By Drew Morton | Pajiba Blockbusters | August 12, 2009 |
By Drew Morton | Pajiba Blockbusters | August 12, 2009 |
Quentin Tarantino’s second feature Pulp Fiction (1994) is a difficult film to evaluate in retrospect. Pulp has become something larger than life, chiefly due to the cultural tidal waves it stirred upon its debut at Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or. The film went on to win both further critical success and a massive box office gross when it was placed into wide release five months later. The dual fronts of Pulp’s success not only solidified the career of Quentin Tarantino (except for his acting career, but more on that shortly) but also proved to be a tipping-point for the American independent film movement. Hollywood studios began to scoop up or start their own independent labels and young filmmakers all over the world attempted to make a Tarantino film (see Troy Duffy’s insufferable The Boondock Saints). As you might have surmised, there’s a lot of baggage that comes with Pulp Fiction and the 15 years since its release has only made it more difficult to separate the film from its cultural milieu, as exemplified by the many books and articles written on Tarantino and the film (Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, Dana Polan’s monograph). In the end, that it seems an insurmountable task to address fully every aspect of the film in roughly 1,000 words. Yet, with that disclaimer noted, I’m willing to make what will undoubtedly come off as a humble attempt.
Allow me to begin by offering up the obligatory plot summary, which I’ve kept brief for those familiar with the film and vague for those who haven’t. Pulp is rigidly structured with a prologue, three main chapters (some with brief preludes), and an epilogue. The film’s first chapter, “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife,” follows hit man Vincent Vega (John Travolta) as he accompanies his mobster employer’s wife, Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), to a 50’s inspired diner where they win a dance competition. The evening gets complicated when Mia mistakes Vincent’s heroin for cocaine and overdoses. The film’s second chapter, “The Gold Watch,” focuses on a boxer (Bruce Willis) who double-crosses Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) when he refuses to throw a fight. This, in turn, raises the ire of Wallace who sends Vincent out to kill him. The film’s final chapter, “The Bonnie Situation,” takes its name from the potential of an awkward confrontation between Vincent, his fellow hit man Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), their friend Jimmy (Quentin Tarantino) and Jimmy’s wife Bonnie. You see, Jimmy is helping the trigger men dispose of a dead body with the caveat that they complete the task before his wife comes home. Otherwise, there’s going to be hell to pay.
The guiding framework for Tarantino’s playfully complex narrative is once again the crime genre. Like Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp is also a deconstruction of the genre à la Jean-Luc Godard (rather fitting as Tarantino’s production company, “A Band Apart,” takes its name from Godard’s Bande à Part). While the heist-film without a heist structure of Dogs paid homage to Godard’s technique of de-emphasizing one generic trope in favor of another, Pulp takes this homage further by engaging in Godard’s preference for complex structure, narrative digression, and staging. Take, for instance, the prelude to “Vincent Vega,” which is essentially the opening to “The Bonnie Situation.” Looking at the placement of the sequence in the structure of the film, we’re given what will become (with the exception of Butch’s flashback to Captain Koons) the first event in the film’s chronological order. Yet, while the sequence plays into “Bonnie,” it also serves the function of alerting us to the potential powder keg of Marsellus’ feelings about his wife, who Vincent has been enlisted to entertain while his boss is out of town. Without the time-bending placement of the sequence and its ultimate abridgement (after all, it’s completed nearly two-hours later), the dangerous gravity of the first chapter would be lost in this sea of narrative.
Now, to analyze the prelude within the framework of narrative digression. Within the scene, Vincent and Jules discuss European fast food on their way to take care of some of Marsellus’ associates. The dialogue serves as a means of misdirection, as the audience is unaware of Vincent and Jules’ occupation until they retrieve their pistols from the trunk of the car. Since when do hit men talk about the metric system? It’s rather shocking to our ear and generic sensibilities to find this level of discourse between two hoods. When they do arm themselves, Tarantino cues up our expectations for violence (“We should have shotguns for this kind of deal.”), which he subsequently undercuts by having the duo back-off of the target’s front door (“It ain’t quite time.”). Tarantino, often held up as a director of violence, is extremely thoughtful in his deployment of it by teasing our interest with digressions, similar to Godard’s techniques in Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Made in U.S.A. (1966). Moreover, as alluded to above, his staging of Vincent and Jules’ dialogue before they enter the room, with their backs to the camera, is a prime example of Godard’s shunning use of medium-shot over shot-reverse shot patterns.
You may be asking yourself why I’ve just spent two lengthy paragraphs discussing Tarantino’s citation of Godard. I’ve done so because, more than anything else, Pulp Fiction is a postmodern text. Like Godard who at one time engaged in postmodern cinema by mixing the low-brow genre of the thriller with comic strips, pop music, and self-reflexive references to film, Pulp is not only governed by the postmodern act of cinematic collage but best understood in proximity to its ancestors. Yet, while postmodern practices can be intoxicating, there remains a possibility that over a period they become hollow and an act of pure spectacle. I believe Pulp stands at the precipice of this point: its postmodern structure was intoxicating and while it continues to supply that sensation, the act of constructing an homage to an homage has grown tired and has begun to grow stale, both in general and in Tarantino’s work over the years. In essence, Pulp not only stands as the one of the paradigmatic texts of the postmodern movement but also, via its extreme cultural resonance, helped kill the movement by inspiring texts in which there is no there there.
Yet, Pulp Fiction is not a hollow abyss of pastiche. While British film critic James Wood criticized the postmodernism of the film for being “stripped of any politics, metaphysics, or moral interest,” I would tend to disagree. Re-watching the film, I found the film’s final scene between Jules, Vincent, and Pumpkin (Tim Roth) to be seeped in morality. Following his near death experience, Jules informs Vincent that he has decided to quit his job as an assassin with the hope that God will put him on a better life path. This is an extremely heartfelt exchange and we tend to accept Jules’ religious revelation. After all, he forgives Pumpkin’s moral trespass and the film, with the exception of a joke, refuses to make light of his action. On the contrary, the film tends to judge Vincent by punishment in “The Gold Watch” for not following Jules’ lead. Clearly, to criticize Pulp for its morally bankrupt postmodernism is a misstep.
If I were to criticize Pulp Fiction, a film which I admire and enjoy but do not obsessively love or would declare as being absolutely perfect, I would tend to hone in on two performances. First off, there’s Quentin Tarantino as Jimmy. Despite his many attempts, Tarantino’s best performance came as an Elvis impersonator on “The Golden Girls” (1985-1992). Jimmy has some of the funniest dialogue in the film and Tarantino seems to play each line with a grating annoyance. Sure, I’d be pissed if two friends showed up with a dead body, but I wouldn’t show it in quite the same way simply because I’ve knowingly befriended a hit man. That’s like keeping a great white shark as a pet and becoming offended when it tries to eat you. It’s his nature! Finally, I’ve never understood the acclaim and best supporting actress Oscar nomination for Uma Thurman. She isn’t terrible, as she was in Mad Dog and Glory (1993), but I never found her as memorable or capable as Travolta or Jackson. To quote film critic David Thomson, “she contributed not much more than a baleful look, a cool attitude, black hair, and some Egyptian fresco moves on the dance floor.”
When all is said and done, I’ve always found Pulp Fiction to be an entertaining, well crafted, and intellectual engaging two and a half hours. Yet, it has always struck me as being slightly overrated, particularly when viewed in relationship to its older and younger siblings: Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown (1997). If there’s criticism in it to be found, it’s in a few of its performances, not in its postmodernism. Sure, it is lamentable that it inspired some terrible knockoffs. Yet, just as rape and murder cannot be blamed on Grand Theft Auto IV (2008), Pulp Fiction cannot be blamed for the powerful effect it had on American film culture.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.