During the Fall of 1994, my divorce with Sayer now complete, a friend invited me out one weekend. In a noisy bar I sat across from a French woman named Sylvie, who showed little interest in talking to me until I mentioned Les Vacances de M. Hulot. “Ah, mais oui, you know Monseiur Hulot! Tati is so very charming.” We discussed Tati and then Eric Rohmer for the rest of the evening and agreed to see a film together sometime.
Sylvie called within a week and said that she was interested in the new release Pulp Fiction; the movie was the constant topic of conversation at her work. I picked her up for our date and we drove to the Mall of America theaters. 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 also contained an amusement park. Whenever I’m at the giant mall I regress into my Westworld nightmares from high school. But there was nothing more pop in Minneapolis than the Mall of America and Pulp Fiction was the pop event film of the moment, so the setting felt appropriate.
On this Friday night early in the run of the movie, 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 seemed to play their parts as movie characters; John Travolta's iconic film history rode along in the car as he and Samuel L. Jackson riffed.
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, as a film fanatic myself, 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 a new self-aware species of mainstream entertainment.
As I reflect now, this period feels like the end of a cultural cycle in which elaboration and ornamentation became content. Tarantino’s method is akin to John Donne appropriating and subverting the Elizabethan poetic forms that he inherited. Consider this example of 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.
Back at the Mall of America on a Friday evening in 1994, 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 ritual 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. 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 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 months later.
After a few other half-hearted attempts at dating, I admitted that I didn’t have the faith anymore. The socialized drive to search out my one predetermined counterpart didn't have the same urgency. The monster in the horror films that I had watched as a child had prevailed and the hero and the damsel-in-distress wouldn't unite at my film’s end; I was done with romantic love.
At the Arts High School, where I now worked half-time, I met a smart, funny woman named Jenny who taught History. She was also obsessed with obscure music and films and we settled into a good friendship during my mid-thirties. We eventually lived and slept together, but the formerly compelling notion of 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 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 police together. The couple leans into the wind on a flat North Sea beach, running 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 love. The lovers, hand in hand, made their way together through the storm into the uncertainty of the future. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, also released in 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 my expectations into my first marriage. The prevailing message of such images was: find a partner to better manage the unknowable path forward in your life.
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 now suggested an immutable boundary rather than freedom, habitual human longing repeating like waves on the sand. The final still frame of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows came to mind, Antoine Doinel frozen in his thwarted desire 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 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. We are always watching our personal version of every movie we see.