Welcome to our very first article. For the debut of our blog, we wanted to discuss a movie that is considered a landmark and an essential viewing experience by critics, scholars and filmmakers. Trying to pick a film for our first review together was more difficult and time consuming than setting up the website. After some discussion, we picked a movie that I had seen before, multiple times in fact, but that Alex would be viewing for the first time. This will be a recurring format for many of our upcoming articles, and I am intrigued to find out movies Alex will pick for me to experience. For our first article, we will be taking a look back at Pulp Fiction.
Let me start off by saying, this is new to me. Nathan and I sit around for hours talking about movies, but I have never written a critical analysis of one. So, I apologize if this comes off as clunky or unrefined. With that being said, here we go!
Going into this film, I knew it was going to be absurd, but I didn’t truly know what I was getting myself into. The 90s décor, the soundtrack, and the wardrobe choices alone make this film just nostalgic enough for someone who grew up during that era.
All of that aside though, the script and the cast are what made this film what it was. It was masterfully written, as Tarantino scripts always are. I especially enjoyed the dialogue between Mia (Uma Thurman) and Vincent (John Travolta). It came across as natural, but witty, for two people who had been thrown into a potentially awkward situation. As with every role he plays, Samuel L. Jackson uses his charm and unmatched personality to turn what could have been a forgettable performance into something iconic. And let’s be real, no one else could have pulled off the sweet jheri curl. This script also includes the best euphemism for a vagina I have ever heard: “the holiest of holies.” I will now begin petitioning that Republicans use only that term when trying to pass women’s health initiatives.
All joking aside, I would argue that the reason this film is regarded as one of the best of the 90s is because of the relatability of certain moments in the film. The pep talk that Vincent gives himself in Mia’s bathroom is something we have all done before. We claim we are only going out for one drink and the next thing we know we are drunkenly singing Green Day’s “Longview” at karaoke (looking at you Nathan). The anger and love that Butch (Bruce Willis) feels towards Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) when he realizes that she forgot his father’s watch is another moment we can all relate to our own lives. There is that one person, whether it be a friend, a family member, or a partner that we love dearly, but still pisses us off to no end. The small moments of realness among all of the absurdity is what makes this film what it is.
This was my third or fourth viewing of Pulp Fiction. It was easily the most I have enjoyed the film, and not just because it was my first time watching it with someone else. When I first watched it during my years as an undergrad at NIU, I read nothing about it before the experience. I’m not sure how I managed to make it through the nineteen years between when the film was released and my first viewing without reading or otherwise coming across significant details of the plot, structure or theme, but I did. Anyway, that first viewing resulted in a mix of confusion and admiration, but also, a sense of disappointment. Even though I knew little about the content of the film, I was very aware of the pedestal of acclaim upon which it stood, and my initial viewing led to some questioning of that status.
Subsequent viewings increased my appreciation for Pulp Fiction, and this most recent viewing was a blast. However, I still don’t consider it Tarantino’s best work. Unlike Inglorious Basterds or Django Unchained, it is a film that has great episodic moments, but never completely comes together as a coherent work.
I agree that the script’s greatest strength is how well drawn all the characters are. The film has a recurring motif of introducing everyone with long sections of dialogue and exposition. Many of these scenes completely stall the plot, which is thin to begin with, yet the film for the most part is compelling for the two and a half hour running time. These extended character intros help the film avoid a common problem with works that utilize episodic or circular narratives. Films such as Crash rush to get to the plot points in an attempt to quicken the pacing but at the expense of character development. This never works because if characters aren’t compelling, the viewer doesn’t care about the plot points. In Pulp Fiction, even if the narrative structure occasionally makes it difficult to follow the overall story, the characters are so interesting that we enjoy what we’re watching anyway.
I fully admit that I have a love/hate relationship with the plot of this film. I think what I loved most about this viewing experience were the surprises that as a first-time viewer you don’t see coming. For example, the scene where Vincent dies is brilliant. You know that someone is in the bathroom, but it all happens so quickly, that the surprise you experience when you actually see him in the bathtub is overwhelming. I also did not see the scene where Mia overdoses coming. We see her getting high the entire time she is on screen. The way it is set up just makes you think it is just more of the same. More importantly though, who takes their dying date to their drug dealers house instead of the emergency room?! I think my favorite absurd plot twist in this film though was when Vincent accidentally shoots Marvin in the face. It is one of those scenes that you know as a good human being you should not laugh at, but it is so ridiculous you can’t help but lose your shit. I would also be remised if I did not mention how brilliant Harvey Keitel is as The Wolf. That role was perfectly cast and written.
Tarantino has been upping the ante on making people laugh at things they shouldn’t. Wait until you see The Hateful Eight sometime, which is actually my second least favorite film in his canon.
Speaking of canon, one thing that struck me this time was how frequently and vividly Tarantino uses food. I have seen several of his other films more recently than I last saw this one, and I forgot how food plays as big of a role as it does in his more historically-inspired works. Examples are found in each of the three main arcs of the film. In the first arc, it includes Jules and Vincent’s discussion of the Royale with Cheese and, shortly after that, Jules taking a bite of Brett’s Big Kahuna Burger. Then, when Vincent takes Mia out to Jack Rabbit Slims, they discuss and share her five dollar Martin and Lewis shake. Quick aside here, but this is the first time I picked up on Jack Rabbit Slims’ incredibly racist method of identifying their shakes by the respective skin colors of two famous comedy acts (the other being Amos ‘n’ Andy). Also., for a place that charges five dollars for shakes, their selection sucks. Vanilla and chocolate are the only options! Really?
For the second arc, the motif switches to breakfast food. Fabienne repeatedly expresses a craving for blueberry pancakes. Butch kills Vincent just as the Pop Tarts he is preparing erupt from the toaster. In the third act, Ringo and Yolanda are frequently referred to as Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, who also happen to be holding up a restaurant. In several of these examples, the consumption of food is followed by death or the threat of bodily harm. As someone who has extensively studied Alfred Hitchcock, it seems to me that Tarantino’s use of food here mirrors that of the Master of Suspense. In films such as Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho and Frenzy, the preparation and consumption of food accompanied key plot developments in arcs about theft, murder and rape.
Tarantino repeatedly uses food and dining as motifs during tense moments of his more recent films. Some examples are the strudel and whipped cream consumed by SS Coloniel Hans Landa and Emanuelle Mimieux in Inglorious Basterds and the dinner served by plantation owner Calvin Candie in Django Unchained. Both of those scenes feature a meal in which the film’s antagonist realizes he is being deceived. Pulp Fiction provides a somewhat clunkier early attempt at this type of scene with the Big Kahuna discussion between Jules and Brett. In this case, however, Jules doesn’t learn anything new through the mealtime conversation. By the time he and Vincent arrive at Brett’s apartment, both men know what they are going to find, but Jules enjoys toying with his future victim a little until the suitcase is retrieved.
Now that I have gotten you all on my side, I would like to share what I have been told is my controversial view about this film. I did not like the scene in the pawn shop with the weird sexually abusive rednecks. Butch hitting Marcellus (Ving Rhames) with his car in the intersection was a great lead in. However, this scene seemed oddly unnecessary to me. I get it, the blood, gore, and absurd nature of the crime happening here is Tarantino’s trademark, but the plot took too hard of a left turn too fast. It also really bothers me in film when characters have no sense of self-preservation. Let’s be real, all of us would have walked out of that store when we had the chance and not gone back to save the man who had a bounty on you and your girlfriend’s heads.
I would also argue that this film could have easily been two hours instead of two and a half. The rednecks and gimp scene felt like it went on forever and the last scene also felt lengthy. While I enjoyed the development of Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), the self-righteousness at the end of the film dragged on. Like we get it, you are a changed man, but you are still pointing a gun at someone. I was definitely waiting for Vincent to jump in and end it all in the same fashion as the rest of the film. The one thing I did really like about the last scene was the pay off that you get from the beginning of the film. It brings it all full circle and allows you to clearly see the genius behind the plot structure. I thoroughly enjoyed the episodic nature of the film, but I did not truly appreciate it until it was over.
One final thing I noticed this time was the rear-projection used during Butch’s taxi cab ride to the hotel after double-crossing Marsellus. Given that this was an early, low budget project for Tarantino, this technique could be chalked off to budgetary constraints. However, it could be a deliberate choice. Hitchock appears to be one of the directors that Tarantino pays homage to in Pulp Fiction. Some have pointed to the similarities between Marsellus crossing the street in front of Butch’s car here and Marion Crane’s boss pausing in the crosswalk to glance at her suspiciously in Psycho. Hitchcock also frequently used rear-projection during car chase sequences despite a skill set and status that likely would have allowed him to pull of more realistic looking techniques for such action.
All in all, I did not hate this film, but I also did not love it. If you know me, you know my true love for the The Big Lebowski. To me, the absurdity of this film did not match up. I appreciate the genius that is Quentin Tarantino, but the viewing experience for me was not spectacular. With that being said, I understand why this film is a cult classic. I feel like it is a film that gets better with each viewing because you pick up on more and more of the intricacies of the plot and the characters. Maybe someday, I will figure out what is actually in that briefcase.