Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

Reviewed by John Beebe in
The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal,
Vol.13, No.3, 1994 Pages 77-80
Copyright 1994 by the Library Journal and John Beebe. All rights reserved.

Five bullet holes appear in the wall behind Vincent and Jules, hit men who have come to discipline a flat full of collegiate drug dealers for holding back a stash that they owe to the drug lord Marsellus Wallace. Discovering that they have survived an unexpected counterattack from a hidden observer, the two react quite differently. For the yuppier of the pair, coolly slack Vincent (John Travolta), the close call is another occasion to express his dismay at the way things go in our unmannerly society. The more reflective, intense Jules (eloquent Samuel L. Jackson) takes the sparing of his life as a religious rather than social sign, an indication that God wants to keep him alive. He uses the event as an opportunity for a reappraisal of his own relation to the culture of violence.

For the viewer of Pulp Fiction, the five-fold pattern punched out by the bullet tracks soon after the film has begun is like Quentin Tarantino's signature, a promise that his intuitive energy will drive this aggressive movie to a life-affirming finale. This is the film for anyone to see who wants to understand better what our violent, fear-ridden society may unconsciously be aiming at beyond its own self-destruction, and I predict that, like the two hit men, viewers will be split on how they experience the film. From one side of the ambivalent feeling it sets off, Pulp Fiction is a sharply funny satire of the violence of our culture, offering itself, with its vulgar language and tense set-pieces, as a supreme occasion for indulging our regret at the deterioration of our culture's values. From the other side, Pulp Fiction feels like a weirdly hopeful, even religious, film, an angel carrying the message that our collective weariness with violence is a deconstruction within the American shadow itself, the sign of a transformation in this country's historical valorizing of vengeance.

Tucked into this movie's parade of quirky, intrusive humiliations to the body, a boxing fatality--the most clean-cut of the catastrophes on which the messy action of Pulp Fiction turns--creates a melancholy pause, and another moment for the viewer to reflect on the way the movie fits into American history. Coolidge, a well-known boxer approaching the end of his career, has accepted a bribe from Marsellus to throw a particular fight. Instead, he knocks his opponent out dead. The man he kills is never clearly seen, but his name is given as Wilson, and watching Marsellus grieve for him is a rare, somber moment in the flight of movie ideas. On the theater marquee the night of the fight, the announcement, as the main event, of "Coolidge vs Wilson" had seemed no more than the director's playfulness, but the lethal kayo of Wilson brings unexpected force to the notion that liberal idealism has been knocked out as a governing value on the American scene. Pulp Fiction's vision is rooted in the post-traumatic wake of the image of American idealism scuttled to make a sweeter deal. The way director Tarantino underlines this event in the political psyche, which is to circle the victorious Coolidge with a full 360-degree turn of the camera, makes clear how important it is to him that we take a look at the attitude which has allowed itself to replace our persona of liberalism.

As played by the can-do Bruce Willis, Coolidge is the pragmatic present-day American persona; he has the mean, crafty look of a Republican senator who, despite the snakiness of his integrity, can still summon up an angry nostalgia for the conservative past. The black Marsellus (played with touching understatement by Ving Rhymes) is more austerely clean in his moral habits; he can still evoke loyalty to the repressed ideal of the good father. His stern godfatherliness, like his deep oratorical voice, is Roman, and his contracts, like Roman law, are reasoned and clear: it is his clients' own fault if they violate them and occasion his reprisal. His name recalls the Marsellus who opposed the imperial ambitions of Julius Caesar, who doomed the Roman republic and thus the Western tradition of representative government for a millennium and a half. It is not surprising that almost everybody in the film, including Coolidge, eventually wants to honor him: saving his honor means rescuing what's left of the patriarchal order from the crazies who would use American freedom abusively.

Marsellus's wife Mia is another story. A hard-pouting high-tech doll with a lacquered pageboy hairdo like the one Miranda Richardson wore in The Crying Game, her feeling is impossible to find, and she seems to be all seduction and trouble. She has a way of coming on to Marsellus's men, but for one of them to respond even minimally is to risk being dropped from a building for dishonoring Marsellus.

On Marsellus's orders, it's Vincent's turn to take Mia out for a good time. He shows up stoned on heroin, while she is revved up with cocaine. Uma Thurman's Mia has a suspicious nose, and through her long date with Travolta--an excursion into a '50s club which reminds us how sexistly anachronistic our surviving dating rituals are--she is frustrated by Vincent's laid-back self-protective manner. They dance (a wonderful chance for Travolta to pay homage to his own mythic movements in Saturday Nigbt Fever and Grease and to convey the reinvention of self that is America's spookiest talent), but they do not meet emotionally. Finally, Mia gets Vincent to achieve a heart connection with her by sniffing into his special stash. Terrified as she overdoses that she is dying and that he will end up a "grease spot" when Marsellus finds out, he plunges a long needle filled with adrenaline through her sternum: she starts up, like the mate in The Bride of Frankenstein and reveals the vulnerable feminine creature that had been hiding behind the mask.

The characters in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction are cynics, but command (at least among an American audience) a rapt, entertained, attention, because we can see our present anxieties so baldly mirrored in them. There is a scene in which Vincent reasons with himself in front of a mirror, plotting his strategy for ending the date with Mia without going to bed with her, that exactly echoes the private thoughts of most of us in an erotic situation we don't want to be compromised by--which is most erotic situations nowadays. More upsetting, these characters' complicity in conspiracies of violence hook deep into our shadow tendency to insist on patriarchal values such as obedience and rhetoric and property rights at the expense of terrible violations of others. Tarantino confronts us with very exact personifications of the attitudes that fuel the violences that are done in the name of loyalty to patriarchal forms, but he is also fair to the hunger within those attitudes for a safer, if not more ideal, expression of the father principle.

The first spoken words of the film are "It's too risky," and this seems to be a leitmotif of the entire movie. The final section, whose middle class surrealism is worthy of Bunuel, involves the mess made in a car by an accidental killing. The car winds up in the garage of one of Jules's friends, played by Tarantino himself as the middle class homeowner who quietly wags his finger at the two hit men dripping with blood and bone, bits of brain stuck to their hair. One of Marsellus's experts, Winston Wolf (played by Harvey Keitel), is summoned to clean up the mess so that the friend's wife won't find out what has gone down. The cover-up, like most American cover-ups, works, but the message is clear: the fallout that accompanies a violent intervention, whether individual or national, is just too messy. As part of the clean-up operation, Jules and Vincent are hosed down and dressed in middle American clothes, and it would seem that this is Tarantino's solution to the problem of American evil-to expose its banality and so appeal to the common sense in the part of us that is out of control.

© John Beebe 1998. All rights reserved.