Pulp Fiction as Modern Mythology
By Patrick Agustus Wigington
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman
* * * * *
My favorite scene in Quentin Tarantino’s seminal 1994 film Pulp Fiction is when John Travolta and Uma Thurman go to a 1950s style diner. Travolta plays a hit-man who is taking his boss’s wife out for the night. They discuss the merits of a $5 dollar shake (“they don’t put bourbon in it or nothin’?”), and how wonderful it is when you come back from the bathroom and your meal is waiting for you. Their waiter is supposed to be in character as Buddy Holly (and, according to the credits, is played by Steve Buschemi), but of course the poor shmuck is too mad at being a waiter that he doesn’t even try. A dance competition is announced, and the two enter at Thurman’s insistence. “You Never Can Tell” by Chuck Berry plays, the two take off their shoes, and dance.
That particular scene is quintessential Tarantino. It is especially interesting because it is iconic without even a hint of his trademark violence. Seeing that scene alone one might assume Pulp Fiction was a weird, unofficial sequel to Saturday Night Fever; and in a way, that scene is. Tarantino engulfs this movie with enough homages and references to choke a horse. He transports us to another world, one completely stylized, as if every character that has even a single line is living within a movie. At the very beginning of the film we are introduced to two thieves, a husband and wife duo. They sit in a restaurant, drinking coffee and discussing retirement, and maybe doing a last job. They go back and forth with each other like characters in a classic Hollywood comedy. Later we have two hit-men who contemplate philosophically before and after they murder people. They work for Marsellus Wallace, a mob boss who controls a portion of Los Angeles. One is Vincent Vega, played with a calm and understated performance by John Travolta; the other is Jules Winnfield, played by Samuel L. Jackson in an intense, high-energy spin on the “bad-cop” idea. When he is talking to his partner he is calm, but he still tries to possess the domineering role in the partnership. When they are in front of their victims he is loud, alarming, and dramatic. “English, Motherfucker! Do you speak it?” he yells at his future victim while Vincent stands silent in the background. Butch the boxer risks the wrath of hell to make a better life for himself and his sweetheart. Butch is played by Bruce Willis in a downplayed role that is reminiscent of classic noir anti-heroes.
The film is elegantly written by Tarantino, from a story by him and his buddy Roger Avery. Tarantino weaves an expansive tale of intertwining stories and characters. Taking cues from paperback pulp stories, Tarantino makes his film always entertaining; yet he brings a level of artistry and craftsmanship that was previously absent in most pulp stories and exploitation movies the director loves so much. As with all of Tarantino’s movies from the ‘90s, this film follows a non-linear storyline. Although we don’t know it at the time, the first scene is really just the first half of the last scene. An entire portion of Vincent and Jules’ day is skipped over in the first half of the movie only to be returned to later. The dialogue is rich, purposefully overblown, and always cinematic. Often the characters say lines that seem like they were in a movie we saw once, probably when we were kids. This seems like it’s done on purpose; many of the lines seem like classic lines that never actually were said, like: “Play it again, Sam” or “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.” But this time those lines are said. Tarantino has likened his writing to Shakespeare, and while that may be a rather, shall we say, bold statement to make, the dialogue in all of his movies is extremely important. Like the direction, cinematography, costumes, and acting in Pulp Fiction, the script is distinctly and purposefully stylized. Tarantino and Avery seem to be creating a world outside of time, combining eras of pop culture together into one mesh. There are elements of the 1950s, the 1970s, and yet also something distinctly 1990s about it.
This combination of times is seen in the direction as well. Tarantino as a director obviously has a multitude of influences, including French New Wave and the New Hollywood directors of the 1970s. But classic Hollywood is another influence he has, as we see in the restaurant at the beginning of the movie. We have a rapid fire back and forth between two charming, bickering, lovers. The camera follows Vincent and Jules in an extended take as they walk through the apartment building, heading towards their destination. When Jules is quoting the Bible, we get shots extremely close to his face revealing the wildness in his eyes. There are elements of film noir in Tarantino’s direction. After Butch kills his opponent in the ring, he hops into a cab. The green screen outside of the car is obvious; it is in black & white, and wobbles up and down in a chaotic motion. Butch remains cool even as he realizes he killed a man, having a cigarette lit for him by the driver. Tarantino’s love for exploitation films of the 70s is also apparent. This is most obvious during Butch’s story, where he and Marsellus get into a fight and are imprisoned by homosexual, hillbilly, racists in their basement. The allusions to the film Deliverance, The Last House on the Left, and I Spit on Your Grave are present.
Tarantino’s blend of humor and violence is nothing new; it has been done before by French New-Wave director Jean-Luc Goddard, and in Bonnie and Clyde, but Tarantino takes these movies from pop culture and blends them into one pot of stew. Everything in the Pulp Fiction universe is rank with Hollywood iconography, as if it were born strait from the back lot’s womb. The diner filled with 1950s memorabilia and characters. Vincent and Jules are reminiscent of both cop partners in 1940s and 50s crime films and the buddy cop films of the 80s. They bicker at each other philosophically like an old married couple and sometimes end up seeming like Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
Now all of this homage and parody and allusion is all well and good, but what is its point? Tarantino certainly references plenty of directors’ styles, but that doesn’t mean he is not an original filmmaker. By blending genres and time periods together, Tarantino creates a pastiche look at 20th century America. It is the America of myth; stories of this time period hundreds of years from now would blend all the decades into one monumental time period of excess, style, violence, and sex. Tarantino creates a postmodern movie, a breakdown of pop culture that forgoes time and place barriers to create a modern American mythology.
The Bruce Willis story is the most curious, since all the others surrounding it involve Jules and Vincent in a much larger way. Vincent does appear in Butch’s story twice, once when he is meeting with his boss Marsellus, and once again when he is getting out of the bathroom in Butch’s apartment where Butch proceeds to shoot him down with the hit-man’s own gun. Other than that, the boxer’s story stands alone. It takes place the next day, or possibly even later. Jules is not present in it, having presumably quit. What we do get is a lurid, pulpy tale about a boxer trying to get enough money to live comfortably with his girl, and a mob boss who doesn’t want that to happen. At first, it seems that Butch is doomed; no matter where he goes, Marsellus will have him found. But he inadvertently gets his second chance when they run into each other on the street, beat the crap out of each other, and find themselves captured by a couple of rapists. Butch escapes and finds a katana sword, something that would become even more important to Tarantino in his movie Kill Bill. Despite the events, Butch’s story is rather light hearted. Nothing all that bad happens to him, really. In the end everything works out, and he heads to Knoxville with his girl on a motorcycle… I mean, a chopper.
The Bonnie Situation, which follows [after] Butch’s story, is probably the most light hearted in the film. This makes the film shift from drama to comedy as it goes on. This is a great idea, since keeping the film a dark, bloody crime film all the way through could easily have been tiresome. Instead, Tarantino uses his non-linear gimmick to slowly bring us into a black comedy that ends up keeping the film afloat. That’s not to say that the film gets less important by any means. In fact, the comedy aspects are key to the movie’s success. Tarantino uses comedy as a way of expressing the ridiculousness of our culture. As the Tragedy play was the main mythology of the Greeks, it seems comedy has become the mythology of America.
The acting is stellar on all fronts. John Travolta plays his hit-man character with a soft, understated whisper that evokes Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. He keeps it cool, even in the last story when he accidentally shoots the informant in the face on the way back from the execution. When Uma Thurman’s character, Mia, snorts heroin and has an overdose, Vincent rushes her to the dealer’s place. After crashing the car in his front lawn, he and the dealer start yelling at each other. Travolta seemingly stumbles over his lines, but whether that was intentional or not, it adds to the reality of the situation. As Vincent’s partner in crime, Samuel L. Jackson is completely and utterly memorable. The juxtaposition between his theatrical persona, and his true self alone is completely engrossing. While he acts as perhaps the most ridiculous character in the film, he also serves as its moral compass. Jackson handles the combination of these two extremes with surprising poise. Uma Thurman is marvelous as the films major female character. She serves as a classic femme fetale; her exploits and freewheeling spirit cause havoc for the cool and collected Vincent, yet she embodies youth, freedom, and excess. Comparisons can be made to Anna Karina in Goddard’s Perrot le Fou, among other characters and films. Embodying the classic, suave, and powerful leading men of 1950s noir films, Bruce Willis is exquisite. The film has so many characters that are all phenomenal and memorable. Harvey Kietel as “The Wolf”, Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer as the robbers in the restaurant, and Christopher Walken to name a few.
Pulp Fiction is truly a great work of cinema. Tarantino created a world unto its own, a mythic realm set in the modern era, indebted to and emulating all that came before it. Even the soundtrack is a study in the history of the latter half of the 20th century. The stories are old fashioned and brand new at the same time; they are starkly original and fresh, and yet invoke archetypal stories that have been told for time out of mind. Yet like all myths, these stories do not tire or get old; they evolve and change with the rest of us, supplying us with stories we need to hear during our own time.
NOTE: I rate movies 1-5 stars and never use half stars because they are pointless.