Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Reordering Convention: Introduction to an Analysis of Pulp Fiction

Following is the introduction to a full shot-by-shot analysis of Pulp Fiction that I did several years ago. This is not meant to be an essay or thesis, but rather an examination of the way Tarantino uses shot setups and narrative devices to effectively tell his story. I will try to post one new section a day over the next few weeks.

Since its release in October 1994, I have seen Pulp Fiction about eighteen times from beginning to end, including six times during its initial theatrical run. No viewing has ever compared to the first time when I was sixteen years old and not yet aware of what the film medium could accomplish. I was not yet versed in film history and I hardly knew from where director Quentin Tarantino was deriving most of his inspiration. All I knew after that first time was that movies did not merely have to be plot-driven. To borrow from Gene Siskel, movies aren’t what they are about, but how they are about it. Movies can be inventive, witty and can change the way we look at motion pictures.

I do not mean to suggest that Pulp Fiction was the first film to turn film convention on its head. Since its inception as an art form there have been filmmakers from D.W. Griffith to Steven Soderbergh who have altered the course of film history. But for an entire generation of young filmgoers in the mid 90s this was the film that opened our eyes. I knew I had seen something completely original, but I had yet to understand why. It took years of studying other films to learn what it was about Pulp Fiction that made me so interested in film study. To this day I still trace my initial spark of interest to that day in a movie theater just north of Poughkeepsie, NY.

I can still bring to mind particular feelings I had the first time I saw the film. I can vividly recall the stunning shock at Marvin’s head getting blown to pieces in the back seat of the car. I remember nearly falling out of my seat at the intense hypodermic adrenaline shot straight to Mia’s chest and her subsequent and immediate return to consciousness. The sheer hilarity of Captain Koons’ speech (which would be nothing without Christopher Walken’s perfect delivery) to young Butch still resonates in my mind. I was horrified by the basement rape of Marsellus by two redneck hillbillies.

My friends at the time might still remember how obsessive I was about Pulp Fiction and Quentin Tarantino. I can’t honestly remember if I saw Reservoir Dogs[i] before or after Pulp Fiction, but it was all part of a hysteria in which I was engaged and I forced my somewhat conservative friends to sit through the blood and violence of that earlier Tarantino film.

When the film opened commercially, many critics had already seen it at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival where it was something of a revelation, an audience favorite and a surprise winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or. Janet Maslin, writing for the New York Times when the film played the New York Film Festival in September 1994 called it “a work of such depth, wit and blazing originality that it places [Tarantino] in the front ranks of American film makers.”[ii] Marveling at the way Tarantino uses his encyclopedic knowledge of film history to make a movie uniquely his own, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert said “the movie is like an excursion through the lurid images that lie wound up and trapped inside all those boxes on the Blockbuster shelves.”[iii]

In addition to winning the coveted Palme d’Or[iv], Pulp Fiction garnered seven Academy Award nominations: John Travolta as Best Actor; Samuel L. Jackson as Best Supporting Actor; Uma Thurman as Best Supporting Actress; Quentin Tarantino for Best Director; Tarantino and Roger Avary for Best Original Screenplay; Sally Menke for Best Film Editing; and Best Picture. It took home one award that night – for Tarantino’s and Avary’s writing. Four of the awards (Actor, Picture, Director, and Editing) were lost to Forrest Gump[v]. The film also won several major critics prizes[1] and was nominated for six Golden Globes, winning for its screenplay[vi].

Pulp Fiction is three stories rolled into one, all overlapping upon one another. Even that description is far too simplistic because each story morphs into something else. The story of Butch going to retrieve his watch turns into a story about two redneck rapists. The story about Vincent taking Mia out on a date turns into one about a nearly disastrous drug overdose. The story about two hit men on a job turns into a story about two guys who have to get themselves out of a bad mess. Tarantino has said that this is one of his favorite things about the film. At one point you’re watching a boxer-throws-the-fight movie and suddenly you’re in the middle of Deliverance[vii]. It constantly keeps you on your toes, you never know what to expect next. You learn quickly that anything can happen as this story evolves.

An important and striking aspect of the three-stories-in-one reading of the film is that the film tells the stories of three separate protagonists. Incredibly, each man is the hero of his particular story: Vincent during “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife”; Butch through “The Gold Watch”; and Jules is the hero of “The Bonnie Situation”. The effect of this structuring is that we, as audience members, identify with each character within the context of his own story. That is the reason we accept Vincent’s death, occurring as it does during “The Gold Watch,” so easily. Butch is the protagonist in that sequence and Vincent the enemy, out to kill our hero. Any of the three stories could be developed and expanded into a feature film of its own. You could, for example, imagine a film that follows Jules after he quits the life and goes in search of his rightful place in the world.

More than anything else, Pulp Fiction is a story of redemption. Jules is redeemed after quitting the life of crime. Vincent, who refused to accept the sign, remained in Marsellus’s employ and is killed by Butch. Butch is redeemed when he turns back to save Marsellus, who is, in turn, redeemed by letting Butch go. People often think of this film as being so horrendously violent. It really isn’t. The following characters are killed onscreen: Roger; Brett; Vincent; Maynard; the fourth man. You might say that Marvin is killed onscreen, but the shot is from outside the car as we see the blood splatter all over the windows. Zed is shot onscreen and his torture and death are implied. Basically every character in the film is likable with the notable exception of Zed and Maynard, the only truly evil characters. There is not a single redeeming quality between the two of them and there is nothing remotely amusing or glorifying in the rape scene.

[1] Boston Society of Film Critics – Film, Director, Screenplay; Chicago Film Critics Association – Director; Screenplay; Kansas City Film Critics Circle – Film, Director; LA Film Critics Association – Film, Director, Screenplay, Actor; National Society of Film Critics – Film, Director, Screenplay; NY Film Critics – Director, Screenplay

[i] Dir. Quentin Tarantino, USA, 1992 (Miramax)
[ii] Janet Maslin, New York Times, 23 September 1994.
[iii] Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, 14 October 1994.
[vii] King Pulp: The Wild World of Quentin Tarantino, Paul A. Woods, Plexus, 1998.

Part I: "Everybody be cool this is a robbery"
Part II: "Royale with cheese"
Part III: "Let's get into character"
Part IV: "Does he look like a bitch?"
Part V: "In the fifth your ass goes down."
Part VI: "It's a sex thing. It helps fellatio."
Part VII: "I'll be down in two shakes of a lamb's tail."
Part VIII: "This is Jack Rabbit Slim's"
Part IX: "Is that what you'd call an uncomfortable silence?"
Part X: "That was fuckin' trippy."
Part XI: "And now, little man, I give the watch to you."
Part XII: "I want to know what it feels like to kill a man."
Part XIII: "If you had a pot belly, I would punch you in it."
Part XIV: "Where's my watch?"
Part XV: "That's how you're gonna beat 'em, Butch. They keep underestimatin' ya."
Part XVI: "You feel that sting, big boy?"
Part XVII: "Bring out the gimp."
Part XVIII: "I'm gonna get medieval on your ass!"
Part XIX: "Zed's dead, baby. Zed's dead."
Part XX: "We should be fuckin' dead right now."
Part XXI: "Oh, man, I shot Marvin in the face."
Part XXII: "I'm Winston Wolf. I solve problems."
Part XXIII: "I had what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity."
Part XXIV: "Jules, you give that fucking nimrod fifteen hundred dollars, I'll shoot him on general principle."

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