Form or Function? Understanding the Role of Genre in PULP FICTION

Danny Boyd has put together a nice montage of interviews where Quentin Tarantino discusses his inspiration behind Pulp Fiction and in particular, his reliance on genre. In this case, stories in the crime genre "you've seen a zillion times." I’ve always found Tarantino’s affection for genre intriguing since many artists consider the term pejorative- being too simple, broad, formulaic. 

Is it fair to label genre this way or should we maybe reconsider these perceived limitations? What if we think about genre within the context of poetry and instead of the term GENRE, we say, FORM? Poetry scholars don’t read “On Chapman’s Homer” and say, well, that’s just a sonnet or deem Shakespeare’s dialogue as just being iambic pentameter. The ability to communicate such expression within these specific constraints are actually lauded. Poet Billy Collins in his Masterclass series quotes Yeats, saying “All that is personal will rot if not packed in salt and ice.” Here, “salt and ice” are metaphors for rhyme, meter, cadence, structure. In other words, form. Form preserves and elevates. It is how something moves beyond being just a declarative statement or comment or interesting idea. 

In interviews over the years, David Lynch has discussed the role of routine and habit in his daily life.  For seven years, he went to Bob’s Big Boy and ordered the exact same thing at 2:30 p.m. every day.  This wasn’t just some quirk or eccentricity. Instead he explains, “I like habitual behavior because it’s a known factor and your mind is freed up to think about other things. When there is some sort of order there, then you’re free mentally.” Can genre do the same thing? Can it be another “known factor” that frees the mind to think about other things? 

Of course, in doing so, it's important to understand all of the different ways genre can be used or known. If Genre is a type of container 
through which to deliver a story- the type of story being delivered dictates the type of container needed.  For instance, narrative drama never seems best suited for direct moral teaching or proselytizing. There's something even insulting when a narrative sermonizes. Oddly, it’s insulting even when we agree with the “message” or "moral," similar to someone doing sleight of hand yet not admitting to being a magician. You may say you don’t like any proselytizing but I would push back on that as well.  The polemic essay, sermon, parable, philosophical treatise, tract, and even a political speech all allow and are expected to have a specific point of view and/or to proselytize. Why do we allow these "genres" in particular to elicit a specific idea or moral, yet when a narrative does the same, we label it didactic, or, if it’s really effective, propaganda? 

Whether we're cognizant of it or not, I think there's an instinctive expectation that a narrative story presents a variety of subtexts which in turn offer multiple points of view. Part of the experience and enjoyment is navigating through these points of view and ultimately determining meaning, if any, on one’s own.  There is something disappointing if we discover or determine the director and/or writer is too intentional here and had a message in mind all along. On the contrary, the very nature of the speech, the sermon, the persuasive essay, etc. is to be intentional, direct, and specific. It’s expected. We can read fiction or watch a movie and receive moral instruction or be motivated to change, but it can only happen if arrived at indirectly through the readers/viewers own personal experience and interpretation. 

Throughout his career, Tarantino has demonstrated a keen understanding of genre and its wide variety of shapes and sizes. However, it would be unfair to say Tarantino only creates genre films. He "loves" and "respects" genre, but he also wants “real life to intrude on genre.” One can't do this though without a true understanding of genre itself. On the set of Apocalypse Now, Dennis Hopper complained to Francis Ford Coppola about having to memorize his lines and if it were necessary. Coppola answered, you have to memorize your lines first- then you can forget them. Tarantino has certainly memorized the lines of his favorite genres which has in turn allowed him to move beyond any restrictions or limitations. In fact, you could say he understands genre so well that he has been able to subvert it entirely.  With Pulp Fiction, we see a great example of this. A traditional genre picture would show the fight where Butch double crosses Marsellus Wallace. It likely would be the climax of the film as we watch Mia sitting next to Marsellus in the audience and his reaction the moment he realizes Butch isn’t going to follow through with their agreement. We’d see Marsellus and his henchmen, probably even Vince and Jules, frantically trying to get Butch as he evades them, with one close call after another. Of course, in Pulp Fiction, we see none of this. We only see the ancillary or tangential events leading up to and following this climactic moment. Tarantino not only understands genre but, brilliantly, is assuming his audience does too so he doesn’t have to show what is expected.  We all have memorized the lines and Tarantino, through the film, gives us permission collectively, to forget them. Consequently, Pulp Fiction is the perfect example of how genre can satisfy both form and function. 

Working with Meaning (Part 1)

There's a great scene in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey where HAL says “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”  The fact that HAL is a computer is disconcerting enough but even more unsettling is how it nudges the viewer, who is in fact a conscious entity, to ponder am I putting myself to the fullest possible use? 

Occasionally, I'll hear the phrase What's the meaning of life? spoken in a casual conversation. I say "phrase" and not question because it's usually said more as a punchline than an honest inquiry.

The meaning of life is at the core of HAL’s quote.  He (it) has found it: I am putting myself to the fullest possible use. Of course, the word "use" here does seem subjective. If HAL were a philosophy professor, I doubt he would tell his students that his reference point for usefulness was, in an a priori sense, THE reference point. HAL seems content because he has found his own fullest possible use.

Working with Meaning (Part 2)

In Part 1, I quoted a passage from an essay by John T. Price suggesting work in and of itself is redemptive. I hear echoes of Price's essay in this passage from Jack Schaefer's western novel Shane when the father of the narrator is laboring with the title character, Shane, to uproot an enormous tree trunk:
What impressed you as Shane found what he was up against and settled to it was the easy way the power in him poured smoothly into each stroke. The man and the axe seemed to be partners in the work. The blade would sink into the parallel grooves almost as if it knew itself what to do and the chips from between would come out in firm and thin little blocks.  
[My father] picked a root on the opposite side from Shane. He was not angry the way he usually was when he confronted one of those roots. There was a kind of serene and contented look on his face.   Shaefer, Jack. Shane. (pp. 25-26). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 
When the boy's mother, Marian, comes to see what they are doing, she is surprised because initially her husband intended to take the day off and rest.  Not sure what to make of the behemoth task her husband and Shane are attempting, Marian says: 
'Humph... [t]his is a funny kind of resting you're doing today.'  
The boy's father puts the axe on the ground, leans on the handle, and responds, 'Maybe it seems funny... [b]ut this is the best resting I've had for about as long as I can remember.'
Of the entire passage, I find these sentences to be the most interesting. Shaefer is working with a paradox here- not only illustrating the physical strain required to accomplish their task, but suggesting one can simultaneously feel "rested" within and during the task. 

Working with Meaning (Part 3)

Earlier, we discussed the scene from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof where Brick is looking for an ever-elusive click "that turns the hot light off and the cool one on."  A few years ago, Wright Thompson wrote a great article titled “Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building” that illustrates Jordan looking for this same click.  Why is it soothing to hear that in spite of his accomplishments Michael Jordan is still a restless, unhappy soul? Is this the sentiment Shakespeare's Richard II suggests when he says let's sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings? It's clear this is the appeal Thompson's article is trying to foster. He even uses some of Jordan’s material possessions as pointed metaphors: his cigar not staying lit, a lost championship ring, a missing pair of glasses.  It's an easy story to tell:  If I can't be like Mike, I want him to be like me. 

Obviously, work is how many turn the hot light off and the cool light on. Yet, why does some work provide meaning while other work offers only boredom or dread?  Similarly, how was the narrator's father in Shane able to feel "rest" while actually doing a grueling task? Is any of this related to what Jordan experienced as an athlete that he seemingly hasn't found as an executive? I think a possible answer to all these questions can be found within the work of Hungarian Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He has spent decades studying the phenomenon of FLOW which he describes as a sort of hypnosis where all sense of self, time, and place drift away and only a singular focus on the task at hand remains. For Flow to occur, some fundamental components have to be in place. For one, a person's skill has to be in proportion to the difficulty of the task being performed, and as one's skill increases, so must the challenge.  According to Csikszentmihalyi, Flow can be achieved within a wide variety of activities- athletes, musicians, artists, even a mother piecing together a puzzle with her child can all experience it. Within each scenario though, there are always 3 common denominators:

Working with Meaning (Part 4)

In Parts 1-3, we discussed the three common denominators for reaching a state of Flow:
  1. A clearly defined goal as well as agreed upon rules and boundaries that dictate the terms of how this goal can be accomplished.
  2. Freedom for decision making and creativity within these set rules and boundaries.
  3. Immediate feedback for the incremental steps made toward achieving the goal and recognition when the defined goal has been accomplished.
In the previous posts, we were primarily discussing how these components related to work, but Csikszentmihalyi's ideas expands to even game theory. Of the three components, the second is the most nuanced and I would argue, often what makes one game more or less enjoyable than another.  In fact, the next time you’re playing a game and find yourself sort of bored, it’s likely from an inability to make creative decisions within the game's rules or boundaries. 

For participants and fans alike, professional sports display a nearly perfect execution of the these three components. Most of the major sports have not only rules in place but referees and umpires to enforce them, as well as instant replay to enforce this enforcement. The vast differences among players in style and skill illustrate the range of creativity and decision making allowed within the rules set into place. Immediate feedback is not only displayed on the scoreboard during each second of the game, channels like ESPN and sports radio provide recognition and commentary about each accomplishment. In addition, there are myriad awards presented each season, culminating with the most gifted players being inducted into a Hall of Fame.

Working with Meaning (Part 5)

In my prior post, I referred to Csikszentmihalyi describing how many people feel “Sunday mornings are the lowest part of the week, because with no demands on attention, they are unable to decide what to do….For many, the lack of structure of those hours is devastating.”  

Years ago, I read Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief and heard echoes of the same theme: 
The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.”  Orlean, Susan. The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (Ballantine Reader's Circle) (p. 133). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.  

Saul Leiter's TAXI

Saul Leiter's TAXI (American, 1923-2013)
Why is this such a great photo? What stands out to you? Certainly the colors demand our attention. The wall in the background is orangish-red complimenting the reddish-orange paint on the cab, which in turn reflects off the dashboard of the car from which the picture is taken. Add a flash of brilliant yellow and viola you have a color palette rivaling the most dazzling of any desert sunset.  

What about the photo’s action? Why do we seem to be moving? Is it that our perspective is slightly behind the car we’re looking at- like we’re trying to catch up? Everything changes if we’re ahead of the car, looking back.  What about the man’s hand?  Maybe he’s trying to find something to hold on to or he’s pointing while yelling directions. The entire photo is different, stagnant even, without this hand. We're simply next to a car stopped in traffic. What about the back window in brilliant silver? Hints of a rocket ship? An overstatement maybe, but we can't see through the glass, which does cause a blur of light and speed.

What about the man being dressed in a suit? This too influences our impression. An important person pointing or holding on to something or both?  Not only does the photo change entirely if the cab is empty, it changes if the person is dressed casually. Then it’s the weekend or just a tourist perhaps.  With our photo here, it’s a workday: the streets are bustling and we have an important person with an important place to be!  

Also, you can’t ignore the the camera’s exposure which puts a quarter of the photo into darkness.  The cab driver in silhouette adds mystery, forcing us to imagine this person. The exposure also creates the black space in the bottom left corner that extends across the entire bottom of the photo. This space not only provides an entry point into the photo but also a place where we can sit (hide?) and observe. The photo would be cluttered and claustrophobic without this black space. 

Upon first glance, this photo seems like just an abstract blur of color. Upon second, you notice how the photo changes entirely if even the smallest of detail was different.    

Dick Johnson is Dead

 Kirsten Johnson's film- Dick Johnson is Dead is an ode to her father who is not only nearing the end of his life but also showing signs of Alzheimer's. In order to cope with her father's mortality and get ahead of things so to speak, she stages various scenarios through special effects and clever editing where her father dies or is outright killed. When I first started watching Johnson's film, I couldn't help but think of James Keach's 2014 documentary Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me which follows Campbell on his final tour and well into the throws of Alzheimer's. Keach's film was cringeworthy and, like the tour itself, seemed exploitive at times. 

While Dick Johnson is Dead seems to start in this direction, it actually veers down a different path entirely.  About 15 minutes or so in, a crew member talks about the death of his own father which prompts a tender moment where Dick talks about the death of his wife. At this point, we realize the slapstick irony of the film's premise is secondary to what the film's actually about: the portrait of a kind and sensitive soul. A point illustrated even clearer when Dick talks about the childhood shame he had towards his own body and in particular, his deformed feet.  We see a closeup of his feet as he describes this shame. What's illuminating is the way he describes it which is similar to how an elderly person often describes such things- not with the shame once felt, but with a sort of curiosity or amusement, almost as if it happened to someone else. I say all of this to say, don't let the premise of Dick Johnson is Dead turn you away (or draw you in too much). The film is more about Mr. Johnson living than dying.