(since the following will talk about the movie’s dialogue, a warning: yes, it will feature references to a certain racial epithet)
A movie that has been much discussed. What has been said here has most likely been said before; some of it is so obvious as to be self-evident, but I point it out anyway. This is not an attempt at any search for something so tiresome as “meaning”, though a small mention of this is made at the end. It is almost entirely an attempt to examine the movie’s effects, why they work, why they occasionally don’t work, and why attempts to imitate them often fail.
NON-LINEARITY: A MISPERCEPTION
A first point at greater clarity and focus. The movie is often cited for its distinguishing quality of non-linearity. This, I think, is a mis-seeing. The movie is almost entirely in chronological order. A crucial sequence for the characters is what takes place in the diner, and what takes place right before it. Since this is the crux of the movie, it is taken out of sequence. The opening of the young robbers is the very event which precedes it; rather than seeing this crucial event, we then move back to the killers in their car. The movie now is entirely in sequence, with the exception of the boxer’s flashback, until the last section, which are the events that take place before the diner robbery, and finally, the diner robbery itself.
A non-linearity suggests an almost random sequencing of events, their point in the sequence of no importance. This, however, is a simpler structure, something like that of a story where the character experiences something right after the credits which leaves him in a traumatic state, the nature of the event hidden from us, until it is finally shown to us at the conclusion, making clear something about our hero. That this sequence is set aside marks its crucial importance; it is only a question of discerning why it is considered so important as to be set aside as the conclusion.
ROLES DEFINED BY THEIR FUNCTION
What I’ve written so far refers to characters without using any character names, only their character roles, roles defined by function. It is possible to go through all the major characters with a reader easily identifying who each is, by just stating their role:
The killers. The gangster kingpin. The gangster’s moll. The boxer. The fixer. The hippie dealer. The young robbers. The hillbilly rapists.
The only major character that I can think of that is without function but is still a stock movie type would be the “french girlfriend” of the middle section.
That the characters are functional types is, I think, essential for why the movie works. Jake Gittes of Chinatown is a character who is a detective; the forties detective that might show up in sketch comedy is something entirely else. Jake Gittes or Charles Foster Kane showing up in a comedy sketch can only be a parody of Jake Gittes or Charles Foster Kane; the detective type or pompous millionaire type is something different. There are a few quick visual signs of these types – fedora and trenchcoat for the detective, monocle and tuxedo for the millionaire – which allow us to instantly recognize them. The fun lies in these types behaving either according or not according to type – the detective’s tough guy attitude, the millionaire’s highfalutin air. These types also have the advantage of being seen as entirely artificial, from narratives alone. There may be millionaires and detectives in real life, they may be tough or pretentious, but these are types alone*.
This allows for them to placed into almost any scene without explanation or possibility of incredulity, since these types are recognized immediately as types. If we have a comedy sketch set in a woman’s college dorm with the forties detective suddenly showing up, marked by some variation of “Harlem Nocturne”, we require no back story of who this detective is; we know already there will now be a collision between the ridiculousness of the hard boiled type in the context of a college dorm. These types are so well-known that we do not even need to have seen the movies or read the novels in which they originally appeared. They are so prevalent as types, that anyone recognizes them through quick shorthand. One more point is essential: they are not designed for depth, but to play off them as types.
This, I think, is crucial because the roles of Pulp Fiction are something like these types, if not recognizable through the same visual short-hand, recognizable through their function, and why certain effects work so well in this movie and are very difficult to reproduce elsewhere, and why one aspect is misidentified as a flaw, rather than an aspect of design.
First, the flaw. The characters in the movie are faulted for their lack of depth. This, however, has nothing to do with the way they are written, but with their conception as types themselves. It is, again, like faulting the lack of depth in the millionaire or forties detective type characters in a comedy – we might fault the fact that the types are chosen over rounder characters, but some effects can only be achieved through types, rather than characters who are detectives or millionaires. There is no possibility of depth when characters are conceived as types, but this is an expected part of their design.
The flip side of this is why Pulp Fiction works very well in many ways. The functional types in the movie are types who, in other narratives, would have the sole purpose of performing their function to further the plot – the assassin killing a man, the gangster’s moll seducing a man, the boxer hurting or killing through his hands – here, their function is entirely suspended for long periods, and we wonder for some if it will ever be put to use. As types, they may have no deeper character to discern, but they also have a freedom of speech unlimited by character. A forties detective type can talk in hardboiled argot, but then quote from Aristotle, and finally sing part of an XX song – all without us questioning this character doing this, whereas non-type “realistic” characters ultimately cause us to ask – what was their life before this, who is this person, this detective who has all these varied interests? There is something about the type that is pure transmitter, and even when he says things that are contrary to his type – a forties detective, say, playing the harpsichord – he remains his type. We are not surprised if, in a parody skit, this forties detective plays the harpsichord and then, in the next moment, is back under a street lamp smoking a cigarette, giving hardboiled narration.
This is why the types are so effective in this context: the viewer listens to the dialogue, some quite baroque, without ever questioning the link between the dialogue and its source – why does the character talk this way? It also allows the movie to move the characters through various milieus, some very artificial, without credulity ever being broken. This is why Tarantino’s imitators often failed: they began with non-type, “realistic” characters, a man or woman not defined by a role, who among other things was a robber or a killer. The baroque dialogue, in this context, now sounded ludicrous – why is this person talking like this? The other possibility was to curtail the dialogue, so that it was more consistent with a “realistic” character, so we end up with something no different from social realism. This, it should be emphasized, is not what Pulp Fiction is, and were it to be done in this mode, its effects would not be possible.
An example of a detail that’s used well in conversation yet does not get us any closer in intimacy to the character is Vincent’s time in Amsterdam. We know that he spent close to three years there. He tells Jules details about life in Europe, dialogue that became quotable and overly quotable. This time in Amsterdam comes up again with the dealer, over his car being in storage for three years, and the date with Mia. Yet at no time are we told what purpose there was for his being in Amsterdam, nor do we ever feel a strong urge to know this – that this would provide additional insight into this man. Dialogue about Amsterdam would be less like a monologue giving a central insight into a man, and more like one more joke told by a comedian.
And a good comparison of such characters would be to comedians. We might discern an attitude or approach in a comedian’s lines, but we do not expect, and we will not, approach him or her in intimacy, or necessarily learn vital details of their character. That a comedian’s lines are entertaining, but do not form a character, and are simply a set of lines, is an indictment against some comedians when they act in movies or get their own shows. The problem, of course, is that the character in the movie or show is often one of social realism, a husband, a single father, an office worker, whose dialogue is expected to reflect and give greater insight into the character there.
The dialogue in this movie is not written in a series of stand-alone lines of a comedian’s – the lines of dialogue do intersect and play off of each other; but the entire conception and approach is that we are always distant from these characters, but also, that we expect to always be distant from these characters. That this is the approach, however, does not necessarily make the task of writing easier, anymore than a comedian’s lines are easier than dialogue in a suspense drama. It does, however, offer a reason for why the dialogue here is so distinctive, so baroque, yet at the same time makes us no closer to the people in the movie, and why attempts to imitate the dialogue in a social realistic setting will fail.
I end with an example, a set of lines from the hippie dealer. The hippie dealer has only two functions, to sell drugs to the killer, and later provide the adrenaline shot. Here, he sells some drugs. Nothing is conveyed about the hippie dealer, nothing additional is done, other than what is part of the transaction of selling drugs, yet the lines are extraordinarily colorful:
Now this is Panda, from Mexico. Very good stuff. This is Bava, different, but equally good. And this is Choco from the Hartz Mountains of Germany. Now the first two are the same, forty-five an ounce — those are friend prices — but this one…(pointing to the Choco)…this one’s a little more expensive. It’s fifty-five. But when you shoot it, you’ll know where that extra money went. Nothing wrong with the first two. It’s real, real, real, good shit. But this one’s a fuckin’ madman.
BLACK AND WHITE AND COLOR
The major characters of the movie, then, are types defined by the task they are expected to perform. They are flat by design, but that they are flat does not make them any less memorable. Many movie characters, even if they are complex, are rendered flat in our memories, or in the reproductions and invocations of these characters, becoming fixed by a single trait or a few lines. Characters in black and white movies, by being in a period of movies that was visually less real, more theatrical in its dialogue and conception, allowed for the possibility of icon making that a more realistic period of movie making did not. Something like this point might be made in Jack Rabbit Slim’s: Vincent and Mia walk about the restaurant, filled with actors playing movie icons, with Vincent and Mia icons themselves.
Jack Rabbit Slim’s is a mess of color, but Vincent and Mia stand out because their entire ensemble is colorless, black and white:
ABSURDITIES AND ABSENCES
Throughout, there are absurdities and absences in the movie’s setting, which are unimportant and go unacknowledged by the viewer, because the movie is not in a social realistic mode. It places character types in a number of settings; that the settings might be absurd in a “realistic” context is irrelevant, just as when the forties detective is placed in the context of a woman’s sorority or a moon base for a comedy skit, we ignore details that are wrong about either setting. For that matter, we don’t question why this character type is even there – the purpose is simply whatever comes out of the absurd juxtaposition. I mention here absurdities or absences that go unnoticed, not as errors, but to make clear that the very setting has not been established as one that is “realistic”, that the movie does not work because it is “realistic”, in fact, would not work if its setting were “realistic”.
A partial list:
- A robbery of a large, busy restaurant with windows open to the street, a steady in-inflow of customers, in Los Angeles during broad daylight.
- Two seasoned assassins are to retrieve a suitcase from a group of unexperienced, almost entirely unarmed students. They know in advance who they’ll run into in the apartment. Yet somehow, these two are worried that they don’t have sufficient firepower for the job.
- A crime organization so small that it requires its kingpin to go on a hit once one of his assassins leaves.
- A local fight is somehow given play by play broadcast on the radio.
- No mention or reference to grunge, post-punk, or, most strikingly, hiphop. The music listened to is almost exclusively from fifteen years before or ealier.
- A pawnshop run by two southern accented hillbillies in the middle of Los Angeles.
THE MASSIVE AMOUNT OF POP CULTURE REFERENCES IN THE DIALOGUE: ANOTHER MISPERCEPTION
A brief digression. It is a movie noted for the constant use of pop culture in its dialogue. There are, in fact, very few.
Fabian makes a Madonna reference:
Shut up, Fatso! I don’t have a pot! I have a bit of a tummy, like Madonna when she did “Lucky Star,” it’s not the same thing.
Tony Rockamorra has a nickname:
You remember Antwan Rockamora? Half-black, half-Samoan, usta call him Tony Rocky Horror.
Mia mentioning that Vince is an Elvis man:
This is (pointing out each individual part of the name for emphasis) Jack. Rabbit. Slim’s. An Elvis man should love it.
There are the mentions in Jack Rabbit Slims, not metaphors or analogies, but nominal references to what’s there – the Marilyn Monroe waitress, the Douglas Sirk burger.
That’s Marilyn Monroe…
Then, pointing at a BLONDE WAITRESS in a tight sweater and capri pants, taking an order from a bunch of FILM GEEKS —
…and that’s Mamie Van Doren. I don’t see Jayne Mansfield, so it must be her night off.
The rest, that are metaphorical, are exclusive to Jules Winfield.
In the post-credits opening:
You, Flock of Seagulls, you know what we’re here for?
In the “Bonnie Situation”:
Hey, that’s Kool and the Gang. We don’t wanna fuck your shit up, We just need to call our people to bring us in.
You’re gettin’ ready to blow? I’m a mushroom-cloud-layin’ motherfucker! Every time my fingers touch brain I’m Superfly TNT, I’m the Guns of Navarone. I’m what Jimmie Walker usta talk about.
What do you mean, walk the earth?
You know, like Caine in Kung Fu. Just walk from town to town, meet people, get in adventures.
Nobody’s gonna hurt anybody. We’re gonna be like three Fonzies. And what’ Fonzie like?
Yolanda stays silent.
C’mon Yolanda, what’s Fonzie like?
And, of course, Jules keeps referring to one of the robbers as Ringo.
DEVIATIONS IN EXPECTED NARRATIVES
An examination of an obsessive, brilliant man, a fully formed character, whose deductions may well end up being wrong is a study of that character, a possible example being Arthur and George by Julian Barnes, a look at Arthur Conan Doyle. Imagine now a story with a hero that is Sherlock Holmes in all but name, not so much a character, but a few traits, genius and doggedness, say, suitable to move through a puzzle like Sherlock Holmes narrative, but with a twist – the detective is obviously, tragically, wrong. The victim proclaims their innocence, the audience discerns their innocence, but the Holmes character and others do not see this – the detective is praised once again for his brilliant deductions. Since there is almost nothing in terms of character to think about – just one or two traits – the story’s focus is instead on the form itself. This change of form may imply a critique of something else – the age of reason, idolatry of a great thinker instead of scrutiny of the process by which any conclusion is reached no matter who makes it, etc.
A genre form which deviates from the expectations of that form always prompts an interpretation. If the characters remain the types of the form, providing no answer in their own character, then the focus shifts to what is being said about the form itself, and the answer is almost always polemical. Again, we can imagine a possibility easily: a standard revenge drama, where a man’s family is killed, and this father then goes after the killers, where both the father and the killers are painted in the simple colors of the genre – the father whose only traits are his grief and desire for revenge, the killers who are cruel men. Perhaps there is a single twist to this revenge drama: the father, in seeking justice, ends up killing a number of innocent or marginally guilty figures, so that by the end of the picture he is as evil, if not more evil than the very men he pursues. This would be a story not about the psychology of the father, since there is nothing to be examined, but revenge stories themselves – the simplified universe they create, the assumption that the hero is always righteous, the audience’s own bloodlust.
Pulp Fiction puts functional characters that are standard in any genre, but without the forms we expect. The killings of the killers are incidental. The boxing match that the boxer is supposed to throw, but does not, is never shown. We expect a major plot to develop from the kingpin’s moll seducing one of the killers, but no seduction ever takes place. Since there are deviations from the forms, it is expected that something must be being said here; no answers can be found in the characters, because, as said before, they remain by conception unknowable and distant.
That nothing is being said about the forms, and that this is not an indictment of shallowness, but simply one approach, and one that has been attempted many times before, should be considered instead. If, again, the forties detective is placed in an uncommon place for a comedy skit – a lunar base, a woman’s sorority, the venue of a bugs bunny cartoon – and then they play with the form – the wrong person is arrested, the object of obsession, rather than the Maltese falcon, is a giant piece of cheese made from the moon, a bracelet bought off eBay, the greatest carrot ever grown – no attempt is being made to examine the form, only to entertain by playing with the form itself. That no great statement is being made, should not be an indictment, anymore than it is with this movie.
Where Tarantino’s form-playing goes awry might be Inglourious Basterds: the form that we expect is a tragic ending, instead we get a victory. If it were other contexts, we might accept this playfulness: here, it turns mass death into a successful fight that the audience prefers. If we revolt against this, it is for the same reason we revolt against the idea of those stories that find a life lesson learned or the possibility for optimism in the most tragic situations. Some experiences contain only grief, and to find an upbeat message in the story is to diminish the victims of the tragedy, tragedy itself, for our own selfish needs. Rather than creating a communion between ourselves and those in a far more difficult, choiceless situation, it transforms their situation into something from which the audience can extract either a banal lie, or sate their cheap desires.
A DIGRESSION: THE ADRENALINE SHOT SCENE
The scene where an adrenaline shot needs to be administered to the moll in order to revive her is, I believe, a re-enactment of an anecdote from the excellent Martin Scorsese documentary, American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince.
The movie can be seen in six parts on youtube, starting here. The anecdote comes in between the 36:00 and 38:00 points. It’s the film’s subject describing one of his many difficult and strange experiences while being a heavy user of various drugs.
Out of that, uh, a lot of close calls, I managed to get a lot of medical supplies, medical equipment, that you might not normally have. Like, we had oxygen. We had an electronic stethoscope that gave a tape readout, so you could tell how many heartbeats…we had adrenaline shots. We had all kinds of stuff…adrenaline shots to bring you through when you OD’d.
This girl, once, OD’d once on us. And she was out, man. It was myself and her boyfriend. And he said…and her heartbeat was dropping down. And we got everything out, oxygen, and nothing was working. And he looked at me and he says: “Well, you’re gonna have to give her an adrenaline shot.” I said, “What are you talkin about?” I said, “You give it to her.” He said, “I can’t, it’s like a doctor working on someone in his own family.” “Bullshit. You’ve known her two days. What the fuck is that?” And he said, “I can’t do it.” And so we had the medical dictionary…you know how you give an adrenaline shot? Okay, the adrenaline needle’s about that big (indicates about six inches) Okay, you gotta give it into the heart. You have to put it in a stabbing motion. (makes stabbing motion) And then plunge down on it. (makes plunging gesture) I got the medical dictionary out, looked it up, got a magic marker, made a magic marker where her heart was…measured down two or three ribs, measured it in between there. And then went HUH! (makes quick stabbing motion) And…(creaking noise to accompany plunging gesture) And…(snaps fingers) she came back like that. She just came…(snaps fingers again)…right back, like that.
THE FLAWS IN THE BONNIE SITUATION
I enjoy most of the movie; my pleasure dips in “The Bonnie Situation”. I can point to two details that may be the cause.
In the first two stories, we have characters who may have assigned tasks, yet the task is an afterthought or it is performed in a context we do not expect. The sequence is spent with the characters simply talking, as we anticipate whether this task will even be performed, and how. The first story is spent wondering if the moll will even seduce the killer, and whether it will bring him into conflict with the kingpin. In the second story, we expect to see the boxer fight in the ring. Instead, we are given something entirely different – the boxer talking to his girlfriend, as we anticipate his conflict with the kingpin. When the conflict does arrive, it is not in the way we expect.
The third story is a deviation from these other two, with the fixer doing the exact task he has been assigned, without distraction, giving orders which the other characters follow. The pleasure in the other sequences lay in the period waiting for the characters to perform their tasks, an anticipation entirely absent here.
The other key difference is that this is the first sequence where a major character shows up undefined by a specific role. Again, I can reel off the other roles according to types and they’re all readily identifiable – the killers, the moll, the boxer, the french girlfriend, etc. For the “Bonnie Situation”, when I list the major characters, I have the young robbers, the fixer, and…here I draw a blank on the character who owns the safe house, and I simply want to state Quentin Tarantino, because this character has no type (his name is Jimmie).
Many have faulted Tarantino’s acting here, but I will not add any kindling to that pile. I don’t see the role working any more effectively, if, say, we move Frank Whaley or Steve Buscemi into this part. That it is a part that is not a type, that this role has the possibility of roundness, makes clear the design of the other parts. Questions that did not exist with the other roles now arise with this one – Who is this person? What job does he have, criminal, legal, or in-between? How does he know Jules Winfield? There has been a focus on this character saying “nigger” twice in front of Jules – how well does he know Jules that he has such comfort to say this? The focus then causes the debate to veer off into the social codes of real life – and perhaps tries to connect what goes wrong in this sequence with these same social codes. Again, I think this is a mistake: the problem is not the use of this word, or Tarantino’s acting, but the use of a round, realistic part for the first time in the movie, because the writing that has worked so well up to this point now fails with this character.
When I imagine this sequence working better, it is not necessarily with a different actor in the role, but a flat character type instead – perhaps not one based around a task but a recognizable type, nonetheless, maybe the standard issue university professor with a plummy english accent who spends the whole sequence tamping his pipe. He says many of the same lines that the character now has, including the racial epithets, but instead they now work, because we do not consider the possibility of knowing this character any deeper than any of the others, whether it’s his use of racial epithets, or his friendship with Jules Winfield. I give the idea of a professor as an example, but it could be any other type, a blues musician, a rich man, a con man, as long as it be clearly a type, rather than the possibility of a realistic character.
MY FAVORITE SHOT FROM THE MOVIE
It is during “The Gold Watch” sequence, when the camera does a slow zoom on a war movie on TV, Fabien floats over the screen’s surface.
It’s an image that stays with me, in and of itself, but also because it’s made up of such simple elements. Fabien stays in a secure place away from the violence bookending her scenes. Analysis has focused on the fact that it is a war on TV, and that this connects with Butch’s memory and what takes place after. I don’t think it’s necessary for it to be a war for this sequence to work, only a scene of movie violence, for there to be the ominous aspect, not simply as a foreshadowing of violence, but tied in with the idea of the characters in the movie as types. The boxer that has betrayed the kingpin, has been used for conflict in fiction over and over. They are designed not for examination of characters, but for the pleasure of eventual conflict. The violence on TV is, for me, like the sand running out of an hourglass – sooner or later, we expect, we want, the boxer and kingpin to meet. It is inevitable not because of the characters, but the structure itself and the expectations of the structure: violent conflict.
This ties into the previous point of the characters as types. The details of the types are almost of no consequence – if Vincent had gone to another country than Amsterdam for three years, with a different set of funny, interesting associated dialogue, it would have no consequence for the character. The details are of no consequence for motivation with one exception – the boxer’s need for the gold watch.
“The Gold Watch” opens with the memory which places the extraordinary importance of the talisman with both the boxer and the audience. The boxer wakes from this like it’s a nightmare. He then pulls off his scam and safely escapes. There will be no possibility of conflict between him and the kingpin, he has escaped, and he is in a safe place. In the middle of this sequence, the boxer wakes again from a horrible dream, presumably, again, of the gold watch. He sees the violence on TV, what the audience expects and wants from these types in conflict. There is no reason for the boxer to leave his safe place – except for this implanted memory, designed for the purpose of him going on what would otherwise be an irrational quest – the retrieval of a simple watch from his house, even if it means great possibility of harm, but which will fulfill the ends of the structure: bringing him into conflict with the kingpin. Each time I see the boxer wake from his nightmare, I see a reaction not just to the memory itself, but that the memory is there almost arbritrarily, alone, in order to drive him into conflict. It is something like a science fiction film, where a character’s memories have been implanted so he acts according to the purposes of some shadowy, sinister group, the character vaguely aware that there is something of design, something not entirely his own, to these memories.
This is part of the image of Fabien floating above the TV as well: she is part of this movie structure whose purpose is to bring about violent contact between the principals, without any consciousness of it.
THREE SECRET STORIES AND THE BRIEFCASE
A great deal of focus has been given to the contents of the briefcase in the movie. In part, I think this lies with the deviations in form talked about earlier. The forms are not what we expect, there must be some explanation for this, and it lies with what is in the briefcase. Again, I think this is a mistake – the forms are altered for the same reasons of pleasure that the forms are played with in a comedy sketch or a cartoon.
One point that I think is underemphasized, is that the movie consists of three stories that are expected to remain secret and unknown to almost all, except for a few participants and the audience. The audience ends up privy to three secrets with no one in the movie seeing all three. The flip side of this is the briefcase, which is seen by many of the participants, but kept hidden from us.
The three secret stories are Mia’s near death:
If you can keep a secret, so can I.
Let’s shake on it.
The rape of Marsellus:
So we’re cool?
Yeah man, we’re cool. Two things: don’t tell nobody about this. This shit’s between me and you and the soon-to-be-livin’-the-rest-of-his-short-ass-life-in-agonizing-pain, Mr. Rapist here. It ain’t nobody else’s business.
The third is what happens to Marvin. His body and the vehicle are destroyed, vanishing from the earth, becoming a mystery.
Like it never happened.
CHANGE CLOTHES AND AN EMPTY BRIEFCASE
This post ends with what might portentously be called the “meaning” of the film. The characters, as I’ve said, are all types, defined by their tasks. Many of these are tied with their outfits – the suits of the assassins, the tuxedo of the fixer, the dress of the moll. Each sequence is marked by the major characters changing their clothes.
The first sequence has the killers leaving their suits and ending up in casual clothes. This is considered so key to the movie, that the change of clothes sequence is moved to the very end.
The moll nearly dies, and ends up, instead of her blouse, with a shirt from the dealer’s house.
The second sequence shows us with both the moll and one of the killers back in costume.
It is also devoted to a lengthy sequence of the boxer changing from his boxing outfit to street clothes.
He then gets ready to change to an entirely new outfit, one he can wear once he’s made his escape:
But he has to retrieve his watch, so he has to go back to street clothes suitable for a fight:
In the third sequence, we see the killers forced to change clothes. Jules never returns to the story, or his original suit. This is tied to his abandonment of a role, an abandonment of a set of tasks. Vince, who returns to being a killer, cannot conceive of this:
So if you’re quitting the life, what’ll you do?
That’s what I’ve been sitting here contemplating. First, I’m gonna deliver this case to Marsellus. Then, basically, I’m gonna walk the earth.
How long do you intend to walk the earth?
Until God puts me where he want me to be.
What if he never does?
If it takes forever, I’ll wait forever.
So you decided to be a bum?
I’ll just be Jules, Vincent — no more, no less.
No Jules, you’re gonna be like those pieces of shit out there who beg for change. They walk around like a bunch of fuckin’ zombies, they sleep in garbage bins, they eat what I throw away, and dogs piss on ‘em. They got a word for ‘em, they’re called bums. And without a job, residence, or legal tender, that’s what you’re gonna be — a fuckin’ bum!
Jules then demonstrates the break from his identity – he is an assassin, but rather than kill in a context that expects it, he specifically doesn’t. The impulse for this are bullets that should kill him but do not. This could be looked at as religious salvation which brings Jules to a path of penance. I look at it somewhat differently: Jules sees bullets that should kill him and do not, and sees that he is just a role in a structure, with events taking place according to the demands of the structure. He should clearly be shot, but it is necessary for this structure that he remain alive. This is no different from countless movies where major characters are the target of hundreds of bullets at close range, yet somehow the bullets always miss. This is solely because of the position of the roles, a major character shot by minor insignificant characters.
This is emphasized in the very speech that Jules gives to one of the robbers, that he can kill with impunity because of his role, that it has nothing to do with anything he is. He mentions that his bibilical quote is almost incidental to his character, like so many of the details of the parts in this movie. It was just a cold-blooded thing to say. It is something he never questioned. Only now does he try to place others in the parts of the saying:
I been sayin’ that shit for years. And if you ever heard it, it meant your ass. I never really questioned what it meant. I thought it was just a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker ‘fore you popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this mornin’ made me think twice. Now I’m thinkin’, it could mean you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man. And Mr. .45 here, he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or is could by you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish.
Neither of these fit, the only one that fits is with the role that he has, a character who cannot be killed by bullets in some contexts. It has nothing to do with morality, only the position of the character in the narratives:
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’. I’m tryin’ real hard to be a shepherd.
As a shepherd, he acquires true agency, outside of any structure. He leaves his outfit, stops performing his assigned task, and departs the story entirely.
A supplemental point: just as Jules perceives the rigged game aspect of the missed bullets and the assigned roles, he perceives the artificial quality of the briefcase, that, just like the boxer’s memory, it is designed solely as a task objective, an indescribable object of value. For Jules, the artificial nature of the universe is confirmed when he opens the briefcase and shows it to the robber. It is of extraordinary importance to the robber, but he’s unable to describe it to his fellow criminal. It is something like a character in a science fiction world who suspects that everyone is in a hypnotic state, that the enthusiastic response to a political leader has nothing to do with the leader himself, but a Pavlovian reaction to the color of the leader’s jacket or a subliminal signal in his speeches. The reaction by the robber to the briefcase makes clear that it contains something that has a universal lure, but somehow cannot be described, existing only for narrative purpose – it confirms Jules’ sense of the artificial world he lives in, why he must abandon his role and leave this universe.
A FINAL NOTE / ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, OR: ACTORS’ LIVES
The previous point I raise as a possibility to be entertained, not a certainty that one might fit with incongruities in the script. I connect this last with a play where the examination of such roles is its explicit motivation, Tom Stoppard’s well-known Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. I imply no lineage between Tarantino’s movie and the play, only bring it up because whatever their many differences, we can point to similarities in approach and effects.
Stoppard’s play focuses on two of Hamlet‘s peripheral characters, his good friends in the opus, whose only “business” in the play is to deliver Hamlet to the sanctuary of the english king, along with a letter which, unknown to the prince, commands his death. The prince switches letters, which results in the execution of the pair. This is all the action in Shakespeare’s play that they are involved in. They barely register as characters, existing almost entirely to perform their task, crucial to the plot. In Stoppard’s work they are now the title characters, but they do not exist in the verisimilitude of “reality” of Hamlet, but as men trapped in a strange void who occasionally are called into action whenever characters from Hamlet appear on stage and their presence is needed. They then snap suddenly into their required roles and deliver their lines. The play is explicitly “meta”, a work that can only be taken as something outside our reality, literary characters puzzling over the strange nature of existing as characters. However, these meta concerns converge with our own in their existential questions. When Rosencrantz or Guildenstern demand answers for the puzzling universe they exist in, where their actions seemingly have no purpose, their death none either, their questions echo our own about our own lives. They are defined by their task, yet their task is seemingly meaningless, leading them only to their own doom.
The play’s concerns, and this overlap, might be best exemplified by these lines near the end:
Our truancy is defined by one fixed star, and our drift represents merely a slight change of angle to it: we may seize the moment, toss it around while the moments pass, a short dash here, an exploration there, but we are brought round full circle to face again the single immutable fact – that we, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, bearing a letter from one king to another, are taking Hamlet to England.
For obvious reasons, this play is often likened to Waiting for Godot.
Pulp Fiction shares many of the play’s attributes, without ever explicitly moving outside of itself. It might play with our expectations of forms, but no character ever speaks about being a fictional character or the strange circumstances of being in a narrative. It is not explicitly meta, but I think it is this sharing of attributes which causes many, perhaps wrongly, to describe the movie as “meta”. Let us start with the detail brought up earlier, the bullets that fail to strike the killers. I raised the possibility that Jules’ reaction to this is not simply that of a man who takes the role of a penitent after a religious miracle, but a man who slowly realizes that the impossibility of the non-fatal bullets means that he’s actually in a movie. However, there’s nothing like any strong hint, implicit or explicit, that this is so. Where the non-fatal bullets come near the end of the film, the opening moment of R & G has the two characters focused on an impossibility which implies that they are not in reality. They flip a coin over and over again, yet somehow it always ends up heads, seventy six times in a row so far.
Ros (raises his head at Guil) Seventy-six love.
Guil gets up but has nowhere to go. He spins another coin over his shoulder without looking at it, his attention being directed at his environment or lack of it.
A weaker man might be moved to re-examine his faith, if in nothing else at least in the law of probability.
What’s of greater interest is the way R & G‘s approach to its characters illuminates how those of Fiction are written. In both, the characters are part of a larger, unseen story. In the case of the play, it is the plot of Hamlet. The movie’s action is part of some other, offstage story involving the theft of the briefcase from the kingpin. Only for brief moments do we intersect with this larger plot, and that’s when the killers retrieve this prize. Just as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern flip into their roles and say their lines when Hamlet’s people walk on stage, the killers must “get into character”. The door opens on the room with the students, and the killers walk into this particular movie. We may then see something in what I’ve always found a puzzling moment: the killers need to wait for a particular moment to enter the room, with Jules stating that it’s not time yet for their entrance. Given what we see later in the room, I’ve never understood this dialogue, as it seems that given there’s no communication or signals between them and their inside man, entering the room at one point is as good as any another. The only way this dialogue makes sense to me is in the context of a stage entrance. These characters come into the movie at this point to do their tasks, threaten the students, kill them, retrieve the briefcase, not earlier or later.
Most importantly, is that in both works this approach to character allows for a freedom in dialogue that would not exist if they were restricted to the codes of verisimilitude. In Hamlet, the two friends are insignificant, of little depth, notice, or introspection. Stoppard’s play has them speaking in long passages about free will, death, and all matter of subjects in great detail. We have a vague sense of Rosencrantz distinct from Guildenstern, with the latter smarter and more knowledgeable, yet they are in other ways indistinguishable in terms of traits, with the two often getting themselves mixed up as to who is who. Similarly, the distinctions between the two killers are almost insignificant. One is racial, the other is that Jules is smarter than Vincent. Vincent has a drug problem, but for all we know, so does Jules. That both sets of characters remain unmoored from reality allows them to speak about anything. The dialogue of the killers has already been mentioned. Here would be an example of one of Guildenstern’s many erudite speeches:
Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are…condemned. Each move is dictated by the previous one – that is the meaning of order. If we start being arbitrary it’ll just be a shambles: at least, let us hope so. Because if we happened, just happened to discover , or even suspect, that our spontaneity was part of their order, we’d know that we were lost. (He sits.) A Chinaman of the T’ang Dynasty – and, by which definition, a philosopher – dreamed he was a butterfly, and from that moment he was never quite sure that he was not a butterfly dreaming it was a Chinese philosopher. Envy him; in his two-fold security.
That this minor character speaks in a way entirely unlike his dialogue in Hamlet, that he has this extraordinary knowledge of things involving probability, philosophy, chinese history, is always accepted by the audience, because they assume that these lines are unconnected with anything like life. A similar acceptance, I think, takes place with the dialogue of the characters of the movie. When Jules gives a formal analysis of how TV shows are developed and produced, we do not try to link this analysis to anything that might have taken place in the character’s previous off-screen life – a brief writing career, say – anymore than we try to link Guildenstern’s line with a possible time as a chinese scholar.
Though these effects are possible for the same reason, they do not take place entirely in the same context. Fiction might occasionally be mistaken for social realism, while the pair in R & G act in a propless cosmic void. That they have even greater freedom in dialogue then those in Fiction should not understate the fact that both sets of characters have far more freedom in what they might say than those in a story that attempts “realism”.
A final note in this final note. Though I find attempts to link what takes place in a work with a creator’s biography often tiresome, I will make a small one here. As said previously, that the movie’s characters are able to speak so freely outside of a role, in ways that they would not were they required to conform to the role’s context has nothing to do with any existential inquiry or investigation into the qualities of art, as is the case of R & G. That there are no such questions in the movie is obvious, and as I said before, is not a liability. This freeranging dialogue in the mouths of stock character types, I think, derives from Tarantino’s background as a struggling actor, trying out in audition after audition, along with hordes of other struggling actors, all competing for small roles of killers and girlfriends in huge commercial movies. You do your best to give some musical, imaginative delivery to a paltry number of trivial lines, always dreaming of what you could do with the great dialogue rolling around your head, all the things you say to your interesting, intelligent actor friends who vie for one- and two- line parts of hitmen number one and two. Fiction, I think, is some fulfillment of this actor’s fantasy. The small role of killers retrieving a briefcase expands in lexical richness to roam a territory greater than most movies, all the wonderful words, all the wonderful tones and wordplay bursting from an actor’s head, just burning to get out.
* The central importance of the types, the nature of the types, that they are alive yet at the same time immutable, gives the title to this post, a line of dialogue describing the faux celebrities of Jack Rabbit Slim’s which may well be the movie making self-reference: “A wax museum with a pulse”.
“Pulp Fiction” Images and screenplay copyright Miramax Films. “American Boy” images and dialogue excerpt copyright New Empire Films and Scorsese Films