Great Vengeance and Furious Anger: A Reading of Pulp Fiction

Join me as I attempt to make some sense of Quentin Tarantino’s crime fiction masterpiece and conclude that it is more than just some pulp fiction....

PULP (pulp) n. 1. A soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter. 2. A magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper. American Heritage Dictionary: New College Edition At the time, he seemed to come out of nowhere. I mean, there was a Quentin Tarantino shaped vacuum, then suddenly, Reservoir Dogs was out and it was being talked about as if it was the cinematic equivalent of sliced bread. After that it was difficult to walk ten paces without someone saying €˜Have you seen Reservoir Dogs?!€™ I had seen it. And, even as a youngster (too young perhaps to have been watching Reservoir Dogs), I was just as blown away by it as everyone else. Tarantino holds pop-culture €“ more specifically cinematic iconography - in such reverence within his films that it€™s difficult not to get swept up in the fervour. So much so that his critics argue that he€™s something of a genre thief; picking this and that from whichever movie he€™s seen and loved and recreating his own version. But while Tarantino does borrow heavily from popular genre iconography, his pastiches are used to achieve something uniquely Tarantinoesque. In other words, he doesn€™t just take and recreate as does a Hollywood hack, he takes and reshapes, redefines and modernises, approaching tired conventions from such angles that they seem entirely new altogether. I remember watching Pulp Fiction for the first time on VHS as a fourteen-year-old kid and even then I knew that it was special. Teeming with veritas and yet still so otherworldly, like a hyperextension of our own reality seen through the eyes of a cineaste, Pulp Fiction is quite unlike anything that came before it, and comparable now only to pale imitations. Join me as I attempt to make some sense of Tarantino€™s crime fiction masterpiece. I have to admit, that even now, with a healthy portfolio of film knowledge under my belt, Pulp Fiction wasn€™t an easy film to read. It really is saturated in terms of subtext and symbolism and what€™s on offer is hugely interpretative; it may mean one thing to some and something entirely different thing to others. But, isn€™t this emblematic of a great movie? The ability to capture ambiguity, to present a film that can form two differing meanings for two different audience members but still feel focused, now that€™s talent! As always with these readings, it€™s written for those who€™ve watched Pulp Fiction before, considered its meanings and contexts and wish to delve further into its interpretation. And to say there are spoilers is an understatement; if you haven€™t seen Pulp Fiction, this article 1. Won€™t make sense, and 2. Is going to ruin so many sweet little surprises. But if you haven€™t already seen Pulp Fiction, then you probably wouldn€™t be reading in the first place, so without further ado€

Black Coffee

As with many a Tarantino movie, Pulp Fiction begins with dialogue around a coffee. In the opening scene, the two love birds, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, discuss their next robbery, planning to hit the very diner they're in. Convenience stores are becoming too...well, inconvenient, the clerks too cocky, and we can empathise with their unwillingness to kill. This also creates a note of tension later on, when we realise that they've inadvertantly taken two ice cold killers hostage. And that's why they should stick to convenience stores. Ironically though, their potentially fatal situation is also their inadvertant spiritual salvation. You€™d never realise it on the first viewing but even during this opening scene with so little established, there€™s a mischievous, unpredictable and miscreant force at work. First it giveth, then it taketh away: one moment it might stop bullets, the next it might lead its thralls into the den of a rapist. It weaves itself into each plot strand, connecting them by a thread of chaos and subtly influencing the denizens of the Tarantino universe for better or worse. Some perceive it as the divine, others as a shot of adrenaline to the heart, others as a sudden empathy toward their fellow man. There are many ways that this chaos manifests itself in Pulp Fiction and those that fail to perceive it are swept away in its current. It€™s a jarring contrast to behold; two people, clearly in love with one another, but discussing something as aggressive as robbery. But in allowing these two characters te express a compassion toward life, Tarantino builds up a romanticism around them, even before Jules intervenes; they€™re almost a modern day Bonnie and Clyde, not monsters, just enthralled by the type of greed that€™s accepted, even encouraged in a modern consumerist society. The full scene wouldn€™t have had its intended resonance until we€™d built up an intimate relationship with the characters Jules and Vincent. But the fact that, with knowledge of the events to come, you can hear the two enforcers talking about €˜the life€™ in the back of the sound mix, and even see Vincent heading to the bathroom in the background of one of the shots only adds to the resonance of Pulp Fiction€™s opening scene when watching for a second, third, or even fourth time. It€™s purposely disjointed, and this serves to accentuate that shifting tone, that chaotic narrative driving force €“ we€™re introduced to lovers, then we find out their also robbers, and then later we find out Vincent and Jules were there all along but wait, didn€™t we see Vincent die at Butch€™s hand earlier? This fractured narrative is how one might receive an ongoing story in an actual pulp fiction book; they were often continuous serials that had no real end, much like comic books are today. So if we were in the habit of reading pulp fiction books, then we might read a chapter of this character, a chapter of that character, and a chapter of the other, before returning to the first character to complete their story. What I find really clever is that Tarantino is able to cinematically recreate this concept of a shifting, interconnected narrative structure, reserved usually for serial literature; that he is able to use it to carve out a completely unique cinematic tone.

Say €˜What€™ Again

In Pulp Fiction, everything is connected. The €˜Royale with Cheese', referenced in Jules and Vince€™s opening dialogue for example €“ on first glance, it€™s a throwaway exchange, seemingly pointless to story or plot, and if it was left there, it probably would be. But when they arrive at their destination, confronting the college kids over their theft from Marsellus Wallace, Jules incorporates the same reference into his intense exchange with Brett, their main target. He simply quizzes Brett: €œDo you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in France?€ We€™ve heard this before, spoken about casually as part of one of Pulp Fiction€™s many non-conversations, so immediately it resonates. Except this second time it€™s delivered differently. This time it€™s laced with domineering menace. It€™s a masterfully suspenseful scene, and Jackson plays it note perfectly. Subtext is an actor€™s dream though and even on a scriptural level, this scene is loaded with the stuff. Dominance is established immediately from the fact that they enter the apartment with guns unannounced. And though, for three-quarters of the exchange, Jules is largely polite, even well-mannered, he also demands answers and he selects who in the room will answer which question. Each exchange rises a little in tension, Jules€™ voice raises in volume, while Brett retreats further and further into himself. We know there will be death, we€™ve seen enough firepower to deduce that, but Jules gets us there in such a way that we can€™t be fully certain of the outcome until right up to the moment he starts substituting punctuation marks with gun shots. And so we arrive at perhaps one of the most iconic monologues in contemporary cinema. I think you know which one I mean: €œThe path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy My brothers. And you will know My name is the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon thee.€ At this point in the story, Ezekiel 25:17 (that€™s right, not even the Bible is safe from Tarantino€™s feverish intertextuality), is simply an epic pre-murder monologue; after all, there€™s no better way than to achieve biblical intensity than by quoting a biblical passage. Presumably Jules is an Atheist as contract killing isn€™t exactly the Samaritan way. So when he delivers the monologue on this occasion, he is assuming the role of €˜I€™, that is to say, he€™s assuming the role of God, which is for a number of reasons more than a little unhealthy. Of course, moments after Brett€™s death, Jules and Vince are assaulted by another of the college kids toting a hand-cannon, and manage to cheat death by mere inches. This is one of the several awakenings in Pulp Fiction. Jules, for a moment, is able to perceive the touch of chaos and awakens from its thrall; almost as though he senses Tarantino€™s presence through some metaphysical barrier and misconstrues it as God. Left as it is the biblical monologue is, as Jules describes it later, €˜a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker €˜fore you popped a cap in his ass€™. But it€™s not enough for Tarantino to just leave it at badass, it has to truly resonate. The rest of Jules€™ story charts his crisis of faith, through more than one delightful theological debate between he and Vincent until it culminates in the climactic diner scene that bookends the movie, layering so many different connotations and possible interpretations on top of Jules€™ character that he could easily sustain his own movie. In this taut exchange with Pumpkin, Jules further deconstructs his biblical murder monologue. He muses that Pumpkin could be the evil man, Jules the righteous man and his firearm the shepherd, a deadly instrument of God. Or, Pumpkin is the righteous man, Jules is the shepherd and society is the valley of darkness. The definition that Jules takes as the truth of his situation is the third: Pumpkin is the weak to be shepherded and Jules is the tyranny of evil men, a champion for inequity if you like. Of course, in reality, each definition is applicable in its own right, but he professes a genuine desire to become his brother€™s keeper, the finder of lost children. And in deciding not to retaliate against Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, and by keeping Vincent at bay, he achieves exactly that.

Would You Give a Guy a Foot Massage?

Vincent Vega is the only character in Pulp Fiction to feature in every narrative thread (including the opening scene, albeit in the peripheral vision of the action). He €“ along with Marsellus Wallace, who's at least mentioned in every scene bar the first half of the diner robbery €“ are the ties that bind the separate strands. Their presence reiterates constantly that we€™re still in the same world and that each thread has some sort of effect on the other, whether palpable or buried beneath the subtext. Although he features heavily in Jules €˜Holy Avenger€™ storyline, his own main narrative explores his dinner date with his boss€™ wife, the smouldering Mia Wallace (certainly to my mind, one of Uma Thurman€™s best performances to date). Now, to me Vincent is perhaps the most conventional character that we see throughout Pulp Fiction. So often have I watched the mob enforcer archetype lumber into a situation, to which the protagonist quickly and predictably deals with the threat without too much effort. And think about it: that happens in Pulp Fiction. It€™s in Butch€™s story that Vincent is dealt with, and it really is without any trouble whatsoever. So in many ways, Tarantino fully acknowledges our expectations of convention with this character, and we leave the viewing satisfied. Certainly it isn€™t the chronological plot that pangs of originality (which is something those €œI actually don€™t like Tarantino films€ guys like to argue, seemingly just to be perverse). What I find particularly unique here is the manner in which these expectations are appeased. While the €˜mob enforcer€™ may be a standard crime fiction archetype, Vincent himself is far from archetypal. Firstly, there€™s never usually any real sense of character behind these figures. They€™re normally used purely as a form of external antagonism, a threat of violence or even death to the protagonist. But, and this goes for both Vincent and Jules, Tarantino thoroughly explores what makes these guys tick; where they€™ve been, their opinions on the little things (think back to the Royale with Cheese) and most importantly who they really are and how they fit into his world of his creation. And in doing so, he makes them both protagonists in their own right. Vince talks constantly throughout most of his scenes, and for the most part he€™s introspective, intelligent and even philosophical. But while Jules is dominating the college kids, Vincent remains almost entirely silent. It€™s clear the two have done this a hundred times before, and with the knowing smiles and glances that they throw each other in this scene, it€™s evident that over years, they€™ve developed a formula that works. This is more like the €˜Enforcer€™ image that we€™ve been fed throughout crime fiction; that goonish yet marauding silence; a levy of violence ready to break should things get hairy. The genius twist though, is that this lumbering silence is wholly uncharacteristic for Vincent. In other words, Tarantino digs deep beneath our expectations of Vincent€™s character and subverts them from within, adding a third dimension to an otherwise flat archetype, providing just what we expect but in a manner that we could never have predicted it to be delivered. Vincent is a human character to the core, not just a robotic hired killer (although he is that too), but a man with an entirely unique and unpredictable personality, completely his own. The male characters in Pulp Fiction, and Vincent is no exception, display a rampant misogyny which sees most of the female characters standing beneath them in the pecking order of the film world. Butch has an alpha-male draw over Fabienne, Vincent€™s dealer, at one point, threatens to kill his wife if she isn€™t quiet and for the most part, women are referred to in the dialogue as €˜bitches€™ or €˜chicks€™. Pulp Fiction's criminal demimonde is one that€™s clearly dominated by men. However, amidst this sea of sexism floats Mia Wallace. She isn€™t treated as the other female characters are in Pulp Fiction; in fact quite the opposite. From very early on, there€™s a sort of antagonistic mysticism shrouding Mia, and she looms over the story even before we€™re introduced to her, which is very much indicative that she€™s a femme fatale of sorts. In Jules and Vincent€™s opening scene, it€™s revealed that a fellow career criminal was thrown from a window simply for giving Mia a foot massage. Immediately we glean that just associating with her is a dangerous gambit, let alone accompanying her on a cocaine-fuelled night out. Who knows what would have happened had Mia not accidentally snorted the super-Heroin, but if a more conventional plot were allowed to play out, you can be sure it wouldn€™t have ended well for Vincent. This sense of chaos that constantly rears its head in Pulp Fiction is fully at play here, as it is everywhere else. Mia finds the Heroin by chance when looking in Vincent€™s jacket for a smoke, and there€™s no doubt that had she died, again, it would not have bode well for him. But somehow - another divine intervention perhaps - he€™s able to bring her back from the brink of death and in doing so averts both the sexual encounter that would have inevitably occurred had she not overdosed and the violent repercussions that he would have faced had she died. Through his awakening, Jules, while not fully understanding his new place in the world, is able to quieten this chaos and as such is able to completely control the situation in the diner. It€™s isn€™t the religiosity of his awakening that€™s in focus here, but the interior stillness that it allows him to achieve. But Vincent, after straying so close to meeting his maker, chooses to remain in ignorance, a thrall to the chaos of the Pulp Fiction world. As a result, his life ends unglamorously. I draw a parallel from Vincent€™s death at the hands of Butch to that of the late Elvis Presley, and others of his ilk. One moment, living life on a high, gorging on the liberties afforded to the successful opportunist; the next, dead on a toilet, bloated and overdosed on the American Dream.

That€™s Pride Fuckin€™ Wit€™cha

In a list of greatest cameos, you can bet that Christopher Walken€™s walk-on part in Pulp Fiction would feature in it somewhere (near the top if there€™s any justice). Captain Koons delivers a young Butch his father€™s war-time watch and relays the story of its tumultuous journey home. On our first viewing we may not pick up on the symbolism behind certain aspects of this long, allegorical monologue €“ I certainly didn€™t first time around, so let€™s deconstruct it a little. Butch is a man at war. Combat is his profession just as it is for Captain Koons, just as it was for his father and so it€™s important to note that Butch was weaned onto conflict as early in his life as Koons€™ monologue. The story that Koons weaves for the bright-eyed future prize fighter is one of honour, valour and pride: the story of Butch€™s great-granddaddy€™s irreplaceable wartime watch, produced by the first company to ever make wristwatches. In experiencing this moment with Butch, we€™re given an insight into why Butch becomes who he becomes: a prideful soldier of fortune fighting a war of his own machination. Another key allegorical element of Koons€™ opening monologue is in the first of many references in Butch's storyline to the anus and sodomy. They're also littered here and there throughout the movie, usually made by Marsellus Wallace himself, who shoves the word €˜ass€™ into almost every sentence. Tarantino knew what was coming for Wallace, and he subliminally embeds the word in our head, priming us for Butch's chapter for when it arrives. Butch's father, whose life ended in a €˜Hanoi pit of hell€™, a Vietnamese P.o.W camp, was forced to hide the watch in the once place his captors wouldn€™t look: as Koons so abruptly puts it, his ass. The way in which Butch€™s story ends is heavily foreshadowed here, although you€™d be forgiven for missing it on first glance as it plays like an unexpected gag and often pulls a snort of mirth from the viewer. Koons details how the watch passed from ass to ass, before finally finding its way back to Butch. And before Butch can truly earn the right to carry his father€™s watch with pride, he€™ll need to go through his very own similar trial by ass. War is one of the major image systems at work throughout Butch€™s storyline. It€™s immediately established in this opening scene with Koons€™ uniform and indeed the story he relays to Butch, it seeps into his more tender scenes with Fabienne, and it€™s repeated subtly at least once in almost every other scene. The choice of locations plays a huge part in achieving this aesthetic tone of War. The long steady cam shot for example, when Butch first arrives back at his apartment to look for the watch, follows him in through the back entrance (excuse the butt-pun). The patches of grass covering the yard are dead or dying, and as he weaves his way through the bleak corridor of mesh fences and dilapidated buildings, a helicopter can be heard overhead, hovering at the back of the sound mix; it€™s hard not to be reminded of the dystopian nature of a P.o.W camp. The plot conveys this comparison much more literally by its climax, seeing Butch literally imprisoned along with his pursuer Marsellus Wallace, about to suffer his own anal intrusion as a result of the watch. Of course, he could have just left the watch behind, it is after all just metal and glass, but so too could his grandfather, his father, or one of the other war heroes who sacrificed their sanctity in the eyes of their God by breaching their most unholiest of holies to protect it. This watch has a special power over men it seems; perfect strangers have traversed the globe just in order to return it to its rightful place, men have suffered years of rectal discomfort in order to keep it hidden and Butch is willing to risk his life to reclaim it. In many ways, he€™s not just searching for an heirloom, but for the right to be a part of its illustrious history. Pulp Fiction is delivered as a non-linear narrative in which we perceive time in the wrong order. It€™s designed to confound. This works in tandem with these forces of chance that repeatedly impose themselves on the plot to create a nihilistic sense of purposelessness, a sense that life has no rhyme or reason after all. Its chance, for example, that Marsellus walks past Butch€™s car in the first place, and worse chance that they€™d run straight into the dungeon of a rapist. Arbitrary plot points such as those that have been peppered throughout Pulp Fiction are usually a big no-no in drama, but within the context of this film, guided by the mastery of Tarantino, these chaotic narrative choices are all part of a larger scheme at work. It€™s clear that Butch isn€™t normally in the business of taking shit from people. His altercation with Vincent during the scene in which we€™re introduced to him is evidence of this, and if you map out the films chronological order, you can corroborate this butting of horns with the keying of Vincent€™s car (discussed by Vince and his Heroin dealer in the Vincent & Mia plotline). And when Butch wakes up from the dream of receiving his father€™s watch, it€™s the sense of pride it instils in him that forces him to win the rigged fight and incur Marsellus Wallace€™s wrath. These are all the choices of a protagonist; wilfully conscious decisions made by a main character that drive the narrative. But when Butch€™s ownership of the watch is in contention, these decisions become merely reactions to a series of events that have spiralled out of his control. He€™s almost forced into our position as audience members, forced to experience the fractured, disjointed and purposeless nature of Tarantino€™s world without his trusty timepiece to keep track. In regaining the watch and surviving the ordeal to earn it, to put it as simply as possible, Butch regains a victory over these forces of chaos. Much like how Jules, through the perception of a divine force (whether real or imagined), is able to find purpose and attain the interior stillness needed to survive the diner robbery, Butch achieves an inner calm that allows him to finally perceive Wallace as a fellow human being and not just as another enemy soldier in a dishonourable war. After all, as Koons puts it when analogising the concept of wartime camaraderie, €œwhen two people are in a situation like we were, you take on certain responsibilities of the other€. This watch isn€™t just a watch, it€™s an ideal; a small piece inside the men in its charge that does have meaning, does have purpose and can never be penetrated, even by the most intrusive aggressors.

Lewd Subject Matter

Think about the characters in Pulp Fiction. Jules Winnfield and Vince Vega are your classic mob enforcer archetypes, at least in the beginning. But it€™s their subtext, their fully explored depth as characters that brings them to the forefront of the bill. Mia Wallace is a femme fatale if there ever was one; there€™s no doubt in my mind that had she not snorted Vince€™s heroin, then a caper would have ensued, in which Mia used Vince€™s barely concealed attraction to enthral him. But Tarantino derails any conventional plot that may take place here with an entirely unexpected overdose plot arc. And there€™s nothing new about the idea of a fighter who, when pressed by a mob boss to throw a fight, cannot forgo his pride and must somehow survive the repercussions. But the Tarantino stamp marks how Butch gets there, not just where there is. The conventions are present in Pulp Fiction, cherry picked from film noir, crime fiction and from the wealth of genre knowledge that Tarantino seems to possess, even if it€™s not always obvious. For the conventions in Pulp Fiction don€™t feel like any conventions we€™ve seen before. To appease our many expectations, while simultaneously weaving story that€™s entirely unpredictable is no easy calling, particularly in this saturated age of cinema. But we€™re in safe hands with Tarantino. He€™s a modern master of genre, a contemporary story teller who operates within the upper echelons of greatness. Tarantino is obviously a fan of the crime pulp books from yesteryear that inspired Pulp Fiction. But the medium was traditionally considered a form of low art despite now enjoying an element of historical significance, even more so in the light of Tarantino€™s success. But they were originally rejected by the scholars of their time. Conversely, Pulp Fiction, while being so intrinsically linked to these lower art forms, is commonly considered to be one of this generation€™s most acclaimed pieces of cinema, sparking fervent analysis and debate amongst some of the finest critical minds in film journalism even still. €˜Low art€™ is such an ugly phrase; the idea that someone can quantify an act of creation; that someone can decree what is worthy of reverence and what isn€™t. I think Pulp Fiction argues against this sentiment. And yet the divide still exists for all of us; I mean, could you compare say, Redneck Zombies by Troma director Pericles Lewnes to Sergio Leoni€™s €˜Once Upon a Time in America€™? Of course not, but just as Leoni poured his heart and soul into his four hour crime epic, someone sat down and wrote Redneck Zombies; someone committed the creative energy necessary to bring a vision from script to screen, and someone was brave enough to put it out there for us to judge. No matter how culturally insignificant a so-called piece of low art might seem to its critics, it always means something to someone, somewhere. For me, Pulp Fiction€™s message isn€™t religious, as the Jules ending might suggest. Nor is it cautionary, as the Vincent ending might suggest. It can€™t be summarised in a succinct little phrase, because it simply doesn€™t obey the rules. Tarantino€™s statement with Pulp Fiction is almost justification for a life spent elsewhere, spent caring about little else but movies and other narrative forms, for spending his life in pursuit of whatever it is that we, as a species, are searching for in the arts. And in effect, this is what Pulp Fiction is about for me. All these forms of lower art, these pulp fictions that meant so little to the intelligentsia of their time; they meant something to someone. They meant something to Quentin Tarantino. Did you enjoy this reading? Or do you think I€™ve got my head where Butch€™s wartime watch went? Drop me a line in the comments box and give me your spin on Tarantino€™s crime fiction masterpiece. Previously;

The Life of the Mind: A Reading of Barton Fink


Stuart believes that the pen is mightier than the sword, but still he insists on using a keyboard.