Sunday, 27 March 2011

I Only Want To Be With You (Songs from the Tarantinian Ethics)

True romance leads beyond narcissism. ... In True Romance the point at which one sees oneself from the position of the other is also the point of death and disappearance. Death intervenes to demonstrate the imbalance of romantic fantasy, even as the other’s pain and suffering prove that fantasy with a vengeance. Death is thus the limit and fulfilment of romantic desire, introducing an absence that allows the fantasy to thrive, unimpeded by reality: ‘What they need is not one another’s presence, but one another’s absence’ (1993: 42). Indeed, for Lacan, ‘between the object as it is structured by the narcissistic relation and das Ding, there is a difference ...’ (Lacan, 1992: 98). The difference is crucial. If death is on the agenda for Mickey and Mallory only in so far as it is the death of others, or the living death of a lobotomy, then absence and obstacles are crucial to sustaining their passion. True love blossoms and burns most after they have been imprisoned, the screenplay suggests, in Mickey’s letters and Mallory’s songs that are addressed to the silence that is the support of their fantasy. The other’s absence seems to have little bearing on their passion, while the bars of the prison only serve to affirm it.

We stare at McClusky and Scanetti for a second. Then, like a bull, we charge/dolly straight at them. Mallory screams out of shot. We smash head first into the bars. Mallory’s POV flings up, looking at the ceiling, then falls backward.


Jesus Christ!


Don’t worry about it. She does that all the time. (Tarantino, 1995b: 15-16)

‘For what is love other than banging one’s head against a wall’, comments Lacan, ‘since there is no sexual relation?’ (1982: 170). For Lacan, the imagined, absolute and ideal union driving love’s fantasy remains impossible because it is an effect of signification: it is the Other, the locus of desire and object of demand, that is addressed in love, not a real person. For Lacan, using courtly poetry as his example,

the being to whom it is addressed is nothing other than being as signifier. The inhuman character of the object of courtly love is plainly visible. This love that led some people to acts close to madness was addressed at living beings, peoples with names, but who were not present in their fleshly and historical reality . . . they were there in any case in their being as reason, as signifier. (Lacan, 1992: 214-5)

The address to the other thus moves beyond the other towards the Other, demanding of the Other recognition and love for the totality of the subject’s being. But as it remains the locus of difference and desire, the Other cannot reply other than by signifiers, the very marks of separation. The absence of any reply to the subject’s exorbitant demand leaves only signifiers as the obstacles to true union, obstacles that exacerbate desire. Courtly love, for Lacan, exemplifies the detours provoked by this absence of relation: ‘it is an altogether refined way of making up for the absence of sexual relation by pretending that it is we who put an obstacle to it’ (1982: 141). The barriers thus work to preserve the illusion that, beyond them, beyond words, beyond life itself, an idealised union is possible.

But the bars of signification also open a gap between self and other, introducing a cause that belongs to neither one nor the other. The difference between the amorous couple is temporal. Writing on Tristan and Isolde, Maurice Blanchot discusses the nostalgic anticipation of the continually delayed arrival of love’s impossible presence:

the fulfillment of all veritable love which would consist in realizing itself exclusively according to the mode of loss, that is to say realizing itself by losing not what has belonged to you but what one has never had, for the ‘I’ and the ‘other’ do not live in the same time, are never together (synchronously), can therefore not be contemporary, but separated (even when together) by a ‘not yet’ which goes hand in hand with an ‘already no longer’. (Blanchot, 1988: 42)

For Lacan, it is also a matter of the dislocation of the lovers’ spatial relation: ‘when in love I solicit a look, what is always profoundly unsatisfying and always missing is that – You never look at me from the place which I see you’ (1977b: 103). The fantasy is never complete, difference ultimately eludes love’s capture. Love opens beyond the other, the imagined object of love; it ‘can be posited only in that beyond where, at first, it renounces its object’ (1977b: 276). That is, love moves from the other to the Other, the locus of speech and signification, and manifests a gap between the real being and the subject of signification. For Denis de Rougemont, lovers are prisoners, possessed by a power they neither know nor control: ‘They are prisoners of “exquisite anguish” owing to something which neither controls – some alien power independent of their capacities, or at any rate of their conscious wishes, and of their being in so far as they are aware of being’ (39-40). Perhaps this accounts for Mickey’s extraordinary self-possession in the State Penitentiary. Since he is already imprisoned in love, there is no such thing as prison, it is already an environment familiar to him, a familiarity that abolishes the locks and the steel bars. Indeed, the presence of the real prison supports his self-possession since it realises the shackles of love’s ‘alien power’ in concrete form, thereby rendering it, too, familiar. With Mickey the prison only serves to replace, as banal obstacle, the sense of the ‘alien power’ of love that, for Blanchot, is an undefinable strangeness that haunts and thwarts shared love as it:

excludes mutuality as well as unity where the Other would blend with the Same. And this brings us back to the foreboding that passion eludes possibility, eluding, for those caught by it, their own powers, their own decision and even their ‘desire’, in that it is strangeness itself, having consideration neither for what they can do nor for what they want, but luring them into strangeness where they become estranged from themselves, into an intimacy which also estranges them from each other. (Blanchot, 1988: 43)

The strange, alien, uncanny power emerges, however, in writing, in the epistolary romance Mickey narrates to Mallory but cannot send.

For Mallory, this alien power also comes from the signifier, from the words of the songs she sings: ‘She starts moving her body to music only she can hear, then begins to sing the song “Groove Me” in a slow a cappella, using the cell as her stage and a man who isn’t there as her audience’ (1995a: 24). The songs express her pain, suffering and separation: ‘Love is a hurtin’ thang’; ‘Long Time Woman’. Another song she is reported to sing is ‘I Only Want to Be with You’.

The title and hook-line, ‘I Only Want to Be with You’, inscribes desire within love. The total, singular and exclusive desire of love is bound up with being, or rather, as the title suggests, with the lack in being, the ‘want-to-be’, or want of being. Thus, the absence of the other and the absence of being remain at the centre of love’s expression and the song’s performance of total desire. Punctuated throughout the song, various declamatory statements lay out the co-ordinates of love’s desire: the unconditional, ‘It doesn’t matter where you go or what you do’; the ever vigilant, ‘I want to be beside you everywhere’; the fateful, that is, accidental and inevitable, ‘I fell into your open arms/ And I didn’t stand a chance’; mutual possession, ‘I only know I never want to let you go’, ‘That ever since we met you’ve had a hold on me’; the acknowledgement that love takes the singer beyond knowledge and possibility, ‘I never knew I could be in love like this’; and beyond care, ‘As long as we’re together, honey, I don’t care’; and finally beyond reason to truth ‘It’s crazy, but it’s true/ I only want to be with you’ (Mike Hawker/Ivor Raymonde. Springfield Music Ltd.). The song also calls up that alien power beyond immediate, specular visibility, ‘Cos you started something, oh can’t you see’, and begins by speaking of that object inaccessible to knowledge, the some thing in you more than you that impels love, ‘I Don’t know what it is that makes me love you so’, an object which opens the address to the Other who is beyond reply though who is determinedly, if perhaps unsuccessfully, buttonholed, ‘Now listen, honey’.

The strangeness of the amorous relation as it is broached by the song is inscribed in the very terms of address, in the function of the shifter ‘you’. Between the impersonated object of love and the demand for love from the Other, gaps appear. This is because, as Lacan observes, ‘the you in its verbalized form does not at all coincide with the pole we have been calling big O’ (1992: 270). The I-you structure of address, moreover, discloses ‘a distance that’s not symmetrical, a relationship that isn’t reciprocal’ (1992: 274). Nonetheless, the structure manifests the effects of signification on the subject, effects that evoke a superegoic function: ‘it’s the you that says you in us, this you that always makes itself more or less discreetly heard, this you that speaks alone ...’ (Lacan, 1992: 275), that is, the discourse of the Other. ‘Present as a foreign body’, the you manifests ‘something completely uncertain and problematic in this fundamental communication’ in which ‘the I is essentially fleeting in nature and never entirely sustains the thou’ (1992: 287). Similarly, the you remains ‘unsecured in the substratum of discourse’ and depends on the effects of metaphor to provide a temporary quilting point to sense and meaning: ‘the you is the hooking of the other in the waters of meaning’ (1992: 299). ‘Now listen, honey ...’ Thus in love’s communication, like ‘I only want to be with you’, the you and the I, one and other, remain at some distance: ‘this you presupposes an other who, in short, is beyond him’ (1992: 300). It is a distance, a gap that lies not only between inside and outside, but one that remains internal to love’s discourse, implicated in its signification to the extent that both I and you, subject and other, are separately rendered uncertain, subjected to the shifting course of signification that, ruffled by love, never runs smooth.

From Fred Botting and Scott Wilson, The Tarantinian Ethics, Sage, 2001

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Songs from the Tarantinian Ethics: Oral Pleasure and ‘Son of a Preacher Man’

Tarantino’s movies are concerned both with consumption and critical discourse. The most seductive element of his movies is often considered to be his dialogue. Speech is privileged to an unusual degree, and his screenplays are not surprisingly highly valued by actors for the opportunities they allow ... in chapter one, speech is associated with law and transgression. Antwan Rockamorra’s castrating encounter with paternal law, in the shape of an outraged Marsellus Wallace, is manifested in the shape of a ‘speech impediment’ caused by a lacerating fall through a greenhouse. The object immediately referred to as lost at the beginning of Pulp Fiction, is the voice, a voice lost in the silent intimacy of Antwan’s gift of a foot massage to Mia Wallace. Antwan’s lost voice underscores the importance of speech generally, which is offered, in Pulp Fiction and in Reservoir Dogs where Blonde removes the ear of the captured cop, as key to the ethical relation, the privileged mode of exchange with the Other. Consequently, many scenes in Pulp Fiction are dominated by an often disembodied voice that, in one way or another, lays down the law. ...

... The most highly developed and significant scene, however, in which a voice frames, interrogates, directs and deploys a body within its power occurs when Vincent goes to call on Mia Wallace. ... in the scene it is no longer the content of Mia’s speech that becomes important, but the positioning and eroticisation of her voice. Mia is removed from the place of the unattainable ding of the courtly relation to become the voice of a new, feminised superego while her gaze is located at the empty heart of a panopticon. She is still situated, imaginarily, in the position of the phallus, but not in the form of a definite image or object. Rather than an object, Mia is now the unseen origin of an imagined gaze that speaks. Mia surveys Vincent through a bank of security monitors while addressing him through an intercom. When she is perceived, she appears as a metaphor in the shape of a disembodied, obscene mouth giving oral pleasure to a microphone. At this point also, it becomes clear that the soundtrack is now directly addressing the eroticised relationship between speech and moral law.

It is Hurley and Wilkin’s ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ sung by Dusty Springfield: ‘the only one who could ever reach me / was the son of a preacher man / The only boy who could ever teach me / was the son of a preacherman’. The oddly un-courtly aspect of Mia is that she is neither silent, iconic nor inscrutable. On her date with Vincent, she doesn’t engage him in the coded, seductive play of courtship; indeed she doesn’t tempt him into doing anything; on the contrary, in the up-front forthright manner for which American women are rightly celebrated, she tells him to do everything.

Perfectly at home in Jack Rabbit Slim’s, Mia instructs Vincent on the law of desire, ‘it’s more exciting when you don’t have permission’, even as she gives him permission, becoming the law herself (61). Which is to say that she does not merely permit but positively orders him, in the face of his resistance, to dance publicly with her; she is the trophy she instructs Vincent to win for herself: ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I do believe Marsellus, my husband, your boss, told you to take me out and do whatever I wanted. Now, I want to dance. I want to win. I want that trophy’ (65). They dance to the answer to the question of who to prefer out of Elvis and The Beatles – Chuck Berry – and they win. It is Mia who impales the father on his own law, using his own commands as the means to his cuckoldry, turning transgression into an imperative.

It is the link between speech, desire, orality and the pleasure-imperative that, if anything, links Mia with the other female characters, Fabienne and Esmarelda Villalobos. It is of course ‘oral pleasure’ that Fabienne demands of Butch, a request with which he complies on condition that she ‘kiss it’ in return (101). This exchange establishes a certain mutuality to their relationship, but further, in the context of Tarantino’s scirpts thus far, it frames that mutuality within a clearly defined ethic of romantic sexual conduct.

This ethic is more fully elaborated in the second scene [excised from the Tony Scott film] of True Romance where the importance of providing the woman with oral service is forcefully debated, along with its history and its implications for race. Appropriately enough, the question is discussed by three pimps. Drexl, the white wannabe black man, and Big D are explaining the law to Floyd.


Shit, any nigger say he don’t eat pussy is lyin’ his ass off.


I heard that.


Hold on a second, Big D. You sayin’ you eat pussy?


Nigger, I eat everything. I eat the pussy. I eat the butt. I eat every motherfuckin’ thang.


Preach on, Big D. (Tarantino, 1995b: 8)

For Floyd, the very idea is humiliating, shameful, and, moreover, an indication of the moral degeneration inflicted on black men by the dominant white, pussy-eating ideology of America, bringing oppression into every sphere. Floyd continues,

There used to be a time when sisters didn’t know shit about gettin’ their pussy licked. Then the sixties came an’ they started fuckin’ around with white boys. And white boys are freaks for that shit ... Then, after a while sisters get used to gettin’ their little pussy eat. And because you white boys had to make pigs of yourselves, you fucked it up for every nigger in the world everywhere ... Now if a nigger wants to get his dick sucked he’s got to do a bunch of fucked-up shit. (1995b: 8-9)

Given Drexl’s evangelical acclamation – ‘preach on’ – to Big D, and Floyd’s gloss on the racial history of pussy consumption, it is possible to give a Tarantinian interpretation of ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ that makes sense of its emphasis on orality and erotic moral instruction. It is clearly the song, conveyed by the sixties’ premier white soul singer, of a young black woman’s initiation, by a white boy, into the delights of oral pleasure: ‘The only one who could ever reach me / was the son of a preacherman / The only boy who could ever teach me /was a sweet lovin’, / sweet talkin’ / son of a preacherman’. While the endless consumption of dicks in ‘Like a Virgin’ testifies to the jouissance demanded by the Other-as-great-fucker (‘Big D’), the oral adoration given to what Jules in Pulp Fiction calls ‘the holiest of holies’ (Tarantino, 1994b: 20), while it confirms the castrating power of the father, sacralises the law of the Other as female, subjecting the father to the general imperative of consumption.

It is a law that has, moreover, become internalised as the quintessentially American superegoic, moral imperative to consume and enjoy for the Other at the expense of one’s own pleasure or that of one’s partner. The law is of course the same for oral consumption in general. While it is Fabienne who, with her breakfast order of ‘a big plate of blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, eggs over easy and five sausages ... a tall glass of orange and a black cup of coffee ... [and] a slice of blueberry pie to go with the pancakes. And on top, a thin slice of melted cheese’ sets the incredible standard demanded by the Other (1994b: 108-9), edible consumer products are frequently cited and – with Jules’s objection to pork excepted – universally and unreservedly affirmed: ‘Uuummmm, that’s a tasty burger’ (26), ‘Uuuuummmm, hits the spot!’ (27), ‘Goddamn! That’s a pretty fuckin’ good milkshake’ (58), ‘Goddamn Jimmie, this is some serious gourmet shit’ (146). Repeated utterances such as these underscore the importance of giving and affirming the oral pleasure of American ideology.

From Fred Botting and Scott Wilson, The Tarantinian Ethics (Sage, 2001).