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FILM COMMENT : Pulp Friction : Director Quentin Tarantino's movies are best know for their wit and mayhem, but what you don't hear about is their original take on race.

October 16, 1994|Stanley Crouch | Stanley Crouch, the New York-based author of "Notes of a Hanging Judge," was a 1993 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Crouch, a founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center, is finishing a biography of Charlie Parker.

The recent opening of writer-director Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" is a high point in a low age. Already slobbered over at Cannes and genuflected before by the New York press, it is, perhaps more than anything else, a continuation of Tarantino themes thus far missed and another startling aesthetic victory for a small, undeclared American film movement.

By looking full face into the ethnic quirks and racial complexities of our identity, "Pulp Fiction" addresses issues most effectively pushed into the ambiguity, humor and tragedy of art by such different works as "City of Hope," "Mississippi Masala," "One False Move," "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Six Degrees of Separation." In that respect, no matter his present focus on the underworld milieu, Tarantino is bringing a large and subtle talent to subjects that have eluded even the most consistently celebrated and publicized American directors of the last few decades.

Tarantino is deeply intrigued by the artistic challenges of the many miscegenations that shape the goulash of American culture and by how powerfully the influence of the Negro helps define even those whites who freely assert their racism. "Pulp Fiction" presents his most recent variations on Carl Jung's observation that white Americans walked, talked and laughed like Negroes and that the two figures appearing most often in their dreams were those of the black and the red American.

Drawing deftly imposing performances from an ensemble featuring John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman and Bruce Willis, Tarantino brilliantly twists his Jungian themes through the vehicles of cliched crime novel plots until they achieve revelations sometimes so stinging that new life is shocked onto the screen.

The human nuances and surprises in the writing provide fresh alterations of meaning as they render a grittier and ever experience in American film. Those more relaxed integration than we almost alterations reach far beyond the customary racial cliches that thud upon us frame by frame and the hostile or maudlin soapbox oratory that washed all possible eloquence out of dialogue. The viewing experience is familiar and foreign: We feel we've seen it and not seen it before.

The virtuosity of "Pulp Fiction" is the culmination of the self-taught 31-year-old Tarantino's only previous works, "True Romance" and "Reservoir Dogs." In those first Tarantino screenplays, black people exist the way they do in the films of Martin Scorsese. They are at the edge of things, briefly stepping into view, sometimes important but most often all-purpose inspiration for obsessive racist comments.

Directed quite effectively by Tony Scott in the swiftly cut style, color and lighting of television commercials, "True Romance" clocks the adventures of Clarence and Alabama, a rock 'n' roll outlaw couple played with superior perception by Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette. It is at once an ingenious variation on "Hamlet" and a chase film that reaches for the energy of anarchic destruction that defined one aspect of American films between the chaos of Mack Sennett and the patriotic slaughter of World War II Hollywood. That bloody disorder within the dramatic American tale was stretched out even further with "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Wild Bunch," "The Godfather" and "The Godfather, Part II" and "Taxi Driver."

"True Romance" is informed by all of that but goes its own way. The twice-quoted "something is rotten in Denmark" means the dope world of casual sadism and murder. We see how the mistaken grabbing of a suitcase of drugs sets in motion a negative democracy of white trash, black street criminals, Italian gangsters, aspirant actors, potheads, Jewish film producers and law enforcement. That social sweep might have been introduced in the drug-dealing montage of stills "Superfly" used, but it has never reached the condition of art this film has.

One essential reason Tarantino succeeds where others bite the dust of exploitation is that he truly understands his crime world within the larger context of culture. Besides cocaine, there are also the deadening mass opiates of rock 'n' roll, junk food, the cartoonish gore of martial-arts movies and a set of comic-book conceptions of romance, valor and steadfastness that inspires the violence of Clarence and Alabama, who are either trying for nobility or loyally responding to danger with hysterical, self-defensive rage.

In Detroit, Clarence spends one night with the novice prostitute Alabama and marries her the next day. The film's central icon is Elvis Presley, the white man who most successfully and joyously "went native" by bringing black pop rhythms into adolescent mass America. Presley is Clarence's spiritual father. The ghost of the King appears and orders Clarence to avenge his new bride's honor by killing Drexl, her murdering white pimp. A venomous minstrel, Drexl thinks he is black, sort of a Motor City Mr. Kurtz, a modern version of "going native" the worst way.

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