[3 November 2010]
One night in 1978, John and Yoko went to Studio 54, the club that made headlines because of its impossible admission lines and guest lists. You had to be somebody to get in—somebody like Lennon or Roy Cohn, the former aide to the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy and assistant to the disgraced Richard Nixon. Cohn had become the club’s legal counsel and was in the men’s room washing his hands when Lennon came in. “It doesn’t matter how hard you scrub,” Lennon quipped, “you’ll never get the blood off.”
Cohn left in a huff, nearly colliding with the young playwright Tony Kushner at the door. Sensing the drama he had just missed, Kushner asked “Who was that guy? But before Lennon could answer, John Travolta emerged from a stall, still fastening his belt, and rushed over to Lennon to introduce himself and insist that he had asked the producers of Welcome Back Kotter to have Lennon, instead of John Sebastian, write the show’s theme song.
Kushner didn’t get his answer, but the seed had been planted for what would become his play Angels in America. After a career first made by hunting political subversives, Kushner depicts Cohn dying of AIDS while being haunted by the ghost (or perhaps the angel) of Ethel Rosenberg—one of two citizens executed for atomic espionage during the McCarthy era.
Now Tony Kushner probably does not believe in ghosts. Lennon, we know, does not believe in God (as his song “God” explains). And you should not believe this story because I just made it up. However, after watching the recent PBS documentary God in America, I couldn’t help but think of the way that great playwrites like Kushner and great filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino offer a seemingly paradoxical lesson: sometimes we get closer to understanding the truth of things by weaving known facts with imagined fictions.
God in America shows how America’s long-standing claim to have a special, privileged relationship with God connects stories together a la Angels in America or Pulp Fiction. Billy Graham, for example, arguably the most famous evangelist of the 20th century, preached to nearly empty tents in Los Angeles until the god of newspapers himself, William Randolph Hearst, decided to champion Graham in his papers. Most likely fearing that godless, international communism might pull the plug on his wealth and influence should it gain a toehold in the States, Hearst wanted a spokesman like Graham to convince America that loyalty to God meant loyalty to American free enterprise.
It worked. By 1957, Graham was filling Madison Square Garden every night for 16 (!) weeks. That’s 102 shows in a row, making Graham 51 times more popular than Lady Gaga who sold out a mere two nights this year.
Then Richard Nixon walked on stage—really. Not at Madison Square Garden, but at the even larger Yankee Stadium where Graham held his Goodbye-New York event after his run as the Garden. Eyeing the White House for himself, then vice-president Nixon put his arm around Graham before a crowed of one hundred thousand and pledged his loyalty to a biblical understanding of America. (New York Times, 21 July, 1957)
The roar of the crowd was deafening—both for Graham and Nixon at Yankee Stadium and, a few years later, for John Lennon over at Shea stadium, where some 55,000 fans were musically born again by the music of The Beatles. While Lennon may have been right to say, a year later, that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus now,” they were—stadium-wise—only half as popular as Billy Graham. Afraid that Lennon’s popularity and his opinions might scuttle his re-election campaign in 1972, Nixon called his friends at the FBI, the IRS, and probably Roy Cohn, and tried to have Lennon deported.
The key to all of this, Randall E. Auxier explains in Quentin Tarantino and Philosophy: How to Philosophize with a Pair of Pliers and a Blowtorch, is that John Travolta was so excited about meeting John Lennon, he forgot to wash his hands in the men’s room. That’s why Travolta’s Vincent Vega (whom Auxier calls “Vinnie” for obvious reasons) is the only major character in Pulp Fiction to die. He’s “incontinent”, not only in the ordinary sense of the word, but in the Aristotelian sense of being weak-willed and unable to do what true loyalty demands of him. And when he dies, his hands are dirty.
John Travolta (Vince) & Samuel L. Jackson (Jules)
Adapted from “Vinnie’s Very Bad Day: Twisting the Tale of Time in Pulp Fiction”, in Quentin Tarantino and Philosophy: How to Philosophize with a Pair of Pliers and a Blowtorch, Open Court, 2007, pp. 123–140.
In most movies the audience knows within the first five minutes who will be the main character. That is no fun. In Pulp Fiction, you might watch the movie nine times and still not immediately grasp which is the main character. Vinnie is the main character in the movie, which isn’t obvious until the script is put into sequence. When it is, it becomes very clear that Vinnie is a bumbling anti-hero who becomes the victim of his own carelessness. None of his character flaws—selfishness, laziness, hubris, careless inattention, even weakness of the will—is his “central flaw.” And we are supposed to overlook the fact that Vinnie is a ruthless killer, because frankly, everyone he kills is at least as bad as he is. As the Wolf says, “Nobody who’ll be missed,” at least by us. There will be no serious investigation, and you, my dear middle-American, have nothing to fear from Vincent Vega. Tarantino is not going to get preachy about character flaws in any case. The Moral of the Story does not come from some lesson about what makes a hit man a bad person.
Apart from Vinnie, it is pretty hard to miss that Butch, filled with testosterone and pride as he is, has a soft spot for his dear departed dad, and dangerous though he is, he puts up with whining from Fabienne that none of us would begin to tolerate. And Jules, well, he is trying to be the shepherd. He is by far the most dangerous of the dangerous boys, but even he believes in miracles, scolds blasphemers, and reads the Bible.
Le temps de me laver les mains, or Bathroom Loyalties
It is easy to miss, but Vinnie’s “incontinence”—and I mean this in the ordinary sense of the word—is the master key to the movie, and the monkey wrench. Everything bad that happens to Vinnie is signaled by what’s happening in the bathroom. The “fourth man” with the hand cannon is hiding in the bathroom when Vinnie and Jules make the “hit” in the apartment, but Jules takes the hint and Vinnie doesn’t get it. Vinnie is in the bathroom when Honey Bunny and Pumpkin pull their guns at the coffee shop to create the Mexican stand-off. Vinnie is in the bathroom when Mia Wallace mistakes his heroin for cocaine (saving them both from an impending and very disloyal tryst). And Vinnie is in the bathroom when Butch returns for his beloved watch, which is the end of Vinnie.
We do see Jules in the bathroom once, and we do see Butch there once: each is washing off the stain of a former life he intends to leave behind. And Tarantino makes it very, very clear that Vinnie does not wash his hands, showing him emerging from the bathroom at Butch’s apartment immediately after he flushes the toilet, still fastening his belt. You think I’m making too much of it. If so, then why do Jules and Vinnie have an argument about washing their hands in Jimmie’s bathroom? And I quote:
Jules: What the fuck did you just do to his towel?
Vincent: I was just dryin’ my hands.
Jules: You’re supposed to wash ’em first.
Vincent: You watched me wash ’em.
Jules: I watched you get ’em wet.
Vincent: I washed ’em. Blood’s real hard to get off. Maybe if he had some Lava, I coulda done a better job.
Jules: I used the same soap you did and when I dried my hands, the towel didn’t look like a fuckin’ maxipad.
Nothing happens by accident in a Tarantino movie. As Aristotle puts it, “that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole” (Poetics, lines 1451a–35) Tarantino doesn’t waste your time with “that which makes no perceptible difference.” If Vinnie had the sense to wash his hands, thoroughly, he might still be with us—Butch would have had time to escape, and some noise to cover his exit. But no. Vinnie is lazy and careless and incontinent. Tarantino tells us what we need to know. It comes when Vinnie has taken Mia Wallace home after their “date” at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. Mia has her own issues with incontinence (as Marsellus well knows, from the infamous “foot massage” episode—he is testing Vinnie’s loyalty). Having excused himself to go to the bathroom after an “uncomfortable silence” with Mia, Vinnie has the following conversation with himself in the mirror:
One drink and leave. Don’t be rude, but drink your drink quickly, say goodbye, walk out the door, get in your car, and go down the road… It’s a moral test of yourself, whether or not you can main- tain loyalty. Because when people are loyal to each other, that’s very meaningful. So you’re gonna go out there, drink your drink,say “Goodnight, I’ve had a very lovely evening,” go home, and jack off. And that’s all you’re gonna do.
That’s the password to Tarantino’s tree house: “loyalty.” It’s very meaningful. What does Vinnie truly want that he cannot get? I mean he has the drugs and the cars and the money and women if he wants them (he turns down a free tryst with Trudi, so we know this isn’t his weakness). He tells us what he doesn’t have that he wants: self-control and true loyalty.
We may not be able to understand a world filled with people none of whom is morally similar to us, except that Tarantino shows us that they do have loyalties. Jules will deliver that briefcase to Marsellus even after he has decided to leave the “business,” and will risk his life to do so. Loyalty. Butch is loyal to the memory of his father, yes, but why, pray tell, does he turn around and save Marsellus Wallace when he could just as easily leave him to die at the hands of Zed and Maynard and The Gimp? If they kill Marsellus, all of Butch’s problems are over. But Butch is a man of honor, a man’s man, and he knows Marsellus is another man of honor, and to put it in his own words Marsellus at that moment is “very far from okay.” A loyal man just can’t let another loyal man meet such an end. Marsellus recognizes the deed for what it is when Butch saves him and also leaves him the privilege of taking care of Zed in “medieval” fashion.
The scene in the back of the pawn shop is a rerun of the rape of Ned Beatty from Deliverance. Butch’s search for the right weapon is the key to the scene. He picks up a hammer, then a chainsaw, then a baseball bat, discarding each after a moment’s thought, trying to decide what movie he’s in. Is it Friday the 13th? No. Is it The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? No. Is he in Walking Tall? Is this about justice? No. This is about honor. It’s the katana. Uma Thurman and Tarantino are already writing Kill Bill on the set of Pulp Fiction.
We never quite learn whether Vinnie is capable of genuine loyalty or not. We know he wants to be loyal. We know he is trying to be loyal. We know he values loyalty. We also know that he is weak-willed, careless, and incontinent; he knows that too, and doesn’t like it. But in the end, there is something different about Vinnie that curbs our sympathy. He doesn’t wash his hands when he goes to the bathroom. So the moral of the story? It’s three morals, but they all amount to one: Be loyal. It’s important. Don’t be weak-willed. It will lead you to a bad end. And wash your hands when you go to the bathroom… thoroughly; it says more about your character than you may realize.
George Reisch is the Series Editor for Open Court's series Popular Culture and Philosophy. He also edited Pink Floyd and Philosophy (2007) and co-edited Monty Python and Philosophy (2006) and Radiohead and Philosophy (2009).