"Pulp Fiction" derives its style from the 1960s, the time of the director's youth, and adopts a highly-caricatured pose of the tough, self-reliant adult male, which in films of that era were symbolized by the outlaw. This was also the era of the sexual revolution, dramatized in the media by the increasing frank images of sex. For children growing up in that era, it was an exciting time, but they couldn't directly participate in it. They partook in the culture vicariously through food, cartoons and music. The complex themes in movies and the images of Vietnam they absorbed without context and would only later grow into. First, the symbols, then the reality. Will reality measure up? |
The father figure of "Pulp Fiction" is mob leader Marcellus Wallace, and his briefcase contains this golden promise of adulthood. It's stolen by some young men, none of whom seem very authoritative or experienced (one sports a "Flock of Seagulls" hairdo, the universal sign of effete 80's synthetic culture). It's recovered by Wallace's "children", Jules and Vince, two hitmen who despite their outlaw status, wear suits evoking government and bureaucracy (their style is taken from French new wave films of the early 60s, which in turn borrowed from American films--this is the costume of the mid-20th century American Male). In a sign of further disconnect, these hitmen spend a lot of time discussing fast food with an almost childlike fascination.
The cloud hanging over Vince's head is an assignment given him by Marcellus, to take his wife out to dinner. This is a dangerous assignment, since his wife, Mia, may have caused another colleague's death for the crime of massaging her bare feet--or worse, for being suspected of giving her a foot massage. Foot massages, it's pointed out, lies in the grey zone of sexual activity--Jules thinks it's harmless: "I gave my mother a foot massage", but Vince disagrees: "We act like they don't mean something, but they do. That's what's cool about it." What will Marcellus read into the activities of Vince's "date" with Mia?
If Marcellus (with a name like a Roman general) is the Italian father figure here, Mia is the Italian mother ("Mama Mia!"). Though she resembles Vince in some ways, such as her hairstyle and wardrobe, she's actually younger--Vince is encountering his mother in her youthful, virginal, teen incarnation, attempting to recreate the world of possibilities she gave up for marriage. The song she first plays for him is "Son of a Preacher Man", and later, "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon". She's looking to be moved not by authority, but by its wild offspring (but Vince isn't the Preacher Man's--aka Marcellus's-- true son. Jules is, as we'll see). She takes Vince to a "Wax Museum with a pulse", a diner called "Jack Rabbit Slims" (which sounds like a cigarette brand--cigarettes have fun, candy-like associations here), to show him her ideal world--one that existed in the late 50s, early 60s. There, we learn more about her: she's the "deadliest woman in the world" and a "force to be reckoned with"--not because she's an outlaw like Vince, but because she played one on tv. Vince's world is shaped by pop culture, but Mia is (or was) pop culture. Now that she's removed from its context, she's left with nothing but old vaudevillian jokes bequeathed her by her tv grandfather that aren't even funny any more. Who will she leave them to? "What a gyp", Vince says, using a phrase common with 60's-era children. He's full of anachronistic slang, it seems, and worries at one point about giving Mia "cooties". Finally, he summons the courage to ask her about the primal foot-massaging incident, but Mia claims it didn't happen. Was the father's murderous rage just a myth, or is she covering up for him, because she's just as afraid of it? Or does she simply think the subject not appropriate for the kids to hear?
In any case, temptation is present, as Mia is barefoot, which we see as they dance to "You Never Can Tell", a cajun-spiced Chuck Berry song with lyrics like "It was a teenage wedding, and the old folks wished them well". The host is an Ed Sullivan look-alike--Ed hosted what Mia considers to be the two defining musicians of the 60s: Elvis Presley and the Beatles--two powerful, transforming musical styles which the old folks of that era certainly wished well. So where are the old folks for this era? There's Marcellus, who guards his secrets well, and Mia, stuck in the past, thrown into a coma when she samples the present day's wares, and winds up looking to the future only for a life-saving shot of adrenaline. And it's a lucky shot, to be sure--Vince isn't quite sure how to administer it, and the drug dealer, another lost child who spends his evening supping on sugary kid's cereals while watching Three Stooges repeats, can't find the instruction booklet. It's a nurse's manual, but the nurse isn't here--she's in a parallel story; these are kids without a mother, getting into her medicine cabinet while she's at work.
The evening ends with the mother restored to life, physically, though greatly shaken. They agree to keep this evening a secret from Marcellus ("Mum's the word"), and she decides this is the moment to pass along the last remaining bit of her legacy, a single, meager joke: three tomatoes are walking along--Papa tomato, Mama tomato and Baby tomato. The Baby tomato has trouble keeping up, so the Papa tomato gets really angry and squishes him, saying "Ketchup!" The "date" ends with him shaking Mia's hand--that's exactly what she claimed the foot-massager did. All evening long, Vince had feared that he'd get squished by Marcellus, but the Mama tomato safely reimagines his fears so that the blood is now a tasty fast food condiment. Unfortunately, she got squished in the process, and Vince's fate has only been postponed, to be administered not by the father, but by another son who does, in fact, manage to "catch up".
Butch, the prize fighter, is presented with his legacy: a golden watch carried only during times of war by the men in his family, and most recently, carried during Vietnam by his father, and father's friend, hidden "up the ass" from Vietnamese captors. These are truly self-reliant men, who are both mother and father to the future, carrying the next generation's inheritance by themselves. As a boy, Butch is happy just to sit in front of the tv, "Watching Flowers on the Wall", but hearing this, we crash cut to the present, where he is a fighter just like them, only in a different kind of war--a war that's set on a stage. There's no overseas war for Butch to fight in; the closest he comes is to watching a Vietnam "motorcycle" movie on tv. But he carries his watch into battle, nonetheless, and before it's over, he'll have earned the right to pass it down to his son. Like the fathers before him, he'll do so on his own--his girlfriend, Gabby, won't play any useful part in it. She was asked to take it with her, so they could immediately flee town after betraying Marcellus, but she absentmindedly forgot. She's a French girl (and Butch "truly loves the mademoiselle"), childish, her dark hair boyish, and even shorter than Mia's, and she dreams of having a pot belly like a man. Needless to say, she's barefoot (as is the breathlessly admiring taxi driver, Esmeralda).
Gabby is played by Maria de Medeiros, who also co-starred with Uma Thurman in "Henry & June", Henry being Henry Miller, the writer, during his years in Paris. As portrayed by Fred Ward, he's a sinewy, bald man, much like Butch. His bedroom scenes with Maria's character, the writer Anais Nin, resemble the ones here (like Gabby, she also wears her hair short, and speaks simply), When Henry tries to edit her work, Anais is hurt by his competitiveness, and advises him to find a more suitable partner: "A prizefighter, perhaps." Henry doesn't realize he's drowning out her voice, insisting he's only preparing her for life as a writer: "You gotta take a few on the chin." She rejects the boxer analogy to the artist: "I'm not interested in stepping into the ring with you. The world will give us plenty of beatings." Clearly, this is where Quentin gets his boxer/artist association that he applies to Butch in "Pulp Fiction." And the lesson that Butch learns from Gabby is the one that Henry Miller, an ultra-hip artistic and sexual icon of the sixties, fails to grasp in this scene.
Gabby's not of much practical help to Butch, except in one crucial way, that ends up saving his life: she teaches him patience. He's capable of murderous rage, like Marcellus is, as demonstrated in the boxing match, but he won't squish the Baby tomato and destroy his own legacy--he calms down and proceeds with a cool head, and in doing so, defies the logic of the storytelling fates to retrieve his watch. It's there where he left it--on the little kangaroo figurine in his apartment. Kangaroos are not only "mobsters" (as in "a mob of kangaroos"), but creatures who hide their young in their bodies after their birth, carrying them until they're ready to face the world on their own--an appropriate figure to hang the golden watch on. Butch finds Marcellus's gun, and uses it against Vince to avoided getting squished by Papa tomato. Later, he and Marcellus will find themselves imprisoned, and he'll gain both their freedom, thanks to his cooler head. Butch is willing to learn patience from Gabby because he refuses to "rewrite" her, as Henry did for Anais. That doesn't stop him from correcting her on the small things with boyish insistence, such as using the correct slang names: "It's not a motorcycle, baby, it's a chopper."
Butch and Marcellus are caught and tied up in the basement of a shopkeeper (a pawn shop that seems to only have male customers who've pawned their treasures, judging from the items on the wall). The shopkeeper plays mother figure to a southern cop who has an arrangement to rape any "flies" caught in their "web". A hooded figure called the Gimp is brought out, and his hood makes him resemble Butch and Marcellus's baldness. This is the fate that awaits them: to be made a captive and utterly passive slave to this bigoted authority figure. The cop is a weak father figure, however: not only does he culturally hail from the Confederate South, slaveholders, and poor caretakers for America's black heritage, but there's country music playing in the background, initially- representing a form devoid of black influence (unlike Elvis), and therefore contemptuous of cultural cross-fertilization (as represented by Marcellus's one-way raping). Plus, he takes his orders from an offscreen mother: "My mother told me to pick the very best and you are it!" He singles out Marcellus, which opens the possibility that the offscreen mother he serves is Mia (metaphorically, that is). Butch takes control of his heritage by vanquishing this false authority figure, and restoring the rightful father to his place. In return, he guarantees his own place in society. Marcellus retains his power to make rules, and Butch still respects them, but now the respect is mutual. It's made official when Butch steals "Grace", the cop's motorcyle, and rides off with his girlfriend. Earlier, he woke up and stared at what she called a "motorcycle movie" (actually a Vietnam movie story about the Hell's Angels employed by the CIA--i.e. outlaws fighting on behalf of authority), and he saw her image superimposed on the screen. He couldn't remember his dream, but in fact, it was on tv, all along--and now's its become real.
In contrast to the drug dealers without a "mother", we're introduced to a household where the mother is about to return home from work, in the "Bonnie Situation" subplot. The "kids" in this case are played by Vince, Jules, and a former colleague of Jules now living in the Valley, Jim (a reference to the French New Wave classic, Jules et Jim, which, like "Henry & June", is also about a threesome, the sort of sophisticated arrangement that seems possible only in France of the movies, out of reach for young American pop culture enthusiasts). The hitmen are forced to impose on Jim's suburbanized life thanks to Vince accidentally blowing the head off of one of the youths who stole Marcellus's briefcase. The car's interior is splattered with blood that resembles tomato pulp ("Ketchup!")--Vince can't control his gun, and isn't worthy of its power. Jim is furious he has to play host to them just as his wife is about to come home. We get a glimpse of what Bonnie, his wife looks like in a hypothetical moment: she's a black nurse with an old-fashioned hairdo, dressed in traditional nursing garb, and seen mostly from the back. It's an image that seems to come from the sixties--specifically, Diahann Carroll in "Julia", a sixties show about a black nurse whose husband died in Vietnam, so she raises her boy on her own (single motherhood being one of "Julia's" groundbreaking portrayals).
Jim, like the drug dealer, is wearing a bath robe, and serving gourmet coffee to the hitmen--Bonnie, he tells them, buys cheap coffee, but he likes the taste of a fancier brand. One of the first acts of independence for a child is to choose their own "superior" brand of grocery item, to break away from the family's economy choices. Jim is terrified of how Bonnie will react when she comes home, which is understandable, but the way this humorous subplot plays out, it suggests kids cleaning up a mess before the parents find out.
These particular "kids" are incapable of cleaning up their own mess, but the father comes to the rescue. Not Marcellus himself, but his surrogate, nicknamed "The Wolf". The Wolf is nothing like Marcellus, or any of his undisciplined children: he's courteous and in control, and most importantly in this film, he doesn't lose his temper--even when Vince acts like a petulant child. Jim seems to be a hothead, but when the Wolf appears, he also is deferential, and eagerly follows orders, especially when such deference is rewarded with empowerment: at one point, the hitmen must dress in Jim's old dorky clothes, and the Wolf encourages Jim to mock them as such. Of course, we've been watching the dorky side of these characters throughout the film, but now that their character arc nearly over, their transformation is complete. The Wolf examines their car with a stern, paternal frown, then leads them all to a body shop to dispose of it. The owner of the body shop is not in, but his daughter greets them. The Wolf is her surrogate father as well, uttering a variation on the classic kingly phrase: "Someday all this will be hers".
The film's last scene mirrors its first: in a diner, an Englishman and his girlfriend are at a turning point in their criminal career--they've decided to rob diners, which is a major crime against society in the world of "Pulp Fiction". The diner is a family environment (even an adult hangout like Jack Rabbit Slims had faux-picnic tables set indoors), making them outlaws against the family structure, which it seems even the mobsters adhere to. The Englishman's name is Ringo, making him a Beatles man, to contrast with Vince, the Elvis man. The stereotype of Ringo is that he was the least accomplished of the Fab Four, and the most hapless. Unknown to Ringo and his girlfriend, Vince and Jules are having breakfast there as well, and throw a wrench in their plans. The hitmen had just barely missed being executed by one of the briefcase thieves, causing Jules to see the light: he's now a man of God who intends to walk the earth, like Caine in "Kung Fu" (Caine walked barefoot, like many of the women in this film). Ringo makes the critical error of demanding Marcellus's briefcase from him, ordering him to reveal its contents. Jules lifts the cover, and a golden light colors Ringo's face: "Is that what I think it is? It's beautiful!" We're not told what it is, but it's something Ringo doesn't deserve, and Jules, no longer working for Marcellus, still feels compelled to deliver it to the mobster. Why would a man of God do that? Because it's not stolen--it rightfully belongs to Marcellus. It's that elusive magical glow that adulthood's freedom and empowerment has from afar; at least, that's how it appears to the child (or anyone in a childlike position). Jules won't claim it for himself, because he'll earn it another way, by traveling from town to town, getting into adventures, and reliving the classic morally-upright loner from all those tv shows. "Pulp Fiction" is his pilot, but unlike Mia's, he won't let it be fail due to lack of interest or financial backing, so he gives Ringo his money, along with everyone else's money in the diner, and lets him go. Before doing so, he explains his cryptic bible quote repeated throughout the film:
"The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides with the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of charity and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon those with great vengeance and with furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know that my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee."
As Jules explains, he would deliver this quote in the tone of vengeance to those he was about to execute, but he no longer feels he can do so. This mysterious text he delivered on behalf of Marcellus was his way of becoming the father figure, by imitating him in his "Preacher" role. But he doesn't identify any longer with either the Lord (Marcellus), the Preacher, or one of his avenging angels. Instead, he realizes he now wants to be the shepherd, and the finder of lost children. "Finder of lost children" is not in the original Biblical passage quoted above, but it's quite appropriate here. This film is an attempt to rescue children from a lost era and make their dreams reality.
I see "Pulp Fiction" described in reviews as a story about each character's redemption, but I don't agree. If anything, it's about them achieving the ability to redeem others. Jules will still deliver the Preacher's words, he just understands his role in them more clearly. It would be a sin to continue his old, unenlightened life, now that he's had a sign from god to follow a nobler path, but there's no indication he regrets being Marcellus's enforcer, going after other mobsters weaker than himself. Likewise, Butch isn't looking for redemption when he freed Marcellus. He's killed three men in this movie, and as he put it, "I don't feel the least bit bad about it." In fact, in an extended cut, we learn he doesn't even regret accidentally killing the boxer he was supposed to lose to, despite having nothing against him. As he explains, he'll defend his profession (boxing) against those who have no business being in it. Ringo keeps the money he stole, but it's unlikely he'll threaten diners anymore, nor will he refer to other races and nationalities with contempt--now that he's glimpsed the magic Jules has been carrying around, he's been humbled by the vision of a higher purpose. The characters of "Pulp Fiction" are not looking to atone, they're looking for their mission in life, one based on principles, and I would argue, the artists who made the film are declaring theirs.