Philosophy through Film: Pulp Fiction

I’m taking a class this semester called Philosophy through Film, and one of the assignments is to write a journal entry for each movie we watch.  My previous entries are on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestGroundhog Day,  Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the Matrix. Pulp Fiction, Religion, and God

I want to get this out of the way quickly, because it's what the reading focuses on, and it's obviously a major theme of the film.  I don't think you can safely ignore the theological elements of Pulp Fiction.  It presents a world which appears to have an embedded morality as a natural law.  Transgressions of certain kinds (such as Butch's betrayal of Marsellus Wallace and killing his opponent in the ring)  seem to be naturally enforced (for example, by Butch running into Marsellus in the road.)

That said, I don't find philosophical discussions of God or metaphysics terribly interesting, for the following reasons:

  1. I've never heard of an argument for God, put forward as the solution to any philosophical problem, that actually solves that problem.
  2. Discussing the laws of metaphysics using a movie as a vehicle seems to me to be intrinsically useless:  all movies have the exact same metaphysics -- the supreme power of the actors, production team, director, and writers to make things happen the way they want them to.  It's fun to think about the universe as having a writer, but it's not very useful.
  3. Metaphysics is, by definition, unstudyable.  It refers to things we can't perceive, and operates by rules we can't comprehend.  Furthermore, I don't actually believe there is a reality that's meaningfully distinct from our perception of it, in that our perception is a phenomenon that emerges from actual reality.
  4. If there are metaphysical truths, I think they'd probably govern subatomic particles, and care as little about emergent phenomena like humans as physical truths do.

So, for the purposes of this article, I'm going to assume that events in Pulp Fiction are meaningful, and have metaphorical resonance.  That is, things like the Chopper saying "Grace" and Vincent Vega getting shot with his own gun are significant, and governed by the directly unrelated actions of the people who interact with them.

The Other Article

The reading we were assigned for this movie provided very little in the way of themes I felt I could expand upon, so I decided to look for another one.  The article I found most interesting was: -- it explored the pop culture references in Pulp Fiction, arguing that American culture in the film represented a collapse of tradition and culture, and a disintegration of grounding elements of life.  The characters who most completely escape the world of the film do so by embracing a more resonant connection with humanity outside the pop cultural and meaningless 'now'.

Pulp Fiction and Meaning

I think this was the most interesting angle to explore the film from.  As Conard points out in the Metaphilm article, the characters are obsessed with the right names of things.  The scene near the end, in which Butch insists upon correcting his girlfriend about the chopper, not motorcycle, struck me as particularly odd while I was watching the movie, but it didn't occur to me to read into it.

On reflection, the whole film circles questions of truth and meaning obsessively, the characters presenting a universal view that there are right answers, but none able to provide any sort of grounding for what those answers are supposed to be.  After all, is there a meaningful difference between chopper and motorcycle?  And could that difference possibly be important enough to delay running away from LA in order to get it straight?

On giving up

This part isn't about the film.  I've been blogging for the last three days about how much trouble I've been having trying to write about Pulp Fiction.  I do think it's a very philosophical film -- I think there's a solid case to be made that this is the most philosophical film we've watched yet this semester.  But it does sort of carefully avoid ever coming to any clear conclusions, apart from the ubiquity of ambiguity and the struggle people have trying to cope with that ambiguity.

It does seem to be a lot more difficult to write about the films I like than the ones I hate.