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Quentin Tarantino‘s 1994 film Pulp Fiction is the quintessential nineties cult flick. At the time, the world needed a movie such as this as much as Tarantino needed to make an artistic statement and create a hit.
It remains relevant 25 years later for a number of reasons. It resurrected the career of John Travolta, who at the time was relegated to Look Who’s Talking sequels. It also shone a cinematic light on Samuel L. Jackson, taking his career stratospheric and shaping his name into a brand of excellence. With a cast filled out by Bruce Willis, Tim Roth, Christopher Walken, Ving Rhames, Uma Thurman and Harvey Keitel, the heavyweight acting prowess matched the intertwining, complex story perfectly.
Set in an unidentified time in Los Angeles, Pulp Fiction focuses on several stories, which link the wide range of characters. In essence however, the movie’s slow pace reflects the human need to find meaning in all aspects and situations of life. The dialogue – and at times the long moments of silence – brings the audience behind the eyes of its central figures. Even the most mundane becomes a point of conversation – a reason as to why so many lines are quoted fondly: “A royale with cheese”, “Correctamundo?”, “It’s a chopper, baby”, and “Would you give a guy a foot massage?” Clever dialogue, matched by the blasé delivery, with a slick format that injects a more humane basis to the story. If Pulp Fiction was created today, no doubt the script would appear in a flood of memes across social media.
What is often missed in the context of Pulp Fiction is the symbolism which feeds the narrative and pushes the plot along beautifully. It becomes apparent how, like the story, these symbolic arcs that fuel the story intertwine as much as the characters. Firstly, there is the briefcase. At no time throughout the movie is the secrets of the case revealed except for the golden, mesmerizing glow that erupts every time it is opened.
One thing that is relayed to the audience is the combination “666”, which automatically gives an impression of something evil, symbolizing the greed in society. This symbolism bookends the movie. The prologue shows Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) getting ready to hold up a cafe. It also forms the epilogue in the same breath. When the briefcase is introduced, hitmen Jules Winnfield (Jackson) and Vincent Vega (Travolta) go to recover it from Brett, an associate of their boss Marsellus Wallace (Rhames). What is in the briefcase is worth killing for, as the hit men dispose of all involved. As the ending unfolds and Jules, Vincent, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny meet within the cafe that the couple are robbing, the briefcase becomes something worth dying for as Jules refuses to hand it over.
The second symbolic piece is the bathroom, the Achilles’ heel for character Vincent Vega. Iit is bad luck personified, blending both his faith and humanity equally. Firstly, as the story is told out of sequence, we follow Vincent buying heroin, getting ready to bring the wife of his boss, Mia (Uma Thurman) out on the town, and ‘take care’ of her. After the dialogue and dance contest at Jack Rabbit Slims, Vincent escorts Mia home. While he goes to the bathroom, Mia mistakes his heroin for cocaine, snorts it and overdoses. Leading to the next sequence of events, all down to Vincent entering a toilet.
As Butch (Bruce Willis) returns to his apartment to retrieve ‘the watch’, again Vincent returns from the bathroom and is gunned down by the awaiting Butch. In the final scenes of Pulp Fiction, Vincent returns from the men’s room to find the hold-up in the cafe – setting up the final dialogue and interaction again over the briefcase.
The third and final symbolic piece to be examined is the gold watch. It is is perhaps the most obscure of all, but still vital. It’s introduced courtesy of Captain Koons (Christopher Walken) in a monologue which describes the uncomfortable torture and risk of death that brought the watch to the young Butch. The object was hidden in the rectum of his late father, while he and Koons were held captive in Vietnamese prisoner of war camp.
The gold watch is the reason the on-the-run Butch risks his life and returns to his apartment in the aforementioned scene with Vincent. From here, Butch runs into the man he is avoiding, Marsellus Wallace. The two end up in a pawn shop and become prisoners of Maynard, and later Zed. As Zed chooses Wallace to rape, Butch manages to free himself. Similar to the humanity and torture the watch represents, Butch cannot leave the helpless Wallace. He enters the lair with a Katana, killing Maynard and allowing Wallace to get a shotgun and shoot Zed. The two are now even and Butch is no longer a wanted man. All this is down to the watch.
When it comes to re-watching Pulp Fiction with the symbolism of inanimate objects in mind, the narrative takes on a more in-depth basis. Also noteworthy is the fact that Mia Wallace, Uma Thurman’s character, hammers on about her pilot feature, ‘Fox Force Five’, whilst with Vincent. There is a thought that the pilot is Tarantino’s later movie Kill Bill:
“There was a blonde one… A Japanese one, a black one, a French one and a brunette one, me…the Japanese fox was a kung fu master, the black girl was a demolition expert, the French fox’ specialty was sex. . . The character I played… according to the show… was the deadliest woman in the world with a knife…she was also something of an acrobat.”
However, while Tarantino gave insight to further projects, he also tipped his hat to his first Reservoir Dogs with the mention of ‘Red Apple’ cigarettes. This was the fictional brand used in his debut, and all his future projects, holding his movies in one unique universe.
Finally, what is also relevant in terms of Pulp Fiction is the soundtrack – not written especially for the movie, but a collection of songs which have become synonymous with it. This started a new era for cinematic epics in the 90s, influencing other soundtrack outings such as Trainspotting.
For all these reasons and more, Pulp Fiction remains timeless, the deep layered masterpiece it is.