Pulp Fiction

In therapy, people traditionally talk and do not act. In film, characters talk and act. Film dialogue not only moves with currents of text and subtext, it also flows with, against, or across the currents of visible--onscreen--action. Quentin Tarantino's PULP FICTION owes some of its success to the wild cross currents of dialogue, action, and character.

Pulp Fiction

Quentin Tarantino, Writer and Director. Miramax, 1994.

By Donald Williams, Jungian Analyst (Boulder, Colorado)

In the psychotherapist's office people often say one thing and mean something else. In therapy a client may tell a story about a co-worker who avoids conflict; the therapist may hear the story as a commentary on therapy and suggest that he, too, has avoided the client's conflicts and impeded their progress as "co-workers." In therapy, people traditionally talk and do not act. In film, characters talk and act. Film dialogue not only moves with currents of text and subtext, it also flows with, against, or across the currents of visible--onscreen--action.

Quentin Tarantino's PULP FICTION owes some of its success to the wild cross currents of dialogue, action, and character. For instance, we first listen to Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) discuss the "little differences" between America and Europe--the "Quarter Pounder" versus a "Royale with Cheese," and moments later we watch them load and cock two .45 automatics and proceed toward an execution. They enter an apartment building, and in the elevator they talk about Antwan Rockamora who was thrown off a fourth story balcony for giving their boss' wife a foot massage. As they walk down the hallway, they argue about the seriousness of Antwan's crime. Vincent considers a foot massage intimate and Jules doesn't. They stand in front of an apartment door prepared to shoot three, four, or five people and then they surprise us when they "hang back" to go on talking. While we wonder who is about die, Vincent and Jules continue arguing the ethics of giving another man's wife a foot massage.

Vincent is smooth and articulate: "I'm not sayin' he was right, but you're sayin' a foot massage don't mean nothin' and I'm sayin' it does.... Now, we act like they don't, but they do. That's what's so fuckin' cool about 'em. There's a sensual thing goin' on that nobody's talkin' about, but you know it and she knows it...." Meanwhile, in parallel, there's a violent thing "goin' on that nobody's talkin' about."--remember the .45 automatics. For all their concern about the morality of foot massages and fidelity, we never see Jules and Vincent question the murders they commit.

A good film makes us stretch to hold dialogue and action together--we listen to one thing, watch another, and perhaps remember something entirely different. Consider, for instance, "The Bonnie Situation." Jules and Vincent have to clean up a mess after Vincent accidentally blows Marvin's head off in the back seat of Jules' Chevy. They pull into a friend's garage (Jimmie's) to get the car off the street. What do they talk about in the middle of this bloody horror? They talk about what Bonnie will say if she sees a gore splattered car and a dead man, about Jimmie's fear of certain divorce, about cleaning techniques, and gourmet versus freeze-dried coffee. Every screenwriter knows to cross dialogue and action for dramatic tension, humor, or depth. Tarantino stretches the distances between dialogue and action to new limits, and the result is funny, nerve-wracking, and excitingly original.

Are these characters psychologically believable? No. They are smart, articulate, frightening, and always interesting but not believable--that's how I felt when I left the theater and that's how I want to feel about them. If I stretch further, though, I have to admit that they are believable, that, yes, their "crazy salad" of business, ethics, theology, psychological subtlety, and verbal intelligence can fit with their casual, business-as-usual violence. I uncomfortably remember a few violent first hand stories--of a fatal crime of abandonment, of a theology student who overdosed on heroin, and of stranger crimes by superficially sane, cultured people.

Jules, Vincent, Brett, Marvin, Winston Wolf, Jimmy, Marsellus and Mia, Lance and Jody, Captain Koons, Butch and his "lemon pie," Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are all at least a little believable. Meanwhile, Jody, the character with her body pierced in sixteen places, looks just like people I routinely see at the 7-11 store three blocks from home. We find these characters entertaining because they talk about things we think about while they do things we morally reject, because they are like us and definitely not like us.

Vincent, for instance, kills two preppy young men who betrayed Marsellus, accidentally blows the head off of a third young man, scrubs the blood and brains from Jules' Chevy, shoots up with heroin, then plunges a syringe with adrenalin into Mia's heart after she accidentally overdoses on heroin, and he gets shot coming out of a bathroom carrying a "pulp fiction" novel. This is probably not a "day in the life" of anybody we know, and this fact gives us the emotional distance we need to be more entertained than shocked.

Quentin Tarantino, as screenwriter and director, underscores our secure distance by the obvious pleasure he takes with ironic allusions to TV and film (Jules decides to "walk the earth" like Caine in "Kung Fu" after his religious experience), with visual whimsy (the briefcase--with money?--that glows when opened), and with humor (Vincent and Jules transformed into "dorks" in shorts and t-shirts).

A Hard Day at the Office

From the moment we meet Jules and Vincent we watch them talk about ethical codes of conduct--this is almost all they talk about. Jules asks about Amsterdam: "Hash is legal there, right?" and Vincent lays it out: "Yeah, it breaks down like this: it's legal to buy it, it's legal to own it..." and so on. From there they go on to the famous foot massage controversy.

When Vincent buys heroin from Lance, he complains about someone "keying" his Malibu, and they both conclude, "You don't fuck another man's vehicle." Later that night Vincent entertains his boss' wife, Mia. He takes her home, goes to the bathroom, and then addresses himself in the mirror: "...it's a moral test of yourself, whether or not you can maintain loyalty...So you're gonna go out there, drink your drink, say 'Goodnight, I've had a very lovely evening,' go home and jack off."

When Jules interrupts the cafe hold-up by Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, we witness his struggle with his miracle (their "impossible" survival!) and with the intricacies of Biblical interpretation: He repeats his now famous passage from Ezekiel and asks himself whether he's a righteous man, a shepherd of the weak, or the instrument of the Lord's vengeance. There's no shortage of moral and religious questions in this film.

PULP FICTION does not sanction or condemn violence. The film treats violence as the burden of business in America. America "ain't Amsterdam." Brett, Roger, Marvin, the Fourth Man, Butch Coolidge's boxing opponent, and finally Vincent are fatalities of business. When Brett betrays Marsellus, it's business, and when Marsellus gets retribution, it's business. Boxing fraud is also business. Business works better when business partners are reliable but there are arbitrary exceptions--Butch, through luck and a little honor, does escape with his winnings.

Everybody in this film raises an ethical question or two but the film answers only one: Violence for sadistic pleasure is despicable. Only the "hillbilly psychopaths" violate the film's moral world: They exploit, humiliate, and kill people for pleasure, not for sustenance, shelter, and money, and they are punished with death. Violence in business is--in PULP FICTION--acceptably American, but sadistic cruelty is not.

Psychological Language

The language of PULP FICTION plays skillfully against the character stereotypes we bring to the theater. For example, we don't expect the boxer, Butch Coolidge, to be articulate but he is. He's very precise. When a female taxi driver asks him "what it feels like to kill a man" after his boxing match, he says, "I couldn't tell ya. I didn't know he was dead. Now I know he's dead, do you wanna know how I feel about it?" We're not surprised that Butch throws a TV against the wall when he realizes that his girlfriend didn't pack his father's watch. In a sudden turnaround, Butch apologizes: "...it's not your fault. I had you bring a bunch of stuff. I reminded you about it, but I didn't illustrate how personal the watch was to me...I should've told you. You're not a mind reader." Butch quickly recovers, claims his fair share of responsibility, and uses very precise language--"I didn't illustrate"--for a man who just threw a TV at the motel wall.

Tarantino's characters like to be precise. They also like to make clear psychological interpretations and distinctions when they talk. When Jules and Vincent are shot at six times at close range and each shot misses them, Jules claims to have witnessed a miracle. Vincent calls it a rare piece of luck. Vincent overrides Jules' experience, and Jules doesn't like it: "We should be fuckin' dead now, my friend! We just witnessed a miracle, and I want you to fuckin' acknowledge it!" Acknowledge is a therapy word and I think only Jules could get away with it. Later, over breakfast, Jules thinks about "the miracle we witnessed." Vincent is careful to psychologically distinguish his experience from Jules': "The miracle you witnessed. I witnessed a freak occurrence." This simple, respectful clarity is a rare psychological achievement in human interactions.

They continue their talk, with precision: A miracle is an act of God, God makes the impossible possible, "impossible" is debatable, but personal feeling is a deciding factor in the equation. Jules' elaborates: "Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is I felt God's touch." This is sophisticated talk. It's no surprise then--all pleasure, in fact--when Jules claims to have "what alcoholics refer to as a 'moment of clarity'" while drinking his coffee and eating a muffin.

This Watch is a Symbol

Captain Koons brings a gold watch to Butch Coolidge as a young boy. Butch's great grandfather took the watch to World War I and survived; his grandfather took it to World War II and wasn't so lucky. Butch's father was wearing the watch when he was put in a Vietnamese prison camp. Captain Koons winds up his unforgetable speech to Butch: Your father "hid it in the one place he knew he could hide somethin'. His ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then when he died of dysentery, he gave me the watch, I hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass for two years. Then...I was sent home to my family. And now, little man, I give the watch to you."

Butch, now an almost-over-the-hill boxer, agrees to throw a fight for Marsellus, then betrays Marsellus by knocking out (and killing) his opponent and collecting on the bets he made. When his "lemon pie" forgets his watch, Butch goes back to his apartment to claim it despite the likelihood that he will be killed. Arguing with himself, he decides that "the watch is a symbol" and that he started a war when he "took Marsellus Wallace's money." A moment ago we knew that Butch lied to and betrayed his partner in gambling fraud. Now Butch is convincing himself (and us?) that he's fighting a just war and going back to claim his birthright, the gold watch. His rationalization is "punchy." Nothing is affirmed--all we know is that life goes on, takes a lickin' but keeps on tickin'.

Is the watch or anything else in PULP FICTION "worth going back for?" No. The watch is finally what Captain Koons called it, a "hunk of metal." Does Butch's final triumph and reconciliation with Marsellus mean anything? No. Four deaths and a little luck later, Butch is a wealthy man. Marsellus feels the sting of pride, one of the costs of doing business, but he knows that "Pride only hurts, it never helps." He will go back to business. PULP FICTION affirms only that life goes better with a few simple rules and goes worse--usually but not always--when people violate the rules, whether these are rules of business or of friendship.

And Jules? Does his conversion mean something? No, at least not a meaning that he can define. He saves two armed robbers from death or prison but he has not affirmed anything. He still does not know whether he's the shepherd, the righteous man, the selfish man, God's instrument of vengeance, or just Marsellus Wallace's man. What's left when Jules and Vincent leave the cafe?--two hours of good, smart entertainment!

© 1997 Donald Williams. All rights reserved.