I have noticed in a number of contemporary films, particularly those written or directed by Quentin Tarentino, a new twist on the old cinematic conjunction of love and violence. To take Pulp Fiction as the most accomplished work of this genre, the emphasis is on displaying not vices but virtue, not resentment but love–but the love appears only within an antisocial context where violence is a sign of truth. The robber couple with whom the film begins and ends are not physically attractive or even particularly skilled at their trade, yet we are asked to see in their unshakeable loyalty to each other, even facing the gun of a professional killer, a model of human love. This love includes sexuality, of course, but it is not erotic in the most important sense, for the spectator. Nor is the love between the professional killer (again) and the little girl in Luc Besson‘s The Professional, nor even that of the far more appealing young couple in True Romance, another Tarentino script. The finale here shows the couple with their child silhouetted against the sky on a paradisial beach; the basis of their relationship (funded by the drug money they take off with after all those who fight over it are dead) is not hedonism but mutual commitment.
A terrible resentment is expressed by someone brandishing a gun in a crowd. (One recalls that André Breton considered shooting into a crowd as the ultimate surrealist gesture.) In the past, Hollywood treated this resentment with condescending sympathy. How many times did a troubled gunman hand over his weapon to some paternal figure? Ah, the horror of the patriarchy. Now the gunmen have their revenge in films that wholly espouse the criminal’s perspective, according to which social relations are merely expressions of naked force and the rest of us who think otherwise deserve nothing but contempt. Pulp Fiction takes this perspective to a level of consistency that makes it almost a Weltanschauung. The underworld has honor, if only because any violation of its code of honor is punished by death. In this world alone is authentic interaction possible. The negotiations in the restaurant between the gunman and the robber couple are paradigmatic: they take place at gunpoint, where either party could presumably bring about the death of the other and his or her own. Meanwhile, the ordinary citizens hide under the tables. Everyone who is not a pathetic fool is a monstrous one, if we are to interpret as exemplary of the rest of us the perverts in the pawn shop. The gunman alone can love, because he is the master of violence.
And therefore he alone can renounce violence. The most interesting development of Pulp Fiction is the conversion of the black hitman (Samuel Jackson), a genuine case of the prodigal son. Is this conversion a critique of the ethical perspective of the film and of Tarentino’s work up to this point? The most powerful criminal figure decides to change his life and simply disappears from the story, although not from the sequence of its narration. Thus he is present in the final scene, which chronologically follows directly on the first; but he has left the life and seems altogether forgotten by the time Travolta is killed by Bruce Willis. It is Willis, a master of violence but not a criminal, who replaces him as the film’s protagonist. By saving the conversion scene until the end, even at the expense of its chronology, the author gives it narrative finality while refusing to grant it reality in the world of the film.
It is scarcely a new phenomenon in cinema to depict the master of violence as superior to the bourgeois living in a contemptible world of illusion. What I think is a new departure is the generation, out of this world of criminal violence, of not merely a macho code of honor among thieves, but the values of love and even religion. As readers of this column may already suspect, there is something originary about this.
Popular culture differs from high culture by its naive appropriation of the sacrificial mechanism of ritual. Crime stories are exemplary of popular literature. We have all heard the cliche that the detective story reduces the world’s problems to a single crime the solution of which expels the perturbing element and restores peace. Unfortunately this profound reflection fails to tell us in what way detective stories differ from art in general. The esthetic is always sacrificial; the difference is that high art forces us to identify our own desire with that of the “guilty” victim in such a way as to put the mechanism itself in question.
Through the film noir, the criminal was always aware of his guilt; aware, that is, that his defiance of the values of the larger society was a temporary deferral that would have no lasting effect. More recently we find films in which the criminals get away with their crimes, whether because the crimes are relatively venial, as in caper films, out of “realism,” as in the Godfather series, or as a satire on the non-criminal world, as in the repulsive Natural Born Killers (also a Tarentino film that promotes, although in a less interesting way, the value of true love). But what we witness in Pulp Fiction is not the simple inversion of the values of the greater society, but their regeneration. Jackson does not invent his own religion, but his conversion is an act based on an experience wholly within his own world (the failure of the young man to hit either him or Travolta with six shots of a revolver) that involves no concession to the rest of society. And the act by which his conversion is expressed in the film is his peaceful resolution of the conflict with the robbers of the luncheonette where he and Travolta are dining. As he tells the husband, in the past, he would simply have shot him, whereas now he gives him the $1500 in his wallet in exchange for the attache case he is carrying for his boss. Needless to say, this charitable act excludes from consideration the robbed and humiliated customers who cower on the floor throughout this dialogue.
Similarly, the love that appears in these films, even when it is benign toward the rest of society, makes no concessions to its ideas of respectability. The young couple in True Romance go from hell to paradise; they never fall into normalcy. Pulp Fiction‘s more problematic treatment of these themes, particularly that of religion, reveals that popular culture’s resentful turn to the criminal world can acquire epistemological sophistication. By dint of refusing not simply the return to the greater society but even an inverted version of it, the artist generates within the criminal world itself the fundamental violence-deferring institutions.
The superficial lesson of this development is that the population has grown so cynical (read: resentful) about the social order that it is ready to learn ethics from criminals. But it is more useful to observe the increased generativity of popular culture as a sign of its vitality. For the sacrificial regeneration of our origin is what culture is all about. Whether or not this film’s modest problematization of its violent world signals a transference of cultural power from moribund high culture to vigorous popular culture, or even a major step in Tarentino’s own esthetic evolution, remains to be seen.