Quentin Tarantino. Where do I even begin?
I am such a huge fan of Tarantino’s work because beyond the witty scripts and exquisite music selection, there is always so much more to his films than what viewers are seeing on the screen. Today I will be talking about Pulp Fiction, which is easily one of my favourite movies of all time. There is so much to be discussed within Pulp, but today’s discussion is going to be focused on Tarantino’s use of metafiction and what he could have been trying to achieve.
Metafiction by definition is essentially fiction about fiction. It is generally characterized by the self-conscious nature of a text. The text is constructed in such a way that one who reads the text is fully aware, at all times, of the artificiality of it. The construction of the text is purposefully exposed by the author, as to make the reader aware that it is not intended to be understood as a representation of reality. These characteristics of metafiction are particularly present in postmodern literature, and can also be carried over into the cinematic field in postmodern films, such as Pulp Fiction.
There are many examples of metafiction throughout Pulp; some of them are perhaps too subtle for a first-time viewer of the movie to grasp. However, one of the most blatant examples of metafiction in the film occurs in the scene with Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega sitting in the car outside the restaurant ‘Jackrabbit Slims’. Mia rejects Vincent’s dispute about eating at this particular restaurant by stating; “Don’t be a…”, and it is depicted in the Pulp Fiction script as follows; ”Mia draws a square with her hands. Dotted lines appear on the screen, forming a square. The lines disperse” (IMSDb). This is a very obvious metafictional reminder to the viewer that what they are watching is indeed only a film, and is not intended to be understood as reality. Another example, which is perhaps slightly less obvious than the first, involves a conversation between Vincent and Jules right before they are about to conduct a ‘hit’ for Marcellus Wallace. The discussion involves arguably normal topics, considering the circumstances, and Jules announces that it is time to complete the job. He states; “It’s time to get into character”. One key aspect of metafiction is that in some cases, as seen here, the characters are aware that they are merely fictional characters, and the reader or viewer becomes aware of it too.
The most significant example is in the very title of the movie, Pulp Fiction. The first definition of ‘pulp’ provided at the very beginning of the movie states; “A soft, moist, shapeless mass or matter” (IMSDb). Perhaps it could be argued that from the very beginning of the film, the movie is acknowledging, and making the viewers aware, that this is essentially just a shapeless mass of fiction. This argument could also be extended further with the second definition of ‘pulp’ provided, which states that it is a book or magazine “…containing lurid subject matter…” Perhaps this definition is included to suggest what Tarantino proposes to do with his film, and more specifically with his use of metafiction. The second definition gives the viewer an indication that this fictional film is intended to shock and disturb. Tarantino achieves this ‘shock’ aspect through the way in which he subverts and parodies the conventions of Hollywood, which the viewers are familiar with and have come to expect (Bertelsen, 1999).
Tarantino does this is by playing with the conventions and expectations related to the film industry. An example of this is showed in how Tarantino plays with character expectations, and Hollywood typecasting. The character Vincent is played by John Travolta, well known for his previous roles in movies like Grease and Saturday Night Fever, both of which he was cast as a charming, attractive heart throb. However, in Pulp Fiction viewers may be shocked to see Travolta depicted as a greasy-haired, drug addict gangster. This is just one of the many examples which Tarantino is purposefully deconstructing popular film expectations in a very postmodern kind of way.
Tarantino also subverts the conventions of Hollywood genre in this film. Stephen Neale defines genre as; “…expectations and conventions that circulate between industry, text and subject… Upon which the film depends in order to be understood or read” (Neale, 1980). The overarching genre of Pulp Fiction is that of a crime film, but there are consistent comedic or absurd subtleties throughout the movie which undermine the authenticity of the conventional crime genre. An example is seen in the opening scene of the movie which presents two gangsters ending a conversation with the enduring and innocent terms; “honey bunny” and “pumpkin”, before they rob a restaurant at gun point. Tarantino presents many sides to the popular crime genre that viewers are not quite familiar with, nor expecting to see. Another example is shown in the two conventionally dressed black-suit gangsters, Vincent and Jules, who spend a large amount of screen time discussing extremely ordinary topics. Rather than discussing weapons, murder and other grave topics expected of conventional Hollywood gangsters, they discuss foot massages, TV shows, and McDonalds in a light-hearted, casual way which provides an underlying sense of comedy to the film.
There are many references to some of Tarantino’s favourite genre’s throughout the film, but these are specifically displayed in the scene where Butch is trying to find a suitable weapon in the pawn shop. He picks up a hammer, a baseball bat, a chainsaw – all referencing famous films and genres – and the final weapon which trumps all the others is a samurai sword. In the Pulp Fiction script, Tarantino specifies that Butch is; “Holding the sword pointed downward, Takakura Kenstyle…” (IMSDb). This is a reference to the famous Japanese actor, and also a general reference to the genre of samurai and kung fu movies. It is somewhat significant that the weapon Butch chooses is the foreign weapon, and related to a non-American genre. In an interview with Rolling Stone Tarantino states; “Part of the fun of Pulp is that if you’re hip to movies, you’re watching the boxing movie Body and Soul and then suddenly the characters turn a corner and they’re in the middle of Deliverance. And you’re like, ‘What? How did I get into Deliverance? I was in Body and Soul, what’s going on here?'” (Edwards, 2014). This highlights the extent to which Tarantino’s films are influenced by other films, and specific well known genres. Body and Soul is a film noir about boxing, encapsulating the genre of American sport films, which was also previously referenced by Butch contemplating the baseball bat as a weapon. Deliverance is a disturbing thriller that contains hillbilly rape; this encapsulates the genre of horror, which were also referenced by Butch picking up the hammer and chainsaw. Thus it is once again made apparent, by Tarantino’s very own words, how his movie crosses genre boundaries in a way that surprises the viewer. (Edwards, 2014).
In conclusion, it could be argued that Tarantino is trying to encourage more involvement from the viewer. Tarantino states; “in the first ten minutes of nine out of ten movies… the movie tells you what kind of movie it’s going to be” (Gormley, 2005), thus supporting the essay’s notion that viewers become familiar with a certain genre through the repetition of certain key features related to that genre. The viewers come to expect those key features when watching a movie that seems to fit that particular genre. However, Tarantino denies the reader the possibility of doing that, offering Pulp Fiction as a crime film but deconstructing the viewer’s expectations of what a crime film should be. Therefore the viewer cannot simply anticipate what is going to happen in the movie, using prior knowledge of crime films, and they essentially have to become involved in the film in a way which is unfamiliar to them. Tarantino uses the unique aspects which have been touched on earlier in this post, as well as key aspects of metafiction to disturb and unsettle the conventions of Hollywood cinema, in his own words he is; “fucking up the breadcrumb trail” (Gormley, 2005). In a particularly brilliant exchange in Pulp Fiction, Jules makes a comment about the coffee served to them by Jimmie, who is played by Tarantino himself. Jules states; “Goddamn Jimmie, this is some serious gourmet shit. Me an’ Vincent woulda been satisfied with freeze-dried Taster’s Choice.” (IMSDb). This is an excellent analogy for everything this discussion has thus far attempted to portray. Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is gourmet in cinematic terms, and he is feeding it to people who are accustomed to freeze-dried, ritualistic movies. Perhaps his intention is to criticize and make us aware of how easily and naively we tend to accept “freeze-dried Taster’s Choice” (IMSDb). Jimmie responds with; “I buy the gourmet expensive stuff, ‘cause when I drink it, I wanna taste it” (IMSDb). Therefore Tarantino’s intention is to produce movies that the viewer can engage with, movies that the viewer can ‘taste’, movies that the viewer cannot predict or expect and thus there is something extremely exciting and riveting about his movies.
So in conclusion, in all his brilliance Tarantino has succeeded in producing a film that has all the qualities, key features, stock plot stories of previously existing films, but it is definitely a film like no other. It is easily dismissed as nonsensical and insignificant by viewers who are not willing to delve into the film. However, those who choose to engage with the film as Tarantino expected will discover the filmic genius that is Quentin Tarantino.
References that I used and I definitely recommend reading;
Bertelsen, Eve. “’Serious Gourmet Shit’: Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.” JLS 15.1 (June 1999): 8-32.
Neale, S. 1981 Genre and Cinema. In: Bennett, T., Boyd-Bowman, S., Mercer, C. & Woollacott, J. (eds) Popular Television and Film. London: BFI, pp. 6-25
Edwards, Gavin. “’Get The Gimp’: Breaking Down ‘Pulp Fictions’ Most Notorious Scene.” Rolling Stone. (May, 2014). http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/get-the-gimp-breaking-down-pulp-fictions-most-notorious-scene-20140521
The Internet Movie Script Database. “’Pulp Fiction’ by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary.” IMSBd: http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Pulp-Fiction.html
Gormey, Paul. “The New-brutality Film: Race and Affect in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema”. Intellect: UK. (2005).
ALL images are sourced from weheartit at http://weheartit.com/