Some Thoughts on the “Art” in Pulp Fiction

Surely the critically lauded film by Quentin Tarantino. one of the most quotable (and easily misquoted) films of the 90’s would need little to defend its reputation.  In fact, I count myself among its worshippers; I have even performed the last scene from the film, a Mexican stand-off in a coffee shop, for my college’s drama club. I played Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson’s character), sans Jheri curls.

Yet I am struck by the love-hate reaction that the film seems to inspire.  My recent viewing of the film with some of my friends yielded the inevitable response, “I don’t get it.”

“What’s not to get?” I say, somewhat unconsciously.  Then I remind myself that we have just watched a film which juggles flagrant drug use, ultra-violence, and conversations about cheeseburgers.

The surface of Pulp Fiction really doesn’t make sense.  But like all great works of art, the greatness isn’t on the surface, it’s underneath.

This is a film about characters, first and foremost.  Unlike most films, however, these are characters locked in place, so to speak.  Many of the set-ups of the film echo conventions of both film and pulp literature.  We have the assassin tasked with taking the crime boss’s wife out to dinner, as a test of loyalty. We have the boxer paid to throw a fight, who wins it instead.

What Tarantino (and fellow screenwriter Roger Avary, as many people tend to forget) have added is the complexity of humanity to these situations. So we have the stories that arise from the stories we already know; for example, the boss’s wife is not supposed to overdose on heroin. The boxer should not have to save the same boss he just screwed over financially from a nasty fate pulled right from Deliverance.

These new situations force these traditionally tough characters into new modes of thought, often letting us see these so-called scoundrels display uncharacteristic shows of honor. In spite of convention, in spite of the grimy pulp environments that they walk, humanity shines through.

The conversations are a clear indication of this; just to see two assassins talk about the trivialities of life is enough to endear us to them, and see them as people, not character types. They breathe. They hate, they love, they dream, and they surprise.

Before I watch this film with anyone, I give them only this piece of advice: watch, and you shall see.  Listen, and you shall hear.  In pulp, find beauty.

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