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 modern combination of the most violent Scorsese movies 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 codes 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 believing that these characters are so savage that they would 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 states that he respects these codes, and the hierarchy of their world, but he would prefer that those who order him to do things do so in a more courteous manner. “A please would be nice.” Thus, the Travolta character informs us that he has a code within the code.
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” personal 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 the deceased 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. Their lines and actions make 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. 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 when he signed on to do this movie that if he was going to disrespect Joe Pesci, in a Martin Scorsese movie, that he would suffer some kind of grizzly death. The Joe Pesci character gave this man several opportunities to shut up, and he wouldn’t. 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 boss who dreamed up this robbery, divvies up the proceeds of that robbery to all the players of this robbery in scenes that occur off screen. The only divvying up we see occurs with one particular recipient. Once this recipient receives his share, a twist happens. The boss turns on the recipient of those proceeds.
“What are you doing?” the recipient pleads with his hands up.
“I’m robbing you,” the gun-toting boss says. The audience might consider this a violation of the code, until the boss adds, “I paid you your fair share, and now I’m robbing you.”
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 boss turning on the recipient a violation of the code, then we must consider robbery a violation of code, because the only reason the two of them have any money to divide is a robbery.
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. We’ve also received ample evidence of the moral ambiguity of both characters involved, and we’ve accepted the codes they’ve established. 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 morally ambiguous ways, good guys.
What the boss 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 the code? 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 put 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 put in the bank was federally insured too.” Okay, but neither the recipient nor the boss 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 an arbitration board to air their grievances, and they cannot go to law enforcement. The boss is also a valuable conduit for the recipient to future jobs, and if the recipient wants more jobs, then he has to abide by the boss’ wishes, but who’s to say that the boss won’t rob him again after future jobs?
The recipient has three choices. He can give the money willingly, as he sees no other option, but 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 boss 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.
We’ll probably never see such a scene added to a movie of this type, because it would lift the veil on this whole world of moral ambiguity by suggesting the only reason the piece-of-junk boss is robbing the piece-of-junk recipient is for more money, and no self-respecting director would allow their audience to think the only reason their characters want to rob is for the money. Such a scene might also undermine the motif the director/screenwriter’s portrayal that these characters are just as a bunch of good guys who just happen to steal. The scene might lead the audience to believe that they cheat their brothers in crime too, and they lie to them. The audience might also believe that thieves are bullies who attempt to dominate their weaker peers for more money, and that doesn’t serve the integrity of the characters or the appeal of the movie well.
“If you’ve ever been in jail, you know that most of the people who succeed in that environment would not succeed anywhere else,” someone once said. “It’s a bizarro world where up is down and down is up. A piece of junk is heralded for his ability to tap into his most primal, most ruthless nature, and an otherwise successful man, who has spent his life improving on all of his otherwise negative instincts is scorned for being … a pansy, less male, or whatever.”
What would it take to succeed in the climate created at Apple, PayPal, or Spotify? The question the audience is suppose to ask is, is it really that different? The motif that quality directors, like Tarantino and Scorsese lay, is that he who believes in the “honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work” is a schmuck, and the thieves who rot in jail are schmucks too. Their players exist somewhere in the middle of that and everything else the audience considers a truth of life.
Thus, when they lie, cheat, and steal to gain comfort in life, as opposed to money of course, we’re to assume this happens as often in corporate America, except they’re more boorish in their desire for money. As someone who has never been to jail, and who’s only experience with the culture therein is, admittedly, limited to that which is depicted in reality TV, it appears to be so much more primal. I know this is obvious to everyone but the “Is it really that different?” crowd, but an unstable person prone to displays wild emotional outbursts doesn’t last long in corporate America, but in jail he or she becomes a pod boss for exhibiting such characteristics. An inmate who belittles the weak for the purpose of dominating them doesn’t fare well in corporate America, no matter what you’ve heard, but for a person who wants to be considered a pod boss, it’s all but listed as a bullet point in the job requirements. Thus, to succeed in the jail, we need to channel our worst, most primal characteristics if we hope to succeed. In corporate America, this analogy suggests, we need to exhibit our finest characteristics, but to succeed in the fictional worlds depicted in Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction, we need to find a schmuck-less middle ground.
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 when listening to music or watching cartoons. When I watch a gangster-related 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 I’m not willing to put my rational mind aside for long enough to enjoy a movie that violates everything I believe I probably shouldn’t be clicking 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 our 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.