An attempt at a series where we examine various films and their cultural and political impact.
Last time we viewed and analyzed the film Ides of March, this time around I'd like to take us farther back in our cultural lexicon for a titular film from the 90's, the iconic and supercharged film Pulp Fiction.
Reams upon reams have been written regarding this film, for indeed it is a watermark test for Post Modernism, Nihilism, and even perhaps a pivot point in cultural history in the United States. Rich in symbolism, deep in meaning, even the violence where what might seem gratuitous in other films has far reaching meanings for not just the plot, characters, and theme but also should invoke introspection for the audience.
Join me after the bump for more, I promise you won't get shot in the face.
As said, much has been written about this movie, so instead of rehashing the obvious I'd like to write about what I feel is the main theme is. What it means from an audience perspective about the characters arch through the story and the symbolism they create.
Released in 1994, directed by Quentin Tarantino and written by him with co-author Roger Avary, Pulp Fiction was a tour de force. It had a litany of cast members now considered A-listers and even recovered the fading career of one John Travolta. It won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and when released in wide release received numerous praises. It has become iconic in our culture and still to this day gets numerous references across all forms of media.
At the time and even now today we see ourselves awash in consumerism and hype for hypes sake. Empty symbols given meaning just because they are said to be, I'm looking at you Kardishians, these symbols are lofted on high because we are told they are important. We join in a frenzy of forced acceptance in this vain attempt to validate ourselves as we search for meaning. Quentin Tarantino is said to be a director who mashes stuff together until something sticks. I respectfully disagree for I feel he very carefully takes the discarded that already exists and then creates a collage out of those discarded items to form an actual message, the essence of what was pulp fiction. What was a vacuous symbol for nothing, a meme in the wind or something simply many of us buy every day, say a quarter pounder with cheese, now actually gives meaning towards something bigger.
Lets look at one of the two characters that goes through a marvelously portrayed transformation of character.
Samuel Jackson stars as Jules, a gun hand for the Mob leader known as Marcellus Wallace, played by Ving Rhames. After a quick prologue with Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer starting a robbery on a diner, after post card the movie then opens with Jules and Vincent, played by Travolta, preparing for what seems something sinister. They are at an apartment building to retrieve a briefcase for their boss, Marcellus Wallace. Most everyone that are fans of the film focus on the crescendo that is Jules and Vincent firing on a young man after having given one of the more famous speeches in movie history, however I think that every bit of dialogue and its framing before their entry into the apartment is so much more important.
In the movie Jules and Vincent are quipping back and forth about literally the mundane in their gangster lives. From what Burger King hamburgers are called in France, to waxing intellectual about the sexuality of a foot massage. While slick and enticing, what we see here are two men at their job. Not much different then two men on a roof somewhere replacing shingles, or two guys working at a retail clerk spot shooting the shit as it were. Even the cinematography is projects this loose and free feeling. With long hallway shots and steady cam shots as the men walk, it is meant to invoke the idea that everything is copacetic and normal. To Vincent and Jules, the depravity of what they intended to do really has no more significance than taking out the garbage on any given day. This is cemented when Jules says to Vincent before they enter the apartment "Okay, lets get into character". While they may be wearing the symbolic black suits, they have yet to put on the mask that is 'hitman'.
This is an important setup for the character Jules, where we get to see man with no moral compass, save for what he is told. He is a tool for Marcellus and does what he is told. Anything that is remotely symbolic only holds symbolism for Jules unless it either gets in his way or stays out of his way of the objective given to him by Marcellus. Marcellus defines the things that Jules should weight as containing wealth of importance. You don't realize this fact till well near the films conclusion, but this setup early on is important in the characters transition.
The apartment scene has some amazing tension as we see Jules literally command the room. An entire thesis paper could be written about the masterful way Quentin set this shot up. Jules and Vincent enter the room and from the minute they enter the other characters of the room are literally locked into a box. With the man on the couch getting up to rise and Jules politely informing him "relax, chill" its obvious that the men are there to do nasty business however they proceed in such a calm and polite manner so as to be unnerving. Indeed Quentin has a talent for this and does so in many of his films, I recommend Inglorious Bastards just for the Nazi agent interrogation scene alone as an example of this.
After some amazing dialogue, ripe suspense and the obvious outcome, a character transforming moment occurs. A man, unknown to there by Jules and Vincent, leaps out with a revolver and opens fire at the two men. He unloads his gun and misses completely. Obviously he is gunned down by Jules and Vincent, but Jules is touched by the moment. He proclaims that "this was divine intervention". Vincent is unmoved, not fazed and literally throws off Jules' comments, to which Jules loudly yells at Vincent "Don't you throw this off, what just happened here was a miracle".
Here is the dialogue of that scene
Jules: This was Divine Intervention! You know what "divine intervention" is?
Vincent: Yeah, I think so. That means God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets.
Jules: Yeah, man, that's what it means. That's exactly what it means! God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets.
Vincent: I think we should be going now.
Jules: Don't do that! Don't you fucking do that! Don't blow this shit off! What just happened was a fucking miracle!
Vincent: Chill the fuck out, Jules, this shit happens.
Jules: Wrong! Wrong, this shit doesn't just happen.
Vincent: Do you wanna continue this theological discussion in the car, or at the jailhouse with the cops?
Jules: We should be fuckin' dead now, my friend! We just witnessed a miracle, and I want you to fucking acknowledge it!
Vincent: Okay man, it was a miracle, can we leave now?
The text alone doesn't do the scene justice. Travolta does an excellent job portraying someone who is placating for a response. He doesn't actually agree with Jules in any sense but is paying lip service out of selfishness. The line "Do you wanna continue this theological discussion in the car, or at the jailhouse with the cops?" nails it really. Vincent is out for himself and only agrees with Jules so they can leave the apartment. There is a stark polarity between the Nihilism of Vincent and the newly found spirituality from Jules.
At the end of the film we have Jules and Vincent in a diner whereby they again are quipping back and forth at each other about not a whole lot. Vincent, after a bout of laughter regarding the delicacies of dirty animals, remarks to Jules that he is glad he is his normal self. Jules rebuffs him and the two go on a verbal sparring match regarding Jules choice to leave the business and the merits of 'What is a miracle?'.
This is an important scene meant to create the polarity between a man who has no compass and merely accepts things for what they are and another who examines everything with a weight of spirituality now. Vincent berates Jules after Jules states that he will "Just be me". Vincent sets the stage of power as he verbally derides what we here would consider the disadvantaged and ignored. Jules is not fazed and Vincent visibly frustrated at his attempts to convince his friend leaves scene for the restroom stating "To be continued".
The scene that follows is, in my honest opinion, one of the finer moments in cinema history. Roth and Plummer's character begin the robbery at the diner. We see mostly from Jules vantage point as Roth goes down the line collecting all the diners wallets. When he arrives at Jules booth, Jules is questioned whats in the case.
Ringo "Whats in the case?"
Jules "My boss's dirty laundry"
Ringo "Your boss makes you do his laundry?"
Jules "When he wants it clean"
Ringo "Sounds like a shit job"
Jules "Funny I was thinking the same thing"
That last line is pretty powerful when examined with everything that has happened to Jules at this point. What then ensues is a tense moment where Roth threatens to open the case while Jules refuses. Eventually the case is opened to Roth where by he remarks "Is that what I think it is?" and then "It's beautiful". What is in the case is a topic of another discussion, I prefer to just agree that it was a Macguffin designed to advance the plot and is all things to all people. In this instance its Jules who has found redemption and putting it on display for Ringo.
Quickly Jules does what he does best getting the upper hand on Ringo, and what occurs is a wonderfully done Mexican stand off between Jules, Yolanda, Ringo and eventually Vincent after entering the scene later on. Jules during this scene begins to espouse on Ringo that normally they would be dead, but Jules wants to help them instead. He goes on to have Roth fish his wallet out and then gives Roth the money inside. Jules explains to him stating that he is buying something, his life.
He then immediately asks Ringo if he reads the bible, to which he then goes into the now famous Ezekiel 25 17 line. Afterward however he tells Ringo that he never had given much thought to the meaning but that the events of his life on that day, changed his mind. He ponders if it means Ringo is the evil man and Jules the righteous man with his weapon being the shepherd; or that perhaps Ringo is the righteous and Jules is the Shepard while the world is cruel evil and in darkness? He then states very unequivocally that while nice, it is but a pipe dream, in fact it is Ringo that is the weak while Jules is the tyranny of evil men. Jules being in a position of power has the choice to either participate in the tyranny of evil men, Marcellus, or to be the shepherd and help the couple perhaps not walk the same path he has.
Indeed even as we find ourselves as stated above, awash in empty symbols and consumerism. It is our desires and wants to have more, consumer more, take more that help and assist to prey on the weak. Our positions of power, the power or purchasing, the power of voting, the power of community, make us at times the tyranny of evil men. This happens through either our actions or inaction. How many times have I walked past someone on the street and not just given my change out of the pocket. How many times have I been lazy and stopped at the big box store for the cheapest items. How much better could our world be if we used one less this, or recycled that, or voted with our minds instead of our feelings. Every decision you make gives you a chance to be the shepherd, it only requires the hard choices and hard work.
The movie closes to Vincent and Jules holstering their weapons and leaving the diner. Interesting to point out that Vincent dies, chronologically speaking after the diner incident but in scene order before the closing moments. This is done on purpose I think, as we have two men who went through life altering instances, but we already know that one will live while the other will die. The one not having made the choice to get out, a chance and choice to change his ways, dies; in a bathroom of all places.
This is just one of many wonderful themes and messages the movie has to offer but I feel none of them stand as clear and as wonderful than the message of transformation. We often find ourselves changing our opinions and stances for the better. Even myself, thanks to diaries here by very wonderful writers, have been presented information which has forced me to evaluate my place in the world and what I think of its occupants. There are days where I'm forced to hotlist items just so I can catch up on all you wonderful people with amazing writing.
And as a matter of fact, those same folks also remind me to try to do better. To do right and be right, to not just talk the talk but to also walk the walk. To which I , and I would suspect a great many of us would answer.
I am trying, I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd.
Wed Jun 20, 2012 at 5:09 AM PT: Woke up this morning to find this on the spotlight.... thank you rangers, you all rock. Thank you everyone else for reading as well. I love a good movie discussion so I'll try to respond as much as possible.