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October 1994


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
"Edward R. O'Neill" <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 22 Oct 1994 01:34:00 PDT
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
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SPOILER ALERT:  This post contains references to Pulp Fiction which
may spoil the surprise for those who haven't seen the film.  There are
also some naughty words which might bother prudes.
  The Pulp Fiction thread has bi- or tri-furcated.  The narrativists are
struggling with story vs. discourse, there's the homophobia thread, and
a bit of po-mo speculation about intertextuality.  Add a fourth thread:
violence, a standard topic on this list.
  I would like to address the issue of homophobia, and, briefly, that
of violence.
  Since I've been re-reading Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet recently,
more or less side-by-side with Sedgwicks Epistemology of the Closet, the
discussion of whether or not the film would be 'better' without a male
rape scene become highly symptomatic.  Part of homophobia is the wish
to make homosexuality simply disappear.  Preferring not to see gay sex,
preferring to leave it behind a closed door like the ominous one QT
gives us, is part and parcel of homophobia, not simply a question of
aesthetics or taste.  Ditto those who insist that the spectator can't
imagine what's going on behind that closed door, and thus that "Butch"
doesn't know his former boss whom he's cheated is being raped.  Just
the redneck accents (in an LA pawnshop?) and the SM gear should be a
big clue, if only in terms of the Hollywood coding of homosexuality.
  It's also difficult to accept the position of writers who insist that
this rape only stands in for some unredeemable and excruciating form of
violence and that any violence would do just  as well.  Such responses
fail to take heed of the images the text gives us by substituting the
specific for the general (not anal rape but  merely violence).  This IS
the image the film presents, and thus must be accounted for in terms of
the film and the tensions it symptomatises.
  I find the very idea of saying that gay male sex is 'simply' the most
awful thing imaginable itself an awful comment.  It is by such tactics
that the fact that male homosexuality (even in this parodic absurd form)
DOES appear in the film becomes hardly worth mentioning.  The homophobia
is not exactly in the film itself, but rather (or also) in how this
phantasy of homosexuality is made insignificant in critical commentary.
  This scene is not marginal to the film, which deals excessively with
male pride, Butch's wounded pride which won't let him go down in the
fifth round, the heritage embodied in the watch passed to him from
his father's and his father's buddy's asshole (pardon the
expression).  The film partakes in QT's minute dissection of machismo,
an analysis in which heterosexuality takes an auxilliary role.
   One of Helwig's astute posts summarized the issue quite well by
suggesting  (if I remember correctly) that the significance of the male
rape should be interpreted in light of the homosocial (male) bonds which
it serves to fortify.  All is forgiven between the boss and his errant
former lackey if that servant will keep secret the boss's "shame."
The placement of the scene within that story thus presents a very
clear analysis of the sources of homophobia:  the phantasmatic scene
of male homosexuality as a violent and violating power struggle
brings to the surface everything implicit within the male power
struggles AND friendships that are the film's (and QT's) constant
subject.  But this homosexuality (which has nothing to do with any-
one's real homosexuality, but rather is tied to a homophobic phantasy
of homosexuality) must be produced within the film as OUTSIDE of the
male bonds and power struggles so vividly on display.  If the scene
seems "gratuitous," it's because this image has to be presented as
beyond the pale and must function to shore up the male bonds which are
so persisently under fire.
   That  is:  homophobia has more to do with the tensions within male
bonds than it does with what gay men (like myself) do with each other.
It is thus not marginal at  all but  central, yet its very appearance
upsets Tarantino's whole representational system of male bonds and male
feuds (the two being dangerously close).
  The male rape scene does indeed defuse the tension between Butch and
his boss:  this image of male homosexuality becomes an extreme endpoint
which serves to bring even Butch's betrayal and the revenge that ensues
back into the spectrum of male homosocial bonds like those between
father and son (which Tarantino has quite specifically marked with an
anal anxiety--through the story of the gold watch and the anxiety it
clearly causes in Butch).  (And it's no coincidence that the reason
the Travolta and Jackson characters go on their little mission at the
outset is to retrieve their boss's gold--apparently.)
   (Now if Tarantino were a true poet, the boss would repay Butch's
brave rescue by reaching up his ass and giving Butch a gold bar he
had lodged there....)
   On the subject of violence, these discussions constantly cluster
around the issue of showing vs. saying, of the power of images vs. the
need to make a moral statement (as, for instance, I believe Larson
pointed out through his references to Public Enemy and the like).  For
me the issue revolves around the fact that an image, whatever it is,
is not a statement; it has no assertive value.  An image may be a
phantasy, it may be entertained (like a daydream), it may be false,
etc., but it does not make an assertion of the type "It is the case
that..." Or "Thou shalt not...."
   Here the issue of homosexuality and homophobia is not irrelevant.
The *image* of male rape cannot be said to make a statement, whether
phobic or positive.  The image (as I've tried to suggest) gives a
phantasy image which serves a function within a range of relationships
(by being the excluded endpoint of male social bonds).  Thus I cannot
agree with Fuchs when she suggests that Pulp Fiction is more about
homophobia than homophobic (if that was indeed her assertion), since
for me there's very little leverage for discriminating between the
phobic image and any meta-level statement *about* that  image.
  My apologies for the length of this post:  it is as long (it seems)
as the film on which it  comments.  And that is too long.
--Edward R. O'Neill