Pulp Fiction: cesspool enchantment

The first time I saw the movie Pulp Fiction, probably in the late 1990s, I thought, “Ugh—thank god I don’t have to watch that again.” In programming the 1990s section of my History of Cinema Festival I left Pulp Fiction off the list as a movie I’d already seen and was content not to see again. But as the time for viewing the movies of 1994 drew near, I decided to move it back onto the program, since with its rating of 9.0 out of 10 it is the 4th-highest-rated movie on IMDb. Since my goal is to watch all the best movies ever made, I felt a sense of duty to give it another chance.

Kimmie and I watched it again the night before last, and we both found it much easier to sit through this time. For one thing I was ready for the shocks that the movie dishes up; and for another I think I’ve been desensitized to on-screen violence and vice by watching pay-TV dramas such as The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad. With my reduced feelings of revulsion, I was able to appreciate Pulp Fiction more.

For why do we watch movies, anyway? We call them entertainment—but what does that mean? It’s supposed to be an agreeable and diverting way of spending time, but what’s agreeable about watching people being murdered, beaten, or sodomized? (Spoiler alert: I may be revealing plot details here, so if you haven’t seen Pulp Fiction and don’t want the experience to be spoiled, come back after you’ve seen it.) True, it’s “only” a movie—but it is a movie that includes those things, graphically portrayed, which portrayal has a repellent and traumatizing effect. Why pay for that? Why choose to watch it?

It puts me in mind of something I’ve been thinking about for the past few months: that all storytelling is fundamentally about virtue and vice. Now Virtue & Vice, taken as a pair, is one of the Great Ideas. This means that its nature is controversial; there is not even any universally accepted definition of virtue or vice. Like all the Great Ideas, they remain a provocative and important-feeling focus of discussion.

In Mortimer J. Adler’s introduction to the chapter on Virtue & Vice in volume 3 of the Britannica Great Books series, he notes that the idea of virtue and vice has changed over time, so that nowadays virtue is considered to mean only sexual chastity, or at least conformity to the prevailing norms of sexual behavior; while vice tends to be limited to referring to indulgence in sensual pleasures. In ancient times these words had much wider meanings, with virtue covering all the positive aspects of character, such as courage, temperance, justice, wisdom, and benevolence. (To these “secular” virtues, religious thinkers added the “theological” virtues of faith, hope, and charity.) Vice then was the corresponding set of negative aspects of character: cowardice, self-indulgence, injustice, folly, and malice. For ancient thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, the consideration of virtue and vice was vitally important, for they believed that the virtues, while good, were not ultimate goods. That is, the virtues were not ends in themselves. Rather, the virtues were means to a further end: happiness. And happiness is an ultimate good, perhaps the only ultimate good for the human being. In those thinkers’ view, if we want to be happy—and all of us necessarily do want to be happy—then we need to cultivate virtue in ourselves. And in order to do that, we should know what the virtues are and how to cultivate them.

I think that Plato and Aristotle are right: virtue is the path to happiness. And I believe that stories help educate us with respect to this truth by demonstrating the shadow-play of virtue and vice in the world, showing us how and why we need to position our own minds, our own souls, with respect to them. This is why we humans find stories so fascinating, and why stories constitute the largest part of our interpersonal communication.

Currently I’m reading Plato’s Republic, and in it Socrates has been describing the different types of personality that correspond to the different types of state, as well as ranking them in terms of the happiness they enjoy in life. In his view, the highest virtue and the highest happiness are enjoyed by the authentic king and the kingly personality. This type, because he understands his own nature, controls its worst elements and cultivates its best, and thus realizes the greatest pleasure in life.

At the bottom of the scale are the tyrant and the tyrannical personality. Treacherous and concerned only with sensuous pleasures and worldly power, the tyrant has no true friends; and since he cannot buy or control men of virtue, he must destroy them or exile them, and surround himself instead with vicious people. He spends his time flattering those he fears, and stripping the assets of those in his power. His life, in Socrates’ judgment, is the most miserable one possible for a man.

Back to Pulp Fiction. On this viewing I saw the story as a study in the tyrannical man. The master tyrant of the story is the gangster Marsellus (played by Ving Rhames), who orders his hitmen Vince (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) to kill some drug dealers who have betrayed him. He also orders the boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) to throw a fight for him. Marsellus is a near-perfect tyrant: rich, callous, loud-mouthed, feared, and with a beautiful wife (Uma Thurman). Later he falls into the clutches of other tyrannical men when, chasing after Butch who has betrayed him in the boxing scam, they are captured by a predatory pawnbroker who wants to use them for sexual purposes.

The other characters are all similarly tyrannical in nature, but weaker in power. Instead of doing anything beneficial for society, they steal and kill people; instead of enjoying life, they take drugs. They are parasites, prospering at others’ expense until they are killed. Their lives are indeed miserable—but not in their own eyes, only in the eyes of those who are less vicious than they are, such as most audience members.

There are moments of virtue in the story, shown mainly by the boxer Butch. Indeed, he’s not really a tyrant; for one thing, he treats his girlfriend (Maria de Medeiros) with kindness and respect, even when she seriously inconveniences him and causes his life to be endangered. But the central act of virtue occurs when Butch, having fought his way free of the pawnbroker and his perverted associates, hangs for a long moment in the doorway of the store, deciding whether to go back to help Marsellus, who is still trapped within, being tortured. He does go back—an act of courage and benevolence.

These acts of virtue make Butch what Robert McKee calls the center of good in the story: the character with whom the audience can identify. When he returns to his apartment to recover his father’s heirloom watch, we’re relieved that he’s able to turn the tables on Vince, who is lying in wait for him, and blow Vince away with his own silenced machine-gun. How different the story would feel if it had been the other way around, and Vince did kill Butch as planned. (Vince’s being dispatched for this job might reveal treachery on Marsellus’s part, who promised Butch that they were all square with each other after Butch saved his life. But it’s possible too that Vince was dispatched long before, and has simply not been called off the job.) Then the story would have been dark indeed.

Pulp Fiction has been hailed as a postmodern masterpiece, a powerful expression of ironic knowingness and pop-culture pastiche, but to me all those things are superficial and do not touch what is important about the work. I’m suggesting that the story—any story—is fundamentally about its portrayal of virtue and vice. This is what makes it the kind of story it is, and what the audience relates with most immediately. Pulp Fiction depicts an especially large and deep cesspool of viciousness, but I believe its great success was due not so much to its stylishness as to the fact that in that cesspool, a lone, fragile lotus of virtue was still trying to grow.

If Plato and Aristotle are right, and the virtues are ordered to happiness as means to an end, then the great and universal popularity of stories is easily explained. Stories show us the dark and light sides of our character, and the consequences flowing from actions motivated by each side. Stories—good ones—are trying to help us be happy.

How good is Pulp Fiction? I think it’s pretty good. Being hip and cool is all very well, but if that’s all a movie is, then it’s destined to become a mere period piece. Pulp Fiction is more than that, but I think the filmmakers would have to have taken stronger hold of the virtue-and-vice content of their story in order to make it something great. When Butch hangs in that doorway, he has to decide whether to plunge back into the cesspool from which he’s on the brink of escape. To me that’s the moment that counts, but I don’t think the filmmakers realized it. They were enchanted with their cesspool.

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