CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. --
For four days we sat in the dark, tiptoeing through "Pulp Fiction" one scene at a time, using a laserdisc machine so you could freeze a frame or slowly creep through the movie. There were about 300 of us, and democracy ruled: Anybody could make an observation, and we'd stop and discuss it. Our mission: to take a VERY close look at this labyrinthine film.
Of course there are people who intensely dislike "Pulp Fiction." It is possibly the most unpopular movie ever to gross $100 million at the American box office. I've received mail from those who hate the movie. They say it is too violent, too graphic, too obscene, or "makes no sense." Many say they walked out after 20, 30 or 60 minutes. (Given its circular time line, of course it made no sense to them; this is literally a movie where you have to wait until you can say, "This is where we came in.")
Among those who admire it, however, QuentinTarantino's film is the most passionately loved and obsessed-about film of recent years; the discussions about its smallest details have reached the same pitch as the furor over Kubrick's "2001," which inspired a book that transcribed even the directions for the Zero Gravity Toilet. On campuses and among younger viewers, there is no other recent film approaching its appeal.
We were analyzing "The Fiction," as it is sometimes called, at the University of Virginia, where I was spending a week as the first Kluge Film Fellow. Patricia Kluge, founder of the Virginia Festival of American Film, sponsors the fellowship on Thomas Jefferson's beautiful campus (although what Jefferson would have thought about Vincent Vega and Honey Bunny is hard to imagine).
I've done shot-by-shot analyses of dozens of films, from "Citizen Kane" to "The Silence of the Lambs," and I find that when you gather a lot of serious film people in the dark and invite them to talk during the movie, somebody will have the answer to every question.
At Virginia, for example, one of the voices in the dark was unmistakably that of a young boy; he sounded about 11. I wondered if he should be watching this R-rated film. That was before he started citing specific line references from the screenplay, which he had downloaded from the Internet. It was his 12th viewing (and, yes, he was accompanied by a parent).
At the end of the four days, my own admiration for the movie had only deepened. It is more subtle and complex than at first it seems; the Oscar-winning screenplay, by Tarantino and Roger Avary, turns out to contain the answers to mysteries that baffle viewers in a first viewing, and it makes connections that only occur to you after time.
The film tells interlocking stories, which unfold out of chronological order, so that the movie's ending hooks up with the beginning, most of its middle happens after the ending, and a major character is onscreen after he has been shot dead. Why is the movie told in this way? For three reasons, perhaps: (1) Because Q.T., as his fans call him, is tired of linear plots that slog wearily from A to Z; (2) to make the script reveal itself like "hypertext," in which "buttons" like the gold watch or "foot massage" lead to payoffs like Butch's story or Vincent's date from hell; and (3) because each of the main stories ends with some form of redemption. The key redemption -- the decision by Jules(Samuel L. Jackson) to retire from crime after his life is saved by a "miracle" -- is properly placed at the end of the film even though it doesn't happen at the end of the story.
The first time I saw the movie, in May 1994 at the Cannes Film Festival, I thought it was very violent. As I saw it a second and third time, I realized it wasn't as violent as I thought -- certainly not by the standards of modern action movies. It SEEMS more violent because it often delays a payoff with humorous dialogue, toying with us. Our body count at Virginia turned up only seven major deaths. (Read no further if you do not want to know major plot details.) The dead:
-- Three guys in the apartment -- one in the chair, one on the couch, and one in the bathroom -- are killed by Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Jackson).
-- Marvin, the fourth guy from the apartment, is accidentally killed while sitting in the backseat of Jules' and Vincent's car.
-- Vincent Vega is killed by Butch (Bruce Willis).
-- Two men are killed at the pawn shop: Maynard, the store owner, and his friend Zed.
-- In addition, there are two unseen or implied deaths, of the boxer killed in the ring by Butch, and of "the Gimp," dressed in leather in the pawn shop basement.
Against this body count, there are several people who are saved in the movie. Mia (Uma Thurman) is brought back from the dead after an overdose; Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) is saved by Butch in the basement; and many potential victims in the coffee shop are saved after Jules talks Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) and Pumpkin (Tim Roth) into calling off their stickup. And, of course, the lives of Jules and Vincent are saved, when a volley of shots in the apartment misses them. Jules chooses to call this a miracle, a sign from God, and retires from crime. Vincent shrugs it off, and pays the price. There is also an important, hilarious, subplot about the saving of Butch's gold watch.
One thing we kept noticing during our shot-by-shot odyssey was that much of the violence is off-screen. When the guys in the apartment are shot, the camera is on Jules or Vincent, not on the victims. When the hypodermic needle goes into Mia's chest, the camera cuts away at the last instant to a reaction shot (instant comic relief from Rosanna Arquette, who is into body-piercing, and is delighted to have witnessed the ultimate piercing). The gunshot in the backseat of the car is offscreen. The violence in the pawn shop basement is graphic, but within the boundaries of standard movie fights.
The more you watch the movie, the more you're convinced that there is a hidden spiritual level in the plot. Much has to do with the famous briefcase which belongs to Marcellus Wallace, and which Jules and Vincent capture in the apartment. We never see its contents, which emit a golden glow. There have been countless theories about what's in it ("an Egg MacGuffin," said somebody at Virginia), but of course we will never know. What we can notice is that the combination to its lock is "666" -- the sign of Satan. That has led to speculation that the Band-Aid on the back of Marcellus' neck conceals the number "666." Is Marcellus the devil? That's unknowable, but reflect that Jules, who believes he has been saved by God, lives -- while Vincent, the scoffer, dies.
He's shot by Butch as he comes out of the bathroom (lots of things happen in this movie while people are in the john). A detail that escaped me the first time, however, is that Butch uses a gun belonging to Marcellus, who left it on the counter of Butch's apartment while going to get coffee and doughnuts. (Marcellus has joined Vincent in the stakeout for Butch because, of course, Jules has already resigned.) "The guys who wrote this screenplay weren't lazy," someone said at Virginia; "it's interesting how they worked all this detail in even though most people will miss it."
A theme running through the movie is that many of the weapons do not work or are not used as they are intended (the gun that misses Jules, the gun that kills Vincent, the gun that accidentally kills the guy in the backseat, the guns in the coffee shop robbery, the guns belonging to the pawn shop guys). After Jules is converted, his own gun PREVENTS violence in the coffee shop.
On the film's less significant side, there are also many secrets to discover. In Jack Rabbit Slim's, for example, the waiter playing Buddy Holly (Steve Buscemi) was Mr. Pink in QT's "Reservoir Dogs." Three other cast members from "RD" (Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel and Tarantino) are also in "PF." There is a Vic Vega in "RD," perhaps related to Vincent Vega.
As Butch sneaks up on his own apartment, the words "Jack Rabbit Slim's" emerge from an open window he walks past. One particularly neat bit of continuity happens in the pawn shop, where there is a neon sign for Killian's Red beer. Some of the letters are burnt out, so the sign says only "Kill Ed." Later, when Butch escapes on Zed's motorcycle, he looks at the key-ring, which has a big metal "Z." Add the Z to the sign and you get "Kill Zed," which is what happened. The motorcycle has the word "Grace" painted on its gas tank, and as Butch escapes -- well, there, but for the grace of God ...
There were two visual touches we discussed a lot. One is the golden glow which mysteriously suffuses the screen as Jules and Vincent open fire in the apartment; is it connected somehow with the briefcase? Does it link the devil's case with the devil's work? Another is a curious head-on shot of Bruce Willis, who looks straight at the camera while Marcellus Wallace instructs him to fix a fight. The lighting is used to shadow exactly half of Willis' face; a line runs down his forehead, nose and chin. Or ... is it lighting? The line of demarcation between light and shadow is so sharply defined that we wondered if makeup was used to augment the effect. We looked at the scene repeatedly using freeze frames, but were unable to decide.
One element I've barely touched on is the film's humor. The dialogue is very funny, and some of it echoes great literature in a modern, profane form: The opening exchange between Jules and Vincent about what the French call Quarter-Pounders, for example, is a reminder of the conversation between Jim and Huckleberry Finn about why the French don't speak English. Jules is constantly quoting what he identifies as Ezekiel 25:17 from the Bible, and although some of the words are the same, he has embroidered a lot. [See sidebar below]
A basic strategy in the film is to use humorous dialogue to delay the payoff of a moment of violence. While the Uma Thurman character is dying on the floor, for example, Travolta and Eric Stoltz have a hysterical debate over how to use the hypodermic needle.
This strategy is set up in the opening shot, where Jules and Vincent have a long, funny discussion about foot massage while walking down a long hotel corridor. The shot is done in one unbroken take. They arrive in front of the door to the fatal apartment, decide it is not yet time to enter, and walk further down the hall to continue their discussion. But now the camera no longer joins them; it stays planted in front of the door, and pans to look at them, walking away. The visual language says that the apartment is the first priority; the camera seems almost impatient as the discussion continues, and that builds tension.
"Pulp Fiction" delights some audience members and disturbs others, I think, for the same reason: because it toys with their expectations. It does not seem willing to play by the rules. It imposes its own order on the material. Just at a time when American action films have seemed bogged down in a morass of formulaic plots, here is one which throws out everything they teach in the Hollywood screenwriting workshops and reinvents a genre from scratch. "Pulp Fiction" is likely to be the most influential film of the next five years, and for that we can be thankful, because it may have freed us fromuncounted predictable formula films.
SIDEBAR: WHAT JULES SAYS
The hitman Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) frequently quotes "Ezekiel 25:17" in "Pulp Fiction," but in fact he has greatly altered the Bible passage. The actual passage says:
"And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them."
Here's what Jules says, adding bits from the 23rd Psalm and his own rhetoric:
"The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides with the iniquities 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 brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon those with great vengeance and with furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know that my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee."
© 1995 THE EBERT CO. LTD.