I had begun teaching and my marriage with Sayer had ended in an official divorce, so the major transitions of my early thirties were already under way when a friend invited me out one weekend during the Fall of 1994. At a large table in a bar I sat across from a French woman named Sylvie, who showed no interest in talking to me until I mentioned “Les Vacances de M. Hulot.” “Ah, mais oui, you know Monseiur Hulot! Yes, good, Tati is so very charming.” We discussed movies enthusiastically for the rest of the evening and agreed to see a film together sometime.
Sylvie called within a week and said that she wanted to see the new release, “Pulp Fiction;” the movie was the constant topic of conversation at her work. “It’s a date,” I agreed. I picked her up and we drove to the Mall of America theaters in Minneapolis. The Mall of America is the largest indoor shopping mall in the world, a commercial reinterpretation of the middle panel from Hieronymous Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” if that painting contained an amusement park. Whenever I’m at the giant mall I regress into my “Westworld” nightmares from high school. But there’s nothing more pop than the Mall of America and “Pulp Fiction” was the pop event film of the moment, so the setting felt appropriate.
It was a Friday night early in the run of the movie and the theater was almost full. As the film began, I gradually adjusted to the banal, sideways rhythm of the dialogue between recognizable genre characters. These cadences, which were mimicked to exhaustion in the later 1990’s, still had an intoxicating novelty at this time. The actors also appeared to be slightly self-conscious of their iconic status as movie characters; the history of his previous roles rode along in the car with John Travolta as he and Samuel L. Jackson riffed.
In retrospect, I would say that Quentin Tarantino was the quintessential film geek, genre-sampling director of the dawning post-modern era. I place his films in the same cultural category as the Beastie Boys’ albums: white guys of my generation who had grown up in the 1970’s, mining and then reconstituting the popular culture of that era (particularly black culture) into a Frankenstein monster of hipster cool. During my first viewing, I recognized with a mixture of pleasure and distrust that “Pulp Fiction” was essentially a film about other films. Tarantino was clearly a member of The Congregation, weaving his encyclopedic knowledge of movies magpie-like into an innovative, self-aware species of mainstream entertainment.
I would further suggest that this mode of filmmaking represents the end of a cultural cycle, in which elaboration and ornamentation becomes content. Tarantino’s method is akin, for example, to John Donne appropriating and subverting the Elizabethan poetic forms that he inherited. Consider this scrap of self-conscious, punk rock carpe diem from the early 17th Century:
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before its woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.
On that Friday evening in 1994 at the Mall of America, “Pulp Fiction” arrived at Uma Thurman’s overdose scene. When John Travolta stabbed the adrenalin needle into Thurman’s chest, Sylvie jumped in her seat and then leaned against me. “She doesn’t like needles,” I thought, enjoying the feeling of her weight against me and remembering my high school horror movie outings at the Amery Theater. When she slumped awkwardly into my lap, I realized that she had fainted. I pushed her upright in her seat and her eyes opened. Initially she spoke with confusion in French.
“Sylvie, are you okay? Speak in English.”
“Where are we?”
“We’re in a movie theater.” People in our vicinity shushed us with irritation.
I feel very sick. You must take me to a hospital.”
“Oh, really, yes, okay.”
She tried to stand, but was unstable. I lifted her in my arms like the Creature from the Black Lagoon carrying away Lori Nelson and navigated past the people sitting in our row, up the aisle and out of the theater while behind me Christopher Walken began his Vietnam monologue. I didn’t see the second half of “Pulp Fiction” until a year later.
After a few other half-hearted attempts at dating, I admitted to myself that I didn’t have the faith anymore. The socialized idealism that I was meant to search out my one predetermined counterpart wasn’t natural to me anymore. The monster in the horror films that I had watched as a child had prevailed and there wouldn’t be another uniting of the hero and the damsel-in-distress at my film’s end; I was done with romantic love.
At the Arts High School, where I now worked half-time, I eventually met a smart, funny woman named Jenny who taught History and Urban Geography. She was as obsessed as me with obscure music and films and I settled into a good friendship with her during my mid-thirties. We ultimately lived together and slept together, but the formerly compelling notion of romantic love was far from my heart and mind. I’d found a good mate and partner in adventure rather than an all-consuming passion.
Shortly after I moved into Jenny’s house, we watched Jean Renoir’s “The Crime of M. Lange” at the new repertory house in town, the former Campus Theater that had reopened in 1996 as the Oak Street Cinema. I’d seen “M. Lange” once before in the Film Club series at Lawrence University with my first girlfriend Sara. At the film’s conclusion, M. Lange and Valentine, wanted for the murder of their unscrupulous boss, escape the authorities together. The couple bends into the wind on a long, flat North Sea beach, and struggles across the Belgian border to freedom.
When I’d seen the film with Sara at age twenty, completely new to romance myself, this final shot represented the epitome of romantic partnership. The lovers, hand in hand, made their way together through the storm into the uncertainty of the future. Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” from the same year (1936), ends similarly; Chaplin’s tramp and his love interest Ellen recede into the distance on a road, walking side by side. This visual/emotional training, that I’d internalized from the movies, had guided me into my first marriage. The prevailing message of such images was: the unknowable path forward in our lives is made more manageable by finding a partner for that journey.
When I revisited “The Crime of M. Lange” at age thirty-three with Jenny, the ending was still as affecting, but the meaning had changed. The North Sea landscape, rather than suggesting liberation and freedom, stood as an eternal boundary: the socially conditioned, habitual expression of human longing repeating like waves on the sand. The final still frame of Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” flashed in my mind, Antoine Doinel frozen in his thwarted desire for freedom at the sea’s edge. Thirteen years after my first viewing, observed through the lens of marriage, separation and divorce with Sayer, the meaning of freedom presently lay in self-sufficiency and independence; the impulse to couple was now subordinate to this self-reliance. The film had not been altered, the sequence of shots was the same, but the subjective history that I now brought to the film transformed my experience of it. In this sense, we are always watching our personal version of every movie we see.