For many people this is the defining American film of the 90s. It was the kind of huge cultural crossover phenomenon that happens every once in a while. Hip, casually sexual and violent, with just enough hint of ideas and non-linear narrative, it seemed to have something for everyone and to be unarguably necessary. I don’t think I went to a single party in 1994 that I didn’t hear the soundtrack played.
I’ve said before that I think it’s unfortunate that this film overshadowed what Abel Ferrara was doing, because I think Ferrara had a fundamentally more honest and human approach to the same subject matter (organized crime, heroin, sexual politics). But there are numerous things I like about Pulp Fiction, mainly that it’s divided (this has always been my assessment) into three parts: Love (and Sex), War, and Spirituality.
The first part – Love and Sex -
The hitmen are discussing the boundaries or rules of love, i.e. should you massage the feet of another man’s wife?
Drugs are shown as a kind of substitute for love (the drug dealer hilariously looks exactly like Jesus)
Vincent and Mia fall in love, sort of; they have a romantic interlude which is interrupted by Mia’s overdose; we see how broken she is when it is only after she has put him to the ultimate “first date test” — saving her life — that she feels comfortable enough to open up and tell him her old tv joke
The second part – War
Bruce Willis is confronted as a child by the scary, intense monologue which Walken delivers — he is given responsibility over the sacred watch, which represents the duty of manhood and which has been stuffed up the rectums of two different men as POWs — this causes Willis to become psychotic, a killer
Willis’ great-grandfather is WWI, his grandfather is WWII, his father is Vietnam — and he has no war of his own, therefore he ends up fighting his war on the streets of LA with Marcellus Wallace
Esmerelda Villa-Lobos is like the beautiful foreign spy in a 40s espionage movie
The scene in the junk shop where he surveys all the possible weapons, ranging from primitive clubs to more advanced technologies, is a mini summary of the history of war
This sequence appealed to a generation who felt deprived of its “big war” and suggests that wars are psychologically necessary as a kind of rite of passage
The third part, Spirituality-
The married domestic life of QT and Bonnie — we see someone who has left the criminal life to pursue something “nobler”
The Wolf is a kind of guardian angel figure — he cleanses
Samuel L. Jackson speaks of his moment of clarity, his epiphany, to give up being a hitman and “wander the earth,” which suggests a spiritual avocation a la Christ or Diogenes (even though he’s talking more about being a kind of drifter-adventurer)
There is a weird glow, as of heavenly salvation, when Tim Roth looks into the briefcase, whose contents we never specifically learn
Reason and talking, rather than bloodshed, win the day in the end
Vincent is also an angel because we know that he’s already dead
So that’s what I think, and I don’t think it’s too far fetched; I think Tarantino probably intended those readings.
I thought it was just a movie.
It works as just a movie, I like to see this other stuff going on too, though
>For many people this is the defining American film of the 90s.
But Fight Club appears in ’99; and shit is never the same.
If Wolf is an angel, it’s in the mode of Pierre Clémenti’s Angel of Death in Bunuel’s The Milky Way, kind of hovering over death (which pursues Vincent avidly), as both sport & duty.
On the basis of the central “Gold Watch” segment (and Killing Zoe), I’d wager that Roger Avary is pretty fucked-up. I wonder even if the almost gothic excess, the bloat of this film in its middle, is mostly attributable to Avary—since the rest of Tarentino’s work seems not as freighted with constant, strange incident (not even Kill Bill).
interesting. i dont put too much stock into the first two parts of your assessment. but you’re right on with the third. spirituality is a huge thematic factor in the film. religion is a concern in the film. there’s baptisms, resurrections, prophecies.
this is a highly symbolic film. and the capper is one of the greatest symbols in modern cinema: the mystery case. which, as you mentioned, also has spiritual connotations.
Fight Club may be the first big film-crossover event of the aughts.
I like the angel of death connotation, Witkacy.
Bobby, I’m drawing a blank on “baptisms.” Maybe in blood? Please illuminate. I wonder why you don’t agree with my summaries of the first two parts?
Religious language does come into it as early as part one with the faux-psalm that Jackson recites before killing, but this doesn’t become truly spiritual, of course, until Jackson reinterprets it, without killing, in the final part.
I wonder if it is what Tarantino originally envisioned or if it was his intent. I never heard him talk about these themes in any interviews. Interesting.
I’ve read some interesting readings of Pulp Fiction and this one seems pretty standard, not too out there. Last month I was reading in a Sight and Sound editorial that someone had once written to the editor with an alphabetical reading of the film, saying that the chronological structure of film is organised alphabetically, from the initial discussion of Amsterdam to the final line in the piece chronologically: Zed’s dead. Sadly the editor didn’t take up the piece for publication and had now lost it so couldn’t elaborate further, and I haven’t got round to rewatching it to see if it works. Tarantino says he didn’t arrange it that way purposefully, which isn’t wholely surprising, but I still found it quite a wacky thought.
I agree with the points made about war and religion in your analysis Justin but I don’t know if the love and sex point is as justified. If all the relationships portrayed were hollow and superficial in contrast to the craving for drugs that you suggest is akin to love, I would agree with the point, but the relationships of Yolanda/Ringo and Butch/Fabienne seem to be very real, in contrast to the Mia/Marcellus/Vincent mess. There seems no unity in Tarantino’s portrayal of these relationships (although perhaps something could be drawn from the tenderness that many of the characters experience throughout in a city otherwise fraught with corrupt underworld dealings) so I’m not sure the point you are making here, but as I’ve said there may be something more with a re-examination.
As for Fight Club, the homoerotic relationship of Pitt/Norton throughout and its resolution that reveals it in fact to be a form of self-worship or self-love that Norton prides over his relationship with Martha shows a very individualist anti-love perspective that is much more explicit than any statements about love in Pulp Fiction. The lack of a great war for this generation of men is more explicit here, which along with the emasculation they feel at being raised by women alone (a point dealt with at more length in the book) leads them to beat each other senseless. The anti-capitalist thrust of the film invokes an absence of spirituality too, so although the mention of Fight Club here appeared to me at first glance to be slightly random (but welcome for me as I adore it), it would seem to take the themes you propose from Pulp Fiction and take them to a more extreme, nihilistic conclusion.
there are at least two baptisms in the film. one in zed’s basement, when butch and marcellus are sprayed with water to awaken them. the second in jimmy’s back yard, when the wolf sprays water on jules and vincent to cleanse them.
I think all reading of film are correct, Justin’s is an interesting one. i always saw the structure of Pulp Fiction to just be a parlor trick. it’s a moral piece on redemption that you have to construct in your head post viewing to decipher. In chronological order each character escapes death just barely after making a decision, then based on what the character learns from that experience dictates whether or not that character lives or dies. When Travolta and Jackson leave the restaurant at the end we know that one dies and one lives, but why? Why is because Jackson learned from his experience and is now going to stop being involved in organized crime. Travolta stays involved and is shot. Willis escapes death and then puts himself into harms way again but he does it for nobility, his father died to get the watch to him so he has to honor his father. The last shot chronologically would be Willis literally riding off into the sunset with his girl, clearly the movie believes him to be the most just.
Thanks Marcello and Craig.
Thanks Bobby, I see, I see, said the blind man.
While growing up in India, access to A-list Hollywood/world cinema was extremely tough, After reading an article praising Tarantino’s films in a newspaper, I bugged the video store guy to get me a copy of Pulp Fiction and finally I watched in awe and wonder and I still remember how I went on and on and on about the film to my brother, cousins and friends and anybody I met for the next couple of weeks.So technically Tarantino was my introduction to great cinema (greater than Pulp Fiction, of course)
Aspects from the film that stuck with me after first viewing were, how Tarantino stressed on the in-between’s, after’s, before’s for most of the scenarios rather than the actual scenario itself leaving spaces for us to fill and the theme of redemption which basically said nobody is bigger than anybody and the distorted chronology which was new to me until that point.
Hundreds of beautiful films later, may be a little wiser, a little more sensible, but deep down for reasons sentimental or otherwise, I still love the way Pulp Fiction entertains with each viewing.
Bobby, that’s a great reading / insight.
I’d note that almost all of the gold watch material was written by Roger Avery, as part of another screenplay, and not Tarantino. I think sometimes we can see more in a film than what the authors originally even intended. That doesn’t invalidate any of the reading of the film given here or elsewhere. I just think that it may have been the case that Tarantino had access to some great material which fit the general tone of his script and told a great story. He may not have had a three act morality play in mind and maybe serendipity was at play to make it all seem to flow from one grand theme to another. I’m reminded of a story about Pynchon that may be apocryphal. He’s been reported as saying that he was doing so many drugs while writing Gravity’s Rainbow that he read it years later and can’t imagine what he meant to say in some of the passages. All of those of those passages meanwhile have been given meaning by some of Pynchon’s creative fans. Regardless, I think the love/sex, war, spiritually reading is a great way to look at an amazing film. I just think that great art tends to reveal itself in so many different ways to so many different people and we tend to think the creators naturally had it all planned from the start when that’s often not the case.
Yes, I agree, Jay; that touches on the question of whether an interpretation can be valid in itself if it is elegantly stated and provides insight of its own into the human condition or aesthetic theory. Does a critic “need” the artist’s intentionality?
I have a friend who has written dynamite academic papers comparing Bono’s lyrics to Yeats’ poems, for instance, without any real proof that Bono has ever read Yeats.
I’m arguing no, a critic doesn’t need to be a sync with an artist’s intent to have valid insight. Also your friend is probably on to something. I’m pretty sure Bono has read Yeats. I think he compared Leonard Cohen to Yeats in ’I’m Your Man’ and I recall him discussing poetry at length in a book I read about the band. Surely Ireland’s finest is a favorite of his.
This is a really funny thread – not funny ‘ha ha’.
“Pulp Fiction” was sort of my gateway to loving movies (and the Exorcist). I think I loved the film first and foremost because it was (is) hugely entertaining, and very very funny. As I watched it a few more times, I began to think about the type of interpretations offered here. To this day I think these interpretations are pretty valid. Tarantino may never have intended us to think seriously about religion, war, or sex, but it’s on the screen, and that’s what counts. Strangely, though, despite the fact that I think these interpretations are valid, I don’t find them useful to me. If I see the film with them in mind, they don’t increase my enjoyment, or even appreciation of the film. In fact, if anything, I feel like getting into these interpretations distracts from the movies best qualities – fine performances, great dialogue, brilliant plot structure, creative violence, and above all, style. I guess I’m just trying to say that “Pulp Fiction” is too damn fun for me to worry about whatever social commentary might be imbedded in it.
so then the tragedy becomes you dont allow any space for entertainment and social commentary to coexist. you dont allow any space for a film to express all that it wants to say to you.
The ideas are presented in a very transparent way — I simply pointed to elements of the narrative. You don’t have to do much digging to see that Jackson’s “moment of clarity” is an inherently spiritual thing, or that Christopher Walken is talking about war. It’s not like you have to watch with a dictionary on one knee and an encyclopedia on the other to catch a lot of obscure, oblique references. There’s something there, but essentially it’s built into the surface of the film rather than buried underneath.
ahh, funny you mention a dictionary. with the opening image of the film being a dictionary definition! an opening statement on surface value and subtext.
whats the surface value versus the subtextual content of the “mystery case” in the film?
Whatever may have motivated Jackson, well, it would have been nice if it had been in the script.
You have to earn your epiphanies and writing and filming complex motivations is not one of “Trunk Shot” Tarantino’s strength.
Claiming a spiritual epiphany in “Pulp Fiction” makes me wonder how we can find a term for the action in something like Shepitko’s “Ascent”.
There’s different depths of spirituality and of epiphany. But someone who would never watch Ascent might well learn something from Pulp Fiction.
Bobby: There’s no tragedy here. I’m speaking only of “Pulp Fiction” here. I think that entertainment and social/personal commentary coexist wonderfully in films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Goodfellas”, or any number of Alfred Hitchcock films.
I guess for me the examinations of love, war, and religion found in “Pulp Fiction” seem perfunctory, and so taking them very seriously seems a distraction from the films prime values. Don’t get me wrong here – I see what’s on the screen, and it’s pretty obvious that these subjects are being explored on at least some rudimentary level. When I watch the film, though, my mind never moves to any serious thoughts about any of those serious subjects.
what motivated jackson was in the script. what mckee would call a great “turn” in the scene.
i’ve never been shot at from close range with a large caliber handgun. but hey, if it happened, and not a single bullet hit me, its safe to say i’d probably have a bit of a spiritual epiphany too. or, a “moment of clarity”. but maybe thats just me (and jules). i know, i know. gunshots. such a superficial and base method of motivation. unartistic and unworthy, mr. trunk shot. better if an actual angel and shining light came down from heaven and motivated jules’ actions.
whether you feel that “turn” or motivation is worthy or not, thats a different story. according to mckee, there’s only two ways to turn a scene (and by extension, a film): action and revelation. tarantino compressed those into one event. thats narrative economy, with complexity. motivation isnt so unlike godard’s claim that “what is continuity, but the passage from one shot to another?” (the idea was him belittling the dogmatic importance of classical notions of continuity)
I don’t think Close Encounters or Goodfellas are much more profound than Pulp — all are basically escapist films.
what’s your definition of profound? thats a word we throw around a lot. is it the opposite of escapist?
Justin – I don’t think there’s any real way to prove that “Close Encounters” or “Goodfellas” are more “profound” than “Pulp Fiction”, but that’s not what I’m after. For me, the social/personal commentary in those films does more for me than what I find in “Pulp Fiction”.
But, since were on the topic, I’ll just throw out a couple basic thoughts on those movies. I’m not here to deny that they are “escapist”. In “Close Encounters” I think Steven Spielberg made an extremely personal film. Same goes for “E.T.”. Deep in the heart of both of those films is a meditation on the breakdown of the nuclear family – a breakdown that Spielberg knew first hand from his own childhood. He is deliberately replacing the safety and security found in common family structures with an escape straight into the heart of our imaginations. Is it profound? I don’t know, but it is beautiful, and as someone who came from a broken nuclear family, I can relate. “Goodfellas”, through the context of a gangster film examines widely held American attitudes toward wealth, entitlement, and work. You could argue that America has been built on some of the moral attitudes that “Goodfellas” so eloquently expresses.
Are both films entertaining? Hell, yes. But I also believe that both films intended to communicate very specific ideas both social and personal. Those ideas are not broad or incidental, they are very very exact, and you can easily see traces of those ideas in other films by both directors. They are possessed by similar themes and concepts throughout their body of work. Tarantino, on the other hand, does not seem to be preoccupied with religion, sex, or war. He seems preoccupied with movies. That’s not a knock against him. In fact, that’s what makes him so unique among film directors. While Martin Scorsese may have as much (if not more) knowledge of film history than Tarantino, he seems to be interested in other things too. To examine Quentin Tarantino’s work, and to listen to his interviews, he seems primarily interested in movies, and maybe music sometimes.
“Pulp Fiction” is a great film. I’m just not sure how much value I’m willing to assign to it’s explorations of “profound” themes.
I appreciate your analysis of themes in Close Encounters and Goodfellas, but I still think their ideas inhabit much the same superficial space as the ideas about war and spirituality in Pulp. You recognize the ideas, largely because they’re telegraphed very explicitly, but you don’t really lose sleep over them (because they’re quickly resolved in the narrative action).
In my first post I say that Abel Ferrara is a more perceptive, honest, insightful director than Tarantino. I give Pulp some credit for having something on its mind. We could say that to the extent Close is about the nuclear family it’s also very sexist — the guy discovers sapce travel as his destiny, while the woman rediscovers… motherhood.
I don’t think QT even thought that hard about the symbolism in Pulp Fiction, he was just tring to make a very entertaining film. You can almost see every scene in that movie being a ripoff, but thats what he does best.