Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

22 June 2016

Early Tarantino: '93 and '94

How long has it been since you watched yourself some early Tarantino?

I'm not a die-hard fan or anything, but I am currently writing a little something that involves Pulp Fiction, and while I have seen that film multiple times, I had never before seen two of Tarantino's early films, True Romance and Natural Born Killers, both of which he wrote (although QT told Rolling Stone back in 1994 that NBK had basically been rewritten by Oliver Stone, who directed). In any case, I watched both of these movies recently, and then I rewatched Pulp Fiction after reading an entire host of scholarly and critical readings of these films. I can't say that I totally enjoyed myself while doing this, but I offer some things I noticed while revisiting the early 1990s.

True Romance is a fun throwback to crime capers of old like Gun Crazy, except that this film was not made under the PCA. True Romance has a lot of great things about it, honestly, and I rather enjoyed myself.

Although everybody makes a big deal about Vincent Vega being in the bathroom for so many scenes in PF – Sharon Willis, for example, offers (and I don't totally disagree with her) that "the bathroom anchors a dense nexus that connects blood and violence to anal eroticism and smearing, that permits delicate intersections of aggressive soiling impulses with tense efforts to consolidate, to clean" – Tarantino uses exactly this same scenario in the final shootout in True Romance, in which Clarence White is in the bathroom talking to his mentor–Elvis when the Sicilians, the police, and the drug dealers all shoot each other. Indeed, Alabama kills James Gandolfini in the bathroom of the motel where they’re staying. The bathroom, to be sure, is not a standard location for crime films or for the well-made play (although there is at least one key scene in a bathroom in Point Blank), but the bathroom shows up rather a lot in Tarantino’s version of the gangster flick.

This film has just as much pop culture pastiche in it as the rest of them. The characters in TR cathect through pop culture. They fall in love by talking about movies, form relationships by discussing Elvis fandom (as Clarence does with a total stranger at one of the many burger joints he visits), and characters establish trust by trashing movies they both hate. The characters fall in love while talking about Sonny Chiba. They connect with one another not because they are particular people – we really know nothing about who Alabama is (except that she is from Tallahassee and is a call-girl) except that we know or think we know that she likes specific pop-culture products. In truth, I wouldn't even remember anymore which pop-culture products these characters liked unless I had made notes. I remember Sonny Chiba, of course, because he comes up again and again in QT's work, but the thing is that it doesn't much matter which objects these characters like; it's arbitrary.

* * *
Natural Born Killers is almost nothing like a Tarantino movie. It’s an enormous satire on television media. What is, perhaps, ironic about this is that, although this movie got pulverized for being some kind of indication of the way movies have just gone too far vis-à-vis violence, the film is, in fact, about television. It cites Married… with Children and those true crime shows explicitly.

This film is also vaguely Lynchian. It is like a fever dream half the time, and there is an entire subplot with Tom Sizemore that feels insane and as though Lynch himself might have directed it. (The function of this subplot is to establish that the cops are just as fucked up and perverse as the criminals, and it is worth noting that Tom Sizemore appears in both this movie and as a cop in True Romance.)

There is one similarity between NBK and PF – the phony backgrounds through which the cars drive. In both movies, it is obvious that the backgrounds are movie screens. This is, I would say, without thinking much about it, a kind of internal reference within the film, to the fact that the characters themselves understand themselves as stars of the films of their lives, to the way they make sense of their own worlds through movie-culture. These are characters who believe themselves to be characters.

Otherwise it is rather hard to believe that Tarantino even wrote this thing. It really has very few of his themes and (to my mind) showcases few of his obsessions. As much as NBK appears to be in on its own ironic jokes, I don't think it actually is. The irony all feels pretty forced here. It's as though someone who takes himself very seriously (Oliver Stone) is trying to loosen up a little.

I mostly hated this.

Oooo. But I liked Tommy Lee Jones. He was over-the-top and very funny.

* * *

I've seen PF a bunch of times, and I am actually writing about it for something that I want published, so I won't say too much here, but, two things:

Some critics have said that Vincent is really killed because he doesn't wash his hands. (We know he doesn't wash his hands because we "watc[h] [him] wash them" at Jimmie's house and he still turns the towel into a bloody mess.) If he had just washed his hands after using the bathroom at Butch's place, he would've given Butch time to get away, and the toaster pastries would have popped up earlier and wouldn't have surprised Butch. But as much as I agree that Vincent really should wash his hands, I think way too much has been made about Vincent in the bathroom. As I said above, the bathroom appears a lot in QT movies: Jules uses the bathroom as soon as they get to the bar in the prologue (which allows for Butch and Vincent to be alone together, and for Vincent to insult Butch by calling him Palooka) and Fabienne and Butch have an entire conversation in the bathroom – him in the shower, Fabienne brushing her teeth. And she brushes her teeth (and spits in the bathroom) again in the morning. Honey Bunny, too, announces that she needs to pee. None of these bathroom uses has to do with Vincent and his death. The bathroom is just a place that QT finds interesting for gangsters. Even professional criminals have to poop, it turns out. (If you want to think about how revolutionary this is, by the way, take a minute and imagine your favorite movie gangster pooping: James Cagney? Edward G. Robinson? Alain Delon? Jean-Paul Belmondo? Marcello Mastroianni? I'm having a hard time doing it.)

QT uses his someone-in-the-bathroom-while-a-shootout-is-happening thing twice in PF. It happens in True Romance, it happens at the house where Jules and Vincent kill the three boys, and then it happens again when Honey Bunny and Pumpkin hold up the Denny's or Spires or whatever it is.

"Let's go."
The women-with-bare-feet thing has not been given enough attention. Do you know about this? Mia wears no shoes for a majority of her scenes in the film, including during the dance. And the camera lingers directly on her feet before they go to Jackrabbit Slim’s while they're still at the apartment. But also there's this painting on the wall that QT commissioned especially for the movie with Uma Thurman as Mia on a sofa with her bare feet prominently displayed. And QT did interviews where he talked about her sexy feet. (Indeed, her feet are on display again in Kill Bill.) I've read about this in various places, but it isn't only Uma's feet that the camera loves in Pulp Fiction. Esmeralda Villalobos drives the cab with bare feet, and Fabienne is in bare feet for basically the whole film even though they are in a rather seedy-looking motel. So: I know that it is standard in film theory to spend all of our time talking about phalluses and castration, and that's all good and well. And it's also true that some other critics have tried to invert this by focusing on the film's economy of anality – Captain Koons hiding the watch up his ass, the rape in the pawn shop, Vincent taking a shit (twice), Jules's talk about Brett trying to "fuck" Marsellus – this is where all the bathroom talk starts actually to look quite important. But it seems to me that the film is much more interested in women's feet than either phalluses or anuses. (And yes I do know that a fetish is supposed to be a substitute for the phallus in Freudian thinking. I'm just noting that it's the fetish that has currency here and not the phallus itself.) Film theorists haven't spent a lot of time thinking about how a katana or a Louisville Slugger or a shotgun might signify a woman's foot – they're too busy seeing phalluses everywhere they look – but perhaps it's high time we started.

For me, Pulp Fiction mostly holds up – it's been 22 years since it came out! I still like the "Gold Watch" section the best, and the stuff with Samuel L. Jackson continues to be a highlight. But I also continue to be bored by the Mia Wallace section. I find that whole section so phony. Not that any of the dialogue seems natural because it doesn't, but the Mia Wallace section seems especially writerly or contrived or arch to me. I find that entire sequence to be bloated.

Related:
On The Hateful Eight.
On Django Unchained.