Gangster Dialectics


The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, and Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead are all examples of what one might loosely call the “gangster movie” genre. They are extremely different in style and scope and yet taken together they represent a series of moments in a dialectical unfolding. The Godfather offers up the power of the abstract universal, the force of all-encompassing destiny forcing the individual life into its mold, whereas in Pulp Fiction the universal moment passes into its opposite – any broader, overarching fate collapses before the caprices and idiosyncrasies of a group of isolated and atomized subjects whose lives are drawn together in the most random and haphazard of ways. This piece will argue how – in classically Hegelian terms – it is Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead which provides the pinnacle of this movement; for in it objective universality and individual subjectivity are brought together in a higher unity; one which hints at a more concrete form of self-determination for the protagonist, and it is the aesthetic evocation of this that lends to the film its most compelling, powerful and tragic aspect.

1972 was a pinnacle year for the crime-cum-gangster movie, in as much as perhaps the biggest and most influential mafia film of all time made its screen debut. The Godfather, based on the novel of the same name by Mario Puzo, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, went on to win a slew of awards including the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. The eponymous lead is played by the lugubrious Marlon Brando in a soft-toned, mumbling performance that marks a chilling and meticulous study in the sinister. The story involves the way in which the Godfather ‘Don’ Vito Corleone’s ‘family’ is propelled into a conflict with another crime syndicate, the Tattaglias, who are looking to expand their business and powerbase by cornering the market in heroin. Eventually, brooding tensions explode as the five most powerful mafia families are pulled into a brutal, bloody civil war.

The film and its much-vaunted sequel are also films about the deep imprint of parenthood, the sins of the father visited upon his sons, and the way in which the next generation struggle to forge their own identities under a weight of patriarchy and tradition. Don Corleone’s male heirs, Sonny, Michael, and Fredo, will all be marked indelibly by their father’s legacy – the implications of which will continue to rip their bonds and their familial life apart.

For all of this, The Godfather has a certain antique charm, both decadent and mythological. Don Corleone himself is something of an elegant anachronism; his soft-toned, belabored speech holds the promise of the old country, the sibilant, sidling whisper of the blood feud and vendetta, an echo from a time defined by age-old tradition and rural hardship. When we are introduced to Don Corleone at the start of the first film, the year is 1945 and the war has just ended. We are perched on the cusp of a new epoch – a modern era that will see a world economic revival, the creation of a global aviation network, the development of the first mass-produced microchips, the proliferation of nuclear technology, and the planting of the first man on the moon.

Nevertheless, the film’s opening gives no indication of any of this. We hear that haunting, timeless theme, the soft rolling drawn-out notes of a single melancholy coronet peeling across the blackness. We are introduced to the godfather in a dimly lit room laden with antique furniture, the light from the window blotted out by dusty, wooden blinds. The setting itself seems impervious to time. Corleone is being visited by a man from the neighborhood, an Italian father whose daughter has been attacked and now seeks recompense. He speaks to the godfather in much the way a villager might once have approached a powerful landowner in 19th century Mezzogiorno, desperate to secure some form of patronage when the forces of an underdeveloped state have proven too corrupt or too inadequate to provide justice. This scene wreaks of intimate desperation and is capped off with sinister, old-world finality when the godfather embraces the man and agrees to his request, but with the ominous, infamous proviso: “Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me.”

The writer and revolutionary Leon Trotsky once described how the past never truly dies, how it lives in the midst of the present in a thousand and one small details:

Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery!

One can’t help but feel that The Godfather draws upon a similar insight. As the godfather makes his pact with the anguished father in that shadowy room, Corleone’s daughter is getting married outside. The women who are gathered at the reception wear old-fashioned dresses, the men dark dour suits, and they dance to village music, clapping and swirling, in much the way they might have done centuries before. Only the motor cars parked outside hint at the presence of modernity. Corleone, then, conducts his business and his life according to the paradigms and customs of the old world which are arranged around blood oaths, honor, personal allegiance, and familial fidelity; this creates a world within a world – the preserved ossified and often brutal forms of a rural past which steal into the gaps of modernity, which operate always from within the shadows.

For this reason, even though is implanted in modern soil, the tale of The Godfather has a distinctly antique flavor that has, in some ways, more in common with the Greek myths of old, than say a modern mafia story in the style of something like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. In his Aesthetics, Hegel contrasts the ancient epic with the more modern drama of the contemporary period. In the modern drama, the great German philosopher observes, the “principle of purely subjective right reins”[1], and the resolution of the drama is increasingly determined by the subjective intentions of the central protagonists. The dramatic hero’s fate is tragic “because he knows that he creates it for himself”.[2]

In the older epic form, however, the subjective intentions of the lead protagonist are nearly always overwhelmed by a broader, overarching and universal destiny. Oedipus does everything he can to avoid sleeping with his mother and murdering his father – and yet he is propelled in these directions by a force of predestination, the inevitable free-flow of a broader and more terrible destiny. The epic tends to predominate in those societies which have an underdeveloped division of labor; where metaphorical destiny has a literal counterpart, in as much as if you are a silversmith, or peasant, or king or slave – it is virtually inevitable that your descendants will occupy the same places in an unchanging social hierarchy which, for centuries, seems to possess all the regularity and permanence of the seasons. Or, in other words, the principle of ‘subjectivity’ remains underdeveloped at the level of socio-historical being itself.

Although The Godfather is set in the modern world of the mid- to late-twentieth century, its central conceit is very much of the ancient epic of old, and involves the process by which the subjective impulse is subsumed under the broader movement of what Hegel would describe as “the abstract universal”. When Michael Corleone returns from the war he wants to pursue a legitimate career, to have nothing to do with the family business. Michael wants to live a more nondescript and principled life, and in this regard, his connection to Katherine “Kay” Adams is important. At the wedding at the start of the film, Kay is introduced as Michael’s girlfriend to his father and their family. But Kay represents more than just a partner. She is a non-Italian, a native of New Hampshire, and the daughter of a Baptist minister. At the wedding, she and Michael sit away from the rest of Michael’s family.

Kay represents Michael’s desire to lead a more modern ‘American’ life and to break with the traditions of the past which nevertheless loom over his existence in a great shadow. Of course, in the event, the weight of the past proves too much, and Michael Corleone’s destiny is warped by its gravity; he is propelled back into the family business when his father is shot. As Michael gets drawn deeper into the criminal underworld, his relationship with the upfront and steadfast Kay is increasingly damaged, and eventually, they split up. But she remains a link to a different path, no matter how tenuous. Michael attempts to reconcile with her, and eventually, they marry and have children. Michael promises her that within several years he will be able to transform his father’s enterprise into something legitimate, he tries to assure her that the man she knew is still there, that they can have a normal life together, but the mechanisms of fate are already at work inexorably and behind the scenes, and when his father passes away, Michael steps into the breach.

Once Michael has become ‘Don’, he graduates seamlessly and easily to the level of ruthless medievalism the role requires. His first act is to coolly and calculatingly wipe out the heads of the other families. When he is accused of orchestrating these murders by a distraught sister-in-law, Kay asks him if this is true. Ardently, softly, Michael promises he is not involved. Later Kay sees Michael receiving his ‘capos’, his lieutenants, with the same muted ceremony, and his eyes are dark, almost hollowed out in the gloom. At this point, both Kay and the viewer obtain the same realization – Michael has committed these crimes, for fate has done its work; the once dashing and heroic soldier has been fully transfigured in his dead father’s own image; the Godfather has been reborn.

The inevitability of fate is also at work in the relationship between Michael and his siblings, especially Fredo. Fredo is an indulged, anemic middle child who lacks the brutality and the courage to make a mark in his father’s world, and a sense of inadequacy drives him into a pattern of escapism and womanizing which makes him a weak link in the criminal chain. With the same, fateful inevitability, Fredo’s burgeoning weakness and vulnerability are brought into collision with Michael’s destiny as Godfather in waiting – and the ruthless prerogatives such a social role entails. Fredo is jealous of Michael because his younger brother has been tipped by their father as the one to eventually lead the family and not himself. Such resentment festers. When Fredo is put under pressure by the police, by other criminals, he eventually agrees to aid a rival outfit against the Corleones in return for some unnamed compensation.

The plot has more in common with the tragic inevitability of Greek myth, the discord between siblings assuming inevitable and murderous dimensions as brother turns against brother. In the second film the pitch-perfect climactic scene occurs when, at a dinner party, Michael embraces his older brother ferociously, delivering what is termed “the kiss of death”, a traditional gesture by which a Mafioso marks another for death. “I know it was you Fredo and it breaks my heart”, rasps Michael in a husky whisper while still embracing his brother. Later, at the behest of another family member, Michael seems to forgive Fredo, but this is merely a ruse, for the mechanisms of fate have already been set into motion, and sometime later, Michael watches serenely from the window of the house as his brother is executed.

In Hegel, the abstract universal manifested most typically in the ancient Oriental world, reduces almost entirely the subjective will to itself: “In China the Universal Will immediately commands what the Individual is to do, and the latter complies and obeys with proportionate renunciation of reflection and personal independence.”[3] As the world-historic spirit marches westward, however, the principle of subjectivity, of individuation, becomes ever more heightened – through the demos of the Hellenic city-states and the plebeian tribunes of the Roman senate – right up to the modern world when subjectivity receives its most concentrated expression in what Hegel terms “civil society” (read capitalism). In civil society – considered in abstraction – we have a condition in which many different individual and private units are all struggling toward “the actual attainment of selfish ends”,[4] we encounter a vast nexus of desperate and isolated competing interests. In its early, abstract moment, the principle of pure unadulterated subjectivity reigns; there is no greater universal pattern by which all these isolated tendencies might be drawn into a higher development, and therefore everything has a quality of the capricious, of the random; a fragmented Hobbesian war of all against all in which subjective desire and inward feeling trumps everything else.

If the central characters in The Godfather have their lives transfigured by the cold, overarching imperatives of an implacable fate – an ‘abstract universal’ which is chillingly indifferent to their own whims and subjectivities – then Pulp Fiction very much represents the movement away from the abstract universal to the modern, in the specifically Hegelian sense; that is to say, a broader overarching fate is annulled in favor of a shattered and fragmented landscape in which individual lives are thrown into random collisions without any greater or more abiding meaning.

The film’s genre is somewhat nebulous. It might best be described as a blackly comic neo-noir gangster film, but very soon after its release it quickly became a cult classic and has spawned a host of films which have aped its quirky, non-linear narrative structure. There are three central stories in Pulp Fiction: the story of mob enforcer Vincent Vega played by John Travolta who is assigned by his gloomy, menacing boss Marsellus Wallace to take out a couple of young men who have stolen some drugs – and also to take out his boss’s wife Mia Wallace for a night on the town. There is the story of Vega’s partner in crime – Jules Winfield, how he works with Vincent, how they kill for money, and how Jules suddenly ‘finds’ God and decides to leave his job. Finally, there is the story of Butch Coolidge, a boxer who decides to rip off Marsellus Wallace; having agreed to throw a fight for a payoff, he defeats his opponent, and pockets the money anyway, before trying to flee the city.

These stories all intersect at various points and yet there is never the outline of a broader development which brings them together in some form of synthesis, no universal plot which draws the characters toward some higher moment or resolution – as is the case with the mythos of the old style. When the characters’ lives in Pulp Fiction do collide it seems to occur on a particularly random and haphazard basis; such conflicts are rarely adduced in order to inculcate new forms of awareness on the part of the protagonists, but rather to show how, in a fragmented universe – in which the necessary connections between human beings are evaporated before a nihilistic, isolated and never-ending series of arbitrary actions – life itself becomes some kind of meaningless cosmic joke, random, stylized and absurd.

So, for instance, when Butch the boxer tarries instead of fleeing the city straight away – when he goes back to his old apartment to retrieve a watch which holds great sentimental value to him, he finds a powerful automatic weapon rested on the kitchen surface. He picks it up and examinesit. He hears a toilet flush. He wanders into the hall, whereupon Vincent Vega exits the toilet. Butch looks at him. A couple of slices of toast pop up from the toaster and this causes Butch to shoot Vega, his dead body propelled backward collapsing onto the toilet once again. What is notable about the scene, and dully shocking, is the near-complete absence of anything resembling human emotion. When Butch finds the gun, he is not frightened but simply intrigued. When he shoots Vega he is neither angry nor aghast but merely quizzical, he looks at the weapon he is holding with curiosity – he is mildly surprised by the suddenness of its impact on the slain gangster’s body. In fact, Butch only really kills the gangster because the toast pops and the trigger is sensitive. The whole encounter is atomized, arbitrary, and rather matter of fact. It is rounded off with Vega’s body slumped on the toilet once more – a grim ration of humor, to cap off the absurdity of it all.

In another scene, Vincent Vega and Jules Winfield are debating Jules’s recent religious conversion and the meaning of life more generally. Vincent finds his partner’s epiphany to be absurd but turns to the passenger in the back of the car they are driving for his view. The passenger is a prisoner, someone they have retrieved in the process of carrying out a hit, but Vincent Vega gamely engages the somewhat subdued man in conversation, pulling him into the argument. ‘You gotta have an opinion’, Vega prompts him enthusiastically, all the while gesticulating with his gun in one hand. At which point the car goes over a bump in the road, and the man in the back has his brains blown out all over the rear window. This time the men in the front seats do experience emotion, Jules calls out in disgust having had pieces of brain matter sprayed all over him – “ohhhhhh Fuck’s happening???” Vincent comments with surprising chagrin – “Ah man I shot Marvin the face!” But while the men are disgusted and surprised by this sudden turn of events, neither are in the slightest bit affected by Marvin’s untimely demise, except in as much as it has managed to inconvenience themselves by rendering them bloody and sticky and more visible to any police presence.

Again the whole scene has an almost Beckettian tone; the hitmen discussing God and the meaning of life in a somewhat comical fashion when all at once their high-faluting ruminations are interrupted by the randomness of events; life itself renders their plans and their beliefs absurd. The reason why neither of the gangsters reacts on a human level to the death of the unfortunate man in the back, a death their own actions have precipitated, is not simply because they are hardened criminals inured to violence – but moreover, because life itself is absurd and random, and encountering a person and then losing them, has no great meaning in the larger scheme of things. The characters and their lives are imbued with this existential sense of futility.

And such a sense of meaningless, this lack of empathy, arises directly from a vision of the world in which the social relationships between human beings have no great significance, are not to be drawn into any broader universal development or higher moral purpose and remain isolated and atomised. For this reason, the characters are unable to repose any great love or feeling in their fellow characters – but more than this, the audience themselves are unable to feel anything of consequence for the travails of the protagonists beyond an amused sense of the random viscidities and absurdities which echo across an indifferent universe.

As Gary Groth argues “Tarantino represents the final triumph of postmodernism”, for when the human life is wracked by broader events the ultimate “response is one of disaffection”. Because Tarantino creates characters who are lost in the existential vacuum of their own individualities, because the relationships between them never cohere in terms of a broader universality – each personality seems uniquely strange and unnaturally bereft of any fundamental substance: “When Travolta’s Vincent is machine-gunned by Willis’s Butch in Pulp Fiction, one feels nothing because Tarantino didn’t bother to sculpt Travolta’s character into a human being we could care about.”

Tarantino has an incredible ear for dialogue, especially the poetic crispness, obscene color, and rapid rhythms of street slang, and he is also a master of pastiche – of being able to fuse modern themes with the retrograde – often through the use of a quirky and brilliant soundtrack. Think, for example of Jules Winfield delivering his fire and brimstone speech from the Old Testament before he executes his targets with slick up-to-date weaponry, or when Mia Wallace snorts high-quality cocaine in a luxurious mansion replete with the most high-tech conveniences – while in the background Dusty Springfield croons out the smooth bucolic lines of the 60s classic ‘Son of a Preacher Man’. Also, the humor in Pulp Fiction is often, in that Beckettian tradition, absurdly funny, and the random stylized violence becomes a sort of shocking vehicle for this – “Say what again. SAY WHAT again! And I dare you, I double dare you motherfucker! Say what one more time.”

But what makes the film most compelling is the way in which the randomness and anomie it carries reflect, in a humorous, bleak, slick, and stylized fashion, something which is an integral moment in modern existence, an existence which Nietzsche would famously inscribe with the words ‘God is dead’. In the capitalist epoch, the social bonds which are provided by religious and communal solidarity are increasingly dissolved before the frenetic pace of modernity. The restless and perpetual flow of labor as people move from countryside to town, from occupation to occupation, from neighborhood to neighborhood – impelled by the sheer rapacious speed of capital investment and market forces which are perpetually unearthing and uprooting clumps and concentrations of individuals before their relationships have the chance to set and cohere in the form of a broader, organic community.

Instead what we are left with is the ‘alienation’ described by Marx, the ‘anomie’ outlined by Durkheim, the ‘anxiety’ diagnosed by Heidegger in which millions of individuals are pressed together in vast anonymous mega-cities. Each exists in a bubble of privation; a state of acute isolation where people live in tower blocks which stretch to the skies, and yet rarely see the neighbors who live only feet from them in the next apartment – beyond, of course, the random encounter in a darkened hall or dimly lit elevator now and again. The random encounter – this is the subtext of Pulp Fiction – a film where God really is dead; where the lives of the characters have been abandoned to the hopeless and the arbitrary, and what remains in the aftermath is the lingering sense that any broader or more universal meaning is nothing more than a cosmic joke.

But while this is an aspect of modernity, Pulp Fiction’s fundamental flaw lies in the fact that it absolutizes this as the one and only aspect of modernity. In both the Hegelian and the Marxist projects, at the level of historical development, the core task becomes the same; how to transcend the fragmentation which is unleashed by modernity, what social agency is capable of raising the individualized, isolated subjective moment in the form of a higher objectivity.[5] The way in which subject and object can be drawn into a concrete identity.

And in art too, the same synthesis of universality and particularity must be achieved. Hegel argues that the universality of the epic poem must be synthesized with the subjectivity and inward feeling of lyric poetry in order to create a higher form: “The third and final kind of poetic composition unites the two previous ones in a new totality. As in the epic…human actions become constituent vectors of what is perceived to be an irresistible fate or world-directing providence”.[6] The universal moment, the movement toward the higher end of ‘fate’ must be fused with the subjective intentions of the protagonists, and must be realized within the parameters of their own subjectivity and free will:

The action…we see it as present…as issuing directly out of the wills of individual characters who thereby become central as in the principle of lyric poetry. At one in the same time we have an epic objectivity presented to us as proceeding from the subject, and a lyric subjectivity that gains for itself objective realization and validity. This is spirit in its living totality…the content of dramatic poetry.[7]

Adopting a similar methodological standpoint, for the purposes of our own discussion, we need to seek out a gangster film which manages to combine the overarching universality of The Godfather with the subjectivity and interiority of Pulp Fiction, thereby creating a more comprehensive totality in which both moments attain their true richness and fullness through their mutual interpenetration; or to use another Hegelian riff on the same theme, a film in which the universal substance is also manifested as subject.

For me, the film which achieves this is Things to Do in Denver when you’re Dead. The story runs as follows: the protagonist, Jimmy ‘the saint’ Tosnia (Andy Garcia) is a reformed criminal who is trying to “go straight” with a video business which allows the terminally ill to record messages for their loved ones which provide guidance after they have gone. The business is foundering. Jimmy is contacted by a figure from his past – a crime boss “The Man with the Plan” (Christopher Walken) – in order to do one last job. The Man with the Plan has a son (Bernard) who has become mentally disturbed and attempted to molest a child in a playground. The crime boss blames his progeny’s dissolution on a failed relationship from his youth. Bernard’s childhood sweetheart Meg left him and sent him into a downward spiral.

The Man’s request is simple: Jimmy should hire a crew of men and kidnap Meg’s current boyfriend and convince him to abandon her under duress. The path will then be cleared and Bernard can resume a normal existence with Meg, so the rather sinister crime lord opines. Jimmy is reluctant to do this job but is compelled to, for the Man with the Plan is able to call in a favor. In the event the job goes wrong, the boyfriend is killed along with Meg who is in the back of the vehicle (unbeknownst to the kidnappers) and appears out of the blue, startling one of the men and causing him to shoot her by accident. The Man with the Plan, feeling his son’s only chance of redemption to have been blundered, now seeks to exact revenge, killing the members of Jimmy’s crew and eventually Jimmy himself.

Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, in a certain way, does something similar to The Godfather; that is, it presents us with two worlds. There is the world of the ordinary which ticks along like usual in Denver; the world of afternoon bars, cinemas, museums, local businesses, funeral homes, and even Jimmy’s somewhat unusual enterprise. It is the world of the ‘citizen’, a world Jimmy has tried to integrate himself into, through his business, through his relationship with ‘nice girl’ Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar).

At the same time, just underneath the surface, there is another world; a world which has its own rituals, laws, and language; a world with its own archetypes, eccentric characters and sacred spaces, a realm with its own fabulous mythology and etiquette. In this place we are introduced to some wonderfully drawn and truly memorable figures – when Jimmy is forced to do his last criminal job, he rounds up a series of associates from ‘back in the day’. We meet ‘Pieces’ Olden, the fading but elegant crook who has fallen on hard times and now runs some seedy porno theatre; forced to preside over his raincoat wearing denizens huddled furtively underneath the glow of the dull flickering light from the cinema screen – he has developed some form of ‘circulatory problem’ which causes parts of his digits to fall off. And yet there is a dignity and poetry to his speech, and a creaking archaic grandeur to his bearing – as he reminds Jimmy, before he disappears into the black Denver night, he once “did the fox-trot with a $2,000-a-night hooker in a Paris nightclub”.

There is the character of Earl “Easy Wind” Denton, the wingman who, like many of the characters in the film, is both criminal and philosopher, adding a moment of poignancy to the proceedings as the group of criminal colleagues enter their end of days. In a darkened car park, just before he is due to go into hiding, he reflects to his friend ruefully:

Remember when you was a kid and you would spend the whole year waiting for summer vacation and when it finally came it would fly by just like that? It’s funny, Jimmy, life has a way of flying by faster than any old summer vacation, it really fucking does.

There is also the character of twitchy psychotic ‘Critical Bill’, a man who spends his time working in a funeral home and beats up the corpses on his breaks as a form of therapy which “keeps my powder dry” – it is Bill who provides the flammable quality which sets their situation ablaze and seals their fates. All these characters are unique, idiosyncratic, memorable – sometimes drawn archly, sometimes lovingly – but always with a whiff of pathos.

But perhaps the most menacing, most hypnotic presence is provided by Christopher Walken’s ‘The Man with the Plan’. Prior to the timeframe of the film, The Man has been attacked – shot several times, he is now confined to a wheelchair which he moves by blowing into a tube. His withered, frail frame is tethered to the world by a series of tubes and colostomy bags. And yet he seems to crackle with a ghostly, malevolent power. He speaks in a low husky tone, his eyes shining amusement in the gloomy shadows of his dusty mansion – two goons like diabolical minions forever at his side. He is in some way the film’s Mephistopheles, he offers Jimmy an almost Faustian pact which the latter is unable to refuse, and here we are once more back with the chill of antiquity and the overarching requirements of an implacable and omniscient fate.

When we meet Jimmy the Saint at the start of the film, he is attempting to indulge subjectivity, to follow his own path, to break with his criminal past, and become a ‘citizen’. He wants to shape himself into the guise of legitimacy and respectability, and yet his subjective intentions are continually thwarted. Though he has his smooth charisma and his sixty-dollar haircut, though he has the spiel and the walk, nevertheless his enterprise is frayed around the edges and an air of desperation increasingly surrounds the endeavor. The subterranean world, the world within the world, increasingly threatens to penetrate the façade, and The Man with The Plan is the agent by which fate sets into motion its tragic trajectory. Jimmy the Saint is compelled to do that ‘one last job’ he is pulled into the underworld by the momentum of his own past, and his subjective intentions – in the manner of the Greek epic and The Godfather – are overwritten by a broader universality. The force of his will, his personhood, is rapidly undone.

When Jimmy is following his dreams of becoming a legitimate businessman his appearance is impeccable; his expensive designer suit falls perfectly over his frame, his slick back hairstyle flows in beautiful contours, not a hair out of place. Andyet, once the kidnapping has gone bad, when Jimmy the Saint meets with The Man in the aftermath of the botched operation, and the malevolent crime boss explains to him that Jimmy himself is to be banished from the city while his co-conspirators are to be executed in the most brutal fashion (‘buckwheats’) – Jimmy has to go to his friends in order to relay their fates. And they meet, quite appropriately, in a graveyard. But now Jimmy’s appearance is substantially changed. His perfect hairstyle has evaporated, his hair is wild and unkempt, falling from both sides of his head, and he seems much the more haggard. Obviously, this is to be expected given the stress of the situation, and perhaps it was a detail which the director brought out almost unconsciously. But I also think it has a certain ontological inflection. At the start of the film, Jimmy was very much acting in accordance with the remit of his own subjectivity; hence his appearance was smooth and untrammeled – but when fate intervenes, when his will and his individuality are undermined by a broader universal, this too is reflected in his appearance as a dishevelment, an undoing.

Though Jimmy is given a reprieve – the option of exile as opposed to death – he tells his friends that they are all faced with ‘buckwheats’ hits, including himself. This is not in any sense a weasely or fundamentally dishonest maneuver on his part; he offers up the lie only because he realizes he is the one who has brought his associates into peril by enlisting them for the job, and he wants them to know that he is shouldering the burden with them. For this reason, he attempts to save their lives by providing them with the money and resources to go into hiding. But in so doing, he is also bringing himself into contradiction with the forces of fate which are reposed in the wheelchair-bound form of The Man with the Plan (the name itself – ‘the plan’ hints at the broader cosmic destiny).

The Man with the Plan sends his emissary, the hitman “Mr Shhh” – played to incredible effect by Steve Buscemi – to hunt down Jimmy’s associates. Mr Shhh is a lugubrious, lanky somewhat out-of-place figure with tired, sad eyes. And yet, he is a prolific and deadly hitman. In one of several interludes an old mobster – who is not an active participant in the drama but rather acts as a type of Greek chorus – explains how Mr Shhh is the “most lethal contract killer west of the Mississippi. Oh, they say he’s clipped over 200 believers.” The language is delicious here – the mass of victims are described as “believers” – why? Because Mr Shhh is as much folklore as man, as much myth as murderer – “you can’t even see his face” – but those who are slain by him are confronted by an almost supernatural power given corporeal form, a dark epiphany – and hence they become ‘believers’ in the instant of their deaths. It is a small example of the ingenious richness of the criminal language the writer creates, but more importantly, it speaks to the sense that again the forces of fate are being unleashed against Jimmy and his band of brothers to the full debilitating extent of the mythos tradition.

But when Jimmy tries to hide his friends, when he tries to negotiate with The Man, he is doing something which at one level is entirely futile and also puts the seal on his own fate. He himself is to be killed alongside the others for standing against implacable destiny. And yet, in resisting fate, he brings out the very best elements of himself, his own subjectivity. He shows a kindness and a compassion for his friends, even as they are murdered one by one, and his solidarity toward them means, ultimately, the loss of his own life. In other words, he is drawn toward his destiny, he cannot escape his death, but its inevitability is provided by the fact that he chooses to emphasize the very finest and most noble aspects of his own nature, his own subjectivity. In fighting for his friends, in dying with them, he brings to the fore the very best aspects of himself.

This is very different from a character like Michael Corleone. Corleone had a better nature which he wishes to emphasize, for sure, but the point is that his subjectivity was overridden by fate’s universal trajectory, and he was transformed into fate’s creature against his better intentions. In the case of Jimmy the Saint, through his heroic and tragic action, he is able to realize his fate – the universal moment – in and through his own subjectivity and power of self-determination. When we first meet Jimmy the Saint he is pursuing his subjective ends, it is true, but these are at odds with the broader universal. His business is failing. His attempt to make it as a citizen is floundering. His subjective intentions remain isolated, unmoored from any broader historical development. For this reason, despite his charisma, despite his smoothness – some of his mannerisms have the taint of superficiality, of cliché even. When he first meets Dagney, he is confident and charming, but also a little cheesy: “I will continue my rhapsody because if I may so, Dagney you are most definitely the bee’s knees…” Dagney is wryly amused – “Does this rap ever work?” But when the forces of fate are set into motion, Jimmy’s slick charisma is gradually transformed into a haunted gravitas and tragic nobility. He gives his life to help his friends.

In the face of his approaching demise, and the relentless malevolence of The Man, he takes the crime boss’s son Bernard in his car on the pretext of going bowling. Bernard, somewhat of a frightened simpleton, is overjoyed by the fact that someone of Jimmy’s reputation has sought him out, and guilelessly he accompanies him. At which point Jimmy pulls over in a dark alleyway and stabs Bernard to death. Even this scene is moving, because as he is stabbing him Jimmy also holds Bernard to him, as though to comfort him, wracked by the horror of what he, Jimmy, is doing. In other words, this is no brutal and prosaic act of revenge. In killing Bernard, Jimmy is also endeavoring to put an end to the whole process – and at the end of the film, using the device of the old mobster once again in the role of the Greek chorus, we are told: “They say the Man With The Plan can never be killed, but Jimmy the Saint, he did it. He didn’t have to scale no walls or wrestle with no goons, either. He just took Bernard out for a ride. The Man with the Plan never spilled another drop of blood again.”

When Jimmy is finally faced with the moment of his death he has, in a certain way, triumphed. He has thwarted The Man with the Plan – at the cost of his own life. But he has been able to meet fate on his own terms thereby. At the end of the film, he is confronted by two assassins in a dimly lit carpark as he comes out of a bar. He doesn’t flinch. He straightens his suit and raises himself to his full height – and again the gesture has ontological implications. He is no longer dishevelled, he has not been undone by fate but rather it has rendered him whole again, by giving him the chance to express his better nature. His subjective intentions enter into a harmonious relation with the broader universality through the tragic and heroic sacrifice he has undertaken to make. Fate realizes its ends through Jimmy’s heroic action – and thus the Hegelian synthesis is achieved by which ‘an epic objectivity [is] presented to us as proceeding from the subject’. Subject and object are united.

After Jimmy is murdered, we are treated to a final scene in which a boat is bobbing on a blue ocean and the sunlight is twinkling in a big broad sky. It is the very opposite of the noir-ish dark of the streets of Denver where the gangsters, call girls and hit men lurk in the shadows. On this boat we see all the characters of Jimmy’s crew including Jimmy himself, relaxed in summer clothing, sipping cocktails and peeling shrimp. Throughout the film the criminal characters have a unique way of saying goodbye; they push their palms together and say ‘boat drinks!’ It is eventually explained that such a farewell gesture originated from prison – when the visitor and prisoner would both press their palms against the transparent but solid screen which divided them. The words ‘boat drinks’ were uttered because they evoked an idealised future in which the problems of the criminal life would have been left behind, and the gangster in question would have made enough money to enjoy the good life in some exotic, perfect faraway cove atop of his own luxury boat. When we see Jimmy’s group enjoying ‘boat drinks’ at the end of the film, it is a rather warm and wonderful nod to the pathos of everything they have gone through, but also the incredibly creative way in which the characters of the film have fashioned their own language, culture and even their own religion. For what is ‘boat drinks’ other than a religious vision, a depiction of gangster heaven?

Of course, when we see the characters having drinks on the boat at the end, free and untroubled, we are not being invited to believe that they are literally there, in some transcendental realm; we understand that each and every one of them now resides below ground, but in some way, that understanding makes the final scene all the more poignant. And I think, once again, the scene marks a moment of synthesis, of wholeness, of reconciliation in the true Hegelian sense; fate has played itself out, but in the process its human actors have, through their own efforts, achieved a higher state of being, realised the very best in themselves. Subjectivity and universality attain a moment of unity and completeness. That is what the final scene denotes.

One of the most frustrating things is the lack of kudos this film has received. It has had some quite good reviews alongside a host of clangers, but the historical spirit of its genius and tragedy continues to go overlooked. Something like Pulp Fiction has received rave reviews; touted as an example of maverick genius – which it is not – it propelled the director and writer to global fame. Ironically, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead – which is an infinitely superior film – has regularly been described as a cheap Pulp Fiction derivative. Kim Newman writing for Empire argues of Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead – the “Tarantinofication of American Independent Cinema continues” while Spin Magazine describes the “wretched Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead which attempted and failed to re-create Tarantino’s clever style of dialogue”. It is difficult to fathom why so many critics have so catastrophically misread these films – especially given the fact that Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead was written years before Pulp Fiction and could have no way relied on the latter for impetus or inspiration.

But more than that, the idea that there is any parity in the dialogue of the two films is fundamentally mistaken. The dialogue in Pulp Fiction is clever, slick and at some points ironically amusing – as has been mentioned Tarantino has an excellent ear for slang and the condensation of it into bleakly comic situations. But the dialogue in Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead is able to attain the level of lyrical poetry, for the reason that you are invested in the characters’ lives. As they teeter on the edge of being, the richness and tragedy of their existence are carried by a strange, wonderfully creative, mordant, and deeply philosophical idiom which grows melancholy as with the coming of night. ‘Put it in the wind’ – wistfully describes the act of accepting banishment rather than death, while the inevitability of the latter is annunciated with sanguine melancholy, “The blood runs when the time comes”. The dialogue is magical and delightful and sinister and subterranean all in the same moment. It has both heart and depth. Pulp Fiction has neither. You are not invested in the character’s lives and nor can you be, for they are not subject to a broader historical and social development but remained moored in the isolated particulars of their own abstract individualities. For this reason, though the dialogue is snappy, shocking and creative, it in no way reflects the souls of the characters nor the pathos or redemption of existence.

Perhaps the reason Pulp Fiction has been so lauded, so critically acclaimed, is because we live in a time when the Grand Narrative has fallen from grace, where the longue durée has been ever more undermined by the fragmentation and chaos unleashed by the modernism and post-modernism which makes a fetish of the present; where the attempt to show how historical development from the past can yield the social forces in the present which link toward a more radical and emancipatory future is most often derided as either utopian or mechanically teleological. A film which does what Pulp Fiction does, which breaks down the genuine social bonds which link groups of people – bonds which set the basis for progressive historical development – and sees them only in terms of isolated particulars – of necessity ends up by giving us a glimpse of human life which is detached and coldly ironic. From the purview of the present, the defeat of various radical and revolutionary movements, the advent of global wars, the rise of neoliberalism on the world stage – such a perspective can feel like the height of wisdom and realism because it resonates with a real and abiding sense of fragmentation and despair. The anesthetic to such a despair is easily provided by a humor which has at its core a marked indifference.

But in the story of Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, the story of Jimmy the Saint, we find once again the broader historical movement, human life ascending; Jimmy goes from an atomized subjectivity, to being battered by the forces of fate, only through this journey he is able to discover in himself the full force of his humanity, his dignity and his solidarity with others; in and through a historical struggle, albeit one enacted at the level of individual destiny – the protagonist himself taps and actualizes the very highest human acumen. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead is a great work of art – not simply because the characters are so wonderfully drawn, or the dialogue is so fruitful and flowing, or that the story is so moving – but as well because its trajectory is one which is inscribed into the development of human history as a whole, the movement by which swathes of people are confronted by forms of social life which they encounter as fixed and alienating objectivities, as a force set against themselves, but in struggling against such negation and alienation, in fighting to shape those objectivities in accordance with their needs, they discover in themselves their own slumbering powers and potentials – new forms of freedom and grandeur waiting to be realized.

[1] Georg Hegel, Hegel: On The Arts (Frederick Ungar Publishing Co, New York: 1979), p.198.

[2] Ibid. p.153.

[3] Georg Hegel, The Philosophy of History (Dover Publications, New York: 1956), p.120.

[4] Georg Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Clarendon Press, Oxford: 1962), p.123.

[5] Hegel saw an idealized form of the modern state as being the key to this, whereas Marx saw the proletariat as the ‘universal class’ – the means by which the furor of market forces was to be subsumed before the democratic and conscious aims of collective humanity once this class had taken control of the means of production.

[6] Georg Hegel, Hegel: On The Arts (Frederick Ungar Publishing Co, New York: 1979), p.147.

[7] Ibid.