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Pulp Affliction

The sorry state of contemporary film

Why are the movies so awful? Are there really people out there who haven’t seen enough gangster movies with exploding automobiles that Scorsese felt he had to rush off and make one more? We probably have Francis Coppola and Pauline Kael to thank. As far as I can tell, it was her gushing about The Godfather that started it all.

But I guess as long as people keep buying it, the studios will keep churning this stuff out. These movies exist for one reason, and one reason only: to take $7.50 out of the pockets of as many people as possible. There are no values in them beyond the value of making money. The studios would make a movie celebrating the joys of mass murder if they thought it would rake in the bucks. Oh, I forgot. Oliver Stone made that one already.

If you go out to Los Angeles, at least they are honest about it, they call it “the industry,” as if they were manufacturing steel or paper plates. If you are dumb enough to refer to “art,” they smile. Everybody knows the accent falls on the second word in show business.

What’s really inexplicable to me is that the film professors go along with the whole thing. They actually show schlock like Fatal Attraction, Alien, Thelma and Louise, and Silence of the Lambs in their courses and invite the directors to speak to their students! If we insist on showing these movies in a course, we should at least take them out of the arts and humanities and screen them in the Business School where they belong. We should study how they were financed. Discuss how the casting, the writing, and the ad campaigns were coordinated. Analyze them as wildly successful marketing coups—since that’s what they are. Twentieth-century snake oil. And while we’re at it, let’s get the library to re-catalogue all those books about Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, and Ivan Reitman, so that they are shelved where they belong—next to the books on mass-marketing and public relations.

The film professors try to lend intellectual legitimacy to their taste for trash (and keep their Deans off their backs) by talking about these works as examples of popular culture. But these movies are no more expressions of the hopes and fears of the people than a Big Mac is. They are products created by multinational corporations to turn a profit. Have we really lost the ability to tell the difference between The Flintstones and Stonehenge? Between The Blues Brothers and the blues? Culture, high or low, is not something you manufacture.

The academic fashion these days is to discuss how we “negotiate” these texts, how we find whatever we want in their flashy images. But while the Cultural Studies types fight it out about alternative models of “viewer positioning,” they neglect to mention how irrelevant all their discussions are to the facts of cultural production or to any of the real problems in America. These critics change nothing. They aspire to change nothing. In a sense, they are doing the same thing the works they discuss are doing: They are playing games. They are distracting us. And yet their credibility as academics helps to support the system and lend an aura of importance to its products. It’s a wonder Hollywood publicists don’t put them on the payroll.

Much of the academic film critics’ apparent lack of taste and judgment can be accounted for by sheer pusillanimity. Like most other academics, film professors are incredibly reluctant to make value judgments—at least in public. Partly due to their situation (if you hang around 18-year-olds long enough, you start to mimic their “I’m OK, you’re OK” reluctance to judge) and partly due to their temperament, they are afraid to “exclude” anyone or anything. Being “sensitive to otherness” means never being able to tell the truth about experience. If you point out the boy’s-book sappiness of Malcolm X or Philadelphia, you’re in danger of being accused of racism or homophobia. People confuse the movie with the people and events it depicts—and film-makers like Spielberg, Lee, and Stone, shrewd businessmen that they are, milk the confusion for all the box office bucks it is worth. From the accolades he received after Schindler’s List, you would have thought Spielberg did something dangerous and heroic, when all he did was merchandise the Holocaust. He made money by selling pictures of it. That out-Benettons Benetton! You eliminate the sweaters, and just sell the ad campaign.

Henry James is still Henry James even if nobody reads him. And Oliver Stone is still melodramatic hokum, even if everybody falls for him.

There’s almost no debate about any of these issues at film conferences. Since everyone lives in a glass house, no one dares to throw the first stone. Everyone knows that if general questions start getting raised about the intellectual legitimacy of one professor’s favorite films, there is no telling on whose neck the institutional budget-cutting axe might next fall. In fact, instincts of self-preservation have prompted film studies to attempt to enlarge its turf (and its budget) by mutating into something called “media studies.” MIT devoted a conference to this dubious idea a couple months ago and you could see the film professors almost salivating at the prospect of largesse from IBM and Microsoft to sing hymns to the Internet. Not one speaker at the sessions I listened to expressed reservations about the idea. It was sort of spooky. A group of film scholars was administering the Last Rites to film studies, and no one shed a tear. Instead they fought to see who could be first in line to sell out.

The justification for studying bad movies is their popularity. The theory is that if a work is popular, it must be important. By the same logic, our music conservatories should teach Barry Manilow, and our art departments should sponsor seminars on Norman Rockwell. Popularity proves nothing in the arts. You don’t vote on the masterpieces. It’s not politics. Henry James is still Henry James even if nobody reads him. And Oliver Stone is still melodramatic hokum, even if everybody falls for him. In fact, real art is almost guaranteed to be unpopular. It forces you to ask fundamental questions about your life. It doesn’t allow you to put the blame somewhere else. Popular art is the opposite. It’s devoted to reassuring us. Movies like Schindler’s List and Philadelphia are successful because they refuse to confront the viewer. Instead they flatter us. We can congratulate ourselves that we’re not like the bad guys in them. Their hell is populated entirely by other people.

Hollywood films offer “lite feelings,” weightless emotions, low-impact emotional work-outs. We can feel good about feeling bad, without ever having to reassess our experience. Nobody ever gets really hurt or wounded. It’s all set in a fantasy land off to one side of our real lives. Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, and most Hollywood directors are masters at plugging into the emotional fad of the moment. They whip up the same sort of instant, artificial, stock emotions that the Super Bowl does, cycling the viewer through a series of predictable, clichéd feelings. But it’s all just a bad simulation: The ideas are prefabricated, the experiences are formulaic, and the emotions are superficial. Which is why it’s all forgotten a few hours later.

The superficiality of the experience is in fact what many viewers love about Hollywood movies. They take you on a ride. You climb into them, turn on the cruise control, and sit back. Not only are the events, characters, and conflicts entirely predictable (most movies are their trailers), but there is nothing really at stake for anyone—actor, director, or viewer—in any of it. It’s an amusement park ride—a few pre-programmed thrills and then all is well. When it is over, you leave the theater and go home untouched and unchanged. That’s what Antonioni meant when he said Hollywood was being nowhere, talking to no one, about nothing.

Look, I’ll admit that I have the same visceral responses everyone else does to Natural Born Killers, Reservoir Dogs, and Pulp Fiction. I squirm. I cringe. I could hardly watch the screen while the Bruce Willis character in Pulp Fiction went back to his apartment. Even no-brainers like Speed and True Lies can leave you breathless with their propulsiveness. But is that supposed to be a profound insight into the human condition? These films are the best roller-coasters (in the case of Tarantino, the best haunted houses) ever made. But if that’s what you want, you might as well go to Disneyland. That’s what’s so maddening about the Tarantino cult. Fawning critics claim to find his films dangerous or subversive, when in fact there is little more to them than button-pushing and game-playing. They’re a big goof.

We have trained a generation of academic critics who never ask fundamental questions about the ultimate value of a work. In fact, they regard such questions as illegitimate. The value-neutral methods of sociology and anthropology are the academic ideals. Criticism becomes a branch of the social sciences. The only problem is that if you don’t ask any hard questions about why it all matters, cleverness and stylistic display pass for genius and a filmmaker like Tarantino passes for an artist.

Tarantino’s a lightweight, a flash-in-the-pan. The Tarantino cult will disband in a few years and search for another Messiah, once he predictably fails to live up to his “early promise”—just as the James Toback, Joel Coen, Brian DePalma, and David Lynch cults did. In three films—running something like seven hours in all—he has managed not to express one interesting insight into human emotion or behavior. If it weren’t for daytime television, it might constitute some sort of record. All there is in his work is the Grand Guignol campiness, the chiller-diller suspensefulness, the kicky twists and turns of the plot and reversals of expectation. It’s not much to go on. In a word, his scenes are boring. All he has to keep them interesting is the pop-schlock tones and effects. There is not a single conversation in Pulp Fiction that is interesting enough to stand on its own without some comic-book effect to jazz it up. Without the harum-scarum jokiness and thriller plot, even his teenage admirers would be bored out of their minds. Anyway, haven’t we had enough movies about movies? Aren’t we overdue for a movie about life?

It’s sometimes said in Tarantino’s defense that his movies are witty, but the humor is too shallow and too trivial. The great comic masters—Chaplin, Mike Leigh, Elaine May, Mark Rappaport—know that comedy is a deadly serious form. In their works, we laugh from the shock of recognition. We see ourselves in extremely complex ways. The comedy is a way of suspending a viewer within the complexity. Tarantino never uses comedy that way. It’s always merely for a cheap laugh at some easy irony or obvious incongruity—usually a sudden change of mood. The comedy doesn’t reveal anything interesting. In Pulp Fiction, when the druggie couple unexpectedly flips into their Ralph and Alice Kramden argument with the body lying on the living room floor, it shows us nothing. It illuminates nothing. It’s just done to surprise and shock us. It’s a cheap trick—a circus stunt like when the tight rope walker pretends to slip and everyone gasps. That’s not art, it’s the Ice Capades.

In Chaplin, May, Leigh, and Rappaport the comedy draws us into states of intricately multivalent sympathy with the characters, while in Tarantino, it just makes us feel superior to them. The one kind of comedy makes things more complex; the other kind, Tarantino’s, makes them simpler. Like Altman, Tarantino reduces and demeans, but above all he simplifies.

Many viewers prefer flash to real insight because flash gives the illusion of insight without requiring the actual effort of learning anything new.

If you want a crash course on the difference between gimmicks and revelations, watch Pulp Fiction and Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky on successive nights. May creates characters who have a superficial similarity to Tarantino’s in their guttersnipe jitteriness and scenes that similarly switch tones and defeat our expectations. She doesn’t do this to astonish us, but to show us astonishing things. She doesn’t hold our interest with gimmicks but by showing us interesting things about our emotions. She doesn’t use suspense to scare and surprise us; she gives us a scary, surprising conception of who we are. She imagines experience as having a mercuriality, onwardness, and open-endedness that is more exhilarating and terrifying than any of Tarantino’s tricks. Like Tarantino’s, May’s scenes can be both shocking and extremely funny, but the difference is that in her work these feelings are side-effects of the insights. In Tarantino, the shocks and the jokes are ends in themselves. They reveal nothing. They are all there is. Mikey and Nicky does what great art always does: it invents a new language of feeling. That’s what Henry James, Emily Dickinson, George Balanchine, and Robert Kramer all do. They find ways to say things that have never been said—or known—before. They reveal magical new forms of experience. They discover new forces and endow us with new powers.

Many viewers prefer flash to real insight because flash gives the illusion of insight without requiring the actual effort of learning anything new. It’s a fact of psychic life that our ideas and emotions are organized to resist fundamental change. Real art is always resisted because its experiences will never neatly fit into pre-existing categories. It makes us work. We can’t just sit back and take it in. We have to wake up and scramble.

Truth is messier and more complex than a trick. Art doesn’t give us pre-cooked, pre-digested experiences, but raw, rough, unclassifiable ones. Real emotions defy verbal summaries. And they leave us more confused than analytic. In fact, if you can say what emotions you are feeling while you watch a film, you probably aren’t having an emotional experience in the way I mean. Thinking in a new way is more likely to bewilder than to enlighten us, at least at first. If an experience is truly original, it puts us in places we’ve never been before and may not want to be. In this sense, art can point a way out of the traps of received forms of thinking and feeling. It reveals the emotional lies that ensnare us. It opens new and potentially revolutionary understandings of our lives.

Most film professors simply don’t ask enough of movies. They’ve seen so many bad ones that they are absurdly grateful for a moderately interesting and mildly intelligent one. Is it any surprise what makes the A-list? Citizen Kane, 2001, Blade Runner, Pulp Fiction. The professors want easy knowledge—knowledge that will snap like Legos into place with their preexisting world view. They want quick, portable knowledge—something they can get at a glance, and carry away with them when the movie is over. They want painless knowledge that won’t make any real demands on them, that won’t cost them more than the price of their ticket. In short, they want fake knowledge. They don’t go to movies to learn or feel something genuinely new, but to have their received ideas and emotions confirmed. Their real problem is they have already decided who they are and what life is.

John Cassavetes’s Faces is a great example of what art can do. It simply leaves behind most of the ways other movies organize and present experience, as if Hollywood had never existed. At a stylistic level, it literally shows us life in a new way—ignoring all of those old clichés about how scenes should be shot and edited: all that stuff about using intercut shot/reverse-shot close-ups for conversations; star system hierarchies of importance for actors; melodramatic conflicts and confrontations between the characters to generate drama; and an action-centered plot to keep the nonsense zooming right along.

At the level of experience, Cassavetes shreds most of the myths that American life and film are organized around: the worship of personal glamour and power; the myth that actions and material rewards are what matter in life; the belief that we validate ourselves by competing with each other. That’s what it means for a film to reject old formulas, clichés, and myths and present new forms of understanding in their place. The problem is that films like Faces make demands that most viewers simply won’t sit still for. Cassavetes asks us to think and feel in fundamentally new ways. He denies us easy answers and knee-jerk responses. His movies get under our skin. They assault and batter us. They get in our face. Cassavetes puts us on screen and forces us to come to grips with what we are. Our culture teaches us to blame others, but Husbands, Faces, and A Woman Under the Influence won’t let us locate the stupidity or cruelty somewhere else. They have neither heroes nor villains, but only in-between characters, because that’s what we are. In short, Cassavetes is not Altman. He doesn’t flatter us and allow us to feel superior to his characters and events. He doesn’t offer easy ironies or intellectual shortcuts to knowledge.

I can’t see much difference between Spielberg’s so-called serious movie and his boy’s-book movies.

Altman is the master of cheap shots and quick knowledge. He and Cassavetes both present eccentric characters and situations, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Oddity in Altman is always used to make an easy, satiric point; in Cassavetes our individuality won’t be reduced this way. Behavior stays much more complex. Cassavetes appreciates the eccentricities of his characters. He watches them in amazement and wonder. He learns from them. He respects their mystery. But Altman, like Hitchcock, has decided what he thinks about his figures before he ever walks on the set.

Cassavetes denies himself the luxury of reclining into past forms of knowledge, just as he denies his viewers easy, pat, preformulated understandings. This makes his work ultimately much harder to “figure out” but much more fascinating to “experience.” Save us from films we can understand in the Tarantino and Altman way! Save us from films we can understand at all.

Cassavetes’ films are difficult only if you refuse to give up your old ways of knowing. They’re frustrating only if you refuse to learn from them. His truths seem fierce only because we resist them so fiercely. If we allow ourselves to learn from them, rather than fight them, his movies are joyous, spiritually exultant viewing experiences—because they open the door to the discovery of new truths about ourselves.

Do I need to add that twenty years later, many of Cassavetes’ greatest works still are not on video? Neither Faces nor Husbands, for example. So much for the brave new world of video that those film professors were waxing poetic over at the MIT conference. Let’s see how far they get trying to convince Bill Gates to release Ice or Milestones or Local Color or The Scenic Route in digital form!

Now, fans of films like Schindler’s List will claim that they reveal new truths too. But I can’t see much difference between Spielberg’s so-called serious movie and his boy’s-book movies. Schindler’s List simply rehashes Spielberg’s inflatable, one-size-fits-all myth about how a clever, resourceful character can outsmart a system. Is that what the meaning of the Holocaust boils down to—Indiana Schindler versus the Gestapo of Doom? Schindler is a Hollywood producer’s self-congratulatory fantasy of how giving people a chance to work for you is doing them a big favor. What real courage did it take to make this movie? What new understanding of the Holocaust did it reveal? Spielberg could have made a really courageous film if he had dared to make a movie sympathetic to the SS, a movie that deeply, compassionately entered into the German point of view in order to reveal how regular people with wives and children could be drawn into committing or silently consenting to such horrors. How about a movie that showed that, at least potentially, we are them? A film that didn’t locate the bad guys in an emotional and historical galaxy far away? Of course, Spielberg could never make that film even if he tried to, because it would require too much insight on his part. And if he did make it, it would not get Academy Awards. It would require viewers to think. And thinking, real thinking, is always dangerous. Audiences might be forced to confront truths that they would rather avoid. Instead of affording them another opportunity to revel in their own virtue, they just might be made to squirm a little.

It’s a curse of our culture, this addiction to smartness and knowingness. It’s not just Tarantino. Look at MTV. Look at Spy magazine. Look at the ads in The Sunday Times Magazine. What’s so great about being so knowing, so smug, so cocky? Why do we want to be cool and ironic? Why are we so afraid of emotion? It’s an American disease. Our emotions can help us out of our traps. Emotions are the way of truth. We need works of art that defeat our intellectual and emotional habits, that force us to see and feel freshly. We need an education in emotion. That’s why we have artists. They can be our teacher, if we are willing to let them.