Violence in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction: a laughing matter?

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Tom Jacobs wrote a piece describing a particular Pulp Fiction scene and compare it to the likes of Flannery O'Connor:

Flannery O’Connor was also obsessed with violence and the imagination and the idea that we are all imperfect and need to live better lives. Throughout her work, there is this notion of “grace,” of the idea that we are all imperfect and fallen and that we need something bigger and larger than us to get us through the day and night. The problem is that we don’t see or feel this very often. It is only when we are confronted with the abyss, with the silliness of our concerns and with the various forms of our narcissisms—only then do we see our imperfection. We can’t make it through this alone…we need something (not someone) to help us. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense.
While it is fairly well worded, the author fails to explain how violence in this instance is funny to him, which is his reason for writing the article in the first place (some of his commenters miss the point when they discuss real life ramification of on screen violence). Most of the article are devoted to describing a particular sequence and other writers' take on their own work. Though, it does generate some healthy discussion around our reaction to on screen violence, and perhaps its function in our life.

Before we get to that, I just want to comment briefly on the relationship between real and fictional violence. Violence depiction on screen may inspire copy cats in those already primed for aggressive acts, just as watching a particular way of depicted acts of love may inspire those wanting to try out what strikes their fancy. If these violence-drawn folks read books, they may probably be inspired by Flannery O'Connor in the same way, too. However, cinema is a more accessible art form (similar to music), which translates to a wider audience, including those seeking certain kinds of easy emotional release and sensations. Studies on media violence have been inconclusive because we can't really prove a direct causal relationship through ethical research. More aggression does not always translate to criminal acts, and one can't say for sure which element of a film inspires which mind to do a particular act, if at all. Research thus far can only tell us just that: we don't know, and we don't have absolute, conclusive research authority on whether fictional violence begets real, criminal violence. Consider the wide audience films (and music) with violent content (or what would be considered violence in the real world) get, I'm going to say that the probability of an individual violent outcome is pretty slim.

But the question raised by the article is of the discrepancy between the "appropriate" reaction to witnessed violence and how we actually behave at times. In the humourous case, it's about a sense of personal control and the subsequent level of personal removal from negative or undesired consequences. If you're witnessing a frightening act of violence in front of you (real and fictional), and you feel involved enough to understand the consequences (of a hit to the head, for example), you eventually get to a state in which you need to decide what to do. You can fight or flight, and when you can't make heads or tails of either action, one response would be to laugh - it is not without psychological merit that humour is often considered a type of self-defense. Not all humour is a defense, mind you - just the protective kind. Having a laugh about something threatening puts you right back in control of an uncontrolled, threatening scenario, at least in your mind, by removing yourself from feeling (or empathizing with) the consequences. It gives your body a little energetic jiggle that may serve to get you out of a stupor, unconsciously indecisive state as well.

Stylized violence on screen helps with the removal of personal involvement, because it is least like what violence tends to be in real life. You're more likely to be stimulated by the energy brought to the screen without having to empathize with - and therefore feel - the pain. You may also laugh at the excitement. Hyper realistic depictions of violence may or may not induce laughter, depending on how real you perceive them to be and how prepared you are in dealing with them. You may react as follows:

1. If it seems real to your senses, and you are indecisive about how to deal with it subconsciously, one response could be to remove yourself by laughing.

2. If it seems real to your senses, and your senses react with fear and you don't notice that it's just a fictional account, you may be traumatized with what you see.

3. If it seems real to your senses, and your senses react with fear but you are able to control your responses (by rationalizing that it's a movie, for example), then you experience it as it is without being traumatized by it: feeling horrible, but not devastatingly so.

4. If it is not real to you, you may also laugh if it's particularly absurd and seems overly silly. Otherwise, you don't respond much.

There you go, Tom. It's not a gendered thing (which he speculated in the comment section). It is cathartic because there's a lot of energy released in violence. But that doesn't mean one automatically gets to laugh. The catharsis he mentioned stems from having been relieved of a conscience, or removal of personal involvement. Laughing is just one possible response. It's a defense, or an expression of relief. It's our Butch taking control of a dangerous, threatening situation for the Marsellus Wallace in us.

I am a Tarantino fan. I am a girl. I did not giggle. My jaw may have dropped a little, but I survived. And if you must know, I haven't killed anyone yet. It's a miracle.

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2 Response to Violence in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction: a laughing matter?

April 11, 2011 at 12:29 PM

A great post. And you are the only one who noted that I never got around to explaining why the scene is funny. I think it begins to get funny when Butch begins to seek out weapons of murder and death...when he picks up the chainsaw, the baseball bat, etc.

I truly appreciate your thoughts (and, yes, I googled myself to see if anyone had anything to say about the thing). But yours are particularly intriguing and compelling.

And I also think that I completely agree that stylized violence abstracts it from reality. But I also think that any representation of reality (whether it be in film or literature or whatever) is exactly what makes it eligible for humor or pathos or whatever.

"There's a lot of energy released in violence. But that doesn't mean one automatically gets to laugh." I have to think about this. I think you may be right in one way or another.

Anyhoo, all my best.


April 11, 2011 at 4:08 PM

Hi Tom. Thanks for stopping by. It's a pleasurable surprise for me to converse with the original author, who's interested and open to discussion wherever. You must really enjoy what you wrote about! :)

Tarantino does have a sense of humour and he shot he scene with a classic style of upping the ante scenario, which really builds the exhilarating sense of kick-arse fun. Willis always has a twinkle of mischief in his eyes too. It's probably fun and funny for you because of its sequence of shots and the level of ridiculousness.

Realistic depiction of violence can bypass our attempt to remove ourself though, because we're such visual creatures (why visual illusions work). We derive our social cues from others and can be influenced to feel what others do (thanks in part to our mirror neurons, which underlie empathy). Once we adapt to the onscreen universe, the removal of the personal by virtue of our awareness of the screen gets harder. Realistic violence may not allow us to readily abstract ourselves. That's why I said stylized violence rather than just any representation of violence.

Thanks for the article and your thoughtful comments. :)


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