Circular Narratives: Highlights of Popular Cinema in the '90s
by Fiona A. Villella
Fiona A. Villella is a Melbourne-based writer on film.
Popular cinema of the '90s saw some radical and fascinating experiments with conventional notions of narrative time and logic. Beginnings revealed themselves later to be endings; narratives followed circular routes; multiple narrative paths, independent of each other, crossed, entwined, merged and diverged; characters did not develop in any "conventional" way, they appeared then disappeared, dying in one scene and then alive in another.
These narratives are circular, fragmented, insoluble and "performative". Two films that I am thinking of especially are David Lynch's Lost Highway (1996) and Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994). The latter triggered a myriad of clones, establishing itself over time as a major cultural event, influencing films, television, advertising and music. The former, though less influential and popular, remains a profoundly fascinating and perplexing installment in Lynch's oeuvre of the dark, the unconscious and the offbeat.
Pulp Fiction tells three stories, each based upon specific characters: Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson); Vincent and Mia (Uma Thurman); Butch (Bruce Willis) and Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). In a maze like fashion, each story circles, alludes and entwines the others. In its play with narrative time, Pulp Fiction reminds me of the classic B-grade, noir/gangster film The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956). In this film, the idea of a progressive narrative is also reworked and undermined to allow for a more objective and "truer" telling of the caper. However, its effect is more a "strange" formal echo, in which narrative time is foregrounded and made palpable. This formal echo also occurs in Pulp Fiction with its narrative that stops and starts, shifts and rewinds, forcing the viewer to construct the story - the trajectory of each character, their interrelation with other characters and fictions, the "how", "what", "when" and "why" of the narrative.
Pulp Fiction has a circular narrative. At certain moments where the narratives intersect, the theme of the uncanny and destiny arises, for example, where Butch and Vincent pass each other at Marsellus' bar. They exchange hostile glances and comments for no apparent reason. The sequence is mysterious, and Vincent's immediate reaction of hostility toward Butch proceeds unexplained. Of course, later on, in the story concerned with Butch and his escape from the LA mob, he comes across Vincent and kills him.
But the play with narrative in Pulp Fiction is just one of its peculiarities, although one that definitely enriches its viewing experience. Another is the "colour" in each character of this film, and by "colour" I mean a certain stylisation and distinctiveness. Each character has "attitude" or something to say, which brings me to a central theme of Pulp Fiction - the amount of talking that goes on and the richness and layering of the dialogue. Influences here are not only the witty and clipped dialogue of the American film noir and gangster films, but also, the prosaic qualities of the French New Wave (1).
There is a constant outpouring of "chit chat" throughout Pulp Fiction, always humourous and amusing, that transpires in cars, hallways, coffee shops, elevators, beds and taxis, between friends, lovers and strangers, and on a myriad of topics. Quite specifically, all this constant talking centres upon characters reflecting, intellectualising and philosophising everyday matters, in everyday spaces. Characters engage in serious debates over the meaning of a foot massage or when the moment of delivery of a joke has expired. Everyday talk is stylised, enhanced and layered, and so rendered dramatic, rich and poetic.
Throughout Pulp Fiction, many characters appear either momentarily or longer, and each is distinctive and intriguing in the detail, of their look, speech and manner. There is a richness in this detail - achieved through a self-conscious referencing of pop culture and sharp and clever dialogue. The various distinctive characters that populate Pulp Fiction, apart from those more central, include: the fast-talking drug dealer (Eric Stoltz) and his "trippy" wife (Patricia Arquette), the Spanish, sassy cab driver Esmarelda Villalobos (Angela Jones), the ever-charismatic Mr Wolf (Harvey Keitel), the French sweetheart Fabienne (Maria De Medeiros), the irrepressible Christopher Walken, the offbeat Zed (Peter Greene) and his partner, and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) and Pumpkin (Tim Roth). Each one is distinct in their quirks and idiosyncrasies. This mix of offbeat, peculiar and distinctive characters recall the world of B-grade films and television. Pulp Fiction can only be fully understood and appreciated by acknowledging the extent to which it is so connected to the history of popular (American) film and television.
Pulp Fiction celebrates very much the spectacle of the detail. One scene that is remarkable in this sense is the scene where Vincent goes to pick up Mia on their "first date". Snapshots of dialogue and image here build a certain tension, suspense and desire around the figure of Mia. She is revealed in snippets: her voice in the letter that Vincent finds on the door that she literally reads, the shots of her (from behind) in the control booth, the extreme close-up of her scarlet red lips, the close-up of her hand manipulating the control stick, and most of all, her clever, cute, pop cultural one liners. Her "coolness" is emphasised through Dusty Springfield's soulful "Son Of A Preacher Man", that injects into the scene a euphoric rhythm and feel that is practically palpable.
The character of Mia as the Gangster's Wife is a reference to this traditional character in the history of Hollywood cinema. But she seems lost or perpetually stuck in the world of popular film and TV, which bestows upon her an ability the other characters apparently don't have of drawing a square and having this realised on the cinematic/image level! Indeed, for Vincent, part of her charm and innocence derives from this quality of exhibiting the values, behaviour and manner of the television and film world. However, there also exists in Mia a level of honesty, frankness and open-ness toward reality, exemplified in her discussion on the awkwardness of "an uncomfortable silence". This theme of open-ness runs throughout this film, in the randomness and rambling nature of the dialogue.
But there is a seriousness to Pulp Fiction, where its harmless and amusing "talk" gets contrasted with the actuality and intensity of "reality". For example: the accidental shooting of Marvin; the casual, brutal execution of the boys in the apartment; Mia's overdose and the pumping of adrenaline into her; Vincent's abrupt death, and the bondage scene in Zed's store. These moments disturb, horrify, move, behold, and command the viewer. However, despite their force and intensity, they remain as dramatic events on the same plane as the harmless "talk"; they function almost as narrative tangents, incidental to the narrative, without any central significance. This resonates most clearly in the shooting of Vincent, an important character for the viewer up until this point. Like the "everyday talk" that goes on throughout the film, these moments transpire in an everyday fashion - incidental and chance-like. However, their effects are more serious, as they determine or alter a character's fate.
A constant theme that persists in Pulp Fiction and that its formal logic "performs" is the significance of the incidental and the overall power of the detail. This is ironic for a film so vivid and full of colour and so keyed to a popular audience response, but perfectly apt for one so tied to the history and experience of cinema as Pulp Fiction.
Lost Highway is a film that breaks all the rules. It denies the viewer requisite narrative information to figure out what each character wants, where they're going and whether they have reached fulfillment, at which point there is typically narrative closure. These "rules" belong to classical American cinema. With its circular narrative and inexplicable narrative events, Lost Highway beholds and suspends the viewer in an eternal state of "unknowingness" and fascination.
The film is a radical formal reworking of film noir. It is the ultimate homage to the male character riddled with anxiety, insecurity and paranoia triggered by and projected onto the figure of woman. The first images of the film are extreme close-ups of Fred (Bill Pullman), looking profoundly troubled, perturbed and introspective and, with typical noir desperation, smoking a cigarette. As in classic noir, the femme fatale in Lost Highway, Renee/Alice (Patricia Arquette), is less a character in her own right than a projection of male fear and desire. From Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) to Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981), narrative is essentially the tracing of a male story, structured upon and articulated from a male point of view.
Lost Highway references this tradition, yet takes its logic to a formal extreme. The awakening, workings and effects of the male unconscious (its fears and desires) is the film's central subject matter. The narrative "performs" the theme of the unconscious and the uncanny through its abstract and nonlinear qualities, sudden inexplicable changes (for example, the "substitute" of Fred by Pete [Balthazar Getty]) and a particular use of mise en scène as a metaphor of the unconscious.
Although the film performs something radical on a formal level, it is still locked within ideological categories that circumscribe the figure of woman as the eternal figure of death and desire entwined. There is only one female character in Lost Highway, and, she doubles half way through the film. In this film, the femme fatale haunts the male wherever he goes; this act of doubling and multiplying makes her more unattainable, uncontrollable and untamable. She is reworked in Lost Highway as almost the archetypal duplicitous woman. She appears always as highly sexualised, even in domestic, ordinary situations, and she commands the male character with her style, allure and grace.
Significantly, the act of sex in Lost Highway is aestheticised and attributed a certain mystery and meaning. For Fred, it is a measure of his manliness; when Renee consoles him for "failing" during sex (indicated by the patronising pat on his back and assuring words), the mood of the scene swiftly shifts to a profoundly darker and haunting tone. Renee triggers and confirms Fred's male anxiety and insecurity, which, in turn, propels the narrative. As a result the figure of woman is represented in this film as a double-edged entity, a twin source of promised fulfillment and eternal damnation. At the end of Lost Highway, Fred's paranoia is resolved somewhat by arriving at the position of knowing that he will never "have" Alice/Renee. As a result, he is destined to journey solo down a "lost highway" enshrouded in eternal darkness, and on the outskirts of society.
What is interesting about the film (beyond its reprehensible attitude toward the figure of woman), is its narrative landscape, its narrative tenor, the sense of the uncanny that it is enshrouded in, the way it works less in a literal sense and more in a figurative and highly metaphorical way. The way in which the properties of cinema - sound, image - are used in a highly sensuous, metaphorical manner.
The first quarter of the film is remarkable in this regard. Its precise pacing, composition and camera movement and the minimalist yet powerful soundtrack reverberates and emanates a mood of incredible mystery and stillness. Fred and Renee are married. Their home is a sparse, minimalist, low-lit "zone" that they "float" through rather than "live" in. This "zone" is filled with rooms and hallways enveloped in darkness, heavy red curtains and rich interiors that take on a sensuous presence, a particular countenance. Such objects become filled with an "aura" as they "speak to" and draw in the character of Fred. Nothing reveals this more clearly than the sequence where Fred glides toward the darkness of a hallway with such intensity, fascination, intrigue and obsession. This is really the key moment in the whole film - the "meta" moment - despite the fact that nothing in it "literally" happens.
The film achieves a definite formal purity in this early part (slightly diminished later on) as it, with such clarity and intensity, metaphorises the rise of, and the encounter with, the unconscious. And what a sea of anger and anxiety there lies within; which is confirmed by the following sequence in which Fred is revealed to have slaughtered his wife following this "encounter". Mise en scène, in this first part of the film, becomes purely and abstractly metaphoric.
The distinctness of this sequence in the film is partly created through its curious aesthetic structure: a series of tableaux that, like in the startling Flowers of Shanghai (Haishang Hua, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1998), form a series of set-pieces that pass in a breathing motion: fade in and out, rise and fall, emerge and dissolve. The rhythm and tone that the sequence achieves is intoxicating and mesmerising. Lost Highway is a very stylised film that, like a lot of post-Hollywood American cinema, proceeds with a certain theatricality (self-consciousness, irony) in its presentation of character and story. It is also very economical (in a minimalist sense): every word and gesture is important to the overall story.
Lost Highway proceeds according to a dream logic. Characters are doubled and replaced, occurrences and events proceed with an uncanny echo, and parallel universes that share uncanny similarities emerge. The film is profoundly surreal in this sense. There is no cause to explain any of the film's effects; the story emerges from the vortex of Fred's mind (especially, his unconscious), which in the final moments (and to be sure, its truest and horrifying moments) implodes violently and irreversibly. This inner rage is present throughout the film in the various flashes of intensity and revelation that punctuate the narrative: the intensity of the jail cell light bulb, the uncanny omnipresence of the "mystery man", the blurred vision of small-town mechanic, Pete.
If the first part of the film refers to an awakening of unconscious fears and desires, the second part, triggered by the unexplained switch in characters, refers to its effects. In particular, it is haunted by the uncanny. Fred's substitute, Pete, becomes the vehicle for experiencing the uncanny. In this parallel universe, there is a strange feeling that we have been here before. The strange familiarity of events and circumstances is not more illustrated than the moment when Pete first sees Alice, presented magisterially. The exchange of looks is slowed down, heightened and electrified, with the help of the guitar chords and voice of Lou Reed. The profound recognition that this moment visualises links back to a theme that runs throughout philosophy - the recollection of what once was, something long past and eternally lost. It is described by theorist Miriam Hansen as "the prototype of a look":
The prototype of a look that leaves a residue, that lingers beyond its actualisation in space and time, is the maternal look that children (of both sexes) know upon themselves even as they are separating, and which enables them to separate (2).
The "maternal look" as described here links quite easily with the figure of the femme fatale. This connection is confirmed in the film as Alice is eventually revealed to be the duplicitous woman.
These two films subvert conventional notions of narrative time and logic, yet remain highly engaging and genuinely intriguing cinematic experiences. They create formal worlds that fit perfectly with, and express poetically, the films' thematics. And so they remain endlessly fascinating.
© Fiona A. Villella January 2000
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(1) A. Martin, "Pulp Affliction", World Art, November 1994, pp. 85-88
(2) M. Hansen, "Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: 'The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology'", New German Critique, no. 40 Winter 1987, p.215
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