In the early 1990s, a movie fanatic and video-store clerk named Quentin Tarantino, originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, had a seismic impact on American movies. Although the likes of Richard Linklater and Spike Lee had brought exciting new ideas to American cinema, it had been a long time since it had felt dangerous.
Tarantino relocated to Southern California, and his debut as the director of Reservoir Dogs felt very dangerous indeed—a foul-mouthed, blood-soaked crime story that was also incredibly funny. Two years later, Tarantino followed up with Pulp Fiction, which kept up the verbal zing of its predecessor but also introduced a dazzlingly inventive structure and A-list Hollywood stars.
Tarantino’s profane, freewheeling style was like an adrenaline shot to the heart—a motif that would appear in Pulp Fiction. Part of what made him such a novelty was his approach to genre. Just as Reservoir Dogs had reimagined the heist movie, so Pulp Fiction took the conventions of the B-movie—a gangland killing, a boxer taking a dive, and a hitman in search of redemption—and repurposed them in new, brilliantly knowing ways. The result has the stylistic charge of a genre movie while remaining a genuinely original and innovative movie experience.
A Structural Shift
One of the iconic elements of Pulp Fiction is its use of nonlinear storytelling. By fracturing the narrative, Tarantino does not allow the audience to settle into the traditional rhythms of watching a crime thriller. Instead of a story with an identifiable beginning, middle, and end, the movie features a segmented structure in which three self-contained stories are told out of sync with one another.
The director is careful to ensure that each segment feels like part of one world, so he connects the stories through the supporting characters: gangland kingpin Marsellus Wallace is featured prominently in the plot of all three stories, for example, and key protagonists from one story show up for walk-on parts in other plotlines. Vincent Vega (John Travolta), who spends much of the first hour as a lead character, recedes into a supporting role as the movie progresses—he shows up for a brief (and unfortunate) cameo in “The Gold Watch” storyline featuring washed-up boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), then plays second fiddle to his partner Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) in the final segment, as the latter experiences a spiritual awakening.
The result of this disassembled structure is that Pulp Fiction isn’t about any one character or story, but instead is almost a mood piece, designed to evoke the feel of Los Angeles and the slick but seedy characters who live there. At the end of each segment, the story’s momentum comes to a halt and the movie reboots in another place, with other people, at an indeterminate point in time.
Crime thrillers are not known for stories about morally upstanding individuals doing good, yet as well as having clearly identifiable heroes and villains, most of them have a distinct idea of what is right and wrong, even if that doesn’t always comply with the letter of the law. In Pulp Fiction, however, Tarantino deliberately avoids projecting his own sense of right and wrong onto his characters. The most telling instance of this is found in one of the movie’s earlier sequences, in which Vincent and Jules make their first appearance.
The audience first lays eyes on them as they have a low-key conversation about fast food, during which they appear to be charismatic, likeable characters who are fun to hang out with. However, they are professional killers on their way to a hit, and following their conversation they are shown doing something monstrous, something that would traditionally be considered evil. This framing of their characters forces viewers to accept Pulp Fiction’s nonjudgmental stance and conditions them for the best way to appreciate the movie, which is simply to submit and go along for the ride.
Pulp Fiction, in all its obscene glory, is perhaps one of the best examples in movies of how originality and daring will win out. There were a lot of obstacles between the critical establishment and the movie, from its language to its violence to its subject matter (indeed, it was famously and controversially beaten to the 1995 Best Picture Oscar by Steven Spielberg’s far more conventional Forrest Gump), yet its enduring popularity shows that it functions perfectly as a showcase for Tarantino’s talent as a filmmaker, with the broken structure allowing for singular moments of directorial flair to become prominent instead of being lost as part of the whole. If you’re looking for a fresh and engrossing take on the well-trodden territory of the criminal underworld, you can’t do much better than Pulp Fiction.
QUENTIN TARANTINO: Director
Quentin Tarantino was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1963. After dropping out of high school at 15 to pursue a career in acting, he was diverted into writing scripts by a meeting with producer Lawrence Bender.
His first movie, Reservoir Dogs, earned him international acclaim, and his follow-up, Pulp Fiction, won the Palme d’Or. Pulp Fiction also took home the 1995 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Tarantino has since made movies in a wide variety of genres, from gory revenge thrillers (the Kill Bill series) to war movies (Inglourious Basterds) (2009) and Westerns with both Django Unchained and The Hateful 8.
His next film is Once Upon A Time In Hollywood – starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, and is planned to release on the 26th of July, 2019.