An Appreciation – Pulp Fiction
To watch Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) is to experience American filmmaking at its very best. Here is a film that broke through boundaries, that did not adhere to the rules of traditional storytelling, that decided to create something new and innovative. The early to mid nineties saw a resurgence of unique and creative movies helmed by independent and rebellious filmmakers, with this film leading the way. It takes the classic crime movie and flips it on its head, molding it in a fashion that transcends the genre, filling it with interesting characters that are all unforgettable, with situations that are both tense and humorous at the same time. It is a movie that must be seen over and over again.
It’s hard to find another filmmaker that shot up to the top of their field as quickly as Tarantino did. His writing credits prior to this movie included a short film called My Best Friend’s Birthday (1987), True Romance (1993), and Reservoir Dogs (1992), which was his first directorial film. It was with Reservoir Dogs where we would first see the style of filmmaking that would dictate the rest of his projects leading up to the present day: his love for older movies, exploitation films, the French New Wave, his novelistic approach to telling a story, his focus on low life criminals, and the unique use of dialogue. What Reservoir Dogs developed Pulp Fiction perfected, taking the foundation laid out by the first and making a more complete movie, with more realized characters and adding a number of layers to make a richer and more fulfilling cinematic experience.
The first thing to notice with the film is the famous dialogue. Tarantino provides his characters with unique and interesting dialogue that drive the film’s narrative. Film is certainly a “show me” medium first, and a “tell me” medium second, yet Tarantino has the ability to blend the two, with the conversations between the characters being just as entertaining as the action. The words have a cadence and rhythm to it that is engaging, regarding topics that, although overall meaningless, are insightful and memorable. Take for example one of the first scenes of the film, featuring the hit men Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) on their way to their next job. The conversation they have has absolutely nothing to do with what the plot of the story is, as they talk about what a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in France is called, television pilots, and foot massages. This is unimportant to their task at hand, but in a way it seems more realistic than other conversations in lesser movies, because in real life, we don’t actually talk about the plot, we talk about random and irrelevant issues.
But that doesn’t mean that the dialogue in the film is without a point. The brilliant aspect here is how Tarantino is able to use the information we’ve gained from the earlier conversations later in the movie. When Vincent and Jules meet up with a group of guys that apparently have wronged their boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), the topic of a “Royale with Cheese” comes up. When Vincent takes Marsellus’ wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out to dinner, he asks her about the TV pilot she was on, and then added to that, he learns the truth behind infamous foot massage incident. These moments, although seemingly non-important, are more layered than they appear, because the scene between Vincent and Jules act as the driving force behind the rest of these scenes. The dialogue spoken throughout much of the film is memorable and entertaining because we know how the origin of those topics came to be.
Another example of great dialogue is the quiet yet effective scene between the boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) and his girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) in their hotel room. The scene comes after Butch brutally won a match he promised to lose, and during this interaction, what do they decide to talk about? They talk about Fabienne’s desire to gain a potbelly. Instead of talking about the dire situation that they are in with Wallace and his gangster minions, they decide to talk about this little funny wish that Fabienne has. The dialogue they have provides us with an insight in to these two characters and their relationship. We would never get a scene like this in any other movie. Tarantino has the patience to delay the action long enough to concentrate on the dynamics of these characters, so that when the action does happen, we understand the importance of what is at stake.
The other thing to notice about the movie is the way it is structured. The film is not presented in linear form, with a three-act structure encompassing rising action, a climax, and a resolution. Instead, the film is made up a few interconnecting stories told within themselves. Each segment has its own acts within itself. Time is cut up and rearranged, with the beginning of the film actually being near the end of the story plot-wise. Characters that have seemingly died earlier reappear in later scenes, indicating that some scenes take place after the events of later ones, despite being placed in the opposite way. The circular structure of the screenplay may seem confusing at first, but in reality, it’s not that difficult to follow. The tone and momentum of the film would not have worked if structured any other way. If the film were to be arranged in chronological order, the pace and fluidity of it would be lost.