abduction of Butch and Marsellus incorporates the boxer and the crime lord bodily into the debased circulation of the pawn shop. Indeed, the uncanny figure of the Gimp is a reducto absurdam of the human being diminished entirely to the status of a commodity. Zed’s eenie, meanie, miney, mo routine illustrates the principle of random, indifferent exchangeability that characterizes the psychic space of the pawn shop. Marsellus, whose power throughout the movie has been associated with the limited visibility of his physical person, suffers brutal devaluation as the most private parts of his body are exposed to debased exchange. The idea of “fuck[ing] Marsellus Wallace like a bitch” is reappropriated from the realm of wordplay into a literal, painful reality. Whereas Captain Koons’ story about the gold watch described a man’s anus as the last refuge of privacy and inexchangeability, Zed and Maynard threaten to turn a man’s ass into just another commodity to sit on a pawn shop shelf alongside the broken toasters.
In rescuing Marsellus from the hillbillies, Butch dispatches the “bad nihilism” of the pawn shop and returns the movie to the “fun nihilism” of the Tarantinoverse. The famous scene in which Butch samples a series of weapons he finds in the pawn shop is thematically significant because it demonstrates the manner in which narrative reenchants dead objects by fitting them into the magic economy of the story. When Butch tests the feel of a succession of possible weapons, he brings the dead objects of the pawn shop to life by demonstrating that each different weapon suggests a slightly different sub-genre of slasher movie. The dead objects are reanimated as pop-culturally-coded versions of themselves. In the same way that, in Jackrabbit Slim’s, a waitress becomes a sign by dressing like Marilyn Monroe, the hammer, chainsaw, and sword are transformed by their inscription into a filmic dimension. The viewer’s delight in the scene results from our participation in Butch’s thinking as he goes about deciding what kind of slasher movie scene he is going to invent out of these newly vivid objects. We’ve seen all the same TV shows as Butch and Tarantino, and we are back in the hyperreal territory of a circulation that refers to images and cultural references rather than to existential coordinates. As Butch heads down the stairs wielding his weapon of choice, the wall of pawn-shop clocks in the stairwell reinforces the narrative point that the watch on Butch’s wrist has resisted falling into the inventory of the pawn shop, preserving (like Butch’s own anus) its aura of inviolability. Butch and Marsellus’s agreement to “tell nobody about” what has happened in the basement of the pawns shop assures us that Pulp Fiction will remain consistent in its project of repressing the specter of reality and leaving the images free to circulate in zero-gravity. The Twilight Zone music cue at the very end of “The Gold Watch” sequence files the entire ordeal away under the ontological auspices of televisuality.
Marsellus’s briefcase, Marsellus’s wife, and Butch’s watch are representations of inexchangeable objects, unmovable rocks of reality amid the babbling currents of hyperreal circulation. The plots associated with these objects veer off into death – the execution of Brad and his roommates, Mia’s overdose, and the encounter in the basement of the pawn shop – because, in hyperreal modernity, death is the definitive inexchangeable object. Baudrillard explains that the hyperreal ecology “operates on the basis of the exclusion of death, a system whose ideal is zero deaths” (2003: 16). Arthur Kroker and Cook have characterized Baudrillard’s worldview as one in which “Nothing can escape exchange!” (2005: 81), but for Baudrillard, the dead and death itself are exiled from the economy of the hyperreal sign-system. The dead “are thrown out of the group’s symbolic circulation. They are no longer beings with a full role to play, worthy partners in exchange, and we make this obvious by exiling them further and further away from the world of the living” ( 1993: 126). This is precisely the fate that befalls Marvin, the young confederate of Jules and Vincent whom Vincent accidentally shoots in the face. Marvin, who had previously participated, however reluctantly, in Jules and Vincent’s affable banter, is transformed by the accident into the inexchangeable object par excellence. It is not so much his dead body itself as the grotesque splatter of his blood and brains that signifies that which cannot be signified in the daylit circulation of Los Angeles traffic. Marvin is instantly reconfigured from a human participant in the social back-and-forth into a “situation” that has to be covered up. In an effort to hide the death-stain from public view, Jules relocates the spectacle into the suburban home of Jimmie, only to discover that Marvin’s body is equally impossible in this domain. If Jimmie’s wife were to discover the dead body, Jimmie’s domestic environment, a suburban enclave of consumer goods such as gourmet coffee, fine bedspreads, and household cleaning supplies, would face instantaneous and irrevocable explosion. Jules and Vincent’s panic and confusion vividly exemplifies Baudrillard’s observation that “Strictly speaking, we no longer know what to do with [the dead], since, today, it is not normal to be dead, and this is new. To be dead is an unthinkable anomaly” ( 1993: 126). Jules and Vincent are at a loss concerning what to do with Marvin’s body but, more fundamentally, they have no way of incorporating death itself into their understanding, and this disconnection between their hyperreal idiom and the gruesome fact of Marvin’s death fuels the black comedy of this episode. The impossible situation of the inexchangeability of Marvin’s corpse completely eclipses any acknowledgement of tragedy or guilt associated with death.
Tarantino’s solution to the problem of Marvin’s body is an elegant one. The character of The Wolf embodies the magical power of cinema and its hyperreal modality to erase the splotch of death from the collective sign-scape. Tarantino wrote the part of The Wolf specifically for Harvey Keitel, the screen idol of his childhood who co-produced and starred in Tarantino’s directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs. As the tutelary divinity who ferried Tarantino from the world of watching movies to the world of making them, Keitel himself possesses a unique personal significance for Tarantino as a personification of the power of movies to collapse the boundary between lived experience and the deathless dream-world of cinematic images. Like a movie character from the classic era of Hollywood, The Wolf spends 24 hours a day attending classy parties and seems to live in a tuxedo. He is introduced into the space of the story with a metanarrative device that emphasizes his cinematic mastery over space and time. He tells Marsellus over the phone that Jimmie’s house is “approximately thirty minutes away. I’ll be there in ten.” The scene instantly cuts to The Wolf’s car pulling up to a curb accompanied by a subtitle reading “Nine minutes and thirty-seven seconds later.” Not only is The Wolf able to move across thirty minutes of space in ten minutes, but, even more impressively, he’s able to cover that ten minutes in a split second thanks to the magic of film editing, the conscious manipulation of which is expressly indicated by the comic subtitle. Once he appears in the scene, The Wolf immediately takes on the role of director. His status as such is indicated by his authority and skill in coordinating the movements of the players in the scene, and is also alluded to by the presence of the actual director, Tarantino, as one of the actors in this scene. In fact, the casting of Tarantino and Keitel in this scene positions The Wolf as the director of the director, as if Tarantino were confessing his own subordination to the star of Mean Streets through a metaphorical expression of the extent to which Tarantino’s artistry derives from the influence of the films he admires. It is this meta-cinematic entity who is capable of resolving “The Bonnie Situation” by arranging the discreet disposal of the inexchangeable object. His accomplishment in eliminating Marvin’s dead body from the movie is Pulp Fiction’s most literal depiction of the hyperreal imperative to exile death from the social order, and the magic of the filmic medium to accomplish this feat of legerdemain.
While the existential obduracy of Marvin’s remains constitutes a stark example of death’s resistance to exchange, the fact that Jules and Vincent are alive at all throughout the plot of “The Bonnie Situation” poses an uncanny variation on the same theme. The hit-men’s unlikely invulnerability to a barrage of bullets shot at them at close range suggests that they themselves are not participating in the exchange of gunfire. They are miraculously deathless, as if they inhabit an ontological register that is incompatible with mortality. Jules and Vincent’s debate about whether their survival is the result of a freak occurrence or divine intervention is interrupted when Vincent’s gun goes off in Marvin’s face and is resumed shortly after “The Bonnie Situation” is resolved, suggesting that Marvin’s freak death is the obverse counterpart to Jules and Vincent’s freak survival. The sequence of events emphasizes the sense that there is an unbridgeable space between the hyperreal survivors and the exiled specter of death, a space that corresponds to the gap between the comic situation of Hollywood’s main characters, who exist in an aura of magic, and the tragic situation of Hollywood’s minor characters, whose sole purpose in life is to arrive on screen in time to die. In any other movie, the circumstance of the main characters being magically delivered from enemy gunfire would go unremarked upon; the mythology of the Hollywood action hero encompasses his uncanny ability to avoid dying in situations which would ordinarily be lethal. In this way, popular cinema celebrates the elimination of death from the public arena. Tarantino’s meta-movie, however, invites the characters to speculate on what ramifications this “miracle” may imply in regard to their own ontological status. Like a glitch in the Matrix, the “miracle” of Vincent and Jules’s survival is a tell-tale symptom that their mode of being is one to which objective-realist assumptions are inapplicable.
In Vincent’s case, the miracle of his survival is explicitly connected to the magical status he enjoys as a main character in his narrative. This dynamic is clarified by the fact that when Vincent steps into the role of a minor character in Butch’s story, he is unceremoniously gunned down. Deprived of the magical charisma that goes along with being the main character in his own movie, Vincent falls off the map of human concern, joining the throngs of anonymous dead goons who populate the afterlife of dead movie characters. Due to the temporal twistings of Pulp Fiction’s storyline, however, Vincent seems to come back to life as himself for the final act of the movie, but the kind of life he comes back to, as his miraculous survival reminds us, is a hyperreal kind of life that is not the opposite of death (as reality is the opposite of illusion), but a kind of hyper-life, a life that has escaped the gravity of death in the same way that hyperreality has left behind any reference to a foundational reality. Despite the fact that Vincent’s character is saturated with hyperreal values, Vincent’s denial of the impossible nature of the miracle indicates his reliance on common-sense assumptions to ground his self-understanding. The fact that Vincent is doomed even in the flush of his invulnerability, however, demonstrates the inadequacy of the rationalist poise in the Tarantinoverse.
Jules, on the other hand, is willing to accept the miracle as evidence of the porous nature of his reality. His willingness to understand the event in metaphysical terms – “God came down from heaven and stopped the bullets” – blends into his hyperreal resolution to abandon his career as a fictional gangster in favor of a career as a fictional martial arts adventurer. Both the religious and the hyperreal responses to the miracle are equivalent in that metaphysics and hyperreality are both systems that grant ontological priority to something other than spontaneous existence. In fact, Kroker and Cook trace the genealogy of the hyperreal back to fourth-century Christian metaphysics as the intellectual revolution responsible for “the substitution of the substantialization of the Concept for the nothingness of human experience” (2005: 67) common to both Christianity and Baudrillardian simulation. Jules’s religious interpretation of his deliverance from the bullets establishes his acceptance that the world he lives in is a reflection of an anterior reality, and his hyperreal inclination to make himself over after the model of the David Caradine character from the television show “Kung-Fu” parlays that epiphany into a practical strategy for living in a world that exists in the form of a model. If Vincent goes on to pay the price for switching out of his main character role to become a death-bound minor character, Jules seems to understand that the key to staying deathless in the hyperreal landscape is to invent yourself in the form of a main character. By drawing on his immersion in the pop culture sign-scape, Jules manages to surf the currents of hyperreal exchange in a way that keeps him immune to the forces of inexchangeability and death. When Jules and Vincent exit the diner at the end of the movie, the contrast between Jules’s fate (to get out of the movie alive, thereby achieving the cinematic version of immortality) and Vincent’s fate (to die in the movie, thereby achieving the cinematic version of eternal death) suggests the duality of life and death – exchangeability and inexchangeability – into which hyperreal modernity fractures human experience. Jules’s resolve at the end of the movie to embrace his hyperreal identity suggests a version of hyperreal sainthood that may be available to those who can master the religious discipline of cool.
The theme of hyperreality is common throughout the popular American cinema of the 1990s, but Pulp Fiction stands apart for the unique approach it takes to the subject. Movies such as The Truman Show, The Matrix, and Fight Club associate the hyperreal condition with anxiety and suspicion. The madcap tone of Pulp Fiction, however, defuses these fears, replacing dread with a mood of carnivalesque celebration that is magically invulnerable to death. In Tarantino’s masterpiece, hyperreality is fun! If it is true that the hyperreal condition is awash in meaningless violence, at least it means that the accidental shooting of someone in the back seat of your car is purged of its moral dimensions and reinvented as a kind of game. If it is true that hyperreal existence is subtended by a fundamental suspicion that lived experience may be unreal, the kind of reality that remains behind is a site of mystery and miracle, answering in many ways to the dream of a Christian cosmos. If hyperreal identity can be an acute source of anxiety for those who hang on to a nostalgic Enlightenment ideal of subjectivity, for people at home in the hyperreal image-scape, salvation requires nothing more than crossing over into a new pulp fictional genre, as Jules sets out to do at the end of Pulp Fiction. Even the death of Vincent, the film’s most startling depiction of mortality, seems to be reversed by the time-loop that reanimates Vincent for the final storyline. His simulacral resurrection covers up the fact of his death in a way that parallels the cover-ups surrounding Mia’s overdose, Marsellus’s rape, and Marvin’s headless body. In his review of Pulp Fiction, Roger Ebert observes that “Most of the action in the movie comes under the heading of crisis control” (2004:23). The crisis in each case is some variant of death, and each crisis is controlled through a kind of retroactive cancellation. The essence of Pulp Fiction’s cool consists of keeping up the appearance that nothing is or ever was real. The thrill of the movie is the systematic encounter and expunging of the specter of death and its power to disrupt the free circulation of the hyperreal sign-scape. Tarantino and his characters hold up a fun-house mirror to our own bumbling conspiracy to commit Baudrillard’s perfect crime.
Randy Laist is Assistant Professor of English at Goodwin College. He is the author of Technology and Postmodern Subjectivity in Don DeLillo's Novels, the editor of Looking for Lost: Critical Essays on the Enigmatic Series, and has published numerous articles on literature, popular culture, and pedagogy. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
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