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October 1994


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cynthia fuchs <[log in to unmask]>
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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 22 Oct 1994 10:48:15 -0400
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to respond to ed o'neill's smart post on pulp fiction, spoilers included....
this will be long....
> 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.
this is an important point, and sort of what i think i might have imagined
when i said that the rape was a surprise to those who hadn't seen enough
movies. metaphorically, i was meaning (obliquely, i grant) that the
invisibility of the rape-coming-up is a function of some middling,
culturally conditioned denial. as ed rightly points out, the cues are
all there before the door opens and we see this rape-scene. that the
scene is a kind of "unimaginable" horror, or "the worst imaginable"
horror is also to the point of this "invisibility": that the film
presents it as a climax--the payoff for uncomfortably waiting for a joke
(as much of the film works--horror becomes a joke, because [?] this is
how to contain, mediate, and otherwise imagine horrible imagery [cf. marvin's
head blown off becomes a joke, and the fact that marvin is black is
connected, i think to rhames/marsellus' rape....more on this to follow]).
so the zipperhead prisoner allows a certain chuckling as the viewers
might be anticipating the climax of the scene.
  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.
agreed again. i think "symptomatizes" is a good way to think of this,
rather than my previous term, "interrogates," which i also agree with ed,
sort of grants the film (if not tarantino, though i see him or what he
thinks he's doing [and he's talked abt it a lot, cf. oliver stone or
spike lee explaining their work for "us"], as less important here than what
the film is doing, in various ways). the choice of the rape scene,
specifically the choice of a black man being raped, and saved, by white
men, is to the point of the power dynamics being symptomatized.
and this gets to my understanding/reading of the multiple demonizations
and anxieties at work here. willis/butch is not raped. marsellus is. while
this leads to the "bonding" of marsellus and butch by way of the secret
they share, it's not just their secret, it's ours. so one question is how
the film invites us to collude in this secret, to laugh at it ("i'm gonna
get medieval on your ass" serves as a punchline?, one which, as ed
observes, goes back to the watch story's punchline, and that story is
very much abt racism, as walken intones the names of the dupes,
"slopes" and "gooks," etc.). this allows the audience to get bond but
also "get" its tenuousness, black-white male bonding over a black man's
rape? historical resonances don't begin to cover the problems raised
here's a guess: i think that the desire for defined difference which
frames heterosexuality as a construct and that is worried in
homosexuality is sort of displaced in the racial difference here.
marsellus and butch both "become" "niggers" to the rednecks (and where is
the audience positioned here?) but it's marsellus who "becomes"
womanized. and this is where i think the rape functions not only as a
display of heterosexist anxiety, but also sexist and racist anxiety.
(this) rape makes its victims "less than men," or "women," or "niggers."
>   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.
again, i think this is important to underline. nothing seems simple here,
the absurdity escalates the stakes, and as it's followed up by tarantino
as the character who refers repeatedly to "dead niggers," there's a
continuum of absurdity, (imagistic as well as literal) overkill, and
emblem of straightwhitemale anxieties. this is not to say that the
tarantino character (jimmie, married to a black woman, bonnie) is "simply"
a joke version of racism and hyper-straight-masculinity, but that again,
he's symptomatic. to marginalize the rape scene because other emotional
payoffs come in the "bonnie situation" scenes, or even in
vincent/travolta's previous murder by butch (as vincent emerges from the
bathroom, elvira madigan in hand) seems to miss the connections between
guy violence and bonding which the film specifies. connections which have
everything to do with how homosexuality is imagined in a homophobic way,
in the film, in the culture.
that is, if the tension between butch/marsellus is defused, as ed
suggests, it is also left as a problem (despite the "grace" butch rides
off on) for the audience: the tension is only defused through extreme and
disturbing means, which are certainly not about resolution, but more
running away, more not dealing, more anxieties repressed but also briefly
visible. i'm aware that this "problem" (as i've termed it) is probably
not going to linger for some audience members, that the "how was your
breakfast?" seems to make everything all right (butch is a spouse-beater
but he loves her really, marsellus is a scary black man but he's got a
terrible secret that undoes sweetback's running out of *his* own movie,
uncaught and virile), but i think there's enough left unresolved that
there are possibilities for thought...though i'll add that jules'
redemption is a moral coda that bugs me, as grand and wonderful as
jackson is in his performance.
on violence, and showing vs saying: i'm less than easy with the idea that
there's a difference.  moral framing, a la public enemy (the movie) or
beavis & butt-head (their arch "don't try this at home" in response to
being called on whatever modelling some people seem to see them doing), or
even jules' desire to be a "shepherd" at the end of pulp fiction--this
framing is so overt and so "hokey." i rather doubt there's AN answer
here, but certainly the circulation of images and moral framings seems
unfixed, especially in the rape scene and its apparent emotional fallouts
(in and out of the movie). the messiness of such imagery seems to the
point of the messiness of the anxieties it reflects/provokes/disguises.