S. Joel Garver

From "once upon a time" to "happily ever after," the narrative structure of Western discourses has led us to certain expectations:
  • a linear and chronologically ordered plot
  • events built to a crisis and then resolved
  • the struggle and triumph of the good, true, and beautiful in the face of evil, lies, and ugliness; and
  • a set of characters painted in such a manner that we know whom to cheer, which to curse, and when to sympathize.

And yet, in this century, many of these expectations have been overturned by the construction of new narrative forms from Joyces Ulysses to Couplands Generation X. This shift is apparent too within that narrative genre which has come to define our times - the motion picture.

In the following essay I will explore one film in particular: Pulp Fiction. In examining Pulp Fiction we can come to understand better the significance of such shifts in narrative, how they undermine our expectations, and what they reveal about us, the culture we live in, and the challenges of postmodern discourse. These comments are not meant to recommend the film either in its moral outlook or as a uniformly positive cinematic experience. I do, however, take the film to be technically and artistically excellent and so to serve as a good example for my purposes.

Pulp Fiction was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino and has won many awards, including the Palme dOr at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. While Tarantino seldom gives any helpful or honest commentary on his own work - often suggesting that its success and complexity are more a product of chance than craft - his work is clearly carefully constructed, almost to the point of artificiality, and therefore stands on a continuum with his own highly idiosyncratic and masque-like public persona. And here we encounter one of the central themes of his film-making: the interplay between the "real" and the artifact, between the "in itself" and mere fiction.

While many commentators have noted and criticized the "realism" of the dialogue, characters, and violence of Tarantinos films, it is equally clear that this is not the realism of 60s British cinema, but rather a realism that is expressed and functions only within a context that constantly draws attention to its own constructedness. There are, of course, many notes of the real world, particularly in its most mundane aspects: a coffee shop resembling Dennys, a discussion of a burgers source (McDonalds, Wendys, Jack-in-the-Box, Kahuna Burger), a well-worn high-school athletic jacket, a "Speed Racer" T-shirt, people leaving scenes to use the restroom, and so on. Some of these details achieve their success by suggesting personal stories of which we, the audience, know nothing (where did he get that jacket? is it worn for luck?), indicating thereby a world outside of the world of the film. Nevertheless, we are discussing a film and nothing makes it to the screen by accident. So even these realistic details are planned, as a reading of the screenplay will prove.

The sheer pretense of the film is, however, underlined in bolder ways. Consider the natural-sounding dialogue. In a well-known scene Vincent and Jules, two gangsters on their way to an execution, discuss the "little differences" one finds in Europe:

VINCENT: Well, you can walk into a movie theater and buy a beer. And I dont mean just, like, in no paper cup. Im talking about a glass of beer. And in Paris, you can buy a beer at McDonalds, And you know what they call a Quarter-Pounder with Cheese in Paris?

JULES: They dont call it a Quarter-Pounder with Cheese?

VINCENT: No, man, they got the metric system there, they wouldnt know what a Quarter-Pounder is.

JULES: Whatd they call it?

VINCENT: They call it a Royale with Cheese.

JULES: (repeating) Royale with Cheese.

VINCENT: Yeah, thats right.

JULES: Whatd they call a Big Mac?

VINCENT: Well a Big Macs a Big Mac, but they call it "Le" Big Mac.

JULES: Le Big Mac. What do they call a Whopper?

VINCENT: I dunno, I didnt go into a Burger King.

This seemingly idle conversation, of which there are many, is calculated to give these gangsters an air of the ordinary and business-like as well as to create a tension between that air and their "role" as executioners (they speak of "getting into character"). The topic of the dialogue even inserts itself, in fragmented form, in midst of the execution scene. Such calculation and intertwining of conversational threads contributes to the foregrounding of the films own structure. This is so much the case that what sounds like gratuitous profanity takes on some degree of value as it is implicated within the films larger symbolic relations.

The film highlights its artifice further in its rampant intertextuality. In addition to the overt referencing of the "pulp fiction" genre, there are many connections to other films and literature: an opening scene echoing His Girl Friday, the films Shakespearean five act structure, biblical (quasi)quotations, ODonnells Modesty Blaise, allusions to the Guns of Navarone, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Losers, Saturday Night Fever, Elvis, the Three Stooges, Pam Grier, and so on. As pasticheur , Tarantino draws notice to his film as one text among many and one that finds its own voice(s), in part, by evoking the voices of others.

We can cite further indications of the films self-aware manufacture: the rejection of chronological sequencing of scenes (despite its conventional five-act, roughly chiastic, dramatic structure), its use of multiple narrative voices, its jarring employment of inappropriate humor, inexplicably intentional loose ends, and quirky details and motifs that are teasing and (maybe?) significant but never exposited (e.g., the glow from the briefcase, its combination lock number, the bandage on the back of Marcellus neck, etc.). All of these aspects of the film conspire to undercut any claim to "realism" that it otherwise makes. But why does Tarantino do this?

The answer, I think, lies to some degree in his rejection of brute factuality as well as of any overarching metanarratives. This rejection also explains the films narrative style, characterizations, self-ironizing tone, lack of heroes, amorality, and the manner in which it expresses its thematic centers.

Consider Tarantinos treatment of the "real". Rather than theorizing the relationship of his cinematic realism as fundamentally opposed to fiction, Tarantino questions the distinction, drawing our attention to the ways in which reality (objects, forms of life, personal character, individual existence, experience of the world, etc.) is, in fact, a product of human relations, actions, events, the media, marketing, and the like. In short, Tarantino collapses the real and the fictional - life as pulp fiction. Nietzsche observed that the truth is merely those things that "after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power" ("On Truth and Lie in an Extra-moral Sense"). Pulp Fiction, then, seeks to demystify our relation to those idle conversations, textual compilations, competing personae, social expectations, loose ends, idiosyncrasies, and jumbled memories that together constitute us and the truth of the worlds we inhabit.

This deconstruction of everyday life is, however, only part of the picture. Such story-weaving finds its place only now, after the waning of an age of secular faith in transcendent truth, in the progress of science, and in Rational Man. In this "dialectic of Enlightenment" it is no longer clear who the "good guys" are or what it might mean for them to "win out in the end." The attitude towards ultimate meaningfulness, universal values, and final explanations has become one of agnosticism. In this sense, then, Tarantino is facing - to use Foucaults phrase - "the absolute dispersion of Man" (The Order of Things). And so we find disordered narrative, multivalent relations of power, and moral muteness. A new narrative form is necessary for a new order of meaning.

I am not saying that Tarantino expresses no values, but that any such expression is caught within a shifting ethical pluralism in which there is no space from which to speak with authority or of universal "truth." Consider what is one of the thematic centers of the film: a struggle with the value of mass market media violence. Throughout the film we witness scenes of violence - a robbery, an execution, a heroin hit, rape by sodomy, a heroin overdose, an accidental killing. But surely this is not merely a violent, lurid film for the sake of public consumption and dollars. The violence is carefully handled, the most disturbing aspects occurring just off the corner of the screen (though with palpable effects to be viewed by all). By contemporary Hollywood standards much is relatively tame. Violence in itself, then, is not the point.

What is important to note is the context of the violence. The robbery is primarily a reasoned, considered career change - holding up restaurants instead of banks or liquor stores. While Vincent pulls out his case of works, cooks his junk, and shoots up, he nonchalantly discusses how his Malibu was keyed and that one simply does not do that to another mans car. These, and other moderately violent scenes, Tarantino purposively places within the context of the ordinary, the reasonable, the mundane; no glorification, no vilification, no consequences. But this very ordinariness draws our attention to what is actually happening and causes us to take a step back and reconsider the actions that in many other films would pass as "the expected."

Tarantino pushes this divergence even further in his most violent scenes: Mias heroin overdose and the accidental killing of Marvin. In the case of Mia, she has seriously ODed and needs an adrenaline shot into her heart - a very critical and tense situation. Nevertheless, Tarantino has the scene played slapstick: a harried one-sided phone conversation, Vincent crashing his Malibu across the lawn into Lances house, an ER-style medical scene except that no one knows what theyre doing, a frenzied search for a medical book, a needle that is huge beyond all belief, an argument over who will plunge it into Mias chest. The scene ends with Mia sitting bolt upright, wide awake with an enormous needle sticking out of her chest. Lance says, "If youre okay, say something!" Mia says, in a normal voice, "Something." The scene in which Marvins head is accidentally splattered all over the back interior of a Chevy Nova is played with similar hilarity.

In these instances the staging is not merely one which is set for unease, but rather for jarringly disturbing affective conflict - simultaneously stomach-wrenching and side-splitting. By drawing us through this emotional schizophrenia, Tarantino urges us to stand "outside" ourselves and observe how we perceive and experience film violence. In this way he echoes the dadaist art of Marcel Duchamp, who allowed art-lovers to see their own voyeurism. Is this merely a clever trick or does Tarantino have a deeper motive? It seems to me that Tarantino is attempting a strategic intervention within the postmodern moment in the only way he can find possible apart from what would be taken as repressive values and absolutist ideology. He performs this through self-referential irony - violence as humor - an immanent critique in which he unmasks the commodification of violence and its value and pleasure for American audiences while simultaneously engendering and proliferating the same.

I will touch on one final presence in Tarantinos film - that of God and His divine intervention. The film returns to Vincent and Jules as executioners; this time, however, we see the rest of the scene. A Fourth Man comes screaming and shooting from the bathroom firing six shots of his Magnum directly at Vincent and Jules at close range. The Fourth Man completely misses every shot and is gunned down himself. While Vincent shrugs it off, Jules realizes he should be dead.
VINCENT: Yeah, we were lucky.

JULES: That wasnt luck. That was somethin else.

VINCENT: Yeah, maybe.

JULES: That was...divine intervention. Do you know what divine intervention is?

VINCENT: Yeah, I think so. That means God came down from heaven and stopped the bullets.

JULES: Yeah, man, thats what it means. Thats exactly what it means!

The conversation later continues while getting breakfast in a coffee shop (the Dennys-like place from the opening scene, about to be robbed).

JULES: I just been sittin here thinkin.

VINCENT: (mouthful of food) About what?

JULES: The miracle we witnessed.

VINCENT: The miracle you witnessed. I witnessed a freak occurrence.

JULES: Do you know what a miracle is?

VINCENT: An act of God.

JULES: Whats an act of God?

VINCENT: I guess its when God makes the impossible possible. And Im sorry, Jules, but I dont think what happened this morning qualifies.

JULES: Dont you see, Vince, that dont matter. Youre judging this thing the wrong way. Its not about what. It could be God stopped the bullets, he changed Coke into Pepsi, he found my car keys. You dont judge this based on merit. Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is I felt Gods touch. God got involved.

VINCENT: But why?

JULES: ...I dont know why. But I cant go back to sleep.

VINCENT: So youre serious, youre really gonna quit?

JULES: The life? Most definitely.
As the coffee shop is later being robbed, Jules confronts the gunman and rehearses his usual execution speech.

JULES: Theres a passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17. The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness. For he is truly his brothers keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know that I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you. I been saying that for years. And if you ever heard it, it meant your [life]. I never really questioned what it meant. I thought it was just a coldblooded thing to say...Now Im thinkin, it could mean youre the evil man. And Im the righteous man. And Mr. .45 here, hes the shepherd protecting [me] in the valley of darkness. Or it could be youre the righteous man and Im the shepherd and its the world thats evil and selfish. Id like that. But that aint the truth. The truth is youre weak. And Im the tyranny of evil men. But Im tryin. Im tryin real hard to be a shepherd.
It is a fascinating feature of Pulp Fiction that Tarantino allows God to slip in, without irony, but with a certain seriousness and attention. While I cannot fathom all of his reasons for this storyline, Tarantinos treatment of it is noteworthy. God enters the picture not as a dogma (even Jules quote is not direct except for the last two sentences), but rather He enters as a personal presence within an individual narrative. And, moreover, Gods entrance fits integrally into the film.

Much of Pulp Fiction breathes the Nietzschean atmosphere of Gods "stinking corpse," in which characters seem to be "wandering as through an infinite nothing." And yet, here in its midst, we find what Henri de Lubac has suggested is the only answer to our cultural nihilism: a radical sense of the presence of God. The realm of nature and pure contingency is transformed into the medium of a living sense of Gods love. It is significant that Jules does not interpret the event merely as an "act of God" intervening violently into the world, but sees it on a continuum with "turning Coke into Pepsi" or his "finding [his] car keys." Nature is no longer separated from grace - (post)modernism - nor does grace violate nature. Rather, nature presupposes and is assumed by grace, granting an evil man the desire to shepherd the weak, in charity and good will.

It is worthwhile pondering the dramatic and narrative character of the Faith. In an age of overturned narrative forms, cultural pluralism, moral dissonance, and personal despair, perhaps it is the Gospel as Story and Christ as playwright and player that can best penetrate calloused souls (Hans Urs von Balthasars Theo-Drama sets an example here). When the Church not only communicates that Story, but does so as a stage set for Christic and Eucharistic communion, then the truth of Gods love may begin to transform fractured and violent hearts.

All quotes are drawn from Pulp Fiction: a Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino (New York: Hyperion, 1994). Some have been edited for content. The film is available on video from Miramax and is rated R (profanity, graphic violence, sexual content and mature themes).

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