Thursday, June 19, 2008

Great Scenes 001: Pulp Fiction

For your consideration, one minute and forty-eight seconds that defines and expands an already fine and entertaining film, which makes it more, which makes it great. Here is the moment that tells us that, for all the cool dialogue, stylized violence and mayhem, and disjointed timelines, Quentin Tarantino has something on his mind.

This monologue is the heart and soul of the movie. Jules (Samuel L. Jackson, never better) and Vincent (John Travolta, never better) have just survived a point-blank encounter with a loaded Magnum, and a very close legal call involving a dead body. Jules thinks it's a miracle that they are even eating breakfast; he's quitting the life. Vincent thinks its just one of those things that happen, and that Jules is a fool and a bum. But we've already seen Vincent go down in a hail of bullets. It's going to happen in a week or so. Jules won't be there; he's taken off already.

What do you do with a second chance? What do you do with a third? The man who kills Vincent is a boxer named Butch (Bruce Willis, never better), who is given a second chance by saving Vincent's boss Marcellus (Ving Rames, never beter), who happens to be the man who is trying to kill him. Tonight, after leaving this diner scene, Vincent will have another miraculous close call, this one involving a syringe of adrenoline and his boss' ODing wife (Uma Thurman, better in Kill Bill). We've already seen that unfold too.

Other film-makers who ape Tarnantino's style miss that, for all his genre conventions, he makes his movies about something. The fractured timeline isn't there as a trick, it's not just to make it 'cool'. It exists to show you information you need to understand why this scene is the climax of the movie.

If you watch close you can see it; Pulp Fiction is a movie about a religious conversion. It is a man coming face to face with who he is, and realizing that nothing can ever be the same again.


HighOnPoker said...

Seeing Pulp Fiction, in the theater, alone and underage, no less, really changed my life. That said, as much as Jules' story is one about a religious conversion, it isn't the only one in the movie, and arguably isn't the major storyline of the movie, which should go probably to Vincent. I'd be interested to hear what you think the messages are in the other storylines (Vincent, Butch, Marsellis, Uma), because I really liked what you did with Jules here.

Sewer rat might taste like pumpkin pie, but I ain't gonna eat the filthy mutha fucka.

Julius_Goat said...


I meant to say "spiritual conversion," as I don't think it's evident that Jules converted to a specific religion. That said, his spirit is reborn.

I actually do think that the major storyline belongs to Jules, even though the most screen time does not. That's the genius of the movie's structure -- not until the end does it tip its hand. If the film belonged to Vincent, it would end with him dead on the floor. Vincent is a foil to Jules, one that does not pay attention to the signs and pays the price.

Or, if you like, the main thread is Vincent's, but his choice is the same as the one Jules faces, and he goes another way.

Mia Wallace is a plot device. She's fascinating, but she's not given any character development. I suppose if the story were about her, we'd see what she does with her second chance after ODing. Does she figure it out?

Marcelus is another awesome character who is also mainly a plot device. He responds to his second chance by calling for some pipe-hittin' n***as, a blow torch and a pair of pliers.

Butch gets his second chance from Marcellus. He uses to get out Dodge. Smart man.

But in the end, we're left with Jules, who understands. Ultimately it is his story.

Julius_Goat said...

Oh, and the quote you signed off with is instructive.

Jules won't dig on the swine because it's filthy. Vincent cajoles him, it tastes good.

But Jules knows better now, about his food and his life. We've seen all these cool-seeming thugs with their hip one-liners. They're young and rich.

But Jules will have none of it. The life is a sewer rat, and no matter how good it may look or taste, he's not eating it any more.

Fuel55 said...

Clearly, one of the best movies ever.

1. Can you elaborate on "spiritual conversion" versus a more simple theme of redemption. By redemption I mean redemption in the catholic way: "The restoration of man from the bondage of sin".

2. Can you comment on a theme that centers on the plight of the working man? Where in this case the working men are all criminals.

3. Expand on the utility of the disconnect between real and cinematic time.

4. Given Ringo/Pumpkin's (i.e Tim Roth) need for a conversion as well does it surprise you that he is seated across from Jules during the speech? Is Jules preaching to the choir so to speak.

5. Comment on the importance of "time" throughout the movie:

a) Wolf - "If I'm curt with you, it's because time is a factor."
b) the gold watch
c) Butch to fall in the 5th


6. Is the holy grail contained in the briefcase?

Fuel55 said...

Where are my answers?

Julius_Goat said...

Clearly, one of the best movies ever.

1. I don't really see anybody having been released from the bond of sin at this point. I think only Jules has seen that this might be an option, much less a desirable one. By the end of the film he's realized only that he is the tyranny of evil men, and that he intends to try real hard to be the shepherd.

I'd say at this point it is more of a spiritual awakening for him. Paul on the road to Damascus for hitmen, if you like. Come to think of it, Paul was himself a hitman.

2. The criminal as working man is more the central theme of "Reservoir Dogs." That's another post.

3. Karate!!!!

4. I don't think Ringo understands anything besides "there is a gun in my face".

5. Not to mention the importance of etiquitte, to wit: If you bring the ODing bitch over to somebody's house, then you really ought to be the one who stabs her in the chest with a big syringe. It's only polite.

6. I think the briefcase holds Marcellus Wallace's soul, escaped through the back of his head (hence, band aide).

Sidath said...
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