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The Philosopher and the Fan: Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino—2nd Installment

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The Philosopher and the Fan: Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino—2nd Installment

Band of Outsiders vs. Pulp Fiction

I ended yesterday’s installment by asking why Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino were interested in self-reflexivity, why they were interested in making movies that deliberately jolted us out of the illusionism inherent in cinema. That question, I believe, is the source of most of the fascinating differences between Godard and Tarantino as film artists, and thus the most worthy of examination. So let me begin this analysis by taking one film by each director and comparing them side-by-side: Godard’s Band of Outsiders and Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. No, despite their crime-genre nature, both films aren’t exactly equivalent works. Band of Outsiders is, at heart, a simple crime drama about three alienated French youths—two guys and a girl—who try to make their humdrum lives better by playacting a robbery, trying to steal money from the girl Odile’s rich aunt.

Pulp Fiction, on the other hand, is a multilayered, three-part postmodern symphony that tells the stories of: 1) Vincent Vega trying to please his boss, Marcellus Wallace, by taking his teasing, voluptuous wife out for an evening; 2) falling-on-hard-times boxer Butch Coolidge trying to elude an angry Marcellus after reneging on a deal to throw a fight; and 3) Vincent and Jules’s desperate attempts to fix the mess Vincent creates when he accidentally shoots a young kid in the head in a car in broad daylight. And even that one-sentence plot summary doesn’t encompass the framing story that surrounds the stories, involving both a young couple’s (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) attempts to rob a coffee shop and Jules’s sudden religious awakening spurred on by a near-death incident in the third story. If one film is infinitely more intricately woven than the other, though, both draw from similar sources (principally, the crime genre, but also from musicals and other movies from the 1950s) and both suitably represent what each director is about.

I think I have sufficiently established the ways in which Godard and Tarantino are similar as artists. It’s not just their technique—long takes, distancing effects, nonlinear storytelling, among other devices—that is sometimes startlingly similar. Thematically, they also share some striking resemblances. They both obviously have a wide-ranging knowledge of the cinema that occasionally seems to be the substance of their work, so layered with cinematic references are their films from time to time. And within that encyclopedic knowledge is a palpable romantic attitude toward their movie-influenced characters—a subtle romanticism that sometimes evokes a yearning to live life like a movie.

Yet, as Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in his 1994 review of Pulp Fiction, “...the differences between what Godard likes and what Tarantino likes and why are astronomical; it’s like comparing a combined museum, library, film archive, record shop, and department store with a jukebox, a video-rental outlet, and an issue of TV Guide.” Of course, Rosenbaum’s implication by making such a comparison is that Godard’s references are much more high-minded—and thus worth taking more seriously—than Tarantino’s obvious love for the detritus of pop culture. In trying to maintain at least a smidgen of impartiality, I will simply say that the uses to which these references are put are much more different than they might at first appear, and that a comparison of Band of Outsiders and Pulp Fiction, two stylistically similar postmodern works that end up saying rather different things, will reveal just how different they are.

When people look at Band of Outsiders, many, I can imagine, are drawn in immediately by its playful surface. From the jaunty piano music accompanying the rapid-fire montage of close-ups opening the film (one which starts as the classic Columbia Pictures logo fades to black) to its numerous moments of randomness, the film practically becomes all about its digressions as its trio ineptly stage their attempted theft. It is one of Godard’s lighter works, irresistible in its fun-loving mix of crime thriller, slapstick and musical comedy in much the same way as François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960). There is, however, an underlying melancholy and poignancy that runs through much of Godard’s film that is not discussed quite as frequently. Some of that sense of sadness comes from the characters themselves—as Godard’s dreamily poetic voiceover narration eventually articulates, the thieving efforts of the three main characters are pretty much doomed from the start. But much of the film’s buried melancholy comes simply from its powerful evocation of these characters’ humdrum, working-class lives (further emphasized by both the grayed-out, overcast Paris captured in velvety black and white by frequent Godard cinematographer Raoul Coutard and composer Michel Legrand’s mournful waltzes, harshly undercutting the sprightly nature of that opening piano tune). Outside of the artificial haven that Franz, Arthur and Odile seemingly create together, their home lives are palpably unexciting. Odile lives with her aunt and, at one point, complains about how nothing seems to interest her; Arthur lives with his uncle, and when his uncle finds out about the planned heist, he demands that Arthur give him a cut of the stolen money. (We don’t really see much of Franz in the outside world except for one moment when he’s seen playing basketball with a few friends; perhaps this is in keeping with Arthur’s view of his friend as merely “a good shield” in case of trouble.)

Juxtaposing Godard’s various references and distancing devices along with its documentary-like realism and its sense of impending romantic doom, one gradually realizes that these characters are essentially wishing and trying to live their lives like a B movie—with Godard himself seemingly egging them on with his narration, imparting a poetry to the events of the film that deliberately doesn’t quite connect with the resolutely mundane nature of what is happening onscreen. That this harsh reality eventually—fatally, in Arthur’s case—catches up to all three of them at the end indicates not only what Godard is attempting in this film, but also what he’s essentially going for in many of his other ’60s features. He seems to be exploring the fine and disappointing line between movie fantasy and reality, and often concluding, with a disillusioned wince, that movie fantasy simply isn’t compatible with social or political reality. (In this regard, Godard’s A Woman is a Woman—a so-called “neorealist musical” set in working-class Parisian surroundings that isn’t technically a musical at all, even if it sure feels like a classic American musical comedy—is also a representative work.) At one point in Band of Outsiders, Godard, in trying to explain Franz’s thoughts as he and the two other characters do their Madison thing, comes up with this line: “He wondered if the world is becoming a dream or if the dream is becoming the world.” A more fitting summation of Godard’s stylistic and thematic obsessions would be hard to imagine.

When she enthusiastically reviewed Band of Outsiders for The New Republic in 1966, Pauline Kael explained Godard’s method this way:

“An artist may regret that he can no longer experience the artistic pleasures of his childhood and youth, the very pleasures that formed him as an artist ... But, loving the movies that formed his tastes, he uses this nostalgia for old movies as an active element in his own movies. He doesn’t, like many artists, deny the past he has outgrown; perhaps he hasn’t quite outgrown it. He reintroduces it, giving it a different quality, using it as shared experience, shared joke.”

Kael might as well have been talking about Tarantino with that quote, because he puts his obvious love of movies—from gangster flicks to blaxploitation fare, from Godard to Seijun Suzuki, etc.—front and center in his own films as much as Godard did in his early work. And both directors are fascinated with the idea of making movies that make you aware that you are watching a movie. But ultimately, there is a chasm of difference between them, and one can see it when comparing Band of Outsiders and Pulp Fiction side-by-side.

For one thing, there’s the dialogue. Tarantino is known for his verbal wit, and his dialogue in Pulp Fiction is undeniably fresh and inventive: from discussions about the differences between the names of burgers in France and America to an argument about the erotic potential of foot massages, Tarantino comes up with absurdist lines that are, at their best, not only clever for their own sake but also revealing of the character uttering those lines. As clever as his dialogue undeniably is, though, there really is no mistaking it for the speech of characters who live in a recognizable real world, at least not compared to the (semi-improvised) dialogue spoken by the characters (as opposed to the voiceover narration) in Band of Outsiders, which occasionally makes mild gestures toward a rough kind of poetry (Franz to Arthur and Odile: “A minute of silence can be a long time; a real minute of silence can take forever”) but more often stays deliberately flat and functional. Of course, though, that is part of Godard’s point in the film: he presents us with ordinary characters dreaming of something beyond themselves.

Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction characters—a collection of slacker hit men (Jules, Vincent), threatening mob bosses (Marcellus Wallace), femme fatales (Mia Wallace) and laconic men of violence (Butch)—already seem to have achieved that transcendence: they all seem to bear the full weight of movie history upon them even as some of them talk like dorm-room philosophers with a little too much free time on their hands. After a while, it doesn’t really matter what they say—their words are usually not important to the main storylines anyway. It’s all about how they express themselves. In other words, it’s all about style. And with dialogue as self-consciously stylized as Tarantino’s in Pulp Fiction, the effect is to lend the entire dialogue-driven movie an aura of hyper-stylization that silences whatever concessions to realism—mostly through cinematographer Andrzej Sekula’s fairly straightforward rendering of certain settings (in color, of course, as opposed to Raoul Coutard’s black and white)—Tarantino half-heartedly makes. You are consistently aware that you’re watching a movie with characters created expressly for it speaking lines of dialogue that you probably won’t hear anywhere else—you aren’t necessarily watching people, but signs. (In some ways, Tarantino’s Jackie Brown is an exception to his norm: it is intermittently suffused with the kind of nostalgia and melancholy perfectly befitting a touchingly mournful look at old age, and thus has more of the kind of humdrum dialogue of Band of Outsiders, except with a distinctly Tarantinian flavor. It’s as if, for Tarantino, the word “aging” attached to “icon”—which Pam Grier certainly was in 1970s blaxploitation fare—is grounds for more serious reflection than you find in many of his other works to date. Kill Bill, Vol. 2, the much quieter of the two Kill Bill films, also shares some of that seriousness and could conceivably be read as a contemplation of the price of revenge. Death Proof, meanwhile, may mostly lack the reflective quality of Jackie Brown, but it may be the closest Tarantino has come to mixing a serious genre study with his distinctive sense of playfulness).

There’s another matter, though, regarding Pulp Fiction, and that is what the film is actually about outside of its acute sense of personal style. Here is where things get tricky: is it really about anything else other than its narrative games and stylistic bravura?

The film’s concluding monologue—a speech delivered by a newly-spiritually-enlightened Jules to a thieving man-and-woman couple who impulsively decide to rob a coffee shop—suggests a concern on Tarantino’s part with the idea of redemption even for this bunch of lowlifes, a deliverance from their trivia-talking, coldly violent ways. There is something to that, it must be said. In some ways, all three storylines deal with different forms of salvation for the various characters: Vincent is saved from the hell of having to deal with Marcellus’ wrath if Mia died on him from a cocaine overdose; Butch—who had reneged on a deal to throw a boxing match and won it instead, killing his opponent in the process—redeems himself in the eyes of an angry Marcellus when he rescues him from further sodomy at the hands of a band of Confederate male hicks; and Jules decides he has been given a second chance at saving his soul when he fails to get killed by a barrage of gunfire.

Yet there is a sense of glibness to Tarantino’s approach in tackling such weighty themes as spirituality and redemption that somehow makes Jules’ final speech (as chillingly delivered as it is by Samuel L. Jackson) less a profound revelation than a convenient (though undoubtedly effective) structural way of winding down this particular picture. It’s as if Tarantino was simply going for an effect rather than dealing with spirituality in any particular depth. Actually, that is perhaps inaccurate: Tarantino is certainly dealing with spirituality, but he does it almost entirely through pop-culture terms. The most revealing moment in this regard is almost a throwaway. Jules has just told Vincent that, because of his personal spiritual awakening, he is going to quit the hit man life and “walk the earth.” When Jules asks what he means by that, he immediately says, “You know, like Caine in Kung Fu”—referring to the old 1970s cult TV series which chronicled the adventures of a Shaolin monk (played by David Carradine, who of course would later be cast by Tarantino as an assassin boss in his Kill Bill features) on the run in America. In the film’s own pop culture-obsessed terms, Jules may well be throwing out such a reference simply so Vincent will understand what he means; he may not actually mean that he intends to live a lifestyle like Caine’s. But the line strikes me as indicative of Tarantino’s approach to content in Pulp Fiction: he consistently deals with “big” issues in terms of old movies and pop culture. As Slant Magazine critic Ed Gonzalez has written about the film, “Much like his characters, the director can only live by engaging cinema.”

Both Band of Outsiders and Pulp Fiction thus establish the essences of both directors enough to begin a more complete discussion of their differences in terms of their wider body of work. In lieu of a mere disorganized list of contrasts, however, tomorrow I will undertake such a discussion in terms of exploring the idea of parody versus pastiche.

Kenji Fujishima is a contributor to The House Next Door, a Rutgers University journalism student and the publisher of My Life at 24 Frames Per Second.