Violence and Pop Culture References: Pulp Fiction (1994)

Posted: October 29, 2012 in Joe Giambrone
Tags: , , , , , ,

Pulp Fiction is the 1994 breakout hit by director Quentin Tarantino that won the Academy Award for best screenplay, and was nominated in several other categories, including best director.  The film is segmented into various vignettes and follows an ensemble of criminal characters through the Los Angeles underworld.  The film’s unique chronology is what sets it apart from most crime dramas.  Scenes are edited completely out of chronological order, jumping forward and backward in time in a manner that is mysterious.  The reason for examining the script for this movie is to discover why Tarantino and Avary chose to chop up the sequence of events in this manner and to present them to the audience in such a confusing manner.  This paper will lay out the scenes and sort out the viewing order versus the chronological order in which these scenes would have occurred.  Hopefully this will give some clues as to how the film is so powerfully engaging and carries a sense of mystery and magic throughout.

Pulp Fiction includes numerous characters, and each is developed with strong dramatic scenes, which play rather quickly in order to squeeze all the vignettes into a feature length.  Pulp Fiction opens with the definition of “PULP” on the screen, establishing some kind of formalism to the presentation.  The people pulling the strings are acknowledged with this choice.  Next PUMPKIN and HONEY BUNNY ( Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) are a young couple who discuss robbing banks, armed robbery, strategies and targets while eating at a Denny’s.  At the end of the meal, they both jump up with guns to rob the restaurant, which leads immediately into a disjointed credit sequence and a jump away from this scene to another time and another place.

JULES and VINCENT (Samuel Jackson and John Travolta) are two hit men driving on their way to a job.  Later we learn that this scene is prior to the restaurant scene.  Their conversation details Vincent’s trip to Amsterdam and offers a clue to his reason for going there: drug tourism.  They also reveal that their crime boss, MARSELLUS and his wife MIA (Ving Rhames & Uma Thurman) are going to be relevant.  Marsellus is violently jealous of men making approaches to Mia and had someone thrown out of a window.  The overreaction of Marsellus affects the two hit men differently.  Jules (Jackson) is horrified that a simple foot massage brought such a harsh penalty, but Vincent (Travolta) agrees with Marsellus, in principle, that the offense was serious enough to warrant a harsh response.  Vincent is strong on principle and inflexible, while Jules is in transition with his thinking throughout the film. The kicker is that Vincent has been tasked with “looking after” Mia while Marsellus goes out of town tonight.  Jules suggests this could be perceived as a “date.”

Inside the apartment, MARVIN (black), ROGER and BRETT are caught off-guard by the two hit men.  The three in the apartment have a briefcase belonging to their boss Marsellus for some reason.  Inside the case is a bright golden light, which adds a sense of magical realism to the film.  Jules and Vincent are there to execute the wayward young thieves.  Jules attempts to justify his acts by quoting a bible passage full of fire and fury.  The hit men then execute the two white boys in the room for the offense of trying to steal Marsellus’ briefcase.

Next scene with a hard cut, we find Marsellus instructing an aging prize fighter BUTCH (Bruce Willis) to take a dive, so as to fix the fight.  The time frame, in relation to the previous scenes is unclear.  Butch has a chance to be the featherweight champion of the world, but Marsellus has instructed him to lie down and collect a payment instead.  The issue of Butch’s pride comes up, but he must ignore his instincts and follow orders, or the penalty would of course be extreme.  Hit man Vincent shows up at the meeting where Butch and Marsellus discuss the fight, and we learn this scene takes place exactly one day previous to the other hit man scenes.  Vincent verbally assaults Butch on his way out, setting up a conflict between the two men and directly attacking Butch’s pride.

Following Vincent to his drug dealer, LANCE’s house (Eric Stoltz), where the hit man buys a bag full of heroin.  The white heroin is put into a plastic baggie where it may resemble cocaine instead.  This is the next day, the day of the hit and the briefcase, and Vincent is “on his way” to pick up Mia, Marsellus’ wife.  Vincent actually shoots up with heroin before heading over to pick up Mia, a situation where he should know better, according to his own previous convictions on how to behave around the boss’ wife.  Vincent is playing with fire now, similarly to the way that the previous man had prior to being thrown out the window.

Vincent arrives at Marsellus’ house where Mia toys with him over an intercom, as she dresses and snorts cocaine.  The two travel to Jack Rabbit Slim’s 50’s diner where Mia calls Vincent a square, with the lines animated on the screen from her fingers, more magical realism.  They get to know each other and then dance together in the Twist contest.

In sequence, back at Marsellus’ house the two dance in together, more familiar than ever.  Vincent goes to the bathroom, and Mia digs through his jacket where she finds the baggie.  Snorting the heroin like cocaine, Mia immediately overdoses and goes into shock.  Vincent races back to the drug dealer, Lance’s house, where he crashes into the building.  They drag Mia in for emergency medical treatment.  Vincent, fighting for his own life, bullies Lance into getting an adrenaline shot to inject Mia and save her life, or else they’ll all be killed by Marsellus.  In an absurdly bumbling scene, they inject Mia in the heart and jolt her back to life.  Dropping her off at home, Mia and Vincent agree to never speak a word of their ordeal.

On to Butch’s house when he was a little boy, a distant flashback in time.  A soldier delivers a gold watch with special significance, the only thing that remains of Butch’s missing father.

Cut to fight night, the most distant future moment so far shown.  Butch, rather than lying down, kills his opponent in a brutal rage and escapes the arena quickly.  Assorted title cards have appeared throughout, and this section is named “The Gold Watch.”  Marsellus and his thugs are on the hunt for Butch now, and the order is given to find him wherever he goes.  Butch was playing Marsellus all along and bet heavily on himself to win the fight.  Butch returns to a motel where FABIENNE, his girlfriend, waits to flee with him.  The next day as they wait for their train, Butch learns that Fabienne has forgotten his gold watch, sending him into a rage and terrifying her.  Butch must go back to their apartment to retrieve it.

Butch returns to his apartment, where he expects the killers to be waiting for him.  He sneaks back in, retrieves the watch and relaxes.  As he checks the kitchen, suddenly he sees a machine gun left on the counter.  The toilet flushes, and Vincent steps out of the bathroom to find Butch holding the gun he carelessly left.  Butch shoots Vincent dead.  Vincent is alone, and his partner Jules is nowhere in sight.

Astoundingly, as Butch drives off from his apartment, he spots Marsellus walking across the avenue right in front of his car.  They lock eyes, and Butch rams the car into the big boss.  Butch crashes the car in the process, and both men are devastated.  Marsellus comes to, pulls out a .45 and starts chasing Butch while firing wildly and hitting bystanders.  Butch and Marsellus crash into the “Mason-Dixon Pawnshop” where things take a radical twist.  The owner, MAYNARD  and his partner ZED are some hillbilly S&M freaks, and they get the drop on both of them.

Butch and Marsellus awaken tied up in the pawn shop’s dungeon, where a leather covered GIMP emerges from a box.  Zed arrives, and the hillbillies have some homoerotic sadomasochism planned for the two captured brawlers. The hillbillies drag Marsellus off for some Deliverance type stuff, but Butch manages to escape, killing The Gimp along the way.  As Butch reaches the door of the pawn shop, he makes a choice to go back and save Marsellus from the hillbillies, when just previously he was about to kill him.  The two reconcile, and Maynard and Zed are disposed of.  Butch escapes on Zed’s motorcycle.

Like a record skipping back to the beginning of a record we are back on the original day with the hit men in the apartment with the briefcase.  A different version of Jules and his wrathful bible quote.  Another white boy waits in the bathroom with a handgun, listening.  We learn that Marvin, the only black kid present, is a mole, a friend of Jules.  The white kid bursts out of the bathroom firing his magnum .357 wildly at the two hit men, and missing them with all six shots.  They kill him after he is empty.  Jules is rattled because of this, recalling the biblical passage, and he suspects some kind of divine sign.

Continuing in sequence, the car ride from the hit, with Marvin in the back seat, Jules announces his retirement from killing.  The “divine intervention” of the bullets all missing was too much for him to ignore.  Vincent turns back in the seat to ask Marvin’s opinion, when his own .45 accidentally goes off and explodes Marvin’s head all over the back windshield.

In sequence, the two hapless hit men arrive at the house of JIMMY (Tarantino), to clean up the car.  Their suits are ruined and they must dress in casual swimming trunks and t-shirts.  They call MR. WOLF (Harvey Keitel) to come and help them figure out what to do.  They clean up and dispose of the car, and then set off for breakfast … at the Denny’s from the opening scene.

Ending where it began, the two crazy armed robbers, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny take down the restaurant where the two hit men eat breakfast.  When Pumpkin gets to Jules, he notices the briefcase, but not the .45 in Jules’ hand below the table.  Vincent is in the bathroom again, unwitting, as Jules draws a line and won’t hand over the briefcase.  A tense standoff ends as Jules pointedly defuses the situation and lets the robbers go, only without the briefcase.  Jules officially quits the life of crime and seeks to become a righteous man.

In retrospect, Jules’ decision leaves Vincent all alone when he is sent to kill Butch at his apartment.  Because Jules has taken off to “walk the earth” Vincent’s sloppy work finally catches up with him and costs him his life.

The conclusions I can draw from the chronology of Pulp Fiction are that the opening and closing scene – actually two halves of the same sequence – were probably decided upon first.  Other events were likely staged around this time frame to keep logical consistency and continuity.  A strong motivation for cutting up the timeline was to give each set of characters the strongest opening scene, and to establish the characters in the best way possible.  This is true for Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, who deceptively turn from a young eccentric couple into crazed armed robbers.  Jules and Vincent are introduced deceptively with a conversation about French Big Macs, only to have them retrieve guns from their trunk as they park, on their way to a killing spree.  Marcellus and Butch are introduced with the boss’s order for Butch to throw the fight, and this also includes a deception where Butch agrees to the deal and takes the money.  Maynard and Zed have quite the unforgettable character introductions as torture-rape-murder S&M freaks.

The film pushed boundaries of what was shown in mainstream Hollywood films, and numerous images are memorable and well-filmed.  The film also received some strong negative reactions concerning the use of racially charged language.  Numerous characters, both black and white, casually use the “N” word throughout.  The actor Wesley Snipes actually threatened to assault Quentin Tarantino for his particularly offensive lines about “dead Nigger storage.”  I didn’t find the use of the racist language as problematic as some, however other references do come off as highly annoying and implausible.  The characters speak in pop culture and Hollywood film and television references, despite them not being part of that world.  The only character who was involved in the media business was Mia, Marsellus’ wife.  The others strain credulity by the sheer amount of TV and movie references gratuitously peppered into their conversations.  This is a stock-in-trade of Quentin Tarantino who purposefully took this type of pop referencing to the maximum here.

Pulp Fiction is also very violent and a bit gory.  Here the violence can be shocking on first viewing, and the high degree of suspense adds to the dread and impact of the various acts.  The violence mostly fails to affect the characters.  Here there is some ambiguity about the purpose of using violence so explicitly.  For what purpose?  If the violence is meaningless to the characters, and they are numb and insulated from the consequences of their actions, is this how the viewer is supposed to respond as well?  This is a potentially dark and disturbing side of Tarantino, and of this film in particular.  A possibly redeeming moment concerns Jules (Sam Jackson) cleaning up the bits of brains and skull in the back of the car.  He finds this particularly heinous, and clearly Vincent’s (Travolta’s) fault.  He insists on trading jobs, assigning Vincent to deal with the worst of the gore , and their conflict nearly comes to a head.  As Jules is undergoing a rethinking and a realignment in his life, this response is particularly notable.  In other contexts, however, Jules is a cold blooded murderer with a history of murder prior to the start of the film.  Is this sudden revulsion of blood, brains and bone meant to be taken seriously, or as simply a surface response to something he wasn’t personally responsible for?  Is it yet another comedic gag in a film that toys with life and death for humorous effect?

What one can draw from the treatment of the characters is that they are intended to be real people, realistic in that they lead pretty normal lives except for the occasional killing and cleanup.  The idea of villains and heroes is smeared such that no clear good or bad guys emerge.  Everyone is a bit stained, and things occur in a grey world of uncertainty.  The worst of the criminals appear to be the two sadomasochistic rapists.  A version of “justice” is brought in to address them, and in the twisted world of Tarantino’s gangsters, the surviving S&M rapist, Zed, is destined for a long torture sentence prior to execution.


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