Thursday, February 3, 2011

"Everybody Be Cool This Is a Robbery": Pulp Fiction Analysis Part I

First we see a title card with two dictionary definitions of “pulp:” 1 – A soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter; 2 – the one we are concerned with – A magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper. The film recalls old pulp novels and magazines of the 30s and 40s – stories that were cheap, easy reads with memorable characters[1]. You could read them quickly and then throw the book away, keep it in your back pocket to enjoy on your lunch break, etc. That is essentially what the movie Pulp Fiction is. Although it has since become iconic in the world of independent cinema, we should bear in mind that ultimately the story has no great aspirations. Tarantino did not seem to strive for anything epic or important, but rather to tell a good story with spicy dialogue and an ultra-cool sensibility.

The film opens “cold” with no titles or credits, launching directly into the middle of a conversation between Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) in a diner. This dialogue sequence is described in the script as “a rapid-pace HIS GIRL FRIDAY fashion[i],” just the first of many film references Tarantino uses. Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are discussing the pros and cons of their usual robbery target – liquor stores. The two reveal themselves to be non-violent:

PUMPKIN: We keep on, one of these gook motherfuckers gonna make us kill ‘im.
HONEY BUNNY: I’m not gonna kill anybody.
PUMPKIN: I don’t wanna kill anybody either.

This will be important to remember later when Pumpkin is pointing a gun at Jules. The first camera movement directly follows those lines as Pumpkin talks about being put into an “us or them” situation. The camera slowly pushes in on Pumpkin for a few seconds (an indication of an important bit of character development), then cuts to a medium close-up of Honey Bunny laying her head on the table smiling admiringly at her man.

After Pumpkin calls the waitress over for more coffee the shooting and editing styles change subtly, but with important dramatic purpose. As they start discussing robbing restaurants and ultimately decide to rob the very restaurant in which they are eating the editing becomes slightly more rapid. During that 1’ 33” the shots last an average of less than 4.5 seconds which is far less than the average of just under 6.5 seconds for the entire scene (the average for the film is 7.66 seconds). Also the shots are now all medium close shots on the two characters as opposed to the master shots that were used throughout most of the beginning of the scene. Both the shot style and rapid editing add tension as Tarantino builds to the robbery. Then he leaves us with a cliffhanger waiting until the end of the film to find out what happens.
The master shot used through the first part of the opening scene.

Medium close on Honey Bunny as the tension builds.
Medium close on Pumpkin as the tension builds.

 If you pay close attention during this scene you may hear Jules and Vincent talking in the background about Jules quitting “the life.” Vincent is also visible behind Honey Bunny’s shoulder on his way to the bathroom. In addition to this being one of the many ways the stories overlap, these are little gems that Tarantino peppers throughout his film. They are items that you would never pick up during your first, second or even third viewings.
Vincent is visible in the background on his way to the bathroom.
 Honey Bunny is the impulsive half of the lovey-dovey couple. She decides on a whim to rob the diner. The description in the script of these two just before the robbery says “Pumpkin’s robbery persona is that of the in-control professional. Honey Bunny’s is that of the psychopathic, hair-triggered, loose cannon[ii].” And this is evidenced by the way they pop out of their booth with guns drawn:

PUMPKIN (saying loudly, but calmly): Everybody be cool this is a robbery!
HONEY BUNNY (screaming maniacally): Any of you fuckin’ pricks move and I’ll execute every motherfucking last one of you!

At this point the image freeze-frames as Honey Bunny speaks her line. This is reminiscent of The Wild Bunch[2]. Then we cut to the titles and cue “Misirlou” (commonly known as the Pulp Fiction theme) performed by Dick Dale.
The freeze-frame shot of Pumpkin (calm and cool) and Honey Bunny (manic and shouting) at the start of the robbery. In the opening Honey Bunny's line is different to what it is later in the film. Notice the camera angle here is different than at the end.

[1] These include the Amazing Stories series as well as writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard and the creation of well-known characters like Flash Gordon and Fu Manchu.
[2] Dir. Sam Peckinpah, USA, 1969 (Warner Bros.) – In the opening sequence of the film, Peckinpah several times uses the technique of stopping the frame but continuing the soundtrack.

[i] Pulp Fiction: A Quentin Tarantino Screenplay, Miramax, 1994.
[ii] Ibid.

Next chapter: "Royale with Cheese."


  1. Yep true! We always remember movies and pulp fiction quotes. I love those movies only which have some of best fiction quotes I have ever heard. Undoubtedly they make movies more interesting.
    pulp fiction wiki