Monday, February 7, 2011

"Does He Look Like a Bitch?": Pulp Fiction Analysis Part IV

Go to Part III: "Let's get into character."

The mysterious orange glow emanating from the briefcase.

While the number of edits in this scene is still far less than the average film, they come at an average of one cut every four seconds, far quicker than the average for this film. Only one other scene in the film has quicker editing. This has the effect of altering the tone in such a way that the audience feels uneasy. Granted, the subject matter makes us feel that way, too, but Tarantino and his editor, Sally Menke, use editing to their advantage. They don’t simply show reaction shots, there is none of the traditional two-shot followed by medium-close followed by close-up. This scene builds upon itself until the explosion of gunfire that ends it.

The camera remains in the corridor as the door closes, suggesting the audience is being closed off from the inner world of Marsellus Wallace.

Marvin, Jules’s inside man, answers the door and Jules and Vincent walk right in with the camera remaining in the hallway almost as if to suggest that we have no business being privy to what is about to go down. Then there is a hard cut to deep inside the room showing Roger lying on the couch in the far left of the frame, open space throughout most of the center frame, Jules and Vincent at top right with Brett (Frank Whaley) seated at a table bottom right below the hit men. In the extreme right Marvin is visible in the corner. This immediately establishes Jules and Vincent as a commanding presence in the room. As Roger is about to get up from the couch, Jules goes over and motions for him to remain where he was. Jules wants everyone in the room in a subordinate position.

Jules motions for "Flock of Seagulls" to remain lying on the sofa. This camera setup establishes him and Vincent as the dominant presence in the room.

Note here the absence of any bullet holes in the wall behind Jules. I will talk about this later.

After Jules identifies Brett and moves to the other side of the table to talk to him, Vincent takes his position behind camera where he can watch what’s going on in the room, specifically Marvin in the corner and the door to the hallway. Jules spends some time messing with the kids, asking about their food, tasting the burger and the soda. Watch Vincent in the background – he knows the drill and so he rolls a cigarette and waits for Jules to finish. When Jules sips Brett’s soda, the camera remains close on him without cutting to a reaction shot of Brett, although that’s what we would expect. This, again, is building the tension.

This shot of Jules drinking Brett's Sprite is held far longer than expected, building the scene's tension.

Jules asks Roger where they “got the shit hid at.” Marvin begins to answer the question and now the tone of the scene changes completely as Jules turns his head yelling, “I don’t remember askin’ you a goddamn thing!” and has Roger answer the question. Jules always wants to demonstrate his authority and command over the room. Vincent pulls the briefcase out of the cupboard and sets it on the counter. He turns the combination lock to “666” and opens it, revealing only an orange glow emanating from the case. I will talk more about the case later. For now I will simply point out that it is a likely homage to Kiss Me Deadly[i] or possibly to Belle de Jour.[ii]

The glow from a suitcase indicating the presence of nuclear material in Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly.

We never find out what's in the Japanese client's box that causes Catherine Deneuve to react to badly in Luís Buñuel's Belle du jour.

Now Brett tries to sweet-talk his way out then stands from his chair, but Jules motions for him to remain seated. As Brett continues to talk, Jules shoots Roger in cold blood. Once again, the tone of the scene changes dramatically. Now we know, and Marvin knows, and most importantly, Brett knows that these guys mean business and that Brett is not getting out alive. I remember at age 16 being horrified by how cold it was to shoot Roger on the couch like that. He had no weapon. He’s just a scared kid lying there eating a hamburger. He was in way over his head and messed with the wrong group of people.

As Brett rises to defend himself, Jules motions for him to remain seated, keeping control of the situation. Note the position of Jules near the center of the frame, above the other three characters.

As Jules turns to Brett he gets pissed and tosses the table out of the way, clearing out the only thing left standing between the two men. At this point the edits become even more rapid and there are more close-ups, adding to the intensity. Notice how Vincent knows when to ready himself to open fire on Brett just as Jules asks Brett if he reads the Bible. Vincent stubs out his cigarette, takes out his gun and removes the safety.

After tossing the table out of the way, Jules has removed the only barrier between him and Brett. His imposing position is now strengthened further.
Vincent stands at the ready behind Brett, but the frame also captures Jules' arm, reminding us of his forceful presence in the room and thus creating an extra frame around Brett between Jules and Vincent.

My Gideon’s Bible has the following for Ezekiel 25:17: “And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.” Jules says the following: “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the Valley of Darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.” Tarantino decided to spice up the language of The Bible a little bit as it was not quite suited to his purposes. As the two open fire on Brett the orange glow from the case reappears twice: once when the camera is on Jules firing and once when it’s on Vincent firing. I can’t offer any convincing reason as to why that happens. Perhaps it is a reminder of their reason for killing these kids. After Brett is dead, Jules’s gun is in the open position indicating that the gun is empty of bullets. Remember this later.

The orange glow flashes across the screen as Jules and Vincent gun down Brett in a hail of bullets.
Jules' gun kicks into the open position indicating his gun is empty of bullets.

People often wonder exactly what these kids did to screw Marsellus. If you’re watching the film for the first time, conventional wisdom would dictate that we’ll find out as the story evolves, but we never find out. It is clear that the case belongs to Marsellus, the kids took it and now they’re dead. That’s really all that matters. You don’t take what belongs to Marsellus. You don’t cross Marsellus. This lesson will be important to bear in mind later when Butch refuses to throw the fight Marsellus paid him to lose.

Title card comes up: “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife.” This is followed by a fade-in to…

Next chapter: "In the fifth your ass goes down."

[i] Dir. Robert Aldrich, USA, 1955 (United Artists).
[ii] Dir. Luis Buñuel, France, 1967 (Allied Artists).

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