Why Is Pulp Fiction So Good?

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Pulp Fiction: What Makes It A Good Film? By Jacob Tucker.

Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ stands out from other films made in the late 20th Century – back in 1994, no-one had ever seen a film quite like it, and its success brought a wave of post-modern cinema. The stage had been set in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of summer blockbusters, but nothing quite like ‘Pulp Fiction’ had been seen before 1994 (there was certainly nothing similar of such high quality, or such mass appeal).

The non-linear structure had been done before (including by Tarantino himself, in his first film ‘Reservoir Dogs’), but had never been used with such clarity. It’s not used as a gimmick, or as an editing cop-out – it forces the audience to piece the story together as they watch, allows for dramatic irony (as with scenes with Vincent after he is shot in the movie but before he is shot chronologically), and transforms a relatively standard plot into something captivating. The technique has been used since ‘Pulp Fiction’s’ release in many other critically-acclaimed cult films, including David Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’ (my personal favourite film).

An obvious point to make regarding why exactly this film works so well is the quality of acting throughout. Every character feels genuine, every line of dialogue is utterly believable (with the slight exception of parts of Tarantino’s extended cameo, but I’ll give him a pass!) and the chemistry between every single actor is beautifully realized. In my opinion, the best acting in the movie comes from Bruce Willis – his anger at his girlfriend leaving his watch behind is almost palpable, and the way in which he searches for a weapon with which to save Wallace makes it an immensely satisfying scene.

Throughout the film, the combination of superb acting and free-flowing dialogue makes the events that unfold feel real – the actors transcend their real-life selves (an even more impressive feat now, considering how well-known each of them has become) and become their characters. 

However, of course the actors should not get all of the credit; in fact, I would attribute the memorable and believable characters to Tarantino’s excellent writing quality. Somehow he’s devised a way of capturing the essence of a character in words, and uses these words in a way that no other director has ever replicated.

Not all lines contain symbolic meaning or literary references or self-aggrandizing complex vocabulary – he writes dialogue as it is said, and adds his unique flair. However, enough has been said about Tarantino’s realistic dialogue to fill a small library, so I will not dwell on it here – suffice to say; the movie is immeasurably quotable, and a treasure trove of wit.  

As well as subverting the standard of dialogue in films at the time, Pulp Fiction also subverts it’s own genre. Now, subverting expectations or tradition is not always a road to success (see Rian Johnson’s ‘The Last Jedi’ for a masterclass in how to do it the wrong way), but Tarantino uses the audiences’ preconceptions to his own benefit at many points throughout the movie.

The most shocking scenes are the ones which the audience expects, because they’ve seen films before, one thing to happen, and then something unexpected instantly breaks this layer of expectation. We did not expect Vincent to be shot by Butch. We did not expect Marvin to become a stain on a car-seat. We did not expect Mia, who had been presented as someone who could take care of herself, to succumb to a scarily accurate heroin overdose. But Tarantino knew we would not see these things coming – that’s why they were included, and that’s why they have the ability to shock us. 

I’d also like to talk about ‘Pulp Fiction’s’ humour. Now, I fully understand that examining a joke is a sure-fire way of making it unfunny, but it’s important to note that ‘Pulp Fiction’ is a very funny film. Not all the time, of course – if someone I was watching it with started laughing during some parts of that scene in the pawnshop’s basement, I would be quite unnerved.

Most of the comedy comes from small nuances in the acting, or from the wit of the dialogue. And it’s not all on the surface, either – I read through large portions of the script in preparation for writing this, and I (who has seen the film many, many times) noticed small, witty turns of phrase that I missed when casually watching. 

Now, the afore-mentioned non-linear structure. You could argue this was used simply because it was uncommon, or that it’s just the way that Tarantino likes to tell stories (most of his films at the very least have extended flashbacks). I would personally argue that it makes it possible for information to be revealed at optimum points – Tarantino can choose what the audience knows about any plot detail or character at any time, simply by changing the order of scenes.

Chronologically, the last shot in the film would be Butch and Fabienne riding off together on Zed’s motorcycle. This isn’t necessarily a bad ending – it’s a fitting conclusion to his arc, and providing the rest of the movie is also viewed chronologically, everything else has been tied up too. But it’s not unique. The ‘hero rides off into the sunset’ is a well-trodden path in books and film, and although it can still be satisfying in it’s own right, Tarantino wanted a more fitting ending for the film.

The film (from it’s non-linear standpoint) ends with Jules and Vincent walking out of the coffee shop after their confrontation with ‘Pumpkin’ and ‘Honeybunny,’ and facing an uncertain future. However, the audience knows what happens to Vincent after this, and so Tarantino has created a sense of dramatic irony. This, I would argue, is a more satisfying and fitting conclusion to these two characters’ stories than what we would have gotten in a linear version – Vincent getting shot by Butch. It’s a matter of preference, but it’s undeniable that the winding, fragmented structure of ‘Pulp Fiction’ was a key to it’s success. 

I’m glad Quentin Tarantino is a household name nowadays. I’m also glad he’s apparently only making two more films (including ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’) – obviously not because I don’t want more of his style and wit, but because eventually he would burn out. I would rather have ten amazing films than a mixed bag of twenty good and bad films.

Pulp Fiction is undoubtedly the main reason he’s well-known today – ‘Reservoir Dogs’ was mainly well-received, but would never have allowed his career to develop in the way it has. Samuel L. Jackson also got his start in ‘Pulp Fiction’ – he had a minor role in ‘Jurassic Park,’ but would have never become one of the best-known actors in the world without Tarantino. 

BRWC FiLMiX – PULPFiCTiON from BRWC on Vimeo.

I think ‘Pulp Fiction’ was the spark that lit the fire of the post-modern films that’s still burning. It showed that weird, graphic arthouse films could very easily fall into the collective public consciousness – it led the way for hundreds more unique films to get made.

Even directors who have since moved on to more standard summer blockbusters are likely to have been allowed to make their breakout movie due to the praise ‘Pulp Fiction’ received – Christopher Nolan, for example, may have never made ‘Memento’ if the precedent for non-linear films being acceptable wasn’t set by ‘Pulp Fiction.’

A similar effect may have happened to David Fincher and Wes Anderson, although that’s purely a theory. Even so, it’s impossible to deny that Pulp Fiction broke new ground, and will still be watched by millions of people a long time from now.    

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