Posts Tagged ‘Pulp Fiction


When Weeds Went Tarantino

I’ve been binge-watching the Showtime series Weeds over the past few years. I’m up to season six of this bizarre yet entertaining show about Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker in a Golden Globe-winning performance), a widow who becomes a drug dealer to keep her family afloat. Spoiler alert: The show’s sixth season finds Nancy, her two teenage sons (Silas and Shane), and her brother-in-law (Andy) on the run after Shane has killed the publicist of Nancy’s drug-kingpin husband, Esteban. This season’s criminal plot element and this particular episode (“A Shoe for a Shoe”) have underscored some interesting (possibly intentional?) connections with director Quentin Tarantino.

In an act of retaliation, Shane has been kidnapped by Esteban’s henchmen. In an effort to find Shane, Nancy shoots one of the henchmen, Cesar, with a crossbow in a skee-ball hall of fame museum. In its size and emptiness, the museum resembles the abandoned warehouse in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. In Dogs, criminal Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) ties up and tortures a police officer in the warehouse. Elsewhere in the film, criminals Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) hold guns on each other. Keitel is standing up, while Buscemi is lying down; this is the same formation as Nancy (standing with a weapon) and Cesar (lying down but without a weapon).

Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs

Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs

The Weeds director, Michael Trim, also seems to mirror Reservoir Dog’s famous truck shot, in which we see three of the criminals open a car trunk from the point of view of the cop inside the trunk. Tarantino, who proudly and frequently borrows from other films, also uses trunk shots in his work, including in Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds. In the Weeds episode, we see Nancy open her trunk from the point of view of the crossbow she has stored in there. These trunk shot also seem to pay homage to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and has become pretty standard in other films and television shows, including Breaking Bad’s final season.

The trunk shot from Reservoir Dogs

The trunk shot from Reservoir Dogs

Much of the episode takes place in a diner, another consistent setting throughout many of Tarantino’s films.

The Weeds episode even has a reference to its fellow Showtime series, Dexter, when Silas talks about becoming “a serial killer who kills serial killers.”


Doubt: A McGuffin in an Unlikely Place

Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt

Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt

“It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’, and the other answers, ‘Oh, that’s a McGuffin.’ The first one asks, ‘What’s a McGuffin?’ ‘Well,’ the other man says, ‘it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers, ‘Well, then that’s no McGuffin!’ So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.”

And so, during a 1966 interview with French director Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock explained just what a McGuffin (sometimes spelled “MacGuffin”) is. In other words, it’s something, usually a physical object, that seems at first glance to be important to a film’s plot but is really just a pretense for the wider themes and character relationships.

Of course, Hitchcock’s films are rife with McGuffins. For example, in North by Northwest, everyone wants a statue that contains microfilm (what’s on the microfilm, we never find out). The Lady Vanishes’ McGuffin is a secret code embedded in a musical tune, while uranium in wine bottles is on everyone’s mind in Notorious.

McGuffins also appear outside the Hitchcock universe. What other purpose does the sled in Citizen Kane or the suitcase in Pulp Fiction serve?

But sometimes, the McGuffin isn’t an object at all, which is what I considered as I watched the film Doubt for the second time a couple of weeks ago. To give a very rough sketch of Doubt (the movie is similar to the play but on a larger scale), a very strict, disciplined nun (Meryl Streep) believes that a progressive, humane priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has sexually abused one of his male students.

While watching Doubt on stage and then the movie for the first time, my mind was jumping back and forth between “did he” or “didn’t he” as each new development arose. By the end, I didn’t know which way to think.

On my second viewing of the film, I had come to my own 95%-certain conclusion about the priest’s guilt or innocence (which might have been influenced by the fact that Hoffman, an actor I like, played the priest). However, does it really matter what I thought, or what other audience members thought? (However, Doubt playwright/screenwriter/director John Patrick Shanley did tell Hoffman and his New York stage counterpart the truth.) What does matter is the how the McGuffin brings up themes as well as character nuances and interactions in the midst of the situation at hand.

Or maybe as Hitchcock said, “It’s only a movie.”

Thanks to the members of my DVD discussion group (within a larger Charlottesville movie meetup group) for helping spark ideas for this post during our recent discussion of Doubt.