Saturday, July 21, 2012

Ethics in Pulp Fiction

Quick post. Just rewatched Pulp Fiction (1994) and aside from the amazing, intricately woven storytelling and some beautiful long shots I noticed something else to love about the movie. There are two main transformations that occur during the film, and both point toward the ethical potential of the death drive, or at least toward the possibility of an ethical act (in the most Zizekian meaning).

The first occurs with Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis). Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) is out to get Butch because Butch double-crossed him: he was supposed to go down in a boxing match but won brutally instead. After being cornered in a pawn shop by Marsellus, both characters are taken hostage by the store owner, Maynard (Duane Whitaker), and his police officer friend Zed (Peter Greene). It is revealed that Maynard and Zed are perverts who plan to rape Butch and Marsellus. They choose Marsellus to go first, and while they are in another room Butch breaks free. He is on his way out of the store but he pauses at the door and goes back to try to save Marsellus. He thereby decides to doubly risk his life at the hands either of Maynard and Zed (who want to rape and probably kill him for pleasure) or of Marsellus (who wants to kill him for the double-cross). Here we have, I believe, the ethical act at its purest: realizing that if the roles were reversed and he was being raped and tortured he would want Marsellus to come back for him, he does so for a man who not too long ago was firing a handgun at him. It seems to me this act takes the form of the death drive since Butch is driven even towards to uphold his ethical code. The problem with interpreting this as drive is that, as I mentioned above, this is something of a transformation for Butch. He is normally not a very ethical man: double-crossing a man who has given him a large sum of money to go down in a fight, even just the basic act of taking money to fix the match itself. And because Butch's story ends with this act, there is no real element of repetition in the diegesis of the film, an element which seems quite necessary to the drive.

The second transformation occurs in the character of Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and takes almost the exact same structure. At the end of the movie Jules is in a diner which is being robbed. when one of the robbers attempts to take the suitcase which Jules has been trying to deliver to Marsellus Wallace, Jules turns the situation around, taking the robber's gun and pointing his own. He then recites Ezekiel 25:17 to the robber:

The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you!

He quotes this line one other time during the movie, and claims to quote it whenever he is about to kill someone. In this case however he does not kill the robber and instead of interpreting himself as the "righteous man" or even the "Lord" himself as he seems to previously, he tells the robber, "you're the weak, and I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm trying, Ringo. I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd". He then gives the robber the money in his wallet and lets him leave the store. Here we have what is definitely an ethical act (side note: As I was thinking about it I considered that maybe the ethical act would be to force the robber to give everyone their money back, but that seems to fall into the trap of believing in the power of money, which at this point in the movie Jules definitely doesn't, and which we all probably shouldn't. On the other hand, money isn't going away, and maybe we need it to change the system. I don't know.) but this act takes the form of the drive slightly more than Butch's. Jules has a strange, pathological compulsion to repeat this quotation, and here at the end of the movie he transforms this previously unethical repetition into an ethical one.

I may elaborate on this post in the future.

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