"BAD-ASS DUDES" IN PULP FICTION: HOMOPHOBIA AND THE COUNTERPHOBIC IDEALIZATION OF WOMEN
"Time who sees all has found you out against
your will ..."
"What's the film about? What's it really
about? ... Boy meets girl--I don't give a shit about that. Fuck
boy meets girl. Fuck motorcycle movies. No, what is really being
said? What's really being seen? ... Do ya wanna know what one of
the greatest fuckin' scripts ever written in the history of Hollywood
is? ... Top Gun. ... Top Gun is fuckin' great. What is Top Gun?
You think it's a story about a bunch of fighter pilots? ... It
is a story about a man's struggle with his own homosexuality. That's
serious. That is what Top Gun is about, man. You've got Maverick,
alright. He's on the edge, man, he's right on the fuckin' line,
alright, and you've got Iceman and all his crew. They're gay. And
they are, they represent the gay man, alright, and they're saying,
'Go, go the gay way. Go the gay way.' He could go both ways. ...
Kellie McGillis--she's, she's, she's heterosexuality. She's saying,
'no, no, no, no, go the normal way, play by the rules. Go the normal
way.' They're saying, 'No, go the gay way, be the gay way, go for
the gay way.' Right. That is what is going on throughout the whole
Pulp Fiction ends with a shot of Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) in unison raising their tee-shirts and tucking their .45 automatics down the manly front of their swim trunks. They then turn their heads, again in unison, as they "walk out of the coffee shop together without saying a word." From the first seconds of their first appearance in the movie to the last seconds of their final appearance, there is no doubt about these outrageous figures. Hit-men with an attitude, they are, as the script says on the last page, "two bad-ass dudes."
The attribution, of course, is a metaphor, since for the movie's male characters it is obviously good to be "bad-ass." But why? Why this particular metaphor, and why is it good to be what this metaphor describes? What is the bad that being "bad-ass" overcomes in the course of a movie with an ass-backward plot that so obviously plays with the conventions of "the end"?
A work of feminist critique provides the initial terms of a possible answer. At the outset of Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex", Judith Butler notes that "sexual difference ... is never simply a function of material differences which are not in some way both marked and formed by discursive practices." Those practices typically obey various "regulatory norms," Butler calls them, which "work in a performative fashion to constitute the materiality of bodies and, more specifically, to materialize the body's sex," above all "to materialize sexual difference in the service of the consolidation of the heterosexual imperative." That imperative organizes the entirety of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, and it does so by commanding every male character not only to "cover his ass" but to cover the ass of his best friend and even his worst enemy, so long as he is heterosexual, and to do so not merely metaphorically but literally. This commandment thus reveals the movie's greatest fear, the heterosexual anxiety it tries to hide as well as hide from by means of an obsessive, indeed abject, homophobic displacement on the one hand and a correspondingly abject counterphobic idealization of the heterosexual woman-as-wife on the other. That this double transference has gone unnoticed, and in any case unremarked, in all of the commentary this movie has elicited bespeaks the power of the heterosexual regulatory norm.
What follows, then, is an analysis of how this norm governs the
linguistic play and meaning of Pulp Fiction, including what could
be called its backward glancing narrative structure, which is erected
to protect the film's unstable phallic investment in a heterosexual
fantasy the film cannot sustain and therefore repeatedly disrupts.
From beginning to end, the movie idealizes the woman as the heterosexual male's love object. And yet this idealization simultaneously indicates her troubling capacity for destabilizing the relations among avowedly heterosexual males. How does this ambivalent idealization work? By means of a perverse equation between the vagina on the one hand and the male rectum on the other, an equation everywhere evident in the astonishingly frequent cursing that is de rigueur for males in the social stratum of America that this film depicts. The equation and the otherwise seemingly gratuitous profanity that supports it disclose the way Pulp Fiction, despite the potential its incessant acts of self-reference have for critizing the conventional sex-roles of its genre, does what pulp fiction has always done--namely, reinforce the psychosexual normativity, which is to say the psychosexual repressions, of that genre.
The movie's second sequence of scenes illustrates the way those repressions, specifically of the anxiety concerning the dangerous equivalency between vagina and rectum, come into view through the symptomatic swearing, the verbal counterpart to their general posturing, of the male characters. Vincent and Jules are driving to an apartment building where they are about to roust and kill three of four "guys" for double-crossing Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), who has hired the young men to deliver the movie's notorious briefcase with its mysterious and never-explained glowing contents. As Vincent and Jules enter the reception area of the apartment building, in the moments before they "get into character" for the brutal work ahead, Jules asks Vincent if he remembers one Antwan Rockamora. It turns out, Jules reports, that "Marsellus fucked his ass up good. And word around the campfire, it was on account of Marsellus Wallace's wife." "What'd he do," Vincent asks, "fuck her?" To which Jules responds, "No no no no no no no, nothin' that bad. ... He gave her a foot massage." Astonished, Vincent asks for details: "What did Marsellus do?" "Sent a couple of guys over to his place," Jules answers. "They took him out on the patio of his apartment, threw his ass over the balcony" (12-13). Although Vincent expresses his regret, he criticizes Antwan for "laying hands on Marsellus Wallace's new wife in a familiar way" and thereby inviting Marsellus' retaliation. What is perhaps surprising in Vincent's response, however, is the simile he immediately evokes to make his point. Is giving her a foot massage, he asks rhetorically, "as bad as eatin' her out--no, but you're in the same fuckin' ballpark" (13). Jules is taken aback; indeed, he is affronted and feels compelled to defend himself and his vision of the woman's sacredness from the contamination that would defile what, without the slightest self-consciousness, this professional killer extols as the "holiest of holies":
touchin' his lady's feet, and stickin' your tongue in her holyiest of holyies [sic], ain't the same ballpark, ain't the same league, ain't even the same fuckin' sport. Foot massages don't mean shit. (14)
In fact, however, that is precisely what foot massages do mean, for the excremental equation defines the major terms of all subsequent interactions among the movie's heterosexual male characters: for a man to make a move on a woman who has been claimed by another man is to risk having his ass "fucked up good." Detesting what Marsellus has done to Antwan, Jules swears that any "Motherfucker do that to me, he better paralyze my ass, 'cause I'd kill' a motherfucker" (15). Jules is believable when he so avows. But so is Vincent when he declaims in turn that he and Marsellus and Marsellus's wife and everybody else know full well, "and Antwan shoulda known fuckin' better," that when it comes to foot massages Marsellus "ain't gonna have a sense of humor about that shit" (16). (Nor would he have a sense of humor about that other shit--the "fuckin' madman" heroin that is even better than the "real, real, real good shit" (31)--the snorting of which brings the "date" between Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) and Vincent to its harrowing climax.) "That shit" just isn't funny--except, of course, that it is.
The source of some of the film's most outrageous humor, "that shit" nevertheless inserts or inscribes the "holiest of holies" within what the movie will pretend to represent as a more sacred space, one which provokes the very anxieties that the sanctity of this space would serve to relieve. In other words, if the woman's anatomy is able to be "discursively marked" as the source and site of what is sacred in Pulp Fiction, it is by virtue of its ability to substitute for the source and site of "that shit"--namely, the male anus, the cryptic place of the would-be heterosexual male's greatest vulnerability and mortification. It is in this bodily organ that the movie keeps its secret intact, the secret abjection behind--in all senses of the term--the heterosexual ideal. Like the previous example, the following two examples illustrate the way the movie constructs that ideal around an overdetermined taboo, one that is honored in the very evocation--incessant and obsessive--of its scatalogical violation.
The first example occurs in the interchange between Jules and Brett, one of the four guys who have stolen the briefcase. Fearful for his life, Brett tries to get on Jules' good side by first asking his name. "Look, what's your name? I got his name's Vincent, but what's yours?" Jules' response typifies the way an anal vocabulary punctuates not merely his own language but the entire discursive field of the film, providing a framework that will affect, indeed contaminate, virtually every act of speaking on the part of the male characters. "My name's Pitt," Jules says, "and you ain't talkin' your ass outta this shit." Although the precise reference of "this shit" will vary throughout the movie, in fact no one, not even Jules himself, talks his ass out of it because "this shit" is precisely the condition of the possibility of the movie's discourse--the speech that occurs within the film as well as the discourse of the film itself. That discourse is given its most perspicuous articulation in the metonymical displacement from mouth to anus and the accompanying scatalogical regression.
Such displacement, however, does not stop there, for it also entails a transgressive assimilation of one bodily site to another not only within a single body but across bodies, including across the differences between men and women. The result effects an implicit, call it coprolaliac, reduction of the vagina. In a directorial instruction present in the screenplay but missing from the film, after Jules turns and shoots one of the other four, Brett "has just shit his pants" (22). Jules then turns back to Brett to address him again, whereupon he initiates a line of questioning the terrified Brett cannot keep up with. Jules' verbal torture achieves a kind of rhetorical climax, which he will soon act out, when he asks Brett, "does he [Marsellus] look like a bitch?!" and elicits from his victim a confused "What?" Jules very carefully repeats, "Does-he-look-like-a-bitch?!" When Brett says "no," Jules asks, "Then why did you try to fuck 'im like a bitch?!" (24). Repeating his accusation, Jules then cites for the first time his redacted version of Ezekiel 25:17 ("The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides. ... And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you" ), which serves as a kind of incantatory prelude to each of the murders he is hired to commit. He then shoots Brett numerous times--in the language that Marsellus will soon use, "popping a cap in his ass" (72).
The meaning of the Ezekiel passage and Jules' exegetical expansion of it here support, and violently so, the film's psychosexual commitments. For it is under the cover of the Old Testament sanctification provided by his appropriation of Ezekiel that Jules destroys anyone who, like Brett and his companions, would "try to fuck [Marsellus] like a bitch" on the one hand and then attempt to "talk [his] ass outta this shit" on the other. Under cover of a prophetic vision of divine vengeance, Jules gives voice to a species of gyno-homophobia. For to transgress certain boundaries is, as the implacable violence of Jules' response makes clear, to cross the gender-marked lines of their bodily inscriptions, thereby threatening to collapse the difference between hetero- and homosexuality into a single phobic anxiety concerning the source and nature of masculinity. The extremity of Jules' response to the recognition of that transgression suggests how precarious to him are the differences--between male and female on the one hand and between heterosexual and homosexual on the other--that he wishes to uphold.
The conjunction of anal and coital terms, symptomatically bespoken by every male character, is overdetermined, as the next example, the Butch (Bruce Willis) narrative, evinces. The story of Butch strips the male characters of their heterosexual pretenses and exposes the double anxiety that penetrates those pretenses as surely as Marsellus' captors penetrate his physical body.
Butch is a prize fighter whose "days are about over," Marsellus suggests to him at one point, underscoring this judgment by means of the film's characteristic ambivalent epithets: "Now that's a hard motherfuckin' fact of life, but it's a fact of life your ass is gonna hafta git realistic about. This business is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherfuckers who thought their ass aged like wine" (27). Though the film does not overtly indicate the sacramental possibilities of the anal metaphor, in fact Butch will try to convert Marsellus' profane vision of male interactions, which Marsellus is here using to justify the bribe he is about to give Butch to take a dive, into a redemptive guarantee between heterosexual lovers. What the Butch narrative attempts to establish is that a holy (because heterosexual) union will triumph over an evil (because homosexual) act of buggery. The very way in which this psychosocial victory is achieved, however, activates the anxiety, indeed the hysteria, against which it would defend.
The oedipal key to this hysteria occurs in the depiction of the extent to which Butch has invested his watch, an heirloom that links him to his forefathers, not merely with sentimental value but with a surcharged set of symbolic linkages that are anal through and through. When Butch discovers that his girlfriend, Fabian (or Fabienne, Maria de Medeiros), has forgotten to pack his watch, he flies into a rage at her oversight. For as Butch says in a monologue dropped from the movie,
this watch isn't just a device that enables you to keep track of time. This watch is a symbol. It's a symbol of how your father, and his father before him, and his father before him, distinguished themselves in war. (93)
Distinguished battlefront service, needless to say, is a cultural cliche for the winning or demonstration of one's manhood. How does the film represent the achievement of Butch's father, a POW in the war against North Vietnam? By the way he ensures that his watch gets passed to his son.
Everyone who has seen Pulp Fiction will remember the astonishing story of how this watch has been transmitted and safeguarded. In a flashback, Butch recalls receiving the watch from Captain Koons (Christopher Walken), who tells the story of its ambivalent genealogy. From Butch's "great-granddaddy" (67) to his grandfather and then to his father, the watch serves as a reminder of the movie's overarching normative commandment concerning masculine identity: the paternal imperative for the son to be like the father. A pilot in the Vietnam War, Butch's father, Koons says, would "be damned if any slopeheads were gonna put their greasy yella hands on his boy's birthright. So he hid it in the one place he knew he could hide somethin'. His ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then when he died of dysentery, he gave me the watch. I hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass for two years. ... And now, little man, I give the watch to you" (68)--cleaned up, of course, from the diarrhetic (does that mean "greasy yella"?) contamination by which it was kept out of the "greasy yella" (diarrhetic?) hands of the "slopeheads." Unwittingly reverting to, and being caught from behind by, the very racist vocabulary his own last name redirects against him, Koons gives the watch, he says, not his ass; but, of course, the one entails the other: though he thinks he says otherwise, he gives the watch and his ass to the boy for safekeeping. For Butch's "birthright," the paternal gift to the movie's "little [big] man," is also his debt, his obligation to protect the place of that birthright's coprocryptic safekeeping.
This gift activates the son's deepest and most primitive (oedipal) identification with the father he never knew, an identification that is at once homosexual and homophobic and that in the rest of the movie becomes the model for the son's subsequent heterosexuality, which must be affirmed by covering or protecting the very site of its bodily incarnation. That is, this gift indicates that the time of heterosexuality is measured by a filial identification that is transmitted not merely from father to son but from one male anus to another. But not just any other, and that is the problem. The anal detour, symbol of a cross-generational bond between father and son, also risks becoming mired in the very homosexual contamination the father-son bond would protect against. Thus, the anal detour through which the watch must pass and to which it must submit constitutes a fantastic or fantasmatic social history of the construction of the male body's (hetero)sexuality. This history programs that body to enter into both purified and purifying alliances with other male bodies. Once again, however, the purity of those alliances is threatened by what supposedly protects that purity from violation. This contradiction is irreducible since it defines the very principle of the film's narration.
Butch, then, must retrieve his father's watch: "Because there are certain things in this world that are worth going back for," he says at the end of the above-cited monologue, which was dropped either during the movie's filming or editing (94; my emphasis). The context of his action, it is important to recall, is his betrayal of Marsellus. Butch has earlier taken a payoff from Marsellus to throw his upcoming fight. "In the fifth [round], your ass goes down," Marsellus says. When Butch acquiesces in grim silence, barely nodding his head, Marsellus insists that he "Say it!" His lips pursed tight (as tight as the ass he must sacrifice?), Butch does: "In the fifth, my ass goes down" (27). Not surprisingly, Butch will renege on this promise, for to have followed through on it would have been to betray the very terms of his identity as the son of his father, the heroic soldier fighting for his country; it would have been to fall away from what gives him his sense of himself as a man. When Butch knocks out (in fact kills) his opponent, he must escape before Marsellus has his goons "pop a cap in his ass" (72). After a ride in a cab driven by the voluptuous, dark-haired Esmerelda, who is attracted to the thought of him able to kill, and all the more actually having killed, a man, and whose every gesture is erotically charged, Butch manages to arrive at the hotel where Fabian, deeply in love with her man, is waiting for him. Later that night they have oral sex, Butch bending his head before and in effect worshipping, although reluctantly, at the aforementioned "holiest of holies." The next morning, however, as Fabian is watching "a motorcycle movie" in which "Hell's Angels [are] tear-assin' through a Vietnamese prison camp" (85), perhaps a camp such as the one where his father had been imprisoned and died having succeeded in protecting himself from another kind of "tear-assin,'" Butch discovers that Fabian has forgotten to bring the watch. He is furious.
Fabian, that was my father's fuckin' watch. You know what my father went through to git me that watch? ... I don't wanna get into it right now ... but he went through a lot. Now all this other shit, you coulda set on fire, but I specifically reminded you not to forget my father's watch. (89; ellipses in the script)
Disregarding "all this other shit," Butch is willing to risk his life--a willingness that increases Fabian's vulnerability as well--in order to return for his father's watch, the very symbol of that which violates what must be kept inviolate--the space of a bodily sanctuary yet more sacred than the vagina--in order to assure the male of his heterosexual birthright.
When he returns to his apartment, then, it is overdetermined that the threat he must overcome will be represented in anal terms. "Holy shit" (96), Butch says softly as he discovers and then picks up the gun that Vincent, waiting to ambush him, has unaccountably left on the kitchen counter when he went to use the bathroom to take the last of his several craps throughout the film. Realizing that one of Marsellus' hit men is somewhere in the apartment about to assassinate him, Butch hears the toilet flush. A moment later it is Vincent he sees opening the bathroom door. Taken up short, Vincent returns Butch's stare until "the toaster LOUDLY kicks up the Pop Tarts" (96), whereupon Butch fires, popping a fatal cap in Vincent's ass--that is, doing to one of Marsellus' men what Marsellus had sworn to have them do to him. Is it too much to underscore, here, that "pop" is also slang for father, and that Butch's pet name for Fabian, "sugar pop," is a variation on the homologous name, "Pop Tarts," that triggers his firing of the machine gun? In other words, that the word "pop" repeats the movie's encrypted copula of the vagina on the one hand, denominated as sweet tasting, and the excrementally defiled and defiling, father-branded asses of erstwhile male combatants on the other?
What happens next brings into focus what Butler refers to as "that site of dreaded identification against which--and by virtue of which--the domain of the subject will circumscribe its own claim to autonomy and to life." Having left his apartment in triumphant exaltation at escaping Marsellus' hit man, Butch's elation vanishes when he stops at a traffic light only to discover, seconds later, Marsellus himself, who walks in front of him laden with takeout food. Before Marsellus can get away, Butch accelerates and runs into Marsellus. As he peels through the intersection, he crashes his car, Fabian's Honda Civic, into another car. In the meantime, Marsellus, appearing to be half-dead, is attended to by a group of pedestrians who rush to help him. To their horror, however, he pulls out a gun and fires at Butch, injuring an innocent bystander--a woman--and then, wounded and disoriented, pursues his sworn enemy, "hot on his ass" (99). Butch himself does not linger; one of his knees injured, he limps down the street and seeks refuge in a pawnshop. Immediately, however, Marsellus, bursts in on him. As Butch beats up on Marsellus, the pawnshop owner, "a hillbilly-lookin boy" named Maynard (99), brandishes a pump-action shotgun (100). Aiming at the two strangers, he forces Butch to back away from Marsellus. He then knocks Butch out by "HITTING him hard in the face with the [of course] butt of the shotgun" (101).
In the following scene Marsellus and Butch, bound and gagged, are confronted with the specter of Maynard's policeman friend Zed, the movie's contaminated guardian of the law. (That Zed is played by an actor, Alexis Arquette," who has declared, "'I'm not a bisexual in the typical sense,"' intensifies the irony of what next happens, namely the violation of the movie's heterosexual taboo.) Zed orders Maynard to wake up "the gimp." Maynard complies, letting this eerie figure, dressed and hooded in black leather with his hands bound behind him and his neck collared, out of a locked trunk and proceeding to leash him to a ceiling hook. Maynard and Zed then drag the struggling Marsellus into the back room where Zed proceeds to sodomize (anally open) him over the gimp's just-opened trunk. As Marsellus is being assaulted a tergo, or from the rear, in the rear room of the dungeon-like basement--the architecture here repeating in its encryption of sodomy that from which the movie has developed its normative coding of heterosexuality--Butch manages to escape, beating the gimp senseless. "The punches knock The Gimp out, making him fall to his knees, thus HANGING HIMSELF by the leash attached to the hook" (105). Butch, himself a gimp by virtue of his lame knee, then limps up the stairs, grabs Zed's keys "with a large Z connected to the ring" (105), and is ready to make his getaway. As Butch is about to leave through the front door of the shop, however, he hesitates. In the space of two or three seconds, he decides to go back. As he must, of course, because, again, "there are certain things in this world that are worth going back for." It is a message the hand-written sign in the pawnshop foregrounds for the viewer if not for Butch himself: "Watch Batteries for Sale." This sign is in the front of a pawn shop owned by a person the movie characterizes as a sexual deviant and operated as a front behind which this self-styled "spider" (a feminizing self-description?) captures his "flies" (101), the victims he and Zed then anally rape. This overdetermined sign advertizes that watch batteries are on hand. No wonder it is to this and only this shop that Butch first ran for cover, Marsellus behind him wanting, as has been noted, to "pop a cap in his ass." For the sign announces the availability not merely of that which powers watches but of that which powers what all watches signify to Butch. Butch has risked everything--including, as we have seen, the life of his (heterosexual) girlfriend, which he has first put in jeopardy by crossing Marcellus--to retrieve not merely his father's watch but its symbolic meaning. Punning on the sexual battery going on behind Butch, the advertisement thus remarks the power source behind masculine heterosexuality: the recognition, however partial or unconscious or displaced or figuratively embodied, of the necessity that heterosexual males cover each other's asses, once again even the asses of their worst enemies. But if his father's friendship with Koons is to serve as the ideal model for Butch, then what it means for him to cover the ass of someone else is to be anally joined to that person. It is precisely to free Marsellus from having another man put something up his enemy's ass, hence his own, that Butch returns. Once again, however, if the violation of Marsellus is the most abject humiliation that can befall a heterosexual male in this movie, it is yet evocative of the greatest act of solidarity among two supposedly heterosexual males who are united in wanting to pass this solidarity to the next generation.
Butch, of course, does not acknowledge the homophilic dimensions of his father's relation to his friend Koons nor of his own decision to help Marsellus, another "coon." And the movie is going to deny those dimensions with a vengeance. Nevertheless, the details of the subsequent action and dialogue reinforce the extreme and extremely violent heterosexual ambivalence that Butch and Marsellus are endeavoring to work through.
Passing a clock that advertizes "DAD'S OLD-FASHIONED ROOT BEER" (106; my emphasis) as he heads for the back of the shop and down the stairs, and then sneaking up on Maynard from behind, Butch kills him with the Samurai sword he has taken off the wall next to the "Dad's" sign. Butch thus makes good on the paternal imperative that commands not only this scene but the entire frame of Butch's life as the dutiful, honor-driven son of his father, of his father's father, and of that father's father before him. Here, finally, the "little man" acts out the meaning of having been given his father's watch: he becomes the big man, the good soldier who claims his "birthright" as a heterosexual male going into battle against what is now explicitly represented as the homosexual enemy, the scene of anal inheritance having been transformed into a scene of anal violation avenged.
Butch's rite of passage, which Tarantino repeats with apotropaic directorial bravado when he casts Arquette as the homosexual rapist, is to submit to the homoerotic taboo. That submission, however, is a form of the very event being prohibited. Normally, the observance of a taboo effects the transmutation of the tabooed object into something sacred that then retrospectively becomes the originary source of the taboo's imperative. In the case at hand, however, something like the reverse has occurred: the power associated with the observance of the taboo is transferred back to the tabooed object. Thus, the investment of the anus with the power to unite father and son across the oedipal divide exposes the homosexual nature of the resulting identification: in being able to be passed to the son, the paternal privilege passes from one man to another; moreover, it is able to do so in the manner of precisely the kind of exchange the taboo prohibits. The taboo in question, then, belongs ambivalently to the heterosexual, who is both its agent and its object: from the Latin, rectum intestinum, literally "straight intestine" (rectus, "right, straight"), the rectum gives the "straight" male his very identity, his heterosexual rectitude, which no character dares name as such in the movie but which the male characters everywhere seek to affirm. For in this movie, the storyline of which is anything but straight, there is and can be no erection (from the same Latin root, rectus) except in relation to the tabooed rectum. Incarnate site of the normative sacred, the male rectum must remain inviolate for those very men who are brought by the imperative of their posturing repeatedly to evoke in their curses an image of anal assault.
In consequence, the scene of Butch's descent into homosexual hell--a descent by a character whose name, in a movie that makes brilliant use of slang, can mean lesbian, dyke, or bulldyke--ends by repeating, not resolving, the film's fundamental ambivalence; it ends, that is, with two discursive moments that inflect the movie's flagrant homophobic coding.
First, after standing over the dead body of Maynard, "Butch steps aside, REVEALING Marsellus standing behind him, holding Maynard's pump-action shotgun." Marsellus shoots past Butch, and "Zed is BLASTED in the groin. Down he goes, SCREAMING in AGONY" (107). Butch asks Marsellus, "You okay?" Marsellus responds, "Naw man. I'm pretty fuckin' far from okay!" Butch responds, "What now?" Looking at Zed, Marsellus then announces the general terms of how "I'm gonna git Medieval on your ass." When Butch asks Marsellus if things are "cool" between them--that is, if Butch has made up for his double-cross--Marsellus says "yeah" but in effect gags Butch with the following instruction: "don't tell nobody about this. This shit's between me and you and the soon-to-be-livin'-the-rest-of-his-short-ass-life-in-agonizing-pa in, Mr. Rapist here." Identifying the most unholy of trinities in the form of a command that Butch not say a word of what has been revealed to his eyes, a command that bears the anal coding of the earlier gagging, Marsellus follows up with a second instruction to Butch, again in the guiding terms of the movie's masculine imperative: "leave town ... get your ass outta here" (107-108). According to the script, "the two men shake hands, then hug one another" in a gesture of intimacy that is dropped, not surprisingly, from the film (108). It is, then, in the homosexual's pawnshop that Butch, literally and metaphorically, redeems his ass, trading on Marsellus' violated rectum for an image of what keeps his own masculinity intact. Sealed lips for sealed anus--here is the movie's principle of exchange by which a dreaded homoeroticism is attempted to be converted into a redemptive heterosexuality.
Redemption is the right word. For the second discursive moment occurs when Butch appropriates Zed's motorcycle to make good his compact with Marsellus to leave Los Angeles. Nicknamed "Grace," Zed's "chopper" replaces Fabian's more civilized vehicle, the aforementioned "Civic," which Butch has wrecked after running into Marsellus. The symbolism of the exchange is, once again, in accord with the sexual ideology that underwrites the rest of the movie. Having saved himself and his worst (heterosexual) enemy from what Butler calls "those 'unlivable' and 'uninhabitable' zones of social life," Butch can now appropriate or reappropriate what the movie represents as the homosexual's terrifying desire and redirect it toward fulfilling a certain heterosexual dream purified of what Pulp Fiction, alluding to its earlier citation from the aforementioned biker film, characterizes as its hellish homosexual underpinnings. The instrument of this purification, of course, is nothing other than a "chopper," here the salvific offering from one of Hell's Angels. It is one of their American-made motorcycles, then, its name echoing the American "choppers" in Vietnam, that enables Butch to complete the movie he had interrupted Fabian watching--a movie that mirrors the cross-generational narrative Butch is in the midst of living out. Having "gone back for" the one certain thing in this world he had to go back for, Butch can now return to the woman he loves, Zed's powerful engine of Grace between his legs.
Butch, whose motorcycle is this?
BUTCH It's a chopper.
Whose chopper is this?
Zed's dead, baby, Zed's dead.
And with that, the two lovebirds PEEL AWAY on Grace
Prior to their getaway, there is first the
sexual destruction and then the death of Zed, whose name, a synonym
for the letter "zee," serves
as an abecedarian metonymy for writing or, more generally, for inscription
as such, filmic or otherwise. Here the principle of the movie's self-conscious
construction and self-reference coincides with the alphabetic dead
end of homosexuality, which releases the heterosexual couple to "peel
away on Grace," the engine, so to speak of a homosexual desire
now appropriated to serve heterosexual aims--specifically the love
between Butch and Fabian. Not the final scene in the film but nevertheless
the final scene in the chronology of events the film narrates, the
exchange between Butch and Fabian rests upon the swapping of the
homosexual's death for the heterosexual's life--which means for the
purity of the male anus and then, and only then, that of the vagina.
The vagina becomes the holiest of holies only when the male rectum
is sealed shut against the possibility of being "popped" open
by a "cap"--bullet, but also what another kind of "cap" is
worn to cover. What Marsellus has earlier prophesied just before
instructing Butch that "in the fifth, your ass goes prophesied
down" now comes true as Butch and Fabian, smiling, roar off: "I
think you're gonna find--when all this shit is over and done--I think
you're gonna find yourself one smilin' motherfucker" (27). The
moment of masculine sanctification and grace comes, then, only when
the homosexual male is violently sacrificed--his groin blasted away--all
in the name, if the pun be pardoned, of the watchful father. For
it is in his name that the movie delivers its final blessing to the
oedipally resolved son who, his identification with the father complete,
can now be called "one smilin' motherfucker" with ironic
Before it bequeaths its boon, however, the movie underscores anew the danger that attaches to the power of the heterosexual woman to mediate the ostensibly heterosexual "purity" of male desire. The scare quotes here are meant, on the one hand, to indicate the difficulty of attributing purity to a heterosexuality the ideal form of which in this movie requires a certain (female) otherness. On the other hand, the quotation marks are meant to point toward the way the woman functions as heterosexual object only within an economy of exchange among men, an economy that is predicated upon a form of social contract that seeks to preserve a homogeneity of male prerogative. In Pulp Fiction, however, the mere presence of the woman threatens to expose that prerogative as potentially homophilic, if not homosexual--indeed all the more, so, ironically, as her heterosexual value is anxiously idealized.
In the scenes involving Jimmie (Quentin Tarantino), there are multiple indications that this idealization serves as a counterphobic defense against the revelation of a homosexual identification at work among the film's otherwise avowedly heterosexual men. These scenes follow upon the "accidental" shooting of Marvin, one of the four previously mentioned guys who have stolen Marsellus' briefcase (Jules' plant or informant, Marvin is, of course, a stool piegon), whereupon Jules and Vincent turn to Jimmie for help. The syntactic principle that governs both sets of scenes is, once again, the obsessive anality that permeates every male character's language.
The first group of scenes occur after Vincent and Jules have retrieved Marsellus' briefcase. As they drive away from the apartment where they have just escaped with their lives, having been fired upon at point blank range, they argue about whether or not their survival was a miracle or an example of dumb luck. Jules remarks that "We should be fuckin' dead!" When Vincent responds, "Yeah, we were lucky," Jules takes exception: "That shit wasn't luck. That shit was somethin' else. ..." He then rebukes Vincent: "Don't blow this shit off! What just happened was a fuckin' miracle." Vincent, however, tells his friend to "Chill the fuck out, Jules, this shit happens." The hilarity of Vincent's cliched language underscores his refusal of Jules' need for a form of bodily redemption the homophobic coding of which has just been acted out in the story of Butch and Marsellus. "Wrong, wrong," Jules says, "this shit doesn't just happen" (114-15). Is he here on the edge of the insight that "this shit" is not accidental but in fact part and parcel of a motivated psychosocial dynamism, a dynamism which he must nevertheless deny or repress because he himself is caught up in it? In any event, when Vincent turns to Marvin, who is riding in the back seat, for his opinion, he carelessly points his .45 at the young man, his finger on the trigger. Suddenly Vincent's gun goes off, and Marvin is shot (shit does happen), killed instantly in the movie but in the script requiring a second shot to put him out of his misery. The subsequent exchange between Jules and Vincent reintroduces the terms of the discussion, concerning the proper interpretation of events, that has just been interrupted.
What the fuck's happening?
I just accidentally shot Marvin in the throat.
Why the fuck did you do that?
I didn't mean to do it. I said it was an accident.
I've seen a lot of crazy-ass shit in my time--
--chill out, man, it was an accident, okay? You hit a bump or somethin' and the gun went off.
The car didn't hit no motherfuckin, bump! (117)
In the context of the argument concerning the supposed "miracle" Jules has witnessed, Vincent's "accidental" shooting of Marvin would appear to be an interpretive test. If God has intervened to prevent what otherwise would have been the certain death of Jules and Vincent, then what does the death of Marvin signify? An accident, as Vincent insists, or a negative instance of the divine intervention to which Jules has just been appealing? In fact, Jules' excremental metaphor marks an unwitting interpretive apostasy, an explanatory swerve away from his newfound theological perspective, as he reverts to Vincent's more empirical hermeneutic principle: the event is an example of "crazy-ass shit," the very shit that Vincent believes is able to just happen. The irony of Jules' characterization of the gunshot, of course, anticipates what will be (or recalls what has already been) the scene of Vincent's death, a scene interposed earlier in the film's narrative, as has been remarked, when Vincent carelessly leaves his gun in the kitchen of Butch's apartment before using the bathroom. There, what Vincent in the present scene adverts to as an "accident" catches up to him.
However, the ontological nature of this "crazy-ass shit," whether or not it "just happens," is incidental to the discursive patterning of the movie. For that patterning symptomatically bespeaks the manner in which heterosexual masculinity is bound to a normative ideal that would construct the male body without homosexual remainder. It is the specter of just such a remainder, however, that haunts Pulp Fiction and that the male characters would lay to rest by eliminating. Thus, the subsequent scenes at Jimmie's, where Jules and Vincent take the corpse of Marvin, will be dominated by the absent presence of Bonnie, Jimmie's wife, who works the--yes--graveyard shift at a local hospital. She is never seen, of course, except in a sequence in which Jimmie fantasizes her return, and then she is visible only from behind. Such an implicit metonymic reduction of the woman to her behind will reinforce the explicit reduction that comes about in the pervasive swearing. In either case, she remains behind the scenes of the film's overt action, a figure who exposes the gynophobia that accompanies the films homophobia.
The scenes under the shadow of Bonnie's imminent return home, then, begin when Jules dials Jimmie, saying to Vincent, "If Jimmie's ass ain't home, I don't know what the fuck were gonna do." But Jimmie's ass, Jimmie-as-ass, is at home, and so Jules makes his feculent plea:
Listen up man, me an' my homeboy are in some serious shit. We're in a car we gotta get off the road, pronto! I need to use your garage for a coupla hours. (pause)
Jimmie, you know I can't get into this shit on a cellular fuckin' phone. But what I can say is my ass is out in the cold and I'm askin' you for some sanctuary 'til our people can bring us in. (119)
Jimmie perceives Jules' request for "sanctuary," however, as a threat to his marriage:
don't you understand that if Bonnie comes home and finds a dead body in her house, I'm gonna get-divorced ... fuckin' divorced. And I don't wanna get fuckin' divorced. The last time me an' Bonnie talked about this shit was gonna be the last time me an Bonnie talked about this shit.
How does Jimmie then address Jules? By feminizing his name in a rhetorical gesture of misogynistic debasement that yet again weds anality and genitality into a single, counterphobic defense:
Now I wanna help ya out Julie. ... But I ain't gonna lose my wife doin' it. ... There's nothing you can say that's gonna make me forget I love my wife. (123)
Jimmie protests too much, for he has just badmouthed his wife to Jules after the hitman, himself repeating a form of the very ingratiation he had despised in Brett, has complimented him for his coffee: "Goddamn Jimmie, this is some serious gourmet shit. Me an' Vincent woulda been satisfied with freeze-dried Tasters Choice. You spring this gourmet fuckin' shit on us. What flavor is this?" Jimmie is not amused by Jules' sweet-talk, and he tells "Julie" to "knock it off."
I'm not a cob of corn, so you can stop butterin' me up. I don't need you to tell me how good my coffee is. I'm the one who buys it, I know how fuckin' good it is. When Bonnie goes shoppin', she buys shit. (122)
The allusion to the corn cob, of course, bears the earlier-mentioned displacement from orality to anality, contaminating the mouth and voice-box all the more ironically in the context of the discussion of "Tasters Choice." In addition, the rest of the passage assimilates anus and vagina, the one to the other, in the verbal slippage between shit and woman. The swearing, then, not only effects but performs the bodily displacements and transgressions in question. The result is a drama of male hysteria that is transmitted from Jimmie to Jules to Marsellus (and soon to a fourth individual), each of whom participates in a collective masculine projection of their malaise onto the figure of Bonnie.
Their hysteria, then, is contagious. Jimmie, panicking at the prospect that his wife will return and walk in on "this shit," wants Jules to "make your phone calls, talk to your people, then get the fuck out of my house." Jules is agreeable: "That's all we want. We don't wanna fuck up your shit" (123). A common enough though nevertheless astonishing figure of speech, the trope in question could be said to do to its own signifying action just what that signification is being employed to deny--namely, effect a disastrous contamination of the sites, linguistic and bodily, of the male's heterosexuality. What is Jimmie's "shit" that Jules does not want to "fuck up"? It is, in fact, not alone his marriage but also the very discursive framework which enables him to articulate his marital relation in terms of the very "shit" that other men can "fuck up." In other words, "shit" here designates both what would appear to be the aim of male sexuality, namely a heterosexual relation, and the anality that, in association with homosexual rape, disrupts the possibility of a pure or purified heterosexual reference. Thus, a metonymy for names and naming in general, for the power to designate the world, "shit" reinscribes the socialized heterosexual male body within a discursive practice that embodies itself in a hysterical excremental symptomatology of a kind of homo-gynophobia.
Not surprisingly, then, in the subsequent telephone call to Marsellus, although Jules maintains a calm demeanor, his characterization of Bonnie suggests that he, too, is on the verge of freaking out over what goes by the designation of "fuckin' shit." Once again the context is one of oral incorporation, for Jules' call from Jimmie and Bonnie's bedroom comes as Marsellus is "eating his large breakfast."
... well, say she comes home. Whaddya think she'll do?
No fuckin' shit she'll freak. That ain't no answer ...
You got to appreciate what an explosive element this Bonnie situation is. If she comes home from a hard day's work and finds a bunch of gangsters doin' a bunch of gangsta' shit in her kitchen, ain't no tellin' what she's apt to do. (124)
In fact, however, it is the "explosiveness" of the "gangsta' shit," specifically the unanticipated shooting of Marvin, that Jules here projects onto Bonnie, and he does so in the same breath that he has just promised Jimmie, referring to the man's wife, not to "fuck up your shit." The unwitting equation enables "shit" to signify the woman and her danger on the one hand and male-on-male violence, alternatively homosexual or homophobic, on the other.
What is the woman's "explosiveness"? Two remarks by Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel) provide an answer. When Marsellus calls "The Wolf" and asks him to come to the aid of Jules and Vincent, The Wolf asks the nature of the difficulty. His voice off the soundtrack, Marsellus apparently describes the collective concern about Bonnie. The Wolf asks, "Is she the hysterical type?" Marsellus presumably answers yes, to which The Wolf responds, "When she due?" (126). Why the pregnancy metaphor to describe the dangerous time of Bonnie's expected arrival home? What is the figurative birth that must be aborted before Bonnie comes to term, that is, before she beholds the dead body, which it is Winston's charge to make disappear without a trace? The answer has already been given: divorce, the termination of Jimmie's marriage, the "fucking up of Jimmie's shit," which is to say the destruction of the reference that embodies his heterosexuality.
Because that reference is so unstable, the concern to defer the woman's aforementioned "explosiveness" marks the extent to which her anticipated hysteria is already a feature of the men in Pulp Fiction. For their language repeatedly enacts the bodily dissemination of its inscription across the vagina and the male ass on the one hand and on the other the multiple forms of oral and linguistic displacement.
According to this metonymic principle of symptom-formation, the scenes at Jimmie's will end first by lampooning Jules (and Jim) and Vincent and then by reasserting the male's superiority over his female lover. Thus, when Jimmie expresses amazement at the way Jules and Vincent have cleaned the car of Marvin's splattered blood and brains, The Wolf responds, "Well, lets not start suckin' each other's dicks quite yet," his adverbial tag connoting a dramatic irony beyond his intended put-down (134). He then commands Jules and Vincent to strip down "to your bare ass" (134) and, the symbolic possibilities of his gesture scarcely needing comment, hoses them off. According to the script, after they have exchanged their bloody clothes for Jimmie's tee-shirts (one with "UC Santa Cruz" on it, the other with "I'm with Stupid"), the two men "look a million miles away from the black-suited, bad-asses we first met" (136). Indeed, they look to Jimmie like "dorks"--jerks or nerds but also penises. Jules has a comeback, however: "Yeah, well, our asses ain't the expert on wearin' dorky shit that yours is" (136), the association of dork, ass, and shit serving, once again, as a verbal symptom of the sexual ambivalence to which this scene gives comic relief.
The next scene, at Monster Joe's Truck and Tow, where Winston Wolf disposes of Jules' car and Marvin's body, reestablishes the male's authority over the woman in the context of heterosexuality as the normative psychosocial role. After concluding business with Joe, Winston introduces Raquel, Joe's daughter, to "the boys," Jules and Vincent, and then banters with his much younger girlfriend, who cajoles him into taking her out for breakfast before yielding to his desire to let him get some sleep. Winston has been, he says, "up all night (141; my emphasis) and needs some rest before, it goes without saying, getting it up with Raquel. Jules interrupts this sweet-talk to express his appreciation. Winston capitalizes on Jules' compliment to affirm his masculine, indeed paternal, privilege:
You hear that, young lady? Respect. You could learn a lot from those two fine specimens. Respect for one's elders shows character.
I have character.
Just because you are a character doesn't mean you have character.
Lovingly submitting to this one-upmanship,
Raquel gets into Winston's Porsche, and they "SHOOT OFF down the road" (143),
in a quasi-ejaculatory expression of phallic overdrive, just as Butch,
Fabian holding on behind him, have roared away on "Grace."
Twice over, then, the movie has backed off from the homophobic and gynophobic implications of the language, attitudes, and actions of its male characters, substituting for these motifs an image of the woman holding on to her virile man. Behind this gesture, however, lurks the contradictory fantasy of a violent anal eroticism that, though it threatens the male with the specter of homosexual rape, nevertheless serves a protective function of hiding his fear of the woman--the figure of the hysterical woman whose violent desire in this film challenges the movie's representation of the male's heterosexual posing and the phallic prerogative it would claim for itself.
The film's opening sequence hints at the tenuousness of the male's heterosexual self-assertion. The movie begins with "Pumpkin" (Tim Roth), and his girlfriend "Honey Bunny" (Amanda Plummer) conferring over breakfast at "a normal Denny's, Spires-like coffee shop in Los Angeles" (1). They are a couple of small-time criminals who have robbed an unspecified number of liquor stores. Their conversation in progress, Pumpkin apparently answers a previous suggestion from Honey Bunny, saying: "No, forget it, It's too risky. I'm through doin' that shit" (1). In the interaction that follows the two banter back and forth, Pumpkin insisting that he is right to acknowledge the dangers of their stick-ups and right to say he is through with them. "When you go on like this, you know what you sound like?" Honey Bunny asks. "I sound like a sensible fucking man, is what I sound like," he responds. Honey Bunny, teasing, says no, "you sound like a duck. Quack, quack, quack ..." (1). They laugh, and then, presumably alluding to their liquor-store jobs, he notes: "I mean the way it is now, you're takin' the same fuckin' risk as when you rob a bank" (2).
In this exchange Pumpkin's language summarizes the unstated psychological premise of the film: a "sensible fuckin' man" must beware of the "fuckin' risk" of "doin' that shit.'" In the case at hand the peril concerns the fact that with "bars, liquor stores, gas stations, you get your head blown off stickin' up one of them" (3). If the phallic aggression of Pumpkin's language is automatic and unintentional, it nevertheless indicates the nature of the anxiety he wants to allay; when he proposes a new robbery scheme, he transfers his anxiety to his victims: "Restaurants, on the other hand, you catch with their pants down" (3), an observation that must be taken literally, not only because it anticipates Vincent's excremental oversight and the particular circumstance that ultimately gets him killed but because it thereby signals the more encompassing pattern of psychosexual vulnerability that besets the men of this film.
A few moments later Honey Bunny completes the violent transference, making explicit the phallic threat that attaches to the woman. Getting excited about the prospect of robbing the very restaurant in which they have been sitting, Honey Bunny says, "I'm ready, let's go, right here, right now" (6). Agreeing on their modus operandi, Honey Bunny looks Pumpkin in the eyes and says, "I love you, Pumpkin." He responds in kind; they kiss, brandish their weapons, and take over the restaurant. Pumpkin announces to the patrons: "Everybody be cool, this is a robbery." Honey Bunny, however, behaving like a "psychopathic, hair-triggered, loose cannon," shrieks out an oath that, over and above her attempt to intimidate the restaurant patrons, translates the trepidation of every heterosexual male in the movie: "Any of you fuckin' pricks move and I'll execute every one of you motherfuckers!" (7). Following this explosive cursing, obedience to the literal terms of which would paralyze masculine pleasure in the act, the movie cuts away from the restaurant to the credit sequence and then the first appearance of Jules and Vincent. If the lovey-dovey interactions of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny at the opening of the movie represent a kind of heterosexual foreplay, then the movie reproduces this erotic movement only to interrupt it before it reaches its climax.
It is the effect of the movie's ending to complete the interruption of the scene begun at the movie's start by surprising the heterosexual couple in flagrante delicto, to catch them in the act, with their pants down, thereby deferring or blocking the moment of heterosexual consummation. And yet this interruption is problematic. On the one hand the movie's ending purports to protect the heterosexual couple from their transgressive act, and to do so within a theological framework that promises the possibility of "grace." On the other hand such a promise only mystifies the movie's preoccupation with reconstituting the difference it has cast in doubt between vagina and (male) rectum, that is to say with covering up the hysterical displacements of the violation of that difference. It is Jules who, having recovered the homophonic "jewels" he had momentarily lost as Jimmie's "Julie," saves Pumpkin and Honey Bunny and delivers the movie's ostensible "blessing." The source of this blessing is Jules' belief that he has escaped being killed that morning when shot at by Brett's cohort. It was a "miracle" of "divine intervention" (114), he has said earlier. And now, to Pumpkin, he repeats this confession of faith. "I felt God's touch" (146). The perception of having been touched by God, however, obeys the same phobic motivations that have been at work from the movie's outset.
It is by an excremental path that Jules decides to quit "the life" (146) as a hit man for Marsellus. As has already been noted, the first dialogue between Jules and Vincent concerning their near-death experience is replete with their characteristic, and characteristically unthinking, anal vulgarity. When in the movie's concluding coffee-shop scene they take up for a second time what for Jules is "the miracle we witnessed" (145), their discussion begins when Jules declines Vincent's offer of some sausage. "I don't eat pork," he says. When asked why not, he responds with Old Testament revulsion. "Pigs sleep and root in shit," Jules remarks with indignant hauteur. "That's a filthy animal. I don't wanna eat nothin' that ain't got enough sense to disregard its own feces" (144). As the conversation proceeds, Vincent interrupts because, he says pointedly, "I gotta take a shit. To be continued" (148). Vincent's punning allusion to the structure of the movie--it is interrupted in order "to be continued"--in fact assimilates that structure to the anal coding which underlies it. When Vincent returns, it is to walk in on the robbery-in-progress. Of course, according to the logic at work in this film it is, as it must be, the woman who is hysterical, her male partner, along with Jules, able to maintain his cool and negotiate a non-violent settlement, as if the threat of violence came from the woman alone.
How does this scene end? With an affirmation of the film's apotropaic anality. At the end, Jules, heretofore an angel of death, is "tryin, as he says, "tryin' real hard to be a shepherd" (158). Jules' language--his discourse--concerning the nature of his religious conversion, which Vincent has ridiculed mercilessly, does not represent in any way a change in the movie's fundamental obsession with the bodily site that constitutes the place of whatever sacredness might be possible in the world of this movie. To the contrary, his language bespeaks the unconsciousness of its incarnation. Obsessed with the aforementioned passage from Ezekiel, Jules recites the now familiar words: "The path of the righteous man ..." (157). But if one were to question what this phrase means, one would discover that "righteous" derives from the same root as "rectum" and "erection," so that the "path of the righteous man" encrypts in its etymology what has been the thematic course of the entire film. As Jules' subsequent language discloses against Jules' conscious intent, it has "meant your ass." Denying this meaning, Jules reviews his earlier self-interpretation.
I been sayin' that shit for years. And if you ever heard it, it meant your ass. I never really questioned what it meant. I thought it was just a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker 'fore you popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this mornin' made me think twice. Now I'm thinkin', it could mean you're the evil man. And I'm the righteous man. And Mr. .45 here, he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could be you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. I'd like that. But that shit ain't the truth. (158)
Although "that shit" may not be the truth, "that shit" is. Contrary to Jules' self-declaration, it is the word "shit" that reveals the very truth which he and the other heterosexual male characters would like to cover up with this curse. For it is the purified and purifying but simultaneously contaminated and contaminating "shit,' which is now making Jules think twice, that bears the only blessing, the only grace, this movie has to offer. When Jules tells Pumpkin that he is giving him and Honey Bunny his wallet, he says: "I'm buyin' somethin' for my money. Wanna know what I'm buyin' Ringo?" In no position not to answer, Pumpkin diffidently asks "What?" And Jules answers: "Your life. I'm givin' you that money so I don't hafta kill your ass" (157). If, in what is here Jules' performative wish fulfillment, the ass is a synecdoche for life, it is not just any ass but a heterosexual one. And it is two such asses, those of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, saved from the vengeance of the Lord that Jules has repeatedly invoked, that we see leaving the restaurant in haste and running down the street. They are shown hightailing it from behind, their vulnerability in stark contrast to the chest-puffing certainty with which Butch and then The Wolf have driven away.
The movie ends a moment later with the parodic
exit of Vincent and Jules, whose behavior-in-unison gives the lie
to Jules' vision. The movie does not conclude with pulp fiction
having become transformed into sacred narrative; it does not close
with Jules' renunciation of "the life" (would that include his wife as well?) to
become the "shepherd" who walks the earth "like Caine
in 'KUNG FU'" (147), that is, like Cain redeemed from his murderous
violence. Rather, the movie ends with an image of Jules and Vincent
each shoving the tool of his trade down the front of his swim trunks--two
bad-ass dudes." Behind that exaggerated phallic gesture, caricatured
in its mimetic doubling, is a heterosexual anxiety which gives rise
to the shared violence--at once homophobic and gynophobic--of these
two bad-asses. And if, pace Tarantino's Sid, "that is what is
going on throughout the whole movie," then "that's serious."
I would like to thank my colleague Patrick Plumlee for conversations that once again have enhanced my appreciation of cinematic technique; my students--Ellenore Estoy, Chris Kennedy, Colleen McKenzie, Michael Singer, Shep Shepard, and Alisha White--for their interest in analyzing the film with me; and my friends Barnaby Barratt and Barrie Ruth Straus for their continued support of my work. I would also like to thank the Editorial Board of QRFV for their most helpful suggestions concerning this essay, which I would like to dedicate to Pamela Inez. Her ability to see through and resist the mystifications of violence inspired this project.
1. No mere transcription of Tarantino's exposition
can quite capture the hilarity of his delivery in Rory Kelly's
1994 parody of true (that is, heterosexual) romance and love. Nor
can it quite capture the homoerotic fascination Tarantino's character,
Sid, displays at the end of his feverish disquisition on Top Gun
to his unnamed listener: "But
the real ending of the movie," Sid says, "is when they
fight ... at the end, alright, because [Maverick] has passed over
into the gay way. They are this gay fighting, fuckin' force, alright.
And they're beating the Russians, the gays are beating the Russians,
alright. And it's over, and they fuckin' land. And Iceman's been
trying to get Maverick the entire time. Finally, he's got 'em. Alright,
and what is the last fucking line ...? Ice comes up to Maverick and
says [both Sid and his listener repeat the line at the same time],
'Man, you can ride my tail anytime.' And what does Maverick say?
[Again, Sid and his listener say the words together.] 'You can ride
mine'." At this point Sid and his excited auditor pretend to
take hold of their penises and wave them around in the course of
a simulated duel as they yell, once again in unison, "Sword
fight, sword fight, sword fight." Sid then brings this ejaculatory
simulation to an end with a supremely self-satisfied exclamation, "Fuckin'
a, man," the irony of his performative reenactment of the meaning
of Top Gun's concluding avowal lost in his fascination with his insistence
on its homoerotic subtext.
However, to what end is the viewer thereby inscribed in Pulp Fiction? To the end, I would suggest among other possible answers, of staging the problem of gazing directly at and beholding what in this film resists being beheld except indirectly, from behind, literally from the rear.
6. Fabian asks: "Butch? Will you give me oral pleasure?" He
assents, but only after she nods her head in response to his question, "Will
you kiss it?" In the next scenes she is shown brushing her teeth
for an unusually long time, her excessive oral hygiene underscoring
the implicit contamination that governs the film's equation of the
law of the father with a phallus that can slip into an anus as well
as a vagina or, in this case, a mouth.
The movie introduces another infanticidal image in the joke Mia's "Fox Force Five" television character told about "a poppa tomato, a momma tomato, and a little baby tomato." When the baby tomato lags behind, "the poppa tomato gets mad, goes over to the momma tomato and stamps on him ... and says: catch up" (65). This brief narrative, I believe, encrypts yet another dimension of the movie's terror and rage at the violent contamination of masculine desire.
15. If the figure of the woman in Pulp Fiction
not only mediates male desire but in some sense preserves its heterosexual
purity, then in retrospect the violence that happens to the woman
who has been "accidentally" shot when she "accidentally" gets
in between Marcellus and Butch is an overdetermined expression of
the counterphobic male rage that targets what in this movie is the
collapse of the precarious difference between vagina and male rectum.
By A. Samuel Kimball
A. Samuel Kimball, Associate Professor of English at the University
of North Florida, is currently completing a book, Horizons of Violence:
Sacrifice, Infanticide, and the Name of the Father.