A warning to the masses: I will put spoilers in my commentary. These are not reviews designed to get you interested in a film, so I will discuss important plot points. Before I go into the film itself, I’m going to admit my shamelessness. I decided to write on this film first because I just graduated from UC Santa Cruz about a month ago. It also just so happens that I was in Toluca Lake this past weekend, so this film seemed to be the most fitting for my first commentary.
That being said, I also want to admit that while this isn’t my favorite movie (if I even have one anymore), I really enjoyed this film. Thus, if I do not discuss many negative aspects and this commentary doesn’t seem “balanced”, pardon my fandom.
Ok, so let’s get to it. The first thing that struck me about this film, as it seemed to do with most people I know, is the dialogue. The dialogue is realistic yet never gets boring. Characters are never simply telling each other about their day. They are describing life situations we can all relate to and passing the time with interesting factoids and trivial knowledge (hence “Royale with Cheese”). So why would Tarantino do this? Well, the simple answer is to pass the time as I mentioned before, but that is not the full answer. Going deeper, it gives us, the viewers, character development without all the trite chit-chat about where they grew up, where they went to school (or didn’t) etc. Pulp Fiction takes character development in an interesting direction, allowing us to learn about who the characters are by what they say in general conversation rather than giving us unoriginal speeches about themselves. Also, every line has some kind of purpose. There is no dialogue in this film that does not become important somehow. For instance, Jules’ response to Paul, the bartender when he asks where he got the dorky clothes is “You don’t even want to know”, which leads me to my next point.
If nothing else is achieved by writing this, I at least hope everyone goes back and watches this film to look for all the foreshadowing. Nearly every scene foreshadows something important that is going to happen later. Want an example? How about Lance being out of balloons when Vincent buys heroin. I can’t say I’m experienced with this myself, but apparently it’s common for heroin to be sold in balloons while cocaine is sold in bags. Therefore, Mia overdosing should not be a surprise. Let me be clear though, this film isn’t screaming at you that something important is going to happen. Yes, there is a lot of foreshadowing, but it’s subtle. With the example above, Lance is simply out of balloons to store the heroin. No big deal, until someone mistakes it for cocaine.
Even the music in some cases is used for possible foreshadowing. Before Mia overdoses, she is listening to a song called “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon”. Now, she’s already married and Vincent is in the bathroom talking himself out of trying anything, so we know they’re not going to get it on. However, something must be said for the fact that she has a red spot (or a “cherry”, if you’re so inclined) popped by a needle being held by Vincent. I could be wrong about the sexual imagery, but I usually tell myself stuff like that can’t be intentional and then it turns out it was, so now I just go with it.
However, the music plays a much more important part in the film than simply foreshadowing innuendo. The music was definitely chosen to give the film a certain feeling, and this is pulled off very well. Despite seeming to be in a contemporary setting (Vincent has a cell phone for crying out loud), none of the music is contemporary. From what I’ve been able to find, most of the music from this film is from the 70s. Why is this important, you ask? Well again, it goes back to creating a certain feeling. This film calls back to older gangster movies and stories in a semi-nostalgic way, and using contemporary music would destroy that mood. Everything is nostalgic and old school despite seemingly being set in mid-90s Los Angeles.
Alright, now I get to talk about my favorite thing in this film. The mise-en-scene (excuse my French…and that bad joke). One thing I loved about this film is how much it draws you in with the shot, but then throws you right back out again. There are a few shots where you are in the same situation as the character, and thus get an idea of what they are feeling at the moment. For instance, when Vincent Vega is wandering through Jack Rabbit Slims, it is an extremely long, meandering shot, highlighting the disorienting feeling Vincent has as he tries to center himself in this semi-chaotic wonderland of sorts. However, the best part of the cinematography is how the movie throws you back out of the realm of the film. There are numerous scenes shot with the camera facing an open door, watching the characters interact with each other in the opposite room. Like this shot:
And this one:
And even this one:
This might not seem important, but that is where you would be wrong. Remember what Jules says to Paul about the clothes? That line is doing the same exact thing these shots are doing: telling us that we are not supposed see what we are seeing (or in the case of Jules’ line, what we will see). We are constantly being reminded that we do not belong to this world, and we are simply here to watch and see what it is like. While we will never be a part of it, this is what it is truly like whether we like what we see or not. This is the film’s way of reminding us that what we are seeing is not meant for the eyes of normal people, so once we get a good hard look we have to go home. We are voyeurs, and we are not entirely welcome.
However, there is still more to be said about the “mise-en-scene” in this film. Let’s think about the title for a second: Pulp Fiction. It is defined at the beginning of the film as “A book containing lurid subject matter, and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper”. Obviously, this is not a book, it is a film. This did not stop Tarantino from giving us that gritty, unfinished feeling. Remember the scene where Butch is picked up by the cab driver?
Take a look at the background. Notice anything? 1) It’s blurry. 2) It’s in black and white. It’s beyond obvious that it isn’t real. It is gritty. It is unfinished. This is done in a similar fashion when Vincent drives to pick up Mia.
While the background is in color this time, it is definitely not clear, and it is not supposed to be. Tarantino doesn’t mess around, we all know this. If he’s going to make a movie and call it Pulp Fiction, he’s going to make sure it is the visual equivalent of that crappy paper. If that does not earn your respect, I don’t know what will. With that, do yourself a favor and go watch the movie.
*Note: I do not own the rights to this movie, so I am in no way claiming that I do by using screenshots or youtube clips.