Saturday, July 31, 2010

Somebody Asked Me To Be An Expert In Something Part 5: Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction is a film so ubiquitous that its hard to chart its impact.

Pulp Fiction drew on so much, and has been in turn so copied, that it becomes almost invisible.

This draws a problem for someone trying to talk about the film. I mean should I mention the dance sequence, that’s shown in countless clip shows, retreads, and parodies? What about the hypo scene? Or the watch speech? Or what Butch and Marsellies find in the basement of the pawn shop. They’ve all entered the lexicon. So well known that they’re almost impossible to see.

This is a fate that befalls all classic movies, but given that so much of Pulp Fiction's acclaim at the time came from how fresh it was its feels even weirder. You mean there was a time when it was considered weird for a movie to mention another movie? You mean there was a time when Tarantino wasn’t a household name? Weird.

Pulp Fiction
is a unique film, in Tarantino’s career as well as in general. Tarantino has spent the last decade doing nothing less then creating his own cinematic universe. Inglorious Basterds, Kill Bill, and Grindhouse all take place in their own pocket Tarantinoverse as surely as George Lucas’s films take place in “A long long time ago, in a Galaxy far away.” And the mythologies and rules of Tarantinoverse are no less intricate then the Jedi’s.

Pulp Fiction, despite its many flourishes...

Is still placed in something that resembles the real world. One of my favorite shots in the film is a simple one of Butch cutting through the back Alley to an apartment complex. A shot that anyone who has spent anytime in LA will recognize as it s
omehow manages to look like every single apartment in LA.

Because that’s what people miss about Pulp Fiction. The important thing about it isn’t how, modern and blaise it is. But how retro.

The critics of the time blasted Fiction as being nihilistic and glib. This seems laughably now, partly in thanks to just how many times and just how badly Tarantino’s film was imitated. You couldn’t walk into a movie theater or video store between 1995 and 2000 without being besieged by a cheap imitation waiting to show you what a glib nihilistic crime movie REALLY looked like.

The fact remains, that while Tarantino often did, and still does shock the audience into laughter with violence, he can not be accused of making it not matter. After all, the priniciple action of Pulp Fiction isn’t Marvin getting shot in the face, or Marsellus Wallace getting medival on a “Soon to be living the rest of his short life in agonizing pain ass rapist here.”

No. The principle action in Pulp Fiction is an act of mercy. Its Jules proving to himself and to the other characters that he is better then we think he is. And just because violence is easy and learned, doesn’t mean it can’t be overcome. Tarantino isn’t a scold, which is why the movie ends with Jules and Vincent triumphantly strolling out of the diner, rather then Vincent dying on the toilet seat, after failing to change his ways, the way he would in chronological time. But the message is clear. Call it divine intervention, call it Karma, call it whatever you want, the character who mends his ways walks away. The character who doesn’t pays.

Though its certainly more graphic, I’d argue that Pulp Fiction is easily the most optimistic film I’ve shown so far. The message of all the other films, is “There’s no way out.” Pulp Fiction is about one man simply and defiantly choosing one.


Stephen Losey said...

"The principle action in Pulp Fiction is an act of mercy. Its Jules proving to himself and to the other characters that he is better then we think he is. And just because violence is easy and learned, doesn’t mean it can’t be overcome."

On the nose. Some of Tarantino's critics knocked him for the time-shifting nature of Pulp Fiction, calling it a gimmick, but it's absolutely essential to reinforce his point that redemption is not only possible, but essential for survival.

It's absolutely vital that we see Vincent get blown away coming out of the john to see the inevitable endpoint of that life of violence, and what Jules avoided by accepting his "divine intervention" signal. So when Jules gives his "I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd" speech, it hits us that much more. It's by far the most effective of any of Tarantino's climaxes (and the fact that SLJ knocked it out of the park performance-wise certainly doesn't hurt).

The redemption theme also has a parallel in Butch's story. Butch very easily could have skipped out on Marcellus, his enemy who he just tried to kill, and left him to the mercy of the pawn shop freaks, but he didn't. At great personal risk to himself, he took on Zed, Maynard and the Gimp and rescued Marcellus from further misery and probable death. That act of mercy -- and leap of faith -- got him a pardon from the crime boss, and earned him the same redemption Jules earned.

If Butch had kept walking out of the pawn shop, Marcellus would likely have disappeared forever, removing an immediate threat. But someone would have replaced him in his organization, and would have known Butch killed Vincent, and suspected (not unreasonably) that Butch also killed Marcellus. And you just can't retire in the south of France with that on your head.

The late Marcellus' syndicate would have placed an even more astronomical price on Butch's head, and he would have had to run, forever, and would have been caught sooner or later. By ignoring his own "divine intervention" chance for redemption, Butch would have doomed himself just like Vincent doomed himself. That parallel is why it's very crucial that the Gold Watch sequence comes where it does -- it's a dry run for the final Bonnie Situation sequence.

Stephen Losey said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I bow to you and your always incredible analysis of film. Its a shame that people get caught up in the violence of it all and the perceived gimmicky 'noir-ness' of it and can't actually see there is a message there.

I've always loved the scene at the diner where Jules tells Vincent why he can't eat bacon.

Simon said...

Never heard it that way before. Brilliant.

But can it be a little about Marvin getting shot in the face?

Neil Fulwood said...

I've been putting off reviewing 'Pulp Fiction' as part of my Personal Faves project for exactly the reasons you outlined in the first couple of paragraphs of this superlative review. So superlative, in fact, that I think I'm going to putt off my own write-up for a bit longer.

Neil Fulwood said...

Hi, I’ve tagged you for a meme. Sorry/you’re welcome [delete as applicable]. Details here:

Unknown said...

Great take on Pulp Fiction. There was probably no more important film to me from, say, '94 to '96, and I've avoided it for the same reasons that I'm avoiding things like Taxi Driver or Vertigo or The Wild Bunch.

Funny, isn't it, how many of the filmmakers that get dumped on for supposedly glorifying violent acts often turn out to have such a moral streak? It's like Tarantino himself once said - the violence in Pulp and Dogs practically conforms to the old Hays Code. Between Jules and Vincent, it's Jules who seeks redemption and is allowed to walk off unscathed.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Stephen: Excellent points as always my friend. I really noticed the parellels between Butch and Jules this time out. And you're right, as much as there is to love about this film, it's all on SLJ shoulders.

@ PoT: Sewer Rat may taste like Pumpkin Pie, but I'd never know cause I wouldn't eat the filthy motherfucker.

@ Simon: I wouldn't want to live in a world where Pulp Fiction wasn't at least a little about Shooting Marvin in the face.

@Neil: Many thanks for the kind word. If anything it makes me want to write up the film again though, I didn't cover 20% of what there is to write about in this thing.

I didn't even touch on what a SENSUAL film it is. I mean God every corner of every frame has something to just stare at.

And /Thanks for the tag.

@ Scott: I hear you there. I put off writing about this for a long time, and was kind of forced into it by this event I was a part of. I'm glad it was.

I think one of the best things Tarantino said about Violence is that you "Only get penalized for doing it well." Because after all, if you do it badly it doesn't effect anyone.

Dawn said...

It's actually 'A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...' Sorry, had to correct you =P

Bryce Wilson said...

Aw Unbelievable!

Don't blame you in the slightest ; )