Pulp Fiction (US, 1994) was directed by Quentin Tarintino, and stared, amongst others; John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman and Bruce Willis. It is a film that has provoked much discussion, ever since it was first released, mostly because of it’s use of violence, but also over many other topics too. As Marjorie Baumgarten of The Austin Chronicle newspaper puts it: “…the movie makes you want to talk, want to babble, want to share your thoughts and enthusiasms.”
Pulp Fiction is a film that makes the viewer think in many different ways. You have to think to follow the storyline, which is actually several stories mixed together. Also it is not told chronologically, it raises many issues that are prominent in today’s society, and also challenges the viewer’s own perceptions of the world. It’s the perfect iconic slice of entertainment, but also puts forward ideas and thought provoking subjects.
The film, although always regarded as indefinable in genre, is often filed under ‘Crime’. Which does make sense, as that is the main subject matter of the film, although there is hardly any police presence. All kinds of crime are covered. From the intricate network of organised crime headed by the mob boss, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), to the two small time crooks, Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amada Plummer), that want to hold up a coffee shop because they are tired of the risks of robbing convenience stores and gas stations. The thing that makes Pulp Fiction make you think more than other crime films (or more than other films period) is the fact that practically all of the characters are criminals in one way or another. And these are the people we, as an audience, concentrate on, and sympathise and relate with as the story unfolds.
That’s an odd thing for us regular law-abiding citizens, to have to relate to reckless, cold-blooded menaces to society, when we are so used to being on the side of the police. And as I’ve said before, there is no police representation in the film, (with the possible exception of the hillbilly rapist Zed, who appears to be wearing some kind of law uniform, but even then it’s not as if he’s depicted in a good light). Regular members of the public only appear for one or two lines and their characters are by no means developed. Also we see the criminals when they aren’t ‘on the job’ as well. Most crime films might leave the criminals after they’ve done their job, but in Pulp Fiction we follow Jules (Jackson) and Vince (Travolta), the badass gangsters, throughout the rest of their eventful morning. We see them have normal concerns, normal conversations, and normal relationships. So we are prompted to ask ourselves; ‘are these people really all that evil?’
I doubt any decent person would deny that the things that they do are evil, but are they actually evil people themselves? Are the things they’re doing actually justified at all? It’s not as if it’s mindless random carnage. The process of cancelling out debts and doing favours for favours, is one we do in our lives albeit not on such a huge scale, but still a widely used process. The dialogue between Jules and Vince gossiping over a supposed event that Marsellus had the non-appearing character ‘Tony Rocky-horror’ thrown out of a window for giving Marsellus’ wife Mia (Thurman) a foot massage, illustrates this issue of justified actions. Jules thinks that Marsellus over-reacted: “That shit ain’t right, man.” and represents those who think such things are unfair, whilst Vince, although he’s “not sayin’ he was right”, thinks Marsellus was justifiable in being angry as “it’s laying hands on Marsellus Wallace’s new wife in a familiar way.” He represents those who think the reasoning behind acts of organised crime make sense.
The amount of violence in the film has always attracted criticism. The American film critic Robert Ebert stated he had “received mail from those who hate the movie. They say it is too violent, too graphic, too obscene, or “makes no sense.” Many say they walked out after 20, 30 or 60 minutes.” It is true that there is much violence in the film (no more than in the average action blockbuster though), but rather than glamorise violence, (which is a popular accusation toward the film), Pulp Fiction illustrates miss-conceptions about the amount of violence in society. Most of the violent acts happen in normal environments.
Butch (Willis) kills Vince in Butch’s sub-urban apartment, rather than in nuclear facilities, or government headquarters, as they might do in other action films. It brings the violence closer to home in some respects and could prompt the viewer (especially a viewer in Los Angeles, or a similar American environment, where the film is set) to question how much violence actually goes on, on their own doorstep. Also, Tarintino never actually shows much of the violence on screen. When Butch kills Maynard (Zed’s similarly sick minded brother) in the basement of the pawnshop with a samurai sword, we never see the sword go into Maynard’s body.
The contact is just off screen, below our view. Similarly we never actually see the syringe go into Mia’s chest. Instead we cringe when a chilling thud is sounded whilst the camera shows Mia’s shocked expression, not the contact. And when the guys in the apartment are shot, the camera is on Vince and Jules, not the victims. As previously stated, the film is no more violent than your average action movie. It just seems more violent because of the suspense and delay by humour that Tarintino uses.
Only nine people die in the entire film; the three guys in the apartment who are shot by Vince and Jules, Marvin the fourth guy from the apartment who is accidentally shot by Vince in the car, Vince is shot by Butch, the two hillbillies in the pawnshop basement, the boxer killed in the ring by Butch and the Gimp in the pawnshop basement. But alongside this count, six main characters; Mia, Marsellus, Pumpkin, Honey Bunny, Vince, and Jules are saved from death. Plus the many people in the coffee shop are also saved.
In Pulp Fiction, Tarintino tackles violence in our society, and makes the viewer really think about violence and crime. But violence and crime aren’t the only issues Tarintino raises in the film. Drugs are another issue he deals with. The main perception of drugs in the film is that they aren’t glamorous. At first it may appear that Tarantino is glamorising them, as everything goes great for the two sexy young drug takers; Vince and Mia on their ‘date’. But it soon all goes wrong as Mia discovers a bag of heroin in Vince’s coat pocket when Vince is in the bathroom. Mia, herself a coke-addict, thinks that it is coke, and proceeds to prepare a large line of it on the coffee table.
Her nose starts to bleed and then she passes out. She has over-dosed. Vince discovers her when he comes out of the bathroom (note that whenever Vince comes out of the bathroom, something bad happens). The sight is not pleasant. Panic stricken takes her to his dealer’s house, where they administer an adrenaline shot just in time to bring her round. This negative image of drug taking isn’t a very conventional one. In lots of films, before Pulp Fiction, drug taking was portrayed as cool and sexy, but this portrayal is quite the opposite. The viewer is shown the real dangers of drugs, straight up. Tarintino’s use of drugs culture in the film is not one of glamour, but one of warning.
Tarintino also challenges racism in the film. The word ‘nigger’ is used in the film a lot. But it is not always used by white people as a term of abuse toward black people, and when it is, the black people don’t seem to care so much. This is because they use the term themselves. Marsellus once uses the term on Vince, who is white, in a friendly tone. Tarintino is trying to put across the word as slang used between black people in friendly situations, but also acceptably used by white people.
He’s trying to communicate with the audience that the term is not always used in a racist context. And by us having the skewed view that white people only use the term to abuse black people, Tarintino is saying that we ourselves are being racist. Because we are singling out the word, singling out a group that uses it and a group that it describes. Tarintino’s use of the word is also for authenticity, as it is used as we see in the film. The same applies for the, what some might say over excessive, use of coarse swearing and cursing in the film, it’s for realism. The kind of characters in the film use that kind of language all the time.