“What’s in the case?” : Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino – 1994)

It is hard to believe that it has now been 20 years since Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was released. QT announced himself to the world with his debut feature, Reservoir Dogs, in 1992; and if the first film was an explosion, the second was an earthquake. His rise to fame is comparable to that of Orson Welles in the early 40s and he has always had the supreme self-confidence and ego to match his cinematic forefather.

The visionary director used his encyclopedic knowledge of film to push the boundaries of narrative structure, genre, script, soundtrack, inter-textuality, and character with one of the most groundbreaking and influential films of the 90s, if not the 20th century.

Tarantino’s production company, A Band Apart Films, is named after Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 film Bande à part (Band of Outsiders) and like the inspirational outsiders of the French New Wave film and QT’s first picture, Pulp Fiction again features individuals from the periphery of ‘normal’ society – whatever that may be. Misfits, outcasts, oddballs and wannabe criminals galore. Just as the failed robbery is the beginning, rather than the climax, of the action in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino takes well known plot devices and uses them to different ends in Pulp Fiction – the washed-up boxer who is supposed to throw the fight, the mobster “taking care” of the big man’s wife and the ‘hit’ ordained by the dissatisfied boss.

Bande A Part - Louvre scene
Run. Don’t walk. The outsiders of Godard’s ‘Bande à part‘ see the Louvre in Paris at a gallop. Shocking behaviour for a museum.

In this film, however, the boxer wins the fight and makes his escape in a big yellow taxi; after a milkshake and some dancing, the boss’ wife overdoses on what she thinks is cocaine but is in fact pure heroin and once ‘the hit’ has occurred we hang out with the hitmen as they discuss foot massages, divine intervention and go for breakfast. Unusual.

In interviews with the cast of the film, the actors were asked to describe the plot of Pulp Fiction and none were able to do so with any real conviction. What is more significant perhaps is our reaction to what happens than what actually does happen. Bruce Willis describes Tarantino as a modern-day Charles Dickens which I think might be stretching things a little but I can see where he’s coming from to some extent. This film challenged the norm in that the characters and their dialogue push along the action rather than the events of the film doing so. Discussing the quality of a Big Kahuna burger or what the Dutch put on their fries is just as important as running to catch a train or saving a cat from a burning building, is it not?

Samuel L. Jackson sums it up well by saying that theatre is a “tell-me” medium, film is a “show-me” medium and that Tarantino is able to marry the two. Agreed, Samuel.

jules and vincent
Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) discuss the severe consequences of giving Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) a foot massage.

Pulp Fiction begins at its end. It is cyclical but we don’t realise this until we come to its final moments. Like many of Tarantino’s films, it is episodic and split into sections that overlap in both time and plot. It is far from linear; several threads occurring simultaneously, woven together by chance meetings, coincidence and common acquaintances. Travolta’s Vincent Vega is both alive and dead at the end of the film, such is the genius of the script. We dive straight into the coffee shop conversation between Ringo (Tim Roth) and Yolanda (Amanda Plummer) mid-sentence as the film opens – other than the definition of the word ‘pulp’ there is no establishing shot or explanation as to where we are or who these people are. As such we just have to get on with it. Pulp Fiction is a film that demands a viewer’s attention, engagement and use of their brain to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Tarantino was heavily criticised for the violent element of the film – many seeing it as excessive and gratuitous. Described by some as a sadist, the director responds to this by saying that liking violence in film is not the same as liking (or indeed, not) violence in real life. The violence we witness serves a purpose and what do we actually see that is truly shocking? The sequence in which Marsellus and Butch are captured and entrapped in the basement of pawn shop owner Maynard (Duane Whitaker) and subsequently tortured by ‘Zed’ (Peter Greene) stands out as the most brutal section of the film.

Pulp-Fiction samurai

Butch’s white t-shirt is covered in blood, but this is due to an injury suffered in the car crash. Zed’s violation of Marsellus occurs for the most part behind a closed door and it is our imagination that creates images in our mind that we don’t want to see, although we do witness several seconds of it as the back room is revealed. The slash and running through suffered by Maynard is not shown in shot and again it is our imagination that fills in the blanks – much like the infamous shower scene in Hitchock’s Psycho.

If Tarantino is able to engage the imagination of his audience to such a degree, then this is testament to his skill as a filmmaker, and not an unnecessary proclivity or fascination with violence. The upshot of this scene is a reconciliation between Butch and Marsellus and we are more than happy to picture Marsellus’ boys getting “medieval” on Zed’s “ass” to avenge his despicable actions.

Pulp Fiction is perhaps a career-best performance by Willis, other than with the possible exception of the first Die Hard. It was certainly a career-saving performance by Travolta whose superb chemistry and repartee with partner in crime Jackson marked a radical change in fortune after a disastrous decade in the 80s. The latter is ever-exceptional and his delivery of the “Ezekiel 25:17” speech at various moments are definite high-points of the film. Uma Thurman is sultry and alternative in a kooky kind of way as Mia, the boss’ wife, but her performance doesn’t really stand out.

Christopher Walken as Captain Koons – surely one of the finest cameo roles of all time.

Actors with such calibre as Harvey Keitel (“The Wolf”), Christopher Walken (Captain Koons) and Steve Buscemi (Buddy Holly at Jack Rabbit Slims) taking purely, albeit tremendous, cameo roles shows what a strong cast this film has and they certainly do Tarantino’s wonderful script justice. It is only the director’s appearance as Jimmie that really lets the side down but I guess he just couldn’t help himself.

Pulp Fiction is a film that I have seen many times, and that I will see many more times in the next 10, 20, 50 years that it will continue to be appreciated as one of the finest works of film-making that has ever been seen. Deservedly so.

You can see it on the big screen at The Bookshelf this Thursday night.