Pulp Fiction and Religious Consciousness

Pulp Fiction Movie PosterI posted the following to a Facebook conversation with my buddy and movie critic Marc DiPaolo (check out his books on amazon.com). Marc had asked if Pulp Fiction is a “deeply religious movie.” What follows is my response, slightly edited.

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If Pulp Fiction is a deeply religious movie (which I think it is), then the suitcase is a modern incarnation of a golden calf, or a concentrated image representing our culture’s worship of money and power, which mob boss Marcellus Wallace holds and everyone else wants. What makes Sam Jackson’s character (Jules) the most “spiritual” is his willingness to get it for someone else without keeping it (or even wanting to keep it) for himself, much like Frodo and the One Ring in The Lord of the Ring.

Once Jules has attained that level of development, he increasingly becomes uninterested in serving power structures at all, so like a prophet he seeks only to “walk tha erf” protecting the weak and innocent from the strong and powerful, per his mangled, fictional Biblical quotation.

Bruce Willis’s character (Butch) represents another path of spiritual development, one that does not compromise on principle (represented by his memory of his father’s watch) in the face of despair over his personal advancement (he will never make it as a boxer) or personal gain (Wallace paying him off to take a dive in a boxing match). Butch accepts the payoff from Wallace in order to retaliate against the criminals using him by betting on himself for a change (which he’d never done all his life, “betting on himself” representing faith in oneself and one’s principles). He then wins the fight so violently he inadvertently kills his opponent.

GraceBut Butch is not himself completely criminal, because even though Wallace has now become a sworn enemy, Butch respects Wallace’s basic human dignity enough to protect Wallace from being killed by the “pawnshop rednecks” who have already started to rape him. This act of decency wins Butch his freedom from Wallace, who forgives Butch’s betrayal. Butch rides off to collect his money with his girl on a motorcycle that has the word “Grace” spray painted on the tank — he has received grace (in the form of freedom from revenge by power and money) because he stuck to all of his principles, even at great personal risk to himself: saving Wallace proved he wasn’t just another con man.

The “pawnshop redneck rape scene” extends the film’s commentary to a commentary Pulp-Fiction-Vectoron the distribution of wealth and power: white people (yuppies in the hotel room; white racist rapist uniformed security) keep trying to take it from black people (Wallace). Wallace, though a criminal, isn’t totally evil: he forgives Butch, allows Jules to leave, trusts Vincent Vega with his wife. He works on a basic principle of fairness and even trust although he makes his living as a criminal, which may extend Pulp Fiction‘s commentary to metadiscourse on society: lawful society has become so criminal that only criminals free of law can act on any kind of principle. Wallace’s revenge on the racist rapists may anticipate the revenge fantasy theme in Tarantino’s later films, such as Django Unchained or Inglorious Basterds. 

Great Commentary on the Charlie Hebdo Tragedy

The following video is commentary on the Charlie Hebdo shootings by John Ficarra, editor of Mad Magazine. To me, the most important thing that he said is that whenever Mad Magazine criticized Jerry Falwell or the Roman Catholic Church it assumed a shared set of values: that the worst that would happen is a stern letter from a lawyer (which they love getting). He never feared violent retribution.

I think that’s very important. We don’t critique or satirize things that we hate. We critique them because we want them to be better, because we believe that they should be better than they are — that the people who are the objects of our critique are one of us, so we expect that they should act like it. 

Yes, the Pope is right, people get irrationally angry when you criticize their wives or their mothers or their religion. That comparison is interesting to me, as it seems to assume the immediate emotional reaction is deeply personal and so somewhat unthinking. But all but the criminally insane manage their anger enough to restrain from even wanting to kill anyone over such criticisms, much less actually carrying out a murder.

I think it’s fair to say that most Charlie Hebdo images are satire in poor taste at best, and simply pointless and in poor taste at worst. Freedom of expression means that we have the right to say so. But freedom of expression also means that writers and illustrators have the right to be tasteless if they so choose without fear of violent retribution. Violence as a response is off the table even while we debate the social value of such humor.

Anyway, thank you, John Ficarra, for a thoughtful response to a horrible situation, and my condolences and sympathy go out to the friends and families of those so unjustly killed in France.