Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Is it too late to write about Pulp Fiction, y'all?

So… summer, movies… The sweaty gloopiness of your typical North Carolina in summertime is easily defeated by a two-hour refrigeration period in the chilly darkness of a movie theater… Especially when it's a gorgeous historic venue like downtown Durham's Carolina Theater

Built in 1926, it's been beautifully renovated, but retains the grandeur of … you know… a movie palace from another time! They show current films—leaning more toward foreign and artsy films—but we come for the special stuff... older films, campy films, action films, horror, noir…  My friend Todd is also there sometimes, so that’s a nice bonus… And it’s fun to introduce our budding filmmaker Bill, to learn about the classic genres. Most recently we took in the super-hip, insanely funny, 1994 crime movie Pulp Fiction. 

Is this movie appropriate for a 15-year-old? Probably not. And I do feel guilty about taking mine… on the other hand, amidst all the drug use, violence, and foul language… well, it really is a morality tale, isn’t it? Maybe all this stuff has been said before regarding this crazy masterpiece, but I’m going to give you my thoughts anyway.

If, after all these years, you haven’t seen it, well... I’m actually not able to give you a plot synopsis. Sorry. It boasts a fractured timeline, and I really don’t think I could give it justice. It’s about two well-dressed criminals just doing their day-to-day crime stuff, and also about a boxer who is supposed to take a fall, but doesn’t, and also about the criminals’ boss. And the bosses’ wife. And the boxer’s wife… and a dealer and his wife… And these two other criminals. See? It’s just too complicated! I can’t do it!!

Anyway, throughout the film, the characters are confronted with choices… one man must decide to behave honorably toward his boss’s wife. Another man makes a choice to rescue a man who has been trying to kill him… a choice that works out for him, but, honestly, could have gone either way… I guess it is the nature of morality tales to highlight good and evil, which as humans we must choose between every day–just in smaller, less gory ways.

At the center of the film are two criminals—Jules and Vincent—and their choices. Both have chosen the criminal lifestyle, and carry out their daily duties as a matter of course. But one day something happens—a guy empties a large pistol point blank at them, but misses them entirely. “God came down from heaven, and stopped these ************ bullets,” Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) says. Vincent (John Travolta) considers it a fluke, and goes about his business, but to Jules, it’s a turning point. 
Jules: We should be f***in' dead, my friend! What happened here was a miracle, and I want you to f***ing acknowledge it! 
Vincent Vega: All right, it was a miracle. Can we go now?
Yeah, Vincent doesn’t care… the moment of divine intervention rolls right by him. That night, when he chooses NOT to act inappropriately with the boss’s wife, it is not out of respect for the divine. It is merely self preservation—as we know, from an earlier discussion of a rumor that the boss had thrown a man out of a window for messing with his wife.* 

On the other hand, Jules considers their near miss an act of God—proof that God is paying attention and cares about his choices…? Jules takes it as a sign that he should change his course. Maybe Jules was set up for this… Maybe a guy who likes to quote Ezekiel 25:17** before “popping a cap” in someone’s ass is already thinking about God. Here’s a pretty hefty quote from Jules that explains the whole thing: 
“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities 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 the 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 I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you." 
I been sayin' that sh*t 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 mother****er before you popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some sh*t 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 sh*t ain't the truth. The truth is you're the weak. And I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin, Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard to be the shepherd.”

See, Jules is aware of God, has His word in His head, so … when he experiences what he perceives to be a miracle, he knows exactly where to look… and suddenly the sheer … relevance of God’s words causes him to consider what they mean for HIM personally - where HE fits in God’s design. Until now, he has taken on the role of God as the dispenser of justice, but now, he’s not too sure…

So that later, when a couple of petty thieves try to rob him, he comes out with this:Normally, both your asses would be dead as f***ing fried chicken, but you happen to pull this sh*t while I'm in a transitional period so I don't wanna kill you, I wanna help you.”

In a morality tale, there is normally a clear demarcation of good and bad—although it’s a little skewed here. Jules and Vincent’s behavior is violent and capricious, and their conversation is vulgar, but they are goofy, and they say hilarious things and they are so handsome in their suits... so we somehow feel sympathy for them. It’s a good reminder that good and evil are not always so easily recognized.

In this story, both men are criminals, but good and evil are defined by the choice each man makes when he confronted with the Divine. And, like in wisdom literature, where the good are rewarded and the bad are punished, each man receives his due. Well, we don’t really know what happened to Jules in the end, but we do get to see Vincent gunned down in spectacular fashion… and Jules isn’t with him.

It all reminds me of the story of two thieves on the crosses beside Jesus:
Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us." The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, "Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied to him, "Amen I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:39-43)
I may not be a thief, and I may not have ever shot a guy just for looking at me wrong... but I have done plenty of crappy things... so this is a great message for me. It’s really good to know that, God wants us to be with Him in paradise… and has made a way for us to get there!

*There is a point in the film, where, after Vincent does something particularly careless and vile, he says: "Jules, did you ever hear the philosophy that once a man admits that he's wrong that he is immediately forgiven for all wrongdoings? Have you ever heard that?" So, he can't acknowledge God... but wants to be forgiven? I guess that's normal... we want grace, but we don't want God to be in our business too much...

**The verse he quotes isn't actually Ezekiel 25:17... it's more of a mishmash of a couple of verses in the Bible... just FYI...

Tuesday, July 2, 2019



I’m still here, y’all… I know you thought I’d forsaken you, if you thought of me at all… but of course I haven’t! Although my posts are so far apart nowadays that each one has to sort give you an update on what’s going on with us, right? Well, not much is going on right now - it’s summer, and we live in North Carolina, so we’re hot. (Gee, I’m not sure—is the globe getting warmer? OF COURSE IT IS!! DUH!! Not to get political or anything…)

Anyway, we’ve been seeing a lot of movies, which is one of my favorite things to do. I love the new-fangled theaters with recliners and real food and craft beers, but I also still love a crappy old theatre with no crazy perks, just musty seats and stale popcorn smell… because really, the movie’s the thing!

I love sitting in the cool darkness watching a story unfold. I love watching the pretty people on screen, their acting prowess, or lack thereof… I love sizing up the costumes… (Bill says when we watch a bad movie, my comment is always, “I liked the costumes.”) And most of all, I love when something in the film reminds me of God. That’s really what makes a movie a work of art for me. 

My theory of art involves the expression of self, but also the conveyance of truth, beauty and … otherness? And Who is more true and beautiful and other than God Himself? And when we create, we do so in imitation of our Creator… God made us in His image, so His creative impulses are in us as well.

Okay, moving right along… In June we saw Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. You can easily watch it yourself—it’s on Netflix, but Tom, Bill and I were fortunate to see it in on a big screen at the Rialto in Raleigh. It’s an amazing film… part concert/backstage footage, part “documentary.” That’s in quotes because if you look up the word “liar” in the dictionary, you’d probably see a picture of Bob Dylan! Although… I would say that he’s more of a storyteller than a liar… He’s building a world for us and we’re into it – “Hey Mister Tamborine Man, play a song for me…”  

Watching the film, if viewers are not completely hoodwinked, they are left trying to separate the wheat from the chaff—that is, to figure out what they can believe. The filmakers interview (among others) a cinematographer, a congressman, a concert promoter – all of whom are actors telling stories. Heck, one of these folks is an ACTUAL actor – Sharon Stone. They interview Dylan himself, who says enigmatic things like “One thing I can tell you about Ramblin’ Jack: he’s a a better sailor than a singer—he can tie a bowline, a clove hitch, he could tie a rolling hitch—all blindfolded. If you’re ever on a boat or a sailing ship, you would rather have Ramblin’ Jack there as a sailor than a singer.”

That said, another quote directly from Dylan pretty much gives it away: When asked why they wore masks and white-face on the tour, he said, “When somebody’s wearing a mask, uh, he’s gonna tell you the truth. Uh, when he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.” So… the music is what’s true. And… it really is. Watching those stunning performances by incredibly talented musicians dressed in boho 70s duds and masks and whiteface, all I could think was, “Bob Dylan is a BAD ASS!!” It’s filmed pretty close up, and his performance is ferocious… and, to use a quote from one of his own songs, “Every one of them words rang true and glowed like burnin’ coals...” It was all just so gorgeous… I couldn’t look away.
I think that one reason he undertook the carnivalesque tour—playing small venues with a bunch of other people—in an attempt to step away from his massive celebrity… to be "one of the band." Even so, the film shows how other people treat him like a king… like a god. Dylan is not a god, and he knows it! Nevertheless, early on, underlings are told to refrain from constantly asking him what he wants or if he’s okay. “He’s a big man, he knows what he wants.” And later, Joan Baez, tells how she approached craft services dressed as Dylan and experiences the sort of fawning and worship reserved for the man himself. (Of course this may or may not have been a true account!)

Toward the end of the movie, they tell the story of the Ruben Hurricane Carter, the subject of Bob’s song “Hurricane.” Carter was a black boxer wrongly jailed for killing three people. Bob’s song eventually helped to free him, and the two became friends. Bob says that when Hurricane would ask him what he was searching for, he’d say, “Well, Hurricane, I’m searching for the Holy Grail… I’m gonna search until I find it, like Sir Galahad.” And while he was surely like a knight in shining armor to the man who was freed from prison, Bob knows that there is something much bigger to find.

Soon after, the movie draws to a close with Bob and Roger McGuinn put their heads together to sing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” together. It’s… blisteringly intense… they look at each other in a wide-eyed, forceful way that makes you wonder if 1. they’re on drugs or, 2. they're daring each other to knock first… I can’t really say if they’re on drugs… but… I do know that somewhere down the road, each man found Christ… And that’s both truth and beauty to me.