Monthly Archives: February 2012

Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia, James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia Part One

PART ONE PART TWO PART THREE PART FOUR PART FIVE

(This post contains spoilers for the movie The Black Dahlia, as well as the novel by James Ellroy. On March 26th, 2014, the pictures on this series of posts were updated with richer, larger images that were also, unfortunately, no longer theatrical widescreen, due to the cropping on the DVD. I was quite out of sorts when I first published this, and there were many errors of grammar that lay extant until it was re-edited on March 27th, 2014. My apologies to anyone who had to deal with it beforehand.)

An example of a movie making small changes in certain details to a book that transform it into something entirely different. This post is an attempt at examining those changes, why I think the novel works so extraordinarily well, and trying to get at the crux of the movie, which may be a failure, but one which I find to be a fascinating, inscrutable, enigmatic one.

Laying a few cards on the table, I think Brian De Palma is a director whose movies are as distinct from others the way a rapturous, frightening dream is different from an unenthusiastic puppet show. He, along with David Lynch, is one of those men who I do not wish to imagine the movies without, any more than I want to imagine a world that never moved past oil portraits. He is, I think, falsely saddled with the reputation of a film-maker who hates women and likes to hurt them on-screen, when he does something entirely different. The taboo De Palma violates is not that of hurting or humiliating women in his movies, for there is no such taboo, it is a commonplace; the taboo he violates is that sympathetic women are hurt or killed, in circumstances that in other movies are usually the basis for heroic fantasy, but here the male hero is unable to prevent her suffering and death, such as Casualties of War or complicit in her suffering and death, such as Blow Out. Again and again, De Palma makes movies which have serious questions about what men expect in movies, the fantasies the movies feed, and each time he receives the same reward for his inquiries, one more variation on the review headline, “Another Sadistic Piece Of Garbage From Misogynist Brian De Palma”.

So, I don’t say cavalierly that I think the Black Dahlia feels like a movie of extraordinary contempt, contempt for the audience, contempt for what movies have become, contempt for the fantasies people have about movies themselves; it is not contempt that is easy or stupid, but one of extraordinary focus and design, of a brilliant craftsman, something akin to Sam Peckinpah in Straw Dogs, a man fulfilling certain fantasies for the audience, hating the audience for those fantasies, and asking, is this the best this vivid mess of images is capable of, fulfilling our cheap ideas of vengeance? Like Straw Dogs, I think it’s possible to consider The Black Dahlia brilliant, as well as a deeply disturbing and repellent movie at the same time.

I don’t think Black Dahlia has the same seamless build of Dogs, yet every shot demonstrates incredible skill, and its conception, including the crucial changes to the novel, has been well thought out, even if this conception is ultimately a failure. The movie takes the single story of the novel, and turns it into two stories, a superficial narrative on top about the chase for a serial killer, and another beneath: if the topmost story were more compelling, the movie would have been a greater box office success; if the secondary story were less subtle, and more obvious to viewers, it would have been praised as an avant-garde masterpiece – instead it received neither laurel. It’s a work of a genius, but I don’t think I like it, though it’s so full of bitterness, I think it would wear my dislike for a crown.

An initial note: it might be the most cynical movie De Palma has ever made, surpassing both Bonfire of the Vanities and Scarface. Scarface at least is quite clearly about an obvious villain, and that he is almost wholely evil may even be a comfort that the wickedness of the world lies entirely with thugs like these, not the petty sins of ordinary men and women. Bonfire is clearly a satire, and we expect any one to be treated cruelly in this form. Dahlia is something different, outwardly the tale of a heroic figure who, though flawed, is ultimately good, doing just work and finding sanctuary in the home of another victim. I say outwardly, because I think through the fiddling of a few details – with very specific intent, not out of clumsiness – De Palma has entirely changed the trajectory of Ellroy’s novel, of protagonists moving from damnation to salvation, to entirely the reverse. He condemns his characters, Lee Blanchard, Bucky Bleichert and Kay Lake, but his condemnation is not just limited to them, but the audience and their naive fantasies as well.

I preface what is a very lengthy analysis by saying it is entirely absent of abstract theoretical language; I find the best, most insightful analysis looks at narrative works in detail, and why their details are there, rather than grouping them from a distance as belonging to this or that category of ideas. Those with a taste for a more theory heavy look can find it with this John Demetry post, at Revolution To Revelation. I also offer a strong caveat: as a book, I think The Black Dahlia is direct in what it is about, while the movie, despite belonging to two genres that are expected to be forthright, the serial killer chase and film noir, is very ambiguous, and I present my hypotheses as tenuous possibilities. Perhaps the closest to come to some of them would be Keith Uhlich, in his piece “Ghost World” at Reverse Shot. If the director Brian De Palma is sincere in his answers in this invaluable interview conducted by Jeremy Smith, then some of these hypotheses are wrong. I start with a long, but necessary, look at the original novel.

THE NOVEL

The book is a story of redemption, of Dwight Bleichert, whose father is a member of the German Bund and Reich sympathizer, and a man who has betrayed his Japanese American friends, Sam Murakami and Hideo Ashida, in order to get a position with the LAPD. Importantly, he is something of a grotesque: he has buck teeth, the reason for his nickname, and which he has never had the money to fix. He joins up with Lee Blanchard, a cop, who he looks up to as a heroic ideal. When the police department holds a fight to publicize a bond issue, Bleichert betrays bookies and refuses to throw it; he loses anyway, and the payments are made, but this refusal is his first act toward redemption. He now has the money to put his senile father in a group home, taking glee in the fact that this racist man now has to sit together and eat with jews. Blanchard and Bleichert become friends, with Bleichert looking to Blanchard as an older, noble brother. He also starts to fall in love with Blanchard’s wife, Kay, a mysterious, brilliant woman.

The two partners become involved in the Betty Short murder case (named the Black Dahlia by a newspaper for her dark clothes, playing off the title of the contemporary film The Blue Dahlia), with both becoming obsessed with it. For Blanchard, the Black Dahlia is connected with his sister, kidnapped and killed at a young age, and resolving this investigation becomes a way of bringing justice where no justice was done in this earlier, unsolved mystery. For Bleichert, the obsession is erotic: he becomes infatuated not with the Black Dahlia as she lived, but the Black Dahlia as an image, apart from life. Bleichert wishes to somehow re-create this image in life, and his desire is fulfilled when he meets Madeleine Sprague, a woman who consciously re-makes herself into the image of the Dahlia, becoming her living twin*.

As the story progresses, Bleichert gets more and more erotically obsessed with the Dahlia and Madeleine; it also becomes clear that Blanchard is nothing like his heroic exterior, but is a deeply corrupt cop. The book develops into an examination of two illusions and the people who become these illusions, and surpass them. Bleichert ends up a better cop than Blanchard ever was. The Dahlia, who was a lousy actress who had sex as a desperate respite from loneliness, is surpassed by Madeleine, a woman who is a gifted mimic who revels in sex and her new image, that of the dead girl. The attraction of the Dahlia is also an intersection with the now ubiquitous culture of fame, fame exclusively through an image, rather than any achievement. Though Betty Short was entirely unknown as a performer or individual, the image of the Dahlia becomes known throughout Los Angeles, and it is the ubiquity of this image, that so many other men lust for this image, that makes Bleichert want it even more. This is something that plagues every well-known, beautiful actress: a woman who is not just beautiful, but a beauty ever present in the dreams of men, Liz Taylor or Scarlett Johansson. A line from Ellroy’s Dahlia sequel, The Big Nowhere, is apt: “Downtown came and went; the woman stayed.”

The bulk of the book are interviews by Bleichert and associates with those who knew the Dahlia, and are possible suspects. The Dahlia herself never appears as a character; we only get a distant sense of her through the words of others. In this context, Madeleine as the Dahlia creates an uncanny image: the woman is dead, yet here she is, more alive than ever. Whatever the complexities and detours of the plot, which causes Bleichert to move about among possible interviews, it holds together through his obsession with the Dahlia. Despite all the busy plotting, the focus always returns to this point.

A key sequence is when Blanchard disappears in Mexico. It is Bleichert’s search for his partner, his discovery of the body, which mirrors Bleichert’s own unresolved search for his missing sister. For it to properly mirror Bleichert’s search, Blanchard must be missing, he cannot die on-screen, and his body must be found. It serves as another point in Bleichert’s redemption, and his superceding of his flawed mentor.

The search for Blanchard and the discovery of the body is crucial to the book. It is given, rightly, a holy aspect. It’s the best piece of writing in The Black Dahlia, and possibly the best piece of writing in the entire quartet.

Bleichert searches for Blanchard’s body with a private detective he doesn’t trust, Milton Dolphine:

The burial ground was ten miles south of Ensenada, just off the coast road on a bluff overlooking the ocean. A big, burning cross marked the spot. Dolphine pulled up next to it and killed the engine. “It’s not what you think. The locals keep the damn thing lit up because they don’t know who’s buried there, and lots of them have got missing loved ones. It’s a ritual with them. They burn the crosses, and the Rurales tolerate it, like it’s some kind of panacea to keep the great unwashed gun-shy.”

Dolphine got out of the car, walked around and popped open the trunk. I followed, watching him remove a large earth spade. Flame glow illuminated the PI’s old Dodge coupe; I noticed a pile of fence pickets and rags next to the spare tire. Tucking the .38 into my waistband, I fashioned two torches out of them, wrapping the rags around the ends of the posts, then igniting them in the cross. Handing one to Dolphine, I said, “Walk ahead of me.”

We strode into the sand pit, outlaws holding fireballs on a stick. The softness made the going slow; torchlight let me pick out grave offerings–little bouquets and religious statues placed atop dunes here and there. Dolphine kept muttering how gringos got dumped on the far side; I felt bones cracking beneath my feet. We reached an especially high drift, and Dolphine waved his torch at a tattered American flag spread out on the sand.

A putrid smell rose from a big crater at our feet. “Dig,” I said. Dolphine went at it; I thought of ghosts–Betty Short and Laurie Blanchard–waiting for the shovel to hit bones. The first time it did I recited a psalm the old man had force-fed me; the second time, it was the “Our Fathers” that Danny Boylan used to chant before our sparring sessions. When Dolphine said, “Sailor. I can see his jumper,” I didn’t know if I wanted Lee alive and in grief or dead and nowhere–so I pushed Dolphine aside and shoveled myself.

My first blow sheared off the sailor’s skull, my second tore into the front of his tunic, pulling the torso free from the rest of the skeleton. The legs were in crumbled pieces; I shoveled past them into plain sand glinting with mica. Then it was maggot nests and entrails and a blood-mattted crinoline dress and sand and odd bones and nothing–and then it was sunburned pink skin and blond eyebrows covered with stitch scars that looked familiar. Then Lee was smiling like the Dahlia, with worms creeping out of his mouth and the holes where his eyes used to be.

Blanchard took on the quest for the killer of the Dahlia to somehow resolve the loss of his sister, but also to redeem himself for the corruption he engaged in for so long – but his own quest became corrupted. He discovered that Madeleine had a relationship with the Dahlia, and used this information to shake down her father for money. Bleichert takes up the quest now entirely on his own, but he does so with a purity that is another step in his penitence. Brutality and coercion are a common place in the LAPD of the novel’s time (perhaps not only of the novel’s time), but Bleichert breaks from these tactics, putting himself in opposition to one of the most brutal cops, Fritzie Vogel.

Eventually, Bleichert discovers that those behind the Dahlia’s murder are Madeleine’s mother, and the mother’s former boyfriend. The choice of these people for the killers is not arbitrary but vital. Bleichert, as said before, is something of a grotesque, marked by his buck teeth. The Spragues (Linscotts in the movie), Madeleine’s family, are divided between those who are marked by beauty and power, respectively, Madeleine and her father, Emmett, and those who are marked by their lack of beauty. There is Ramona Sprague, the mother, a fat, flaccid woman who was married for her money, Madeleine’s sister Martha, pudgy and marked by bad skin, and, most importantly, Georgie Tilden, her mother’s boyfriend: he was a good-looking man, a heroic veteran of the first World War, and Madeleine’s real father. Emmett, after discovering Madeleine’s paternity, cut up Georgie’s face, turning him into a grotesque, and causing him to lose his mind. So, Ramona and Georgie are like Bleichert in that they are in various ways physically marred, they don’t possess the beauty of Madeleine or the Dahlia. Georgie, obsessed with the image of Betty Short, wanted to sleep with her, just as Bleichert was obsessed with her. Ramona ends up killing this woman for her resemblance to Madeleine because among the men Madeleine sleeps with is Emmett: she hates Betty Short as a romantic rival and for her resemblance to a romantic rival. As grotesques, they are transfixed and envious of this beauty, and want to destroy it. That they disfigure her by cutting at her mouth, and that Bleichert’s disfigurement is in his mouth, I do not believe is trivial.

Bleichert does not kill any of those involved except Georgie; that he shows mercy is part of his path to redemption, and partly, I believe, because he sees some of the same harmful qualities in himself as in the killers. I stress the details of this ending, because, though it is very baroque, it is of a piece with what’s come before, with the obsessions of the hero and the killers converging. Bleichert discovers that Madeleine was behind the death of Blanchard, that she had him killed after he shook down her father for blackmail money; she has already passed through the book earlier while on this mission, in a disguise Bleichert does not unveil at the time, of a beautiful mexican woman.

The book ends with Bleichert redeemed. Kay has left for Massachusetts, leaving the house in Los Angeles bought with money from Blanchard’s corrupt activities, and the last sentences have Bleichert descending from the clouds in his flight to join her.

I mention some of the more prominent details of the book so as to make obvious the small changes the movie makes and why they make such a difference in why the movie does not work in ways the book does, but how the subject of the book and the movie are very different.

* A quote that applies to both Madeleine and the Dahlia is the following, from Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age: “She had the fatal gift of beauty, and that more fatal gift which does not always accompany mere beauty, the power of fascination, a power that may, indeed, exist without beauty.”

PART ONE PART TWO PART THREE PART FOUR PART FIVE

Images and Screenplay Copyright Universal Pictures, Millennium Films, Equity Pictures, and associated producers.

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“Memories” by Whitney Houston and Material

An early song by a great singer of unfulfilled promise.

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Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s Chief Strategist, Defends Newt Gingrich On Charlie Rose

Part of an on-going attempt to illuminate the life and career of a political consultant, in this case, Stuart Stevens; other posts include “He Hates You”, a summary profile, a brief look at his China travel memoir, Night Train to Turkistan, his memoir of the 2000 Bush campaign, a look at his travel memoir Malaria Dreams, an analysis of his novel Scorched Earth, an analysis of his book Feeding Frenzy, his interview with Charlie Rose promoting Feeding Frenzy, Stevens and Jon Hinson, and an analysis of an episode of “Commander in Chief” which he co-wrote. Outside profiles and mentions, all excellent, are “Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot” by Robert Draper, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney” by Ashley Parker, “The Coming Tsunami of Slime” by Joe Hagan, and “Mitt Romney’s Dark Knight” by Jason Zengerle.

An example that a political consultant is at heart a mercenary. Like examples can be found on both sides of the aisle. In the current campaign, Stevens, as chief political strategist with a strong background in media, was most likely heavily involved in the creation of these anti-Newt Gingrich ads (here and here) citing the scandals of the Speaker. The book deal discussed in this episode involved a payment of over $4 million dollars to the Speaker for “To Renew America”, which many saw as a possible quid pro quo over Rupert Murdoch’s ownership of TV stations in the United States. A good introductory article on the old case would be “Murdoch, Joined by Lobbyist, Talked of Regulatory Problem at Meeting With Gingrich” by Katherine Q. Seelye (link).

This scandal was not part of the 1997 House reprimand; whose focus was use of tax exempt contributions to political foundations for practical purpose (a good overview is at the Christian Science Monitor) – the common link is receipt of funds that are used for practical purpose and denial of the link. It might be considered the first scandal of Gingrich’s reign as Speaker, anticipating what was to follow.

In this episode of “Charlie Rose”, aired at the time of the scandal (January 19, 1995), Stevens defends the conduct of the Speaker. Again, I do not think it should be surprising or remarkable that he defended then, and is part of the attacks now; the issue, I believe, is not one of principle, but of who is paying at the time. Areas of interest are bolded; I found the last line particularly funny, as well as what’s said about Murdoch and bribes, given his own current scandals.

The entire program can be seen at Charlie Rose’s site here.

CHARLIE ROSE: I begin with you, Bob. Why can’t the Speaker write a book and earn royalties from it in the same way Al Gore and many others have done?

BOB SHRUM: First, I think the Speaker of the House can write a book and he can earn royalties from it but I think he’d better off if he found a publisher who didn’t have actual or potential major business before the government. There was never any suggestion for example, when Senator Gore, then Senator Gore, wrote his book that that was involved. Secondly, I think you’ll find as a political matter that there are an enormous number of Republicans all over this town who are burning up the phone wires, you can’t quote me by name, bu I sure wish he wasn’t doing this. Uh, I think it’s become a distraction for the Republican party from the business they’re trying to conduct. But I also think it’s created this impression that there’s a lot that’s old about Newt. And it looks like old politics, and it looks like an old kind of deal, uh, it has a very very bad appearance, there are Republicans that are saying that. Some of them saying it on the record, very many of them saying it on background or off the record.

ROSE: The notion was that this seemed to be someone who didn’t have a lot of focus on him, once the focus was there he was portrayed as a man of ideas, a political genius, and all of a sudden people are saying he’s just like the rest. Is that the idea?

SHRUM: Well, I think that’s partly what happened to him. But I also think it’s very distracting for the Republican party, I think it’s very distracting for the debate. I was quite amazed yesterday that Carrie Meek’s relatively mild remarks compared to, for example, what Newt Gingrich said about then Speaker Jim Wright, which nobody in the house tried to stop from saying, that the Republicans made this huge brouhaha about those remarks, which made sure that all of them got huge prominent play on the evening news [a contemporary story about Meek's remarks can be found at Google News Archive]. Maybe Stuart could elucidate what the self-interest in the Republican party in going down this line is.

STUART STEVENS: I think…look, I think the whole idea that Newt Gingrich is being accused of being a writer here is preposterous. And the idea that anyone thinks that Rupert Murdoch is going around and handing out four and a half million dollar bribes doesn’t know Rupert Murdoch. I mean, if Charlie Scribner pays the pope eight and a half million dollars, does he think he’s going to get into heaven?
I mean, this is ridiculous. And of course Al Gore’s publisher has business in front of the government. Doesn’t he have an interest in GATT, doesn’t he have an interest in trade agreements, doesn’t he have an interest in royalties? He has a tremendous interest, everybody does.

SHRUM: No one, Stuart, has the kind of interest that Murdoch does where basically his entire television empire is threatened now…he was, for example, today, all over Capitol Hill, seen repeatedly on the Hill: now he could be lobbying, or maybe he’s looking for new authors, or maybe he’s doing both. But I think it would have been a lot better off, and I don’t think this a very controversial point that I’m about to make, for him to find a publisher who did not create this kind of appearance of potential conflict and who did not have this large an issue before the federal government right now.

ROSE: Why shouldn’t he do that?

STEVENS: I don’t think it matters. If he wants to switch publishers he wouldn’t be the first author to do it, but I don’t think this is what this is about. This is about a misconception that the Democrats have that they can blow up Newt, and therefore stop Republicans. I think that’s totally missing the point here because I don’t think what happened in November really had much to do with Newt Gingrich’s popularity. Nobody voted against Dan Rostenkowski because they liked Newt Gingrich. It was a much larger thing that was happening…and Newt has been a tremendous supporter and putter out of ideas here, but it’s not a personality driven phenomenon.

ROSE: Do you agree with what Bob Novak said in his column that was quoted by Newt Gingrich at a press conference earlier today, he talked about how the mean-spirited assault on Newt Gingrich by House Democratic leaders is not reviving their troubled party…it has reached the point where it is districting the speaker from his formidable task of enacting the Republican agenda. He ends by saying that the challenge to respond be given not to him, but they pass it on to me. He’s still a relatively young man with enough years ahead of him to defer gratification and to use his fame for private gain in the future. Now is the time for larger pursuits by Newt Gingrich. Do you agree, essentially with what Novak is saying?

STEVENS: I think it’s always easy for the other person to say they shouldn’t make four and a half million dollars. And first of all, you don’t know he’s gonna make four and a half million dollars. And he’s actually, I think, taken a big risk here.

ROSE: I hear a figure of ten million because of all the (inaudible)

STEVENS: Well, I hope so. I always think writers should make more money. I mean, Bob Shrum’s a wonderful writer, I want Bob to make lots of money.

SHRUM: Stuart, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that there’s no attempt to have any influence on this guy, and then that he might make as much as ten million dollars, why should he give up ten million dollars? I think people with that much money put in front of them are at least susceptible to the argument that some appearance has been created, especially when the person giving them the money shows up to see them with his lobbyist, his professional lobbyist in tow. I think Novak, who is no Democrat, in fact, he’s a friend of mine, but he’s a fan of Newt, and he knows mean-spirited when he sees it, by the way, I think Bob Novak has it exactly right. It’s not a good idea for the Republican party to go through this. Especially, when they’re running into some legislative problems.

ROSE: Wait a minute. If he walks away from this, does it look like he’s been rolled by the Democrats, as, I think, Rush Limbaugh is saying, you better stand up, don’t let them do this, they do this to you on the book deal, they’ll try some other thing to get you.

STEVENS: Let me ask you this, Bob. Do you think Al Gore should give back the half million more he got put in his pocket?

SHRUM: Who was his publisher and what was the issue his publisher had?

STEVENS: I’m not sure.

SHRUM: Well, that’s the point. And the Republicans, let me tell you, would have been very quick to leap if there was a conflict of interest. Jim Wright got driven from office, and driven from the Speakership over a sum of money that was not in the six figures, was below five figures, for a book he wrote. I mean, it is preposterous to suggest that these are parallel cases. I think Gingrich would be smarter, and listen, any advice I give would be suspect and they’re not going to take it, but Gingrich would be a lot smarter to get out of this thing now. The worst advice you get in politics is when you’re in a difficult position or you’ve made a mistake, don’t ever back down because that shows weakness.

ROSE: Bob, speak to the point that I raised that this looks like he gets rolled by the House democrats if he backs down from this now. I mean, he came out and said this is the way it is, does it look like he’s been rolled?

SHRUM: Well, like I said, I don’t think any advice I give him would be taken very seriously. Frankly, they’d be better off living with that as a one day story than having this come back in one permutation or another over a period of time. I think it’s gonna come back.

STEVENS: Bob, let me ask you a question. If Murdoch passed on the deal, but say Scribner or Random House calls up Newt and says, listen, “I’ll give you ten million for this book”, would that bother you?

SHRUM: I would think at that point you’re talking about a straight commercial deal, unless somebody had some reason to suggest something else.

STEVENS: But isn’t there a reality when someone writes books? I mean, all of these publishing houses, almost all of them are owned by large corporations now. They’re all at some level have some influence before (inaudible)

ROSE: Yeah, but there’s more of a direct relationship here, clearly. Murdoch is there, clearly. And everyone knows what he wants from the Congress, I assume. The question is does he want legislation or not, or at least, Gingrich was making that point.

SHRUM: Well, he certainly wants legislation, Charlie, if he loses the legal battle. He’s not going to say, “Gee, sorry I lost in the courts, sorry I lost in the regulatory process, now I’m just gonna walk away after giving out hundreds of millions of dollars.”

STEVENS: Bob, you’re a really smart guy. You don’t really believe Murdoch thought a) this would never come out, and b) that he was going to go in there and bribe Newt with this? There’s a whole “how stupid do you think they are?” question here.

SHRUM: Stuart, you can put these questions different ways. The question that can be asked on the other side is: “Do you think it’s really rational to believe this doesn’t create some appearance of impropriety or conflict, that it is not a good situation for the Republican party, that it was not a smart thing for Newt Gingrich to do?”, I think, you were talking about the meaning of last November, I think the last thing you want to do, Stuart, is be on television talking about this, instead of talking about the changes the Republican party would apparently like to enact once they can agree on (inaudible)

ROSE: Isn’t that the reality, Stuart, of where we are and therefore, Novak, who makes that point, Newt is being distracted from what are more important goals?

STEVENS: I think there is a period here of sniping that is inevitable, and if the worst thing we’re accusing Newt Gingrich of, is being a potentially successful writer, I don’t think this is a horrible event.

SHRUM: That’s not the accusation. The accusation is that he has received a contract that can make him an enormous amount of money who actually has issues involving hundreds of millions dollars before the federal government, who went to see him with his lobbyist in tow. Now, when you put all of that set of circumstances together, it sure sounds like what Newt claimed to be running against, not what he was running for.

ROSE: Yeah, but we both know Bob, when these corporate guys go down to Washington they generally go down with their lobbyist, because he or she is their Washington representative who stays in Washington and generally takes them around town and takes them to meet whoever they want to meet. Right?

STEVENS: A good way to get out of this, is Newt could just vote against whatever Murdoch wants!

SHRUM: That too would create the following problem if it passed, people would say, first of all, he doesn’t have to vote, because he’s Speaker, if he got out of the chair and it was gonna pass anyway, to vote against it, it would like he was doing it just for token reasons.

ROSE: I want to bring this out to a wider scale. Is there some effort, do you think, both of you, that the Democrats are smarting from Gingrich has done and they know what he did to Speaker Wright, and this is the first, or the second, or the third salvo, of many to try to give him the same medicine he gave the Democrats when he was a back bench grenade thrower.

STEVENS: This is a classic case of life imitating high school. And they have a perfect chance to gang up Newt, Newt ganged up Wright, and they’re gonna do it.

SHRUM: Let the record show that Stuart just referred to Newt as high school. I think Democrats are simply saying there can’t be a double standard. The rules that applied, or that Newt wanted applied, are gonna be applied to him. Frankly, I think, the Democrats would be a lot better off debating some of these questions about the balanced budget amendment, except the Republicans can’t agree on a balanced budget amendment to bring to the floor. They can’t agree on what tax provision it should have, they don’t want to have an open rule, because then the Democrats are gonna say let’s exempt social security and medicare, the Republicans don’t want to put that in the balanced budget amendment. They don’t want the country to put it in the balanced budget amendment. So, what really happened, is that the House has ground to a halt, because of this enormous internal division within the Republican party about how to structure the balanced budget amendment. I look forward to that debate, I think that would be a good debate for Democrats to have.

ROSE: Last word, Stuart.

STEVENS: There’s a hundred day clock ticking here. I think we’ll declare victory or defeat after the hundred days. Republicans will have to deliver. If they let this distract them, and they don’t deliver, it will be a major defeat for Republicans. I don’t think they will.

ROSE: Let me do one more question for you, Bob, since you’re there watching this closely. Give me a sense of how you think Gingrich is surviving this, beyond the book deal, how he’s handling this as Speaker, how smart he is, how savvy he’s been about the accumulation of power in terms of appointing Committee chairs and the like.

SHRUM: I think he’s the most powerful Speaker in modern history. I think he’s extraordinarily smart and going beyond this issue, I think he talks too much. He’ll talk about anything at the drop of a hat without a text, it’s intellectually interesting sometime, sometime it’s rather odd, for example, when he says that men want to go out and hunt giraffes and women get infections if they stay in foxholes for thirty days. But I do think that tendency to talk and talk and talk is probably going to get him in trouble.

ROSE: Robert, is this the same speech where he said men like to be piglets in foxholes?

SHRUM: Yeah, they like to do that and hunt giraffes. Speaker is the right title to give Gingrich.

ROSE: Does it remind you of any president you know?

SHRUM: Well, he makes the president look positively laconic.

STEVENS: Writers should be allowed a certain eccentricity, and Newt looks to become a very successful writer.

ROSE: How successful a Speaker?

STEVENS: I think he’s going to be the most successful Speaker in our lifetime.

(thank yous)

All images and quotes copyright Rose Communications Inc.

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Charlie Rose Interviews Stuart Stevens, Chief Strategist For Mitt Romney

Part of an on-going attempt to illuminate the life and career of a political consultant, in this case, Stuart Stevens; other posts include “He Hates You”, a summary profile, a brief look at his China travel memoir, Night Train to Turkistan, his memoir of the 2000 Bush campaign, a look at his travel memoir Malaria Dreams, an analysis of his novel Scorched Earth, an analysis of his book Feeding Frenzy, Stevens and Jon Hinson, an analysis of an episode of “Commander in Chief” which he co-wrote, and his defense of Newt Gingrich on “Charlie Rose”. Outside profiles and mentions, all excellent, are “Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot” by Robert Draper, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney” by Ashley Parker, “The Coming Tsunami of Slime” by Joe Hagan, and “Mitt Romney’s Dark Knight” by Jason Zengerle.

The video of the full interview can be found at Charlie Rose’s site. I find the interview hilarious because of the host; though I also pause to post this – this seems like sadism, without the possibility of insight, even with the strange attitude at the end about places outside Europe. However, given that Republican candidates are cheerfully making an issue of cultural issues, including Prop 8, and Stevens enjoys politics because it allows him the possibility of hitting somebody, this might be an example of people hitting back…but mainly I post it for the hilarity that is Charlie Rose.

A partial transcript.

CHARLIE ROSE: Stuart Stevens got away with the perfect crime. He rode around Europe in a vintage Mustang and somebody else’s girlfriend (starts laughing) and he ate out at a different three star restaurant almost every night for a month. All the evidence against him is in this book, Feeding Frenzy. He is a political consultant, a travel writer, an athlete, a scriptwriter, a gourmet, and he joins me now to answer the question: Who. Paid.

ROSE: Who. Paid?

STUART STEVENS: Well, perfect crime (inaudible)

ROSE: And who were your traveling companions?

STEVENS: Uh, well, read the book, Charlie. A wonderful woman…

ROSE: …who you call Rat. Works out with you at Body Beautiful or wherever you work out.

STEVENS: We like to eat, we like to go to gyms. She’s a wonderful woman.

ROSE: She’s a friend. This is a platonic relationship, wasn’t it?

STEVENS: This is true.

ROSE: This is true. And you two…went to Europe (international hand gesture for “went to Europe”). Why…how did the idea come up?

STEVENS: Uh…

ROSE: Don’t be coy with me, okay?

STEVENS: I’m not being coy with you. It seemed like…

ROSE: Or even distant about this.

STEVENS: It seemed…it seemed…like a ridiculous notion. I like to do things to excess.

ROSE: Yeah, no kidding.

STEVENS: I think by doing things to excess you crack them open and have fun. And I thought it was a fairly ridiculous notion to go and eat in all these restaurants…if you want to go…you need a structure. So there’s a simple structure. Twenty-nine three star Michelin restaurants. Why don’t I go to all of them on consecutive days? It seemed like a ridiculous notion.

ROSE: Thirty days, thirty restaurants?

STEVENS: Thirty days, thirty restaurants. And I think you have to follow these ridiculous notions from time to time, to kindof see where they lead.

ROSE: Okay. Bear with me…because this is all in the book, so I’m not trying to strike out on ground that’s private.

STEVENS: Fair enough.

ROSE: It’s a little unusual for a married man to go away with a beautiful young woman to eat their way through Michelin restaurants for thirty days. It’s unusual. So, explain yourself.

STEVENS: I have this…sortof…pattern…of time to time going off…

ROSE: I can’t wait to hear this!

STEVENS: …with someone…

ROSE: To climb mountains or do whatever. (makes international “Climb mountains or whatever” hand gesture)

STEVENS: It’s much more fun to go with…

ROSE: YOUR WIFE!

STEVENS: It’s much more fun to go with someone who’s female than, rather some guys.

ROSE: Yeah, basically, you go into a restaurant one time…this is in the book, so this is not…in London.

STEVENS: Right.

ROSE: And you’re there with a stunningly beautiful woman. Your friend. Platonic friend. Rat. And you look over there and there are ten young investment banker preppie wannabes, wannabe somethings. And you say to yourself I’m so happy I’m not talking to them, I’m talking to her.

STEVENS: Absolutely. I never was one of those guys that kind of like was like, let’s go out to dinner with the guys.

ROSE: (laughing) Right.

STEVEN: You know, but I had taken this trip through China. And I’d taken this trip through Africa. And it seemed sorta that I was due to go someplace that people actually go on purpose.

Images and interview excerpt copyright Rose Communications Inc.

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When Mitt Romney Declared War Against The Catholic Church

A mildly provocative title, no?

Brilliant tactician, deep thinker, faithful husband Newt Gingrich recently declared that the Obama administration, through the Health and Human Services mandate that those who receive federal monies must provide contraception, has “basically declared war on the Catholic Church.”

Republican front runner Mitt Romney concurred in a Washington Examiner editorial.

I quote the relevant sections:

On January 20, 2012, the Obama administration affirmed a rule that would force Roman Catholic hospitals, charities, and universities to purchase health insurance for their employees that includes coverage for contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization, in violation of their religious principles. This is wrong.

My own view is clear. I stand with the Catholic Bishops and all religious organizations in their strenuous objection to this liberty- and conscience-stifling regulation.

Religious liberty is at the heart of the American experiment. As a nation founded in part by religious dissenters, we enshrined it as the first freedom in our Bill of Rights. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” is how the First Amendment begins.

But, now, more than two centuries after the drafting of the Bill of Rights, religious liberty is facing the most serious assault in generations. And the assault is coming from liberalism itself. In the process of implementing Obamacare, the Obama administration is pressing forward with a rule that tramples on religious freedom, taking particular aim at Roman Catholics. The Obama administration is forcing religious institutions to choose between violating their conscience or dropping health care coverage for their employees, effectively destroying their ability to carry on their work.

Liberals and conservatives have made common cause to defend the rights of religious minorities in the past. But somehow, today, when it comes to the agenda of the left-wing of the Democratic Party, those who brought us abortion on demand and who fight against the teaching of abstinence education in our children’s schools, their devotion to religious freedom goes out the window. They would force Catholics and others who have beliefs rooted in their faith to sacrifice the teachings of their faith to the mandate of federal bureaucrats.

It is a prerequisite to the preservation of our liberty that our government not dictate to religious institutions the principles by which they are to carry out their charitable and divine mission. Religious liberty and freedom of conscience flow from the common conviction that it is freedom not coercion that exalts the individual, just as it raises up the nation.

What the Obama administration has done is indefensible. But this is about even more than President Obama denying America’s Catholics their constitutionally protected rights. This is about the preservation of our freedom. We must come together to make sure that these egregious violations of our Constitution do not stand.

I think I’ve been just to Romney in quoting the relevant sections of his editorial. I do, however, find his passion on this issue somewhat puzzling. From the opposition research book put together on Romney by the McCain campaign in 2008 (the “Abortion” section, page 21):

As Governor, Romney Ordered Catholic Hospitals To Distribute Emergency Contraception

In December 2005, Romney “Abruptly Ordered His Administration To Reverse Course … And Require Catholic Hospitals To Provide Emergency Contraception To Rape Victims.” “Gov. Mitt Romney abruptly ordered his administration to reverse course yesterday and require Catholic hospitals to provide emergency contraception medication to rape victims. In a turnaround that foes derided as politically motivated, Romney directed his Department of Public Health to scrap rules that exempted the Catholic institutions from a new law governing the medicine.” (Kimberly Atkins, “Romney Flip Nixes Hospital Exception On Post-Rape Drug,” Boston Herald, 12/9/05)

  • Romney: “It’s the right thing for hospitals to provide information and access to emergency contraception to anyone who is a victim of rape.” (Dave Wedge, “Merry Christy,” Boston Herald, 12/11/05)
  • Romney: “My personal view in my heart of hearts is that people who are subject to rape should have the option of having emergency contraceptives or emergency contraceptive information …” (Kimberly Atkins, “Romney
    Flip Nixes Hospital Exception On Post-Rape Drug,” Boston Herald, 12/9/05)

Romney Had Initially Supported State Ruling Allowing Hospitals To Opt Out On Moral Grounds. “The decision overturns a ruling made public this week by the state Department of Public Health that privately run hospitals could opt out of the requirement if they objected on moral or religious grounds. Romney had initially supported that interpretation…” (Scott Helman, “Romney Says No Hospitals Are Exempt From Pill Law,” The Boston Globe, 12/9/05)

Boston Herald Called It “An Olympic-Caliber Double Flip-Flop.” “Flip, flop, flip. Yes, Gov. Mitt Romney has now executed an Olympic-caliber double flip-flop with a gold medal-performance twist-and-a-half on the issue of emergency contraception. … It’s no secret Mitt Romney would like to be president. But who would have thought he’d take John Kerry as his campaign role model?” (Editorial, “Politics On Display The Morning-After,” Boston Herald, 12/9/05)

A full AP article from the time is here, one of the few now outside a paywall:

Emergency contraception law upheld

Governor: Private hospitals not exempt
By Steve Leblanc / The Associated Press

Gov. Mitt Romney abandoned plans yesterday to exempt Roman Catholic and other private hospitals from a new law requiring them to dispense emergency contraception to rape victims.

Romney had initially backed regulations proposed earlier this week by his public health commissioner, Paul Cote Jr., who said the new law conflicted with an older law barring the state from forcing private hospitals to dispense contraceptive devices or information.

The Republican governor, who is considering a run for president in 2008, said at a news conference yesterday morning that he asked his legal advisers to review the matter after members of both parties criticized the regulations. He said the lawyers determined that the new law superseded the old law and that all hospitals should be required to offer the “morning after pill.”

“On that basis, I have instructed the Department of Public Health to follow the conclusion of my own legal counsel and to adopt that sounder view,” Romney said.

The new law takes effect Dec. 14. Passed this summer by the Legislature, which then overrode Romney’s veto, it states that the pill must be available to “each female rape victim.” Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, the likely GOP nominee for governor next year if Romney decides not to seek re-election, had broken ranks with the governor on the issue, saying Wednesday that all hospitals should be required to distribute the pill.

Attorney General Tom Reilly, a Democrat who is running for governor in 2006, also opposed letting some hospitals opt out of the new law. “There shouldn’t be any confusion about this,” he said. “The law is clear. It applies to all hospitals without exemption.”

The emergency contraception pill is a high dose of hormones that women can take up to five days after sex to prevent pregnancy. Opponents contend the pill is little different from an abortion because it blocks the fertilized egg from being implanted on the uterine wall.

A good defense of the HHS ruling was made by Joan Walsh, Katha Pollitt, and Sadly, No!.

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Commander in Chief: “Wind Beneath My Wing” Written by Steven A. Cohen and Stuart Stevens, Chief Strategist for Mitt Romney

Part of an on-going attempt to illuminate the life and career of a political consultant, in this case, Stuart Stevens; other posts include “He Hates You”, a summary profile, a brief look at his China travel memoir, Night Train to Turkistan, his memoir of the 2000 Bush campaign, a look at his travel memoir Malaria Dreams, an analysis of his novel Scorched Earth, an analysis of his book Feeding Frenzy, his interview with Charlie Rose promoting Feeding Frenzy, Stevens and Jon Hinson, and his defense of Newt Gingrich on “Charlie Rose”. Outside profiles and mentions, all excellent, are “Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot” by Robert Draper, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney” by Ashley Parker, “The Coming Tsunami of Slime” by Joe Hagan, and “Mitt Romney’s Dark Knight” by Jason Zengerle.

“Wind Beneath My Wing” can be seen here on Hulu; the imdb data for the episode is here. An episode of a series portraying the administration of the first american woman president, the fictional Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis), a Vice President and political Independent, incredibly, unassociated either with the Republicans or Democrats, who reaches power after the death of the president*. Her nemesis throughout the show is the speaker of the house, Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland). A good introduction to the series can be found here.

An episode that is notable for three points, the last overlapping with the position of its co-writer, Stuart Stevens, as chief strategist in the Mitt Romney presidential campaign. The ampersand in the writing credit indicates, I believe, that Steven A. Cohen and Stevens wrote the episode in collaboration, rather than one writer brought in to re-write the other’s work. Stevens also worked as co-producer and consultant on the show – so we cannot speak of what takes place as rogue work outside of his influence.

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

There are two plots, which I believe have thematic connections, but without any overlap in event or character. The president goes to a series of fundraising events in California. While there, Air Force One is targeted for destruction by someone, unless he gets to speak to the president. At the White House, Allen’s son and daughter have a party. The man who threatens to destroy the presidential plane turns out to be a Gulf War veteran who is desperately trying to get medical care for his ailing wife. After the party, a copy of the Gettysburg address is found missing. The president tells the soldier that whatever ways the government has failed him will be looked into and a remedy will be attempted, but his threat will not be tolerated, and he will be killed unless he surrenders. The soldier gives up. The Gettysburg address is found, the president’s youngest daughter having hidden it out of spite for all the attention her older siblings got during the party. The president returns home to have breakfast with her family, both sides of the family ignorant of the drama that the other faced.

Now, a long digression for an obvious but necessary point: though Hollywood and Washington, D.C., are seen as adversaries to each other, I think their adversarial positions are largely symbolic, for the temporary benefit of either party. Hollywood is an industry that can sate, momentarily, with images of beauty and comfort, very occasionally truth; it can easily portray its adversary as slothful and indifferent to providing this same audience with anything. The wealthy celebrities of Hollywood, who constitute a fraction of the community, are a suitable straw man opposition, privileged, ignorant children whose enthusiasms have nothing to do with the world outside their shallow lives. Hollywood is degenerate, diseased, and atheistic, Washington is old, sexless, prudish, and senescent. These symbols are a convenience, and will be abandoned when equally convenient. When Hollywood requires access to overseas markets or help in copyright law, it makes alliance without difficulty. When Hollywood portrays presidential power, it is often unskeptical and superficial.

There are two myths which are forwarded in movies and TV about american presidents, and both are to the dangerous benefit of Washington. Movies and TV value action, kineticism, so almost always the president will demonstrate their greatness through martial achievement, a war waged, the lives lost and tangible achievement secondary to the victory. The other myth is what is perceived as something like the mystic aspect of the symbols of power which somehow transforms whatever individual elected president into someone worthy of the post, somehow birthing virtues that allow them to wield power to the benefit of the citizens. Both myths are so ubiquitous, I offer no citation of either.

These myths do not exist out of supplication to power, but out of interest of what is required of the product itself. A leader involved in military action will always make for a more viable movie than about one involved in a debate over, say, agricultural subsidies. Hannibal, Genghis Khan, Che Guevera would all be considered better subjects for any visual narrative than Woodrow Wilson* or Cesar Chavez. The second myth lies entirely with ideals that are considered axiomatic in Hollywood, and are considered beyond question: that american democracy will always elect someone who has the possibility of good and virtue, with any later venality the result of corruption by power*. This ideal is commonplace, among other false axioms of the movies such as good people always eventually finding real love, and the height of heroic achievement involving a gun and killing another man – this last, of course, dovetails well with the first myth about power and military achievement. This is a myth apart from other democracies – I do not think any parliamentary democracy carries the idea that if someone is elected prime minister, they must, by virtue of election, somehow automatically assume great virtue.

This distinction in the United States might be rooted in the merging of the roles of head of government and head of state in the presidency, making the president a sort of temporary king. The divine aspect of kings, but also the idea of the United States as a nation created as christan nation comes into play here. Some holy aspect of the presidency chooses the righteous, even if this righteousnes is well hidden, and makes the person righteous. The election of an unworthy man whether it be Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, is not just the election of a bad man, in certain christian eyes, but a violation of this sacred ideal. Even among secularists, some mystic aspect is perceived, just as mystic ideas of destiny and benevolent serendipity are held onto even after much of a christian persepective is abandoned.

These myths do not exist apart from Washington, but overlap, and provide dangerous benefit to presidents. This can be found in a naivete that a president’s character will be remedied by the office, that through a holy union, this individual finally becomes “presidential”. The more lethal effect is through the emphasis placed on martial achievement. Military action is to be supported, and considered essential, as it re-inforces the idea of a president and the magic of presidential and government symbols. A president who does not wage war is wasting an opportunity. Both myths, and their horrific consequences, can be found in the presidency of George W. Bush.

A shabby mediocrity who was most of his life a non-achieving non-entity, he would no doubt have died a non-achieving non-entity without the extraordinary wealth and political power of his family. His flaws of intellectual sloppiness, impatience, and arrogance were all in full view during his presidential campaign. After his election, and a post-9/11 speech, it was observed that somehow he had gained the necessary insight and moral courage for his role – this achievement, I believe, did not arise out of any observation of his character, as he was just as dull and arrogant as before, but out of the necessity to believe that such a change had taken place. It is here that the other myth came into play: that war is of central importance to the majesty of the presidency. Napoleon lectured his generals not to fight in order to make pretty pictures. But it is for the pretty pictures alone, not for any empire or conquest, that war is waged in movies and now. The post-war planning for Iraq and Afghanistan was abysmal, with fatal consequences for the lives of thousands. Emphasis was placed on the images of victory, with everything else a tiresome afterthought. Not incidentally, Stevens, the writer of this episode, was involved both in the election and re-election of President Bush.

Both myths are of central importance in talking about any modern depictions of the presidency, including this program; I now go back to the episode. The first notable point: indistinct from other movies and TV series on the american presidency, is the emphasis on symbols of wealth and power, and the underlying martial aspect of these symbols. The United States is a great military power, and the power of these symbols does not lie with the great intellectual ideas of the constitution, but often, the country’s lethal might alone. This, I believe, is not my reading or mis-reading this program – it’s explicitly stated.

A list of the following settings during the episode: a television interview with speaker of the House, Nathan Templeton; the Washington Monument; a motorcade; the inside of a limo in the motorcade; Air Force One, inside and outside; a motorcade again; inside of the limo again; a pricey hotel; Air Force One, inside and outside, under siege; a high tech command center set up inside the hotel; the inside of the White House during the party; the White House for the concluding family breakfast. The only exception to all this is the hotel kitchen, though even this embodies power, with a great, lengthy tracking shot that opens with the country’s vast bounty visible in a long line of desserts before zigzagging about following the president, her entourage, and her security detail.

A brief sample:

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

So, these are the symbols of a wealthy nation, but also one of great armed strength. As previously stated, these symbols are assumed to be something like a holy sword, somehow to be inherited only by the benevolent; the other assumption is that power, military power, exudes from these symbols, in this episode serving as an aphrodisiac in both plots.

In the first plotline, the president’s consultant, Dickie McDonald, has sex on Air Force One with a reporter, Isabel Rios, the plane itself serving as an incentive for the consummation.

MCDONALD
I love this plane. Greatest political tool ever assembled.

KELLY LUDLOW [President's press secretary]
What are you doing here?

MCDONALD
It makes you sound powerful. Try it. “I just flew in from the East Coast.” Or: “I just flew in from the East Coast on Air Force One.”

ISBAEL RIOS
You’re right. It does make you sound powerful.

A little later:

MCDONALD
[It's] the White House with wings. Ultimate home-court advantage. A symbol of power and grace.

RIOS
Cut the sales pitch, Dickie. I already blew off the events. What are we doing here?

DICKIE
You tell me.

It is after this that they have sex.

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

This is mirrored in the White House, where the president’s children have a party. The White House here is both a sacred institution, but also a playland, a sort of combination of Disneyland and the Vatican. That this sacred magic is derived from its military aspect is introduced in this playful scene:

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

SCHOOLKID
What would happen if I push that button?

REBECCA
That button?

SCHOOLKID nods.

REBECCA
I don’t know if I should tell you.

SCHOOLKID
Come on. We won’t say anything.

REBECCA
You promise? OK. If you push that button, a signal is beamed to a secret satellite that sends a code to a special CIA computer that activates the launch sequence.

SCHOOLKID
Like missiles and stuff?

REBECCA nods.

SCHOOLKID
Are you serious?

REBECCA
Yeah.

REBECCA pushes button.

The room’s lights come on.

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

Then, another one, where the President’s son tells a girl of there being a secret, second diversionary Oval Office, and makes a joke of trying to contact the Pentagon.

SCHOOLGIRL
So this is the only one, right?

HORACE CALLOWAY

Oval Office?

SCHOOLGIRL nods.

HORACE
Actually, there’s two. One’s a double for security.

SCHOOLGIRL
I knew it!

HORACE
Get me the Pentagon!

OPERATOR (O.S.)

White House operator.

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

Subsequent to this, just like on the plane, there is the implication that they have sex. Since our tender imaginations cannot conceive of those in high school taking this momentous step, it is more subtly implied than the event on the plane.

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

Another digression: that martial force is an expected part of the presidency, that it is one more pageant to be thrown by a leader, like the inauguration or the State of the Union, is shown in this casual line during the showdown over the attempt to destroy Air Force One:

JIM GARDNER [the Vice-President]
We could re-schedule the fundraiser.

SYNDI [fund-raising co-ordinator]

Are you kidding? This is front row seating to watch the president during a crisis. I mean, this is what they’re paying for.

Now, the second point: the observation of a strange paradox. It is military might which grants mystic power to these symbols, yet the military and secret service are prominent in this episode for being treated as a separate class which the mandarin ruling class, and the show itself, often views with contempt. The idea that there is no class structure in the United States is now extinct; watching this episode only sticks it further into the ground.

The very visual appearance of what might be considered a security servant class is distinct from the mandarins, the very way in which one relates to the other is distinct.

For instance, Nathan Templeton, speaker of the house, and Mackenzie Allen, president, are adversaries. Yet they share the same social codes, the same knowledge of politics, everything suggests a shared social experience of comfort. Templeton is very smart, eloquent, and witty. Despite their conflict, they speak to each other with a necessary civility. Both have a an appearance and bearing that is regal. I don’t choose the adjective idly. I imagined the possibility, very reasonable, I think, based on their similar manner, that later in the series we would discover that Templeton was in fact Allen’s father.

This image best embodies their shared place:

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

I contrast that to the portrayal of the security class; this shows up most prominently with the renegade soldier, but also with a run-in between the political consultant and a secret service man. The consultant and the reporter want to leave the plane, while the secret service man worries about the threat to their lives if they leave.

DICKIE MCDONALD

I’m walking off the plane. I’m gonna wave nicely at the bomber over there. Then I’m gonna go to the airport bar and have a gin and tonic.

ISABEL RIOS
I’m going too.

DICKIE MCDONALD
If you make us stay and this nut sets this thing off, my family will sue your ass off. And if he doesn’t, I will spend the rest of my life telling everyone how you held me hostage on Air Force One.

SECRET SERVICE AGENT
We’ve got a passenger coming off.

RIOS
Two passengers!

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

There is in McDonald’s speech an assumption that the secret service man is subservient to him. McDonald has the money and resources to sue the man. His word that he was held hostage by this man holds power; whatever rebuttal of the secret service man is of less worth. This has nothing to do with the respective aspect of their characters, since nothing we’ve seen of the secret service man is that he is anything less than honourable, and entirely with the classes they belong to. McDonald is eloquent and close to the levers of power, the secret service man is not.

Before arriving at the case of the veteran, it should be noted that the entire appearance of this security class, as well as that of a White House social director, a sort of security / handmaiden group, is distinct and apart from that of the leadership. The president, president’s husband, speaker of the house, the vice president, the press secretary, whatever their race and gender, are all soft featured, intelligent, and photogenic.

From top to bottom, images of the president, president’s husband, speaker of the house, vice president, and press secretary:

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

Those of the security class are entirely unhandsome, gritty, and hard. The social director, though attractive, has the fixed expression of an eternal scold. You’re certain while watching it that the actress must have at one point played a murderous governess. The members of the security class make me think only of one word: “subterranean”. A group of men who exist beneath the earth and make the machines function, they themselves unseen. There are two possible assumptions, possibly overlapping: that each group draws, or eventually molds one into, these particular physical types, or the aesthetic idea of having each member of a particular vocational class, whatever their variety, physically embody certain traits. Either way, I find, there is a sense of a separate but unequal, of two groups whose members are biologically destined, who can be found only in one grouping and never in the other.

A sample of the security and servant group. Greater emphasis will be placed later on the appearance of the renegade soldier, but I include him here as well (from top to bottom – a secret service agent, Secret Service agent Pete Ragone, the social director, the renegade soldier Frank Terzano):

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

This point was introduced as a paradox, but it is not a paradox specific to this show, rather, one common to movies and government. The military, as an abstract force, is to be respected and feared. To dissent from a war is to betray this noble force, and will be the target of fierce anger. The subject of soldiers now, after two wars, who return with little work available, sometimes homeless, often living in disturbing poverty, the very safety net they might require for survival cut to pieces – this is not a subject fit for discussion. Here, we may see again the convergence of the interests of Hollywood and Washington: there are countless movies detailing the awesome, merciless power of the military, while a handful of films, budgeted at pennies, are given to veterans living in poverty and neglect. This ignominy of the last is as common, if not more common, as the heroics of the first – it is only a case of what both groups, Hollywood and Washington, prefer to talk about, and what illusions citizens want.

I focus now on Frank Terzano, the rogue soldier who holds Air Force One hostage. We see him initially in full shot, then wearing mirrored glasses, then in fragments, a mouth, or an eye, until finally we are given his full face without glasses:

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

What I think is interesting is what the episode does not do here. Terzano is someone closer to ourselves, in terms of social position and income, than the president or her staff. As the episode progresses, we should have the uncanny sense not only of the soldier being more and more like us, but that our empathy is torn between him and the president; perhaps we may even feel an ever greater connection to this man than the distant leader. Again, this is not what takes place. The episode eventually makes clear why he commits this desperate act, but at the same time he is made into an almost subhuman creature. His appearance, in the fragments and when his full face is revealed, has the physical quality of a child – a bald baby head and pleading eyes. The little dialogue he is given is entirely emotion-riven, without any possibility of his making his case through eloquence or rational argument.

The details of the case are given not to him to convey, but exclusively to his doctor. Whether the assumption is that he lacks the intellectual wherewithal to discuss his wife’s medical condition, I have no idea. However, allowing him this would at least have given him a rounded humanity, an equality with the president and her staff, the possibility he could very well be a member of their families, or: that he’s an equal with members of the viewing audience, that he could very well be one of them, that he now lacks. An obvious place for dramatic tension would be between the actions of the president, correct given the circumstances, and empathy for Terzano, who may be entirely wrong but acts for just reasons – but this is entirely spurned. Instead, the tension lies with the myth mentioned earlier, that the president must be inherently good, and killing this man will besmirch this image of sacred goodness.

Two dialogue excerpts, the first time we hear Terzano’s voice, when he declares why he’s committing this rash act, and his doctor discussing his wife’s condition.

FRANK TERZANO
I don’t want to kill anyone. But I’ve tried and I’ve tried and now they’re gonna listen! I served my country for years. This is how they treat us? They’re just gonna let my wife die? She is down to 97 pounds.

DR. BERNARD HENDRICKS
I’ve had Betty Terzano as a patient for over ten years. About eight years ago, we discovered a stage-one colon cancer. Very early.

NATHAN TEMPLETON
Early discovery and treatment work?

HENDRICKS
Yeah.

NATHAN TEMPLETON
Isn’t that the point of me going through that humiliating ritual every year?

HENDRICKS
We were progressing in treatment and she was responding and then…Frank’s veterans health care was cencelled.

PRESIDENT ALLEN
Why?

JIM GARDNER [Vice President]
As best I can tell, Frank Terzano was receiving VA benefits because he was classified as more than 50 percent disabled when he was discharged after Desert Storm.

NATHAN TEMPLETON
Combat wound?

GARDNER
No. He was hit by a vehicle in a staging area.

HENDRICKS
A tank backed into him.

ALLEN
A tank?

HENDRICKS
Damaged his left leg. But he worked like hell in therapy and did all the right things.

GARDNER
He improved, so he was reclassifed as only 30 percent disabled.

HENDRICKS
Which dropped him out of priority one coverage and he lost his insurance.

ROD CALLOWAY [The president's husband]
Doesn’t his current job come with health insurance?

ALLEN
For him. But not his wife because of her pre-existing condition.

HENDRICKS
It gets worse.

ALLEN
How?

HENDRICKS
We found, when he did have insurance, that she only responds well to Zorbitux*. It’s a boutique, targeted drug that only works sometimes when nothing else does.

ALLEN
You said it gets worse?

HENDRICKS
Zorbitux costs $17,000 a month.

Next, a dialogue excerpt which is the only scene when Terzano is given the chance to speak at length. As stated, his dialogue makes me think of nothing less than a child, lacking the thought to do anything than express his most urgent want. President Allen, in turn, treats him as nothing more than such a child, not an equal with whom one gives an argument, or expresses shock that they have acted in such a manner, who must be cajoled through the carrot of patriotism, and the stick of death. It should be mentioned that patriotism goes entirely unmentioned in the episode until this point – the president travels to California for the material purpose of fund-raising; the various symbols in the episode owe their totemic power not due to national feeling, but the way they embody strength; the sexual power of the White House and Air Force One has nothing to do with the national feeling of the respective female conquests. “Absolutely nothing”, to quote President Allen, is offered to this soldier – this dumb sap will be gotten out of the plane through love of his country.

There is also this strange mirror, which I don’t think entirely co-incidental. As noted, the two episode plotlines both feature the use of national symbols as tools for sexual pursuit. There is a second symmetry: one also features a national symbol, a copy of the Gettysburg Address, nearly lost due to efforts of a child. The second features a national symbol nearly lost due to the efforts of – who exactly? A soldier, a man just like any other man, or another desperate child, a double to the the first plot’s troublesome child?

The dialogue:

ALLEN
Mr. Terzano, this is the president of the United States.

TERZANO
I don’t believe it. Prove it.

ALLEN
No, Mr. Terzano, I don’t need to prove it. You need to listen. I’ve met with Dr. Hendricks.

TERZANO
You did? Did he tell you about my wife? How sick she is? He’s a very kind man. He tried to help us, but he couldn’t.

ALLEN
Yes, I agree, he is a kind man, and he cares about you and your wife. I’ve also looked into your situation and here is what I’m prepared to offer you: (beat) Absolutely nothing.

TERZANO
Nothing? What do you mean?

ALLEN
That’s correct, Mr. Terzano, absolutely nothing. I find what you’ve done outrageous and a complete abandonment of the principles you upheld as a member of the United States military.

TERZANO
I’m hanging up!

ALLEN
Mr. Terzano, if you hang up, one way or the other, you will be dead very shortly and your wife will be alone. Is this how you want your children to remember you? Not as a man who saved his country, but a terrorist?

TERZANO
I don’t know what else to do. I’m supposed to take care of her. Can you understand that? We tried everything. I let her down. So this is my only option.

ALLEN
Mr. Terzano, you have not served your country very well today. But there is reason to believe…that you have not been well-served by your country, either. If your country is at fault I promise to take the necessary steps…

TERZANO
I’ve heard all this before.

ALLEN
Not from me.

TERZANO
I can’t keep letting her suffer. I need guarantees that she’ll get care and…

ALLEN
This is not a negotiation, Mr. Terzano. This is a choice for you to make. Either you’re willing to surrender peacefully or this will end violently. If you care about your family, as I believe you do, you’ll save your life. It’s your best hope, sir. And, frankly, it’s your only hope. Good night.

ALLEN
Everyone off the plane?

PETE RAGONE
Yes Ma’am.

ALLEN
Give him five minutes and then take your first clear shot.

A third and final point. The previously stated points are relevant to a consultant like Stuart Stevens because I think they confirm the lack of distinction between what is wanted by audiences not just in fictions about american presidents, but in presidents themselves. There is no dissenting or contrarian note in this episode from other similarly themed popular fictions. I do not believe this is a case of a political consultant submitting to the demands of the form, but demonstrating that what is wanted from a president is also wanted from the form, and the presidential candidate must also meet the standards of this same form, however wrong and inappropriate they are for a president. The investment of symbols of government with some mystic power, untied with the performance or aptitude of government, and tying this same mystic power with military might is extraordinarily dangerous, and any president who has an unquestioning belief in such connections, and employs them to strengthen his own presidency, is not a patriot, but a very dangerous man. This very fusion, however, is a commonplace of stories about american presidents.

Now, a third and final point specific to Romney, Stevens, and especially the centerpiece of the Romney campaign, his strange, ridiculous quest to end Obamacare. As stated, Terzano holds the plane hostage in order to pressure the government to get medical care for his wife after he’s found ineligible under their current insurance. The last lines in the episode about the man are these:

ALLEN
I want a report on what happened with the Terzanos. What? Why? Who’s responsible? I want a medical report on her condition.

KELLY LUDLOW [the president's press secretary]
News is reporting offers of private donations willing to cover her costs.

I first make the small insight that this strange detail reinforces the mystic idea of martial power. By unflinchingly threatening this man until he surrenders, a bounty of funds and aid has emerged. From guns, come butter. Swords will not need to be transformed into plowshares, swords will summon plowshares from the ground. This, again, is the happy merger between Hollywood and Washington in image-making. Hollywood can make better movies about swords than wheat, Washington’s ruling class gains more right now from sword making and sword selling than wheat, so we have an agreeable illusion: swords, somehow, make wheat.

The other insight, directly connected with the Romney campaign is the following: it would seem that a military man, whose wife is in dire need because of the refusal of private insurers to provide coverage, which is then compensated for by citizens across the country offering to pay for her medical care, is a rather obvious endorsement of the very federal health care plan Romney and his campaign oppose. Observe: the episode makes clear that the market does not work in this case, with a valiant decent man unable to pay his wife’s medical bills. Observe also that these same medical bills are not the result of poor choices, but the capricious nature of illness itself. A third observation: that this man does not have enough to pay for the bills is not due to laziness or poor choices but honorable service in the military, and injury incurred while in service. This is not viewed as an incidental to life and the government, but an instance of a man who, in the fictional president’s words, has “not been well-served by your country”. That others are willing to cover this woman’s bills implies the very nature of public insurance: one contributes to a pool of money that will help with the injuries and illness of others, as well as possibly oneself at future point. That the donations come across state lines implies a federal plan, rather than one designed state by state.

I do think this is a very reasonable interpretation, though perhaps Stevens believes instead that the best approach to health care is to encourage persons to hold national monuments hostage until coverage of the showdown prompts others to pay their medical bills.

By episode’s end, I was left with the question, what does Stevens believe in, a public insurance plan or its fervent opposition?

My humble conclusion is that, as a political consultant, belief is his business, but this work is with making others believe, with himself believing in nothing at all. He is, not unlike most, if not all, political consultants, a dream-maker mercenary: when a television audience has a hope of political action over medical bills, he’ll happily offer those poor folks an illusion, and when partisans want the bogeyman of government health care destroyed, he’ll happily craft an illusion for those suckers as well. Like a smart bookie, he makes money whichever team holds the trophy. It will be of no consequence to this person whether Romney wins or loses, or what happens to the conditions of life for the needful and desperate in the United States. A man who can purchase eleven course meals can afford private health care that most of us cannot. If cities and country descend into sufficient misery, he’ll always be able to fly to somewhere else.

* I choose Woodrow Wilson not entirely arbitrarily; he participates in World War I, but this is a war entirely marked by a grim inertia. Visual heroics have been found in Afghanistan and Viet Nam, but almost none in this conflict. It was a war of creeping oblivion, troops locked in static points for much of it, without any possibility of conquest or great epic battle. It is possible to find something heroic in the charge up San Juan Hill, however ridiculous; not so much slow death by disease in a trench.

* I do not consider this idea of the presidency always choosing the righteous man and the idea of a later corruption by power in contradiction; I think there is a distinction between the virtuous man somehow found, then corrupted, and the less sentimental idea that the very process by which one attains political power very rarely requires virtue, and virtue is often an impediment. The best example I can think of the contrast in view is the grandest movie treatment ever given to the Nixon presidency, Oliver Stone’s Nixon, which took the approach of dramatic tragedy, a hero fatally flawed, who, despite these dooming flaws managed good work in the Mideast and China; this would be in contrast to the more conventional attitude that this was a man, who, given other circumstances, would have been just another mafia lawyer, a craven, oily sycophant drenched in self-pity, empty of significant idea or insight.

* Mitt Romney, presumably with some guidance from Stevens has recently assailed President Obama in the following terms (my italics): “Like his colleagues in the faculty lounge who think they know better, President Obama demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy” (link). This program’s President Mackenzie Allen is a former University chancellor.

* A drug, I believe, that is entirely fictional, indigenous to this episode.

Images and script copyright ABC / Disney.

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Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction – A Wax Museum With A Pulse

(since the following will talk about the movie’s dialogue, a warning: yes, it will feature references to a certain racial epithet)

A movie that has been much discussed. What has been said here has most likely been said before; some of it is so obvious as to be self-evident, but I point it out anyway. This is not an attempt at any search for something so tiresome as “meaning”, though a small mention of this is made at the end. It is almost entirely an attempt to examine the movie’s effects, why they work, why they occasionally don’t work, and why attempts to imitate them often fail.

NON-LINEARITY: A MISPERCEPTION

A first point at greater clarity and focus. The movie is often cited for its distinguishing quality of non-linearity. This, I think, is a mis-seeing. The movie is almost entirely in chronological order. A crucial sequence for the characters is what takes place in the diner, and what takes place right before it. Since this is the crux of the movie, it is taken out of sequence. The opening of the young robbers is the very event which precedes it; rather than seeing this crucial event, we then move back to the killers in their car. The movie now is entirely in sequence, with the exception of the boxer’s flashback, until the last section, which are the events that take place before the diner robbery, and finally, the diner robbery itself.

A non-linearity suggests an almost random sequencing of events, their point in the sequence of no importance. This, however, is a simpler structure, something like that of a story where the character experiences something right after the credits which leaves him in a traumatic state, the nature of the event hidden from us, until it is finally shown to us at the conclusion, making clear something about our hero. That this sequence is set aside marks its crucial importance; it is only a question of discerning why it is considered so important as to be set aside as the conclusion.

ROLES DEFINED BY THEIR FUNCTION

What I’ve written so far refers to characters without using any character names, only their character roles, roles defined by function. It is possible to go through all the major characters with a reader easily identifying who each is, by just stating their role:

The killers. The gangster kingpin. The gangster’s moll. The boxer. The fixer. The hippie dealer. The young robbers. The hillbilly rapists.

The only major character that I can think of that is without function but is still a stock movie type would be the “french girlfriend” of the middle section.

That the characters are functional types is, I think, essential for why the movie works. Jake Gittes of Chinatown is a character who is a detective; the forties detective that might show up in sketch comedy is something entirely else. Jake Gittes or Charles Foster Kane showing up in a comedy sketch can only be a parody of Jake Gittes or Charles Foster Kane; the detective type or pompous millionaire type is something different. There are a few quick visual signs of these types – fedora and trenchcoat for the detective, monocle and tuxedo for the millionaire – which allow us to instantly recognize them. The fun lies in these types behaving either according or not according to type – the detective’s tough guy attitude, the millionaire’s highfalutin air. These types also have the advantage of being seen as entirely artificial, from narratives alone. There may be millionaires and detectives in real life, they may be tough or pretentious, but these are types alone*.

This allows for them to placed into almost any scene without explanation or possibility of incredulity, since these types are recognized immediately as types. If we have a comedy sketch set in a woman’s college dorm with the forties detective suddenly showing up, marked by some variation of “Harlem Nocturne”, we require no back story of who this detective is; we know already there will now be a collision between the ridiculousness of the hard boiled type in the context of a college dorm. These types are so well-known that we do not even need to have seen the movies or read the novels in which they originally appeared. They are so prevalent as types, that anyone recognizes them through quick shorthand. One more point is essential: they are not designed for depth, but to play off them as types.

This, I think, is crucial because the roles of Pulp Fiction are something like these types, if not recognizable through the same visual short-hand, recognizable through their function, and why certain effects work so well in this movie and are very difficult to reproduce elsewhere, and why one aspect is misidentified as a flaw, rather than an aspect of design.

First, the flaw. The characters in the movie are faulted for their lack of depth. This, however, has nothing to do with the way they are written, but with their conception as types themselves. It is, again, like faulting the lack of depth in the millionaire or forties detective type characters in a comedy – we might fault the fact that the types are chosen over rounder characters, but some effects can only be achieved through types, rather than characters who are detectives or millionaires. There is no possibility of depth when characters are conceived as types, but this is an expected part of their design.

The flip side of this is why Pulp Fiction works very well in many ways. The functional types in the movie are types who, in other narratives, would have the sole purpose of performing their function to further the plot – the assassin killing a man, the gangster’s moll seducing a man, the boxer hurting or killing through his hands – here, their function is entirely suspended for long periods, and we wonder for some if it will ever be put to use. As types, they may have no deeper character to discern, but they also have a freedom of speech unlimited by character. A forties detective type can talk in hardboiled argot, but then quote from Aristotle, and finally sing part of an XX song – all without us questioning this character doing this, whereas non-type “realistic” characters ultimately cause us to ask – what was their life before this, who is this person, this detective who has all these varied interests? There is something about the type that is pure transmitter, and even when he says things that are contrary to his type – a forties detective, say, playing the harpsichord – he remains his type. We are not surprised if, in a parody skit, this forties detective plays the harpsichord and then, in the next moment, is back under a street lamp smoking a cigarette, giving hardboiled narration.

This is why the types are so effective in this context: the viewer listens to the dialogue, some quite baroque, without ever questioning the link between the dialogue and its source – why does the character talk this way? It also allows the movie to move the characters through various milieus, some very artificial, without credulity ever being broken. This is why Tarantino’s imitators often failed: they began with non-type, “realistic” characters, a man or woman not defined by a role, who among other things was a robber or a killer. The baroque dialogue, in this context, now sounded ludicrous – why is this person talking like this? The other possibility was to curtail the dialogue, so that it was more consistent with a “realistic” character, so we end up with something no different from social realism. This, it should be emphasized, is not what Pulp Fiction is, and were it to be done in this mode, its effects would not be possible.

An example of a detail that’s used well in conversation yet does not get us any closer in intimacy to the character is Vincent’s time in Amsterdam. We know that he spent close to three years there. He tells Jules details about life in Europe, dialogue that became quotable and overly quotable. This time in Amsterdam comes up again with the dealer, over his car being in storage for three years, and the date with Mia. Yet at no time are we told what purpose there was for his being in Amsterdam, nor do we ever feel a strong urge to know this – that this would provide additional insight into this man. Dialogue about Amsterdam would be less like a monologue giving a central insight into a man, and more like one more joke told by a comedian.

And a good comparison of such characters would be to comedians. We might discern an attitude or approach in a comedian’s lines, but we do not expect, and we will not, approach him or her in intimacy, or necessarily learn vital details of their character. That a comedian’s lines are entertaining, but do not form a character, and are simply a set of lines, is an indictment against some comedians when they act in movies or get their own shows. The problem, of course, is that the character in the movie or show is often one of social realism, a husband, a single father, an office worker, whose dialogue is expected to reflect and give greater insight into the character there.

The dialogue in this movie is not written in a series of stand-alone lines of a comedian’s – the lines of dialogue do intersect and play off of each other; but the entire conception and approach is that we are always distant from these characters, but also, that we expect to always be distant from these characters. That this is the approach, however, does not necessarily make the task of writing easier, anymore than a comedian’s lines are easier than dialogue in a suspense drama. It does, however, offer a reason for why the dialogue here is so distinctive, so baroque, yet at the same time makes us no closer to the people in the movie, and why attempts to imitate the dialogue in a social realistic setting will fail.

I end with an example, a set of lines from the hippie dealer. The hippie dealer has only two functions, to sell drugs to the killer, and later provide the adrenaline shot. Here, he sells some drugs. Nothing is conveyed about the hippie dealer, nothing additional is done, other than what is part of the transaction of selling drugs, yet the lines are extraordinarily colorful:

Vince and Lance look at drugs

LANCE

Now this is Panda, from Mexico. Very good stuff. This is Bava, different, but equally good. And this is Choco from the Hartz Mountains of Germany. Now the first two are the same, forty-five an ounce — those are friend prices — but this one…(pointing to the Choco)…this one’s a little more expensive. It’s fifty-five. But when you shoot it, you’ll know where that extra money went. Nothing wrong with the first two. It’s real, real, real, good shit. But this one’s a fuckin’ madman.

BLACK AND WHITE AND COLOR

The major characters of the movie, then, are types defined by the task they are expected to perform. They are flat by design, but that they are flat does not make them any less memorable. Many movie characters, even if they are complex, are rendered flat in our memories, or in the reproductions and invocations of these characters, becoming fixed by a single trait or a few lines. Characters in black and white movies, by being in a period of movies that was visually less real, more theatrical in its dialogue and conception, allowed for the possibility of icon making that a more realistic period of movie making did not. Something like this point might be made in Jack Rabbit Slim’s: Vincent and Mia walk about the restaurant, filled with actors playing movie icons, with Vincent and Mia icons themselves.

Jack Rabbit Slim’s is a mess of color, but Vincent and Mia stand out because their entire ensemble is colorless, black and white:

Vince at Jack Rabbit's

Mia at Jack Rabbit's

ABSURDITIES AND ABSENCES

Throughout, there are absurdities and absences in the movie’s setting, which are unimportant and go unacknowledged by the viewer, because the movie is not in a social realistic mode. It places character types in a number of settings; that the settings might be absurd in a “realistic” context is irrelevant, just as when the forties detective is placed in the context of a woman’s sorority or a moon base for a comedy skit, we ignore details that are wrong about either setting. For that matter, we don’t question why this character type is even there – the purpose is simply whatever comes out of the absurd juxtaposition. I mention here absurdities or absences that go unnoticed, not as errors, but to make clear that the very setting has not been established as one that is “realistic”, that the movie does not work because it is “realistic”, in fact, would not work if its setting were “realistic”.

A partial list:

  • A robbery of a large, busy restaurant with windows open to the street, a steady in-inflow of customers, in Los Angeles during broad daylight.
  • Two seasoned assassins are to retrieve a suitcase from a group of unexperienced, almost entirely unarmed students. They know in advance who they’ll run into in the apartment. Yet somehow, these two are worried that they don’t have sufficient firepower for the job.
  • A crime organization so small that it requires its kingpin to go on a hit once one of his assassins leaves.
  • A local fight is somehow given play by play broadcast on the radio.
  • No mention or reference to grunge, post-punk, or, most strikingly, hiphop. The music listened to is almost exclusively from fifteen years before or ealier.
  • A pawnshop run by two southern accented hillbillies in the middle of Los Angeles.

THE MASSIVE AMOUNT OF POP CULTURE REFERENCES IN THE DIALOGUE: ANOTHER MISPERCEPTION

A brief digression. It is a movie noted for the constant use of pop culture in its dialogue. There are, in fact, very few.

Fabian makes a Madonna reference:

FABIAN
Shut up, Fatso! I don’t have a pot! I have a bit of a tummy, like Madonna when she did “Lucky Star,” it’s not the same thing.

Tony Rockamorra has a nickname:

JULES
You remember Antwan Rockamora? Half-black, half-Samoan, usta call him Tony Rocky Horror.

Mia mentioning that Vince is an Elvis man:

MIA
This is (pointing out each individual part of the name for emphasis) Jack. Rabbit. Slim’s. An Elvis man should love it.

There are the mentions in Jack Rabbit Slims, not metaphors or analogies, but nominal references to what’s there – the Marilyn Monroe waitress, the Douglas Sirk burger.

VINCENT
That’s Marilyn Monroe…

Then, pointing at a BLONDE WAITRESS in a tight sweater and capri pants, taking an order from a bunch of FILM GEEKS –

VINCENT
…and that’s Mamie Van Doren. I don’t see Jayne Mansfield, so it must be her night off.

The rest, that are metaphorical, are exclusive to Jules Winfield.

In the post-credits opening:

JULES
You, Flock of Seagulls, you know what we’re here for?

In the “Bonnie Situation”:

JULES
Hey, that’s Kool and the Gang. We don’t wanna fuck your shit up, We just need to call our people to bring us in.

JULES
You’re gettin’ ready to blow? I’m a mushroom-cloud-layin’ motherfucker! Every time my fingers touch brain I’m Superfly TNT, I’m the Guns of Navarone. I’m what Jimmie Walker usta talk about.

VINCENT
What do you mean, walk the earth?

JULES
You know, like Caine in Kung Fu. Just walk from town to town, meet people, get in adventures.

JULES
Nobody’s gonna hurt anybody. We’re gonna be like three Fonzies. And what’ Fonzie like?

Yolanda stays silent.

JULES
C’mon Yolanda, what’s Fonzie like?

And, of course, Jules keeps referring to one of the robbers as Ringo.

DEVIATIONS IN EXPECTED NARRATIVES

An examination of an obsessive, brilliant man, a fully formed character, whose deductions may well end up being wrong is a study of that character, a possible example being Arthur and George by Julian Barnes, a look at Arthur Conan Doyle. Imagine now a story with a hero that is Sherlock Holmes in all but name, not so much a character, but a few traits, genius and doggedness, say, suitable to move through a puzzle like Sherlock Holmes narrative, but with a twist – the detective is obviously, tragically, wrong. The victim proclaims their innocence, the audience discerns their innocence, but the Holmes character and others do not see this – the detective is praised once again for his brilliant deductions. Since there is almost nothing in terms of character to think about – just one or two traits – the story’s focus is instead on the form itself. This change of form may imply a critique of something else – the age of reason, idolatry of a great thinker instead of scrutiny of the process by which any conclusion is reached no matter who makes it, etc.

A genre form which deviates from the expectations of that form always prompts an interpretation. If the characters remain the types of the form, providing no answer in their own character, then the focus shifts to what is being said about the form itself, and the answer is almost always polemical. Again, we can imagine a possibility easily: a standard revenge drama, where a man’s family is killed, and this father then goes after the killers, where both the father and the killers are painted in the simple colors of the genre – the father whose only traits are his grief and desire for revenge, the killers who are cruel men. Perhaps there is a single twist to this revenge drama: the father, in seeking justice, ends up killing a number of innocent or marginally guilty figures, so that by the end of the picture he is as evil, if not more evil than the very men he pursues. This would be a story not about the psychology of the father, since there is nothing to be examined, but revenge stories themselves – the simplified universe they create, the assumption that the hero is always righteous, the audience’s own bloodlust.

Pulp Fiction puts functional characters that are standard in any genre, but without the forms we expect. The killings of the killers are incidental. The boxing match that the boxer is supposed to throw, but does not, is never shown. We expect a major plot to develop from the kingpin’s moll seducing one of the killers, but no seduction ever takes place. Since there are deviations from the forms, it is expected that something must be being said here; no answers can be found in the characters, because, as said before, they remain by conception unknowable and distant.

That nothing is being said about the forms, and that this is not an indictment of shallowness, but simply one approach, and one that has been attempted many times before, should be considered instead. If, again, the forties detective is placed in an uncommon place for a comedy skit – a lunar base, a woman’s sorority, the venue of a bugs bunny cartoon – and then they play with the form – the wrong person is arrested, the object of obsession, rather than the Maltese falcon, is a giant piece of cheese made from the moon, a bracelet bought off eBay, the greatest carrot ever grown – no attempt is being made to examine the form, only to entertain by playing with the form itself. That no great statement is being made, should not be an indictment, anymore than it is with this movie.

Where Tarantino’s form-playing goes awry might be Inglourious Basterds: the form that we expect is a tragic ending, instead we get a victory. If it were other contexts, we might accept this playfulness: here, it turns mass death into a successful fight that the audience prefers. If we revolt against this, it is for the same reason we revolt against the idea of those stories that find a life lesson learned or the possibility for optimism in the most tragic situations. Some experiences contain only grief, and to find an upbeat message in the story is to diminish the victims of the tragedy, tragedy itself, for our own selfish needs. Rather than creating a communion between ourselves and those in a far more difficult, choiceless situation, it transforms their situation into something from which the audience can extract either a banal lie, or sate their cheap desires.

A DIGRESSION: THE ADRENALINE SHOT SCENE

The scene where an adrenaline shot needs to be administered to the moll in order to revive her is, I believe, a re-enactment of an anecdote from the excellent Martin Scorsese documentary, American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince.

The movie can be seen here at Google Videos. The anecdote comes in between the 36:00 and 38:00 points. It’s the film’s subject describing one of his many difficult and strange experiences while being a heavy user of various drugs.

Steven Prince

Out of that, uh, a lot of close calls, I managed to get a lot of medical supplies, medical equipment, that you might not normally have. Like, we had oxygen. We had an electronic stethoscope that gave a tape readout, so you could tell how many heartbeats…we had adrenaline shots. We had all kinds of stuff…adrenaline shots to bring you through when you OD’d.

This girl, once, OD’d once on us. And she was out, man. It was myself and her boyfriend. And he said…and her heartbeat was dropping down. And we got everything out, oxygen, and nothing was working. And he looked at me and he says: “Well, you’re gonna have to give her an adrenaline shot.” I said, “What are you talkin about?” I said, “You give it to her.” He said, “I can’t, it’s like a doctor working on someone in his own family.” “Bullshit. You’ve known her two days. What the fuck is that?” And he said, “I can’t do it.” And so we had the medical dictionary…you know how you give an adrenaline shot? Okay, the adrenaline needle’s about that big (indicates about six inches) Okay, you gotta give it into the heart. You have to put it in a stabbing motion. (makes stabbing motion) And then plunge down on it. (makes plunging gesture) I got the medical dictionary out, looked it up, got a magic marker, made a magic marker where her heart was…measured down two or three ribs, measured it in between there. And then went HUH! (makes quick stabbing motion) And…(creaking noise to accompany plunging gesture) And…(snaps fingers) she came back like that. She just came…(snaps fingers again)…right back, like that.

Steven Prince

THE FLAWS IN THE BONNIE SITUATION

I enjoy most of the movie; my pleasure dips in “The Bonnie Situation”. I can point to two details that may be the cause.

In the first two stories, we have characters who may have assigned tasks, yet the task is an afterthought or it is performed in a context we do not expect. The sequence is spent with the characters simply talking, as we anticipate whether this task will even be performed, and how. The first story is spent wondering if the moll will even seduce the killer, and whether it will bring him into conflict with the kingpin. In the second story, we expect to see the boxer fight in the ring. Instead, we are given something entirely different – the boxer talking to his girlfriend, as we anticipate his conflict with the kingpin. When the conflict does arrive, it is not in the way we expect.

The third story is a deviation from these other two, with the fixer doing the exact task he has been assigned, without distraction, giving orders which the other characters follow. The pleasure in the other sequences lay in the period waiting for the characters to perform their tasks, an anticipation entirely absent here.

The other key difference is that this is the first sequence where a major character shows up undefined by a specific role. Again, I can reel off the other roles according to types and they’re all readily identifiable – the killers, the moll, the boxer, the french girlfriend, etc. For the “Bonnie Situation”, when I list the major characters, I have the young robbers, the fixer, and…here I draw a blank on the character who owns the safe house, and I simply want to state Quentin Tarantino, because this character has no type (his name is Jimmie).

Tarantino as Jimmie

Many have faulted Tarantino’s acting here, but I will not add any kindling to that pile. I don’t see the role working any more effectively, if, say, we move Frank Whaley or Steve Buscemi into this part. That it is a part that is not a type, that this role has the possibility of roundness, makes clear the design of the other parts. Questions that did not exist with the other roles now arise with this one – Who is this person? What job does he have, criminal, legal, or in-between? How does he know Jules Winfield? There has been a focus on this character saying “nigger” twice in front of Jules – how well does he know Jules that he has such comfort to say this? The focus then causes the debate to veer off into the social codes of real life – and perhaps tries to connect what goes wrong in this sequence with these same social codes. Again, I think this is a mistake: the problem is not the use of this word, or Tarantino’s acting, but the use of a round, realistic part for the first time in the movie, because the writing that has worked so well up to this point now fails with this character.

When I imagine this sequence working better, it is not necessarily with a different actor in the role, but a flat character type instead – perhaps not one based around a task but a recognizable type, nonetheless, maybe the standard issue university professor with a plummy english accent who spends the whole sequence tamping his pipe. He says many of the same lines that the character now has, including the racial epithets, but instead they now work, because we do not consider the possibility of knowing this character any deeper than any of the others, whether it’s his use of racial epithets, or his friendship with Jules Winfield. I give the idea of a professor as an example, but it could be any other type, a blues musician, a rich man, a con man, as long as it be clearly a type, rather than the possibility of a realistic character.

MY FAVORITE SHOT FROM THE MOVIE

It is during “The Gold Watch” sequence, when the camera does a slow zoom on a war movie on TV, Fabien floats over the screen’s surface.

Fabien reflected in TV

It’s an image that stays with me, in and of itself, but also because it’s made up of such simple elements. Fabien stays in a secure place away from the violence bookending her scenes. Analysis has focused on the fact that it is a war on TV, and that this connects with Butch’s memory and what takes place after. I don’t think it’s necessary for it to be a war for this sequence to work, only a scene of movie violence, for there to be the ominous aspect, not simply as a foreshadowing of violence, but tied in with the idea of the characters in the movie as types. The boxer that has betrayed the kingpin, has been used for conflict in fiction over and over. They are designed not for examination of characters, but for the pleasure of eventual conflict. The violence on TV is, for me, like the sand running out of an hourglass – sooner or later, we expect, we want, the boxer and kingpin to meet. It is inevitable not because of the characters, but the structure itself and the expectations of the structure: violent conflict.

This ties into the previous point of the characters as types. The details of the types are almost of no consequence – if Vincent had gone to another country than Amsterdam for three years, with a different set of funny, interesting associated dialogue, it would have no consequence for the character. The details are of no consequence for motivation with one exception – the boxer’s need for the gold watch.

“The Gold Watch” opens with the memory which places the extraordinary importance of the talisman with both the boxer and the audience. The boxer wakes from this like it’s a nightmare. He then pulls off his scam and safely escapes. There will be no possibility of conflict between him and the kingpin, he has escaped, and he is in a safe place. In the middle of this sequence, the boxer wakes again from a horrible dream, presumably, again, of the gold watch. He sees the violence on TV, what the audience expects and wants from these types in conflict. There is no reason for the boxer to leave his safe place – except for this implanted memory, designed for the purpose of him going on what would otherwise be an irrational quest – the retrieval of a simple watch from his house, even if it means great possibility of harm, but which will fulfill the ends of the structure: bringing him into conflict with the kingpin. Each time I see the boxer wake from his nightmare, I see a reaction not just to the memory itself, but that the memory is there almost arbritrarily, alone, in order to drive him into conflict. It is something like a science fiction film, where a character’s memories have been implanted so he acts according to the purposes of some shadowy, sinister group, the character vaguely aware that there is something of design, something not entirely his own, to these memories.

This is part of the image of Fabien floating above the TV as well: she is part of this movie structure whose purpose is to bring about violent contact between the principals, without any consciousness of it.

THREE SECRET STORIES AND THE BRIEFCASE

A great deal of focus has been given to the contents of the briefcase in the movie. In part, I think this lies with the deviations in form talked about earlier. The forms are not what we expect, there must be some explanation for this, and it lies with what is in the briefcase. Again, I think this is a mistake – the forms are altered for the same reasons of pleasure that the forms are played with in a comedy sketch or a cartoon.

One point that I think is underemphasized, is that the movie consists of three stories that are expected to remain secret and unknown to almost all, except for a few participants and the audience. The audience ends up privy to three secrets with no one in the movie seeing all three. The flip side of this is the briefcase, which is seen by many of the participants, but kept hidden from us.

The three secret stories are Mia’s near death:

MIA
If you can keep a secret, so can I.

VINCENT
Let’s shake on it.

The rape of Marsellus:

BUTCH
So we’re cool?

MARSELLUS
Yeah man, we’re cool. Two things: don’t tell nobody about this. This shit’s between me and you and the soon-to-be-livin’-the-rest-of-his-short-ass-life-in-agonizing-pain, Mr. Rapist here. It ain’t nobody else’s business.

The third is what happens to Marvin. His body and the vehicle are destroyed, vanishing from the earth, becoming a mystery.

JULES
We cool?

WINSTON
Like it never happened.

CHANGE CLOTHES AND AN EMPTY BRIEFCASE

This post ends with what might portentiously be called the “meaning” of the film. The characters, as I’ve said, are all types, defined by their tasks. Many of these are tied with their outfits – the suits of the assassins, the tuxedo of the fixer, the dress of the moll. Each sequence is marked by the major characters changing their clothes.

The first sequence has the killers leaving their suits and ending up in casual clothes. This is considered so key to the movie, that the change of clothes sequence is moved to the very end.

Vince and Jules out of costume

The moll nearly dies, and ends up, instead of her blouse, with a shirt from the dealer’s house.

Moll out of costume

The second sequence shows us with both the moll and one of the killers back in costume.

Vincent and Mia back in costume

It is also devoted to a lengthy sequence of the boxer changing from his boxing outfit to street clothes.

Boxer changing in cab

He then gets ready to change to an entirely new outfit, one he can wear once he’s made his escape:

Boxer changes to new clothes

But he has to retrieve his watch, so he has to go back to street clothes suitable for a fight:

Boxer puts on old shirt

In the third sequence, we see the killers forced to change clothes. Jules never returns to the story, or his original suit. This is tied to his abandonment of a role, an abandonment of a set of tasks. Vince, who returns to being a killer, cannot conceive of this:

VINCENT
So if you’re quitting the life, what’ll you do?

JULES
That’s what I’ve been sitting here contemplating. First, I’m gonna deliver this case to Marsellus. Then, basically, I’m gonna walk the earth.

VINCENT
How long do you intend to walk the earth?

JULES
Until God puts me where he want me to be.

VINCENT
What if he never does?

JULES
If it takes forever, I’ll wait forever.

VINCENT
So you decided to be a bum?

JULES
I’ll just be Jules, Vincent — no more, no less.

VINCENT
No Jules, you’re gonna be like those pieces of shit out there who beg for change. They walk around like a bunch of fuckin’ zombies, they sleep in garbage bins, they eat what I throw away, and dogs piss on ‘em. They got a word for ‘em, they’re called bums. And without a job, residence, or legal tender, that’s what you’re gonna be — a fuckin’ bum!

Jules then demonstrates the break from his identity – he is an assassin, but rather than kill in a context that expects it, he specifically doesn’t. The impulse for this are bullets that should kill him but do not. This could be looked at as religious salvation which brings Jules to a path of penance. I look at it somewhat differently: Jules sees bullets that should kill him and do not, and sees that he is just a role in a structure, with events taking place according to the demands of the structure. He should clearly be shot, but it is necessary for this structure that he remain alive. This is no different from countless movies where major characters are the target of hundreds of bullets at close range, yet somehow the bullets always miss. This is solely because of the position of the roles, a major character shot by minor insignificant characters.

This is emphasized in the very speech that Jules gives to one of the robbers, that he can kill with impunity because of his role, that it has nothing to do with anything he is. He mentions that his bibilical quote is almost incidental to his character, like so many of the details of the parts in this movie. It was just a cold-blooded thing to say. It is something he never questioned. Only now does he try to place others in the parts of the saying:

JULES
I been sayin’ that shit for years. And if you ever heard it, it meant your ass. I never really questioned what it meant. I thought it was just a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker ‘fore you popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this mornin’ made me think twice. Now I’m thinkin’, it could mean you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man. And Mr. .45 here, he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or is could by you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish.

Neither of these fit, the only one that fits is with the role that he has, a character who cannot be killed by bullets in some contexts. It has nothing to do with morality, only the position of the character in the narratives:

JULES
But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’. I’m tryin’ real hard to be a shepherd.

As a shepherd, he acquires true agency, outside of any structure. He leaves his outfit, stops performing his assigned task, and departs the story entirely.

A supplemental point: just as Jules perceives the rigged game aspect of the missed bullets and the assigned roles, he perceives the artificial quality of the briefcase, that, just like the boxer’s memory, it is designed solely as a task objective, an indescribable object of value. For Jules, the artificial nature of the universe is confirmed when he opens the briefcase and shows it to the robber. It is of extraordinary importance to the robber, but he’s unable to describe it to his fellow criminal. It is something like a character in a science fiction world who suspects that everyone is in a hypnotic state, that the enthusiastic response to a political leader has nothing to do with the leader himself, but a Pavlovian reaction to the color of the leader’s jacket or a subliminal signal in his speeches. The reaction by the robber to the briefcase makes clear that it contains something that has a universal lure, but somehow cannot be described, existing only for narrative purpose – it confirms Jules’ sense of the artificial world he lives in, why he must abandon his role and leave this universe.

A FINAL NOTE / ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, OR: ACTORS’ LIVES

The previous point I raise as a possibility to be entertained, not a certainty that one might fit with incongruities in the script. I connect this last with a play where the examination of such roles is its explicit motivation, Tom Stoppard’s well-known Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. I imply no lineage between Tarantino’s movie and the play, only bring it up because whatever their many differences, we can point to similarities in approach and effects.

Stoppard’s play focuses on two of Hamlet‘s peripheral characters, his good friends in the opus, whose only “business” in the play is to deliver Hamlet to the sanctuary of the english king, along with a letter which, unknown to the prince, commands his death. The prince switches letters, which results in the execution of the pair. This is all the action in Shakespeare’s play that they are involved in. They barely register as characters, existing almost entirely to perform their task, crucial to the plot. In Stoppard’s work they are now the title characters, but they do not exist in the verisimilitude of “reality” of Hamlet, but as men trapped in a strange void who occasionally are called into action whenever characters from Hamlet appear on stage and their presence is needed. They then snap suddenly into their required roles and deliver their lines. The play is explicitly “meta”, a work that can only be taken as something outside our reality, literary characters puzzling over the strange nature of existing as characters. However, these meta concerns converge with our own in their existential questions. When Rosencrantz or Guildenstern demand answers for the puzzling universe they exist in, where their actions seemingly have no purpose, their death none either, their questions echo our own about our own lives. They are defined by their task, yet their task is seemingly meaningless, leading them only to their own doom.

The play’s concerns, and this overlap, might be best exemplified by these lines near the end:

Guil
Our truancy is defined by one fixed star, and our drift represents merely a slight change of angle to it: we may seize the moment, toss it around while the moments pass, a short dash here, an exploration there, but we are brought round full circle to face again the single immutable fact – that we, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, bearing a letter from one king to another, are taking Hamlet to England.

For obvious reasons, this play is often likened to Waiting for Godot.

Pulp Fiction shares many of the play’s attributes, without ever explicitly moving outside of itself. It might play with our expectations of forms, but no character ever speaks about being a fictional character or the strange circumstances of being in a narrative. It is not explicitly meta, but I think it is this sharing of attributes which causes many, perhaps wrongly, to describe the movie as “meta”. Let us start with the detail brought up earlier, the bullets that fail to strike the killers. I raised the possibility that Jules’ reaction to this is not simply that of a man who takes the role of a penitent after a religious miracle, but a man who slowly realizes that the impossibility of the non-fatal bullets means that he’s actually in a movie. However, there’s nothing like any strong hint, implicit or explicit, that this is so. Where the non-fatal bullets come near the end of the film, the opening moment of R & G has the two characters focused on an impossibility which implies that they are not in reality. They flip a coin over and over again, yet somehow it always ends up heads, seventy six times in a row so far.

Ros (raises his head at Guil) Seventy-six love.

Guil gets up but has nowhere to go. He spins another coin over his shoulder without looking at it, his attention being directed at his environment or lack of it.

Heads.

Guil
A weaker man might be moved to re-examine his faith, if in nothing else at least in the law of probability.

What’s of greater interest is the way R & G‘s approach to its characters illuminates how those of Fiction are written. In both, the characters are part of a larger, unseen story. In the case of the play, it is the plot of Hamlet. The movie’s action is part of some other, offstage story involving the theft of the briefcase from the kingpin. Only for brief moments do we intersect with this larger plot, and that’s when the killers retrieve this prize. Just as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern flip into their roles and say their lines when Hamlet’s people walk on stage, the killers must “get into character”. The door opens on the room with the students, and the killers walk into this particular movie. We may then see something in what I’ve always found a puzzling moment: the killers need to wait for a particular moment to enter the room, with Jules stating that it’s not time yet for their entrance. Given what we see later in the room, I’ve never understood this dialogue, as it seems that given there’s no communication or signals between them and their inside man, entering the room at one point is as good as any another. The only way this dialogue makes sense to me is in the context of a stage entrance. These characters come into the movie at this point to do their tasks, threaten the students, kill them, retrieve the briefcase, not earlier or later.

Most importantly, is that in both works this approach to character allows for a freedom in dialogue that would not exist if they were restricted to the codes of verisimilitude. In Hamlet, the two friends are insignificant, of little depth, notice, or introspection. Stoppard’s play has them speaking in long passages about free will, death, and all matter of subjects in great detail. We have a vague sense of Rosencrantz distinct from Guildenstern, with the latter smarter and more knowledgeable, yet they are in other ways indistinguishable in terms of traits, with the two often getting themselves mixed up as to who is who. Similarly, the distinctions between the two killers are almost insignificant. One is racial, the other is that Jules is smarter than Vincent. Vincent has a drug problem, but for all we know, so does Jules. That both sets of characters remain unmoored from reality allows them to speak about anything. The dialogue of the killers has already been mentioned. Here would be an example of one of Guildenstern’s many erudite speeches:

Guil
Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are…condemned. Each move is dictated by the previous one – that is the meaning of order. If we start being arbitrary it’ll just be a shambles: at least, let us hope so. Because if we happened, just happened to discover , or even suspect, that our spontaneity was part of their order, we’d know that we were lost. (He sits.) A Chinaman of the T’ang Dynasty – and, by which definition, a philosopher – dreamed he was a butterfly, and from that moment he was never quite sure that he was not a butterfly dreaming it was a Chinese philosopher. Envy him; in his two-fold security.

That this minor character speaks in a way entirely unlike his dialogue in Hamlet, that he has this extraordinary knowledge of things involving probability, philosophy, chinese history, is always accepted by the audience, because they assume that these lines are unconnected with anything like life. A similar acceptance, I think, takes place with the dialogue of the characters of the movie. When Jules gives a formal analysis of how TV shows are developed and produced, we do not try to link this analysis to anything that might have taken place in the character’s previous off-screen life – a brief writing career, say – anymore than we try to link Guildenstern’s line with a possible time as a chinese scholar.

Though these effects are possible for the same reason, they do not take place entirely in the same context. Fiction might occasionally be mistaken for social realism, while the pair in R & G act in a propless cosmic void. That they have even greater freedom in dialogue then those in Fiction should not understate the fact that both sets of characters have far more freedom in what they might say than those in a story that attempts “realism”.

A final note in this final note. Though I find attempts to link what takes place in a work with a creator’s biography often tiresome, I will make a small one here. As said previously, that the movie’s characters are able to speak so freely outside of a role, in ways that they would not were they required to conform to the role’s context has nothing to do with any existential inquiry or investigation into the qualities of art, as is the case of R & G. That there are no such questions in the movie is obvious, and as I said before, is not a liability. This freeranging dialogue in the mouths of stock character types, I think, derives from Tarantino’s background as a struggling actor, trying out in audition after audition, along with hordes of other struggling actors, all competing for small roles of killers and girlfriends in huge commercial movies. You do your best to give some musical, imaginative delivery to a paltry number of trivial lines, always dreaming of what you could do with the great dialogue rolling around your head, all the things you say to your interesting, intelligent actor friends who vie for one- and two- line parts of hitmen number one and two. Fiction, I think, is some fulfillment of this actor’s fantasy. The small role of killers retrieving a briefcase expands in lexical richness to roam a territory greater than most movies, all the wonderful words, all the wonderful tones and wordplay bursting from an actor’s head, just burning to get out.

* The central importance of the types, the nature of the types, that they are alive yet at the same time immutable, gives the title to this post, a line of dialogue describing the faux celebrities of Jack Rabbit Slim’s which may well be the movie making self-reference: “A wax museum with a pulse”.

“Pulp Fiction” Images and screenplay copyright Miramax Films. “American Boy” images and dialogue excerpt copyright New Empire Films and Scorsese Films

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