Watching Pulp Fiction, a heavily referential movie both in its narrative as well as its formal aspects, we tend to believe that the movie is merely about other movies that Quentin Tarantino (the director) likes. However, before long, let me quote here a statement by Karl Marx in Communist Manifesto:
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.”
Fredric Jameson, holding on to this dictum, believes that cultural texts have inherent political elements. Following this line of reasoning, all approaches to literature ideally should be political. In Jameson’s own words, political approach to literature is not “some supplementary method, not … an optional auxiliary to other interpretive methods current today … but rather the absolute horizon of all reading and all interpretation” (1). For Jameson, literature as well as other cultural texts should be read as political, however seemingly apolitical they are. The same thing applies even when a cultural text is meant to be anti-political—we are reminded here of a famous saying that “choosing not to choose is itself a choice.” Pulp Fiction is such a work that at the surface does not seem to voice any political concern, which makes it a perfect target for the Jamesonian approach in order to see the working of its political unconscious.
I will present here the summary of my investigation on the political unconscious of Pulp Fiction that I strictly modeled on Jameson’s approach. Jameson proposes three horizons of interpretation, which break down into: 1) symbolic horizon, 2) social horizon, 3) historical horizon. In the first horizon, the analysis is done on the movie Pulp Fiction, focusing mainly on the dominant narrative style, which represents the imaginary solution to a certain conflict that the director himself experiences in the real life. For the second or social horizon, I will focus on the various voices in the movie—or ideologomes in the movie—that we can read as something that makes Pulp Fiction unique among other products by the industry that is “Hollywood cinema.” On the last or historical horizon, we will see how the dialog between the various genres that Tarantino appropriates into Pulp Fiction hints at the movie’s ideology of form.
In the first horizon, I argue that Pulp Fiction’s dominant narrative style, that is the use of distractions, represents an imaginative solution to Tarantino’s ideological conflict as an independent movie maker. The use of distractions is pervasive in the movie to the degree that it becomes a governing narrative style. By distraction, I mean here actions, speeches, events etc that occur in the course of one action, speech or event. Borrowing from the tradition of Russian formalism, I call these recurring distractions motif. To make my point clear, I will here present a number of clips:
We have just seen some instances of distractions, such as the “motion distraction” (Clip 1—Vincent’s way of putting the briefcase), “verbal distraction” (Clip 2—Vincent refers to the wrong person and, Clip 3—Butch’s asking to go but Fabienne interrupt and then Butch interrupts again), and the biggest one “event distraction” (Clip 4, Pumpkin’s robbery then seeing the briefcase and the appearance of the two rapists). Even the movie itself can be read as a narrative of robbery distracted or interrupted by the various narratives that explain to us why Jules Winnfied does not kill Pumpkin while he can, where he usually does that after reciting the verse from the Old Testament.
Some of the distractions in Pulp Fiction (take Vincent’s mistaking Jody for Trudy and Vincent’s slip of handling the briefcase and Vincent’s and Jules’ discussion of European and American little differences) seem to be exact defiance of the “continuity editing” principle in the classical Hollywood cinema. According to Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland, continuity editing is one of the defining formal features of classical Hollywood narrative. Continuity editing demands that (I’m quoting from Elsaesser and Buckland) “everything in a classical film is motivated and serves a purpose” (37). The major distractions, however, such as Vincent’s accidental shooting of Marvin, the rape of Marsellus and Mia Wallace’s mistaking heroin for cocaine, are significant to the plot. The commonality among these distractions is that they make the narrative less like a planned succession of events, and more like an unexpected succession of events in the real life.
With regards to the symbolic presence of the social background in a cultural text, Jameson says that “the literary work or cultural object … brings into being that very situation to which it is also … a reaction” (67). In the case of Pulp Fiction, through the use of distractions, Tarantino solves the problem that he faced as a new Hollywood scriptwriter and director who had to comply with the codes of production applied in Hollywood as a movie. Tarantino himself in a statement quoted by Paul Formley says that he wants to give “human heartbeat” to his movie. By heartbeat here, Tarantino wants to show details, something that is often unexpected in someone’s conversation. Instead of going immediately to the solution of an event, Tarantino stops the audience with something that does not go as planned, that is, the unexpected distraction. Distractions in Pulp Fiction allow the viewer to know the characters deeper and to make the story more life-like, although this does not really serve the purpose of solving the conflict in the movie, something that Hollywood cinema is more concerned about.
On the second horizon—which Jameson calls the social horizon of interpretation—I am arguing that there is in Pulp Fiction voices that attempt to undermine the ideology of classical Hollywood cinema. Here, I will present two Hollywood ideologemes (political correctness and universal values) and two counter-ideologemes in Pulp Fiction (in-depth correctness and sympathy with the underworld).
The first prominent ideologeme that Pulp Fiction espouses is “sympathy with the underworld.” As you all know, Pulp Fiction presents the story of, mostly, people from the underworld. They are presented, however, in such a way that makes the viewer sympathize with them. One of Tarantino’s tactics is through their discussions, which are often distractions of the course of events. Through their discussions, the viewer sees them as fellow human beings whose interests might not be much different from ours (students). Let us look at these clips:
Vincent’s and Jules’ discussion of the life in Amsterdam and how the same things in the U.S. and Europe are different makes the viewer see them as fellow human being. We do not even have to know what they do for a living. They are just everyday Americans talking about things they find amusing. We know only later that they are a couple of gangsters at work, when they are preparing their guns (or here we can just call them “work utensils”). Even then, they talk only a little about their job before they resume their conversation, which oddly enough, centers around their boss’ wife—it seems like the job they are doing reminds them about something that is, again, irrelevant to their job.
This ideologeme, “sympathy with the underworld,” becomes complicated since the movie also presents an ideologeme commonly found in Hollywood cinema, that is, “the rule of universal principles.” Michael Silberstein in his essay “Grace, Fate, and Accident in Pulp Fiction” explores how even the gangsters in this movie follow some “universal principles” (266). The movie concludes without leaving any crime unpunished. The bad people of the story, the young criminals and the rapists receive their capital punishment—including Vincent Vega, who presumably have done a number of murders and does not reform although he has seen what Jules considers a “miracle.” In addition to this tendency, we can also see how the characters hold some universal values, such as 1) loyalty (as displayed by Vincent Vega in his insistence not to go further with Mia Wallace, his boss’ wife), 2) sportsmanship (as displayed by Butch), 3) not taking others’ possessions (as suggested by the murder of the small time criminals), and 4) love (as displayed by the reformed Jules), etc. This shows the movie’s tendency to follow a certain ethos. In other words, the movie is considerably “safe” when it comes to these ethics.
Another pair of contradictory ideologemes deals with the notion of political correctness. On one hand, Pulp Fiction adopts political correctness at an in-depth level. At the surface, the viewer can see the generous use of cuss words and N-word, which seems to work well to create a life-like depiction of its characters. On the other hand, however, as the Alan Stone argues in one of the earliest reviews of the movie, Pulp Fiction does not show (I’m quoting from Stone here) “nudity and no violence directed against women; in fact a man, the crime boss, gets raped and the only essentially evil people in the film are two sadistic honkies straight out of Deliverance who do the raping. The film celebrates interracial friendship and cultural diversity; there are strong women and strong black men, and the director swims against the current of class stereotype.” When it comes to violence, however, the director applies a surface-level political correctness. Let us take this image I captured from the movie:
In these examples, the murders are conducted off-screen. (I am thanking the Collectors’ Edition for pointing out this fact). This, however, becomes problematic. The viewer, of course, knows exactly that there is a violent murder in the movie and another probably wilder murder up ahead (in which Marsellus goes “medieval”). The movie wants to be “politically correct” by not showing the graphic scene, but it does trigger the viewer’s imagination to create their own versions of the violence.
We can also discuss here a comparison with Tarantino’s immediately earlier movie Reservoir Dogs. In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino seems to tone down the level of violence. If in Reservoir Dogs we can see how Mr. Blond, while listening and dancing to a song, tortures a police officer by cutting his ear, the torture-like parts of Pulp Fiction include shooting in the belly (which implies a slow, painful death) and the promise of “going medieval” without really showing the torture. The three-shooting scene in Reservoir Dogs ends with the fateful death of the three shooters while in Pulp Fiction the same scene ends with 1) a touching embrace between Honey Bunny and Pumpkin, 2) Jules’ reform and 3) Honey Bunny and Pumpkin’s probably quitting their career as small-time robbers, as they promised.
From the dialog between these pairs of voices, we can see that the status quo view—as represented by the movie’s leaning towards “universal principles” and “visual political correctness”—is challenged by the undermining minor voices, such as the play with in-depth political correctness. These problematic voices represent the class of idealist movie makers who wish to go beyond the boundary of standard Hollywood cinema that is restricted by various codes that are detrimental to arts and creativity. These disguised voices undermine the hegemonic voices of Hollywood cinema, which in this analysis include ethics and visual political correctness.
Then comes the third horizon: the historical horizon. Discussion of the historical horizon of Pulp Fiction can be an inexhaustible one considering the numerous apparent references that the film makes. In this presentation, however, I will limit my discussion to the two generic engagements that hint to Pulp Fiction’s ideology of form.
The first genre to bring up here is Hollywood dark cinema or better known as ‘film noir.’ Film noir is a debatable category whose categorization can be made based on theme (Borde and Chaumeton), motif and tone (Durgnat) or style (Schrader). In his book Hollywood’s Dark Cinema, Barton Palmer, makes a simple and inclusive definition of film noirs as movies that “offer a bleak vision of contemporary life in American cities, which are presented as populated by the amoral, the alienated, the criminally minded, and the helpless” or, in five words, the “obverse of the American dream” (6). Most critics agree that the designation ‘film noir’ is limited to film with the above-mentioned characteristics that were produced between early 1940s to late 1950s. This period is important since it was the heydey of the Production Code, which compelled Hollywood cinema to be “proper, uplifting fiction.” To comply with this production code, for example, a movie has to limit “sexual liasions and their consequences” to a safe degree, show “poetic justice” with punished villainy, and end all problems with solutions. Most of the film considered film noirs lacked one or more of these codes. Pulp Fiction’s indulgence with the underworld and its attitude towards the underworld here makes critics relate it to the film noir phenomenon and call it neo-noir—although Tarantino himself says in an interview that he does not mean to make one.
The second generic element that stands out in Pulp Fiction is the genre of crime fiction (crime novel). The major influence seems to lie in the cold-bloodedness in which the characters handle violence—or in other places are called hard-boiledness. The characters in this movie conduct murder without letting it affect them. The two examples for this are Jules’ killing the young man he calls “Flock of Seagulls” and Marsellus’ shooting of Zed. In the first instance, the viewer can see how Jules kills the young man as if only to break Brett’s concentration. For Jules, he has all the reason to kill him. So is for Marsellus. He shoots Zed out of revenge for the rape with the deliberate intention to see Zed suffer. The similarity lies in the fact that they do it coldly. In a manner that is commonly found in hardboiled crime fiction. In Tarantino’s interview with Dennis Hopper (a major Hollywood director himself, I know you know him), Tarantino comments on the tendency of Hollywood action movie of the 1980s to handle violence by keeping its characters’ hands clean, such as (I’m taking this from Tarantino himself) by accidental fall on an anchor in the case of Harrison Ford. We can draw a comparison here between Butch’s deliberate killing of Maynard with most of the unintentional murder, or self-defense murder in one of the landmark action movies in the 80s, Die Hard, which is starred by Bruce Willis (it surely is not a coincidence). And when there is an accidental killing, Tarantino gives the viewer an excessively violent murder, that is, the shooting of Marvin in the head, which forces Vincent and Julels to clean their car from brain and pieces of scull and then dump the car.
The two genres are apparently the embodiment of “outsiders” in Hollywood mode of production. For one film noir was the type of movie that could not easily get into mainstream attention due to its violations of a number of classical Hollywood code. As for crime fiction type of violence, it is discouraged from Hollywood action movie. Pulp Fiction indeed ends with the punishment of all crimes, closing embrace between Honey Bunny and Pumpkin; to get there, however, it has to go through a detour that includes cold-blooded violence, vivid portrayal of heroin use, and sympathetic presentation of the underworld. Seen from the two instances of genre that Pulp Fiction seems to take advantage of, we can say that the movie has an important, although unconscious, ideology that it wants to instill to the viewer through its generic choices.
Finally, I’d like to end this presentation by saying that perhaps, like its older brother Reservoir Dogs, which is considered a historical landmark in Hollywood cinema in terms of violence, Pulp Fiction is a political distraction, or even an interruption, in Hollywood cinema no matter how seemingly anti-political it is.