Ashland Authors: K. Silem Mohommad
K Silem Mohammad, Kasey around the Southern Oregon University campus — an associate professor of English and writing — is co-editor of a slim volume of critical essays that bounce Quentin Tarantino's movies against selected philosophical ideas.
Movie buffs will relish the discussion of famous film moments — the relationship between the times Vinnie exits for the bathroom in "Pulp Fiction" and his ultimate demise, the sequence in "Jackie Brown" where Jackie pulls a gun and retraces gangster Ordell's progress through her apartment turning on lights that he had just flicked off to show the balance of power has shifted, the fusion of cop and criminal in the bloodbath that ends "Reservoir Dogs." The philosophy buff will appreciate the fact that the essays aren't written in Greek.
MJ: You have co-edited two books in the Popular Culture and Philosophy Series: "The Undead and Philosophy and Quentin Tarantino and Philosophy." How did a literature and creative writing professor gravitate to this series?
KM: My friend Richard Greene, a philosophy professor at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, had already edited a collection on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" for Open Court, and he approached me about being the co-editor for "The Undead." Richard and I have been watching zombie movies and arguing about philosophy for the last quarter century, so it was a natural choice of topic. That one did well, so we pitched the Tarantino idea. I've taught several courses on the horror film, and cinema in general is one of my big loves. I especially share Tarantino's love of the classic crime genre and pulp noir.
MJ: The Tarantino book is subtitled "How to Philosophize with a Pair of Pliers and a Blowtorch." How much of this study is a spoof and how much is serious?
KM: Some of the essays are more light-hearted than others, but I wouldn't say any of them are outright spoofs. What might make it seem that way is the outlandishness of the subject matter, but really, anything can be used as a vehicle for the exploration of philosophical problems and ideas. That said, kidding can be serious business. Sometimes readers are at their most receptive when they've been knocked intellectually off guard by ridiculousness, absurdity or grotesquery. The subtitle is a play on Nietzsche's "How to Philosophize with a Hammer," the alternate title to "Twilight of the Idols." We just superimposed it on the scene in "Pulp Fiction" where a couple of sicko sadists have the tables turned on them and face torture by means of the two instruments mentioned.
MJ: Your essay "I Didn't Know You Liked the Delphonics': Knowledge and Pragmatism in Jackie Brown," deals with how the film viewer and the film characters resolve the uncomfortable ambiguity created by differing perspectives on a particular action. What does the title quote allude to?
KM: The film's antagonist, a murderous gun dealer played by Samuel L. Jackson, says it to the protagonist, a bailbondsman played by Robert Forster. They're riding together in Forster's car toward a volatile confrontation, and Forster sticks the Delphonics in the tape player. Jackson is shocked to learn that Forster shares some of his musical tastes. It's a brief, fragile moment of connection between two natural enemies, brought about by a trivial revelation: one suddenly knows something about the other that he didn't know before, something unexpected that forges a momentary bond, if a weak one. That knowledge serves primarily to cause Jackson to lower his defenses slightly, which isn't in his best interests. Knowledge can be disabling as well as enabling.
MJ: Adults tend to learn only what they pay attention to. Tarantino at his most violent is also the filmmaker at his most riveting; hence the opportunity exists to simultaneously shock and make a trenchant point. But does over-the-top violence obscure other potential messages?
KM: I'm not sure there are other messages to be obscured. The violence and vulgarities tend to be what Tarantino is most interested in, and I think he's interested in them precisely because they demand our attention, both aesthetically and ethically. On the other hand, if you were to ask whether some filmgoers might just get a thrill from the violence, thereby missing any more intellectually ambitious lesson there is to be learned, absolutely. And indulgence in such thrills can weaken already tenuous moral fibers. This is a basic condition of effective art. It's not always pretty, and even when it is pretty, that doesn't necessarily make it good for you.