Pulp Fiction

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Review by Joseph Gross

  • Nobody ever goes to the bathroom in movies. As strange as amateur comedians seem to find this, it’s entirely reasonable from a storytelling perspective. It may not be completely realistic, but good stories seldom are. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is probably the most famous exception to cinematic convention on toilet usage, with no fewer than five key scenes involving characters in restrooms and frequent references to urination and defecation in dialog, typically in more vulgar terms. This is all especially peculiar because Pulp Fiction seldom attempts to closely resemble real life.  At one point, Butch (Bruce Willis) takes a taxi ride with an obvious green screen backdrop, even though better technology was available in 1994, in homage to film noir of the 1940s. Later in the film, Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel) is shown at a formal dinner party at eight in the morning, seemingly just as an excuse for him to be wearing a tuxedo. The bathroom breaks snap the audience out of this impossibly cool world, contrasting the glamorized cinematic vision of organized crime with the stinking repulsive realities that everyone experiences but nobody likes to talk about.

    The combination of the hyper-cinematic and the mundane permeates the entire film. In the first scene after the opening credits, hitmen Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) discuss the latter’s three-year trip to Europe.  We never learn why Vincent, a Los Angeles-based gangster, went to Europe in the first place. He describes his excursion like a vacation, with an especial focus on fast food, and he and Jules go on to complain about their boss, crack dirty jokes, and gossip about their coworkers. It’s the archetypal water cooler chat, sans water cooler, coming from suited mobsters rather than middle class white collar workers. This dialog serves to humanize them before they “get into character” and prepare to retrieve a stolen briefcase and murder Brett (Frank Whaley). They distance themselves from their crimes by thinking of them as mere performance. This, if anything, makes them more relatable. Many people try to justify their sins, and many people compartmentalize their lives to avoid dealing with them. Vincent and Jules take such behavior to the sort of ludicrous extreme typical of Tarantino’s work.

    It’s during his “performance” at Brett’s apartment that Jackson first delivers the famous “Ezekiel 25:17” speech. Its forceful, archaic language, which starkly contrasts with Jules’s typically casual and profanity-soaked speech,  isn’t taken from the Bible, at least not directly. It has a few phrases from the actual Ezekiel 25:17, but its most direct source is the opening text of the American dub of Karate Kiba. It’s a good bit longer than the real verse, and it doesn’t actually make very much sense. This could be taken as a sly blasphemy, a conflation of Sacred Scripture with nonsense from an old kung-fu flick. But the speech’s eclectic of phrases from all around the King James Version of the Bible sounds a lot like what people imagine Bible verses are like. This makes  it a more effective proxy for scripture than any actual passage of scripture could be, which is helpful when Jules reflects on the passage at the end of the film.

    But first, we see events taking place after the end of the film. Tarantino’s love of nonlinear narrative is well-known, and in Pulp Fiction, his arrangement of story elements makes the film much more satisfying than a more straightforward presentation could have been. Each of the film’s three main storylines culminates with one character saving another and the rescues are ordered in a manner that suggests moral progress. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the film’s first complete story, about Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), is also its most lurid. But the camera’s sensual gaze at heroin usage and Uma Thurman’s lips is contextualized by its stark look of Mia’s mouth oozing vomit after an accidental heroin overdose, contrasting the allure of vice with its actual consequences. When Vincent tries to save her, he does so the same way he solves all his problems: with violence. He crashes his car into a house (of a friend who has the necessary medical supplies), and stabs her in the heart (with a syringe). Mia’s resuscitation is framed more like a murder.  The title card for this segment reads “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife,” and at this point, that’s all she is to him. She doesn’t matter much as a person to him, except insofar as she matters to Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), his boss. His effort to save her is motivated primarily by self-preservation, given what Marsellus is rumored to do to men who don’t respect his wife. By contrast, Butch, when he chooses to save Marsellus, is acting against preservative instinct. He rescues the man who earlier that day shot at him, who’s held captive by depraved psychopaths with guns. It would be a poignant example of love for an enemy, if it didn’t involve killing their mutual enemy. For this act, he selects, from several options, a katana, a symbol of the samurai. Butch comes from a lineage of soldiers, but, too young for Vietnam and too old for Iraq, never experienced war himself. With that sword, he connects to the heritage of the noble Japanese warrior class and to his own heritage by proxy. He does his soldierly duty because, as Captain Koons (Christopher Walken), told him as a boy, when two men go through a terrible situation together, they “take on certain responsibilities to each other.”

    Eventually, the film returns to the diner of its prologue, and Jules contemplates Pseudo-Ezekiel. He admits that its actual meaning was irrelevant to him at first. He simply used the passage to be intimidating and assert dominance, using the authority of scripture as a symbol of his own and Marsellus Wallace’s. That isn’t too far from how many people use the Bible, even though following up such usage with assassination is less common. Then Jules engages in another common misapplication of scripture: eisegesis. His attempt to interpret the passage is worth quoting:

    See, now I'm thinking: maybe it means you're the evil man. And I'm the righteous man. And Mr. 9 Millimeter here, he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. I'd like that. But that shit ain't the truth. The truth is: you're the weak, and I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin', Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard to be the shepherd.

    Everything in the scene leading up to this has been hinting at a violent confrontation. Tarantino is a master of building tension, and here, after two stories with tense leading to violent revolution he’s gone so far as a to craft a Mexican standoff between Jules, Vincent, and Yolanda (Amanda Plummer).  The Mexican standoff is a longstanding cinematic plot device, popularized by the climax of Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which Tarantino himself identified as “the greatest achievement in the history of cinema.” At the end of Leone’s film, the Good kills the Bad and forces the Ugly to dig for the gold they all sought. At the end of Tarantino’s, the Bad acknowledges himself as such and surrenders his money to the Weak. He saves “Ringo” (Tim Roth) by unexpectedly sparing his life. He rejects the glorified vision of violence that’s permeated cinema and the selfish usage of scripture that’s permeated his criminal career. He chooses instead to subvert narrative convention, to repent of his evil, and to walk the earth. While this all occurs early in the film’s chronology, it makes a remarkably potent ending.

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