Trying to be the shepherd

By Richard Fausset

According to studio spin-doctors, over 64 movie critics proclaimed Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction the best film of 1994. Many of these 64, no doubt, gave this lurid little bundle of tales -- about heroin addiction, execution-style murder, extortion, male rape and bondage -- the same soundbites that would accompany any of the most successful Steven Seagal films: phrases like, "a slam-bang thriller!" or "a roller-coaster of a rockin' good time!"

Everyone I know has seen Pulp Fiction, and though I hear many people recommend it to each other, I have overheard no one really discussing the film, describing what it meant to them. A movie tends to bate the tongue when the director can make us laugh at a woman being stabbed in the heart. A few critics, even those dazzled by Tarantino's voice and technique, dared to admit that they were turned off by the director's freak-Peckinpah vision. Anthony Lane of The New Yorker complained about "all of that brain matter suddenly appearing on the outsides of people's skulls, instead of working quietly within, where it belongs," as if Tarantino had indeed given us little more than a smart-alecky Seagal flick. For Lane, "The film gives you almost nothing to remember it by, let alone to nourish you."

I felt a bit undernourished by Pulp Fiction myself until January 1, 1995, when the film's meaning suddenly expanded in my stomach like an Ethiopian dinner special.

In my hometown of New Orleans, the locals have a witless and morbid way of ringing in the New Year. Despite the pleas of the local police, hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of residents in every neighborhood of the city raise to heaven the barrels of their AK-47s, Uzis, hunting rifles or handguns and squeeze off a few rounds at midnight, as if they'd just captured Aqaba. This year, a tourist from Cleveland, Amy Silberman, was walking in Jackson Square with a couple of friends when a silent bullet fell from out of the sky and pierced the top of her skull, lodging in her spine and killing her.

I imagined the thousand-odd culprits, thousand-odd new murderers, returning to their living rooms, to their families, and toasting the new year. I imagined the earnest conversations: talk of the length of a prom dress, or of a profligate uncle. Or maybe there was a great debate over the intimacy-value of a foot massage.

We related to Tarantino's main characters, Vincent Vega and Jules, because the director showed us the way natural born killers act. They act like us. They don't sit on a jagged granite throne and ruminate on the powers of the dark side. They have breakfast at Denny's. Tarantino lets us ride shotgun with them, get comfortable with them. The point-of-view of the camera dictates that we sympathize with Vincent and Jules, even after becoming aware that they commit atrocities for a living.

Tarantino is so good at this trick that one would think he could have made a bundle in the spin-doctoring field himself. Isn't this what folks like Michael Deaver and David Gergen spent the 80s doing? Who cares what the U.S.-backed Salvadoran security squads did to those nuns. Our Hollywood president is petting his trusty steed on CNN. What a humanitarian! If the movie business doesn't take care of him, Tarantino could surely venture off to Baghdad, pulling a King and I with Saddam Hussein, drilling Madonna lyrics into his head, making him just a little more, you know, human.

Sisela Bok, in her 1978 book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, asked sardonically, "Why tackle [moral] choice when there are so many abstract questions of meaning and definition, of classification and structure, which remain to challenge the imagination?" Tarantino's reply seems to be, "Why indeed?" Why worry about the national debt when there's 24-hour O.J.? California smut and scandal make for great copy, even though, meanwhile, decisions are made in Washington that are as serious as brains blown out in the back of a car.

Countless "media critics" have achieved tenure and wasted scads of dollars setting up social science experiments that will reveal who's to blame for the mainstream media's movement toward sideshow stories. ("Here's Sam Donaldson with more from the Paula Jones press conference. Sam.") Is it the media's fault? Perhaps the real wielders of power simply divert the media's attention from their invidious schemes to dominate the world. Or do we bring it upon ourselves?

Unlike 1994's other benchmark film, Forrest Gump, which creates the myth of an everyman who somehow instigates the world-shaking events of the late 20th century, Pulp Fiction gives us the real world, in which we all toil away with our little problems, outside the sphere of influence. In so doing, Tarantino renders moot the media professors' question. It doesn't matter who's to blame for the media's prurient interests. We can only care about the big picture so much, because our little pictures -- what really worries us -- have only a tenuous relationship to the main plot, whether we are hit men, librarians or truck divers. Give us a little T&A, a little S&M with a cool soundtrack. Thanks.

Did Tarantino intend any of this meaning to be imputed by his movie? I wouldn't think so. But it is out there, and Amy Silberman, the tourist from Cleveland, has surely died. A billion ironies seem Tarantino-esque now. Example: The United States ignores gross human rights violations in China, but instigates a trade war over pirated CDs and videocassettes. We are Jules and Vincent, bickering entertainingly over some selfish whatnot while the blood runs (out of view of the TV Eye, of course). Will the Chinese bureaucrats catch the irony as they view their pirated copies of Pulp Fiction in their snug Guagzhou penthouses? I wouldn't think so.

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