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Non-Review Review: Pulp Fiction

It’s strange. I always feel a flutter of uncertainty when I prepare to tackle a film I hold in particularly high esteem on this blog. Perhaps it’s the fact that I worry I might not be entirely objective, or perhaps it’s the fear that I’ll embarrass myself with a particular film, or perhaps it’s just the worry that I really don’t have anything worth committing to the internet. Pulp Fiction is a film that has been loved and hated, picked apart and put back together, critiqued and venerated, and I’m really not sure that I have any particularly insightful observations to make about Quentin Tarantino’s palme d’or winning film.

I'll be brief...

I should probably make it clear from the outset that, while I love Pulp Fiction very dearly, I still have the very weakest of preferences for Reservoir Dogs as the highlight of Tarantino’s rather wonderful filmography. I don’t know where that preference comes from, as it’s quite difficult to argue from a technical perspective, but it is there. That certainly doesn’t mean that I love this film any less, it just means that I’m perhaps a little out of step with the mainstream when it comes to evaluating Tarantino’s work. At least, that’s the excuse I am going to use if I say anything even a little controversial.

For me, I think Tarantino’s dialogue here was something of a revolution the first time I saw the film. It’s a point that myself and the better half will disagree on, but I really believe that Tarantino’s naturalistic flair to character interaction is the pinnacle of big screen dialogue. You can take your David Mamet, or your Tom Stoppard, or your Joss Whedon, or any other writer you can think of, and throw them out. This is some of the very best cinematic dialogue I have ever heard.

Jules rules...

I think the trick to Tarantino’s dialogue is that it isn’t how people actually speak, but it’s how people think they speak. “Naturalism” in dialogue doesn’t mean transcribing literally what people say and putting it on screen – people say a lot of rubbish. People stutter. People trip over their words. People sometimes put the wrong word in a context we can deduce from the rest of the sentence. People pause. People over-use contractions and insert place-holder words while thought catch up with mouth (“um…” or “like…”, or “I mean…”). People repeat the same words over and over again, which affects the flow of sentences. To try to capture these on film would ultimately alienate your audience, and lead to a surreal effect where they would claim people don’t talk like that.

So, Tarantino’s dialogue flows. It’s smooth. It’s smart, without ever seeming excessively verbose. People aren’t idiots, they need to use monosyllabic words, but they don’t spout off overly complicated sentences either. They devote time to talking about nonsense – like how the metric system affects McDonalds restaurants in France, or how intimate a foot massage is. They’re vulgar and crass, but they don’t treat each other like morons. There’s a lot of rhetoric, and occasional confusion which is quickly clarified (Jules wonders how Marsellus intends Vince to “take out” his wife).

Don't let yourself be boxed in...

People occasionally talk in monologues and speeches, things which sound rehearsed – and, Tarantino suggests, they probably are. After we see Vincent talk himself through extracting himself from a possible affair with the boss’ wife, is it too much to believe that Marsellus hasn’t practiced the speech he’s going to give to the boxer he wants to take a fall? Korea veteran Captain Koons give a speech to young Butch, recounting the oral history of a family heirloom. There’s no doubt the officer hasn’t practiced and rehearsed it countless times, aware this moment was coming. Jules has undoubtedly rehearsed the (mostly fictional) bible verse he delivers before a killing.

However, most of the conversations flow naturally. We could see ourselves having these discussions with other human beings. After all, all of Tarantino’s characters are just people. Even his mob hitmen need to get “into character” before really going to work. there’s just something so candid and casual about the conversations we witness, that makes the standard crime film moments seem even more surreal. The movie seems more intriguing and more dangerous because Jules and Vincent can have a religious discussion one moment, and accidentally blow a guy’s head off the next. Things are just a little bit edgier because Butch can be discussing pot bellies with his girlfriend one minute… and encounter the gimp the next.

Dancing (king and) Queen?

What’s remarkable about this set of stories set against the backdrop of Los Angeles is just how shrewdly Tarantino ties morality into the lives of each of those involved. The film is, as the title might suggest, populated with a cast of people who are not very nice. Gangsters, killers, and drug dealers are all members of the lead cast. More than that, even if you strip away their professions and livelihood, they are not very nice people. Hell, even Vince’s drug dealer is racist, claiming to sell to “white people who know the difference”, while Butch mocks his girlfriend with his impression of a mentally handicapped individual.

Yet, despite the cast that the movie follows, Tarantino seems to suggest an inherent morality to the story. There’s a great deal of speculation about the mysterious contents of the mysterious briefcase that Vince and Jules recover for Marsellus, with the most popular theory suggesting that the briefcase contains Marsellus’ soul. I don’t know if it’s the most logical argument, but it got me thinking about some religious philosophy – that episode of The Simpsons where Lisa suggests to Bart (on recovering the soul he sold to Milhouse), “But you know, Bart, some philosophers believe that nobody is born with a soul – that you have to earn one through suffering and thought and prayer, like you did last night.” I can’t help but feel that Pulp Fiction, in the horrible things it does to its horrible cast, is the story of a bunch of people “earning” their souls.

Do you like rhetorical questions?

Take for example, Butch’s gold watch, earned by the men in his family through combat in both World Wars and Korea. Butch earns his watch through suffering and agony, but also makes the moral decision to got back for Marsellus – the man who wants him dead. Jules undergoes something similar after a highly improbable escape from death, which convinces him to do something more profound with his life. It’s telling that both Butch and Jules learn from their experiences to leave town and their jobs in organised crime.

Indeed, the key part of Jules’ character journey seems to be the realisation that he doesn’t have a good job. “What’s in the case ?” Ringo asks Jules, referring to the mystery case. “My boss’s dirty laundry,” Jules responds. “Your boss makes you do his laundry?” Ringo asks, mockingly. “When he wants it clean,” comes the reply. “Sounds like a sh!t job,” Ringo observes. Jules smiles just a little bit, in light of his experiences, and answers, “Funny, I was thinkin’ the same thing.”

Talk about the British invasion...

The journeys of Butch and Jules can be juxtaposed against that of Vincent. Vincent is a character just back from a trip abroad, an extended vacation in Holland. It’s implied that the time abroad has hindered him, either with a more severe drug addiction than he had before, or possibly with a sexually transmitted disease. “I don’t have cooties,” Mrs. Wallace teases him. “Yeah, but I might,” he replies. Vince is given a “moment of clarity”, just like Butch and Jules before him, this time as his boss’s wife lies dying of an overdose she just about manages to survive. Unlike his colleagues, however, Vince isn’t smart enough to recognise the good luck of his situation, instead seeking to pretend that it never happened. It… does not end well for him. I kinda like the idea that Marsellus’ briefcase contains the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark, judging those who come in contact with it – even peripherally.

The irony of the rather bleak world against which these morality plays are acted out is a cheeky part of the joke. This is a Los Angeles where a woman helping a man after a car crash is likely to get shot for her trouble, or an inside man is quite likely going to get shot through the head accidentally by people working for his employer. It’s the kind of story with a sly grin on its face – which makes it far more interesting than standard and conventional tales about moral epiphanies, as if Tarantino is aware that any story about karma and moral awakenings set against the backdrop of organised crime seems a little skewed.

What happens with Vega, stays with Vega...

It’s clever to look back on the film in light of Tarantino’s impressive body of work, which helps certain elements become clearer in context. I like the suggestion that Pulp Fiction unfolds at roughly the same time as Reservoir Dogs, explained why so few police are present over the course of the film, and I like the subtle family relations that branch across Tarantino projects, with Vincent implied to be the brother of Vick Vega from that film (in much the same way Inglourious Basterds ties into True Romance). There’s a more subtle nod towards the idea that would eventually evolve into Kill Bill (I especially like the “deadliest woman in the world with a knife” line).

More than that, the foot massage conversation becomes a little bit creepier when one considers the director’s foot fetish, and I do love the surreal nature of Jack Rabbit Slim’s, populated with all manner of old-fashioned pop culture icons. If you pay close attention, you’re notice Zorro serving food. It’s a nice illustration of Tarantino’s pop culture sensibilities, and they add to the movie’s charm. Not to mention the sight of Travolta dancing terribly (including doing the “Batusi” from Adam West’s Batman!).

Parting shots...

I think Pulp Fiction was undoubtedly one of the defining films of the nineties. Hell, it’s a modern classic, even today. From the career-best performances of the cast, to the wit and sparkle of the script, the movie is just great fun, but with enough substance underneath to keep the viewer thinking and engaged. It certainly, and I speak from experience here, rewards repeated viewings.

11 Responses

  1. I always thought the briefcase was just gold, something really anticlimactic. But yours is better.

    • I think Tarantino’s favourite is that it’s a mini nuke, so different strokes for different folks.

  2. Excellent examination on this one, Darren. Love this film — though I freely admit to hating PF the first type I saw it. Now, where is the damn Pulp Fiction Blu-ray Disc?!? Thanks.

    • Thanks, man. I’m just waiting for Apocalypse Now on blu ray next week. Can you believe I’ve never seen it?

  3. I feel exactly the same way when it comes to approaching a “big film.” I often avoid them as a consequence – hitting “Yojimbo” rather than “Seven Samurai”, etc.

    You can’t be too caught up in trying to say something that hasn’t already been vocalized about a classic, otherwise you’ll lose your actual feelings about the work.

    Great job on this one, by the way. Films like “Pulp Fiction” really force me to be creative with my “100 words or less” format. It’s a curse as much as it is a blessing in many circumstances.

    • Thanks Stu. I do love the format, by the by, and I imagine it gets tough when tackling something like this. I could literally ramble for days about it.

  4. Another excellent review. You are dead on about the dialogue, as great dialogue is never how people really talk (who’d want to hear that?). Tarantino’s dialogue is brisk and clever and rythmic.

    I always thought the film was a morality play about how the truly faithful are rewarded – when Butch goes back to retrieve his watch, it’s an exercise in commitment to his legacy – when Jules recognizes their good luck at not being shot as evidence of something deeper at play, he is rewarded, while Vincent, who writes it off as random luck, is ultimately killed in one of the most un-romantic endings ever to befall a lead character.

    • Yep, there’s definitely morality at play. However, I think Vince’s moment of clarity isn’t the bullets, but Mia’s near-death experience. I think that was intended to spark some sort of revelation, but he just ignored it.

  5. The film is all about the characters. Its like a group of pencil sketches tacked up on a wall next to each other. Any plot is secondary. Tarantino has basically taken a bunch of psychopaths, losers and druggies along with the people associated with them in one way or another, dropped them all randomly into a one of those 10 acre hedge mazes and filmed what happens when they encounter each other. It never would have worked as a film if it had been cut sequentially because there’s no real story here underpinning things and that would have become apparent in a sequential cut. This way QT can disguise his real intentions and make you think you’re watching something that is more than it really is.
    That said, nothing I’ve ever read from QT indicates that he’s ever really seen it in the lofty terms that some critics have attached to it and for that I give him credit. He was just having fun drawing people and it shows (especially in the dialogue).

  6. Great Movie Indeed!

    We enjoyed watching every bit of it…

    Quentin Tarantino is just amazing

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