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).