Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Not for the Squeamish

Sara Paretsky

I keep thinking about Pulp Fiction. It makes everyone’s top ten movies but mine, and I wonder why. Tarantino has been compared to Euripides and Shakespeare, and he doesn’t disagree. I read the glowing reviews—3.5 – 4 stars, all of them, though they come with the proviso, “Not for the Squeamish.”

I’m not squeamish. Nosiree, not me. Squeamish people are definitely Uncool. They’re not hip, they’re not tough, they’re not American. That’s the implication, anyway. If you’re not comfortable with graphic violence, you’re just not a sophisticated a viewer/reader/consumer of pop culture. Sara, your rural Kansas roots are showing!

Tarantino is dabbling in horror porn these days. Hostel II, which just came out, features a scene where a woman is hacked to death with a scythe and the viewer gets to relish each scream of the victim, while watching someone else bathe in her blood. The reviews? “The movie is a dark comedy...that delivers the goods and never feels like a rehash.”

If I were squeamish, it might make me uncomfortable to watch the pyramids of naked bodies at U.S. run prisons, or see electrodes attached to someone’s genitals, or a Koran shoved into someone’s rectum, or see someone forced with an electric stun belt to get down on all fours and bark like a dog. But I’m an American, and I know, whether these are in Abu Ghraib or Texas, these are no more than fraternity pranks.

Eddie Izzard explains the difference between movies a squeamish prude can watch, and those for a red-blooded American audience, and I am an American, and, last time I sliced my hand open on a glass shard at the beach, the blood flowed bright red; people lined up to bathe in it. So I still don’t know why I don’t like Pulp Fiction. Unless the dialogue’s too sophisticated for me.


Maryann Mercer said...

I'm right there at 4 on the squeamish scale: that meaning I can watch CSI and Law & Order (and some medical programs) without squinting. Films like "Saw" and "Hostel" are a waste of my time, since I would sit there with eyes closed and ears plugged. On the other hand, "Live Free or Die Hard" and the scene in "The Rock" where Nicholas Cage plunges that needle into his heart (also see Casino Royale for the Bond take on this) don't bother me. Go figure.
Maybe it's because the second two are adventure-thrillers and mostly the good guys come out OK. Horror for the sake of horror? Not my idea of a good flick, but maybe my idea of horror is psychological rather than physical in the pain department;it's the suspense, not the act itself.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Maybe because it comes out of a tradition you don't find particularly compelling-graphic stories with lots of violence and not much character development. Maybe you want to know more about how the characters came to that place. Maybe the out of sequence and interrelated story lines were annoying to you. I think there are lots of reasons not to like Pulp Fiction. I do, but mostly for its energy and creativity, not for the reasons I read novels.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

The thing that I like about Tarantino is both his unabashed love of genre and his determination to make genre films unlike any you've ever seen before. He is an expert at taking advantage of our own expectations in order to surprise us.

He is a prolific and whimsical borrower and homager and yet he turns all of those antecedents into something fresh. We had seen a million heist films (including The Taking of Pelham One Two Three but we've never seen one quite like Reservoir Dogs. We had seen a million crime films but never one quite like Pulp Fiction. We had seen a million Kung Fu films but never one quite like Kill Bill. A Tarantino film dares its viewers to anticipate what's going to happen and I love it.

Incidentally, before we get off on a tangent here, Quentin Tarantino was one of several executive producers of the Hostel films but they were directed by Eli Roth. Tarantino produces a lot of movies, some good and some bad, but I don't think we can really consider them part of any conversation of "Tarantino films" unless we also want to figure out how Julia Sweeney's one woman show God Said, 'Ha!' figures into the QT ouevre.

Actually I would like to have that discussion, but then, as you all know, I just like to argue.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Quickly related, I wouldn't call Tarantino movies especially graphic. At least not in relative terms. There is the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs (which Tarantino was ambivalent about and subsequently released a version where the cutting takes place off camera), and the scene in Pulp Fiction when the gun goes off accidentally in the car, but that would probably make it onto CSI, these days. The "squeamish" parts of QT films tend to be more psychological, like the tense moments in Pulp Fiction when (is it Eric Stoltz?) is trying to muster the courage to stick an adrenaline needle into overdosing Uma Thurman's heart. That's tough to watch. But it's classic suspense.

WellesFan said...

I could never get into Pulp Fiction either. I don't know why. Maybe it seemed like it was trying too hard to be important and cool. Reservoir Dogs is pretty much the only QT film I really like.

Jude Hardin said...

I love Pulp Fiction. To me, it's a comedy, a parody of classic crime stories. Travolta and Jackson arguing about the significance of foot massages as they prepare to wipe out a room full of slackers...arguing about who gets "skull duty" as they're cleaning Marvin's face off the Nova's headliner...Bruce Willis choosing his weapon in the pawnshop...the red glow every time the briefcase (combination 666) is opened...

I think the whole thing's a hoot, and I think Tarentino cast it and directed it with a wry smile on his face.

Marcus Sakey said...

I love Pulp Fiction, and every Tarantino movie before it (okay, not the vampire one.,) I like both Kill Bill's, though I feel that Tarantino's real talent is as a writer, rather than a director, and I'd rather he spent more time behind the keyboard than the camera.

But I'd like to go on record as saying that Grindhouse was the steamiest pile of cinematic slop I've seen in a long time. There's only so much of an homage you can offer crap movies before what you're doing is creating more crap--and worse, derivative crap, the entire value of which is reliant on hipster irony.

I want my three hours back.

Jean Sheldon said...

I walked out of Pulp Fiction as I walked out of Taxi Driver years before. (Why does that seem tame now?). I would not have been able to tell you about the directing because I never made it beyond the senseless violence. Me, squeamish? Absolutely!

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Okay, I'm going to pick up the role of Tarantino geek again. The "vampire one" was actually directed by Robert Rodriguez. Tarantino wrote the screenplay (from somebody else's story) and does some pretty bad acting in it.

That said, I think the first half of that movie is pretty great and the second half is just awful.

I agree with Marcus, though. He is an amazing screenwriter. Check out True Romance for a Tarantino script in someone else's hands (in this case Crimson Tide director Tony Scott).

If we really want to add fuel to the debate, read Tarantino's original script for Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killer's. It's quite different from the final version and if it had been filmed would have contained some of the most unforgettable (and perhaps despised) courtroom scenes of all time, including one in which, Mickey, acting as his own attorney, kills a witness with a sharpened pencil while he's in the middle of cross-examining her.

So it's pretty violent. But as a whole, it would have been a far more intelligent commentary on the culture of media celebrity than Stone ended up with.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Also related: I'm a total dork.

Sara N Paretsky said...

Kevin, you and Sean and Marcus know so much more about pop culture and noir than I do that I constantly realize I don't belong in the Outfit at all. Pattinase Abbott, I don't want the same things in films that I do in novels, but in neither place do I like violence glorified as cool, without reflection on what it means to relish it so much.

In his new memoir, Peeling the Onion, one of the things Gunther Grass writes about is how his mother offered herself to the Soviet army to save her daughter from rape. She couldn't speak about it; violation was a powerful silencer. That is true for most people in most places. I wonder why we glorify the silencers instead of exploring why we do so.

Willie Holmes said...

I think there is a difference between the violence depicted in PULP FICTION and that shown in the HOSTEL movies. At least in PULP FICTION (and most of the other Tarantino movies), the violence has consequences (torture guys, it will come back on you; help hitmen, it might cost you a marriage). In HOSTEL, the violence seems to be the sole reason for the movie's existence. I'm a horror fan, but torture for torture's sake is not my cup of tea. Give me a rooting interest (whether it's the victim or villain) to go along with the mayhem.

ab said...

Squemishness is a good thing - I wish it upon all armies. Drop the guns, scream and go hiding! All of you!

About Tarantino - being a violence-hater and film-lover combined, I did love Pulp fiction (while I hated Seven, that was released at the same time.) Seven was pure speculation, while Pulp fiction was a master-åiece. Why? Because it has nothing to do with realistic filming. It has to do only with Tarantino's love for actors. He's like a 14-year-old tugging at your sleeve, repeating: hey, isn't Travolta good? Just LOOK at him! That enthusiasm permeated the film for me. Tarantino did what Brecht failed to do: Created Verfremdung. We know it's just make-believe.

But it only lasted for that one film. The rest is blood and guts and really sad.

Matt said...

On a side note, when doing an interview for Heat, Chicago-born Michael Mann was asked what he thought of the success of Pulp Fiction.

His answer: "Next question.";)