At this point, what hasn’t been said about Pulp Fiction?
Yeah, I know, I know. Pulp Fiction is one of those movies that people who really like film either love or hate. I am in the love camp, but I can see why it would be annoying. Maybe that is a good place to start.
See, first off, it’s not really a film as much as it is a series of interconnected short films. For some people, this was their first experience with this as a storytelling device. The story of Mia and Vincent, Butch and Zed, Ringo and Yolanda is pretty much that separated. You don’t really have a narrative through line. A narrative argument could be made that actually, there is no grander theme to the movie. Every moment in it is designed to be as entertaining as possible, but what, really, is the message of the movie?
Well, I just caught the end of the movie on Showtime again, and I I have some thoughts on that.
If you haven’t seen Pulp Fiction this is the time to get off the ride. Seriously, go watch it. It’ll be the coolest movie you’ve ever seen.
I don’t want to focus on the entire movie. I think that there are too many disparate elements, to make a coherent conclusion. So, let’s focus on the first Jules and Vincent scene and the closing scene.
For those of you who don’t have the movie memorized, the opening scene (or vignette, or story, or part, or whatever) is the famous car ride with Jules, played by The Spirit all star Samuel L. Jackson, and Vincent Vega, played by John Travolta. We start with a conversation, where Jules describes his recent trip to Europe to Vincent. The dialogue is snappy, the kind of back and forth that you rarely see in movies. These two are dressed like gangsters, end up at an apartment complex, walk upstairs while talking about foot massages, and then enter an apartment.
Weirdly, their completely blase attitude about everything that is happening ratchets up the tension. By the time that they enter the apartment, they’ve had a minor disagreement, they’re friendly but don’t completely agree, and then, they go into the apartment, and the greatest intimidation by fast food scene that ever could happen happens.
Then, we get the parallel structure set up. Jules quotes a bible verse and shoots someone. Another character comes out of the bathroom and shoots six shots that miss Jules and Vincent entirely, and they leave.
Parallel Structure, what’s that?
Frequently, in a good story, there will be repeated elements that reward the audience for paying attention. A parallel structure is one of these where two scenes work are composed in similar ways, to create tension between them. As you are watching, you have expectations from the first scene, and any change in the structure rings as very important. For a great example, think of any scene where you have seen the exact scene before in the movie, but the result for the hero is different. Your hero makes a decision based on the experience of the earlier scene, or some information is revealed that wasn’t known, and the scene’s meaning completely changes because of it.
So, for example, in Serenity, the first scene in the movie sets up that The Operative uses a nerve cluster punch that paralyzes people to monologue before they die. When, at the end of the movie, we see him use it on Malcolm Reynolds, the punch doesn’t work, because Mal is a veteran and was injured in that area. Expectations were set up for how the fight would go, and new information creates a different scene entirely.
So, what is the Parallel to the Vince and Jules scene?
The end of the movie takes place in a diner, a confined space, a lot like the apartment. Inside the space, there are four guns. Ringo and Yolanda each have revolvers and Jules and Vincent have their semi-autos. Immediately proceeding this scene, Jules has been talking about how he wants to leave his life of crime, thinking that it’s not worth anything, based on events earlier in the movie. Vince gets up and goes to the restroom and Ringo and Yolanda decide to rob the place.
As they are moving around, the case draws Ringo’s attention, and we think that once again, the briefcase is going to change hands. Jules shows him what is in the case, and Ringo is taken off guard. Jules holds him at gunpoint, Yolanda points her gun at him, and Samuel L. Jackson gives a master class in holding a scene together.
He explains where he is coming from and what he believes. He shows himself to be changed by the events of the movie. He gives himself a purpose for the future. In that moment, the movie’s theme comes through clearly. Change is the only thing that is respected in Pulp Fiction. If you remain in your station, bad things happen. But if, like Butch or Jules, you try to get out, try to move up, you might be wily enough to actually do it. Jules is as close to a hero as the movie has, because he recognizes where he is, but wants to be something else.
I think that is what people connect to when they watch this movie. This is that moment that brings it together. The framing, the power dynamics, the shifting of control are all in service of the scene, and it hangs together so well that it blows me away to this day.
And, after such an explosion of violence that finished off the first scene, everyone walks away. Nobody is shot. There is no gigantic orgy of violence. It’s just four people in a diner who exchange words, pass each other, and walk away changed. What a great movie.