Quentin Tarantino laid the blueprint for his distinctive style in Reservoir Dogs, but Pulp Fiction was its apotheosis. The film consists of three interwoven stories, all of which are drawn from B-pictures, paperback novels and urban legends, and connected by a pair of petty gangsters, Vincent Vega, played by John Travolta, and Jules Winnfield, played by Samuel L. Jackson, both of whom are employed by Marsellus Wallace, played by Ving Rhames. In the first story, “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife,” Vincent is hired to look after Marsellus’ wife Mia, played by Uma Thurman, but the night turns sour when she has a drug overdose. In the second story, “The Gold Watch,” boxer Butch Coolidge, played by Bruce Willis, agrees to lose a fight for Marsellus, but ends up killing his opponent, and is forced to go on the run. Finally, “The Bonnie Situation” returns to Vincent and Jules, and deals with the fallout when Vincent accidentally shoots Marvin, a man they are meant to be transporting to Marsellus, in his car. All three stories converge during a heist by “Pumpkin,” played by Tim Roth, and “Honeybunny,” played by Amanda Plummer, in a scene that both opens and closes the film, where it produces a brief epiphany for Jules about life and crime.
That brief summary doesn’t really do justice to the full narrative complexity of the film, which branches further into a series of more minor subplots, and features Christopher Walken, Harvey Keitel, Eric Stoltz and Quentin Tarantino himself in a variety of cameos or smaller roles. Still, it gives an idea of the narrative ambition and sweep of Pulp Fiction, which is as tightly plotted as Reservoir Dogs, but much more expansive in scope and style. In particular, Tarantino moves away from the tightly-wound dialogue of Reservoir Dogs towards a broader sense of cinematic pastiche, situating the 90s as a simulation of every cinematic decade, but especially the 1950s and 1970s, the eras of classical and new Hollywood. Time and again, Tarantino suggests that everything cinematic has already been said, or at least white male directors have exhausted their cinematic repertoire, gravitating the dialogue towards the conversational style that would become so characteristic of white male identity politics in the 1990s, and the way it was represented on cinema and television.
In essence, this conversational style plays like a precursor to 4chan and other message boards driven by white fragility and anxiety, and revolves around micro-observations, and micro-aggressions, in which each person in the conversation tries to get the upper hand, or insists that their own nuanced perspective on the most trivial of situations needs to be accepted at all costs. Whereas the classical gangster films of the early 90s were interested in the way organised crime built codes of conduct for immigrant communities, Tarantino’s characters police codes of conduct and rules of etiquette in the same way as chatroom moderators, continually and officiously reminding other characters when their observations are inaccurate, or when they haven’t understood popular culture with enough tact and dexterity. The result is a kind of comic-pedantic register, in which Vincent and Jules, in particular, are continually debating about “the point of the story” that is being told, while endlessly explaining – or mansplaining – obvious, arcane or uninteresting minutiae to anybody who will listen, especially when they have a captive, debilitated or inert audience.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that Pulp Fiction often plays as a series of monologues – Tarantino’s own monologues – and works best when characters are simply talking at one another, rather than opting for any real semblance of conversation. The basic building blocks of the film, visually, are long, still shots of characters talking, often with very little else in the visual field, and very little change in the visual field. At times, this makes the film’s monologues quite visceral and overwhelming, especially since Jules, in particular, likes to riff whenever the action reaches breaking point. His first and most iconic monologue takes place while he is pointing a gun at an unreliable drug dealer that he eventually kills, while his final and most transcendent monologue takes place in the midst of the diner heist, and provides an anchor to one of the most visceral Mexican standoffs of Tarantino’s career.
In fact, the higher the stakes, the more the characters double down on micro-observations and micro-conversation, until it feels as if the tiny details and fragments of pop culture that they digest and transform are a way of avoiding some greater shift in the role of the white voice within American culture. Combined with the nerdiness of the pop culture references, this makes Pulp Fiction feel like a very American brand of white anxiety, and a very Hollywood brand of white anxiety, since it effectively positions cinema as the reason for white anxiety in the first place. This is especially clear in the hyperreal venue where Mia takes Vega for their date – a concatenation of every kitschy period style imaginable, all overlaid with a postmodern sheen and framed by mounted banks of television. Seated in an old Cadillac that has been repurposed as a dinner booth, they order a “Douglas Sirk Steak” from a Buddy Holly lookalike, banter about whether a waitress is supposed to be Marilyn Monroe, and then participate in a swing competition that has passed into cinematic history.
During all these scenes, Vincent is both empowered and emasculated by the presence of Hollywood history. On the one hand, he has a surprisingly detailed knowledge of the classical era, and is able to step right into the swing competition at a moment’s notice. On the other hand, however, this hyperreal Hollywood makes his own masculinity feel like a performance, or inescapable from performance, meaning that he loses his credibility as soon as he and Mia leave. Despite the fact that Mia sets the scene for his seduction as soon as they return to her place, he has to awkwardly rehearse his role in the bathroom upstairs, before coming down to find that she has passed out from a drug overdose. The frenetic comedy that ensues further dissociates Vincent from the cinematic sheen of his dinner date, seeming to shift the film from the glamour of the 50s to the grunge of the 90s in a matter of moments. While Hollywood hyperreality provides a larger-than-life masculine persona for Vincent to slip into, it also robs masculinity of authenticity, revealing it to be a performance.
In other words, Pulp Fiction was released, or at least situates itself, at the precise cusp at which postmodernism entered the popular consciousness – if not as an academic term, then as a way of perceiving and experiencing the world. For all the male characters in the film, there is an awareness that pastiche now provides them with an unprecedented array of cinematic styles and signifiers that they can use to bolster their masculinity. Yet that very availability also exposes masculinity as a performance as never before, creating an anxiety that perhaps there is nothing more to manhood beyond these cinematic modes and conventions. In that sense, Pulp Fiction is in part the search for a transcendently masculine signifier, a guarantor of masculinity that transcends cinema, but that can also be expressed through cinema. The closest the screenplay comes to this possibility is the biblical quotation that Jules recites from time to time – an excerpt from Ezekiel that revolves, appropriately, around what it means to be a righteous man. Whenever Jules delivers this excerpt, a prophetic hush coalesces around him and seems to detach him from the rest of the film, signalling a space that somehow stands outside its endless pastiche and micro-observation.
Using religious language as a way to transcend the constrictions of representation is a common trope in cinema and literature. Yet the situation is here complicated by the fact that these words are spoken by a black character – one of the only black characters – in a film that is otherwise obsessed with the fate of the white voice. Put bluntly, while the prophecy may be spoken by a black character, it feels as if it could only have been written by a white character. Rather than biblical language providing a transcendent masculine signifier by itself, it is the fusion of biblical language and black language – a kind of divine blackspeak – that provides Tarantino with a way out of the endless pastiche of Hollywood. Since Hollywood masculinity is white, Tarantino seems to reason, recovering black cinema is a good way to escape pastiche. Hence the figure of Marsellus Wallace, who is always in the background, overseeing the narrative architecture of the film like a guarantor of authenticity who prevents the endless white fragility from collapsing in upon itself. Hence, too, the sense that every character except Jules is emasculated at the hands of Marsellus’ blackness, even as they – and Tarantino – try to devise a white jive equivalent to blackspeak.
Rewatching Pulp Fiction, then, I couldn’t help but feel that there was some kind of unholy alliance taking place with blaxploitation, since the film’s motor engine often seems to be blaxploitation, despite the fact that is almost entirely populated with white characters and driven in large part by white anxiety. It may also explain why I prefer Jackie Brown, which plays as more of a good faith tribute to blaxploitation, while also putting more of the narrative power in the hands of Pam Grier, and black actors and characters more generally. Yet that’s not to say, either, that Pulp Fiction is oblivious to the ways in which it tries to broker black masculinity in the name of white authenticity, or to the alternative cinematic history that it draws upon. In the opening scenes of the film, after the prologue in the diner but before the first story starts, Tarantino immerses us in Vincent and Jules’ rapport, following them as they seamlessly talk at one another, and then at their victims, in a cloistered and insular sequence that recalls the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs. During these scenes, the connection between white jive and black jive seems fairly fluid, as Tarantino converges Vincent and Jules into a single, shared form of masculine authenticity.
However, the three stories all thwart this masculine authenticity, while also opening up the cloistered and claustrophobic space within which it momentarily seems to flourish in the opening scenes. All stories revolve around white men who are trying to soften the world for women, all stories involve white men who try and fail to control the world through monologues, and all stories involve men who try to consummate their masculinity by trumping or otherwise co-opting black masculinity, only to find themselves more emasculated than before. In that sense, the three stories of Pulp Fiction undercut the splendid swagger of the opening scenes in the same way that the devolution of the heist in Reservoir Dogs undercuts the splendid swagger of its opening scene. In both cases, a white masculine fraternity seems to have removed itself to a sublime and cinematic distance, only to find its own internal structure buckling under the strain of sustaining itself, threatening to exposing it as just another banal cinematic pastiche, and Hollywood fantasy, in the process.
This thwarted masculine aspiration is what gives Tarantino’s three stories their charm, their humour and their originality. In the first story, Vincent is forbidden from ever sleeping with Mia, forcing them into a screwball-like “friendship” that is only intensified by her drug overdose. In the second story, Butch does indeed win the fight, and even kills his opponent, but ends up almost being anally raped by a BDSM gang that take him and Marsellus prisoner. In a parodic twist on his own need to extract white hubris from black emasculation, Tarantino actually scripts this scene so that Marsellus is raped first, giving Butch time to escape, go upstairs, and move his way through a series of more hyperbolic and phallic weapons, before going back down to the BDSM basement to save Marsellus from being further violated by his white captors. Finally, in the third story, Tarantino plays Vincent and Jules’ friend Jimmie, who insists that they clean up Marvin’s body before his wife gets home, since she’ll divorce him if she realises he is involved with organised crime. Rather than detection by police, or revenge by gangs, the biggest imperative to deal with the situation is Jimmie’s fear and anxiety about being emasculated within his own marriage.
Furthermore, all three stories involve acts of penetration that comically undercut white masculine aspiration. In the first story, when Mia overdoses, Vincent is forced to take her to the house of his drug dealer, played by Eric Stoltz. In one of the funniest scenes in the film, Vincent realises that he can only save Mia by plunging a massive needle into her chest, in a process that Tarantino draws out and luxuriates in for all it’s worth. In the second story, Butch spends most of the time being tied up and supervised by a gymp, as his BDSM captors get ready to anally rape him after they have finished with Marsellus. Finally, the whole “Bonnie Situation” of the third story only gets underway because Vincent fires his gun at the wrong time, resting a finger on the trigger as he turns around in the car to speak to Marvin without taking the rough surface of the road into account. In all three cases, the monologues that drive the film devolve into a phallic incompetence that is tantamount to being sodomised. Although Butch’s story might form the centrepiece of the film, the non-linear structure means that it is also the last, chronologically, to take place. Thus, while Pulp Fiction “ends” with Jules’ prophetic invocation of Ezekiel in the diner, it equally “ends” with Butch frantically escaping from the BDSM dungeon, and fleeing town after saving Marsellus. Between these two endings, Pulp Fiction speaks to a collective fantasy in which only the charisma of blackspeak can rescue white men from being emasculated by other white men.
As a result, each story also takes the characters to a limit in terms of their ability to talk at other people, and to engage in monologue. When Vincent first arrives at Mia’s place, his manner is much more sheepish and shy than in his earlier scene with Jules. By the time the night is over, he has been entirely silenced by the shock of having to administer the syringe. Similarly, in the second story, Butch continually tries to adopt a paternal role to his girlfriend, Fabienne, played by Maria de Medeiros, but she just as quickly undercuts him, whether by riffing herself on the nature of sexual desire, or by asking him to go down on her just as he is settling into his paternal persona. In fact, this is the second Hispanic woman who takes control of a conversation with Butch, following the cab driver who drives him from the fight to his hotel (and so becomes the only person who knows where he is hiding), undercutting his voice and hubris even before he is imprisoned with Marsellus. Finally, Vincent, Jules and Jimmie are all silenced by Winston Wolfe, an older gangster played by Harvey Keitel, who is sent by Marsellus to clean up Marvin’s body. In face of his old-school assurance and silence, their riffing fades away, while they are further emasculated when he forces them to strip down so they can be hosed off as he cracks jokes about prison assault.
For all their differences, then, each story is driven by a kind of reflexive impotence, in which the main characters seem perpetually on the verge of opening up the action, and crafting a cinematic narrative for themselves, only to be brought to a bathetic and comic halt. Concomitantly, each story promises to give us a glimpse of a more expansive, cinematic Los Angeles, only to collapse back into the insular and cloistered aspirations of its male leads. In the first story, Tarantino only gives us the film’s first real tracking-shot when Vincent arrives at Mia’s apartment, but is is immediately contained and monitored by the security camrra that Mia is operating. In the second story, Butch is just starting to accelerate into his getaway when Marsellus walks in front of his car, prompting the exchange and conflict that leads to them both being abducted by the BDSM gang. Finally, the third story elides the removal and disposal of Marvin’s body, meaning that virtually all of the action takes place at Jimmie’s home, with the exception of a brief monologue in which Winston Wolfe gives Vincent and Jules some advice about how to create a good home and marriage of their own.
While Pulp Fiction may be shot in Los Angeles, and steeped in Hollywood history, it thus never expands out into a Los Angeles film per se. Cultivating a staunch indie aesthetic, many of the scenes look cheaply shot, or are set in cheaply clad spaces, while most of the action is shot in tight close-up, or with minimal backdrops, so that the characters’ words fill up most of the screen, accumulating and intensifying without any real outlet or escape. In addition, Tarantino opts for long silences and awkward pauses that would never cut it in mainstream Hollywood films at this time. While the soundtrack is very obtrusive, and consciously curated by both the characters and Tarantino himself, this also draws the silences around it into even more conspicuous and heightened relief. Instead of segueing seamlessly from silence to sound (be it speech or music), the film’s soundscape never quite synergises, making every monologue feel like it is trying, anew, to break out of a substrate of white noise, or cinematic static, that has forestalled every role that the film’s white men can play.
The result is an odd and original combination of postmodern sheen and indie grunge, in which Tarantino shifts vertiginously between moments of pastiche, and a more enduring taste for the beauty of simple fades, reaction shots and close-ups. The most stylised and detailed of these close-ups are reserved for drug use, laying the foundation for the minutiae of heroin injection, in particular, as they would appear in late 90s cinema, but without the slightest hint of danger or regret. Even when Mia overdoses, her near-death experience isn’t presented as a cautionary tale, but instead as a new and exotic high – the high that comes from a brush with death – that momentarily takes the film beyond pastiche, not unlike Jules’ breathless prophetic moments. Yet Pulp Fiction is not ultimately a drug film in the same way as Trainspotting or Human Traffic, instead presenting drug use as the apotheosis of the film’s screenplay, and its obsession with American popular culture. Tarantino shoots drug use in the same way that the characters discuss burgers and milkshakes – Mia and Vincent’s night out ends with a pun on the word “ketchup” – fusing fast food, fast drugs and fast speech into an all-American intoxication, a high that Tarantino pumps into the viewer’s body faster than they can properly process it, or before they can stop to fully interrogate it.
In that sense, Pulp Fiction is a line of flight from white masculinity as it stood in the early 90s – a restless, roving attempt to prove that white men haven’t been exhausted by Hollywood, even as it draws precisely upon this exhaustion to propel it into some new state of being. Twenty-five years later, and in the light of Tarantino’s subsequent career, it’s perhaps this restlessness that is most remarkable, since it’s hard to avoid being caught up in the film’s momentum even as its relation to blaxploitation, blackspeak and black cinema seems increasingly to be a bad faith gesture. In effect, Tarantino tries to escape pastiche, while using pastiche, and while aware that his own film is pastiche – a hyperactive and circular effort embodied in the film’s non-linear structure, but also in its injunction to be rewatched, repurposed, requoted and recirculated, as indeed it was in the early 90s, like a piece of viral content, or a meme before the digital era. While it may not be Tarantino’s best film, then, it still feels like his most iconic, establishing a digital quotability quotient that his later work explores in more adventurous, expansive and – often – more conscious and reflective ways.