Last night I re-watched Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Pulp Fiction. While beginning to show some age since last I watched it, the film has generally held up well.
For those of you unfamiliar with the film—or who avoided it because of its justly earned reputation for gore, rough language, and disturbing plot twists—Pulp Fiction consists of interlocking stories about some very bad people. Hitmen, crime bosses, drug dealers, serial killers, that sort of crowd.
Just as one would expect from Tarantino.
I could spend an entire posting, or maybe a small collection of postings, dissecting Pulp Fiction, or pondering mysteries like the Band-Aid on the back of Antoine’s neck or the contents of the briefcase at the heart of the tale.
Instead, I want to focus on the character I personally found most interesting: Winston Wolfe, played to perfection by Harvey Keitel (who, coincidentally, is a part-time resident of Stowe, Vermont, where we summer).
Mister Wolfe is the ultimate fixer: the person you call when you have a problem that needs fixing. He’s called into service when Vincent Vega, a hapless hitman, accidentally discharges his hand cannon into the head of a passenger in a car he and Jules, another hitman, are driving away from a crime scene.
The result, as you might imagine (if you didn’t see the flick, but you will remember it well if you did) was a veritable fountain of blood and brain matter covering the two hitmen and every inch of the inside of their vehicle.
Thinking fast, Jules alters course to the nearby house of a friend, a very reluctant host played by Quentin Tarantino. With the splattered car in the garage, the hitmen call Antoine, their boss. Who, in turns, calls Mister Wolfe.
So that you can fully appreciate the character of Mister Wolfe, I found a clip of his primary scene.
(As a sidebar, normally, before suggesting you click on the link above, I might include a caveat about rough language and the aforementioned gore, but I’m coming to the conclusion that my sensibilities about such things may be outdated.
Even in what passes for popular media today, it appears the public is ready and willing to explore all the many facets of the human character, no matter how prurient. As an example, my wife and I rather like Netflix productions, including House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Daredevil, and so forth. As Netflix is now spending upward of $1 billion a year on original productions, they can afford the best talent.
In any event, we decided to watch a new series they’ve been promoting called Sense8. In the first episode, we are introduced to multitude of characters including, most relevant to this sidebar, a lesbian couple having sex with the aid of a piece of equipment designed to replace the missing gentleman parts in the equation.
That alone was enough to cause my left eyebrow to lift. However, as the wielder of said device, having completed her exertions, removes it and drops it with a wet thud onto the floor, the director, apparently wanting more from his audience, goes in for a close-up to be sure to leave absolutely nothing to the imagination.
Confirming our outdated sensibilities, we switched the channel and decided then and there not to recommend the show to the kids).
Pulling the wheels back to the center of the road…
Wolfe at Work
Okay, by now you have watched the clip proffered above, or are sufficiently familiar with the movie and Mister Wolfe that you are ready to move on.
There is much one may note about Mister Wolfe. For example that he seems to favor dapper attire and that he is attending what looks to be a debutante ball at the time the call comes in from Antoine (quirky, given the call is received around 7 a.m.). You might also remark on his precise though not always grammatically correct manner of speech.
I think everyone would concur, though, that the overarching attribute of his character is his competence.
This attribute begins to manifest during the call setting him into action.
“Toluca Lake. It’s thirty minutes away. I’ll be there in ten.”
Then, introducing himself to Jules and Vince ten minutes later, Wolfe himself concisely confirms his primary skill set.
“I’m Winston Wolfe. I solve problems.”
Thereafter, we take great pleasure watching him do his thing. After quickly taking full measure of the facts on the ground and establishing the window of time allowed to complete the job, he proceeds to forcefully spell out the precise actions each of the players involved must perform. In this case, removing all traces of the car with a headless man in it before the wife returns home from work in 45 minutes.
As you watch Mister Wolfe in action, you cannot help but aspire to such competence in your own life. How great would it be, I find myself thinking every time I watch the film, if I could tackle every problem that comes my way with the same degree of inner calm and competence, topped off by the hefty dollop of cool that Wolfe possesses?
And wouldn’t it be great if every problem that blows up in your personal or business life could be solved by picking up the phone and calling Mister Wolfe?
Have an unruly teen driving you to distraction? Pick up the phone and wait for the knock at the door, which you eagerly open.
“I’m Winston Wolfe. I solve problems. The situation as I understand it is that—Timmy, is that right?—”
“—Timmy keeps talking back, and that it’s driving you to distraction. Does that sum things up?”
“Where is this Timmy? Can you take me to him?”
The scene cuts to you enjoying a cup of coffee in the kitchen while off-screen we hear muffled voices, maybe a couple of thumps, then quiet. Mr. Wolfe enters stage left.
“Everything will be fine now. Timmy has come to fully appreciate the nature of his circumstances and how important it is to be respectful to his parents.”
“Thank you so much!”
“Solving problems is what I do. Should Timmy need a reminder, feel free to call me day or night.”
Fade to black.
How cool would it be if there were a Mister Wolfe who could quickly comprehend a pressing business problem and proscribe the optimal solution? Or take care of a sloppy divorce for you? Or straighten out your underwater mortgage?
What if you couldn’t get a job and a call to Mister Wolfe would not only get you a job, but a well-paying one with a month of vacation time each year, free medical, and your own private office?
Knock, knock. Eagerly you open the door, your face radiating with confidence that help has arrived.
“I’m Mr. Wolfe. I solve problems.”
“Nice to meet ya’ll.”
“You would be Wanda, and you are having trouble finding a good job, is that correct?”
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. First off, we’re going to work on your speech, so the kind of people who might want to hire you for the job you want will be able to understand you. Next, you’re going to throw away those yoga pants that make your derriere look like two hippos wrestling. May I recommend T.J.Maxx? It carries nice clothes for an office environment at very good prices. And starting today, you are going to begin studying a useful skill one hour a day.”
Reading that last paragraph, some of you might have found yourself thinking, “Hold the fort! All the imaginary Mister Wolfe did was to state what seems obvious to most. And, besides, what if Wanda doesn’t want to change her manner of speaking, or how she dresses, or start studying a useful skill an hour a day?”
To which Mr. Wolfe might reply, as he did when briefly challenged by Vincent in the movie (albeit rephrased ever so slightly)…
“Get it straight, Buster—I’m not here to say please, I’m here to tell you what to do, and if self-preservation is an instinct you possess, you’d better do it, and do it quick. I’m here to help—if my help’s not appreciated, then lotsa luck.”
In Wanda’s case, and as is the case with the vast majority of problems any of us face on a daily basis, the steps required to solve those problems are right in front of our beaks.
Of course, that doesn’t mean taking those steps is going to be fun or easy. In all but the rarest of circumstances, life just doesn’t work that way.
In the case of the two hitmen, Wolfe’s solution—though delivered with great aplomb—when broken into steps, was as simple as:
Getting a bucket and common household cleaning items.
Putting the body in plastic in the trunk of the car, then cleaning the car to the best of their ability. Not spotless, just the big stuff.
Buying quilts and sheets from the owner of the house and securing them over the car seats so they don’t look totally out of place to the casual observer.
Discarding the hitmen’s blood-stained clothes in favor of T-shirts and shorts also purchased from the friend, and having the hitmen take showers.
Tidying up and driving to a friendly chop shop to destroy the evidence.
In the case of Wanda, some changes to her public image and a sharpening up of her marketable skills are almost certainly precedent to finding a job. Then, having found that job, hard work, dedication, and a continuous effort at self-improvement will be required to meet her objective.
Simple, straightforward… but involving effort on the part of Wanda.
Failing to Act
While tackling a problem such as Wanda’s job search certainly doesn’t require a Mister Wolfe—just common sense and a bit of effort—there is a long list of reasons why so many people fail to effectively address their problems. Worse, failing to confront them, they let those problems compound until their lives become analogous to that of an overburdened postman laboring down the street under the weight of a large bag.
Some of the obvious reasons for failing to act are…
Procrastination. Maybe if I ignore it, the problem will go away.
Fear. What if I do “X” and there is some unforeseen consequence? Greek voters deciding to default on the country’s debt and leave the EU would be a good example on a grander scale.
A defeatist attitude. Henry Ford once correctly observed, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t—you’re right.” You need to think you can.
It takes work. I don’t subscribe to the notion that for something to be worth having, it must take a lot of work or even be painful. It is all but effortless for me to enjoy a sunset. Yet there is truth in the idea that a lot of things worth having require effort.
Ignorance (lack of intelligence, ingrained prejudice, misplaced faith, etc.). The world is populated with billions of people who waste huge amounts of time worrying about things where worrying does no good. Or tilting lances at imaginary dragons. Or trying to solve their problems by dropping to their knees and muttering ancient incantations.
The ranks are further swelled with those who buy into crackpot science and promises of eternal youth and good health in a capsule form. And the ramparts are positively overrun with large groups of people who believe that their special status should shield them from the sort of efforts required to succeed.
We all have problems that invariably arise as part of the human condition, and in most cases we have the tools to address those problems. But for the reasons just listed, many people fail to deal directly with those problems.
Instead, if they decide to tackle a problem at all, they opt for a “solution” that requires the least amount of thought or effort.
Poor finances? Bet the proverbial farm on a hot tip.
Flabby belly? Buy a bottle of magic pills, or wrap a bulky belt full of magnets around your gut.
Poor golf score? Sign up for a video series promising instant solutions to all your bad habits.
It gets worse than that, because for a whole multitude of problems—unemployment, bad debt, bad neighborhood, not enough money left at the end of the week, ad infinitum—the default solution is to pick up the proverbial phone and dial Uncle Sam.
The problem with Uncle Sam is that instead of noting the facts and going straight to the solution—or accepting that in many cases the actual solution is the equivalent of doing nothing and letting the market sort things out—the bureaucrats are first required to screen any possible solutions through literally hundreds of thousands of laws and regulations.
Regulations, I would add, that are compounded by a thick layer of political correctness. Thus Uncle/Auntie Sam/Samantha has to run a battery of tests to determine race, income strata, sexual bias, where it falls on the green scale, and so on and so forth, before contriving a solution.
As a consequence, the “solutions” tend not to be solutions at all. In fact, in many cases, they simply make matters worse. Or, even if they brush up against solving a problem, they do so at an extreme cost—financially and societally.
Sure, there are people in the US—a reasonably sized minority—who have always had a problem paying for health care. In answer, we now have Obamacare, a Franken program that charitably can only be termed a massive misallocation of resources.
There is another problem with picking up the phone to Uncle/Auntie Sam/Samantha.
Returning to Mr. Wolfe, I think it is safe to say he is unconcerned that the problem Antoine has set him on involves the death of another person (albeit an accidental death—but even if it had been intentional, it wouldn’t have mattered). Or that his work involves saving the proverbial backsides of two hitmen.
Rather, he takes a binary approach to the problem. Based on the nature of the problem, he proffers a straightforward solution. No need to consider anything beyond that.
Of course, in the real world, things can’t be quite so black and white. Rather, we need to weigh possible solutions against other considerations.
For instance, you could attempt to solve your sloppy divorce by hiring a hitman. Yet that requires crossing a very thick societal line and (unless you are a sociopath) feeling guilt for the rest of your life. You would have to further calculate the odds that you might have decades to reflect on that guilt from within the 48 square feet of your jail cell.
Therefore, in almost every case, we tend to opt for more conventional solutions, with consequences we are willing and able to live with.
That is not the case with governmental institutions, manned as they are by invisible bureaucrats or senior executives well shielded by the state.
Unlike mere mortals, these functionaries have a great deal of latitude in the solutions they implement. Ergo, an Austrian house painter knifing his Jewish neighbor because of some perverse racial theory could expect a speedy trial followed by being propped up against the wall and loudly dispatched from this world. Plant that very same housepainter in a position of power, however, and he is free to pursue his bloody passions almost without check.
In the present milieu, we see any number of governments, most noticeably (and ironically) the one held out as a bastion of modernity and freedom, trying to solve its problems—and the problems it purports to tackle for the citizenry—through an amazing array of laws, regulations and, if push comes to shove, brute force.
We the people need to be careful when calling Uncle/Auntie Sam/Samantha, or allowing him/her free rein when let loose on a problem because, as history makes clear, in the blink of an eye the slave can become the master.
It is hard to argue against the observation that, in most countries, this is already the case.
Lessons from Mister Wolfe
Untangling the knots of this posting, I would like to begin to sidle toward the exit by ticking through the lessons I take away from Mister Wolfe.
Get the facts. Mister Wolfe was meticulous in noting the roles of everyone involved in the situation and was careful in establishing the relevant facts (e.g., are the brake lights broken?) before deciding on his course of action.
Establish a plan that works within the allowable time table. If the solution he constructed needed more time, I am sure he would have figured out a way to stall the wife from arriving at the expected hour, or would have altered the plan.
Don’t concern yourself with information irrelevant to the task at hand. For example, Mister Wolfe didn’t waste time asking Vincent how he felt about the unfortunate accident, or chastising him for being careless with a loaded gun.
Seeks solutions that are both time and cost effective. The more complex a solution, the more likely it is to fail.
Be confident. People who exude confidence automatically garner respect, and that respect is a key to getting others to act in concert with you in solving a problem. From the minute Mister Wolfe stepped into the scene until the minute he left, no one had any doubt as to who was in charge.
Be prepared. When you consider the real value Mister Wolfe brought to the party, it wasn’t so much his organizational skills or straightforward demeanor—though that helped keep everyone tightly focused. It was that he knew where to take the car and body to make them disappear. Lacking that knowledge would have meant simply moving the car to another location, meaning the car would have had to be moved yet again (added risk) or simply left in the new location to ultimately be discovered, setting off the sort of police attention one prefers to avoid in such cases.
In this regard, my personal take-away is that it pays off to become a polymath by continually educating yourself on the ways of the world… financially, philosophically, mechanically, socially. In this way, you are far more likely to be equipped to handle most problems as they arise.
Far too many people have somehow come to the conclusion that the world should be fair or a place where we have a natural right to health, happiness, and prosperity. Sorry, that place exists only in fantasy.
In truth, success or failure in life really does boil down to how well you cope with what life throws at you. And, per Mister Wolfe, coping with just about anything is a lot easier when you face reality, get the facts, break things down into small tasks, and get to work.
So, what’s bothering you? Whatever it is, now is as good a time as any to channel your inner Mister Wolfe and get it sorted.
And with that, I am going to put in a couple of hours trying to fix my golf game.
Until next time…