Quentin Tarantino begins his much-acclaimed film Pulp Fiction with the definition of the word “pulp.” In reference to the film, the second definition offered, which gives the meaning for pulp fiction, is often viewed as much more pertinent; however, in my personal opinion, the first definition is equally relevant.
Although I respect the film and do find it entertaining and enjoyable on a certain level, Quentin Tarantino’s film is ultimately a wet blob, as it does not put forth the effort to have a deeper meaning. The obvious exception is, of course, to serve as commentary on pop culture, film, and genre. Ultimately, Pulp Fiction is a work of art that exists on a solely visual level; that is, it contains absolutely no symbolism. Despite the obvious “suitcase = Marsellus’ soul” argument, there is no meaning. There is no theme. It exists entirely to bring together all tropes, stereotypes, clichés, plot elements, and stylistic devices used in cinema from the Eisenhower-era to the date of its birth and dissect them. It is the equivalent of a “Greatest Hits” film. I think I should again establish that I do enjoy this film, yet it is on a completely superficial level, because I do not take anything away from it in terms of meaning, and I do not feel enlightened by it.
Tarantino has stated himself that plots elements used in this film really have no meaning, but that they are just MacGuffins used to advance the plot and create style. The suitcase isn’t a symbol, but a reference, an allusion to the film Kiss Me Deadly. Pulp Fiction‘s characters inhabit a world that is not real life; it is movie life, an inescapable Hollywood-land. It is not trying to capture the essence of anything realistic or put forth any human meaning, as there is nothing realistic or human in this world. It is all reference and style. It has no deeper meaning, only surface-level genius, visual intelligence, rehashed originality.
In this way, Tarantino is like the Jean-Luc Godard of suburbia- both filmmaker’s work is an homage to the films they loved as children, but unlike Godard, Tarantino does not use these references and allusions to establish theme. Instead, he uses them to construct a movie world that is his own personal play-land. The world he wishes existed. In a recent article on The AV Club, Community was offered as a television show that works to serve a critical purpose on established tropse and genres, and compared to Tarantino and James Murphy (in terms of music) in this respect. It’s almost like porn for the TV Tropes cult, because it’s just an assemblage of the old, bringing it together and assessing how it works in terms of entertainment value. Therefore, Tarantino, like Godard and the others I mentioned, functions as a critic through his art. However, as opposed to Pulp Fiction, Community and Godard actually create characters and situations that are drawn from real life. Tarantino, on the other hand, puts his characters into a movie of movies, not a movie of life anything real. These characters are intended to live in a film.
An example of this is Jules’ transformation and redemption, which could appear symbolic, but in its most basic form is a religious presentation of the film and genre archetypes Tarantino loves. This is shown by Jules comparing his journey to the one made in Kung Fu, which reveals the fatal flaw of Tarantino, and a problem most filmmakers, myself included, face today. As so much media and entertainment is available to us instantly and we have an enormous appetite as a society for culture in all forms, it becomes impossible to separate our own original ideas from those we have already consumed, processed, and taken in, and we cannot create anything without comparing it to another work, or using other films as reference points. This explains why in “pitching” a film, so many young people will say things like “It’s Citizen Kane meets Eraserhead”, or “It’s like Lawrence of Arabia 2 mixed with The Brady Bunch Movie”. I think you understand. This is an idea I have addressed previously, that pop culture today is simply a repacking of pop culture yesterday. I don’t think that’s necessarily true with all film, but it is definitely true in the case of Tarantino, as Kill Bill is just a take-on of kung-fu films, Jackie Brown blaxploitation, Inglorious Basterds war films, and the upcoming Django Unchained westerns. In Death Proof, he even recreates the car chase from Vanishing Point, and Pulp Fiction is full of characters walking straight out of The Deer Hunter, Deliverance, Saturday Night Fever, and other films. It’s all an homage to what he loves, a commentary on what we expect from certain genres. Because Quentin Tarantino draws his inspiration from the cinema, it becomes impossible to tell the difference between the real and the cinematic within his films, as all the characters inhabit his movie playground.
In this sense, Pulp Fiction is almost like the 50s nostalgia restaurant Jack Rabbit Slim’s- it is an explosion of different references to different eras. It is the essence of post-modernism, filled with references to both cultural touchstones and itself, built on a foundation of PC-era prehistoric meta-humor, a Möbius strip and moveable feast of American cinema. In the words of critic Geoffrey O’Brien, “Pulp Fiction is more a guided tour of an infernal theme park decorated with cultural detritus, Buddy Holly and Mamie Van Doren, fragments of blaxploitation and Roger Corman and Shogun Assassin, music out of a twenty-four-hour oldies station for which all the decades since the fifties exist simultaneously.”
So the question remains, if it has no discernible theme or underlying meaning, what exactly is Pulp Fiction making a visual commentary on? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I think there are several ways of approaching this. The first and most obvious viewpoint is that it is purely the fever-dream fantasy of Quentin Tarantino’s inner pop-culture fanboy, a paradise where everything he loves cinematically collides and comes together. While I think this is definitely to a certain extent true, I think we may miss out on a little bit of the meaning of this commentary when we focus too heavily on psychoanalysis. In my view, just as Birth of a Nation, Citizen Kane, Star Wars, and Avatar served to sum up everything that had happened technologically in film prior to their existence, Pulp Fiction seems to be created for the purpose of serving as a compendium of all popular culture from the 50s onward, a sort-of tourist’s guidebook to navigating the cultural landscapes. In addition to the direct verbal references, it also contains many visual references, such as the trove of weapons Butch has to choose from, containing references to films as varied as The Seven Samurai and the Evil Dead movies. While the films and television shows referenced in Pulp Fiction are definitely ones that clearly affected Tarantino, they are also what he sees as important cultural landmarks in the 20th century. As Mr. Tarantino is as much influenced by a director such as Godard as he is by someone like Tobe Hooper or Sam Raimi, it is clear that he has created his own “canon”, one which takes place inside the world of Pulp Fiction. This canon definitely breaks with what is often viewed as important culturally to the past century, but it nevertheless is an important guidebook to the cultural happenings of the past 60-or-so years.
What initially prompted me to write this post was the discussion of some of the meanings of motifs within Pulp Fiction in my film studies class (which is where I viewed the film), and I feel like I have hopefully made clear my argument about the film. While it does make use of “symbols” and “motifs” in a strictly superficial and surface-level sense, in that certain objects or repeated phrases, like Jules’ Bible Passage, may appear to have deeper meaning, I ultimately believe that it is more a representation of culture from the 50s on and the culture that has influenced Tarantino than a symbolic work. I respect the film and think it is well-crafted, witty, and solid, but I ultimately feel it has no deeper theme or meaning besides an assessment of the 20th century. Despite what Mr. Bob Dole may say, Pulp Fiction is not a “nightmare of depravity”; rather, it is a sometimes genius work representing the creative degradation of original art, art uninfluenced by other works and objects.