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Why It Works: Pulp Fiction

04.02.2015

Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.

****SPOILERS AHEAD****

Dancing hitmen! Bible verses! Ball gags! PULP FICTION is what happens when an absolute maniac throws traditional filmmaking out the window. Upon closer inspection, Tarantino's mystery for the modern era still hits the same beats as most standard Hollywood fare- it just keeps us on our toes in the process. Here's why it works:

WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:

After the infamous diner scene, the film's first scene involves a room full of normal guys, chowing down on Big Kahuna Burgers, being rudely interrupted when armed thugs in black suits barge in. In any other movie, we'd be rooting for the identifiable slackers; the underdogs. Marvin would be the main character, and we'd watch to see if and how he escapes the clutches of these villainous goons. Instead, we open with the goons! We listen to Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega talk about the Royale with Cheese and Le Big Mac. They're funny; we like them. They're just regular guys, too. More importantly, we hear them discuss their boss, Marcellus Wallace. Once Tarantino introduces a character who would throw someone off a balcony just for giving his wife a foot massage (and who certainly doesn't look like a bitch), Jules and Vincent look like Gomer Pyle and Barney Fife by comparison. By the time we understand that they fit into the "henchmen" character archetype- not even the main villain, his henchmen- we're already smitten.

Jules and Vincent carry the setup of the movie, to be sure, but to overlook the rich tapestry of characters which round this thing out would be remiss. Butch, Mia, and Marcellus all start out as mysterious, potentially unlikeable characters who win our favor once we learn their respective backstories and witness some of the worst overdose-laced, sodomy-stricken moments of their lives. If that weren't enough, Lance's stash, Jody's piercings, Jimmie's Bonnie situation, Esmerelda's death obsession, Fabienne's blueberry pancakes, and Winston Wolf's cleaning skills are just some of the other memorable character moments which make this such an unforgettable story.

​Sequel suggestion: Jules travels to Paris to find out what they call a Whopper.

WHY WE CARE:

The plot of PULP FICTION certainly isn't clear within the first twenty minutes (or hour and twenty minutes, for that matter). No one falls in love. No one gets a superpower. There's not a clear cut vendetta between Liam Neeson and kidnappers, wolves, Nazis, Sith, kidnappers again, Batman, etc. What pulls us in here is not one character's journey but rather the mystery of it all. What on earth is in that briefcase? Why are Jules and Vincent in shorts and t-shirts? What happened to Pumpkin and Honey Bunny? Bruce Willis is in this now? What does he have to do with anything? The plot unfolds almost like an old detective novel- always entertaining, but only feeding us morsels of information to tide us over until the big scraps drop.

Twenty years later, five dollars still seems like a lot for a shake.

WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:

So, Vincent Vega? The guy who we come to view as the main character in the first half of the film? He dies. He dies with about an hour of movie left. That seems pretty unsatisfying. Here's where Tarantino's non-linear storytelling comes into play. By this point, Butch is our new protagonist. Vega is just a minor character in his story. Moreover, there's plenty more of Vincent to come, so, by the time the movie's over, we barely remember that he bit it an hour ago. We also get a glimpse into the difference between Jules and Vincent and the choices they make. While Jules describes his epiphany in a stirring monologue- ultimately deciding to walk the earth- Vincent clearly makes the choice to keep living "the life." We can take a kind of satisfaction in knowing that Vincent chooses his own destiny. As for Butch, we get to see him dice up a rapist with a sword, share a tense, "we cool?" with Marcellus, and ride off into the sunset with Fabienne.

"Zed's dead, baby. Zed's dead."

WHY WE REMEMBER:

Many great movies are hard to fully appreciate the first time around. I remember not laughing much at all on my first viewing of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL or THE BIG LEBOWSKI, falling asleep during FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS and TRAINSPOTTING, and just trying to stay focused on everything going on in PULP FICTION. The pay off here is that these movies are so dense with information, that what feels overwhelming the first time around feels incredibly rewarding the second, third, and twentieth time. PULP FICTION is so full of interesting, entertaining, and memorable lines that we can't help but find ourselves quoting the movie with friends weeks after seeing it- as well as picking up on new gems with every subsequent viewing. The other keyword here is style. PULP FICTION plays like a 30's/40's mystery, looks like a 50's/60's teenybopper drive-in movie, and sounds like a mid-90's philosophizing, raunchy, indie film. Throw in a gold watch, a twist contest hosted by Ed Sullivan, and a giggling gimp, it's no surprise this would go on to be one of the most parodied, referenced, and talked about films of the 1990's.

See, most movies either have John Travolta waving a gun around OR cutting a rug.

Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!

If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at brianbitner@joblo.com.

CLICK IMAGE TO OPEN GALLERY & SEE MORE PICS...

Source: JoBlo.com

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10:40PM on 05/03/2015
Love this movie. Freshman year in college, I took some Cinema/English class and wrote my final paper on this (Trainspotting was on my short list of films to consider writing about as well). I wish I could find the paper and read it again... I remember having a whole section talking about the significance of bathrooms in Vince's life (and death) and that's where he did his best "thinking". Going to the bathroom after Jules tells him he's going to walk the earth, or debating what he should do
Love this movie. Freshman year in college, I took some Cinema/English class and wrote my final paper on this (Trainspotting was on my short list of films to consider writing about as well). I wish I could find the paper and read it again... I remember having a whole section talking about the significance of bathrooms in Vince's life (and death) and that's where he did his best "thinking". Going to the bathroom after Jules tells him he's going to walk the earth, or debating what he should do with Mia while she overdoses in the living room, and finally getting killed in the john! Ugh... freshmen papers :-/
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9:51PM on 04/26/2015
Great job ! Loved the insight to such a cult classic!
Great job ! Loved the insight to such a cult classic!
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4:58PM on 04/13/2015

Awesome!

Great article! This movie always has something new to spot with each viewing. I did a paper in college on just the OD needle in the heart scene. Cool dissection of the film. This article makes me want to watch the movie right now!
Great article! This movie always has something new to spot with each viewing. I did a paper in college on just the OD needle in the heart scene. Cool dissection of the film. This article makes me want to watch the movie right now!
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+1
7:10PM on 04/09/2015

Thanks

Pulp Fiction is one of those movies that I love but can't really explain why. It's so different from traditional movie narratives. Appreciate your explanation of what makes it different, unique and good.
Pulp Fiction is one of those movies that I love but can't really explain why. It's so different from traditional movie narratives. Appreciate your explanation of what makes it different, unique and good.
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1:56PM on 04/03/2015

The soundtrack!

Music was great too!
Music was great too!
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1:24PM on 04/03/2015
i think PULP FICTION is the Citizen Kane of the new generation.Tarantino really changed the way movies are made
i think PULP FICTION is the Citizen Kane of the new generation.Tarantino really changed the way movies are made
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1:34PM on 04/03/2015
Didn't you read the article two days ago about Citizen Kane being a big pile of shit? LOL.
Didn't you read the article two days ago about Citizen Kane being a big pile of shit? LOL.
+1
12:44PM on 04/03/2015

Sounds like a good idea for an article, but...

... what's the difference between this and The Test of Time?

One thing you didn't mention was that, after VINCENT dies, the movie continues an entire segment with him. We know he's going to die, and when and how. It creates mixed feelings watching him.
... what's the difference between this and The Test of Time?

One thing you didn't mention was that, after VINCENT dies, the movie continues an entire segment with him. We know he's going to die, and when and how. It creates mixed feelings watching him.
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1:30PM on 04/03/2015
Thanks for reading! What's The Test of Time? If you point me to it, I'll check it out and see where this column can stand apart. Thanks!
Thanks for reading! What's The Test of Time? If you point me to it, I'll check it out and see where this column can stand apart. Thanks!
4:31AM on 04/03/2015
I think Christoph Waltz said it best, with Tarantino having an 'unorthodox' style of directing.
I think Christoph Waltz said it best, with Tarantino having an 'unorthodox' style of directing.
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1:31AM on 04/03/2015
An aesthetic choice that I keep coming back to with this movie is Tarantino's decision to have everything really well-lit, like a comedy. Even in the '90s up to that point it was common to have a more cool-blue neo noir look. QT's decision to go bright and colorful is one of the many subtle cues that lets us know it's alright to laugh at a guy getting his brains blown out by accident. This really was the high-water -mark for the ironic crime movie.
An aesthetic choice that I keep coming back to with this movie is Tarantino's decision to have everything really well-lit, like a comedy. Even in the '90s up to that point it was common to have a more cool-blue neo noir look. QT's decision to go bright and colorful is one of the many subtle cues that lets us know it's alright to laugh at a guy getting his brains blown out by accident. This really was the high-water -mark for the ironic crime movie.
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1:32PM on 04/03/2015
Wow, I never thought of that in those terms, but yeah, it's definitely one of the ways where this plays more as a tongue-in-cheek bit of entertainment rather than trying to take itself so seriously.
Wow, I never thought of that in those terms, but yeah, it's definitely one of the ways where this plays more as a tongue-in-cheek bit of entertainment rather than trying to take itself so seriously.
1:05AM on 04/03/2015

I dig this...

Another article to look forward too. Defiantly do Fight Club, Fear and Loathing, and The Dark Knight.
Another article to look forward too. Defiantly do Fight Club, Fear and Loathing, and The Dark Knight.
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1:30PM on 04/03/2015
Thanks! Those are all solid candidates...
Thanks! Those are all solid candidates...
3:30PM on 04/03/2015
Agreed. If you want to go old school, hit CASABLANCA, PHILADELPHIA STORY, STAGECOACH . . .
Agreed. If you want to go old school, hit CASABLANCA, PHILADELPHIA STORY, STAGECOACH . . .
+1
1:01AM on 04/03/2015
I like this article! And the idea behind it! I hope that you do Fear and Loathing next! I fell asleep to that too when I first watched it! Not due to boredom though. I still loved it!
I like this article! And the idea behind it! I hope that you do Fear and Loathing next! I fell asleep to that too when I first watched it! Not due to boredom though. I still loved it!
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1:33PM on 04/03/2015
Thanks! Yeah, information overload can be a bitch!
Thanks! Yeah, information overload can be a bitch!
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