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Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction David Skreiner Pulp Fiction To all you people: Film studies isn’t yet a widely accepted field at my University yet (Karl-Franzens-University in Graz, Austria, Europe). This paper was written for a seminar (something like a third-year course or so) and you might want to rewrite it to fit your own school’s idea of what a film analysis should look like. Also, watch out for unusual sentences; I’m not a native speaker so some minor errors or weird expressions may have found their way into this paper. I think it got an “A”, or a “B” grade (don’t remember exactly). Dave Term Paper: Seminar “Violence in American Literature and Film” Prof. Dr. Arno Heller Winter Semester 1995/96 1 Table of Contents 1 TABLE OF CONTENTS 2 PLOT, STORY AND STYLE 2.1 DEFINITION 2.2 CHRONOLOGY 2.3 CIRCULARITY 2.4 VIOLENCE IN PULP FICTION: PLOT STRUCTURE AND NARRATIVE STYLE 2.5 CINEMATIC STYLE 2.6 CONSIDERATIONS OF GENRE 2.7 MISE-EN-SCENE 3 TARANTINO’S WORLD 3.1 TARANTINO’S CINEMA 3.2 INTERTEXTUAL ASPECTS OF PULP FICTION 3.3 TARANTINO’S AESTHETICS 3.4 TARANTINO CHARACTERS 3.5 VIOLENCE 3.6 POPULAR CULTURE 3.7 REDEMPTION 4 BIBLIOGRAPHY 2 Plot, Story and Style 2.1 Definition When considering plot and story, I will stick to the convention of using plot for the film’s contents – what we are presented on the screen – and story for the whole of the events we are presented and the events or facts that are relevant to them.

This distinction is important because, as will be shown later, Pulp Fiction’s plot leaves out some aspects of the story, and leaves us to imply or simply guess at several loose ends in the story as a whole1. 2.2 Chronology The plot of Pulp Fiction is not linear; it does not follow the chronological order of events. Rather, the story presented to the audience consists of three distinct – and very much interwoven – plot lines. The three plot lines are presented to us in ‘acts’ or ‘chapters’ mixed together, complete with chapter titles: “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife”, “The Gold Watch” and “The Bonnie Situation”. Several elements are consistent in all of the sub-plots; for instance, Vincent Vega and the figure of gangster boss Marsellus Wallace (or at least his influence) are present throughout the film. Overall, the effect of the unusual structuring seems similar to browsing a pulp novel one already knows, reading the ‘good bits’ for amusement and skipping the rest – which might be the very intention of the film maker.

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Not only are there numerous references to pulp films and books, but we also see Vincent Vega reading a pulp novel in the film. Certainly, the film has been designed to be a success, and its title may be seen as a referral to the genre of “pulp novels” as well as a self-description. 2.3 Circularity Like many classical films, Pulp Fiction has a noticeable circularity to it. Todorov’s explanation of the typical linear plot2 (plenitude, where everything is satisfactory, peaceful, calm, or at least recognizably normal – plenitude disturbed by some threatening power or force – action of a force directed against disturbing force – restoration of plenitude) is not really circular, for although the final point resembles the beginning in its stability, they are not really the same. The circularity found in Pulp Fiction – the film ends with a continuation of its very first scene – is purely structural, while the story itself has hardly any noticeably circular elements: Most of the strands of the story end with the main characters getting killed or leaving town.

The film keeps referring back to itself, presenting chains of causes-and-effects in a jumbled, non-temporal and seemingly illogical order. With the exception of very few continuity mistakes, though, the plot is based on a logically consistent story. Tarantino’s possible reasons for having changed the order of events will have to be discussed later. 2.4 Violence in Pulp Fiction: Plot Structure and Narrative Style Pulp Fiction’s plot deliberately leaves out certain aspects of the story (as a whole), so that we are left guessing at parts of it. The plot’s nonchronological construction also disrupts many of the story’s otherwise plausible cause-and-effect chains, and places the film’s closing scene somewhere in the middle of the narrative.

It is, however, not the action or the plot which creates the suspense and weird appeal that this film has, but the characters in the film – in other words, it is not what situations the characters get into that counts, but how they react. The film’s overall structure – jumping backwards and forwards in time, but keeping consistent characters – has a noticeably “oral” structure to it: It is as if the film’s contents were being told by (Tarantino? Someone? Jules?) – told verbally, with all the inconsistencies and lack of chronology that seem characteristic of complex stories. The film starts that way – Pumpkin telling Honeybunny stories of gangsters, unbelievable bank robberies, and discussing robberies. It also keeps quoting from films, and its many references to actual pulp fiction novels make me assume that Tarantino wanted to achieve a certain quality of “orality”, a story structure and overall aesthetic that comes not out of classical, well-ordered narrative cinema but from a jumbled, funny and frequently brutal form of urban storytelling. The film’s high tolerance of violence suggests that the story told would have to be a product of a (sub)culture that accepts violence quite casually and is not shocked by murder (and even finds unusual accidents, weird rape scenes ad other detail amusing, in a twisted sort of way) – but, judging from the contents of many Internet newsgroups and most bookstores, a large part of today’s urban cultures all over the world fits that description pretty well.

Two films quite fervently attacked for being overly violent and amoral in 1995 were Kids and (of course) Pulp Fiction. Kids was a bourgeois look at a subculture, from the viewpoint of one who has nothing to do with the people depicted except that one might avoid them in the street; its overall motivating feeling seemed to be one of social pornography; one distinctly knows one isn’t like the characters depicted, and takes pleasure in seeing them without having to identify with their actions or motives. The characters in Kids are too carefully constructed as both antisocial and stupid – with the exception of the 12-year-old “victim” type – to fit into any other category than “hard-core social porn”. The outrage one could feel after the film came out of a feeling of guilt at the sensation that one felt glad one wasn’t “like that”, guilt at the realisation of a certain smugness and feeling of superiority. Neither the audience nor the film’s storyteller seem to have any connection to the subculture depicted, merely a casual curiosity. Pulp Fiction, on the other hand, is a story that is told as if from within a deeply violent, cynical and (to any other part of society) antisocial subculture.

The impression is that while Pulp Fiction keeps within the traditions of Hollywood filmmaking in terms of camera and editing style, it certainly jars the viewers’ expectation with its laconic and faintly amused telling of an unusual and violent urban-crime-culture story. The story – not only in terms of its structure, but also in its emphasis on detail and in its ideological stance which I will explain later – seems almost as if narrated, told with a certain glee at some of the most violent parts [“Oh Man! I shot Marvin in the face!”]; total indifference at others [the woman getting shot by Marsellus Wallace when he goes after Butch, right after the car accident]; a total lack of a sense of taboo towards things unmentionable in “normal society” [piercings, sadomasochism, gangsters, shooting Heroin];and a very weird sense of humour [“a junkie and a coke addict doing the twist together, man, dig it.”]. The audience is made to feel as if they were themselves part of that subculture – the documentary element that so strongly separates the audience from the events and people depicted in Kids is missing in Pulp Fiction. 2.5 Cinematic Style “[A]rtworks can create new conventions. A highly innovative work can at first seem odd because it refuses to conform to the norms we expect. (..) But a closer look may show that unusual artwork has its own rules, creating an unorthodox formal system, which we can learn to recognize and respond to.

Eventually, the new systems offered by such unusual works may themselves furnish conventions and thus create new expectations.”3 Tarantino has his own distinct style, visible both in Pulp Fiction and his earlier film Reservoir Dogs. Pulp Fiction is, true to its title, the more commercially-oriented of the two. It is a very cinematic style, relying on long shots rather than the frequent close-ups characteristic of video. Assuming that the classification of films as purely realistic or purely expressionistic is impossible, I would argue that Tarantino’s style leans much more towards the realist than the expressionist traditions in filmmaking – or at least, noticeably more so than contemporary Hollywood mainstream film. 2.6 Considerations of Genre “This film is one wild ride.

An anthology of three interconnected stories that take place in a modern-day Los Angeles tinted by echoes of Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the movie impresses in every possible way. Writer/director Tarantino has merged film noir with the gangster tale and pulled them both into the ’90s. As definitive as Francis Ford Coppola’s GODFATHER saga was for the ’70s, so is PULP FICTION for today’s generation.4 Pulp Fiction is strongly, intuitively genre-based, but the hybrid forms of genre interwoven make the film impossible to classify as belonging to any one genre – indeed, it has been placed in several different genres by various critics. Black Comedy, Gangster Movie, Gangster Comedy, Art House Movie – Pulp Fiction has elements of all of these and several other genres. In fact, it quotes from so many different films that it would be hardly possible to name a genre that Pulp Fiction doesn’t at least touch on.

2.7 Mise-en-Scene Pulp Fiction is set in a large city – Los Angeles, as turns out from the dialogue. “The still (..) suggests how claustrophobic surroundings and physical decay in city slums can spawn seedy characters and situation that are endemic to big cities like New York”5: The mise-en-scene is significant in the urban late-20th-Century-tale Pulp Fiction; the characters and story would make little sense in other settings. The props in Pulp Fiction are, for the most part, utterly realistic; the film does not need overdone props or extreme firepower to make itself interesting. This distinguishes Pulp Fiction quite clearly from many other Hollywood “gangster” or “cop” movies, where a large variety of unusual and usually devastating firearms seems to play a major role in defining the good guy / bad guy distinction. In Pulp Fiction, we see some automatic pistols (Jules, Vincent, Marsellus), some revolvers (Honey Bunny and Pumpkin, Guy Hiding in Toilet), a shotgun (shopkeeper) and one submachine gun (apparently belonging to Marsellus, in the scene where Vincent Vega is shot by Butch. Vincent would presumably have his weapon with him in the bathroom, and it seems clear from the story that he was waiting for Marsellus to return to the apartment.6 Butch’s choosing a weapon in the second-hand store is played for laughs: From working man’s hammer via the all-American chainsaw (alluding to several films in which chainsaws play major roles) to the Japanese sword.

Butch’s choosing a Japanese sword and driving a Japanese car might be seen as an ironic attack on American society or US nationalists, or a comment on the culture; to me, however, this seems to be a borderline case of overinterpretation. There are few scenes where props are of major importance and placed in a close-up or extreme close-up: the needle scene (Vincent Vega shooting up Heroin) shows a syringe set in CU/XCU intercut with driving scenes; the adrenaline shot needle’s tip in an XCU (Vincent Vega saving Mia from a Heroin overdose); the Gold Watch, Zed’s motorcycle keys. The only object that the camera lingers on for a noticeably long time is the injection kit in the needle scene. 3 Tarantino’s World Tarantino is the young generation the Monkees sung to, but he’s got something to say. He is so cinematically literate, so attuned to the limits of screen tension, so certain of stretching a sequence’s credibility without losing the audience that he can blow a guy’s head off and keep it funny, that he can deliver honor among thieves and turn the bad guys into such good guys that he can dispense with good guys altogether. His characters’ frames of reference are spewed from that little box that puts moving images at our fingertips all day, every day.

He is not a visual genius like Spielberg; he doesn’t make you sit up because of the way he places the camera or the way he moves it. He makes you sit up because he knows how to ask “What if?” He knows how to make the absurd plausible, the unwatchable riveting, the sick funny and the cardboard goons of the stereotyped filmic underworld of dealers, dopers and doers human and new.7 3.1 Tarantino’s Cinema Director-centered film analysis has been around since the beginnings of auteur theory in the mid-fifties. The main focus of this theory is on “visual style – on the way in which films [are] composed and constructed for the viewer”8. Since it seems to be close to impossible to name a genre for any of the Tarantino films or even Tarantino-scripted films (True Romance, to some extent Natural Born Killers), the director’s name is being used to signify a certain style in cinema, a genre even. Indeed, it seems obvious to state that Tarantino’s aesthetics and style have a certain flavor to them; a common cinematic style, common story elements and maybe something else, an aftertaste or -image that is characteristic of his films.

Tarantino himself seems intent on keeping this “Tarantino feeling” intact: True Romance was made by a friend of his; Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs are his own major films. The script for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers was also Tarantino’s, but after a disagreement about the film’s direction he refused to have his name appear in the credits (except as “story author”). It would be my guess that Tarantino is quite aware of his own unique talent, and has no intention of giving away his name for use on products he doesn’t like. (Travolta and Tarantino) “[..] another of Tarantino’s strengths – dialogue. In most movies, the dialogue is designed to cue the next dramatic plot twist. But Pulp Fiction’s characters talk about completely random subjects, things that any two people might talk about, and in these conversations the characters come off as being amazingly real, free from the Hollywood gloss of most films.

As Jackson says about Tarantino’s script, “It’s an acting script. Most screenplays involve maybe 15 to 20 minutes of acting, real dialogue. Pulp Fiction has these huge chunks of dialogue that move the script along. It’s totally engrossing.”9 Overall, Pulp Fiction is driven by dialogue rather than action. “Pulp Fiction is an acting script”, Samuel Jackson is reported to have said – and indeed, Tarantino’s style frequently seems to suggest that action itself is of secondary importance, whereas the characters’ dialogues, reactions and attitudes are in the center of attention. We find this pattern in many scenes: Rather than showing us a boxing fight, Tarantino feeds us information about it through a taxi driver who asks he boxer questions; the shooting of Marvin is a small if unfortunate accident in the middle of a conversation.

In many other scenes as well, (for example, when Butch returns to free Marsellus Wallace from the rapists), it is the faces and emotions of characters that are foregrounded rather than the action itself. That very scene, in fact, illustrates my argument: It is Butch’s attitude and emotions that are placed in the main focus of the viewer’s attention, the deadly stab in the belly with a samurai sword is backgrounded (though very much the motivating force for the shot). Tarantino is in no way interested in outdoing other directors in spectacularity or performing ritual size comparisons with cinematic explosions; rather, he seems intent on presenting intense moments, and how the characters in his story respond to them. The frequent “Mexican Stand-offs” or three-way gunfights – which have also appeared several times in Tarantino’s other films – illustrate this principle of putting characters in emotionally intense situations (even though I have never handled a gun, I assume that having a gun aimed at one while aiming at someone else is a very intense situation) and then calmly waiting to see what will result from the situation. The focus, however, is not on the action per se (shooting, for example), as in so many standard Hollywood films, or its results, as in, for example, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. How people behave in the weird situations they are placed in seems to be the main point: The director’s main aim seems to lie in recording not so much the action itself, but the behaviour of people in and to intense, unusual and dangerous situations.10 3.2 Intertextual aspects of Pulp Fiction Tarantino frequently uses direct quotes from other films, TV series and videos; dialogues and camera positioning are also sometimes “lifted” from or directly alluding to TV series and films. One extreme interpretation of this concept was used by stone in the originally Tarantino-scripted Natural Born Killers, where whole parts of the film are adaptations of (prototypical) television items: the “monster family” fun show, the sensationalistic news report, the “true police stories” genre and others.

But where Natural Born Killers can be read as a critique of the media [“This film isn’t really brutal, it just shows what you see on television every day, so what’s the fuss?”, to simplify one of its possible messages], Pulp Fiction refuses to go as far in its use of quotes as to distort its own style, its aesthetic coherence. (The Dance Scene) Vincent and Mia entering a restaurant where the waiters and waitresses are 1950’s movie personality imitators can be seen as a metafictional element; Vincent and Mia are discussing the movie personalities moving around them in a film frequently quoting from some of the films these personalities were in. Interestingly, Pulp Fiction is also being quoted in other films; in the recent Get Shorty with John Travolta, we see a TV set showing a scene from Rio Bravo, which in turn was quoted by Pulp Fiction [“I want you to pick up that gun”, said by Butch in Pulp Fiction and by John Wayne (I think) in Rio Bravo]. 3.3 Tarantino’s Aesthetics Tarantino is in love with small gestures, characters’ reactions to unusual and extreme situations, and (above all) dialogue. In this film, the meticulous care that went into even the “smaller” scenes and non-action sequences is very much noticeable; the depth of character performances is enormous in many scenes and the relationships between characters seem to crackle with intensity.

“He reveals their complexities and depth by not only showing them when they are at work, but concentrating more on what they do before and after they work. For example, Travolta is fantastic in showing us that as hit man Vincent Vega he is not jus …


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