Lawrence Russell

Pulp Fiction (1994) writ. and dir. Quentin Tarantino cine. Andrzej Sekula star. John Travolta (Vincent), Samuel L. Jackson (Jules), Uma Thurman (Mia), Ving Rhames (Marcellus), Tim Roth (Pumpkin), Amanda Plummer (Honey Bunny), Bruce Willis (Butch), Peter Greene (Zed), Harvey Keitel (Wolf), Eric Stoltz (Lance)

Quentin Tarantino: Master of the Gun Commercial

Nostalgia, n. the need to find comfort in the past when you have no future. This pretty well sums up the retro complexion of this film, and the characters who inhabit it.

Two sociopaths -- one white, one black -- prowl along in their nostalgic car listening to nostalgic music, their conversation somewhere between the mundane and the irrelevant. You follow them into the lobby of a shabby apartment building, endure their banter about the boss' wife and what a Big Mac is in Europe. There's a bumbling absurdity to it all, like a buddy cop movie shot by, say, Antonioni. They arrive (eventually) at the apartment of some young men who look more like college students than "business associates" of the beast these two hoods represent. They shoot everybody in the room -- sooner or later -- after some routine interrogation and humiliation, although they almost get whacked themselves.

Meet Vincent (Travolta) and Jules (Jackson), two more Hollywood clowns with guns. Their ambiguous karma and self-indulgent conversations are quite funny, although they often spend too much time in the script and out of the action. Still, this sort of transitional action is Tarantino's signature style, and is often quite effective in its juxtaposition of the expected against the unexpected. Like workers who spend all morning in the van getting to the job, you just never know when someone is going to die or say something gross.

Tarantino's method is this: never complete a scene if you can cutaway to another and come back later, because that way you can create a plot when there really is no plot at all. Or: how to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

It's quite effective. It allows several characters to have their own story rather than be mere vassals in someone else's story, some asshole hero we've seen succeed and fail a million times before. It's an innovation on the commonly used master-slave scene technique of T.V. drama. You're positively amazed when you end up in the restaurant again with Pumpkin (Roth) and Honey Bunny (Plummer) as they conduct their spontaneous robbery. Who would've thought that this droll little prologue would turn out to be the master scene in this episodic collection of vignettes? Like a murder mystery, the action returns to the first person you meet.

The story of Mia Wallace (Thurman), the white drug fiend wife of the big bad black gangster Marcellus is too long. She's a stereotype despite the nineties inversion. Her night out with Vincent -- an "assignment" from Marcellus while he's taking care of business -- is more black comedy with a mixed message. First Vincent scores some heroin, gets loaded for the date, picks up Mia who's already loaded on coke. They go to Jack Rabbit, a restaurant constructed as a Time Trap, more American pop nostalgia. The Host is an Ed Sullivan dressup, the waitresses various Hollywood sex queens such as Marilyn Monro and Mamie van Doren. The live music? Rockabilly. The booths? Fifties convertibles.

It's amazing how resilient this pop culture of Fender reverb, pastels, glitter and deco soda fountain decor can be. Certainly it fits with Tarantino's Pulp Fiction metaphor, although its inclusion is more ephemeral than relevant. They return to Mia's house and she OD's while Vincent is upstairs taking "a piss". He rushes her to his dealer's house and like a bunch of children playing at doctor and nurse, they bring her back with a needle of adrenaline punched straight into the heart. As Mia vaults back into life, the hypo still impaled in her chest, the dealer's wife says, "That was fuckin' trippy."

No doubt. But more trippy than, say, the Twist dance trophy they won at Jack Rabbit's?

"What does it feel like to kill a man?"

The story of Butch (Willis), the boxer who was supposed to throw a fight as a favour to Marcellus ("In the 5th, my ass goes down"), is the most effective despite the absurd scene with the female taxi driver who says she's Colombian but sounds like a Russian mail order bride. It's definitely pulp, alright. As Butch stripes down in the back seat to cool off or reflect upon the value of his flesh, the Colombian chick cabbie asks, "What does it feel like to kill a man?" It seems Butch punched his opponent into oblivion as well as reneging on his deal with Marcellus.

His girlfriend awaits in a bed in a seedy motel. She's another foreign number who sounds similar to the cabbie and is of similar dimensions and intellect. She has forgotten to recover Butch's ancestral watch from his apartment as instructed. Butch gets very, very angry, but spares this dumb little vixen, borrows her battered Honda, heads to his apartment, reenters via the back yard of an adjacent house. He recovers his watch -- the one his dead P.O.W. father wore in a Hanoi prison -- and slips into the kitchen to make himself some pop tarts when he notices a machine gun with a silencer lying on the counter. It's Vincent's, who's been sent by Marcellus to take care of the treacherous Butch. Too bad Vincent is taking "a shit". Butch strafes him with his own gun as he emerges from the can.

Butch thinks he's home-free now, can collect his bets, head for the South Seas, maybe Mexico. He waits at an intersection as a large black man crosses the street carrying some take-out food. It's Marcellus... who recognizes him, despite the shabby little car. Butch boots the gas, hits Marcellus who bounces onto the hood and over the roof. As he accelerates through the intersection, he gets whacked laterally by a speeding car. As he crawls out of the wreckage, Marcellus -- who has survived the hit and run quite nicely -- starts shooting. He flees into a nearby pawn shop with Marcellus in pursuit.

Strange how you never know what will greet you on the other side of any door you might open. Butch and Marcellus are taken prisoner by the creepy owner. As he keeps them hostage with his shotgun, he gets on the phone: "Zed... Maynard. Spider just caught a couple of flies."

Zed arrives quickly and Butch and Marcellus are taken to the basement, where they meet The Gimp, a masked pervert in a black leather stunt suit who just happens to be living in a large trunk. The Gimp is restrained by a chain which allows him some movement via an overhead rail. As Zed and Maynard bugger Marcellus in the next room, The Gimp moves on Butch who easily beats him unconscious. For some reason he feels sympathy for Marcellus and interrupts the rape, armed with a Japanese Samurai sword he finds in the shop upstairs. Marcellus and Butch make their peace, and Butch exits riding Zed's chopper as Marcellus plans the perverts' torture and death.

More scenes from the comics? Maybe. You can always find an item in a Californian newspaper most weeks that records just such scenes of innovative sex and violence.

"No, this wasn't luck -- this was divine intervention."

The narrative drops back to the unfinished business in the apartment of the college kids. This seems strange because you know Vincent is dead (Butch shot him) and you think Time is linear. Apparently not.

Apparently you were left without the moral. Vincent and Jules are surprised by a young man who has been hiding in the next room. He starts shooting but misses with all six bullets. They shoot him, but Jules is now a changed man. As he examines the stray bullet holes in the wall, he decides his good luck isn't luck at all but "divine intervention".

They leave the apartment with the recovered money and a black kid called Marvin, whose fate will be in Marcellus' hands. As they drive along, Vincent's gun accidentally discharges, blows off Marvin's head. Jules decides to drive to the house of a friend called Jimmy (Tarantino), call in the services of a body disposal expert called The Wolf (Keitel). While this sort of bungling is in keeping with Vincent's basic incompetency, the sequence is again overdrawn and even tedious. It seems to be designed to give Tarantino and Harvey Keitel cameo roles. The acting is stiff, the routines beside the point. You've already been sensationalized by several murders and scenes of self-abuse, so the black humour here is marking time, not advancing it.

"Because you are a character doesn't mean you have a character."

Like a school principal who makes two vandals clean up their mess, the Wolf makes Vincent and Jules wipe up the blood and brain tissue in the back seat of the car. When the body and the car are finally disposed of at a North Hollywood wrecking yard called Monster Joe's, Wolf says to Vincent, "Because you are a character doesn't mean you have a character." While this piece of advice from the maestro is wasted on a nimrod like Vincent, you also wonder if this is some sort in-joke about Keitel's cameo. It's a shame to see Keitel as a parody of himself... although by this point just about all the characters seem to be winging it. Improvisation doesn't create character, it merely reveals the actor.

It begins in a cafe, ends in the same cafe. The action is circular and episodic, with a Time shuffle in between. It's taken Hollywood a long time to recognize that the linear Time narrative is a bit of a bore, especially if it ends in a shootout. Tarantino recognizes this, and he uses a shuffle script to deliver a contradictory moral, that is, Jules the Master Enforcer delivers a sermon about the stupidity of crime and violence to the amateur criminals, Honey Bunny and Pumpkin.

As usual, Vincent is taking a shit. As Honey Bunny tries to relieve Jules of his briefcase [loaded with crime money... or plutonium maybe, as this is a "homage" to Kiss Me Deadly (1955)] [or ripoff, if you see it as plagarism], he finds himself staring into the muzzle of a heavy automatic. Still believing in divine intervention, Jules tells the two amateurs that they're lucky as "I'm in a transitional period." He actually gives them money before sending them packing. You don't know if they've learned their lesson from "the Shepherd" but you do know that Vincent certainly hasn't.

They casually exit the restaurant, Vincent heading for his death, Jules to "walk the earth like Cain in Kung Fu."

If you were to take the guns and shooting out of this script, what would be left? Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll? Lots of nostalgia and driving around in cars is what. And who does that? The idle young. This appeals to the 9 mm brigade who dabble in Home Invasions and dope dealing. While you know it's only a movie, there's something very uncool about these killers who carry on as if they're simple tradesmen who humiliate and shoot people for a living and have absolutely no conscience about the murders they commit. When Jules chooses to abandon the trade, it isn't because of guilt. He simply recognizes that his hand has run out and if he doesn't quit, he'll be dead.

© LR '94/99


*LR's new novel RADIO BRAZIL available from Amazon worldwide as paperback or eBook: Amazon USA, UK or eBay »»

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