Thoughts On: Pulp Fiction
Ok, we’ve reached the end of the segmented essay on Pulp Fiction. So far I’ve covered this film in terms of Tarantino, and then in terms of his message. What we’ll now do is explore its greater truths not as an arthouse movie, but a Tarantino classic that has a lot to say about how films are made and seen.
In the last segment I gave a somewhat in-depth analysis of what the film means and what its absolute message is. I believe that this message has been designed into the film by Tarantino, but not as a primary function of the picture. His movies are very clearly about both himself and his audience enjoying themselves. In this respect I draw your attention back to the two definitions of pulp he provides us before the film starts:
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.
Whereas the last part saw Pulp Fiction as a magazine or book written with intentions, here we’re going to see it as a soft, moist, shapeless mass. This means that I am going to contradict myself, but so what? In the end you can choose to take away the film or the movie, or accept it as is, contradictions in tact. This means that all apparent structuring is designed only to disillusion, all imperfections are manufactured in to ensure you enjoy yourself. We can see this best with the non-chronological form. Tarantino does this to make a plotless film, to take away true cause and effect, to reduce the picture to a matter of moments. We see this best with Vincent’s death. It’s put in the middle of the film so we forget about it. There are also so many extraneous characters and sequences that pop in and out for the sake of pure entertainment in spite of sense or ex-machinas. What Tarantino manages to do here is what Harmony Korine wanted to do with Gummo. Korine wanted to construct a film that was much like a photo album. There are just snippets of character, events, situations and life. I’m not a fan of Korine’s work, or of Gummo. It achieves a few insane images that do stick with you…
… but ultimately just want to forget about. (Click the picture if you want to see the scene depicted). This comparison may seem to come way out of left field, but it really doesn’t. All we have here is the same film, or concept for a film, executed with different artistic ethics. Korine wants to create original, think-feely, postmodern, quasi-film. On the other hand, Tarantino wants to create something new, but still reminiscent of the films he grew up with, loves and constantly references. It’s in my personal opinion that Tarantino is, as a result, the better artist. With Harmony’s films there is an air of pretense. You see this in his interviews too. He’s clearly a smart guy with some very interesting ideas, but what he produces is lacking in texture, in depth, in grit, flesh, something to hold on to. Gummo in particular is just a load of empty moments pulled together. It’s the equivalent of a splatter painting or Duchamp’s Fountain…
These are both cool ideas that you could talk about at legnth, but they aren’t true art in my opinion. True art takes skill as well as concept, it takes engaging your audience, it takes actually reaching out and affecting them, not obliging them to assign meaning and join the cycle of pretense over something anyone could do without much effort. Returning to the realm of film, this is why Tarantino is the better artist, but I do have to say Korine does demonstrate skill in his cinematography, framing and editing. However, he seriously lacks the power to produce an engaging narrative, an immersive atmosphere or poignant message. This doesn’t mean blockbusters are better that arthouse films or that films are better than movies. I cite films such as Eraserhead, The Holy Mountain, Un Chien Adalou or anything by Tarkovsky as films that have grandiose concepts like Korine, splatter painters or Duchamp. What separates these films from Gummo or even the largely empty Spring Breakers is clear skill on the grounds of atmosphere, narrative and mood. Yes, Eraserhead might not intentionally mean much, but damn is it captivating. Yes, The Holy Mountain may be pointless, but it says a whole lot of nothing incredibly well. Yes, Tarkovsky is something you just have to stare up at in awe, by there’s a channel of respect running between him and the audience in the beautiful images he captures for us or the astounding sense of pacing and atmosphere he creates for us. Artist and audience shouldn’t be two people standing on either side of a mirrored window that is their art. Artists and audience work for and with one another to produce pieces that entertain, teach, inspire as to benefit both sides. Wow, we’ve run a long tangent from Pulp Fiction. Let’s bring it back…
So, Tarantino has constructed something both entertaining and artful, but how and why? We’ll start with how. This is Tarantino’s lesson to all you writers, so pens at the ready. Tarantino seems to abandon an idea of narrative to ensure each and every moment of his film engages. What does this means and does it make sense? It does make sense and it works because Pulp Fiction sucks out all the boring parts, not focusing on character arcs or narrative meaning, but the escalating moments of absurdity. The reason why Pulp Fiction isn’t put in the same class as Harold and Kumar, Pineapple Express or Dude, Where’s My Car? however is because it’s manufactured to hide what it almost is as well as the fact that it is what it’s trying not to be. To clarify, there are character arcs and narrative meanings in Pulp Fiction. Tarantino just hides them from us. Moreover, this isn’t one bad night film like Adventures In Babysitting because it throws away the rule book, intentionally breaking rules of structure and beats. What this all means is that Tarantino is writing the best shorts he can, that can ultimately be pieced together like a puzzle. He focuses all his energy on the diner scene or the one hard day Butch endures to ensure that momentum translates to the film. The lesson in this can be applied to writing chronological, solid narratives. Pulp Fiction teaches us the power of the scene, of the moment. And strangely enough, there’s a formula to these moments. Don’t worry though, it’s not a very helpful one. So, to reinstate what Pulp Fiction is before breaking down it’s detailed structure: the big picture is a few segmented moments, in these moments is further segmentation, and in each segment there is a constant cycle of character and conflict. In this you can see how the film may have been planned. I want to make clear this is all speculation – but speculation that makes a lot of sense (in my opinion). So, the film is obviously broken into chapters, simple blocks of action. These blocks of action are then split up. For example, inside the Gold Watch sequence there’s the flash back, taxi ride to the motel, night, morning, retrieval of the watch, fight with Marsellus, escape from the S&M dungeon. Inside each moment we’ll get a hint of character and then a bit of conflict. This is easiest seen in the flashback. We get to learn who the grandfather is, but then what he had to go through. We then learn about the father, but then what he had to go through. We learn about Koons, but then what he had to go through. Now, character doesn’t mean backstory, character means time with a person where they just behave. To understand this look at the Mia/Vincent conversation in the restaurant. The two just talk about meaningless things, they fall into a bit of back story, then there’s a bit of conflict with an implied connection brewing before an awkward silence (conflict). Conflict resumes with Mia returning to the table and them having to discuss the plot, but falls back into character with their dance. What’s most important is the meaningless, the (at times) philosophical-esque look at awkwardness, at bible versus, at trips abroad, at foot massages. The everyday and the everyday character always comes before conflict.
This is the cycle present throughout the film: character, conflict, character. conflict. This is so effective as it lets us get to know characters. This is VERY important. But probably not in the way you think. Many people think we get to love characters by learning their back story and seeing them go through hard times. This is absolute bull. How do I prove this? I can do this over and over. First, look at yourself. Did you have to learn all about your friends childhood before liking them? Did you have to see them go through tough times before sympathising with them? No. That’s nuts. However, have you become friends just by sitting next to someone in a class, living next door, working in the same space as them? I’m pretty sure this is how almost all relationships start. They’ll strengthen the more we get to know a person, but without knowing their complete history, or seeing them cry, you can develop a pretty strong bond with them. Why? And what does this have to do with writing? We develop friend this way because we are merely subjected to real characters. You see this all the time. Have you ever not liked what a person was saying, but still felt a sense of respect for them because they seemed honest? Have you ever despised someone because they seemed fake? Therein lies your answer. This comes down to character writing then. If you can convince an audience that your character is a real person, or has traits that ring true, you will create a loveable character. For another example I only need to cite my favourite film of all time: Amelie. I love this film unfathomably because… really? It’s just the way I feel. If I were to break it down without going into too many psychological misfirings in me, I just need to point to the opening. This is all to do with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s game: things I like, things I don’t like. (Also the title of an excellent short he created). In Amelie, Jeunet gives us a peak into character’s minds by giving us a peak into his own mind. The lists of thing his characters do and do not like come from his own nuances. In short we are spending moments watching him throughout the day that reveal who he is. That means, in a weird sense, I don’t really love Amelie by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, which isn’t me admitting anything exciting, but bringing up another point. Writing is as much about who you are as it is what you create. This is the soul crushing thing about art. You are trying to project apart of you through a medium, and the thing people don’t like to tell you is that when you are being told your film or painting sucks, they kind of mean: I don’t like you, what you like or the way you think.
This all of course calls back to writing what you know. But, I don’t want to leave the point essentially saying you suck and nobody likes you or your art. Whilst there may be parts of you, the ideas you have or the things you try that don’t work, there may be some things that do. There may be an aspect of your own character that really resonates with people. What that is, I can’t tell you. This is why actually creating work (at a high volume) and actually failing (a lot) is so important. We aren’t really trying to find ourselves as artist, but the part of us everyone is willing to accept. That is why Pulp Fiction is so great (apart from that little moment of near racism discussed in the first part). Tarantino demonstrates great character. And this great character is what entertains. I want to pull back a moment to ensure I don’t leave you in a mess here. What I hope I’ve demonstrated is Tarantino’s manifested formula. He segments his films, breaks them down further and then constructs each moment by alternating between moments of character and moments of conflict. Some critique Tarantino for this because it produces films that are quite obviously moment after moment. They are disjointed in other words. This is also why Pulp Fiction is Tarantino’s best film. He plays into what he does best: creating moments. By using his formula you too may be able to create an ok film, but one that may be disjointed – especially if you use his formula on a chronological narrative. To tackle this you could do two things. The first is produce a natural, flowing narrative. This was all explained with the Silent Running post so I’m going to skip onto the second method. This is narrative that rises and falls. To see this we can stay with Pulp Fiction. As I already hinted at, all of Tarantino’s segments escalate. This is his main device used to entertain. Look at the Gold Watch again, he starts with a taxi ride, steps it up with some heated interaction between Butch and his girlfriend, he then flips the switch on that heat turning the seduction into aggression before introducing suspense, then a gun fight/chase, then horror, then catharsis with the escape. Look at almost any great movie here and you can see this aspect of escalation, look at Rocky, Platoon, Goodfellas, Godfather, Back To The Future… in fact, let’s stop. The list is almost endless. Films that don’t work start good and get worse, or start bad and stay bad. The films you forget are the ones that start good and stay good. Action must rise. This is writing 101. You’ve probably heard this a million times before and dismissed it or possibly misinterpreted it. Action rising doesn’t mean more things happening, or a huge fight, or even more conflict. Action rising means an intensification of everything you set up. Look at Leone here, he rises to a simple shootout. It works so well because he also brings characters closer to the end, demonstrating his best direction as to emote and produce suspense. You can even look at Linklater’s Before Sunrise. This is a film in which two people just talk. Action still rises though. What happens is Linklater’s, Hawke’s and Delpy’s character work deepens, intensifies, get’s all the better. Action rising just means making the story better. What this truly reveals then is what the best advice is: not very helpful. The best advice is broad and intangible. What you must figure out is how to grip it, make it tangible, something you can use. This is why watching films, reading and so on are the best ways to get better at your own art. You need to figure out how other people do things, what works and what doesn’t so you can then learn that all again, but relative to you. The path is long and winding, I know. But…
Let’s summarise with actual focus on Pulp Fiction. This movie works so well because it gives itself the room to concentrate on creating escalating moments inside an escalating plot. It gets better, intensifies with each moment that passes. And in each of these moments we are cycling between character and conflict, again, another rise and fall in action. By focusing on moments Tarantino creates an immersive experience and all by abandoning rules. By purposely reducing his narrative to pulp, this shapeless mass, Tarantino entertains making clear to us that the ineffectual is what resonates best, that weightlessness is the best form of entertainment.
Pulp Fiction – The Line Evil Draws
Hardcore Henry – Symphonies Of Destruction
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