PULP FICTION: A Landmark Film in Visual Style and Shock Value

 Music Videos became popular in the early 1980’s and the kind of quick cutting and highly stylized content appealed to a new generation that seemed to demand constant and rapid fire delivery on screen in order to remain engaged.  Director Quentin Tarantino was their visual champion, with films containing both this visual style and the kind of shocking content that to this day keeps his fans coming back for more.

Pulp Fiction is still his most famous film.   I was appalled when I first saw some of the scenes in this film, but found it much more appealing when I recently viewed it again for inclusion in my new online Film Genres class for Georgia Perimeter College.

The potty mouth dialogue includes using the n word constantly and the f word every other word, but somehow this seemed more ridiculous today than offensive.    The scene between Mia(Uma Thurman)  and Vinny(John Travolta) in Jack Rabbit Slim’s is a visual masterpiece; the 1950’s cars, movie posters, and actors impersonating Ed Sullivan, Marilyn Monroe, Buddy Holly and others is really very fun……… I found many of these strange characters to be actually appealing in their own screwed up ways.   Vinny is just doing a job, ruminating on what it means to be loyal.   Marcellus(Ving Rhames) is ashamed of being anally raped and willing to call things even with Butch Coolidge(Bruce Willis), the boxer who didn’t take a dive when he was supposed to, but then saves Wallace when he didn’t have to.  Jules(Samuel L. Jackson) wants to retire: he sees the missed shots by one of the young men who had crossed Marcellus as a message from God.   Uma as Mia is funny, seductive, out of control.   The whole world these people live in is insane, but the perversity is what draws us in.

The film revived the career of John Travolta, who had starred in stud films like Saturday Night Fever and Urban Cowboy; seeing Travolta on the dance floor with Mia reminds us of these early films.

Tarantino is famous for his non-linear storylines, and this film is his most famous example.   It begins and ends with a holdup scene in a diner, but the ending is shot from a totally different point of view.  Vinny (Travolta) dies in the film, but that action takes place well after the scenes in the diner that bookend the film.

Vinny is a hitman for a gangster named Marcellus Wallace, as is Jules Winnfield.   Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) is an aging boxer who accepts a large payoff from Wallace to throw his next fight.  Their stories intersect in ways that really make you think and reflect on these characters.

After our first viewing of the holdup scene in the diner, Vinny and Jules go to retrieve a briefcase from  a dealer who has crossed Marcellus Wallace.   Their banter on the way there includes this famous piece of dialogue about Jules’ recent experiences in Paris at a McDonald’s, which had to rename the famous Quarter Pounder because the Europeans use the metric system of grams and kilograms.

Vincent: And you know what they call a… a… a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?

Jules: They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with cheese?

Vincent: No man, they got the metric system. They wouldn’t know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.

Jules: Then what do they call it?

Vincent: They call it a Royale with cheese.

Jules: A Royale with cheese. What do they call a Big Mac?

Vincent: Well, a Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it le Big-Mac.

Jules: Le Big-Mac. Ha ha ha ha. What do they call a Whopper?

Vincent: I dunno, I didn’t go into Burger King.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Pkq_eBHXJ4

Royale with Cheese

Jules lets Vinny know that Marcellus is going to ask him to later on be an escort for Mia (Uma Thurman), Marcellus’s wife, but that Vinny needs to be careful and treat Mia like she is forbidden fruit.   Both men then get into their tough-guy personas before executing this dealer, including Jules making his strange and bizarre Biblical pronouncements before shooting someone:

Jules: The 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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2WK_eWihdU

Jules quotes Ezekiel

Vinny and Jules deliver the briefcase to Marcellus, where he is also talking to Butch Coolidge and paying him off to throw the upcoming fight.

The next day, Vinny drops by to see his friends Lance (Eric Stoltz) and Jody (Roseanna Arquette), so that Vinny can get high on heroin before he has to pick up Mia.  He then takes Mia to Jack Rabbit Slim’s, this 50’s themed hangout with fake celebrities:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNwtg3Wmp30

The Great SteadiCam Shot walking into Jack Rabbit Slim’s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYID_csTvos

The Dance Contest at Jack Rabbit Slim’s

After winning the twist contest, Vinny takes Mia home; while he visits the restroom, Mia finds some of the heroin he scored from Lance in Vinny’s coat pocket; she thinks it is cocaine and snorts it.   She OD’s and goes into some shocking and repulsive convulsions.   Vinny gets Lance to come help him revive her, which means injecting this large hypodermic needle directly into Mia’s heart.  Fortunately, it works, and Mia and Vinny agree to keep this incident a secret from Marcellus.

Lance: You’re going to give her an injection of adrenaline directly to her heart. But she’s got, uh, breastplate…

[taps Mia’s chest]

Lance: So you gotta pierce through that. So what you have to do is, you have to bring the needle down in a stabbing motion.

[demonstrates]

Vincent: I-I gotta stab her three times?

Lance: No, you don’t gotta fucking stab her three times! You gotta stab her once, but it’s gotta be hard enough to break through her breastplate into her heart, and then once you do that, you press down on the plunger.

Vincent: What happens after that?

Lance: I’m kinda curious about that myself…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOoJoTAXDPk

A Shot of Adrenaline

A flashback sequence takes us back to the childhood of young Butch, who was to become the prizefighter.  Captain Koons (Christopher Walken) arrives and gives a gold watch to young Butch; the story goes that this watch is a Coolidge family heirloom.  Koons got it from Butch’s father when they were both in POW camps in Vietnam; Butch’s father died in the camps, and Koons hid the watch in his anus for two years, just so that he could bring it back to the family.

Back in the present, Butch wins the boxing match he was paid to throw, even killing the other fighter in the process.  He flees to hide out from Marcellus, but discovers that his girlfriend had forgotten to bring the watch with her before meeting him at their hideout.   It is so important to him that he literally is now willing to risk his life in order to go back and get it.   At his apartment, he notices a machine gun on the kitchen counter, and hears someone in his bathroom.   He quietly picks up the gun, and then kills Vinny when the latter exits from the bathroom.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xHO6nBc4YFU

Butch meets Vincent

Butch then leaves, but Marcellus spots him at a traffic light; Butch hits him with the car, but is himself injured when another car crashes into his; a foot chase ends up in a pawnshop, where the 2 owners tie up Butch and take Marcellus into another room to rape him.   Butch frees himself, grabs a ceremonial Japanese sword in the pawnshop, and kills the guy who is watching his brother rape Marcellus.  Marcellus then grabs a gun, and shoots his rapist in the groin.  Marcellus also tells Butch that they are “even”, as long as he tells no one about the rape and agrees to leave town and never come back.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVRPz6-Tkww

Marcellus Gets Medieval

We then cut back in time to just after Vinny and Jules have executed the drug dealer who crossed Marcellus. A third guy bursts out of hiding in a closet, firing wildly and completely missing Vinny and Jules before they return fire and gun him down.   Jules interprets this as a sign from above that he needs to retire from his current vocation.

He and Vinny leave with their snitch, but Vinny “accidentally” blows his brains out; they stop off at their friend Jimmy’s house to clean up the car.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBBni_-tMNs

I Shot Him in the Face!

Jimmy (played by Tarantino) is extremely anxious that this situation be handled before his wife shows up in an hour.   Marcellus arranges for Winston Wolfe (Harvey Keitel) to help his guys figure out what to do, which they do, just in the nick of time.

Vinny and Jules then head off to get some breakfast, and so we end up in the same diner and in the same scene we saw in the beginning of the film.

The two robbers, “Pumpkin” and “Honey Bunny” decide they are going to increase their take from this heist by robbing the diners as well as the restaurant itself.  But they end up in a three way standoff with Jules, who refuses to give up the briefcase that he and Vinny need to deliver to Marcellus.  The standoff ends when Jules proposes that the two robbers leave with everything else they have stolen, but agree to leave him with the briefcase.

Jules: Normally, both your asses would be dead as fucking fried chicken, but you happen to pull this shit while I’m in a transitional period so I don’t wanna kill you, I wanna help you. But I can’t give you this case, it don’t belong to me. Besides, I’ve already been through too much shit this morning over this case to hand it over to your dumb ass.

Jules refers to “Pumpkin” as Ringo, which is probably a reference to the character that John Wayne played in Stagecoach. 

Jules: I’m not giving you that money. I’m buying something from you. Wanna know what I’m buyin’ Ringo?

Pumpkin: What?

Jules: Your life. I’m givin’ you that money so I don’t have to kill your ass. You read the Bible?

Pumpkin: Not regularly.

Jules: There’s a passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17. “The 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 the 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 attempt to poison and destroy My brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon you.” Now… I been sayin’ that shit for years. And if you ever heard it, that meant your ass. You’d be dead right now. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this mornin’ made me think twice. See, now I’m thinking: maybe it means you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man. And Mr. 9mm here… he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. And I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.

Pulp Fiction is an iconic, landmark film in terms of visual style and shock value.  That it seems almost tame today says volumes about where we are culturally, and that is in decline, because that is what happens when a culture becomes jaded and desensitized to this kind of violence and drug use.   We are as out of it as these characters are.

 

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About The Film Professor

Thomas J. Anderson develops and teaches online film classes at Perimeter College/Georgia State University. He started making Super 8MM films as a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, and made documentary and experimental films while getting his MS in Film from Boston University. He helped start the Atlanta Film Festival in 1976 and worked in the A/V Rental and Staging Industry for 10 years as the President of CAV, a company he founded in 1981. He and wife Maggie owned The Production Shop and produced award winning corporate videos in the 1990's before he got involved in higher education as an AVID editing teacher and the longtime Department Chair of Media Production at AIU-Buckhead. Since then he has taught not only at Perimeter College/Georgia State University, but also at Reinhardt University, Kennesaw State University, and Le Cordon Bleu.
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