Pulp Fiction is structured around three interlinking story segments which are told in non-chronological order. Vincent and Jules, two hitmen working for the gangster Marsellus, retrieve a briefcase of money belonging to their boss which had been stolen by a group of minor drug dealers. While carrying out this job they accidently shoot one of the dealers and have to hide the body at their friend Jimmie’s house. Marcellus has paid Butch, an ageing boxer, to throw a fight but Butch, prompted by the memory of his dead father, decides he can’t do it. During his attempt to escape after the match, Butch shoots Vincent but then literally runs into Marsellus. Before Marcellus is able to kill Butch they are kidnapped, in a random sequence of events, by the owner of a pawn shop and his cousin who rape and torture Marsellus, Butch escapes but decides to return and rescue Marcellus, by doing so he cancels his debt and is free to leave with his fiancé.
It is difficult to think of another contemporary film which has created a similar impact to Pulp Fiction. Others have been as controversial (e.g. The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988), Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994)) but Pulp Fiction is different in the way that its reception affected not only the industry and audiences but also pressure groups and academics, resulting in arguments about the morality of the film and the future of filmmaking. Pulp Fiction was an event film in the context of mid-1990s postmodern culture and the cinematic trend of ‘cool violence’, already linked with Quentin Tarantino’s previous film Reservoir Dogs (1992). Tarantino himself became a star and selling point for the film. The divided reactions to Pulp Fiction have to be read through the debate around postmodernism itself as being either a mainstream or an oppositional mode. In other words, is it a stylish but superficial imitation of existing texts, or a reinterpretation and reassessment of cultural forms?
The success of Pulp Fiction challenged (particularly in the US) the boundaries between art-house, independent and mainstream cinema. Pulp Fiction was the first fully formed incarnation of the ‘independent major’; an increasingly pejorative term for a film which has conventions associated with independent cinema (i.e. unconventional style and structure, character rather than action led) but which is coded to appeal to a more mainstream audience because of demands on the producer/distributor as an affiliate of a media conglomerate. This style of filmmaking was embodied – perhaps invented – by Miramax in the mid-to-late 1990s. The Hollywood agent Rick Hess described the way Pulp Fiction amalgamated art-house and Hollywood styles: ‘Yes it had an unusual timeline totally non-linear in every way, but it had sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and violence, and that’s something that every studio would have gone for’ (Biskind 2004: 169). Miramax, although owned by Disney in 1994, had developed a marketing brand as an independent, small-scale producer battling against the power of Hollywood (a narrative repeated in the persona of Tarantino as the outsider). They had had a relatively successful period distributing independent American and European films before the incredible commercial success of Pulp Fiction. The estimated budget for the film was $8.5m which represented minimal risk to Miramax as they had sold the worldwide rights for $11m before filming began. The film went on to gross over $100m at the US box office – the first time an independent film had achieved this. The effect of this success on the independent film sector is debatable. For some filmmakers Pulp Fiction created economic opportunities and an interest in new filmmakers which hadn’t existed before. Others were concerned about the phenomenon of ‘indiewood’ – independent films now carried the kind of financial expectations more usually associated with Hollywood films.
The mixing of Hollywood genres and European cinema styles which made this film so appealing to the emerging independent majors can be also read as an example of postmodernism (which continues to be evident Tarantino’s more recent work, Kill Bill (2003) and Grindhouse (2007)). The discussion of postmodernism as an aesthetic is itself controversial with some critics arguing the postmodern is a period rather than a style (Jameson 1983). However, there are characteristics which have become accepted as signifying a postmodern text – and which are particularly applicable to film. This categorisation relies on the interrelated concepts of simulation, bricolage and intertextuality. All these concepts emphasise the ‘ready made’ nature of postmodern culture – the assembly of new texts from existing ones. It is this stylistic tendency which has led to readings of postmodernism as ahistorical. This interpretation argues that the lack of any history or context beyond the reference to other texts in the postmodern aesthetic results in a loss of meaning and analytical possibilities.
Postmodern characteristics are apparent in Pulp Fiction in the acknowledgement of film history through references to and recycling of genres, narratives and visual styles. Intertextuality is evident in the construction of the plot, where narrative ‘old chestnuts’ (gang member takes out the boss’s wife and must not fall for her, a boxer past his best is bribed to throw a fight, hitmen on a mission) of bmovie history are retold. Genre iconography from the 1940s – guns, black suits, briefcases, cigarette smoke, crimson red lipstick and nail polish – appear throughout the film but don’t signify that the film belongs to a specific genre. The concept of recycling is also evident in the use of stars; specifically John Travolta whose back catalogue (Saturday Night Fever (1977) rather than Look Who’s Talking (1989)) allows his turn on the dance floor to be read as iconic (rather than merely nostalgic or poignant).
Individual characters are also linked to a specific genre or film style, even though the rest of the cast may not coexist within it. Mia (the wife of the boss, Marsellus Wallace) is introduced as a femme fatale, her entrance imitating Barbara Stanwyck’s in Double Indemnity (1947). She is represented in black and white fragments – black hair, trouser legs, ankles, mouth – we don’t see her face until the car pulls up at Jack Rabbit Slims. Her role as the untouchable but irresistible wife also echoes the triangular set up of 1940s film noir. Mia is a failed TV actress whose cancelled pilot Fox Force Five is an example of Tarantino’s references to invented cultural signs (Jack Rabbit Slims, the Big Kahuna Burger) which are intertwined with examples of real popular culture and people (Modesty Blaize, Douglas Sirk). Mia’s ability to affect the film stock itself – she draws a square on the screen to illustrate ‘Don’t be a square’ – points to the increasingly slippery distinctions between reality and representation highlighted by postmodernism. Mia is a character constructed from the fragments of other imaginary characters whose back story is an invented (but real in the film) TV pilot for a series which never existed (in any context). These levels of referencing and quotation within a single character are reminiscent of À bout de souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959) and the way in which Godard constructs the character of Michel Poiccard (Jean Paul Belmondo) as a ‘wouldbe gangster’ who imitates Humphrey Bogart.
The difficulty of defining postmodern style is evident in the differing claims for it as either oppositional to or part of mainstream culture; parody or pastiche. The mainstream tendency is pastiche – a visually exciting imitation of existing styles which remains superficial because it is divorced from wider contexts (often dismissed as form over content). The oppositional mode – parody – is also imitative but aims to evaluate and subvert the original codes or meanings associated with the imitated form. The oppositional tendency questions and challenges, attempting to construct new meaning through placing existing cultural styles and movements in new contexts. In postmodern cinema this could refer to the way the intertextual mixing of genres (e.g. blaxploitation, gangster and musical) changes the meaning of the original representations (e.g. race and gender). The mainstream mode is merely an imitation or copy with nothing new to say. Whether a text is parody or pastiche it will share characteristics of style, form and content but it will operate within either the oppositional or mainstream mode. Predictably, the categorisation of texts in these terms is open to debate.
This debate is particularly pertinent to the main areas of controversy around Pulp Fiction; the representation of violence and race. The sudden shifts and contrasts in tone which continually move from suspense and violence to comedy and the banal is another important borrowing from Godard and the French New Wave. In ‘The Bonnie Situation’ Vincent accidentally shoots Marvin, the student who he and Jules specifically did not kill in interrogating Brad and his partners. The impact of the violence is undercut by humour – the gun unexpectedly goes off – and irony, as at that moment Vincent is asking Marvin whether he believes that God controls peoples’ actions. After the death in the car, Jules is more upset about the ensuing mess created in Jimmie’s bathroom, more fearful about his reaction than the death of a young man. The most sustained period of suspense, verging on horror, is during ‘The Gold Watch’ when Butch and Marsellus are tortured in a pawn shop basement by the owner and a corrupt sheriff – both of whom are drawn as stereotypical hillbillies reminiscent of Deliverance (1972). Even when the two men are gagged, bound, covered in petrol and blood, and while the threat of rape is clear but unspoken, the use of film language provokes comedy. This is achieved through the long takes – so long that they have the effect of the uncomfortable silence referred to earlier by Mia – someone in the audience will have to break it, quite likely through nervous laughter. As the sheriff plays ‘Eenie Meenie’ between the two men to select his victim the camera remains on their faces capturing their intense concentration on the game and the moment of hope in Marcellus’ eyes when he thinks he isn’t ‘it’. The contrast between the children’s game – and the gravity given to it – and the grown, sadistic men becomes absurd and is part of the representation of masculinity in the film; the men are often childlike and bewildered. It is characteristic of Tarantino’s style of this period that the actual violence takes place off screen; behind closed doors or just out of frame. This technique allows greater manipulation of the audience whether through the anticipation created in the period before the violence or through the unguarded reaction (often laughter) to the unpredictable. It is in this context that the violence initially made the film so controversial and led to calls for censorship. This tone is not new in American cinema – Bonnie and Clyde (1967) also deliberately copied this technique from European films – but in Pulp Fiction it is allied to an explicitness that was not previously possible.
Perhaps the more lasting and divisive controversy of the film though is that of the representation of race, particularly in the use of racially taboo words. The effect on the audience is similar to the effect of the unexpected violence – shock and laughter. That it is the director himself speaking the words (as Jimmie) means an aura of ‘cool’, of being daring and transgressive, is also attached. For some critics (see Hill 1998) the use of postmodern style in Hollywood films operates at a conservative level, smuggling in traditional ideologies (of, for example, race and gender) beneath the experimental style and references to culture beyond the mainstream (blaxploitation, b-movies, French New Wave, etc.). Controversy over the use of the term ‘nigger’ is increased by the suggestion that it is being ‘legitimised’ by the homage to blaxploitation, the character of Jules, and that Bonnie (Jimmie’s wife) is a black woman.
The use of such a taboo word, in the context of a white American speaking it to an African American, illustrates why postmodernism is such a divisive concept. Pulp Fiction shifts the status of black popular culture by reclaiming marginalised forms and to do this it cuts them off from their original time and place. The shock of the use of racial terms in the film shows how strong the hold of historical and social meaning is – not all signs are easily removed from their context.
Sarah Casey Benyahia
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: A Band Apart and Miramax Films. Director: Quentin Tarantino. Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino (stories: Tarantino and Roger Avery). Cinematographer: Andzrej Sekula. Editor: Sally Menke. Cast: John Travolta (Vincent Vega), Samuel L. Jackson (Jules Winnfield), Uma Thurman (Mia Wallace), Ving Rhames (Marsellus Wallace), Bruce Willis (Butch Coolidge), Tim Roth (Pumpkin), Amanda Plummer (Honey Bunny), Quentin Tarrantino (Jimmie).]
Peter Biskind, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film, New York and London, Bloomsbury, 2004.
Warren Buckland, ‘Narrative Chronology in Pulp Fiction’ in his Understand Film Studies, London, Hodder Education, 2010, pp. 56–60.
John Hill, ‘Film and Postmodernism’, in John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson (eds), The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, London, Verso, 1983.
Sharon Willis, ‘Style, posture, and idiom: Tarantino’s figures of masculinity’, in Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams (eds), Reinventing Film Studies, London, Arnold, 2000.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.