The morality of Tarantino’s classic…

To coincide with the 20th Anniversary Collector’s Edition of Pulp Fiction, we revisit Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 classic. There are spoilers – obviously – but it’s not like you haven’t had a few years in which to get up to speed...

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Pulp Fiction, 1994 trailer

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Pulp Fiction. Even the title appears to have been chosen as a misnomer to consciously misdirect the viewer’s expectations. What depth can there be in a film named after the literary equivalent to junk food? Think of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and your memory is likely to fall on one of three key elements: Vincent’s bewilderment that a quarter-pounder in France is known as a Royale with Cheese; Mia and Vincent’s twist at Jack Rabbit Slims; or the mystery of what’s stored within the glowing case

The first pair in that trio possesses the superficiality that the title alludes to. The Royale? That’s the kind of throwaway talk-about-nothing fact that forever entertains bored work colleagues, 1994’s equivalent of the Japanese Burger King’s black cheeseburger for a less globalised era in which even a minor change seemed like a substantial novelty. The dance? It’s just a dance – to deliberately misquote, you can’t dance about architecture.

It’s the box which best encapsulates the film’s anarchic balance of layered meaning and apparent triviality. Its contents can be whatever you want it to: it purely drives the plot forward. Even for low ranking gangsters Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) it doesn’t matter. Their free will is dictated by the demands of their boss Marsellus (Ving Rhames). Simply: get it, or get a cap in yo’ ass.

Marsellus is central to the film’s mix of the-end-is-the-beginning-is-the-end non-linear tricksiness and the similarly cyclical redemption that Jules experiences – something that barely impacts on Vincent’s outlook. Rearranged linearly, one of the film’s earliest scenes sees the duo miraculously escape death from point blank gunfire. Jules considers it to be a miracle, a moment of divine intervention from a higher power. For Vincent, it’s an example of shit that just happens sometimes. Which may well explain the run of bad luck he subsequently experiences every time he enters a bathroom. Jules, meanwhile, almost immediately changes tack by defusing a robbery in the diner with (relatively) non-violent methods.

Redemption is also vital to the story of boxer Butch (Bruce Willis). In a typically nihilistic moment in a consistently nihilistic movie, Butch’s reaction to the news that he has killed his opponent is as nonchalant as if someone informed him that the recycling hadn’t been collected.

Soon after, he takes the same approach to the kill-or-be-killed encounter with Vincent – where one of the main anti-heroes kills another without mercy. Sure, it’s hardly Luke Skywalker offing Han Solo (hey, The Force Awakens team, if you’re stuck for ideas…) but it was a pretty unconventional plot device at the time.

It’s the Butch / Marsellus encounter that neatly encapsulates both the sense of atonement and reap-what-you-sow shenanigans. Their battle – intercut with a smart visual reference to Psycho (one of many of Tarantino’s homages to the past; the aforementioned dance scene’s resemblance to a similar moment from 8½ being perhaps the next most obvious example, as well as the meta association of again cast Travolta in such a moment) – ends, as unlikely as it sounds, with both of them immobilised and held hostage in what you would hope is the world’s only gun shop-cum-opportunistic S&M rape dungeon.

Marsellus’s obsession with all things “ass” results in him being chosen as one of the two victims, while Butch manages to scurry away. Butch is left with a simple dilemma: run, knowing that his enemy’s enemy is a very perverse kind of friend, or, for perhaps the first time in his life, save a man whose current fate is probably the only time he’s been blameless for the violent circumstances in which he finds himself. He makes the right decision, a choice that’s underlined by his symbolically honourable choice of the samurai sword from a checklist of weapons that also included the brute simplicity of a baseball bat and a chainsaw, the later of which representing a choice that would’ve surely tipped this black comedy fully into the realms of parody.

Pulp Fiction’s impact over the wider world of film was varied in its implications: indie filmmaking became a business that could cross into the mainstream; almost forgotten actors, like Travolta, could use such movies as a their own redemption from acting purgatory; others would learn to balance the worlds of blockbusters and cool indies to maximise profit while maintaining their credibility. Even soundtracks evolved from such obvious selections like that of Forrest Gump to more obtuse tunes, inspired by Tarantino’s picks such as Dick Dale (his surf twang offering a specifically American answer to Morricone’s spaghetti western scores) and Urge Overkill (who, as legend has it, Tarantino discovered when he randomly picked their ‘Stull’ EP out of a second hand bargain bin in an Amsterdam record store).

Mostly, however, it forced the majority of the crime genre to be more creative. Instead of dialogue simply serving the plot, many subsequent films aped Pulp Fiction’s wisecracking characters who were more informed than ever by changing (and often masked) motivations, to the point where non-linear storylines combined with such characterisation is now its own cinematic cliché.

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Urge Overkill, ‘Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon’, as featured in Pulp Fiction

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It’s a fine influence when it works – notably Guy Ritchie’s British equivalents, or the postmodern progress of Martin McDonagh’s story-within-a-story Seven Psychopaths – but all too often films fall too close to the original template. This year’s Cold In July offered a Travolta-style reinvention of Don Johnson as a larger-than-life Texan who would’ve been a good fit for Pulp Fiction itself; at least one borderline absurd redemptive twist; and a similar detour into a underworld of sexual deviancy.

Thematically and creatively Pulp Fiction can be best summarised with just two of its long list of memorable quotes: “[just] because you are a character, doesn’t mean you have character,” observes The Wolf. It’s a thought that Jules pushes to its logical conclusion: “Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness.” For a film initially demonised in some quarters for its depiction of violence, they’re morally solid codes to keep in mind throughout life’s challenges.

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Words: Ben Hopkins

The Pulp Fiction 20th Anniversary Collector’s Edition Blu-ray Box Set is out right now. And for you London types, there’s also a Pulp Fiction quiz at The Alibi on Kingsland High Street on December 16th (info).

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