Quentin Tarantino is arguably the most successful director of violent movies in the last 30 years. Men, in particular, love his brand of violence. Why were/are Tarantino movies so successful? My best guess is that, with Pulp Fiction in particular, he made violence fun and funny. Beyond the influential dialogue, the style, the great music, and the evocative colors, Pulp Fiction was a more modern combination of the most violent Scorsese movie ever made and the humorous exchanges of Abbot and Costello. Another element we love about Pulp Fiction, and the other Tarantino movies to a lesser degree, is the introduction of all of these alternative codes his characters develop to assuage the guilt they might otherwise feel by engaging in such a lifestyle.
No characters refer to this code explicitly, of course, but the philosophical conversations the Samuel Jackson and John Travolta characters have, combined with the manner in which they conduct business suggests it’s not personal. It’s just business. There’s also a hint of the other mafia movie standbys, “Everyone knows what they’re getting into when they enter into this business,” and the, “Kill or be killed” motif.
In a slight twist on the conversation of codes, the Uma Thurman character mocks the extent of this code saying, “You think Marcellus Wallace would throw another person out of a window over a foot massage?” The import of this joke is that we all think, thanks to Travolta’s misunderstanding, that a foot massage is such a sensual act that it warrants violent retribution. The Uma Thurman chunk of dialogue admonishes us all for thinking that the characters are savages who seek to maim and kill people for whatever reason they can think up. She alludes to the fact that a foot massage might warrant a behind the scenes scolding, but what Travolta’s suggesting is crazy. She helps the audience understand that while their world does not involve the codes the rest of us live by, they’re not that outrageously violent.
In another scene, the John Travolta character develops his own code by suggesting that while he respects the hierarchy and the codes in general, he would prefer that those who ask him to do things do so in a more courteous manner. “A please would be nice.” In another scene, pertinent to this topic, Travolta defines his personal code in a conversation about someone keying his car. He says he wishes he would’ve caught them doing it, “It’d been worth him doing it, just so I could’ve caught him.” The Travolta character and the Eric Stoltz character agree that keying a car is an egregious violation of their shared code. Murdering a man is just business, but keying a car is a “They should be killed. No trial, no jury, straight to execution” violation of the code. We all speak in such ways, in jest, and perhaps that’s all the Stolz character was doing, but we suspect that Travolta is not joking in the same manner. The whole movie, Pulp Fiction, is all about codes. The characters don’t follow the codes the rest of us live by, but they have an insular code, a code among thieves, that they all live by to establish some sort of order within their otherwise immoral, soul-less, and piece-of-junk universe.
Tarantino did not develop this brand of comedy, and he didn’t invent the idea of an alternative code that criminals develop to assuage their guilt over murdering and robbing people, but he did it in a different, and some say better, way than most screenwriters and directors.
Most men dream of living by such codes, and we think we would might compete pretty well. If everyone agreed that we should settle zoning laws on lawn area disputes with a large pistol, we think everyone would behave a little better. We would love to pull a hand cannon out on someone, repeat some cool biblical verse, and blow someone away without flinching. We also think, on some level, that we could do it without much guilt, as long as the participants all knew what they were getting into when they entered our world. Would we have any guilt if we ran into our victim’s mother, father, or kids? No, because they all knew the life he led, and if they didn’t, that’s kind of on him for not informing them better.
“It’s not personal, it’s business,” we tell our wives in the movie theater after they question us for laughing at such violent scenes. That line makes sense to us in those 90 minutes. “That guy wouldn’t pay. The guy had something they wanted, and he wouldn’t give it up willingly. They had to kill the guy. They had to send a message. You understand that right?”
We’ve all accepted this “It’s not personal, it’s business” rationale for so long, dating back to The Godfather, that it now makes sense to us. I don’t care if you’re running a drug cartel, a prostitution ring, or whatever, is killing members of the competition the best way to run a business? Yet, few would attend a movie that contained a line from the leader of the business saying, “We really need to talk to Chris in accounting to see if we can improve on our distribution costs in the Northeast, and if you could drop a line to Steve in the Midwest. I really think he can improve his team’s Quality Assurance scores by laying off the bottom 10%.” That’s business. That’s boring. Have the managers in charge of Apple Music ever considered “taking out” some of the most talented minds at Spotify? We’ve seen that business plan work a million times, in the movies, and we know it works. No one goes to jail, and no one feels the least bit bad about it either. “The programmers at Spotify knew what they were getting into when they signed on for this. It’s just business.”
“It’s all fiction,” we tell our girlfriends who put a hand over their face when three guys stab another guy in a trunk after that guy disrespected one of the Goodfellas in a bar. The scene made perfect sense to us in the 90 minute, alternative code mentality, and we knew that guy was in trouble when he wouldn’t shut up. The Joe Pesci character gave this man several opportunities to shut up, and he wouldn’t. If he had any sense, he would’ve known better than to disrespect Joe Pesci in front of his friends. The guy should’ve known he would suffer some kind of grizzly death. I’m not sure how that trunk stabbing applied to their business in anyway, but it was funny when Pesci cracked at joke about it at his mother’s house.
Our girlfriend laughed at that joke too, and we now know she gets it. She’s along for the ride. She’s adapted her moral code to the alternative code of the movie. We can’t understand why it took her so long to understand this is just fantasy and fiction. It’s not her idea of fantasy, but she’ll put that aside long enough to try to enjoy the movie.
I have a dream scene for Tarantino. A bank robbery occurs, off screen, as it did in Reservoir Dogs. After this robbery is complete, the main guy divvies up the proceeds of that robbery in private to one particular recipient. Once the recipient receives his share, a twist happens. The main guy turns on the recipient of those proceeds.
“What are you doing?” the recipient pleads with his hands up.
This particular scene might involve a philosophical Abbot and Costello-style exchange that elucidates the alternative moral code of both characters. The unspoken lynchpin of the scene is if we’re going to consider the main guy turning on the recipient a violation of the code, then we must consider robbery a violation of code, and the only reason the two of them have money to divide is a robbery.
Prior to this dream scene, the director offers ample evidence of the moral ambiguity of both characters involved, and we’ve accepted the codes they’ve established. Prior to this scene, the director also strategically portrays them as equally sympathetic to the point that we’re cheering on both characters when this scene occurs. They’re both living by the code to a point that we don’t know who to cheer on in this scene. They’re both bad guys, and in their own way good guys.
What the main guy is doing is wrong in a purely philosophical manner. It is also a violation of the social contract between the two men, but in the context of the arbitrary, fictional movie of alternative moral codes, is it still a violation of any sort? The main guy fulfilled his obligation as boss by paying the recipient, and once the money touched the recipient’s hand, he technically fulfilled their social contract, so he’s not a welcher. Once that was complete, he robbed the recipient, and if we’re going to consider robbery immoral, it undercuts the premise of the movie that robbery, violence, and murder are just the way some men choose to make a living.
“Yeah, but the recipient earned his cut.”
Even those of us who enjoy setting our own moral codes aside for 90 minutes aren’t going to go so far out that we think the recipient earned the money he received. He stuck a gun in a teller’s face, and he stole the money others earned. We think about all the miserable hours of labor those who deposited their money in that bank endured to have a little nest egg in that bank. The reply to this is, “They robbed a bank, and most banks are federally insured, and everyone who earned the money they gave to the bank to hold for them was federally insured too.” Okay, but neither the recipient nor the main guy earned that money. Both men endured equal levels of risking their freedom to attain it, but they didn’t earn it.
As this scene plays out, the audience learns, through the recipient, that life is not fair, and the life he has chosen is even less fair. The business he chose also involves players who never learned how to share. The internal codes of conduct are in place to self-regulate, but what does the recipient do if a boss arguably violates one of them? The recipient cannot go to law enforcement, and their line of work doesn’t have an arbitration board to air grievances. He should also admit that such a robbery is just business conducted by a guy who wants more money. The main guy, in our scenario, is the leader of the mission, so the recipient has no recourse. In the end, the audience realizes that the moral quandary the director is asking us to sympathize with the ambiguous idea that a robber is getting robbed?
The recipient has three choices. He can give the money willingly, as he sees no other option. Doing so, could lead others to perceive him as weak. If he chooses that route, he might as well get out of the business, because everyone who hears about this will rob him after the fact, going forward. He can attempt to talk his way out of it, but we all know that doesn’t work in such settings. His only recourse is to refuse to give the main guy the money and pull his own gun. The main guy shoots the recipient before he can get that gun out. This tweaks our moral code slightly, until the main guy says, “Sorry buddy, it’s just business” to the dying man. That line puts him back in the moral code, for it is entirely consistent with the code they’ve established throughout the movie.
Anyone who reads this might suspect that the author is subject to flights of moral relativism. I can assure you, without stepping onto a soapbox, that that is not the case. I suspend whatever I think of such alternative universes in the same manner I will while listening to music or watching cartoons. When I attend a movie theater or click play on a movie, I suspend reality in the same manner I do when I watch horror movies. I don’t believe in any of the supernatural beings that torment our main characters, but if you aren’t willing to put your rational mind for long enough to enjoy a movie that violates everything you believe in don’t click play. If the moral fiber of our personal constitution is strong enough, we should be able to weather minimal assaults we experience in cartoons, horror movies, music, what have you. There are serious venues that challenge your modes of thought, and I think everyone should read them for the cerebral, philosophical challenges they present, but anyone who has their beliefs system seriously challenged by these otherwise unserious, artistic vehicles should probably spend more time reading.