Why It Works: Pulp Fiction
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.
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 email@example.com.
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