The World Won’t Listen: Pulp Fiction

Nick Gillies kicks over the altar of a cinematic sacred cow - can the 'coolest' film of the nineties be the slipshod work of a weak writer?

Pulp Fiction is Nerd Heaven, a dream where they get to shoot the bullies who stole their dinner money in a totally cool way. And it’s badly written, too.

The thing that annoyed me about the film even before I’d seen it was the dialogue. It was patently wrong, a repeat of the Reservoir Dogs debacle. Going to kill someone is nerve-wracking, if only because they might try to kill you themselves. It is not where you talk about what a Big Mac is called in France. You don’t stand outside a door with a gun in your hand and discuss foot rubs.

Try to put yourself in that position. You are going to be executed by lethal injection if the police catch you. And you’ve grown up watching forensics shows – you think there’s no escape from them. You are going to intimidate, perhaps shoot, three young men who have proved their violence by pulling off a robbery, and their recklessness by defying your boss. You are walking on the crumbling edge of death. Is this really when you are going to talk about the niceties of linguistics?

I used to work in the law courts, then write about cops and lawyers, listen to their stories about crooks. It has no resemblance to anything I know or believe in. It’s ironic that Chopper, an Australian film about a very successful criminal, with a documentary realism about the random and sudden nature of violence and murder, has been seen by 100th of the audience of Pulp Fiction.

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But the disturbing thing about the adulation for Pulp Fiction is that it shows an absolute ignorance of the nature of story-telling. Ironic, given that fans rave about the film’s innovation. Pulp Fiction is a film that Quentin Tarantino could only have got away with after the surprise success of Reservoir Dogs. It is four stories, two of which have are unconnected with the others except with a shoehorn.

Portmanteau stories have a bad reputation in Hollywood. They rarely make money. Because he was bankable Tarantino could get financing, but even he had to try and disguise the separate nature of the stories by putting John Travolta in all of them.

Weakest is the story where he looks after Uma Thurman. Leaving aside the idea that a gangster would send only one man to look after a married woman (always two, one to chaperone the other, even when just delivering money to the wife of a man in prison), the behaviour of Travolta is totally out of character. When Uma Thurman O.D.’s, he would have left her, and either lied to Marsellus or left town. Criminals are not big on personal responsibility.

The Travolta element in the Bruce Willis story is even more arbitrary. His death is not a stroke of genius, it’s a stroke of desperation. The only connection that the Bruce Willis story has with the others is that it is resolved by his killing the man sent to kill him. When examining something novel you should always lean more towards luck than genius.

The true story of Pulp Fiction is the redemption of Samuel L Jackson, and its real merit –and it does have some– is a modern black actor performing a Southern Gothic film role of the 1940’s or 50’s with total conviction: a bad man who only mouths the word of God, and is brought by God’s mercy to walk in His ways. How unfashionable can a film be? No wonder no-one talks about that.

There’s a story about a group of old westerners telling tall stories in a saloon. Finally a quiet man on the edge of the group tells a story about being an Injun Fighter, pursued by Apaches. He dodges into a canyon but the Indians follow him. The canyon is a dead end. He runs out of bullets. His horse is shot, but with its dieing convulsion it hurls him out of the saddle and he grabs the root of a bush, 20 feet up the cliff face by a ledge. But the roots give way. He slides back down among the redskins. The story-teller pauses. ‘Go on, go on’, says his breathless audience. The quiet man thinks for a moment, then says ‘Well, gentlemen….’ He pauses again ‘….I guess they killed me.’

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Sometimes a writer writes himself into a corner so tight that the Indians kill him. The only thing to do then is to look your audience in the eye and say that’s what you intended all along, and you are a genius.

I repeat: the story of Pulp Fiction is the story of Samuel L Jackson’s redemption. It is thin, as thin as homeopathic soup. There are no sub-plots, only two unconnected stories made to fit by having John Travolta in them.

The Uma Thurman strand can be dropped in the middle, but if you’ve got to have Travolta in the Bruce Willis story, where does it fit? If it’s at the beginning then it’s the main story, which it isn’t. If it’s at the end, it’s an anti-climax. Well, gentlemen, I guess, after many sleepless nights and much wrestling with the plot, the Indians killed me. Aren’t I a genius? Gosh, Mr. Tarantino, now we film buffs have something we can compare to post-structuralist Italian fiction. We must be intellectuals, too.

The death of John Travolta in the middle of the film is writing sloppiness, not intellectual daring. It’s a crap film.

Ironically, the reception of Pulp Fiction did set Tarantino on a creative path. It got him out of difficulties again in Kill Bill, where Lucy Liu must logically be the first to die, but must also die at the climax of the film.

The best film Travolta was involved with was ‘Modesty’, shown on British TV a few weeks ago. Again it has a really old plot (the chief’s ‘daughter’ bloodily avenges her ‘father’s’ death) but it used a central European tale with the glossy production values of Hollywood, and put the back-story in the film. This was a genuinely novel innovation, which unhappily didn’t work – it was just too far from the narrative expectation. A pity.

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I can’t help thinking that I’ve spent more time considering the plot of Pulp Fiction than Quentin Tarantino ever did, when what really gripes me is the utterly unreal dialogue, endlessly quoted. And, by the way, has anyone checked: what do the French call a Big Mac?