Thoughts on Pulp Fiction

(ASIDE: Sorry for the big gap between my last updates and this. It’s been a hectic two weeks and I haven’t had much time to write. In this essay, I refer to the different subtitled sections of the film (“Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife,” “The Gold Watch” and “The Bonnie Situation”) as Chapters. Also, this is a companion piece to my earlier post on QT’s other films.)

Let me just start by saying I fuckin’ love Pulp Fiction and that was my introduction to Quentin Tarantino. I first saw this film at 13 years old, and it completely blew me away. Contrary to what some might assume, it wasn’t the violence that gripped me, but the natural, snappy dialogue and structure which were so unlike any movie I’d ever seen before. While you can tell where most movies are going almost from the start, PF left me on the edge of my seat wondering what might happen next. It changed my perception of what films could be, the same way SMiLE did for music a few years later. (That blog post is coming, believe me.)

Fiction was my favorite film for a long, long time, and while the “blow you away” factor has sadly worn off over the years, I’d still put it somewhere in my all-time top ten. I haven’t exactly kept a precise measurement, but it’s also in the running for the movie I’ve seen the most often. There was a period when I was 13-14 where I watched the DVD almost every day, sometimes twice. I just could not get enough of it, and no other has ever had that kind of immediate and pervasive hold on me. In High school, I’d sometimes stay up all night watching movies, and Fiction was included in those movie nights more often than not. For every year thereafter, I’ve probably brought it out at least five times.

In Pulp, the plot is made up of purposefully old cliche storylines but with a twist. QT explains as much in contemporary interviews on the DVD. (Particularly Charlie Rose.) The characterization largely comes from the dialogue. There’s more than enough context from the dialogue to get a solid view of who these people are and how they live. A good deal of the movie’s “fresh” appeal in ’94 stems from the conversations not sounding like what audiences expected to hear in movies. Instead of a vehicle for the exposition or the author communicating their worldview via their own characters, it was all natural, seemingly random, and quotable. Largely because of this, Pulp feels exhilarating to watch where most crime movies, be they noir or say The Godfather and Scarface, sometimes come off as overly dreary or self-indulgent. (I say this as a huge noir and Godfather fan.)

Then there’s just fun little moments like this, which other directors might perhaps consider out of place, but serve to humanize the characters and lighten the mood before the darker scenes.

The Little Details

There’s just so much to analyze here, so many easter eggs in the script foreshadowing what’s to come. A great example is when Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace talk about uncomfortable silences at dinner. That leads into the awkward, silent car ride home from Lance’s after Mia’s near death experience. Or how about when Jules Winnfield says “Marcellus Wallace don’t like to be fucked by anyone except Mrs. Wallace,” only for Marcellus to be raped later in the story. My personal favorite is the motif of Vincent Vega going to the bathroom always leading to tragedy awaiting him outside.

Outside of his writing, Quentin gives us some other fun details to analyze. For cinematographers, there’s some great camera moments like how it lingers impatiently at Brett’s door while Jules and Vincent step aside to finish their meandering conversation. In terms of soundtrack, several tracks foreshadow what’s about to happen in the story. For example “Let’s Stay Together” during Butch and Marcellus’ first meeting implies that the two are going to be connected later in the narrative. My favorite instance of this though, is when Mia dances to “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” just before overdosing. That song is about a girl receiving a warning that the guy she’s going with is no good, and we see that Vincent isn’t by bringing the heroin into her possession. Finally, you have many delightfully out of place touches like Marcellus’ band-aid and the orange flashes when Brett’s crew are killed. What does it mean? Who knows, but it’s inspired fascinating (if ridiculous) theories like Marcellus trying to get his soul back from agents of the devil.

Despite all this thought behind it, PF never feels pretentious. I believe this is because it has a nice “slice of life”/90’s “feel-good aura” about it that makes the film a lot more approachable than say, Citizen Kane or 2001. However, like those two, it still serves as an effective model for aspiring filmmakers for how to do it right. It’s the Seinfeld of movies, full of relatable conversations, on the surface it’s “about nothing,” but there’s still a lot to infer about human nature in the screenplay. I think the people who hate it were expecting something more like Godfather or Goodfellas instead of an old 30’s-40’s pulp fiction comic book put to screen. (That, or they’ve heard so many great things about it over the years, they set their expectations impossibly high.) It’s just supposed to be a fun ride, an anti-movie that breaks all the rules but still works despite itself. It’s a film where a tender love scene between Butch and Fabienne is followed almost immediately by gruesome torture in a BDSM dungeon, yet we never suspend our disbelief. I believe the framing device of pulp comics helps this movie get away with many of these left-field decisions where countless knock-offs have failed, which is why the definition of “pulp” that appears on-screen in the beginning is so essential.

Everybody has discussed these aforementioned qualities of Pulp Fiction in depth. The deeper message of redemption is well known, illustrated by Jules leaving a life of crime when he could while Vincent stayed and wound up dead. But in my experience there’s some thought-provoking aspects of Fiction which haven’t gotten much, if any, analysis yet. I’d like to go over some of them below.

The Theme of Morality

The first five or so conversations in the film subtly call our standards of morality into question. By beginning the film with these ethical discussions, QT subtly places that concept at the forefront of the story. This sets up Jules’ change of heart and resolve to lead a moral life at the end of the film.

1) Pumpkin and Honey Bunny discuss the best places to rob. What’s significant is that they determine no one would ever do the right thing and stop a robbery in progress unless there was some personal incentive. For example, Pumpkin deduces that no one would stop them in a federal bank because the bank itself has nothing to lose. He makes the same argument for robbing a restaurant as nobody would personally gain anything by being a hero and the employees are paid too little to care. This will be significant later in the film when a newly moralized Jules decides to stop the two for no other reason than to help them reform their ways. Jules proves Pumpkin wrong, that there are people out there willing to do the right thing even at great cost to themselves. (Jules lost $1,500 and could have been killed.)

2) Jules and Vincent discuss Europe. First let me just say, this is my favorite conversation in a movie, and a rare case where every single line is quotable in daily life. When I was 13 I loved this scene because it felt so true to how people really talk. Now I see this dialogue as a subtle reference to the fact that so much of our moral standards are arbitrarily assigned by where we’re born. Notice Vincent talking about how drugs like hash are legal in Holland, the cops can’t search people like they do in America, and public intoxication in a restaurant like McDonalds is permitted. It’s a reference to how much of what we consider to be right or wrong is based on nothing except tradition and arbitrary laws where we live.

3) Jules and Vincent discuss Tony and Mia. The two men’s different reactions to Tony Rocky Horror (?)’s fate* says a lot about their inner moral codes. Jules thinks what happened to Tony was wrong, while Vincent can see the logic behind the husband’s reaction. Jules has an inner sense of justice, of the punishment fitting the crime, and forgiveness for small infractions. Meanwhile, Vincent’s code stems from fear of retribution and personal loyalty to ones superiors. (We see this again with Vincent, where he gives himself a pep talk in Mia’s bathroom. He reminds himself of his loyalty to Marcellus as reason not to make a move on her.) This is the crucial difference between both men that leads Jules to redeem himself while Vincent refuses to betray Marcellus by leaving him.

In my opinion, the common interpretation that Vincent lacks a moral compass is an over-simplification. He has his own morals, they’re just different from Jules’ and this leads both men down different paths in life. It’s also worth noting that Jules’ moral code is initially hypocritical–he’s against maiming someone for coveting a man’s wife, but apparently has no qualms about murdering three people for coveting a man’s possessions. Of course, Jules will come to see this by the end of the film and live by his own code.

* Tony was supposedly thrown out a window by Marcellus for giving Marcellus’ wife a foot message.

4) Marcellus and Butch discuss pride. Marcellus lays out how unfair it is that some men play by the rules of their profession with nothing to show for it. He convinces Butch that it would be better to get something out of it for himself, even if it’s not the noble thing to do. According to him, it’s better to live without personal pride if it means having a nice retirement package. Marcellus will later be burned when Butch follows that advice a little too well and screws over Marcellus himself in order to get a bigger payout. This is sort of an anti-morality, a “take care of yourself”/dog-eat-dog-world view. Butch and Marcellus’ rivalry proves why living by social darwinism hurts everyone including those who espouse such a view.

But we see in later conversations between Butch with Esmeralda (his cab driver) and Scottie (his bookie) that he subscribes to this view too. That’s why Butch is so flippant about killing his boxing opponent, Floyd. In a deleted scene Butch spells it out clearly: “That son of a bitch out there, that Floyd, maybe at one time he was a boxer. If he was, he was dead before he ever stepped foot in the ring. All I did was put the bastard out of his misery. If he never was a boxer, that’s what he gets for fucking up my sport.” By the end of this Chapter, both Butch and Marcellus will come to realize the importance of caring about other people besides themselves. Butch rescues Marcellus when he could have escaped, and Marcellus swallows his pride and allows Butch to go free despite the fact he’s a mob boss who can’t afford to be soft.

5) Lance and Vincent discuss drugs. The irony is that these guys, doing hard drugs, are talking about relatively minor crimes like keying a car (and, in a deleted scene, giving someone the wrong directions) and how the punishment should be death. From a certain point of view, the two raise a valid point. However immoral society might consider illicit drug use to be, it is in most cases a victimless crime. By contrast, damaging someone’s property, or purposefully putting them in danger, actually hurts others yet we treat them as negligible misdemeanors at best. Once again, this is a subtle way to goad the audience into questioning their own morality, and where moral codes (should) derive from.

Vices and Virtues

It’s important to note that the vices of the Seven Deadly Sins make subtle appearances early in the film too. Pumpkin and Honey Bunny display both greed (as robbers) and sloth (refusing to get day jobs.) Both Vincent and Brett are guilty of envy (for European laws and Marcellus’ briefcase, respectively.) Jules is full of wrath with his vicious takedown of Brett and his gang. (He seems to take pleasure yelling at them and humiliating Brett.) Tony Rocky Horror supposedly lusted after Mia (and Marcellus unleashed his wrath upon Tony by throwing him out a window.) Marcellus talks about pride to Butch. Lance sells sedatives in the form of heroin, which could be seen as sloth. Finally, Vincent and Mia consume copious amounts of drugs within, or in the process of arriving at Marcellus’ house which itself is full of expensive status symbols–gluttony.

These negative forces are contrasted at the end of the film by Jules, who embodies the Seven Virtues. Prudence in the decision to live a more disciplined life in the future. Justice, defined as “treating your neighbor fairly” in his respect for Jimmy’s home and resolve to be just towards others in the future. Courage in standing up to Pumpkin and Honey Bunny. Faith and Hope are pretty self-explanatory with his newfound religious zeal as well as his plans for the future. Charity comes in the form of willingly giving his own money to Pumpkin and Honey Bunny so they’ll leave the other patrons alone.

I feel like, under most normal circumstances, once you start shoehorning the deadly sins and cliches of that nature into an analysis, then you’ve crossed the line into self-parody as a reviewer. However in this case, I’d say the fake Biblical passage Jules quotes (Ezekiel 25:17), the briefcase combination (666) and Jules’ redemptive arc inspired by a miracle provides enough evidence to where I feel comfortable making an exception. Clearly the use of traditional Christian concepts such as the Sins and Virtues were not far outside the intended message of Jules’ arc. (However, as we see from Butch, the film possibly offers an alternative model for redemption outside the traditional Judeo-Christian path as well.)

Character Interactions

Besides the theme of morality, the other big undertone of this film which I haven’t seen anyone else talk about is its examination of different relationship dynamics.

Pumpkin and Honey Bunny: Out of everyone here, these two seem to have the most outwardly passionate relationship. They “work” together and as a result their sole conversation revolves around that. It’s a counterpoint to the following three pairings where the men seemingly try to shield their women from their gruesome jobs and keep them pure (to a degree.) Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are like Bonnie and Clyde, expressing their infatuate love through their dangerous undertakings and bonding over orgiastic risk. They burn hot, but perhaps might not last. The two certainly care for one another, as shown by the way Pumpkin gives Honey Bunny credit for her good ideas and she leaps to her man’s rescue. However, since their entire relationship revolved around their robberies together, perhaps they might not last after Jules sets them straight. It’s one of the interesting unsolved questions of the film.

Butch and Fabienne: For me, the most thought-provoking contradiction in the film is the way that Butch is so careless about Floyd’s life as well as crossing Marcellus, yet he enjoys an adorable relationship with baby-doll Fabienne. We see Butch pamper and dote on her from the minute he walks in, switching to a softer voice and playing along with her childlike musings of pot-bellies. While she’s apparently aware of the gangsters out to get them, she seems to almost disregard it as a game or some kind of pillow talk. (At least that’s my impression.) The only thing she’s capable of doing to wake the violent Butch the rest of the world knows is forget his most prized possession–his father’s watch. Even then he quickly reigns his anger in and assures her it wasn’t her fault. The relationship with Fabienne humanizes Butch, who until this point was otherwise the most coldly self-centered character in the story. It adds another dimension to him which is something most characters in later Tarantino movies lack.

Vincent and Mia: The date adds another layer to Vincent’s character, same as Butch. Between how he interacts with Jules as opposed to Lance or Butch, we see the way Vincent seamlessly gels with someone he cares about versus those he doesn’t. Mia is more complicated, as an example of someone he wants to entertain, yet not get on too well with. (Due to fear of angering Marcellus and winding up like Tony.) Vincent doesn’t talk over her the way he does to Lance, but at the same time his responses are often curt and dry (“well, I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but don’t feel bad we just met each other.”) This guy who’s so fearless he kills people for a living, does heroin while driving and insults boxers to their face, is afraid of a woman. Similar to Butch and Fabienne, this interaction humanizes Vincent and complicates the straightforward characterization we’d received up to this point.

However, it’s not a simple copy and paste between the two couples either. We see that compared to Fabienne, Mia’s spoiled and childlike personality is a bit of an act. In her home she might be goofing around with a camera or dancing to the stereo. But in the restaurant, she’s capable of giving it right back to Vincent when she wants to (“when you little scamps get together you’re worse than a sewing circle.”) Two different women, two similarly protective instincts invoked in their men. I see it as a more modern take on The Godfather films, where men close the doors on their wives to keep them out of the business. Here, it’s more like the guys want their women to stay innocent (at least in terms of mannerisms) and naive (at least on the surface) probably to forget about the hard life they live outside their homes.

Winston and Raquel: Not a whole lot to say because these two don’t appear together for very long. But we see a similar dynamic to the previous two relationships, except taken even further as Raquel is able to back-sass and order the Wolf to go to breakfast with her. We recall from his interaction with Vincent (“a please would be nice”) that the Wolf wouldn’t tolerate such language from anyone else. That’s not to say Raquel is disrespectful to the Wolf either; in the deleted scene between them, they have a playful loving banter. (Perhaps they represent what Vincent and Mia might have developed organically over time if she weren’t married and they had other dates.) Just going by the one scene, it seems the two are the opposite of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny in that their work and lifestyles don’t factor into the conversation at all. Winston could surely do “better” than the heiress of a car lot, but he likes Raquel for who she is, which makes their dynamic that much sweeter.

Jules, Vincent and the Wolf: This last one isn’t a romantic relationship but I feel like it’s misinterpreted and I want to offer my two cents. Back when the IMDb forums used to be a thing, I saw a lot of people wondering why the Wolf was necessary in the final Chapter of the film. The argument was that the Wolf essentially just told Vincent and Jules to clean the car and ditch their clothes, which they knew they had to do anyway. The reason I believe the Wolf was needed (besides his knowledge of Monster Joe’s Truck and Tow) is that he brought a different dynamic to the group. Vincent and Jules couldn’t do this on their own because of an ego-driven petty personal feud. Jules was protective of his friend Jimmy (whom Vincent resented because of his attitude) and pissed at Vincent for putting them in that position. Vincent felt defensive since he knew he was seen as responsible for something he did not consciously do (shoot Marvin in the face.) Also, Vincent doesn’t know Jimmy and has no reason to care about Jimmy’s problems (his wife coming home.)

What the Wolf brings to the table is a clear authority figure whom everyone acknowledges as the one in charge. Vincent, Jules and presumably even Jimmy (whom Jules introduces as a former partner) know and respect him. Even if Jimmy isn’t familiar, he surely doesn’t hold Wolf responsible for the situation in the way he does Vincent and Jules. Therefore, Jimmy is more likely to be courteous and agreeable to the Wolf’s instructions, where if Jules raided the linen closet he’d probably get pissed. As a result, the Wolf is able to tell everyone what to do and they listen. With tempers flared as they were, there was no way for either Jules or Vincent to take charge and tell the other to clean anything. (Vincent was so pissed he even challenged the Wolf at first.) So, all that said, I found this aspect of the plot to ring true and serve as an example of how the dynamic of a group is often key to its success. It’s not that the Bonnie Situation was a complicated problem to sort out so much as it required a cool head who wasn’t involved in its causation to take charge.

I love this scene, her dancing carefree, oblivious to the warning of the song as well as Vincent’s existential crisis a few rooms away.
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