Pulp Fiction Movie Analysis – Detachment, Manliness, Media Criticism, ShakespearePosted: September 22, 2011
Overview – Pulp Fiction is a tragedy without the sadness and a comedy without the comic plot line. And at the same time as it portrays itself as a champion of those who want to escape the world of political correctness and limitations, it also mocks the dissociative culture that tends to come along with it, lamenting the American Wasteland. In other words, by pretending to have no moral message it only makes it hit harder. I also believe that the film was written with modern media criticism in mind and purposefully exaggerates the ever-criticized aspects of movies, such as jumping from scene to scene with no apparent reason, and throwing together a mishmosh of genres.
Philosophy and Criticism – In Ancient Rome and Modern America Guglielmo Ferrero wrote that, in contrast to the pre-Gutenberg world in which a maximum of time and effort would be put into each written work, today “a wolfish, insatiable hunger for printed paper and reading” has overcome society and is the “scourge of our civilization.” He goes on to say that in the midst of such a society, “we, who wish to fill the world with riches” have disfigured it and made it hideous.
Tarantino first brings this cultural effect to the surface by recalling the phenomenon of pulp fiction, works churned out of the press at bullet speed, printed on inferior paper. He’s implying that the film is also a work of little substance, put out to meet people’s insatiable demand for the new, the entertaining and the stimulating. But, of course, the film aims at more than that.
The movie also aims to spin media criticism on its head. For example, in My Pilgrim’s Progress, George Trow wrote, “Television will not allow you to follow a story. Each broadcast is self-contained…they value and love the episodic possibilities within the news.” Hence, Pulp Fiction employs several broadcasting techniques—jumping from story to story with no apparent link between them, and yet ultimately brings them into a unified whole.
Another example would be Neil Postman’s commentary that in the modern media world, “We are presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness, that is to say, news as pure entertainment.” I think that Pulp Fiction seeks to rebel against this as well, because it’s a large theme in the movie that ultimately you must deal with the consequences of your actions. For example, we see Jules and Vincent cleaning up the car after they accidentally kill a man in broad daylight, rather than using the deus ex machina of the commercial break, off-scene action, or cutting to black, cleansing the mental palate.
Tarantino also heavily exaggerates the clashing of genres, playing on the postmodern theory of hyperreality. “The striking aspect of the whole is not the quantity of [genres] plundered from half of Europe, the nonchalance with which the artificial tissue seamlessly connects fake and genuine, but rather the sense of fullness, the obsessive determination not to leave a single space that doesn’t suggest something, and hence the masterpiece of bricolage, haunted by the horror vacui that is here achieved.”
This quote from Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality originally referred to Hearst Castle, which threw together Greek artifacts, medieval convent floorings, and newly dried neoclassical paintings, but I also think it applies to Pulp Fiction which mashes together the genres of comedy, satire, mystery, tragedy, and even gangster films and film noir.
The tragic genre is particularly notable to me. The entire film I was reminded of Shakespeare’s tragedies, probably because I recently wrote a series of essays on them. Just one example is King Lear, in which most the good, central characters die tragic deaths, though one lives on, jaded by the world around him, to become the next King of England. Similarly, many of the characters in the movie either die or suffer tragic fates in another way (overdosing, rape), while Jules lives on as a seemingly reformed hit man.
As for why I believe that the film is also a satire, I feel that it mocks the people who idolize characters such as Scarface, or in the film, Vincent and Jules. I’ve met heroin and coke addicts, and, I definitely would not consider them heroes or people to emulate in any way; they say that every alcoholic takes six people down with them. In other words, it holds people up as celebrities, and then mocks the kind of people that would buy into this lifestyle. But let’s look a little closer at the women and men that we meet.
Vincent – Most of the main characters are not heroes, or anti-heroes, they are objects of satire on modern psychosis. Vincent’s disassociation from his own actions allow him to argue about the morality of killing a man after massaging his wife’s feet, while himself on the way to commit cold-blooded murder. We also see Vincent enraged at the thought of his car being keyed, but does not question how his much more violent actions might make others feel. Another example of this behavior is his criticism of Marcellus’s wife for ordering a five-dollar milkshake, which is almost anti-consumerist, when money clearly is important to him if he’s working as a hit man.
Thus, Vincent is a satire on our own skewed moral systems, and also that people are looking to the wrong places for help. When Marcellus’s wife is overdosing, instead of taking her to the hospital, he takes her to his heroin dealer. Meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson’s character believes that he was saved by divine intervention. In reality, the only thing that happened was a near-death scenario wakening him to his own life’s circumstances. He caught a glimpse of reality, not God.
Jules – Clearly then, this hypocrisy and lack of awareness also plagues Jules, which is why we see him using a Biblical passage as his death message. Going back to the idea of a Shakespearean tragedy being invoked, Jules is simply playing a role in the theatrum mundi (world stage), that of preacher and deliverer of vengeance, without any recognition of the significance of this. Playing these roles has lost its meaning, especially in the film in which genres are being slapped together like a Frankenstein Barbie—or the woman in the film May. They are living in a world of abandoned shells.
To further elaborate on this idea, Ryan Holiday wrote that one example of an abandoned shell is the widespread use of the laurel leaves icon that was originally the symbol of a film having been entered into an important film festival, meaning that the film was likely to be original and lacking studio commercialization. However, over time this symbol has been commercialized to the point where the icon is meaningless. Slapping this badge on a film has become a trite, routine event.
In fact, I think that this argument can go even further. Laurel leaf wreaths were once the symbol of imperialism, having graced the heads of Roman emperors. Using Roman imagery reemerged in more modern times with the rise of the humanities and the Enlightenment age (think Napoleon wearing these laurel leaves once again as “emperor.”) However, by around 1830, Greek imagery replaced Roman as the preferred classical throwback, and of course since then most all classical imagery as a whole has been commercialized to the point of emptiness. Now laurel leaves are something that we stamp on any old movie with no hesitation.
In any case, Jules’s use of the book of Ezekiel (millions having died over time for Biblical words) is also an abandoned shell
“Pumpkin” and “Honey Bunny” – The first two characters we meet feel no guilt about robbing innocent people in a diner, and in fact are proud of themselves for conceiving the idea. They antisocially flip an inner switch and begin terrorizing the restaurant. Shakespeare also often included common people in a play dominated by aristocrats (big time, mob-men would be the aristocratic version of diner robbers) to give you a sense of context. The context, then, is that the central, gangster characters are not isolated, debased men in a moral world, it’s that they are from a larger corrupt world. Wasteland America.
Manliness – Manliness is another major theme in the film, and this is the key to understanding the Golden Watch plot line, in which we see a young Butch given his father’s watch after it lived for seven years between two different men’s ass cheeks. The two men fought in the Vietnam war, and Butch himself grew up to be a fighter, though in the artificial environment of the boxing ring.
Man-to-man dueling was once done on the basis of honor. For example, the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. In the Empire of Liberty, Gordon Wood wrote that “honor was the value genteel society placed on a gentleman and the value that a gentleman placed on himself. Honor suggested a public drama in which men played roles for which they were either praised or blamed.” And a face-to-face duel was the height of this honor.
However, in the film we see that dueling, which in the modern world amounts to a fist fight (and in Butch’s case, purely for money), this value has been lost. Along these lines, at the beginning of the film Marcellus tells Butch that “pride is nothing compared to money,” yet he obviously does not hold this belief because after his rape, he allows Butch to leave with the money earned from his betrayal, so long as he keeps the rape a secret—safeguarding his pride. Perhaps what Tarantino is trying to say, then, is that proper outlets for manliness have been taken away from men.