Thoughts On: Pulp Fiction
A disjointed run of events over a few days following criminal activity across L.A.
I’ve talked about the difference between movies and films before. Films take narrative drama over entertainment whereas movies take entertainment as the primary factor. (All in a very rough sense). Pulp Fiction may be the quintessential movie, most probably the greatest movie of all time to an awful lot of people. But, in truth, there aren’t just movies and then films. There’s always going to be a blend of both inside a picture. We all assume, myself included, that Tarantino’s films are just fun movies, pure entertainment. I could agree with this across the majority of his filmography, but Pulp Fiction has always stood out to me as something more than things happening. We’ll get into the dichotomy of the film later on, but I’ll say for now that this is a picture designed to be both a film and a movie. Before we get into that I always like to assess a film before praising it as no film is truly flawless. The flaws in our favourite films are easy to ignore, and usually not worth anyone’s attention, but with Pulp Fiction we find a central critique that does split Tarantino’s audience. So, what we’ll do is analyse Pulp Fiction in three parts. Firstly we’ll look at Tarantino, then the film aspects of Pulp Fiction, after that the movie aspects, before rounding everything off. That said, let’s go…
Ok, we’ll start with critique. In short, Tarantino is the star of the movie. This in itself isn’t particularly bad, I mean, Scorsese is usually the star of his movies, but not to their detriment. We all know Tarantino quite well from interviews T.V, DVD extras and such. He’s quite the personality – and that doesn’t help the character of his movies. What I’m talking about here is his dialogue. Everyone knows this is the staple of his movies, but if you pay attention to the structuring of character’s sentences you can without a doubt hear Tarantino. This is one of the biggest faults in the film. Most of the characters, save accent, dialect and pacing, all sound more or less the same. This however is criticism I frankly hate to give because I write myself. Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you how hard it is to write and so we should just give him a break. The real task of writing comes with an idea of authenticity, which dilutes everyone else’s ideas of wanting all your characters to sound different. A famous adage of writing is to write what you know. We have all heard this before and have probably all been frustrated with it when trying to write ourselves. It’s easy to ask, ‘well, what the hell does that mean?’ as it seems like we’re being asked to write about our personal experiences, which, to a certain degree, we are, but that makes little sense as no one wants the life of a writer, they want heroes, fantasy, and a myriad of other things we can’t know. And that’s why personal experience is not the crux of the idea. The real truth of this statement is that we’re to write what we are good at. Keeping that in mind let’s return to writing characters with individual voices. To do this you must call upon one of two things. You can call upon your voice in all its variations as implied by situation. Or, you can rely on the archetypal stock voices we have in our heads from hearing others speak or seeing movies. The latter is the real danger in trying to create individual characters though, as when we do this we aren’t writing exactly what we know. We may have a good idea of what the guy running the corner store sounds like, thinks like, acts like, but, we only have the real insiders information on ourselves. To climb this wall you have to be a good character writer. You must be able to do what the actors do in that you embody new mannerisms, turning yourself into your characters so you believe that you are them, staying true to the adage write what you know. The trouble of this comes with you and what you are best at. If you are not the best character writer, or you aren’t too great at capturing a wide range of voices, let alone embody them, then you can come off as an awful writer. Worse case scenario you can come off incredibly offensive, even racist. We see this in many films, new and old. This is linked to ‘white washing’ in Hollywood, which is a concept a lot of people are paying attention to as of this moment with the new Dr. Strange coming out as well as the up and coming adaptation of the anime, Ghost In The Shell with Scarlett Johansson. I don’t want to get too deep into those films and that issue, but talk about where the problem starts.
This all comes back to writing what you know. When an audience wants you to write what you know, but at the same time portray minorities and produce individual characters, you are often being torn in two directions: toward and away from what you know. The most infamous example comes with Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
This is not the product of racism. This is the product of bad acting, writing and make-up. When I say bad, I don’t mean jarring and awful, but substandard. In short, it’s not good enough to not be obvious. This is what I mean by writing what you know. When you can push the illusion, when everything flows, you are doing something right. To ensure this you might just hire people of the same religion, nationality, skin colour, culture as the character – an easy fix (maybe). But this is nobody’s obligation. If I’m honest, which I have no qualms in being, I’m only interested in Ghost In The Shell because Scarlett Johansson’s in it. She’s a great actress, I love many of her films: Lost In Translation, Don Jon, Under The Skin, Her, even Eight Legged Freaks – not a great film, but I grew up with it. Why? I don’t know. We’re getting off point though. The central idea here comes with paying your way, of proving your worth. The reason why indie films don’t do as good as block busters is, quite obviously, linked to star power and being known. Stars are almost always incredibly talented, impossibly rounded, people. Think Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Emma Stone, Will Smith, Mila Kunis, Brad Pitt, Natalie Portman. We go to see their films because we know there’s a very good chance they will be good. If I say Lubna Azabal, Mads Mikkelsen, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Matthias Schoenaerts, Leila Hatami, Dominique Pinon you may not know who I’m talking about. And when you don’t know these names you don’t know if their films are worth seeing. This isn’t about just about star power or hidden talent though, this is all about writing what you know. We know when Leonardo DiCaprio does what he does, he’s going to blow it out of the park. In other metaphorical words, when he writes what he knows we get his true artistic character.
So, to bring this back to Pulp Fiction, to ask Tarantino not to write what he knows, to give his characters individual voices, is quite possibly asking him to be a worse writer. This is why I have no qualms with his style for almost every single second of his movies. However, in Pulp Fiction Tarantino’s style betrays him and he comes off as a bad writer in a small sections. This comes back to Tarantino being the star of his movies and is mainly about the use of the word ‘nigger’. This is by far the most polarising aspect of his movies and style. This was really emphasised with the release of Django Unchained. In Django I can see Tarantino’s argument pertaining to temporal verisimilitude, meaning, people were likely to say nigger around slaves in the South in the mid 1800s. The real reason no one likes to hear this and questions its usage in the film though comes down to Tarantino himself. We all know he’s a white man with a big personality who seems to be infatuated with black culture, quite specifically, ‘nigger’. I haven’t got an issue with this, but can understand those who do. To feed this into the narrative of the film and bring it all together with the central idea of write what you know, let’s zoom in on Tarantino’s cameo in Pulp Fiction. Now, I know I just said I haven’t got an issue with Tarantino’s use of the word nigger, but in this scene… I’m not even going to say it’s unnecessary or frivolous, it just makes him look stupid. Tarantino can sit at his desk and type nigger a thousand times for the same reason he can type motherfucker, shit, cunt, asshole, dick and so on all he wants. He’s feeding a narrative, a fantasy external to him. When you read said profanities on the page a good writer will not have you visualise themselves writing or saying them when it is not right to do so. The same goes for an actor, we’re not seeing them saying cunt, nigger, asshole, but their character – and only if they’re good. Tarantino is not a great actor. He’s the weakest element of the film in terms of screen presence. Moreover, Jimmie is the worst written character. It makes absolute sense that he’d be pissed when the two gangsters invade his house, but let’s pay attention to gangsters. No one, no one, in their right mind would stand in front of Jules, who has a gun, who has just killed a bunch of kids, who is equally pissed, who could easily kill you and your girlfriend, and say nigger. This is why Tarantino looks and sounds like a fool when he stands in front of Samuel Jackson, in his bath robe, holding a cup of gourmet coffee, saying nigger over and over and over. It doesn’t matter if Jackson hasn’t an issue with this, what matters is character choices. Jimmie, who is afraid of his girlfriend, does not hold the power or stature to say nigger to bloodstained gangster with a gun. As a result what the audience is inclined to do is assume Tarantino just wanted to say nigger, to seem cool, hip and a whole load of other nonsense.
What does this all mean? Well, it all comes down to Tarantino apparently not writing what he knows as both a screenwriter and actor. He should not have been in the roll of Jimmie. This is a major casting issue we will look back on as another…
Which is ultimately quite the shame, but all we can say is bad writing and bad acting. Bad choices. The truth in all of this is that Pulp Fiction is nonetheless a great film, just like Breakfast At Tiffany’s is. It’s faults are obvious, but easy to look past, but what remains is a lesson we should all try and learn something from. And what’s the lesson… write what you know. Get good and doing certain things, practice, know what your strengths and weaknesses are and play to them. This is what good writing is, what it is to produce anything great, it’s knowing your version of things, it’s knowing the best way you can tell a specific story. The ultimate goal here is also not looking like and asshole. When you write what you know you are writing what people expect of you – in a good way. This is not pandering to an audience. It’s trying not to be the class clown with so much potential that he seems to just be wasting. Either way, there’s a lot more to learn from Pulp Fiction in the next post…
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Pulp Fiction – The Line Evil Draws
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