Table of Contents
1. The Storylines
2. The Characters
2.1. The Big Boss
2.2. The Boxer
2.3. The Hard-Boiled Killers?
1. A soft, moist shapeless mass of matter
2. A magazine or book containing lurid subject matter
and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper.”
(American Heritage Dictionary; as quoted in Nagel, p. 82)
In this paper for the seminar “American Noir” I want to analyze Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 movie Pulp Fiction. Since he does not make use of computer based scenes or sumptuous tricks in any of his films, it is only the storyline as well as the characters and the actors respectively that bear the responsibility of entertaining and fascinating the audience. The success of Tarantino’s works leads me to the conclusion that the aforementioned features have certainly been effective; therefore, I am going to concentrate on them in my seminar paper. A special focus will be laid on the relationships between the protagonists because their way of interacting is essential for the plot. Additionally, the stylistic devices will be looked upon with a special attention for the ones that make Pulp Fiction a film noir. Furthermore, the relevance of misé-en-scene, especially the setting, of camera work, and of time is to be discussed.
Before I begin my paper, I want to point out why Pulp Fiction is a film noir. Firstly, there is of course the initial situation whose storylines and characters have been derived from the cheap pulp novels from the 1920s and 30s. The protagonists are gangsters, tricksters, a boxer, a man for special cases, etc. just like in the novels. Also, there is the femme fatale Mia, whose role is accentuated on the film poster since she is the only person portrayed on it. Wearing red lipstick and nail polish, black eyeliner, the little black dress, and shiny high heels, she practically personifies the femme fatale. Additionally, she is lying on the bed in a seductive yet calculating position; she casually holds her cigarette in one hand, and a pulp novel in the other. Placed in front of her is a gun. This mixture of danger and allurement is exactly what a femme fatale should convey. A little detail that enhances the noir mood is the Venetian blinds in the back, a typical film noir element. In terms of camera work, there are numerous close-ups and off-screens.
After his introduction, I want to begin my paper with an examination of the storylines.
1. The Storylines
Quentin Tarantino employs three different storylines in his second movie. First, there is the story of the gangster who is supposed to take out the big boss’ attractive wife, and thus gets into different sorts of trouble. Second, we have the bribed boxer who is caught between honor and money; and third, the audience is introduced to the more modern story of two professional killers who shoot a couple of youngsters that have tried to betray the big boss. All three are connected through a prologue and an epilogue. (Nagel, p.83)
These narrations are well known, but due to Tarantino’s influence they proceed in a totally unexpected way. Instead of the anticipated romantic yet risky entanglement between the gangster Vincent Vega and his married date Mia, she accidentally consumes an overdose of heroin and has to be rescued by him and his drug dealer. The accumulated flowery mood is dissolved by a silly joke Mia makes, when she is brought home. The boxer Butch Coolidge neither throws his fight as he was supposed to nor does he take the money and flees, as the audience might assume. Rather, he attempts to do the latter, but is delayed by his quest for a watch and a ludicrous adventure with his briber Marsellus Wallace. Likewise, the two hitmen are not left alone after they have completed their mission, but are accompanied by the audience as Tarantino himself puts it: “We hang out with those two hitmen for the whole rest of the morning and we see what else happens.” (in Dawson, p.143)
Still, there are different traits that connect the aforementioned plots and thus make them one movie and not mere episodes. For one, there are prologue and epilogue. The prologue introduces a young couple, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, sitting in a coffee shop discussing their criminal future. After this, they take out their guns and announce a robbery. The main function of this movie part is to introduce the gangster genre. Already this inaugurated topic is sufficient to link the movie sequences to one another. Although the viewers expect the couple to be the headliners, they will not meet them again until the very last scene, the epilogue. Here, the other hitman, Jules Winnfield, ends the robbery peacefully due to his refined state of mind. The circle closes since the epilogue is again set in the coffee shop, which means the same location as in the beginning. (Nagel, pp.119/134)
Another trait is that characters, which appear as leading actors in one scene, recur as supporting actors in the story of another figure. This unites the different characters to a homogeneous cast that interacts with one another.
Also, there is a strong connection because each of the three main stories, as well as the subsidiary one about Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, is a story that discusses loyalty and betrayal, honor and trust, and righteousness and fairness, though none of them is solved in the conventional way that is expected according to the genre. (Röwekamp, p.60)
Additionally, each of the three main stories ends with some sort of redemption. Butch fetches his watch and hits the road with his girlfriend Fabienne, whereas Vince saves Mia instead of getting involved with her. The ‘key redemption’ though is Jules’ decision to quit his job, and turn to religion after him and Vince are being shot at by one of the youngsters, but strangely none of the bullets hit them. After having been saved by this ‘miracle’, as Jules sees it, he wants to change his whole life. Due to the rearranged order of the sequences, this most important redemption could be properly placed at the end of the movie and form an appropriate closure, although it actually does not happen in the end. (Ebert, www.godamongdirectors.com/tarantino)
This lack of chronology is one reason why Pulp Fiction is such an outstanding movie. The events of 4 days, and not of 24 or 48 hours as it is sometimes claimed, have been rearranged. Nevertheless, the film’s structure is less complicated than it seems to be at the first viewing. After all, there are only two major leaps in time, if one omits the prologue and epilogue. The first one is a leap forward that happens after Jules and Vince have shot two of the young men. The viewer is led directly to the scene where Marsellus bribes Butch. The second leap takes places after the boxer leaves town with Fabienne. After this scene, the narration jumps back to the moment in which the two hitmen complete their job in the apartment. In contrast, the storylines Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife and The Gold Watch are told in their actual chronology. However, the impression of a greater rearrangement might be given because the characters as well as the plots are overlapping. (Fischer, p.148f.)
This manipulated chronology is mainly owned to Tarantino’s tiredness with the conventional linear plot lines. Already in his firstling Reservoir Dogs did he employ many flashbacks to little by little reveal the background of the different gangsters. In Pulp Fiction, he did this in a more radical way because the time leaps cannot be described as flashbacks. The only rule they are oriented on is: “answers first, questions later”. (Fischer, p.150) This intervention in the sequence order allows Tarantino to arrange the elements according to their dramatic content instead of their chronology, e.g. when he places Jules’ final decision at the end of movie although it is not the last event. Also, the confused audience sees a ‘resurrected’ character, namely Vince, who, after having been shot by Butch, appears alive and healthy in scene after the Gold Watch episode. This could also be an ironic hint to the stereotypical immortality of movie heroes. (Röwekamp, p.60)
After having introduced the main points of the narration and their meaning, I want to analyze the characters of the movie and their relationships in the next chapter.
2. The Characters
The characters that Tarantino employs are tarred with the same brush as the ones we find in the pulp magazines from the 20ies till the 60ies. After all, these pieces of literature were the role model for this movie; thus, its protagonists are gangsters, tricksters, femme fatales, the man for special cases, etc.; in short, anti-heroes with their backs up against the wall. (Fischer, p.154) They possess the element traits of an everyday human being, and thus their main goal is to reach whatever they strive for most in life. Their behavior and attitudes cause conflicts and problems, but this is exactly what every human life is to a certain extend.
In the following, I want to take a closer look at the most important characters and how their relation to each other makes the movie work.
2.1. The Big Boss
There is actually not a single true protagonist; instead, all stories are based on the characters as twosomes, e.g. Honey Bunny and Pumpkin, Vincent and Jules, Butch and Marsellus, Vincent and Lance, Vincent and Mia, and so on. Nevertheless, the central figure is Marsellus Wallace, the gangster boss, because every plot depends in a way on his actions. He assigns the hitmen Vince and Jules, he orders Vince to take out his wife, he bribes Butch, then decides to have him murdered but instead gets into trouble together with him, and he hires The Wolf (the man for special cases), who is in charge of helping Jules and Vince out of their self-inflicted plight. Finally, he also obliquely influences Honey Bunny and Pumpkin and the inglorious ending of their coup.
Marsellus is introduced to the audience in sequence number 3 (according to the sequence order in Nagel, Uwe, pp. 84-88), the scene where he bribes Butch. Tarantino employs different methods to stress the differences between these two characters. The one is black, the other white; one is the big boss, the other is past his prime years in his sport; one can barely be seen, the other one is displayed in one shot for several minutes. (Nagel, p. 122)
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- Sandra Radtke (Autor), 2004, Pulp Fiction - An Analysis of Storyline and Characters, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/41586