Celluloid Potty

David Denby had a terrific piece in the New Yorker a couple of weeks back, which made for great reading atop the thunder bucket (“le seau de tonnere” en Francais). The main thrust of the piece is how films that play with chronology, once the domain of arty directors like Resnais, have now become commonplace. Denby writes about Pulp Fiction’s role in bringing this style to the masses, and mentions something I hadn’t really noticed before: Vincent Vega (Travolta) visits the powder room four times in the film and each time marks a critical point in the narrative. This got me thinking, Q. uses the head throughout the movie to bring the action to, uhm, a head. There’s a signal to this, when Mia Wallace returns from the little ladies room: “Don’t you just love it when you come back from the bathroom and find your food waiting for you?” That’s not all that happens during her time away. She gets coked up. When she sits down again, the conversation leaves the safety of chit chat and turns to more dangerous topics. Back at her pad, Vincent goes the the loo and all hell breaks loose.

But before all that-or is it after-the movie’s key events unfold as the Fourth Man bursts out of the WC, where he has been hiding as Jules and Vincent execute “Flock of Seagulls” and big-brained Brett. The Fourth Man unloads his hand cannon, missing with all shots. Thus transpires the miracle that sends Jules on his mission to “walk the Earth.” And while Jules is explaining his Kung Fu intentions, Vincent recuses himself to the facilities, else Honey Bunny and Pumpkin surely would have perished. Later on, reading the same trashy book, Vincent meets his maker while still seated on the throne. This follows-or is it precedes-the Butch and Fabian bathroom scene.

Quentin is a formalist and likes to play games. I’ve noticed quite a few of them in the dozen times I’ve watched this film, but never pieced this one together before. Great stuff, and gives me an idea for my thesis when I go to film school: “Did Something Die in Here: Transformative aspects of the Toity in the early works of Tarantino.”

3 Replies to “Celluloid Potty”

  1. I read that, too. The thing I liked most about it, quite simple little thing for a simple little person, is the fact that he ultimately came out against screwing with chronology. One hears far more often the opposite – that screwed chronology = quality film, part of that “if it’s tough it must be good” school of thought, the satellite campus of “if people like it it’s bad” university and technical institute.

  2. I read it (on account of your post) and didn’t like it. To explain why, perhaps I should start at the end of the article, and then skip around.

    I haven’t read anything else by David Denby, but this piece is riddled with shallow contentions and false conclusions (with a few interesting observations, and a lot of flighty and insistent rhetoric, driving it along the way).

    As you know, I think “The Lives of Others” is a classically excellent film. Its excellence is in no sense, however, a “response” to the “misuse” of “playing with time.” To frame it that way is simply delusory.

    What gives “The Lives of Others” its “shattering power” is not a device. And it is certainly not “straight-forward chronology driven by cross-cutting…”

    What gives it its power is truth, and its ability to strike a chord with the viewer at all levels of film making — scenario, writing, directing, acting, cinematography, usw.

    You could give it all the straightforward chronology and cross-cutting you liked, but without all these other things, it would have been a poor or so-so film.

    The worst thing about Denby’s argument is that it sets up utterly false gods, and false opponents. There is no “best way” of leading us to “paradise” in film. You can do it through simplicity or complexity; through rawness or refinement; clearly or vaguely; richly or poorly; in sickness or in health. There is no formula, no magic criterion.

    If, in Babel, “part of the disconnection that the movie presents as a universal fact of our world is produced by the odd way it is put together,” well, you could say the same thing about Escher, or Picasso, or Kafka.

    There’s no point in railing against cubism, or Dadaism, or atonal music. All you can say is, not all artists are great. But that’s no reason to jump precipitately on the pioneers.

    More than once, Denby frames things in an entirely false way — and either he doesn’t know it himself, or he’s counting on the speed and flourish of his rhetoric to rush things past his reader, in the service of an ultra-conservative argument.

    To the beginning, then. The fact that Arriaga and Inarritu have made three films together and are now parting ways in no way makes these films a trilogy. Nor does the fact that the films share certain stylistic quirks.

    All artists work by elaborating what they’ve done before. If Babel suffers from “pretentious fatalism” and “structural willfulness” (I haven’t seen it yet, so I wouldn’t know), there’s no point reading that back into Amores Perros simply because it was created by the same people and you’ve chosen (willfully, I’d say, with a dash of pretentious fatalism) to declare them a trilogy.

    In fact, you might just call that “creat[ing] an impression of the eternal present, the sense that what is happening was always happening, will always be happening” — making a hash of causality and time.

    I saw Amores Perros when it first came out, and thought it was extraordinarily good and had a lot of impact. No matter what I think of Babel, I’m not going to revise my opinion of Amores Perros on anything other than Amores Perros’ account.

    It takes Denby an amazingly long time to get around to even touching on the obvious: in their techniques and their tortuousness, these films are reflecting aspects of modern life. It isn’t, as he suggests, that filmmakers are trying to lead us somewhere with these innovations. They’re trying to catch the split-screen, multi-tasking, internet-surfing, conflicted, technology-ridden, globalized modern wave.

    What we are getting out of “the overloading, the dislocations and disruptions” is an early attempt to grapple with how these jarring aspects of life strike people, what they mean, and how you can make art out of them — through various efforts to at least represent them.

    Moreover, storytellers don’t just “make sense out of nonsense…impose order, economy and moral consequence.” They rely on the reader to participate in perceiving those things, otherwise they’d be didactic (“show, don’t tell”).

    (Ironically, Denby’s own series of examples of asynchronous films throughout time — does he present them chronologically? I didn’t check — never amounts to anything coherent. It’s amazing how jumpy his own “logic” is. His examples give a hit-and-miss impression of informedness, but they don’t and aren’t used to prove anything. They just flesh the thing out.)

    When Denby finally drops his pretense (or delusion) that Godard directed for “knowing audiences” in contradistinction to today’s “mainstream” audiences, he comes to the one solid paragraph in the whole article:

    “All these movies draw on a sophistication about cinema that is now almost universal…” (Actually, it’s a sophistication about representation, but we won’t quibble.)

    He never does suggest that Pulp Fiction could just be jokingly reflecting the reality of a film shoot — where, for practical purposes, scenes simply are shot out of sequence more often than not.

    if Tarantino is “getting at something inherent in all moviemaking,” it could be that.

  3. And speaking of jumping around, Bert, it’s nice to see you jumping around in the Globe.

    I look for you in the Toronto section, but I might not have noticed you in Focus if you hadn’t linked to “light” and “dark.” (When things get busy, Focus gets postponed, since it takes longer to read.)

    And this morning, well, there you were in the Review. (To say nothing of past appearances in Travel, and the Book section.)

    Nice going.

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