Video Essay On The Q.T.Chapter 1
Quentin Tarantino’s films treat talk as action; torrents of words spill out of his characters’ mouths, defining and redefining them, in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world. Words as clay, the speaker as sculptor, the rest of the world as spectator, art critic, vandal: this vortex of monologue and dialogue draws the viewer into the curiously theatrical spectacle of people attempting to create, refine, and propagate their own mythology. They are what they say they are, and more, and less. They build themselves up, and the film does, too; then somebody else tears them down, and the film grinds the last remaining pieces of their fragile self-images into powder.
Tarantino has been doing this from the start of his career, from the moment in Reservoir Dogs when the doomed Mr. Brown (played by Tarantino himself) waxed profane about the supposed true meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” then promptly died of gunshot wounds behind the wheel of a getaway car. His second film, Pulp Fiction, moves this tendency into the foreground. Nearly all of the movie’s 150-minute running time features characters talking, talking, talking, about their personalities, their values, their world views, and about other characters, some of whom we don’t get to know—or even meet—for an hour or more. All the film’s major characters are modern, workaday cousins of the Great and Powerful Oz; the film builds them up by having others repeat their (often self-created) legends until they loom in our minds like phantoms, then tears away the curtain to reveal panicked little people desperately yanking levers. “Come on,” Jules tells Vincent in the film’s opening section, “let’s get into character.”
The gang boss Marsellus Wallace is granted a Col. Kurtz-level buildup. Jules and Vincent’s early dialogue about how he threw Tony Rocky Horror out of a window for giving his wife Mia a foot massage establishes that he’s not a man to be trifled with. In the film’s second section, Marsellus orders the boxer Butch to throw a fixed fight, but remains tantalizingly undefined. He’s a big, bald head with a Band-Aid on its neck—a totemic abstraction on par with the fabled briefcase, contents unknown, that emits hellish light when opened. We see him again from the back right after Butch pulls a double-cross, kills his opponent in the ring, and flees with the money he made by secretly betting on himself: again, no face, just a voice and some words. When we finally see Marsellus’ face 95 minutes into the movie, Tarantino instantly demystifies him as a burly man standing in a crosswalk holding a box of donuts—whereupon Butch runs him over. Marsellus’ first close-up represents Pulp Fiction’s storytelling strategy in microcosm: after all that advance press, he’s just a stranger bleeding on the street, his face framed upside-down as if to certify what we already suspected, that his mythology has been suddenly and violently flipped.
Tarantino does this over and over again in Pulp Fiction. Mia Wallace is introduced as a sex goddess monitoring her date, Vincent, via surveillance cameras while mood-setting music (“Son of a Preacher Man”) thrums on the soundtrack, and then speaking to him through a microphone. Until Vincent’s car pulls into the parking lot of Jackrabbit Slims, she’s just a pair of lips and two bare feet, intriguing by virtue of her remoteness and sense of control. She seems a more strange and special person than the woman described earlier by Jules: a failed wannabe-star turned gangster’s trophy. “Some pilots get picked and become television programs,” Jules says. “Some don’t, become nothing. She starred in one of the ones that became nothing.” But the date proves to be a complete disaster, as Mia mistakes Vincent’s heroin for cocaine while he’s in the bathroom and nearly dies of an overdose. And about that needle scene: Vincent and his drug dealer Lance’s terrified babbling about the right way to administer a heart injection refutes an earlier conversation in which they tried to make themselves seem like world-weary bad-asses. (Lance on his smack: “I’ll take the Pepsi challenge with that Amsterdam shit, any day of the fuckin’ week.” Vincent: “That’s a bold statement.”)
Vincent Vega creates a mythology of a globetrotting hipster on a voyage of self-exploration, but as the movie unreels, it becomes increasingly clear that he’s a bullshit artist whose main target of deception is himself. He can’t take criticism, advice or even notes from other people (“You have to ask me nicely,” he tells the man entrusted with cleaning up Vincent’s accidental shooting of Marvin). And when the film’s fractured chronology is rearranged in linear fashion, we realize that the poor bastard learned nothing from the According-to-Hoyle Miracle that stopped the bullets and spared his life. He dies on the toilet reading Modesty Blaise while his buddy Jules—who had a religious experience after the near-miss, and pledged to stop murdering people and “walk the Earth, like Caine in Kung Fu”—lives on. “I was sitting here, eating my muffin and drinking my coffee and replaying the incident in my head, when I had what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity,” he tells his friend, who’s locked away so deep inside his own mythology that he doesn’t recognize that Jules has just handed him a second chance, an opportunity to escape, to be free, to live.
“There’s this passage I got memorized,” Jules tells Pumpkin, the would-be diner robber who has dared to steal his “Bad Motherfucker” wallet. “Ezekiel 25:17. ‘The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.’ I been saying that shit for years. And if you heard it, that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this morning made me think twice. See, now I’m thinking, maybe it means you’re the evil man, and I’m the righteous man, and Mr. 9 millimeter here, he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean 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. The truth is, you’re the weak, and I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd.” – Matt Zoller Seitz
Peter Labuza is a film critic and blogger. He is the host ofThe Cinephiliacs, a podcast where he interviews the great cinephiles of our time. His written work has appeared in Indiewire, MNDialog, Film Matters, and the CUArts Blog. You can follow him on Twitter (@labuzamovies).
Matt Zoller Seitz is a co-founder of Press Play.
University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, Los Angeles, CA
Ph.D. Candidate in Cinema and Media Studies, ABD, 2014-Expected 2019
Graduate Certificate in Visual Studies, May 2017
Dissertation: “When A Handshake Meant Something: The Emergence of Entertainment Law and The Constitution of Hollywood Art, 1944-1967”
Committee: Laura Isabel Serna (Chair), J.D. Connor, Catherine Fisk (School of Law, University of California, Berkeley), Steve Ross (History), Vanessa Schwartz (Art History), Ellen Seiter,
Columbia University, School of the Arts, New York, NY
Masters of Arts in Film Studies, 2013-2014
Thesis: “Apocalypse Noir: Apocalyptic Narratives and Temporal Dislocation Within the Modality of Film Noir”
Advisors: Jane Gaines, Rob King, Nico Baumbach
Columbia University, Columbia College, New York, NY
Bachelor of Arts in Film Studies, 2007-2011
Peer Reviewed Publications
“Putting Penn to Paper: Warner Bros.’s Contract Governance and the Transition to New Hollywood” The Velvet Light Trap, Issue #80: Production Cultures, September 2017, pg. 4-17.
“Networking Agency: Classicism and Post-Classicism in Multiverse Time Travel Films,” Mediascape: UCLA’s Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, Fall 2015. http://www.tft.ucla.edu/mediascape/Fall2015_NetworkingAgency.html
“Billion Dollar Noir: Christopher Nolan and Film Noir as a Blockbuster Genre” Journal of American Studies of Turkey, Vol. 5 No. 13. December 2012, pg. 65-74.
Approaching The End: Imagining Apocalypse in American Film, Chapel Hill, NC: The Critical Press, October 2014.
Awards, Grants, and Distinguished Honors
Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship, The Lilly Library at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, November 2017.
Fellow, German Historical Institute’s Archival Summer School for Junior Historians, July-August 2017.
Visual Studies Graduate Certificate Summer Research Grant, University of Southern California, April 2017.
Travel Award, University of Southern California Graduate School, October 2015.
Visual Studies Graduate Certificate Summer Research Grant, University of Southern California, May 2015.
Annenberg Fellow, University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, 2014-2015.
“The Singing Cowboy’s Crimson Defense: Samuel Williston and Autry v. Republic Productions, Inc. (1947),” Annual Meeting of Society For Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS), Toronto, CA, Forthcoming March 2018.
“Outside Struggle, Inside Negotiations: The Beverly Hills Bar Association’s Entertainment Law Institute and the Shaping of Legal Discourse in New Hollywood,” Law & Society, 2017 Annual Conference, Mexico City, MX, June 2017.
“‘When a Handshake Meant Something’: How Entertainment Law Contracted the Shape of New Hollywood,” Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities, Stanford Law School, Palo Alto, CA, March 2017.
“The Veil of Independence: The Short Form Joint Venture Contract’s Role In New Hollywood Production,” Annual Meeting of Society For Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS), Chicago, IL, March 2017.
“Out of Step: Narrative Structure, Agency, and the Hollywood Black Dance Sequence,” First Forum USC Graduate Student Cinema and Media Studies Conference, Los Angeles, CA, October 2016.
“From Misguided Teens to Real Women: Hollywood Confronts Abortion, 1959-1963,” Film and History Conference, Madison, WI, November 2015.
Respondent for Panel on “Visual/Material Evidence,” Material Evidence: Visual Knowledge Conference, University of Southern California, April 2015.
“In Search of Lost Time, Or: Why Is There No Slow Cinema in America?” Play/Time — University of Toronto Graduate Student Cinema Studies Conference, Toronto, CA, February 2015.
“Kings and Pawns: Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess and ‘Digital Psychology,’” Annual Meeting of Society For Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS), Seattle, WA, April 2014.
“Billion Dollar Noir: Christopher Nolan and Film Noir as a Blockbuster Genre,” 33rd SW/TX PCA, Albuquerque, NM, February 2012.
“The Evil That Spread Through Yokohama: Hitchcockian Perceptions of Amorality in Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low.” 5th Annual Notre Dame Undergraduate Film and Television Conference, South Bend, IN, April 2011.
“Art House Cinema As A Formal System,” Invited Guest Workshop for the University of California Los Angeles Video Production Crew, March 2015.
“The New Cinephilia and The Color Wheel,” Guest Lecture at The King’s College, Introduction to Film (Course Instructor: Bearden Coleman), New York, NY, November 2013.
Lead Teaching Assistant, History of International Cinema II (Tom Kemper), University of Southern California, January 2017-May 2017.
Lead Teaching Assistant, History of International Cinema I (Laura Isabel Serna), University of Southern California, August 2016-December 2016.
Teaching Assistant, Introduction To Cinema (Drew Casper), University of Southern California, August 2015-May 2016.
Teaching Assistant, Topics in World Cinema: Arab and African Cinema (Richard Peña), Columbia University, January 2013-May 2013
Research Assistant to David Bordwell, Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (University of Chicago Press, 2017), November 2015-February 2016.
Writing Fellow, University of Southern California Writing Center, August 2016-Present.
Rapporteur, Columbia University Seminars: Cinema and Interdisciplinary Interpretation (Bill Luhr and David Sterritt), 2013- 2014
Hokum! The Early Sound Slapstick Short and Depression-Era Mass Culture by Rob King (University of California Press, 2017), Film Quarterly, Forthcoming Spring 2018
Film Rhythm After Sound: Technology, Music, and Performance by Lea Jacobs (University of California Press, 2015), Spectator Vol 36. No. 1 (Spring 2016)
They Live by Jonathan Lethem (Soft Skull Press, 2010), Film Matters Vol 3. No. 2 (February 2013)
Steven Soderbergh by Aaron Baker (University of Illinois Press, 2011), Film Matters Vol. 3 No. 1 (October 2012)
Professional Affiliations and Memberships
Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS), 2013-Present
Related Professional Experience
The Cinephiliacs Podcast, Host and Editor, July 2012-Present
Masters of Cinema, Booklet Editor and Researcher: Red River (1947), Wings (1927), Serpico (1973), Boomerang! (1947), Too Late Blues (1961), The Quiet Man (1952), Shane (1953), That Cold Day In The Park (1969).
Film Criticism in Non-Academic Publications
“Shallow Depth: ‘Son of Saul’ Shows Nothing and Says Nothing,” Los Angeles Review of Books, February 2016. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/shallow-depth-son-of-saul-shows-nothing-and-says-nothing
“‘We Just Did Long Takes Every Time’: Hou Hsiao-Hsien on The Assassin,” Filmmaker Magazine, October 2015. http://filmmakermagazine.com/96104-we-just-did-long-takes-every-time-hou-hsiao-hsien-on-the-assassin/
“The Littlest Outlaw and Chicano Audiences,” Little White Lies, May 2015, pg. 33-34.
“A More Balanced Audience: The 2015 TCM Film Festival,” RogerEbert.Com, April 2015. https://www.rogerebert.com/festivals-and-awards/a-more-balanced-audience-the-2015-tcm-film-festival
“Not a Deleuze Lecture, but What? Thom Andersen’s The Thoughts That Once We Had,” Filmmaker Magazine, March 2015. http://filmmakermagazine.com/93426-not-a-deleuze-lecture-but-what-thom-andersens-the-thoughts-that-once-we-had/#.WhzFaqIrJE4
“A Community of Film Lovers: The New Orleans Film Festival,” RogerEbert.Com, November 2014. https://www.rogerebert.com/festivals-and-awards/a-community-of-film-lovers-the-new-orleans-film-festival
“Shock Treatment: The Knick,” Sight & Sound, November 2014, pg 6-7. http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/features/shock-treatment-knick
“City Limits: Richard Linklater Beyond Texas,” Little White Lies, May 2014, pg 31-32
“Take On Me: When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism.” Reverse Shot, October 2013. http://reverseshot.org/reviews/entry/1111/when_evening_falls_bucharest_or_metabolism
“The Two Versions,” Companion Booklet to Red River (Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray Release), October 2013, 52-53.
“On the Q.T—Chapter 2: Pulp Fiction (The Cool),” Co-Authored with Matt Zoller Seitz. Press Play, October 2012. http://www.indiewire.com/2012/10/video-essay-on-the-q-t-chapter-2-pulp-fiction-the-cool-233007/
“The Double Life of James and Juliette: Mysteries and Perceptions in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy,” Press Play, February 2012. http://www.indiewire.com/2012/02/video-essay-the-double-life-of-james-and-juliette-mysteries-and-perceptions-in-kiarostamis-certified-copy-132464/
Reviews, Interviews, and Other Features Appearing In Variety, The Village Voice, The AV Club, LAist, AKLASU Magazine, The Film Stage. For a full list of all articles, please visit other pages on this site.