For starters, you might ask: why? Several personal reasons, I won’t bore you with the details, but in general it interested me to try to flex my basic film analysis muscles, and these two films presented themselves to me as an interesting exercise in contrast and comparison. Both films were released in 1994; both of them grossed in the top 10 of the domestic box office; both were critically acclaimed and won prestigious awards (Forrest Gump at the Oscars, Pulp Fiction at Cannes); both of them bear a sizeable cultural weight as landmarks of the American culture in the 1990s and after; and I’ve seen both of them quite a few times. The ongoing discussions you can have about high art and low art, about critical appeal versus commercial success, about violence, language, family-friendly values, about longevity, and about the way that America sees itself on the screen, can all get a lot of fuel from looking at these two films that came out in 1994 and asking: what was Forrest Gump doing that made it so damn satisfying to American audiences, and what was Pulp Fiction doing that made it so damn satisfying to American audiences, and what do the stark differences in the way that these films operate (if, in fact, those differences are so stark) say about the different needs the American consciousness had at the time?
At any given time, the culture needs to express itself a certain way, it has to work some shit out, and luckily for us, a big part of how it works that shit out is through Hollywood, a towering, pervasive, popular structure of disseminating cultural images for quick consumption and for posterity, for commercial and artistic reasons. I’m sure all of this has been said elsewhere, and more eloquently too, but if you’re interested in bearing with me, I’m going to take what I know and just kind of haphazardly apply it to these films. It won’t be academic—hell, it might not even be that insightful—but it’ll be fun for me.
Forrest Gump (USA, 1994)
Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction were two of the biggest critical and commercial successes of 1994, and of the 90’s in general. Both films were in the top ten domestic box office for the year, and both were nominated for and won Academy Awards. Of the two, Forrest Gump was the “official” success—it reached number one at the box office for 1994 and it won several Oscars including Best Picture—but Pulp Fiction was arguably the bigger cultural landmark, having been embraced as both a pop- and counter-culture watershed. While Forrest Gump remains a family staple on TV repeats, Pulp Fiction remains a “cult” favourite (to throw the word around haphazardly), whose iconic film poster still adorns college dorm rooms everywhere. Pulp Fiction was made for the aware, sophisticated, world-weary viewer (in a Tarantino context where sophistication and world-weariness comes to those who watch prodigious amounts of TV and movies rather than actually doing anything). On the other hand, Forrest Gump was a sincere attempt to soothe over America’s tumultuous latter half of the 20th century, to use film as a quasi-religious, ritualistic, deeply symbolic catharsis for real trauma. “Saint Forrest”, though played by a well-known actor, was almost a mythical figure to believe in: submit to the two and half hours of the movie and you will be unburdened, you will be, by the end, as light as the feather floating gracefully in a painfully obvious symbolic way throughout the opening and closing of the film.
The two films thus suggest a clean demarcation between “naïve” and “skeptical” viewers, but keep in mind that both films did well in box office numbers, both were critical hits, so it’s likely that we’re talking about the same audience to a certain extent. Pulp Fiction is an exercise in intertextuality, a film made as a kind of self-conscious game for the savvy viewer who’s seen plots unfold, character types develop, etc—it’s a movie that wears itself, as a movie, on its own sleeve. And yet, perhaps the root of its overwhelming success, like Forrest Gump, is its core sincerity. No matter how farfetched things get in Pulp Fiction, no matter how close the film comes to winking at the camera, no one literally winks in the camera; the basic Classic Hollywood rules are kept intact in order to sustain the illusion that what you are seeing is somehow still real. Pulp Fiction was a strong and noteworthy example of the dualism that came to typify Hollywood cinema in the preceding decades—a firmly detached sense of awareness of the contrived nature of the images being shown on screen, accompanied by a nominally incompatible but still somehow functional suspension of disbelief to allow the audience to sustain an emotional bond with the drama, however self-aware the drama might be. Pulp Fiction revelled in the dual-operation ushered in with the infantile pretend-fantasy of Star Wars and continuing into the early 21st century’s CGI-enabled glut of children’s fantasy and sci-fi adaptations and comic book superheroes: the old Freudian chestnut of fetishistic disavowal—“I know very well, but…” I know that this is fake, I know that this is a pulp genre film adhering to stock Hollywood conventions, I know that this film is working some trickery and manipulation on me, I know that the magician can’t actually pull a rabbit out of a hat, but I’m willing to pretend that I do believe in order to experience the effect of being amazed.
Of course, the question to ask ourselves is: was all of this psychic double-think really Pulp Fiction’s doing? Tarantino certainly didn’t invent this tendency, nor was he its sole practitioner. In fact, Forrest Gump’s success resulted from employing a similar tactic, although to a slightly different end. By inserting Tom Hanks into “real” news footage alongside JFK, LBJ, Nixon, John Lennon, etc, the film blatantly shows the viewer, in a particularly noticeable and attention-grabbing way, how movies work to create a grand illusion in order to fabricate authenticity. Arguably, all of the adults in the audience—nominally the film’s baby-boomer target demographic—were fully aware of the cultural moments invoked in the film for the fictional Gump to blunder through in his graceful way. The film’s playful fake-ness, interspersing modern day Tom Hanks into the historical events and the archival news footage, relied for its effectiveness on the audience’s personal nostalgic memories associated with those historical events. In other words, the audience was aware that the special effects fabrications, and the whole film, was a construct intended to work through and make sense of and neutralize the volatile and confusing memories of mid-to-late 20th century American history. Any adult viewer in the 1994 audience would have been aware of the “magic tricks” of cinema and of ideology, and they submitted to it willingly, and were grateful to the movie for its trickery.
Certainly, the average viewer wasn’t (and isn’t) consciously aware of all of the contents of the ideology being transmitted to them, but especially where Tom Hanks is inserted into real news footage, they couldn’t help but see that what they were being shown on screen was a fiction, the result of choices established to create an effect. What is interesting is that, in the modern era, the viewer submits herself to be effected upon, she goes to the movies or watches at home, in order to allow a film to work its magic, and for an ideological project to be deployed in order to enact some mythical story upon her brain. We live in an age where every viewer grew up with the television, and increasingly, with the internet. The mythology was always dead, inert, contrived and arbitrary to us, but we still go to movies in record numbers (the majority of box office records are made by modern films). Modern cinema and television is almost always self-conscious and aimed at people who want to see a fiction. The majority of “deception” that comes today is in “reality TV”, where many viewers still mistake what they see for detached, unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall reality. However, even the most naïve reality TV viewer will understand that Law and Order and House are “fake”, because American Idol and Duck Dynasty are “real”.
Forrest Gump the film asks the audience to suspend its cynicism, to be a child—or, like Forrest Gump, a man with the mind of a child, permanently in a state of arrested development, with some kind of developmental disability, unnamed (he’s “slow”), and all the more noble and endearing for its avoidance of real-world problems. (An interesting thought experiment: imagine this film operating while attributing Forrest’s “slowness” to a specific developmental disability like FAS, Down’s Syndrome, etc.) Similarly, the world that Forrest is shown to gracefully glide through is a version of mid-20th century America made palatable and sanitary for its lack of specificity. The generation-defining issue of Southern racism and segregation, the root causes of the Civil Rights Movement, of the race riots, etc, are reduced in this film to a few humourous misunderstandings about the words “coon”/“raccoon”, and to a black lady dropping her purse, which Forrest picks up, unintentionally making a grand political gesture. Forrest maintains his grace by bumbling through these encounters, but these encounters are cherry-picked so obviously to avoid depicting anything actually very upsetting about the mid-20th century. The stakes are deliberately very low here.
Forrest’s ignorance is his virtue, but the audience would have a harder time swallowing Forrest’s ignorance as a virtue if they had to see a black person chased with a pickup truck full of rednecks rather than little Forrest, or if the KKK were depicted as a contemporaneous group in mid-century America that actually burned black people to death, rather than as a humorous aside to show us in a throwaway gag how Forrest got his name (and to show off the film’s first shot of trick photography), or if Forrest had to see a black man hanging from a tree, and take in that information, and then to go on bumbling his way around without actually doing anything about it. As a figure of cathartic working-through, the character Forrest works so well because he doesn’t actually have to work through anything of significance.
Compare Forrest Gump and his response to the critical problems of his day to Casablanca’s Rick Blaine, and you’ll get an idea of what I’m driving at. Forrest doesn’t have to decide whether to get involved in solving the problems of his day, whether and how to take action, to take a stance against segregation and Southern racism, to take a stance about the war in Vietnam, or gender politics, or anything else. For Rick Blaine, his avoidance of choice was a character fault, a result of selfish cowardice that the narrative of Casablanca worked to explicitly expose and reform. Here, Forrest is set up from the beginning as one who is incapable of making a choice, and indeed, incapable of even understanding the importance of the events happening around him. The only thing to do is “Run, Forrest, run.” Forrest cannot ever know what he is running from, or understand the gravity of racial segregation in his native Alabama, or the gravity of why JFK and “that nice man’s brother” and all the other nice men, got shot “for no particular reason,” or why there are Americans fighting in Vietnam and why there are Vietnamese people trying to kill him, why his friend Bubba is killed, or why Jenny is so sad and distant, or really anything at all. But, as he tells Jenny, and all of us, in his character’s high-drama climax, “I may not be a smart man but I know what love is”, and we are meant to feel that this is the only important thing worth knowing. Love conquers all, as long as you keep running and don’t stop to think about what’s going on around you.
Setting aside for now any observations that may come from comparing the needs that Casablanca’s narrative responded to in 1942 America and the needs that idiotic Forrest responded to in 1994 America, I’ll just say that all of this escapist fantasy stuff should come as no surprise for anyone even remotely familiar with mainstream Hollywood cinema. The primary preoccupation in Robert Ray’s book A Certain Tendency in the American Cinema is the preponderance and promotion and recurrence of the “avoidance of choice” in Hollywood cinema—the accommodation of two mutually exclusive sets of values, reconciled through movie magic. Fifteen years after Ray wrote that book, in 1994, Forrest Gump does nothing but continue to affirm that tendency in American cinema. The contradiction at the heart of the film promotes this “having it both ways” fantasy that so constitutes Hollywood narratives as to make it practically definitive of the term “Hollywood” itself.
One of the first things we hear from Forrest is: “Mama always told me life was like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get.” This becomes the central refrain of the movie, and it’s tied to Forrest’s strange odyssey throughout 60’s and 70’s America, the floating feather, American history, all of it. But the film also confronts Forrest with the character of Lt. Dan, played by Gary Sinise, whose close affinity with American history and wars constitute what he considers his “destiny”—to die honourably on the battlefield like so many of his ancestors. For Lt. Dan, life is very unlike a box of chocolates (or rather, very much like a modern day box of chocolates where a pictorial guide to each chocolate’s ingredients is included). Lt. Dan knows exactly what he’s gonna get: death on the battlefield. Except that Forrest, whimsical feather that he is, disrupts all of that, and provides a major source of conflict in the movie (more on that later).
So then, we have the two competing theological concerns of the narrative, which the narrative itself is fairly ambivalent about, weighing in more on one side, then on the other, until finally, culminating in Forrest’s reckoning of his life, trying to simplify everything in a nice, neat, Hollywood fashion. Crying at the grave of his poor Jenny, Forrest tells us that he’s not sure who to believe: maybe Mama’s right, that life is a chaotic mess of unpredictable elements coming at you that you need to navigate spontaneously and gracefully, like a feather in the wind, or maybe Lt. Dan is right, and everyone has a destiny predetermined ahead of time by history or God or what-have-you, and that any deviation from that path is an intolerable catastrophe. In true Hollywood fashion, Forrest doesn’t make that choice, summarizing: “I think that maybe it’s both.” If that sounds like nonsense to you, if your rational brain notices that it’s impossible to accommodate two contradictory elements simultaneously, then you obviously weren’t immersed in the narrative and its Hollywood fantasy. As a viewer, you’re not supposed to recoil from Forrest’s summary as nonsense, but instead, you’re supposed to feel warmed by the inspirational and touching nature of the Hollywood fantasy at work. The narrative, like most Hollywood narratives, certainly has no problem accommodating both viewpoints. Lt. Dan grows past the bitterness at being “robbed” of his destiny, and even becomes grateful to Forrest for saving his life and giving him an unexpected opportunity to make a new life. On the other hand, the film suggests that Forrest’s epic run across America, embracing chance encounters and spontaneous living, floating like a feather in the wind, “inspiring people”, was in fact his destiny.
“Who is that idiot?”
Audience identification with the protagonist is, of course, an essential ingredient in any Hollywood hit. Without it, a film draws complaints of ambiguity, distance, or the recurring gripe in modern times, hurled at everything from There Will Be Blood to Breaking Bad—“I didn’t find the characters sympathetic.” We have to see ourselves in the characters onscreen, and Forrest Gump does that in a lot of ways (and which we’ll contrast with Pulp Fiction later).
Overall, the film does a pretty good job of aligning us squarely with Forrest’s point of view, as most of the shots in the entire film have Forrest in them. However, the very small number of shots that don’t have Forrest in them are revealing of what Forrest doesn’t know, but which the film wants us to know: namely, the cutaways of Jenny going in the van with hippies, and Jenny snorting coke from a mirror and attempting suicide while “Freebird” plays in the background. Everything else in the movie is something that Forrest sees firsthand, or something that he’s been told about and has to make sense of in his watered-down, idiotic way. Basically, the film wants us to know that Jenny has lost her innocence, but Forrest has to remain gracefully ignorant of that fact. In this sense, it’s Jenny more than Lt. Dan who stands for America (in this case, the mythical, self-image of “America”). Jenny is everything about that Baby Boomer period that was negative; she’s too real, too much to confront: child abuse, the fracturing of the family, drug abuse, implied (but not shown) promiscuity, and implied (but not stated) AIDS, which kills her. The inexplicit cause of her death, as well, points to her sacrificial, symbolic nature—it’s her promiscuous ways, drug use, etc, her loss of innocence in general, and in even more general terms, her knowledge and experience of the difficult nature of the 60’s and 70’s that kills her. In this sense, she really is the sacrificial lamb of the film, and in this sense, she represents the “America” of the postwar era, the good parts that died.
But really, in keeping with Forrest’s nonsense theology later, it’s both, because while Jenny, the fallen woman, is the sacrificial victim of the narrative (and of American history itself), Lt. Dan is the part of America who’s broken, but who rises and moves on, learning to live with his wounds. Jenny is closer to Forrest, the love interest, and she represents everything that America sees in itself that it would like to forget. In this narrative where Forrest’s strength is his blindness to the horrors and injustice of the modern world, where his ignorance is his superpower that gets him through unscathed, it only makes sense that Jenny’s lack of blindness, her awareness, her perception of the evils of the world around her, is what kills her in the film, what compromises her in the eyes of the narrative. Curiously, the political divide of the film is also along those neat lines. Jenny joins the hippie movement, she is liberal with drugs, sex and rock and roll. Forrest, after literally running into the middle of a football game, is sent through college on a football scholarship, after which he is whisked away, as if by a force of nature, into the war in Vietnam.
The same unthinking acquiescence that dictates Forrest’s every action in the film also sends him to fight in Vietnam where, of course, to our knowledge, he never actually has to kill anyone, or to bear witness to any of the My Lai-type atrocities providing the basis for the tremendous anti-war movement that we see later on. Again, the stakes are very low. Riding this wave of college, military, and war service, Forrest passively discovers that he’s an expert ping-pong player, becomes an Olympic athlete, and ventures into the shrimping business, for no reason other than to fulfill a promise to his dead friend. In fact, when Forrest starts running across America, it’s the first time we get a sense that Forrest is doing something that he actually wants to do, something he does on a whim, not because someone recruits him, or because of a promise, but simply “for no particular reason.” But, crucially, Forrest’s strongest act of personal agency doesn’t come in response to any of the horrible traumas that he’s seen throughout his life, it doesn’t result from a desire to right the wrongs of 50’s, 60’s and 70’s America. Explicitly, the news reporters seem foolish for asking him if he’s running for world peace, for the environment, for nuclear disarmament, etc. It’s meant to be funny and inspiring when he responds: “I just felt like running!” Again, it’s the vacant-minded, arbitrary nature of the gesture that makes it so powerful, arguably the most triumphant part of the movie, the part of this “feel-good movie” that feels the best.
This running sequence, in fact, brings us back to the absence of choice, when you reflect that the only meaningful choice Forrest makes in the entire strange journey that constitutes his life, is the decision to run. Running is Forrest’s saving grace: it saves him from the bullies, as a child and a teenager, it sends him through college on a football scholarship, it saves his life in Vietnam and makes him a war hero (and by extension, an Olympic athlete—why not?), and in the final section of the movie, it gives him worldwide fame, it “gives people hope,” the closest that the film comes to explicitly linking Forrest’s idiocy to a purifying, religious ritual for Baby-Boomer America. In this section, which allows Forrest (and us) to see the beauty of the American landscape like a series of picture postcards, it’s Forrest’s lack of purpose, the empty meaninglessness of his activity, that makes it such an incredibly important, meaningful gesture within the parameters of the upside-down, wish-fulfillment logic of the film.
Of course, the act of running is highly symbolic in itself, as well. It is of the utmost importance that Forrest is running rather than, say, walking, driving, swimming, eating hotdogs or playing chess, or any other feat of strength or competitive activity. Another annoying catch phrase spawned from the movie is Jenny’s refrain: “Run, Forrest, run!” Keeping in mind the rest of the movie, the message is clear: move forward, uncritically, ignorantly, with no intention, with no particular care or thought to what’s happening around you. The problems of the past—the entire confusing, distressing, country-changing period depicted in this film—can, in and with and through this film, be simply out-run. It goes without saying that Forrest never looks back, because that, of course, would defeat the whole purpose. Forrest is not dwelling on the past; even though he is taking us through history, he is actively fleeing it, mindlessly bulldozing through it, like he humourously bulldozes through the poor marching band during his big football game. The film invokes the postwar American period, from the 50’s to the 80’s, in order to gloss over and glide through it. Forrest Gump would have us look back at the past in order to celebrate never having to reckon with the truly difficult parts of the past; it would have us participate in the token ritual of reckoning with history without actually having to do any of it (and, God help me, at this late point in the essay, this is not entirely dissimilar from Zizek’s concept of the Tibetan prayer wheel—ah, fuck it).
Pulp Fiction (USA, 1994)
Pulp Fiction certainly isn’t running from the past, but it does keep those difficult parts of the postwar period at arm’s length by replacing the palpable reverence and earnestness that typifies Forrest Gump with a palpable irreverence and ironic detachment that became synonymous with Tarantino’s work. And what is truly interesting is that, as noted above, the audiences for these divergent approaches to contemporary America’s reckoning with its past likely contained a lot of crossover, so that, if we can remark at how satisfying it was for a 1994 audience to watch Forrest Gump glide through recent history like a feather in the wind, we must also look at how and why it was satisfying to watch everything sacred and nostalgic about the postwar period be successively and playfully taken down several pegs. Thus, if Forrest Gump is a forceful gesture of myth-making, building up “Saint Forrest” as a ritualistic figure to cathartically massage the postwar crisis of American identity through Hollywood wish fulfillment, then Pulp Fiction is a series of equally grand gestures towards undermining the mythologizing process of cinema by exposing the relationship of cinema to reality not as a natural, given phenomenon, but as something thoroughly determined and mediated through multiple layers of encoded meaning, filtered endlessly through pop culture, reverberating in an echo chamber of TV, music, and other films. Of further interest is the fact that, no matter how many pegs Pulp Fiction can take the culture down, no matter how much the film exposes Hollywood myth-making as an arbitrary process, heavily mediated by cultural interpretations, and no matter how much Pulp Fiction points to itself as another instance of cultural mediation, the film still manages to function as a successful and satisfying example of contemporary Hollywood mythology in itself (thus further validating Ray’s own thoughts on the “certain tendency” of the essential conservatism of Hollywood’s narrative forms).
Rewind and Fast Forward
Robert Ray talked about the emergence of the “naïve” and “skeptical” viewer, and even though I stated before that there’s a certain amount of both viewer in both films, it’s clear that everything that Ray ascribed to the modern, postwar, skeptical viewer seems to ring far truer for Tarantino than it does for little old Forrest. Ray outlines how the prevalence of television led to a plethora of exposures to multiple mythical forms, some done well and some poorly, in a small box in the living room, thus removed of any special context, and how that combination of repetition and de-contextualization, only exacerbated by home video, cable and satellite TV (and now, the internet), revealed the inner workings of the mythology as something arbitrary and man-made instead of something sacred and permanent, thus inviting the irreverence, parody, self-consciousness and ironic detachment that people used to call “postmodern”, but which now is taken for granted as an everyday operation in mainstream culture.
Put another way, Pulp Fiction’s stylistic and narrative choices can almost be read as a textbook opposite to the Classic Hollywood approach (as summarized by Ray), which emphasizes the effacement of the choice-driven nature of cinema, both formally and thematically, so that the myriad creative choices of what to show and how to show it appear mostly without the audience’s awareness—the “invisible style”—just as the stock Hollywood resolution of two or more sets of mutually exclusive values are reconciled in order to render invisible the imperative of choice in thematic terms as well. Forrest Gump (as with most Hollywood films) is stylistically and thematically much closer in line to this Classical precedent of the effacement of choice. In contrast, Pulp Fiction, even at its barest structural level, is a celebration of the disruptive interference inherent in cinema, of the deliberately constructed nature of film, and the wide range of creative choices that go into constructing the filmic text.
Pulp Fiction not only refrains from effacing these choices, not only does it go out of its way to display these choices, but it relies on the display of these choices for a great deal of its impact and functioning. Starting at the beginning, with its title card—a deliberately conspicuous and old-fashioned cinematic device—showing a dictionary definition of the dual meanings of the world “pulp” (both a type of coarse paper and the kind of story usually printed on such paper), and continuing with the other title cards, dividing the film into three “chapters,” as in a novel, the film makes its audience plainly aware that they are watching a narrative: a deliberately planned sequence of events, made all the more deliberate-seeming by their non-chronological presentation. We can see that, even in its bare structure, the film wants us to consume the narrative events, and to see the characters depicted, in brackets, as it were. And while Tarantino refrains from excessive use of camera “tricks”—slow motion, fast motion, colour filters, etc—the deviations from standard Hollywood grammar are clearly meant to ensure that the audience doesn’t read the film as “real,” but as a film. The few instances of obvious camera manipulation include the animated dotted-line “square” that Mia (Uma Thurman) draws on the screen with her fingers just before the nostalgia restaurant sequence, the few instances of “sunburst” effect functioning as a fade between cuts (but also visually representing blood, as it usually accompanies a violent scene), and brief uses of slow motion, such as the shot of Butch (Bruce Willis) entering the sex dungeon wielding his samurai sword. While the latter two examples are editing tricks that could easily pass for “invisible,” fitting seamlessly in the narrative to complement the natural emotional tension, the animated dotted square is more deliberately playful. The other truly jarring visual cue is also a thematic element—the glowing light inside of the briefcase—but more on that later.
Perhaps more than any other Tarantino film, this film’s diverse cast and fragmented chronology confirm the suspicions of philosophers and “cultural theory” critics in their assertions of a postmodern lack of center—of a de-centering tendency—shifting significations, etc, rather than the traditional solidity of irrefutable cultural core values and interpretations of events, and moral rightness of “heroes” in the classical tradition. This is all the more evident when we compare this film’s characterization and audience identifications with that of Forrest Gump. In Forrest Gump, we see a fairly strict fidelity to classic rules: a single character, to whose point of view and range of knowledge the narrative adheres quite closely, and with whom the audience is encouraged to identify and to empathize. Of course, in Pulp Fiction, we get a multitude of protagonists, whose points of view are introduced at various stages in the narrative, to the extent that it’s actually more accurate to refer to several narratives in this film, and all of whom bear a more complicated relationship to the audience and to our attempts at “identifying” with them (again, more on that later).
A brief summary of the broadest structures of the overall plot will better illustrate the point. The film is composed of three named “chapters”, preceded by one brief pre-credits sequence, and one untitled “prologue” chapter, both of which play into the chronology of the following three chapters. In the pre-credit sequence, we see an ordinary diner and two hoods planning a stick-up, to which we will return at the very end of the film. After this, we get an untitled “prologue” features Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta), beginning a train of action that is interrupted one third of the way through, and only resumed in the third chapter. In the film’s first chapter—“Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife”—the first characters we see are neither Vincent Vega nor Mia Wallace, but rather Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames, or at least, the back of his head), and the prizefighter Butch, the protagonist of the second chapter. The conversation between Wallace and Butch forms the basis of the conflict in the next chapter, and in turn, the small antagonistic exchange between Vincent and Butch at the bar in this chapter opens up a narrative strand that will be closed at the end of the second chapter. Likewise, the events between Vincent and Mia in this first chapter underpin the significance of the brief salutary moment between the two in the second chapter. Further, seeing Vincent Vega gunned down in the second chapter effects how we view the third chapter, where we know that he’s already dead, allowing our attention to focus on Jules, the central figure of the third chapter. Thus, as engrossing and effective as the narrative is, it is always seeking to unseat the viewer, to remind the viewer that what they are watching is the product of deliberate choices, like shaking a dreamer awake from a dream.
Just as the film wears its postmodernism on its sleeve in its stylistic choices, so too does it call attention to itself as a cultural product. The film is rife with casual references to specific television characters, movies and music, mostly from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Pop culture is arguably the language of the film, the language that the characters use to make sense of their lives, even though they live in a stylized gangster underworld. In a single scene, the final diner scene of Chapter Three, the character Jules makes three such references in a ten-minute span: the popular television drama Kung Fu, the popular character Fonzie from the sitcom Happy Days, and the drummer for the Beatles, Ringo Starr. The dialogue of the entire movie is rife with quick references like this, and the soundtrack, full of classic rock n’ roll, surf, and funk hits from the 60’s and 70’s, serve as an almost non-stop jukebox, either heightening the dramatic tension of the moment, or undercutting it with counterpoint. These pop cultural references continually remind the viewer that the film they are watching is itself a representation, one of the millions of representations of American life that every American, like Tarantino, would have grown up watching, and in that way, it holds up a peculiar kind of mirror to the culture—like the trick of the mirror looking into an infinity of mirrors.
This pop-cultural aspect, wherein Tarantino filled the dialogue with fast-paced conversations laced with relatable pop culture ephemera, was one of the major appeals of the film. Even though the characters engaging in this trivial banter are hardened criminals—drug dealers, assassins, etc—their conversations are typically focused on some mundane aspect of mainstream consumer culture that the audience could easily relate to, such as the now famous introductory conversation between Jules and Vincent about McDonald’s hamburgers. Unlike the heightened and distanced social milieu that accompanies other crime films like Goodfellas or Scarface, where the characters were mostly concerned with the details of the diegesis itself—the encroachment of rival gangsters, the risk of police involvement, the planning of a heist, etc—in Pulp Fiction, all of the details of this fictional criminal empire, under the umbrella of the largely off-screen Marcellus Wallace, are muted in favour of more trivial topics, easily relatable to the average viewer.
In the “prologue” sequence, we see the clearest example of how the film steers the viewer’s gaze away from the self-conscious “movie” conventions and more towards everyday trivia. In this sequence, Jules and Vincent confront some “regular” types, who are obviously (and humourously) not career criminals, about a business deal gone wrong. We grasp that, generally, these individuals fell behind on a payment to the big crime boss, Wallace, and that Jules and Vincent as the gangster’s hired assassins, are there to collect; however, the actual dialogue is more concerned with the relative merits of different fast-food hamburgers. This absence of explicit information about the criminal activities of the gangsters becomes especially conspicuous when Vincent opens the briefcase that they came to retrieve. The briefcase is the film’s most jarring postmodern device: in addition to being a direct reference to the classic crime noir Kiss Me Deadly (which most mainstream viewers wouldn’t recognize), it satirizes the conspicuous “MacGuffin” of Hollywood plotlines, an object whose sole purpose is to provide motivation for the narrative events. In this case, the functioning of the joke is made evident to the viewer because of Tarantino’s refusal to show what is inside the briefcase, only allowing characters to open it with the contents facing away from the camera, with the added effect of a strong orange light emanating from the hidden object. This object is a quasi-mystical object, momentarily mesmerizing whatever character looks inside the briefcase, bathing them in the mysterious orange glow; its jarring lack of realism threatens to derail the film into cartoonish self-parody.
This device of the conspicuous “MacGuffin” briefcase is perhaps the element of the film that is most directly playful with and critical of the audience’s cultivated expectations for a piece of cinema. These gangsters are not regular film gangsters; their criminal underworld is not like a stock Hollywood criminal underworld. Their existence as gangsters is only a means of drawing the viewer in, of providing the narrative with an impetus, with an exciting angle of escapism. The characters themselves, though, are completely grounded in the relatable, identifiable trivia of everyday life. Jules and Vincent and the other characters, though they speak with an unmistakable Tarantino flair, are essentially speaking the common vernacular of the audience: their concerns are the audience’s concerns. The film isn’t concerned with diamonds, drug money, a microchip, or any other far-fetched plot device—it’s a glowing light inside a briefcase, and it’s fast-food hamburgers. And while the drama of the film is ostensibly about codes of honour among lawbreakers, those narrative turns feel meaningful largely because the characters are grounded in this vernacular of consumer trivia.
“Ha ha, they’re your clothes, motherfucker.”
The peculiar dual gesture of grounding the gangster protagonists in the vernacular of the accessible, unglamourous pop-culture mainstream of the audience while simultaneously exalting those protagonists above that mainstream, accessible world generates a strange process of identification-via-repulsion. We can see this clearly when we contrast the depictions of the gangster protagonists with the depictions of the “ordinary” people, the regular citizens, in whom the overall narrative has basically no interest, but who nonetheless occupy the film’s gaze for a handful of select, brief, yet demonstrative moments. In the relatively straightforward Forrest Gump, audience identification is aligned squarely with Forrest, and spread slightly around him to the supporting characters of Jenny and Lt. Dan. Every one of the “ordinary” bystanders in that movie, taking up brief residence at Forrest’s bus stop, is meant to stand in for the ordinary viewer and, as mentioned before, the entire narrative is meant to be a proxy for the individual “narratives” of the primarily Baby-Boomer audience of the time in order to cathartically reconcile the complicated and conflicting events of the postwar decades, from the 50’s to the 90’s. In contrast, Pulp Fiction’s process of identification—already more complex owing to its relatively large cast and disjunctive chronology—relies on a peculiar double gesture, explicitly invoking the audience themselves in the identification process, only to reject them.
The film’s shorthand for conveying this separation of the gangster protagonists from the ordinary citizens is the use of the wardrobe and overall style of the two. One of the most immediately striking things about the movie is the fact that the two core gangsters, Jules and Vincent (like the gangsters in Reservoir Dogs) dress themselves in simple black and white suits. The suits not only formalize the gangsters, immediately elevating them against the regular guys whom they intimidate in the opening hamburger sequence, but they also serve to place them outside of the fashion dictates of the modern (1994) period, a function also served by Jules’ explicitly 70’s afro hairstyle. In that opening scene, Jules mockingly refers to one of the ordinary guys as “Flock of Seagulls” because of his absurd haircut, denigrating him for sporting an explicitly out of date hairstyle, but also firmly putting him in a lower status position in the esteem of the film. With his own outdated afro haircut, Jules seems all the more intimidating, as if daring us, the viewer, to judge him in a mocking manner the way that he is judging “Flock of Seagulls.” This coding along fashionable lines is less explicit in the rest of the gangster characters, but even Butch, the most modestly dressed criminal protagonist, looks fairly neutral, and not directly laughable, the way that other characters, in bathrobes and slippers, are meant to be explicitly slovenly and unfashionable later in the film.
Of course, the film’s use of wardrobe to signal the separation of gangster protagonist from ordinary law-abiding citizen is not itself terribly unusual: for example, the whole point of Goodfellas is to show the discrepancy between Henry Hill’s stylish gangster lifestyle in the majority of the film, and the humdrum, 9-5 life that becomes his court ordered sentence under Witness Protection. In the final shot of Henry Hill picking up the morning paper from his doorstep, the housecoat and slippers he’s wearing is meant to produce a jarring contrast with the expensive suits he was wearing for most of the film as a wealthy gangster. This depiction of Henry provides the film with a substantial amount of its social commentary, opening the conversation of whether or not the film glorifies the gangster lifestyle, nodding to historical genre obligations to show that “crime doesn’t pay”, but also showing that the ordinary lifestyle of the common viewer is a worthy punishment for a career criminal. The crucial point there is that his humdrum 9-5 life that he lives as punishment is essentially identical to the everyday lives of the vast majority of audience members. The gangster genre has always functioned by separating the “square” world of ordinary citizens from the exciting, exotic outlaw lifestyle of its gangster protagonists, and even though Pulp Fiction is definitely not a straightforward genre picture, it’s definitely barking up that tree—its various protagonists are all skirting the law, inhabiting a criminal fraternity (however fictitious and stylized that criminal fraternity is).
However, in addition to this separation between the stylized gangsters and the ordinary, law-abiding citizens, Pulp Fiction establishes a hierarchy between the two groups, denigrating and mocking the ordinary citizens much more explicitly than typical gangster pictures. We can see this sartorial hierarchy expressed most explicitly in the scene featuring Tarantino himself as an “ordinary,” non-gangster character, Jimmy, who agrees to help Jules and Vincent when they unexpectedly need to clean a dead body from the back of their car. The gangsters have accidentally shot someone in their car, leaving a great mess, and they impose on Jimmy early in the morning, catching him in a housecoat and slippers, in stark contrast to the sleek, two-tone suits that Jules and Vincent have been sporting throughout the film, but which are now covered in blood. Their boss, Wallace, sends another impeccably dressed gangster, Mister Wolf, to help dispose of the car and neutralize the situation. Wolf and Jimmy bond together in a humourous exchange after Jules and Vincent have changed into Jimmy’s spare clothes: unfashionable and ill-fitting gym shorts and colourful, thrift store t-shirts. Surveying the two gangsters, now without their suits and thus robbed of the major visual signifier of their status as “cool” movie gangsters, they try to summarize what the new clothes signify:
WOLF: Gentlemen, you look like…What do they look like, Jimmy?
JIMMY: Dorks. They look like dorks.
The two characters share a hearty laugh, as does the audience, in what is clearly meant to be one of the high points of humour in the film. However, the next line, swept aside as a minor piece of dialogue to end the scene, provides a key to understanding the film’s dual operation of audience involvement. Immediately after Jimmy declares that the two gangster protagonists are now, burdened with “ordinary”, unstylish clothes, reduced to the status of “dorks”, Jules grumbles a comeback: “Ha ha, they’re your clothes, motherfucker.” In the language of Pulp Fiction, Henry Hill from Goodfellas is reduced to a “dork” at the end of the film, but unlike Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction’s depiction of its gangsters as “dorks” isn’t meant to invoke a conversation about genre, or crime and punishment, and it isn’t meant to provide the film with a high point of dramatic contrast. Instead, Jules and Vincent’s informal, slovenly appearance is fuel for humour, a punch line to an ongoing joke which, as we will see, buoys the entire film.
This invocation of “ordinariness” purely for the sake of denigration and mockery recurs at several points in the film. As mentioned before, the focus of the film is the core group of gangster protagonists, but this focus is dramatically narrow, to the extent that non-gangsters are almost invisible in the film except for instances where they are threatened, intimidated, robbed, or have explicit violence visited upon them by one of the gangster protagonists. All of the “dorks” in the prologue scene eating their Big Kahuna burgers are shot to death by Jules and Vincent (and poor Marvin’s accidental decapitation in the car provides extra humour). In the second chapter, after Butch crashes his car into Wallace, we see several bystanders, regular citizens in average, un-stylish contemporary 1994 clothes,coming to Butch’s aid to ice his nose, one of them (played by comedian Kathy Griffith) volunteering to be a witness. They quickly run in terror as Wallace begins shooting at Butch; we get a particularly explicit shot of one of the bystanders catching a stray bullet, screaming in agony, and falling down before the camera quickly cuts past her and never looks back. Additionally, in the final diner scene, the two diner robbers (Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth) intimidate everyone in the diner, singling out the manager, a flustered, terrified, middle-aged man, mocking his attempt at bravery: “We got a hero here!” In all of these examples, the ordinary citizens are put in their place by the gangsters, victimized, humiliated, and shown to be cowardly, weak and, not coincidentally, extremely unfashionable and un-stylish compared to the gangsters.
There are other non-gangster characters, of course, but the way they appear in the film aligns them closer to the heightened, stylish end of the spectrum and further away from the audience’s self-identification. Among them are two characters in bathrobes and slippers: Lance (Eric Stoltz), along with his wife Trudi (Rosanna Arquette), are drug dealers and thus, still on the other side of the law, not “like us”; and Jimmy, whose central role in the drama, his implication with the gangsters and their narrative, and his portrayal by Tarantino himself, provides the necessary distance. Those other examples above—the Big Kahuna burger guys, the witnesses to the car accident, and the diner manager—share a common outsider quality, as if they don’t actually belong in this heightened gangster underworld of the movie, but have accidentally stumbled into that world (or, more accurately, the gangster narrative has stumbled into their world), and they are forced to cower in fear, hoping for it to be over soon. Even in this, there is a hierarchy, as the four Big Kahuna guys from the beginning, by doing a business deal and being killed, are too involved, too far past the bounds of the ordinary audience, while we can all imagine ourselves as the bystanders and the customers in the restaurant.
Even though we identify with Jules, Vincent, Mia and Butch, the film makes sure that we identify ourselves as all of the “dorks” on the margins. We, the viewers, are the normal square folks in the diner, huddling on the floor as criminals wave guns around; we are the average pedestrians helping the car crash victim. The question then, is why do we find it so fascinating to watch “ourselves” be mocked, humiliated, and denigrated? There is a precedent to this ritual of infusing violence into the audience identification process. Robert Kolker’s book, A Cinema of Loneliness, talks about Bonnie and Clyde’s revolutionary gesture, carefully building up the audience’s identification with the two heroes, only to violently destroy it, in a way, cinematically “killing” the audience themselves. And of course there is the famous gesture, lifted from The Great Train Robbery, but fresh in the 1994 audience’s mind from the final shot of 1991’s Goodfellas, where the character points a gun at the camera and shoots, again, cinematically “shooting” the audience. By 1994, the audience had been “killed” so many times that Pulp Fiction’s extended, glorified, explicit separation and denigration of the audience for the audience’s own amusement was taken as fun and quirky and, importantly, enjoyable.
[This, of course, draws a parallel with that other great offbeat crime comedy of the 90’s, Fargo. In the case of Fargo, the “ordinariness” of the “real world,” of the unremarkable lived experience of the audience member and the juxtaposition of their daily lives to any kind of exciting Hollywood crime scenario isn’t played out in the margins—it’s absorbed into the fabric of the story in a prominent way. The criminals, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, are very “ordinary”, uncool, un-stylish, and decidedly un-glamourous. The figure of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is the most demonstratively Fargoian figure in Fargo—the most laughably naïve, mundane, incapable kind of “ordinary citizen”, one who tries to be a scheming criminal and fails. His failure, unfolding over the course of the film, runs the spectrum of being derisively laughable, to being pathetically sad, to being unsympathetically contemptible. (Indeed the filmmaker’s omission of the specifics of Jerry’s problems clouds our ability to judge him fully for his actions: did he bring this all on himself, or was he thrust into difficult circumstances beyond his control? We never find out.) Fargo, as a whole, functions as a two-hour meditation on the push and pull between these two poles of exciting and mundane, ordinary and extraordinary, moral and immoral. On the other hand, Pulp Fiction marks a pretty clear delineation between these points, and the only access it gives to the “regular” population is those select scenes mentioned above, and they are always the victims of the scorn and/or violence of the central characters. Fargo wanted to absorb the audience into the happenings onscreen—for all its daring thematic choices and splintered, narrative focus, unconventional storytelling, etc, its formal choices are fairly classical, fairly invisible, unlike the postmodern, gloatingly visible stylistic choices of Pulp Fiction. But I digress…]
Nostalgia, history and “birthright”
In Pulp Fiction, this invocation and celebration of the pop culture ephemera of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s stands in for the traumatic and monumental historical events of the same period in Forrest Gump. While Forrest Gump uses a similar jukebox approach to its soundtrack (both films spawned high-selling soundtrack albums, on cassette and compact disc, and both reached the Billboard charts), its tracks are selected for their popularity and their ability to invoke nostalgic emotions in the viewer, paired with images of Forrest living through the various historical/cultural moments in the film. In contrast, Pulp Fiction’s soundtrack selections are mostly comprised of lesser-known songs, forgotten hits, or unknown, “cult” recordings. (Tarantino has been noted for reviving and re-popularizing songs and even actors, bringing them out of obscurity and into the contemporary mainstream, notably in this film, the career of John Travolta and the opening surf song “Misrilou” by Dick Dale.) The most important difference between the nostalgic quality of the soundtracks of these films is, of course, the differing natures of the two films in the first place: Forrest Gump is a look back at the 50’s, 60s, and 70’s, its soundtrack standing in as a transcendent “soundtrack of the times,” whereas Pulp Fiction is set in the modern day, and its soundtrack is meant to conspicuously demonstrate the film’s complex and peculiar relationship to the past. Whereas the retro hits of Forrest Gump accompany and heighten the emotional impact of the inherent nostalgia in the narrative events, the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction is itself the main vehicle for nostalgia, wholly stylistic and wholly extraneous to the actual narrative.
As mentioned before, the primary concern that the film has for “history” is in its re-discovery and fetishization of pop cultural ephemera from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, and the musical selections sustain that appreciation of “retro” culture throughout almost every moment of the film. To elaborate the film’s peculiar relationship towards the historical period that spawned this culture, we can look to the setting of Vincent and Mia’s date in the second chapter, a fictitious “retro” diner called Jack Rabbit Slim’s, where the entire wait staff are actors adorning the costumes and affectations of famous pop culture icons from the postwar era. The concierge is “Ed Sullivan”, the waiter is “Buddy Holly”, and across the diner, “Marilyn Monroe” re-creates her iconic pose from The 7 Year Itch as diners applaud. What is significant is not so much this diner itself, but the juxtaposition between this living museum of dead movie stars invoking the most rose-coloured popular memories of the 50’s and 60’s, and the attitude that our protagonists, Vincent and Mia, take towards it all. We get every indication that they are “in” on the joke, that they are aware of the camp nature of this re-creation, and that they are cynically, maturely, above it all. Vincent especially seems unimpressed and a touch embarrassed by the whole affair, and Mia seems to knowingly goad him into it, ironically enjoying the explicit camp of the restaurant. When the Buddy Holly waiter takes their order (in a conspicuous cameo from Steve Buscemi), he appears as a frumpy, tired, unenthused waiter in novelty glasses. When Mia orders a milkshake, the waiter asks if she wants it “Amos and Andy or Martin and Lewis,” and she orders the latter. Throughout all of this, the characters remain straight-faced, almost deadpan.
This sequence in the nostalgia restaurant not only invokes and fetishizes the aesthetics and culture of the 50’s and 60’s, but places that period in a subordinate position to the cynical, modern day protagonists at the film’s center. In this diner, the golden age of the post WWII, pre-Vietnam era, the sweet spot of American culture, is reduced to an embarrassing, camp novelty, the “innocence” of the era standing in a humourous juxtaposition with the smart, hip, skeptical, cultured and pop-cultured world of professional hitmen with skinny ties and guns in their belts, and smooth talking leading ladies who snort cocaine in the bathroom. This historical period from which the film mines the majority of the pop culture it so adores is, in this sequence, invoked with seeming indifference or contempt for the historical or cultural context that spawned those cultural products, and they are appreciated only for their aesthetic use value to the contemporary characters in their contemporary, 1994, jaded, cynical standpoint. Thus, when the twist contest starts, rather than scoff, Mia and Vincent go on stage and dance together in self-consciously silly and outdated dancing styles to a lesser-known Chuck Berry song. The dance sequence certainly isn’t meant to invoke any particular memory about the early-60’s period when this Chuck Berry song was first popular; the song is a prop, like the period props that adorn the diner itself, like the prop eyeglasses on the Buddy Holly waiter. The dance sequence conveys the two cool, chic, skeptical, postmodern movie protagonists in a state of play, in which the trappings of the “innocent”, postwar, pre-Vietnam era are the self-conscious set decorations for this film about contemporary gangsters. Unlike Forrest Gump, these trappings aren’t deployed to say anything about the “American century”, or indeed, to say anything at all; they are meant to be looked at and admired from afar, from the safe and semiotically neutral distance of the present.
Perhaps the most striking point of departure between the two films is in their treatment of the Vietnam War, that most divisive and transformative event in the postwar time period. Where in Forrest Gump, the Vietnam War plays a significant part in the narrative and characterization of several key characters, in Pulp Fiction that war and its tumultuous significance is reduced to a single monologue, in what is one of the most humourous moments in the film. In his only scene, renowned character actor Christopher Walken, known for his idiosyncratic elocution and for both his dramatic and comedic presence, enters a living room in what is clearly an earlier time period. We see a small boy in 1960’s clothes and a crew cut, watching an old television playing old-fashioned, racist cartoons, and we hear his mother call him Butch, cueing us to connect this small boy with the grizzled boxer played by Bruce Willis. Walken sits down, in full military ceremonial uniform, and looks at Butch, but he’s actually looking directly into the camera, directly at the viewer, and delivers a long monologue. In his monologue, Walken produces a gold watch, which, as we learn, is a gift to Butch—“your birthright”—from his father, a Vietnam veteran who died in a POW camp. Walken regales us with the long and colourful provenance of the watch, in a story that takes us from Butch’s great-grandfather and WWI France, to his grandfather who died in the WWII Battle of Wake Island, to his father who, in a POW camp in Hanoi, was forced to hide the gold watch “in the only place he could—in his ass.” Walken, with his signature mix of gravity and absurdity, describes how Butch’s father died of dysentery, after which Walken carried the watch in his own posterior for two years, and finally delivered the watch to the present moment. This absurd story is important structurally as a memorable but frivolous gag (what one NYT reviewer at the time called an “outrageous punchline”) intended to provide motivation for Butch to return to his apartment and risk capture by Wallace and his thugs after jilting the gangster for bookie money on a rigged boxing match (which was arranged in the “chapter one” scene mentioned above). Compared to Lt. Dan’s reverential lineage in Forrest Gump, and the towering importance placed on the history of America’s wars and the role of destiny in the life of modern subjects, this scene in Pulp Fiction demonstrates the film’s complete disregard for and ironic detachment from the past, the events of history and the shaping of the culture. In Pulp Fiction, history is important for the cultural artifacts it supplies us with in the modern day, which we can pick through for the most aesthetically appealing specimens, like flipping through the clothing racks at a second hand store.
And that’s about 10 000 words. I’d say that’s about enough, wouldn’t you?