23.10.1994

Making a killing

Making a killing
 
The hit film 'Pulp Fiction' turns extreme violence into a profitable joke, says LYNETTE BURROWS
 
THE FILM Pulp Fiction is one which recog­nises its limitations, and gives itself an accurate title. To most people it is fairly obvious that an enor­mous proportion of films made in Hollywood qualify for the same title, so one wonders what is so different about this film that it has received such critical applause. The critics by and large have loved it, and those who haven't have voiced the niggling criticism that its use of violence goes too far.
 
"How far can you push the comedy of violence and still be funny?" asks a critic in The Daily Telegraph, and the answer must surely be that there is no limit. Boys who tor­ture animals enjoy it hugely, and the crowds that sur­rounded the guillotine in the French revolution were notori­ous for their jokes at the expense of the terrified victims. In cinematic terms, you can make anything funny, as the makers of that very funny film, Life of Brian, discovered. You can take the life and death of Christ and make it amusing; just as you could make a very funny film about a concentra­tion camp. The question is: should you? And if you do, what will be the long-term result?
 
Our present love of violence has its roots in the liberal revo­lution of the 1960s. In truth, the only things which were really liberalised then were sex, drugs and the freedom of the media to exploit violence. At the same time, we lost all sorts of other liberties which we had probably thought, until then, we had a right to: the right to dispose of our property as we thought fit and to employ whom we chose; the right to walk our streets without fear; the right to rear families with­out interference from the state; the right of infants in the womb to be born. By now we have even lost the right to decide on the most fundamental deci­sions about who we are as a people and who governs us — but still, perhaps by sheer force of habit, we think of ourselves as a free people.
 
Viewed cynically, the empha­sis on sex and violence which began to be cultivated in the Sixties, can be seen as a classic example of the way the Roman emperors kept the plebs happy: by giving them "bread and circuses". Despite the dif­ference in technology between then and now, the Roman games bear an uncanny resemblance to the modern cinema, which, like them, so swiftly degenerated into an exercise in finding new and horrible ways of inflicting pain and causing death.
 
It can, of course, be argued that there is a far greater dif­ference between their time and ours, in that their deaths were for real and ours are only simu­lated. However, this is to ignore the fact that, in reality too, violence and horrible deaths have kept pace with their enactment on our screens. Whether art reflects life, or vice versa, is hotly debated, and probably will never be proved to the satisfac­tion of either side.
 
Still, there is a genuine link between violence and sex and drugs, as can be seen by their respective development in the years since the Pandora's box of "permissiveness" was first opened. The goal of complete sexual freedom was the first to come a cropper with the onset of Aids. This was followed by the less dramatic, but no less significant, increase in illegiti­macy and family breakdown which has forced people to realise, perhaps for the first time, that the family is not a cosy middle-class luxury, but an institution without which communities are in trouble.
 
The current hysteria about adultery is no doubt a belated and rather obviously inconsis­tent rescue operation for the institution of marriage. Quentin Tarantino, the director of Pulp Fiction, has enough com­mercial sense to incorporate this protective feeling, quite ludicrously in the circum­stances, into a film where all the heroes are killers and drug-pushers. Baddies they may be, but they still take their rela­tionships seriously, and all the various criminal couples are shown to be deeply committed to each other. They may not have quite worked out yet how to make the transition from being people with no moral val­ues at all to being ones who can
make marriage work but, by gosh, they say the right things to each other.
 
Drugs have in common with sexual licence the fact that they have social consequences that were unimagined in the heady Sixties. If that were not so, legalising them would be simple and desirable. Unfortu­nately, the likelihood is that any society which follows Hol­land down that particular road is likely to end up with a higher murder rate than America — as Holland has. Again, Tarantino strikes just the right note, with drugs being shown as messy, dangerous and liable to cause accidents which blow people's heads off inadvertently.
 
Which leaves only his treat­ment of violence and what he understands of his audience's love of it. He must have got it right too because the cinema I was in rang with their delighted laughter. It was immoderate and sinister to me and reinforced the feeling that media violence is the last of the unholy trio to reveal its nature for what it is: a sublimi­nal incitement to hatred in order to make violence enjoyable.
 
For a start, two of the main actors are black, and their par­ticular brutishness was used as a device to make their actions more entertaining and less abhorrent. There was no attempt to explain their bad character: they were just blacks. On the other hand, the equally nasty white man, John Travolta, was painstakingly shown to be heavily into drugs. The girl who has a long needle stabbed savagely into her heart to revive her is half black. The chap who has his head inadver­tently blown off is an ineffec­tual-looking black boy, and the man who was shown being sodomised was also a black. Coincidence? I don't think so; Tarantino knows what his audience can enjoy and what it cannot, and this is insidious.
 
Sick, too, is his slow build-up to the homosexual perverts getting their comeuppance. He has his big, strong boxer slowly choosing his instrument of vengeance: a gun? uh-uh — too quick; a huge club? no, — too clumsy; an electric saw? — too small.
In the end he takes a sword which, one noticed, did not have its handle in the form of a cross. It was a nasty-looking foreign thing. Then he went in and slaughtered the sodomite and stood back to allow his vic­tim to shoot the genitals off the other one. Just in case some politically correct adolescent should protest that it was an attack on the idea of homosex­uality, he made this second one a policemen; that balanced it up. Our hero then left the scene with the victim screaming and crying on the floor, waiting for the black man's henchmen to come and torture him to death as he had promised.
 
Yes, there is no doubt the vio­lence is what Tarantino would describe as "scary — but very well done". I wonder if he is the chap to consider making the comedy about the concen­tration camp.