Stylistic Innovations in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction"

Toward an Aesthetics of Violence

Bachelor Thesis, 2010

39 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents


1 Background: Sketching the Gangster Film Genre

2 Pulp Fiction: Categorizing and Challenging Generic Codes
Film Concept and Plot
Gangster Stereotypes and Variations
Traces of Film Noir

3 Identifying Narrative and Stylistic Qualities
Narrative Form: A Novelistic Approach?
Ironic Twists: Playing with Expectations
Panache of Language

4 Determining the Essence of Style
Aesthetics of Cinematic Violence
Negotiating Values and Ethics



Works Cited



The influence of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction on contemporary American cinema has been profound in the last two decades. Since this film was released in 1994, several imitations such as The Boondock Saints (1999), Snatch (2000) and Lucky Number Sievin (2006) followed (to name only a few), indicating its lasting impact in Hollywood. Roger Ebert, a renowned film critic from the Chicago Sun-Times, even described Pulp Fiction as “the most influential film of the decade.” It was actually Tarantino’s second feature film after his already groundbreaking debut Reservoir Dogs, both of which he wrote and directed, though it was Pulp Fiction that ultimately established its creator as an influential filmmaker and made him legendary around the world. Since then the word “tarantinoesque” right away became a widely accepted adjective among film critics and enthusiasts.

Tarantino’s affection for different film genres can be noticed throughout all of his films. He usually pays tribute to them by using his distinct knowledge of their conven­tions and blending them into his own films. It is not that he just replicates them; in fact, he adds refreshing stylistic elements and recreates them into completely new shapes. His films also are full of references to a variety of different movies as well as diverse pop cultural minutiae. It seems at times as if he puts as many references in a movie as possible to demonstrate his cinematic knowledge. The assembly of numerous generic influences in one single movie, which Tarantino consciously practices, can be identified as characteristic of his distinctive style. These features as well as the filmmaker’s novel- istic approach to narrative construction have become his own, artistic signature. As in Pulp Fiction, conventions of classical gangster films are incorporated and reworked so that it becomes something fresh and innovative.

On the basis of Tarantino’s success and standing in the film industry due to Pulp Fiction, I wish to analyze his most significant film toward its representation of violence, depravity, redemption and morality through the generic codes of a fictional crime world. While Tarantino’s aptitude to construct original and manifold storylines in an uncon­ventional mode is undeniable, the aesthetics of violence and articulations of values behind his style have been constantly controversial. Some critics seem to have doubts about Tarantino’s maturity as a filmmaker (see Gilbey). Since his latest film Inglourious Basterds (sic) (2009) this issue seems relevant again, which was one of the reasons that prompted me to revisit his previous work. In my thesis, however, I intend to investigate the director’s vision and his means of creating movies. I argue that Quentin Tarantino creates a new style of cinema in Pulp Fiction by subverting classical film conventions, most notably, those of the gangster genre. In doing so I want to answer these questions: How does the filmmaker utilize stylistic elements to subvert classical movie genres? What impact do stylistic changes have on the representation of violence and ethics? This attempt finally seeks to capture the essence of the filmmaker’s style within a larger cultural and social context.

1 Background: Sketching the Gangster Film Genre

When thinking of the gangster film we can all evoke images of dark towns, shady and sinister streets, cars and their squeaky wheels, men in black suits and their guns. This iconography is strongly associated with the gangster or crime genre as we know it. The approach taken here aims not to offer a full account of the gangster film genre, but a definition in its classical notion; that is, in relation to the gangster figure (who is almost entirely an American invention), the narrative structure and the American Dream. Since the ideology is strongly connected with the early formation of the gangster genre, it is necessary to trace its starting point back to the late 1920s.

In theory the American Dream promised that every American citizen was able to make money and be successful, regardless of class distinction. In fact, as the Depression proved, American society was not free from hierarchy at that time, thus the American Dream turned out to be a fallacy (Hayward 173). Since gangsters usually derived from the working class, it was the reasonable consequence, or rather their fate, that they had to become delinquent in order to gain access to wealth and power. According to Fran Mason, the author of the book American Gangster Cinema, “the classic gangster film represented the gangster straining against social restrictions and finding that individual­ity was only possible outside official society in the world of criminality” (73). What is problematic here is that their criminal and often violent activities represented the exact opposite of the American Dream. For this reason, their failure at the end of almost every classical gangster film was the only logical and widely accepted culmination in favor of the continuation of the American dream, that it became a convention (Hayward 173-4). In these terms, the gangster films helped to maintain the general, public belief in the American Dream and its viability; the fiasco of the gangster figure thus was synonym­ous with the preservation of the American ideology.

The usual gangster protagonist is basically portrayed as a male who is relentlessly struggling against social boundaries and is always in search of something unattainable. Furthermore, as Mason suggests, “The noir gangster is alienated from the gang as well as from society, cut adrift from any sense of social or communal coherence or identity” (73). The film gangster, as indicated above, embodies the contrary of the ideal Ameri­can society and therefore can be regarded as an outsider. As far as locating him within a fictional crime reality, Mason depicts him as being “characterised by an urge towards individual freedom and the fulfillment of his desires” (15). This is most likely to be the gangster’s motivation for all his illegal activities, which only becomes reasonable when considering his social descent and initial status. He further states that the gangster “also controls territory rather than simply subjecting the city to his gaze” (Mason 15). This means that the gangster figure, although somewhat aberrant and alienated, is capable of occupying space in order to exert influence and power over others. Nevertheless, it is assumed that the purpose of traditional gangster movies is to show the inexorable failure and thus death of the main character - as it is generally accepted that a criminal must be punished for his antisocial and aggressive behavior, which is a potential threat to the general public. Such ominous mood of bleakness and alienation often runs through this type of movies. As a result, the gangster appears as a “tragic hero” at the end of almost every emblematic gangster film. Besides, an underlying criticism of American society is constantly inherent in such formulaic gangster films, which implies that a working class citizen will never be able to break through the social chains and compulsions and over­come deprivation (Hayward 175).

The narrative structure in conventional gangster films is rather simple and mostly consists of a “rise and fall of the gangster” narrative (Mason xiv). Following this narra­tive formula, a tone of pessimism, a predominantly negative attitude toward this kind of film genre can be persistently noticed, which seems to be constructed as a sort of a curse where there is no escape. Such composition can be regarded as the classical narrative of the archetypal gangster film. Key examples of this narrative are films like Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932). In addition, Mason argues that the narrative of the gangster film “is located at the interface between traditional systems of restraint, discipline and hierarchy and the chaos and excess of modernity” (8). This appears to be an underlying and everlasting predicament incorporated into nearly every narrative, which sets up well the social tensions and burden of the gangster as the major theme of the classical gangster film cycle.

Since the intention of this chapter was to introduce a set of conventions that were established in the golden era of the gangster film and to present some of their social implications, other important aspects of this genre like the whole spectrum of its earlier manifestations and its development in various forms throughout the course of the cine­matic century cannot be taken into account here. However, it is crucial to be aware of this and note that there are numerous kinds of variations and replications of the genre. As Neale argues, in this context, the study of the gangster genre is much more involved and intricate than merely the process of determining some conventions or standards (77­81). He notes, for instance, that plenty of gangster movies preceding the golden era are simply missed out of the debate or just not regarded in the classical sense (Neale 77,79).

2 Pulp Fiction: Categorizing and Challenging Generic Codes

This chapter aims to classify the generic codes, inherent in Pulp Fiction, into traditional genres, sub-genres and styles. This approach enables to locate the generic conventions and patterns applied in the movie in order to call attention to how they are reworked or changed into new textual and stylistic forms. As Constable states, “Tarantino’s highly stylized presentation of stock characters in Pulp Fiction serves to reinvent and expand generic conventions” (54).

There are most notably gangster film conventions exploited in Pulp Fiction and some film noir codes as well. Film noir is actually less a genre in a proper sense than a branch or domain of the gangster film genre, which emerged out of a certain movement or emotional state in society at the time after the Second World War; it represents a sort of style, or rather, a development of a dark and sinister mood (Neale 151-5). Moreover, through the codes and conventions that are employed in Pulp Fiction, this film pays homage to the respective genres and movies very stylishly. The stylistic changes are then executed to the extent to which the film moves beyond a mere postmodern pastiche (Mason 161; Mills; Vachaud. More on this in chapter 4). According to Barry Langford, “Quentin Tarantino’s characteristically memorable summation of his (deliberately) two­dimensional criminals and their milieu as ‘gangster shit’ reveals a good deal about the place the gangster genre occupies in contemporary Hollywood film” (132). This indi­cates, however, that in Pulp Fiction a subversion of the classical film conventions had taken place. As Langford further notes, “Tarantino’s version of gangsterdom may be by some distance the most highly stylised and reflexive in contemporary US cinema”(133).

Film Concept and Plot

The film Pulp Fiction is an anthology of three main crime stories and one minor episode (which is a small part of a major one). The main characters of each story are interrelated with the character of the underworld boss, Marcellus. The idea for the film project derived from the 1920s famed pulp magazine Black Mask, featuring “hard-boiled” crime fiction. Hence the term “pulp fiction” is originally associated with that magazine and existed long before Tarantino made and titled his film (Dawson 141-42; Giroux 344). As Rouyer suggests, Tarantino “did not choose to adapt specific pulp novel, but, rather, to find their spirit through contemporary plots.” In order to gain the idea of the overall construction of the plot I will describe the events in the order they occur on­screen.

The “minor episode” opens the film (before the opening credits roll) and shows two gangster lovers, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, sitting in a coffee shop and discussing the plan of a robbery. It turns out that they want to rob the very diner they are in at that moment. The narrative is then interrupted by the opening credits after which the film tells the first story of two hit men, Vincent and Jules. They are on a mission to retrieve a briefcase from a group of men who have betrayed their boss, Marcellus, and to execute them. While approaching the men’s apartment, they have a conversation about the most irrelevant things one can imagine but not about the job itself. Immediately after killing Brett (apparently the leader of the group), the narrative is interrupted again.

The second story of Vincent and Mia, begins with Marcellus talking the boxer, Butch, into throwing a fight; he bribes him and then receives his briefcase from Vincent and Jules. The next day, after buying some drugs at Lance’s home and taking a shot, Vincent drives to his boss’ wife, Mia, in order to take her out (at his request). They go to the Jack Rabbit Slim’s restaurant where they eat, talk and dance. Back at home Mia overdoses, mistaking heroin for cocaine. Immediately afterward, Vincent brings Mia to Lance’s house and saves her with an adrenalin shot straight into her heart.

The third main episode, “The gold watch” (which is actually the last), tells the story of Butch who wins the fight and thus betrays Marcellus. From now on Butch is on the run from the malicious gangster boss. After spending the night with his girlfriend in a motel, he has to return to his former apartment to get back his precious watch that she forgot. In the meantime Butch encounters Vincent in his apartment and kills him. After leaving the apartment he bumps into Marcellus and they get involved in the pawn shop incident. Taken hostage by two vicious rednecks, Butch manages to escape while Mar- cellus undergoes a torment. Halfway through, Butch returns and saves Marcellus before he can finally leave the town with his girlfriend.

At this stage in the narrative the first story of Vincent and Jules reappears and continues from the moment it was once stopped. Once they kill a man in the apartment, one hidden guy comes out of the bathroom, shoots at the two hit men but misses them. Just witnessing a miracle, the hit men kill the man and leave with their informant. While driving Vincent accidentally shoots the informant and causes a mess in the car. They get off the road and arrive at Jimmy’s house where they clean up and dispose of the dead body. After this bloody effort, Vincent and Jules go to the Hawthorne Grill for break­fast. They talk about the lucky event whereas Jules decides to quit his job. Meanwhile, it comes to light that Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are in the same diner; they start carry­ing out the robbery but they fail because Jules, having undergone a change of mind, manages to resolve the attempt. The film ends after Vincent and Jules leave the diner.

Gangster Stereotypes and Variations

The opening scene in Pulp Fiction already reveals the use of gangster conventions. It is actually a fragment of the final sequence of the movie, which offers a simultaneous, parallel event of two “wannabe” gangster lovers who are sitting in a diner and, to our surprise, discussing to rob it.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

This scene is reminiscent of the “couple on the run” formula movies, which is also a branch of the gangster film genre and reminds most likely of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), possibly the most notable and key example of this type of gangster film cycle in Ameri­can cinema. In the first place, this prologue sequence gives an insight into the couple’s characteristic traits, their criminal attitude. Their language and external behavior clearly indicate their gangster identity. These generic norms are consciously set up at the begin­ning of the first scene in order to introduce the audience to the conventions inherent in the movie. At this moment the spectator knows what to expect from the movie and feels relatively secure. But the director slightly breaks with those gangster conventions early on at the point when the couple decides to rob the very diner they are eating in (that is to say, in classical terms, this kind of a turn does not normally occur). This small twist or a slight variation, which is caused by the narrow range of knowledge, surprises the spectator. This happens because the viewer only knows what the characters know. Such range of story information is called “restricted narration” (Bordwell 89) and continues throughout the whole film. So, at the narrative level, this method reveals that Tarantino includes moments of curiosity and surprise. Nevertheless, there is also suspense in the film, which is created by another technique: presenting causes while withholding effects as long as possible; this arouses feelings of tension and uncertainty (Bordwell 79).

In the scene immediately after the opening credits (which come in fact after the opening scene just discussed), two gangsters, Vincent and Jules, are driving to a mission and talking about some cultural trivia.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The gangster codes are revealed through their dress and overall appearance. Their black suits with slender black ties are recognizable as the semiotic signs that put the spectator straight into their crime world. These gangsters, for instance, evoke the outfits from the 1950s and 1960s French crime films; representative of this cinema are films such as Le Doulos (1962) and Le cercle rouge (1970) from the director Jean-Pierre Melville. As Langford notes, “This retro intertextual styling immediately announces these gangsters’ distance from ‘real’ crime and their imbrication in an elaborate, hermetic world of their own” (133). This scene almost entirely establishes gangster stereotypes and thus the overall tone of the film. However, also here one can notice some deviation from the usually prevalent gangster norms. The viewer enters the scene earlier than is normally appropriate and thereby gains a rare insight into the private lives of two gangsters. The two gangster killers are not talking about the job they are going to execute, but about Amsterdam’s hash bars and European fast food. Mason argues, in this context, that “a gangster discoursing on the ‘Royale with cheese,’ as he drives to a hit, is inappropriate in terms of film iconographies of the gangster, but appropriate in terms of the world he both inhabits and symbolises” (161), since Pulp Fiction, the author further points out,

“identifies the gangster with the cultural ‘corruption’ of society in his role as a symbol of popular and mass culture” (161). That strategy of delivering seemingly redundant information is consistently applied by Tarantino in Pulp Fiction and reveals one of his methods of challenging gangster conventions. The auteur himself comments on these two scenes as follows: “It also was fun for me to develop my little personal mythology with a first sequence in a coffee shop, and the second one with Jules and Vincent in black suits like the gangsters in Reservoir Dogs. It’s a little bit their modem armor. Then we spent the rest of the movie deconstructing the characters” (Tarantino quoted in Ciment and Niogret). The subsequent take shows the two hit men opening the trunk and picking up their guns.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

In addition to their outfits, the guns, as semiotic signs, ultimately set up their function as violent gangsters. Besides, the low angle shot used here, enlarges their significance at this early stage in the film. By the way, this low angle shot filmed from a trunk is Tarantino’s trademark, which is noticeable in his other films as well.

The continuing conversation of the two hit men already introduces the character of their boss Marcellus Wallace, especially at one point when Vincent, referring to him, says: “This ain’t a man with a sense of humor about this shit.” This remark suggests that Marcellus is a dangerous gangster with a particular status. Marcellus’ character is the epitome of evil force who sets up the whole criminal framework for all main stories in Pulp Fiction. So he is a central figure in the film who embodies the milieu of a classical gangster film. All three episodes in the film derive from him and lead in different and unforeseen directions. The gangster boss is the starting point, so to speak, for most of the actions and events unfolding in the narrative. His bar, for instance, is a symbol of his high status and influence. As Mason states, “night clubs ... metonymically represent the gangster’s control of space” (20). In this sense, one can feel his presence nearly in every single scene, although he is absent most of the screen time. An example of emphasizing this visually is a rather long take (about 2 minutes) showing Butch, the boxer, sitting in front of the camera and listening to Marcellus, who is at first off-screen.


Excerpt out of 39 pages


Stylistic Innovations in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction"
Toward an Aesthetics of Violence
Bielefeld University  (Fakultät für Linguistik und Literaturwissenschaft)
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Erstgutachten: "Die Arbeit ist gründlich recherchiert, verfügt über einen logischen und konsequent strukturierten Aufbau, verbindet Begriffsbestimmung und praktische Umsetzung in der Filminterpretation im analytischen Teil überzeugend und entwirft einen komplexen jedoch transparenten Diskurs. [Sie] enthält Elemente kritischer Reflexion auch zum kritischen Diskurs und ist intellektuell ansprechend." Zweitgutachten: "In his paper, Mr Sander demonstrates considerable analytical skill, a very thorough knowledge of cinematic techniques and classic films, and the enthusiasm of a cognoscente."
Quentin Tarantino, Pulp Fiction, Film, Style, narrative, narration, non-linear, Innovation, Aesthetics, Violence, Gangster, Genre, Cinematic, Generic Codes, Film Noir, Variations, Stylistic, Ethics, Novelistic, Circular Structure, Irony, Cinema
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Julian Sander (Author), 2010, Stylistic Innovations in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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