With “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino Resisted the Mundane

Pulp Fiction Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), the hitmen at the heart of Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction."

(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. Given that July sees the release of Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, the ninth film from Quentin Tarantino, we’re exploring the filmography of one of 20th-century cinema’s most breathlessly referential directors. Read the rest of our Filmmaker of the Month coverage of Tarantino here.)

1994: A former video-store clerk, now-director, released his sophomore entry. His debut: Reservoir Dogs — a caper noir following a band of bank robbers, introduced him and his unabashed homages to Hollywood and Kung Fu cinema to the world. Back then, the path of Quentin Tarantino still seemed unassured. Reservoir Dogs relied on characters who relished violence and spoke with a no-filter problematic, even for the period, callousness. A young director purposely making a statement by pushing the envelope made for the likeliest explanation for the freshman film. The second flick by this director would certainly begin to lean conservatively because to proceed in the same manner appeared unsustainable, lacking any sense. 

But Tarantino has never made sense. His follow-up to Reservoir Dogs: the classic Pulp Fiction, on its face, appeared less coherent than the former. Composed of a non-linear narrative, extended non-sequiturs, and liberal use of the N-word—even uttered from the mouth of the white director himself—Pulp Fiction’s success hinges on the film’s characters, their dialog now used as gospel, and their declarations against mundanity.

Opening in a diner, a violent kleptomaniac couple, Ringo (Tim Roth) and Yolanda (Amanda Plummer), weigh the cost-benefits of robbing a restaurant over a bank or convenience store. Affectionately finishing their sentences with “pumpkin” and “hunny bunny,” respectively, the cognitive dissonance of the scene barely holds together — Ringo slams a gun on the table as the diner’s occupants carry on in everyday conversation, unaware of the impending hostage situation.

The film then leaps forward to a prelude: ‘Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife.’ Vincent (John Travolta), a recently returned from Amsterdam contract killer is tasked with taking the boss’ wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out for dinner. 

Pulp Fiction, more than any of Tarantino’s films offers singular bookmarks not just through snappy dialogue, but the settings as well. There’s the diner scene, later the pawn shop sequence, and during Mia Wallace’s segment, Jack Rabbit Slim’s. “A wax museum with a pulse,” as Vincent calls the faux-50’s inspired restaurant adorned with a tapestry of blonde bombshell cosplays, Buddy Holly waiters, and a $5 milkshake on the menu. In a film filled with iconic moments, Vincent and Mia’s dance stands out as one of the few instances of these characters having fun.

The oddest sequence, in a film of bizarre events, occurs during the proceeding ‘Gold Watch’ prelude as Christopher Walken playing Captain Koons explains to a young Butch the difficulties of hiding the boy’s family heirloom: a gold watch, up his asscrack while held prisoner in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. 

The scene, on its face, is unnecessary. Tarantino provides plenty of exposition during part-b of the ‘Gold Watch,’ as an adult Butch (Bruce Willis): a boxer who’s just double-crossed Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) by not taking a dive in a fight, explains to his girlfriend (Maria de Medeiros) why he needs to return to their apartment to retrieve the watch she forgot to pack. 

Nevertheless, Tarantino isn’t concerned with making sense. He’s the director. We’re the audience. The relationship calls for trust in the other, even as Butch and Marcellus Wallace tumble into a pawn shop fighting each other, even as they’re taken captive by Hillbilly rapists, even as a gimp achingly giggles. 

Pulp Fiction, no matter the initially insignificant detours, hurdles forward undeterred. The final two segments: the ‘Bonnie Situation’ and ‘the Diner’ epilogue, tie together the Mia Wallace and Diner chapters. Vincent and his partner Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), coming off killing an entire room of yuppies to retrieve the MacGuffin black case for Marcellus Wallace, find themselves in a blood-soaked white car with few places to retreat. They cruise to the doorstep of Jimmie (Tarantino), a joe-blow dressed in a bathrobe, where they wait for fixer Winston Wolfe (Harvey Keitel) to solve their predicament.      

Pulp Fiction is “the tyranny of evil men” — and as a result, it’s the realest film Tarantino’s ever made. 

In today’s climate of trolls chastising films with a hyper-realistic/CinemaSins-shaped yardstick, Pulp Fiction perfectly summarizes Tarantino’s freewheeling amalgamation of homages and shock value. Cars speed to a stop in the middle of the road; killers carry on conversations while hostages lay silent on the floor; Vincent totals his car yet drives Mia home in it later; a gimp lives in a box. 

Tarantino’s disdain for answers still offers modern audiences a breath of fresh air: Why does Marcellus Wallace have a bandaid on the back of his neck? What’s in the black case? Cinema is about belief in disbelief, and trust in the untrustworthy, a trait audiences have arguably lost today.  

Tarantino’s movies are often set in caricatures of periods: Django Unchained and Inglorious Bastards, or are exclusively in the underworld: Reservoir Dogs and the Kill Bills. But Pulp Fiction inserts these petty thieves, drug dealers, gangsters, rapists, and contract killers into the day-to-day lives of people in an ordinary landscape (if you can call L.A. ordinary). In fact, the “normal” people offer a running commentary throughout the film. Ringo and Yolanda despise the idea of a day job, Mia tells Vincent to not be a square, Marcellus Wallace tells Butch not to end up a ‘sucker.’

When Jules and Vincent retrieve the black case, is it any wonder that Brett looks like a middle-class white guy you’d sooner find in a college town bar? Brett isn’t made for this underworld. “He can’t talk his way out of this shit,” Jules surmises. Once again, there’s not much sense in Brett being Marcellus Wallace’s business partner. Nevertheless, he’s punished for his ordinariness and stupidity. 

Tarantino demonstrates little patience for these peons. Instead, they’re toys and punchlines, while the criminals are humanized and tended to with admiration. And later, when Jules tells Vincent he’s giving up the life to walk the earth, Vincent derisively calls him a bum. The thirst to avoid the ordinary, to spurn those ho-hum people with blinders on isn’t solely related to criminals. Artists carry the same desire, and a video-store clerk might foster the same need. 

Every film is personal to a director, but Pulp Fiction was the last we saw of the video clerk. From then on, the flash-bang homages, the boyhood cinema loves, inhabited the screen, but the personal narrative fell away. The films focused less on “shepherding” their audiences, becoming more a mixture of “dead n*gger storage” type dialogue and violent centerpieces with less of the previous tact and wit.

When Jules holds Ringo at gunpoint in the dinner, questioning his own role as the shepherd, the righteous man, or the tyranny of evil men, we as the audience wonder how Tarantino sees himself in this scenario. Now, watching from our present perch, the answer to this 154-minute riddle is clear, apparent as a miracle. Pulp Fiction is “the tyranny of evil men” — and as a result, it’s the realest film Tarantino’s ever made. 

Pulp Fiction Trailer:

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