Walk the Earth vs. Eat My Fuck
Travis Mackenzie Hoover on The Doom Generation and Pulp Fiction
It would seem at this late date that an evisceration of Pulp Fiction would be entirely redundant. A hate-on for Tarantino is pretty much the secret handshake of any â€śresponsibleâ€ť critic, and those who would take up his banner are generally fanboys who sit far away from the cutting edge of discourse. Similarly, it would seem that praising The Doom Generation would be depressingly futile: vilified upon its release (when it was absurdly lumped in with Tarantino) and largely ignored by anyone beyond a small cult, it remains at best a film maudit for hair-splitting cineastes and Rose McGowan fanatics. But these two filmsâ€”made within a year of each other and speaking to many of the same issues of marginality and youthful wanderlustâ€”tell the story of a generation, its preoccupations, and its inevitable failure to achieve political efficacy. The story, that is, of what happens when you identify a problem and have no intention of acting on it.
A little background is in order. The early nineties were fabled (at least for a certain age bracket) for their adherence to both poverty and â€śindependence.â€ť That is, the once-cozy white middle-class children of the Eighties suddenly found themselves out in the cold: the economy was in a downturn, youth unemployment had skyrocketed, and the once-radical baby boomers were hogging the jobs so desperately coveted by Generation X. The miasma of failure was impossible to ignore, and the John Hughes generation found itself mired in something resembling disenfranchisement. But it was torn. On the one hand, it had to embrace the spare surroundings in which it found itself: it couldnâ€™t very well deny its downward mobility and the trappings that went along with such a nosedive. But it also couldnâ€™t wrench itself from the lost paradise of its youth, when it didnâ€™t have to worry about economics, and so it did the obvious thing: it hedged its bets.
The opening volleys were fired in 1991, when Douglas Couplandâ€™s Generation X and Nirvanaâ€™s Nevermind established the climate of indie-but-not with near-beer versions of genuine cultural resistance. The example of Nirvana is crucial: widely hailed for its melding of melodic rock and punk, it was never pointed out that the two concepts were previously considered completely irreconcilable. The revolutionary embrace of Nevermind was about gentrifying the lunatic fringe for the consumption of people who would have never considered it at an earlier date: itâ€™s punk, but itâ€™s nice, and several million units later a cultural groundswell was born. It took the moviesâ€”a sluggish medium late to absorb new currentsâ€”till 1994 to find its own indie savior, but the video success of 1992â€™s Reservoir Dogs paved the way for Pulp Fictionâ€™s rendezvous with the zeitgeist and escape into legend. And it, too, tried to straddle the line: it offered antisocial violence dressed up with the pop of its Seventies childhood, ferocious and pacified at the same time.
For all of its temporal shifts and plays at sophistication, the basic emotional structure of Pulp Fiction is pure Syd Field. There is an opening thesis in the form of Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) and Pumpkin (Tim Roth) offering a rationale for robbing a coffee shop; a genuine statement of principles in Vincent and Jules (Travolta and Jackson) wreaking vengeance on an apartment full of errant slackers; three acts of near-miss disasters full of suspense and tension; and a final climax in which something, in the form of Julesâ€™s command of the coffee-shop robbery, ratchets things up to totality. The dime-store Resnais time-shifting is more sensual than intellectual, a structural slap to the head that says much and means nothing; and its intertextual shenanigans are nothing more than the Nirvana-ish reach into the safe past in order to decorate the basement apartments of the bleak present.
All of this is part of critical record. Nevertheless, I was shocked in 1994 to find a movie cogent enough to link the fictional poverty of crime fiction and the real poverty of Generation X. Tarantino may have been sadly unconscious, but his instincts were prime, and his conflation of the menial hit-manning of Vincent and Jules and the menial McJobbing of the former middle class adds up to something more than a fluke. When Jules announces at the end of the film that he will â€śwalk the earthâ€ť â€”that is, walk out of the narrative in which he is a mere cogâ€”he is voicing the wishes and frustrations of legions of people who felt similarly inclined in their dead-end jobs and apparently bleak futures. Pulp Fiction, with its adherence to people away from the center, dying to get in, finally decides that the system is futile and blows it off for a monastic life that rejects such values. The question is, what is the use of such a gesture in a concrete sense?
The answer comes in the form of Gregg Araki, and his widely belittled The Doom Generation. His filmâ€™s similarities to the Tarantino epic are notable: an adherence to hyperreality, a dialectical relationship to Godard, an interest in margins both social and narrative, a desire to speak reams of obscenity, and an attraction/repulsion for girls with Bettie Page haircuts. But The Doom Generation takes a different tack to the issues that Pulp Fiction raises. It more or less begins where Tarantinoâ€™s film ends: with someone, by the name of Xavier Red (Jonathan Schaech) who has chosen to â€śwalk the earth.â€ť Clearly, it hasnâ€™t gotten him far: when we first meet him, heâ€™s being chased by a gang of thugs calling him â€ścocksuckerâ€ť and threatening to kill him. By jumping into the car of goth teenagers Amy Blue (McGowan) and Jordan White (James Duval), he taints them with his outsidership, and after saving them from a murderous convenience store clerk, is with them on a run for their lives.
It becomes obvious that in this case, â€śwalking the earthâ€ť is less a conscious choice than the mark of Cain. The calls of â€ścocksuckerâ€ť establish Xavier as a sexual outlaw, a matter intensified by the inchoate puppy-love he inspires in Jordan. Nothing is spelled out of course, and the survival of the trio is largely dependant on how long they can keep the gay secret under wraps. Most of the rest of the movie is close calls: wherever they stop, Amy is mistaken by someone for their long-lost lover, meaning another shootout and another flight to the road. Though they manage to survive, itâ€™s just barely, and when a three-way turns into a gay come-on between Xavier and Jordan, the hammer falls, and three fascistic bullies commit rape and murder Jordan. The penultimate shot is of a shell-shocked Amy driving with a blithe Xavier pretending nothing has happened. They drive, but the horror is still around them; nothing has been solved by their flight.
So â€śwalk the earthâ€ť turns out to be one more of Tarantinoâ€™s ethnic-cultural transvestite moments. Appropriating the holiness of people with nothing to lose, he allows his â€śbad motherfuckerâ€ť to escape into an alternate universe where abjection is bliss and the social context can be wished awayâ€”a trick real people can hardly be expected to achieve. But itâ€™s all about comfort. Strip away the terrible violence of Pulp Fiction and youâ€™ll find three deus ex machinas: in the first, Vincent takes out bossâ€™s wife Mia (Uma Thurman) and experiences sexual tension, which is scotched by Miaâ€™s accidental ingestion of heroin, and Vincentâ€™s rescue (and metaphorical penetration) by adrenaline shot. In the second, boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) defies and is pursued by that boss, Marcellus (Ving Rhames): the issue is rendered moot by their kidnapping by gay rapists whom Butch handily dispatches. Finally, Vincent and Jules wind up with a â€śdead nigger,â€ť a crisis averted by the incursion of Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel). Tarantinoâ€™s film is all about leading up to consummation and then pulling away.
The Doom Generation, meanwhile, is nothing but consummation. Itâ€™s a series of astoundingly brazen sexual encounters and appallingly gory violent episodes; people donâ€™t contemplate danger and turn away, they commit to it and dive in. And often, they donâ€™t even ask for itâ€”it just happens. The point is not about chairs descending from heaven to spirit heroes away from danger or offering doors from which they can escape: there are actions that cannot be taken back, and an amorphous landscape that surrounds and attacks. The film is about a failed escape, where people drive around avoiding their problems and being punished once they let their guard down; the ending of the film, in which exposing homosexuality results in castration and death, says it all for those who would wear the pseudo-political hairshirts of the non-outsider. That the bloody death happens to the â€śStar Spangled Bannerâ€ť and the Pledge of Allegiance establishes the truth about those who are really outside: you are never really outside, youâ€™re surrounded. You can run, but you canâ€™t hide.
The Doom Generation evokes the Nineties in another crucial sense. The film can be read as a search for a movement that doesnâ€™t existâ€”a pocket of resistance, or at least, like-minded individuals with whom you could feel less alone. And in the post-political final decade of the twentieth century, your chances of finding that are just about nil. To be sure, the escape that the heroes seek is not so different from the ones that the caricatures of Pulp Fiction have dropped in their laps, and the cross-country drive as a rejection of responsibility reflects that of most of Tarantinoâ€™s creations. But the conclusion they reach is that they are utterly useless without numbers. And while they are right to feel their alienation and loathing for society, itâ€™s some cold comfort when nobodyâ€”not even members of their generationâ€”is offering any genuine support. You find yourself atomized, isolated, and in the end forgotten.
Itâ€™s crucial that the very artificiality and name-brand recognition Tarantino celebrates is depicted by Araki as a festering sore. Pulp Fiction is about the comfort of the trademark, from Kahuna Burgers to the fabled Royale with Cheese and the iconographic dress-up in movie drag. Itâ€™s a film that eliminates the natural world without realizing what itâ€™s losing, that prefers the prefab and the spurious to the genuine and the emotional. The Doom Generation is similarly obsessed with such signs and surfaces, but makes them ugly, garish and hostile. A Warholian Brillo-pad ambiance pervades the film, but without the masterâ€™s celebration: America is a ruined landscape of convenience stores and ugly motels, its culture a mass of bad television and screaming billboards that sell religion or booze as if they were the same thing. The landscape itself wants to kill youâ€”another hostile element in the Beckett nightmare in which the protagonists find themselves trapped.
The spurious pose is so crucial to Tarantino that it pervades even his dialogue. All of his show-stopping exchanges are people getting high on the idea of the mechanics of speech while lacing it with spikes of cursingâ€”pretending that the strategic use of the word â€śfuckâ€ť (or more importantly, â€śniggerâ€ť) makes the word mean more than the hostile gesture it actually constitutes. The puerile power trip of the dirty word (satisfying though it often is) is offered as something other than an attack and a schoolboy prank. Araki has no such illusions. The first word spoken in the film is the fabled F-word, and the rest of the dialogue is inelegant, brutal, and genuinely unpleasant. And more importantly, fruitless: unlike in Pulp Fiction, The Doom Generationâ€™s heroes are not empowered by their use of profanity. The constant stream of expletives only serves to show how powerless they areâ€”even their words fail to resonate, no matter how hard they try to make an impression.
And making an impression was the number-one millstone around white-middle-class Xâ€™s neck. The powerlessness of this lost generation was generally blamed (with some justice) on the job market and Boomer intransigence, but whatâ€™s important to remember is that nobody even tried to resist the powers that be. Given the challenge of organizing against its known oppressors, it failed completely to fight backâ€” the key lying in the flip-flopping element of its own culture. Pulp Fiction is a movie that hides in nostalgia and poses (not so different from the parents X heartily despised); it had the cool moves to cover the fact that it had no ideas, though it was happy to show you its rebel cred to let you know that it was a hard-bitten cynic. The Doom Generation, meanwhile, called this bluff early and often, showing that attitude and a show of poverty prove completely ineffective in dealing with the real and frightening problems of political life. And the juxtaposition of the two depressingly evokes a moment in time when trends shifted to the point where a generation of outcasts couldnâ€™t even imagine themselves resisting instead of watching television and dreaming of walking the earth instead of being ground into it.