Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Pulp Fiction

The best worst year

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Faye Wong in Chungking Express

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What 1994 pop culture would you want to experience again for the first time?”

Just up the street from our house in Oak Park stands the middle school that my daughter will attend in about ten years. Whenever I push her past it in her stroller, I whisper: “Honey, I apologize in advance.” I’m kidding, but not entirely. Middle school is hell for just about everyone, and although this fact is widely recognized, it’s unclear what can be done. When you throw kids from ages twelve to fourteen together in one crowded arena, you’re going to get conflict: everyone seems stranded at a different stage of maturity or development—physical, emotional, and intellectual—and along with these changes comes the impulse to take the first tentative steps at defining one’s personality. You find yourself worrying for the first time about whether you’re wearing the right clothes or listening to the right kind of music, and you receive urgent messages to conform even as you start to figure out who you really are. The result is a nightmare for most kids with anything resembling an individual point of view, and in some ways, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over it, even though my life since has been exceptionally happy.

Yet I don’t think I’d be the person I am now without what I went through in the years 1993-1994, which have started to seem like a weird hinge moment of my life. I’ve spoken before about what happened to me around the age of thirteen: I discovered Borges, Eco, and Douglas Hofstadter in quick succession, dove deep into David Lynch and The X-Files, and that summer, I wrote my first novel. But if 1993 was my headlong plunge into peculiarity, 1994 was a kind of course correction. I started to notice that I wasn’t much like anyone else around me—I still remember a classmate’s incredulity when I told him that my favorite band was The Art of Noise—so I decided to do something about it. Other factors conspired to push me in that direction. For a while, we had both MTV and Spin at home, and I studied both closely. I walked past a record store on the way home from school every day, and I bought a copy of The Downward Spiral from the same cashier from whom I’d earlier purchased Very by the Pet Shop Boys. And once I was able to take the train to Berkeley on my own, I saw a lot of movies, many of which have stayed with me ever since.

Quentin Tarantino

As a result, I feel an intense range of emotions when I think back on the pop culture of 1994. It’s possible that any year would seem similarly charged if you were thirteen or fourteen at the time—it’s an age when you’re particularly susceptible to being permanently shaped by whatever you encounter—but it also happens to have been a shared moment in which the culture as a whole was working through similar issues. By now, it’s a cliché to talk about the alternate visions offered by Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction, and also a little misleading: Forrest Gump was an eccentric, ambitious, technically exquisite kind of entertainment that we don’t seem likely to see again. But the movies and music produced that year do seem to engage in a tricky triangulation between indie crediblity and popular success, or, if you prefer, between alternative and mainstream. The acts of appropriation extended in both directions, and its breakthrough figure was Quentin Tarantino, whose style was based on his ability to give a unifying form to a dizzying collage of influences. (As David Thomson wrote much later: “Anyone as blessed with a sense of movie shape might get away with knowing nothing else.”)

And it’s no accident that I owe Tarantino thanks for championing my favorite work of art from 1994, although I didn’t encounter it until the following year: Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express. I first saw it on another foraging expedition: I’d found that my local Chinese channel showed subtitled movies every Friday night, and they were invariably more inventive and energetic than anything else on the air. Chungking Express was even more special. Today, it feels very much like the product of its time, and I fell in love with it the moment I heard Faye Wong’s cover of “Dreams” by the Cranberries. But there was something particularly lovely, and personal, about its refusal to shoehorn its two stories into a conventional shape, whether by adding a third installment or by connecting them again at the end. (I remember being deeply concerned by the possibly that Brigitte Lin might reappear to shoot Tony Leung.) As I’ve noted elsewhere, a movie with three stories feels like a closed triptych, while two stories feels as open as life. And it taught me something I’ve tried to remember ever since. It’s possible to have it both ways, to be true to yourself and to the world you occupy, as long as you have sufficient energy, imagination, and love.

Written by nevalalee

August 22, 2014 at 9:47 am

Quentin Tarantino and the violence of restraint

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Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs

I have a friend who hates Reservoir Dogs. He’s willing to grant that some of Quentin Tarantino’s other movies have merit, but refuses to rewatch this particular film, mostly on account of its violence—which, he says, he found increasingly hard to take after he had children. I can understand what he means. In the case of my own daughter, I’m still working out what kinds of media she’ll be watching at what age, and while I definitely plan to introduce Beatrix to the joys of Pulp Fiction and the two movies about her namesake at the right time, I might give Reservoir Dogs a pass. I liked it plenty when I first saw it, but I haven’t been tempted to revisit it in a long time, and these days, I think of it mostly as an inventive and resourceful debut that paved the way for the astonishing career to come. (The recent Vanity Fair oral history of the making of Pulp Fiction just serves as a reminder of how deeply influential Tarantino has been, even as his influences and innovations are absorbed into invisibility by the culture as a whole.)

And although I understand my friend’s point about the violence in Reservoir Dogs, what lingers with me, weirdly, is Tarantino’s restraint. Take the movie’s most notorious sequence. When I think of it today, what I remember is not so much the violence as two amazingly assured shots. The first is the moment when the camera turns aside as Mr. Blond prepares to hack off the cop’s ear, tracking away to focus on a nondescript corner of the room as we listen to the screams coming from just offscreen. It’s a startlingly subjective camera move, as striking in its way as the moment in Taxi Driver when Scorsese pans away from Bickle’s telephone rejection from Betsy, and reflects Tarantino’s understanding that such things are more effective when left to the imagination. Even better is the shot immediately afterward, when Mr. Blond leaves the warehouse, crosses a peaceful street in silence, retrieves a gas can from his car, and returns, all in a single unbroken take that ends back in the room where “Stuck in the Middle With You” is still playing. Mike D’Angelo of The A.V. Club has sung this shot’s praises, and it’s one that still knocks me out, more than fifteen years after I first saw it.

Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained

Given this kind of filmic grace, which Tarantino had in spades before he even turned thirty, it’s instructive to turn to Django Unchained, which I finally caught over the weekend. (I liked it a lot, by the way, although it strikes me as one of his less essential movies, somewhere above Death Proof and below Jackie Brown.) Django has also aroused controversy over its violence, and while I wouldn’t want to argue that it isn’t a violent movie, here, too, I’m more struck by its restraint than anything else. This is partly because it’s the first movie in which Tarantino hasn’t done deliberate violence to the medium of storytelling itself: the plot proceeds in a linear fashion, without any of the structural games we find in his previous work, and the boundary between good and evil is much more clearly delineated than usual. Even if we hadn’t been clued in by the fact that audiences, for the most part, seem to be embracing the movie, there isn’t a lot of doubt about how this particular revenge story will conclude. And although Tarantino doesn’t shy away from the blood squibs in his climactic shootouts, he’s even more careful here in his use of violence than usual.

Django Unchained takes place in a violent time, with plenty of human misery inherent to the story, but it doesn’t linger over scenes of cruelty and torture. Tarantino gives us these moments in flashes, just long enough to lock them in the mind’s eye, and doesn’t deal with sexual violence at all, except by implication. Which doesn’t mean he shies away from the implications of the material. The film’s most memorable scene is the long monologue by Samuel L. Jackson—who gives what I think is the supporting performance of the year—in which he coolly explains how a living death in the mines, to which slaves are routinely condemned, is far more cruel than any torture Django’s captors could invent. Tarantino knows the difference between the violence of history and that of escapism, and it’s fascinating to see a film in which they exist so casually side by side. Sometimes his canniness goes a little too far: when Django engages in one killing that might make him seem unsympathetic, he instructs the bystanders to tell the victim goodbye, and when he fires, the body is jerked offscreen by what can only be a stagehand with a length of piano wire, leaving it conveniently out of sight for the rest of the scene. It’s a cheap gag, but done with the artistry that separates Tarantino, not just from his imitators, but from his precursors. And like it or not, that’s the mark of a master.

Written by nevalalee

February 12, 2013 at 9:50 am

A writer’s reflections on violence

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Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino was right to be mad. Last week, in an interview with the journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News, Tarantino reacted testily when asked for his thoughts on the cultural impact of violence in the movies: “Don’t ask me a question like that. I’m not biting. I refuse your question…You can’t make me dance to your tune. I’m not a monkey.” And although Tarantino ultimately comes off, as he often does in his press appearances, as a bit of a dick, it’s hard to blame him. For most of his career, he’s found himself at the center of the debate over cinematic violence, despite the fact that most of his films, Kill Bill notwithstanding, aren’t nearly as violent as their reputations would imply. A movie like Pulp Fiction contains only a few seconds of actual violence, as opposed to the nonstop killing we see in many mainstream action films, so Tarantino’s irritation at being asked such questions again isn’t hard to understand. Yet while I don’t much feel like entering that particular discussion either, I think it’s worth asking why the same handful of works and artists are repeatedly invoked as illustrations of violence in the media, even as countless other, even more violent movies are quickly forgotten.

The statement by Wayne La Pierre of the NRA in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre was stupefying on many levels, but especially with regard to the movies he mentioned, which were limited to “blood-soaked slasher films like American Psycho and Natural Born Killers.” Setting aside the fact that neither is a slasher film, or even particularly graphic in its onscreen violence, it’s a little odd that the most recent of the two movies he decries is more than a decade old, when dozens of objectively more violent films have been released in the meantime. Clearly, these movies, both of which I admire with reservations, aren’t disposable or forgettable: they’re ambitious, stylish, problematic films that implicate us as much as the characters, and many viewers still haven’t gotten over it. Most audiences, it seems, handle cinematic bloodshed in much the same way as I’ve noted they deal with surprises. They don’t mind being surprised, or shown graphic violence, in the context of a genre they understand, but when their assumptions about a work of art are called into question—or if it makes them uncomfortable—they feel what Pauline Kael, Tarantino’s favorite movie critic, observed all these years ago about Bonnie and Clyde:

Though we may dismiss the attacks with “What good movie doesn’t give some offense?,” the fact that it is generally only good movies that provoke attacks by many people suggests that the innocuousness of most of our movies is accepted with such complacence that when an American movie reaches people, when it makes them react, some of them think there must be something the matter with it—perhaps a law should be passed against it.

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde

Of course, the kind of violence that really shakes and infuriates an audience is very rare, which is why LaPierre had to reach so far back in time for his examples. For most works of art, violence functions for the artist much as smoking does for actors. The reason why there’s so much smoking in movies isn’t because Hollywood is determined to glamorize tobacco use, or is somehow in the pocket of the cigarette companies, but because smoking is a tremendously useful tool for performers, who are always looking for something to do with their hands: it gives them a wide range of ways to emphasize lines or emotional beats, and no comparable bit of business has managed to take its place. Similarly, violence is a proven, replicable way of provoking a reaction from the audience, and it doesn’t require much skill to pull off. Suspense in itself is tremendously hard to achieve, but putting a pistol in a character’s hand is easy, and in an art form starved for reliable tricks, it isn’t surprising that filmmakers often turn to violence for dramatic effects. Movies don’t glorify violence; they glorify the narrative jolts that violence can provide. When a movie resorts to periodic bursts of violence to keep the audience awake, it’s simply following Raymond Chandler’s dictum: “When in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.”

And I’m no exception. I’ve noted before how I inserted a violent scene into the first part of The Icon Thief because I felt that the story was lacking a necessary action beat, and I’ve often found myself parceling out moments of violence throughout my novels—which tend to have a pretty high body count—as if laying in dance numbers in a musical. I feel justified in doing this because this is one of the conventions of suspense fiction, and I’d like to believe that the violence in my novels is at least inventive, powerful, and integral to the plot. But I have misgivings about it as well, if only because I see all too clearly how violence can become a crutch, a way of artificially propping up a story that lacks organic excitement. Here, as in everything else, it all comes to down to craft. When I think about the works of art that will be experienced by my daughter Beatrix—who, after all, was named after a character in a Tarantino movie—I find that I’m less worried about her seeing violent films than in settling for movies that use violence as a substitute for craftsmanship. The problem isn’t violent movies; the problem is bad movies of any kind. And the only way to discourage mindless violence is to honor those artists who use it mindfully and well.

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