William Faulkner and Quentin Tarantino:
The Theme of the Absence of Paternal Authority

OHCHI Shinsuke

     The relationship between William Faulkner and cinema has been researched only in terms of his task of writing scenarios in Hollywood or the adaptations from his novels to films, but I think that his novels also have a close relation to the films of Quentin Tarantino, one of the most eminent filmmakers in the world today.
     Tarantino, who was born in Tennessee in 1963 and quit high school in Los Angeles in 1979, made his debut as a director-screenwriter with Reservoir Dogs and created great sensations at various film festivals around the world in 1992. His other two screenplays, True Romance and Natural Born Killers, were filmed by Tony Scott in 1993 and by Oliver Stone in 1994 respectively and both of the films were great successes. Pulp Fiction, which Tarantino wrote and directed in 1994, was a record-breaking hit and won a large number of major awards including the British Academy Award, the Golden Globe Award, the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and the Palme d'Or at the Cannes International Film Festival. He co-directed Four Rooms, an anthology of four short films, with three brilliant filmmakers in 1995 and his screenplay From Dusk Till Dawn was filmed by Robert Rodriguez in 1996. The next year Tarantino made Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch (1992) into the film titled Jackie Brown, which brought Samuel L. Jackson, its leading actor, the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. Tarantino's films have been constantly imitated, and it is no exaggeration to say that he hogs the limelight in filmdom now (Andrew 313).
     Tarantino may seem to have nothing to do with Faulkner, who died the year before his birth, but in reality they have many connections. One of them is Tarantino's first name Quentin. His mother Connie explains how she named her son: "I wanted a more formal name than Quint [the name of a character in TV series Gunsmoke], and then I was reading a Faulkner book, The Sound and the Fury. The heroine's name was Quentin, so I decided that my child was going to be named Quentin whether it was a male or female" (Dawson 17). The Sound and the Fury has two characters named Quentin, Quentin Compson the Third and his niece Miss Quentin Compson. It is curious that Connie named her own son after Quentin the Third and Miss Quentin, who both suffer cruel fates, though Tarantino was brought up in circumstances that were quite similar to Miss Quentin's. Both Tarantino's and Miss Quentin's mothers, beautiful Southern women, married in their teens and divorced their husbands soon after they became pregnant. Neither Tarantino nor Miss Quentin met their natural fathers. 1
     Tarantino's first name was, as we have seen, derived from a Faulkner novel. It is not clear how many novels of his Tarantino has read, but numerous characteristics of Faulkner's novels can be found in the films of Tarantino, who states, "I guess what I'm always trying to do is use the structures that I see in novels and apply them to cinema" (Woods, King 64).
     At present, there are only two articles that mention any connection between Faulkner and Tarantino other than the name Quentin. The first is a Catherine Gunther Kodat article which points out that one of the heroes in Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction is obsessed with a watch inherited from his grandfather, the same as Quentin the Third is in The Sound and the Fury. The second is a Daisuke Onizuka article which comments: "The young man acted by Richard Gere in Breathless, which Tarantino extols, has read one of Faulkner's novels. Tarantino's films have the fragmentation of time in a story and the vivid description of violence, which are characteristics of Faulkner's novels. And Tarantino relates his works to each other like Faulkner; e.g., the man played by Travolta in Pulp Fiction and the one played by Madsen in Reservoir Dogs are brothers" (29). Although it is, correctly speaking, not the hero acted by Gere in the film Breathless but the heroine who "has read one of Faulkner's novels," Tarantino's extolment of the film is nevertheless another connection with Faulkner. I will discuss "the fragmentation of time in a story" later. As to "the vivid description of violence," I would like to draw attention to Drexl Spivey, the murderer in Tarantino's film True Romance. Drexl seems to be a white man but he lives with a black man, speaks Black English, and wears Black clothes with a Black hairstyle. This racially unidentified murderer is shot dead in the genitals, which reminds us of the very peculiar story where the murderer Joe Christmas in Faulkner's Light in August, whose race is ambiguous, is killed by mutilation of his genitals.
     Onizuka comments, "Tarantino relates his works to each other like Faulkner," and gives an example of the brotherhood of Vincent Vega played by John Travolta in Pulp Fiction and Vic Vega by Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs. There are several other examples: Mr White in Reservoir Dogs refers to Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction and Alabama Whitman in True Romance (Tarantino, Reservoir 28-33); Bonnie, the wife of Jimmy Dimmick in Pulp Fiction, knows Nice Guy Eddie in Reservoir Dogs and Elliot Blitzer in True Romance (Barnes 28). Every work that Tarantino wrote or directed, except From Dusk Till Dawn, is mainly set in Los Angeles, where he grew up, and he especially takes the trouble to set Jackie Brown in Los Angeles, not Miami, where the original story by Elmore Leonard is set.2 And Tarantino gives conspicuously fictitious elements to Los Angeles in his films; e.g., the fast-food chain store Teriyaki Donut, which Marsellus in Pulp Fiction and Jackie the heroine in Jackie Brown visit is altogether imaginary. Tarantino, who sets his films in his hometown Los Angeles and refers to a character of one film in another, explains that the characters all live in one "universe" (Peary 108). It recalls that Faulkner sets his novels in the fictitious "cosmos" (Meriwether 255) called Yoknapatawpha, which is based on his native place and refers to a character of one novel in another. This seems to me to suggest the continuity from Faulkner's novels to Tarantino's films.
     Another characteristic of Tarantino's films is the obsession about black people; e.g., the heroine in Jackie Brown is a black woman in spite of the one in the original by Elmore Leonard being a white woman, and Tarantino changes her name from Jackie Burke to Jackie 'Brown' and the title from Rum Punch to Jackie Brown. He also fills the film with Black music and casts Pam Grier, who was a star of Blaxploitation films, for the part of Jackie. Tarantino accounts for the casting: "This film is for those who can hardly become models for main characters in a film. There is no film whose protagonist is a black woman in her forties. It is very deplorable. Actually, it is a black woman in her forties or fifties whom I have respected and adored most in my life. They are wonderful people. I wanted to make a film whose heroine is such a woman" (Inada 52). This remark by Tarantino sounds similar to a remark by Faulkner. He states that the character in his novel that he most respects is the elderly black woman Dilsey, who is one of the main characters in The Sound and the Fury and is modeled on his nurse (Meriwether 244-45). In conception Jackie Brown is very much analogous with The Sound and the Fury, which has the elderly black woman whom its writer most respects as one of its protagonists and depicts 'those who can hardly become models for main characters in a novel.'
     Faulkner and Tarantino also share the technique of fragmenting the time and space in a story. It is often mentioned that Faulkner's novels fragment the time and space in a story, and The Sound and the Fury is an example of such a novel. With regard to the fragmentation of time of a story in The Sound and the Fury, chronological sequence is broken in the first chapter told from Benjy's point of view and the first three chapters are not chronologically arranged. Almost every novel was, before James Joyce, Faulkner, and other early 20th century novelists, traditionally written in a third-person narrator's point of view or first-person narrator's and thus the space in its story was unitary. The first three chapters of The Sound and the Fury are three interior monologues of its three characters and only its final chapter is told from an omniscient narrator's point of view and thus the space of its story is considerably fragmented. Faulkner refines this fragmentation in his next novel As I Lay Dying, which removes an omniscient narrator's point of view and consists of 59 interior monologues of fifteen characters. The technique of fragmenting time in a story is used not only in novels but also in films; e.g., chronological sequence is deconstructed in Sergio Leone's film Once Upon a Time in America (1984). The fragmentation of the space in a story is that of the point of view, and the point of view in films is a little different from that in novels. If The Sound and the Fury is made into a film faithful to the original, not Jason's face but only what he sees may be shown on screen in the chapter of his interior monologue. Such a technique of subjective camera, however, "should not be employed at too great a length" (Konigsberg 400).3 Consequently, the film adaptation of the chapter of Jason's interior monologue shows not merely what he sees but also Jason himself: in the film, the chapter of his monologue is the story focusing on him, and so the first chapter of the film is the story of Benjy, the second is Quentin's, and the third is Jason's. In other words, the film where the space in a story is fragmented is one that is composed of plural stories each of which has an individual protagonist. Of course the film where space in a story is fragmented is not an anthology film, a collection of short films, but a film intertwining several stories each of which has a different protagonist like Robert Altman's Nashville (1975). Hence, Tarantino's masterpiece Pulp Fiction, which also interweaves three stories each of which has a different hero, is a film where space in a story is fragmented.
     Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury is an epoch-making novel because it fragments both the space and time in a story. Tarantino's Pulp Fiction too, where its three stories are not chronologically arranged, fragments the time in story as well as space. In short, Tarantino, who states, "What I'm always trying to do is use the structures that I see in novels and apply them to cinema," uses the structures in Faulkner's novels, which fragment the time and space of a story.
     It should be noted, however, that Tarantino's Pulp Fiction does not repeat Faulkner's technique but postmodernizes it completely. In The Sound and the Fury, chronological sequence is thoroughly deconstructed in Benjy's chapter and the first three chapters are not chronologically arranged, but the final chapter is the episode that occurs last in the story, and thus the novel as a whole does not break chronological sequence altogether. In Pulp Fiction, the opening scene is not the episode that occurs first in the story and the closing scene is not the last episode, and thereby the entire film deviates from chronological order drastically. This means that the time in the story is decentered or deconstructed exhaustively. In regard to the fragmentation of space of a story in The Sound and the Fury, the first three chapters are three interior monologues of three characters but the fourth chapter is an omniscient narration, which is, needless to say, not on the same level as an interior monologue, and so the space in the story is not entirely deconstructed or decentered. Pulp Fiction consists of three stories each of which has an individual hero, and thereby the space in the story is fully decentered. Pulp Fiction, which decenters the time and space in a story, is a landmark film in the history of cinema. Tarantino, who makes good use of extracts from high or low culture, is generally regarded as a representative of postmodern filmmakers (Hayward 278-79), and his 'decentering' of the time and space in a story is very postmodern too.
     Tarantino makes use of not only Faulkner's technique but also his theme. Tarantino's critics have examined an individual theme of each of his films but not yet one common to all of them. The seven works that Tarantino wrote or directed are surely full of variety, but I think that they share one common theme. It is often pointed out that a main theme of Faulkner's novels is the absence of fatherhood or the loss of paternal authority, which is also the theme common to all of Tarantino's films.
     In Tarantino's maiden work Reservoir Dogs, Joe Cabot, both Nice Guy Eddie's father and the 'godfather' of a gang, cannot, until the gang is nearly annihilated, unmask an undercover agent and is shot dead by his own unbelieving henchman, emphasizing the loss of his paternal authority. In Tarantino's next work True Romance, the hero Clarence Worley's father Clifford is tortured to death by the Mafia that pursue Clarence. Although his father never tells them his destination, he is murdered after all, and so his father's death is meaningless, underlining his father's weakness or absence.4 The father of Mallory, the heroine in Natural Born Killers, abuses her sexually and is killed by her sweetheart Mickey Knox, and Mickey's mother is unfaithful to his father, and thereby the film also portrays the theme of the absence of fatherhood or paternal authority. The father of Butch Coolidge, one of the heroes in Pulp Fiction, is taken prisoner in the Vietnam War after inheriting a watch that his own father, who perished in World War II, used to carry as a lucky charm, and dies of dysentery as a result of concealing the supposed lucky charm in his anus for five years. Marsellus Wallace, the 'godfather' of a gang in the film, has a big Band-Aid on the back of his head, which makes him look stupid, and is raped by a homosexual policeman after neatly betrayed by Butch. It is obvious that paternal authority is absent in Pulp Fiction as well.
     We can leave out Tarantino's next film Four Rooms because it is an anthology film by four directors and he made it unwillingly (Woods, Quentin 92, 94), but if I dare to look for a paternal figure in the film, it would be Sam, the old man appearing in the opening scene. The opening scene based on Tarantino's screenplay was eliminated in Japan but was properly retained in the first version in the United States. Sam, the last employee that has been working at a time-honored hotel since it was established, retires from it one New Year's Eve. He then hands over his bellhop cap, which he has worn for fifty years, to Ted, who succeeds him that night. It is possible to read succession from father to son into this artificial story. The synopsis of Four Rooms is that although Sam advises Ted, "Stay away from night clerks, kids, hookers, and marital disputes. Never have sex with the clientele" (Tarantino, Four 4), Ted acts contrary to his advice, and so there is no representation of paternal authority in the film either. Jacob Fuller in From Dusk Till Dawn, who involuntarily sends his son to death as a result of resigning as a priest and going to Mexico in spite of his daughter's opposition, is another weak father. Ordell Robbie, the 'godfather' of a gang in Jackie Brown, is betrayed by all his followers. In Jackie Brown the casting also stresses the theme of loss of paternal authority. Tarantino's casting Robert De Niro, one of the greatest actors in the world, for the part of Louis, an absolutely worthless man, gave people a lot to talk about when Jackie Brown was released, and there is a special implication in this casting. The combination of De Niro and a gangster film, which Jackie Brown is, alludes to his role as the godfather Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II (1974), which brought him recognition and remains as his masterpiece. This allusion is corroborated by Tarantino's casting Bridget Fonda, who won popularity by appearing in The Godfather Part III (1990), as Ordell's mistress Melanie. The scene where De Niro has intercourse with Fonda in Jackie Brown reminds us of the one where Vito's grandson Vincent Corleone makes love with a newspaper reporter acted by Fonda in The Godfather Part III. In brief, the casting of De Niro and Fonda links his Louis with Vito Corleone, and even the style of Louis with mustache and hair combed straight back is none other than Vito's trademark. The gap between Vito, the 'Godfather,' i.e., the incarnation of paternal authority, and Louis, a good-for-nothing, lays more emphasis on the theme of loss of paternal authority.5 The theme common to all of Tarantino's films is, as we have seen, the absence of fatherhood or the loss of paternal authority, which is a main theme of Faulkner's novels.
     Tarantino's masterpiece Pulp Fiction, as I observed earlier, employs the technique of fragmenting time and space in a story, and this technique has much to do with the theme of the absence of fatherhood or the loss of paternal authority. According to Wesley Morris's Reading Faulkner, Faulkner's novels have the theme of loss of paternal authority and thus their narrative structures cannot help lacking patriarchal authority, i.e., the repressive, governing 'stalk' (84-86, 140-42). This remark is applicable to Tarantino's films: his technique of decentering the time or space in a story, namely, that of extinguishing the 'stalk' of the time or space, is closely related to the theme of loss of paternal authority.
     I would like to make a further examination of the close relationship between Tarantino's technique and theme. Tarantino, as stated above, completely postmodernizes Faulkner's technique fragmenting time and space in a story, and he altogether postmodernizes Faulkner's theme of absence of paternal authority likewise. Whereas the loss of fatherhood or the absence of paternal authority is tragic in Faulkner's novels, it is not merely tragic but also comic in Tarantino's films. For example, the father of Butch in Pulp Fiction is taken prisoner in the Vietnam War after inheriting a watch that his own father, who perished in World War II, used to carry as a lucky charm, and dies of dysentery as a result of concealing the supposed lucky charm in his anus for five years, and his fellow soldier conceals the charm in his anus for two more years, handing it over to Butch. This episode travesties succession from father to son. The 'godfather' Marsellus in the film is raped by a homosexual policeman, i.e., subjected to the deepest humiliation for a man, and so patriarchy, which gangster films conventionally involve, is turned into jest. Tarantino, as has been noted, does not repeat but thoroughly postmodernizes Faulkner's theme of absence of paternal authority too. The subtle difference between the attitudes of Faulkner and Tarantino toward the absence of fatherhood or the loss of paternal authority may come from their different backgrounds: while Faulkner had a weak father (Minter 5-9), Tarantino has never even met his father. Furthermore, the difference in their attitudes may reflect the change of American society: the patriarchy began to weaken in Faulkner's time and has disintegrated considerably in Tarantino's, when single motherhood is not uncommon.
     I have shown that Tarantino's films, crossing the boundary between cinema and literature, apply the technique and theme of Faulkner's novels. The successors to Faulkner are not only the postmodern novelists such as Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, and Kenji Nakagami but also the postmodern filmmaker Tarantino.


* An earlier version of this paper was presented to the 40th Annual Conference of the American Literature Society of Japan held at Iwate Prefectural University on October 13, 2001.

1 For further information about Tarantino's childhood, see his biography written by Jami Bernard (5-10).
2 The site of the jail that the climax of Natural Born Killers is set in is not shown in Oliver Stone's film, but it is set in "LOS ANGELES COUNTY JAIL" in Tarantino's screenplay (Tarantino, Natural 69).
3 One of the extremely unusual films shot almost entirely using the subjective camera technique is Lady in the Lake (1946), into which Robert Montgomery made Raymond Chandler's first-person novel The Lady in the Lake (1943). This film is generally considered a failure, for the constant use of subjective camera prevents Montgomery from showing the hero's action adequately, and from representing the motion of the hero's glances naturally (Konigsberg 299; Monaco 384).
4 Tony Scott, the director of True Romance, dared to make Clarence survive after the last gunfight in order for the film to have a happy ending, but Tarantino believes that this change is unacceptable. (Peary 56-57).
5 Tarantino plans to publish his maiden novel Kill Bill in the spring of 2003 and release the film based on it in October of the same year. Kill Bill is a story where the heroine, who belonged to a hit squad, carries out vengeance on its 'godfather' Bill (Schmitz), portraying the theme of the loss of paternal authority again.


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Copyright (c)2003 Ohchi Shinsuke