Thursday, July 30, 2009

Pulp Fiction analysis - part 11: Exploration of the gold watch scene


Previously in the analysis, we have discussed the similarity of Butch to the character Caine from the 1970's TV series Kung Fu, and Butch's experience of attaining enlightenment (in the Buddhist sense) just prior to his last fight, upon awakening from his flashback to the handing down of the gold watch to him by Captain Koons. There is an interesting passage in a certain book about the Kung Fu series, which has relationship to Pulp Fiction, and in particular, to Butch. (The book is The Kung Fu Book of Caine by Herbie Pilato). The passage reads as follows:

"[T]he young [boy] Caine was unformed and questioning. He was frequently puzzled by what he was told. [Series writer and producer] John Furia explains that the young Caine was used to reflect the audience's possible puzzlement about what was going on in the foreground story. The origin of the puzzle would be explained in a flashback in which one of the [Shaolin temple] masters would say something to the young Caine. The master's words would resonate with the young Caine and, it was hoped, the audience."[a]

The above passage can be applied to Butch in Pulp Fiction. As shown in the screencap at left, Butch looks somewhat confused or mystified while Koons is speaking to him. We could say: The young boy, Butch, is puzzled by what he is told. Butch's puzzlement reflects our own puzzlement about what is going on in Pulp Fiction (we are confused about some of the events of the movie due to Tarantino's 'skewing' of time, i.e., to the showing of certain events out of chronological order). The origin of the puzzle is being explained in the flashback - the whole watch scene is a flashback experienced by the adult Butch. The puzzle, the reason for our confusion about what is going on in the movie, is time. That is why a watch is used in the story.

During the first part of Koons' monologue, the Pulp Fiction audience is shown a view of Koons through Butch's eyes, with Butch's mother visible in the background. Then in a relative instant, the whole perspective shifts: There is a brief transition period during which Koons pauses, and then suddenly it is as if he is now speaking to the movie audience. We no longer see him from Butch's position, but instead he is shown as physically facing mainly toward us. Also, his tone of voice changes from that of someone who is acting, to that of a person speaking frankly. And, the mother is no longer visible to us, our view of her being blocked by Captain Koons' body. Her no longer being visible is to help give the appearance that Koons is now speaking to us.

Above left: Captain Koons speaking to Butch. Note that Butch's mother is visible in the background, over Koons' right shoulder. Above right: Koons speaking to the Pulp Fiction audience. Ultimately, Koons not only hands Butch the watch, but he also 'hands' the watch to the audience, and within this context, the watch takes on additional symbolism. Prior to handing us the watch, Koons explains to us how Butch's father kept it hidden in his rectum while he was a P.O.W. in Vietnam. Metaphorically speaking, the watch is being equated with shit itself. Therefore, when Koons hands us the watch, we are to realize that the source of our puzzlement has been explained to us in terms we can relate to: Second-hand shit has been handed down to us from a previous generation. Here, then, is the source of current society's general puzzlement and confusion.

The watch here represents something that is second-hand, due to the fact that it is not being handed to Butch directly by his father, but instead via Captain Koons, who is not in Butch's patriarchal lineage. When Butch awakens from his flashback of being handed the watch, several decades after having been handed it, his achieving of enlightenment at this point includes his gaining full knowledge of the fact that the segment of society that Koons is a member of, has handed down shit to the next generation. This addresses what was mentioned earlier in the analysis, about there being a problem with the handing of the watch to Butch when he was a boy: When Butch awakens from his flashback, he has achieved full enlightenment, in spite of the lineage issue, in part because Koons nevertheless described the entire history of the watch, including the fact that Koons himself recovered the watch from Butch's father. A way to look at this is that Koons was a kind of impostor, and the obtaining of the watch by Butch had been 'diverted through' Koons, on its way from Butch's father to Butch. During the decades over which Butch cultivated the awakening which he experienced when Koons handed him the watch, his process of gaining wisdom included the gradual realization, that Koons' generation had handed shit to the next one. The full realization of this then became part of his enlightenment experience, upon awakening from the flashback. Later in the analysis, we will determine which generations Koons, and the members of the Pulp Fiction audience, respectively, consist of (i.e., we will determine the birth year ranges they fall into).

a. Pilato, Herbie. The Kung Fu Book of Caine: The Complete Guide to TV's First Mystical Eastern Western. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, 1993. pp. 31-32.


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