“And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you!” - Ezekiel 25:17 (Jules Winnfield)
I’m going to be talking about story details from the movie Pulp Fiction. No screaming “Spoilers!” It’s been 29 years, you’ve had your chance.
It’s an interesting thought when you think back on your life and what shaped it. Family, friends, bullies, lovers, jobs you hate, jobs you love. The music you listen to at fifteen influencing what you’ll one day enjoy at thirty years-old. The movies your parents decide to share with you and even the ones they think you’re not quite ready for until you’re just a bit older. It all has a hand in shaping your future self. I truly believe I love movies the way I do because at the mercy of my parents they allowed me to experience movies I was entirely too young to watch. For all the nudity and naughty bits I had to cover my eyes but when it came to any and all gratuitous, bloody violence it was a free for all (mostly). With the exception of horror movies, that education I received in secret outside of my household. But shhh! They don’t know anything about that so keep quiet.
I wanted to talk about my love for one of the most talented, divisive filmmakers ever and his influence on my life, specifically how he shaped who I am as a movie lover. I’m speaking of Mr. Quentin Tarantino of course. While I intend to delve into his other works, I wanted to start with what is arguably his magnum opus, PULP FICTION. I thought about starting with Reservoir Dogs and working chronologically through his filmography but that just wouldn’t be Tarantino’s style. He’s all about the manipulation of story timelines so fuck it, Pulp Fiction it is. “It’s the one that says BAD MOTHER FUCKER.” Exactly.
This was a movie that I saw pretty early on in my youth. I was born in March of ‘89 and Pulp Fiction debuted in 1994. To clarify it may have come out in 1994 but five years old was too young even for my parents. I imagine I was closer to a teenager when I first sat through it. Of course some of it, one scene in particular, I think we all know the one, I was always told to cover my tender little peepers. I don’t remember appreciating it like I one day would. If I had to guess it was likely many of the themes running amuck throughout a runtime I wasn’t mentally prepared to sit all the way through. I was young, my attention span was consistent on twenty-two minute cartoons or television shows interrupted by commercial breaks. An uninterrupted runtime of 154 minutes was a bit daunting I think.
But once I discovered it I was never the same. I had officially become, for better or worse, a Tarantino fan. From the birth of Pulp Fiction came the introduction of Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown. Eventually I would enjoy my first Tarantino theater experience with Kill Bill vol. 1 and I remember it to this day, at the age of fourteen.
Pulp Fiction was my first true, unadulterated, unfiltered and exhilarating example of what cinema had the potential to be. Like jazz music with its constant discovery and avoidance of doing the predictable, Pulp Fiction took my understanding of movies and completely flipped it on its head. If you can see the ending and twist the first and second acts any way you see fit to tell a story in its most interesting and entertaining form why the hell wouldn’t you?
There’s something that feels so dangerous about killing a character that is not only a main character but an integral part of the story and then through manipulating the timeline you have the unexpected result of bringing that very character back from the dead, in a manner of speaking. Then it becomes the task of the writer and director, both Tarantino of course, to make their ultimate outcome, which we now know, not hinder the effectiveness of that character’s overall journey. We know Vincent is shot to death by Butch but as we soon learn, Vincent’s story is far from over. Through brilliant writing, editing and performances his outcome never overshadows the importance of how he gets there.
One of my favorite aspects of Pulp Fiction is the brief appearances we get of characters we haven’t yet met. It’s only later that these one dimensional people become complex and multilayered as their own stories begin to play out. In the case of Jules Winnfield he is at first glance the hardened, emotionless hitman so unfazed with his impending job he manages a conversation with his fellow hitman Vincent about what a Quarter-pounder is called in Amsterdam. It’s the lackadaisical drive and sauntering into the apartment complex over a discussion of foot rubs and their potential hidden double meanings that unexpectedly create nuance and portray a view of these characters that can only be further examined later on in the story. Tarantino has mastered the art of random, seemingly trivial conversation between his characters. Oftentimes though these conversations, however mundane they may seem, are in place to create texture for characters who might otherwise choose to consciously remain guarded or retain information close to the chest.
It isn’t until this rudimentary visit to some less than forthcoming business associates of Marsellus Wallace that something miraculous occurs and Jules is forever changed both as a man and cold blooded killer. It’s interesting to imagine what might have happened at the diner later that day had that man never fired a gun at Jules and Vincent and so gloriously missed every single shot. In fact it’s this miracle as Jules calls that would eventually serve as part of his legend and where he possibly pops up in further Tarantino adventures (Piano player in the church. Kill Bill.).
Before the violent departure of Vincent we see his epically off the rails night out with the infamous wife of Marsellus Wallace, Mia. It would appear her entire existence in the story of the men around her is to create havoc. To be fair they always seem to be in situations some would consider to be less than ideal. She is the monkey wrench in already fucked up situations. In regards to Vincent it’s his very addiction that acts as the catalyst to a once calm night resulting in a heart racing scene of overdosing, reckless driving, hilarious bickering and one tense moment invlolving an adrenaline filled needle.
The shadow of her formidable husband looms over every moment of this night as everyone involved knows who he is and what he’s capable of and I would imagine they play out scenarios in their heads about what he will do to them should Mia die. The implications of her death are massive and I’m sure wholly unimaginable. The word medieval comes to mind for some reason. She is a bull in a china shop filled with dynamite. Steer clear.
Butch is the aging boxer hoping to cash out and make a life for himself and his lover, Fabienne. His plan is to rip off the betters of his presumably final fight. On one hand he’s stealing from people but as we meet some of them it’s hard to hold it against Butch. Early on we see Butch meet with Marsellus to discuss Butch’s planned loss midfight. Marsellus demands that Butch take his pride and bury it deep. The rest of the story spent on Butch is him doing everything to maintain that pride. He wins the fight, successfully escapes the venue and makes an attempt to leave L.A. unscathed. Through very Tarantino-esque happenstance, Butch and Marsellus quite literally collide. As with the overall story of basically random craziness happening in just about every manner possible, it’s the clash of Marsellus and Butch that leads to what I think most would consider to be the most infamous scene of Pulp Fiction.
All in one moment we see the vulnerability and strength of Marsellus Wallace. His vulnerability is a sharp contrast to the man we’ve heard horror stories about consisting of violent tendencies and a displeasure of failure for anyone working for him. It is the escape of Butch from the clutches of the sex fiend leather pet gimp that leads to his unexpected salvation in the eyes of Marsellus. In a stroke of humanity Butch comes to the much needed rescue of Marsellus who finds himself at the merciless hands of two rapist scumbags. And based on the basement I would assume they aren’t ones to let their victims go once they’ve finished with them. In a rare moment of happy endings in a Tarantino epic, Marsellus grants Butch safe refuge anywhere beyond the city lines of Los Angeles. Naturally Butch accepts and leaves, Fabienne in tow and money in hand. Good riddance, Zed. Au revoir, Butch.
After the departure of Butch we meet up once again with Vincent and Jules, both alive and unknowingly headed for their respective fates, all the blood, clarity and pop tarts impending. We now encounter the Bonnie situation.
The Bonnie situation is a brilliant scene that takes all the professionalism of two expert hitmen and knocks them completely off-kilter. Here we witness the proficiency of The Wolf. He is fast, curt and highly effective. His calm demeanor speaks volumes about the nature of his business as what we can only surmise is someone who fixes “things.” Another strong suit of Tarantino’s writing is his ability to create genuinely funny moments surrounded by otherwise horrific conditions. In this case a decapitated corpse whose brain matter is covering the interior of their 1974 Chevy Nova.
And whose brains are scattershot all over the car? Marvin’s of course. Marvin is the unsuspecting victim of Vincent who, if you asked, shot Marvin completely by accident. It’s been theorized however that his death was anything but accidental. It’s said that Marvin is initially spared in the apartment because he was Jules’ informant who made them aware of their betrayal of Marsellus and where they could be found to obtain their lost briefcase. Marvin, meet Bonnie. Sorry about that, Bonnie.
The briefcase is a genius use of the Angus MacPhail coined term, the MacGuffin. Hitchcock would famously adopt this cinematic plot device that would be found later on throughout film for decades, including the internally glowing briefcase coveted by anyone who lays eyes upon it. “What is a MacGuffin” you may ask. It is in its simplest form, a plot device whose entire purpose is to propel the story forward. It acts as motivation for the characters who often find themselves in the vicinity of the device. In the case of Pulp Fiction, the nature of the MacGuffin is irrelevant. Initially it’s said that it was intended to be a case full of diamonds but having just made Reservoir Dogs, a thriller about a botched diamond heist Tarantino felt it was a bit repetitive. So he simply removed the need to know what’s in the case and left it up to the imagination of his audience and to this day the theories of its contents are as varied as the movie itself.
After all the madness over a two day period it ends quite poetically and calmly in a diner being held up by two unstable individuals who we met in the first five minutes of the film, Honey Bunny and Pumpkin. I know, I know, I said calm and after the disposal of a headless corpse this is calm by Tarantino standards. After all the violence and mayhem we see arguably the two most violent characters, Jules and Vincent, in a moment of peaceful conversation over pancakes, bacon, a corn muffin and coffee. Jules is ruminating over the events of the apartment that should have ended in their demise. His reaction is one of profound self-examination as he comes to the realization that he no longer carry on with his violent ways. Vincent, calm but perplexed, interrogates Jules about his newfound perspective and from Vincent’s vantage point, it’s a highly absurd resolution that he simply doesn’t understand.
With heroin use comes constipation which explains why Vincent is always visiting the restroom basically in every scene he’s present. He’s trying to free some fecal centric demons but his drug abuse is preventing him from doing so. As Vincent delves into his book, Modesty Blaise, a pulpy novel written by Peter O’Donnell in 1965 which is very much in keeping with the film’s title, Jules is navigating his way to a peaceful culmination between him and the unwanted assailants waving their pistols in his face. It is in this scene that we truly see the depths of Jules’ change as a human being. Normally Honey Bunny and Pumpkin would have been like Marvin in a matter of seconds but as Jules explains, he’s trying to turn over a new leaf.
Rather than simply letting them go he explains to Pumpkin just how profound this moment is and that it’s anything but another day in the life of two thieves. Through his explanation of who he is discovering himself to be, he conveys to Pumpkin just how lucky he is he pulled this shit on this particular day at this particular time. Returning the Bad Mother Fucker Wallet, Pumpkin leaves, Honey Bunny at his side, both with a sudden and newfound respect for life and its impermanence. Vincent and Jules, exit, stage right. The End.
Part 5 - Final
Pulp Fiction is the embodiment of lack of plot. It consists of smaller stories culminating oftentimes with violence and to comedic effect. Never has a bullet to the brain been so funny. It is one of the best examples of what can happen when storytellers are left to do what they do best without studio interference. It is originality coalescing with bravery and gumption in grand fashion. It is seemingly a dying art being replaced by remakes, unwanted sequels and tentpole franchises.
In the movie Casino, at the end, De Niro’s character talks about the good old days of Las Vegas when the goodfellas ran it. It was a personal experience where you as their guest were made to feel special and taken care of from endless drinks on the casino floor to the room service in every hotel room. Now, you order room service and “you’re lucky if you get it by Thursday.” This is what modern day Hollyweird feels like. It had its faults, sure. Would the occasional person go missing? Absolutely. But the personal touch was unmatched. Now it all feels fake and plastic. The human touch is dying.
The organic nature of original storytelling feels few and far between. Pulp Fiction was a sign of better times. An era in the 90s when bravery and filmmaking went hand in hand. In a single decade we got everything from Pulp Fiction to Terminator 2 to Toy Story and Saving Private Ryan. Forrest Gump ran across the nation, Clarice silenced her lambs and Haley Joel Osment famously told Bruce Willis he saw dead people. All the while Tarantino gave us Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown and of course Pulp Fiction. It made me see the beauty of telling stories despite the ugliness of their contents. He proved movies essentially need two things - great characters and singular motivation. Each character, rather than being relegated to a single overarching plot, can each have their own stories consisting of, in this case, the meaning of pulp and fiction.
pulp /’pəlp/ n. 1. A soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter.
2. A magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper.
American Heritage Dictionary
New College Edition
Rated R For: strong graphic violence and drug use, pervasive strong language and some sexuality
Runtime: 154 minutes
Genre: Crime, Drama
Starring: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Ving Rhames, Bruce Willis, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Harvey Keitel
Written & Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Out of 10
Story: 10/ Acting: 10/ Directing: 10/ Visuals: 10
Buy to Own: Absolutely.