“Would you give a man a foot massage?” I’m sure Tarantino would LOVE that.
DIRECTED BY QUENTIN TARANTINO WRITTEN BY QUENTIN TARANTINO + ROGER AVARY EDITED BY SALLY MENKE
STARRING JOHN TRAVOLTA SAMUEL L. JACKSON UMA THURMAN BRUCE WILLIS VING RHAMES MARIA DE MEDEIROS
cw: racial slurs, violence
The interwoven stories of two hitmen, their boss, his wife, two robbers, and a boxer. Co-written, directed by, and starring Quentin Tarantino, this is the second major film in his canon. Visually and emotionally violent. Tarantino’s use of the N-word is gratuitous and disturbing. My main goal in life is to win a dance competition now.
Like many fans, I have a very strong love/hate relationship with Tarantino and his films. I’ve seen Reservoir Dogs (against my will), Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, both Kill Bill films, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed his body of work and have found merit in each individual story he tells. In Pulp Fiction, the characters were well written and developed, the cinematography was stylistically gorgeous, and the story structure was executed well in a way that challenged and rewarded the audience.There’s a certain trend in his work that has grown and shapeshifted throughout his nearly forty-year career as a filmmaker. Tarantino wants to trust the audience.
There’s a few reasons why Pulp Fiction stays in the public consciousness after almost thirty years. As previously mentioned, the characters are well-written and fleshed out. Everything from their outfits to their cars to their physical mannerisms to the direction in which they part their hair is for a specific reason. Tarantino’s homages to his favorite filmmakers and artistic movements are omnipresent and each rewatch of a scene gives you something new to focus on. I could watch Uma Thurman dance the twist forever. Because the characters’ personalities are so central to how each story plays out, the audience wants to stay with them. Tarantino knows that and uses it to his advantage.
One reason why I get excited every time I sit down to watch a Tarantino flick is because I expect the relationships between characters to be equally well-developed. In Pulp Fiction, there’s a development in each of the major relationships: Mia and Vince, Vince and Jules, Honey Bunny and Pumpkin, Fabienne and Butch, Butch and Marcellus, and even Butch and Vince. Whether they grow to love/hate each other or become closer/more distant, the relationship changes throughout each of the stories and through many different perspectives. Tarantino believes in the audience to understand the minutiae of how each relationship changes and the significance of the subtle differences in outfits, cars, mannerisms, and hair parts.
He also knows that good storytelling doesn’t have to be linear. So, by taking each story and jumping back and forth in time, he’s not only putting faith in the audience to remember the preceding scenes and events, but rewarding us by adding more context and depth to the moments we’ve already experienced onscreen. Tarantino gives us the puzzle pieces and trusts us to put the pieces together on our own.
There comes a time in this movie (and in Tarantino movies past) where that trust becomes muddled. Perhaps he loses it for us. Perhaps he gives us too much. This is where I become conflicted. Like Scorsese, Tarantino does not shy away from cursing. Take a look at the these two directors and their use of curse words:
As you can see, cursing and certain taboo words have their place in film history. While I’m not necessarily critical of this alone, I do take issue with Tarantino’s prolific use of the N-word and it’s detrimental effects to the legacy of Pulp Fiction. I can understand why some parts of the script include it. For example, it’s usage makes sense when Marcellus and Butch are kidnapped by white supremacist shop owners. Their casual use of the N-word adds to their character and is believable within the context of the scene. We’re pulled in further and become concerned with Marcellus’ safety. However, the character Jimmie makes no sense to me. In the sequence titled “The Bonnie Situation”, Vince and Jules must clean up the remnants of a murder at the home of Jules’ friend Jimmie (played by Tarantino) before his wife Bonnie gets home. In voicing his frustration at the situation, Jimmie says the following:
“But you know what’s on my mind right now? It ain’t the coffee in my kitchen, it’s the dead n***** in my garage… No, let me ask you a question. When you came pulling in here, did you notice a sign out in front of my house that said ‘Dead N***** Storage’? Did you notice a sign out in front of my house that said ‘Dead N***** Storage’? ‘Cause it ain’t there, ’cause storing dead n***** ain’t my fucking business, that’s why!” Source.
I mean… yikes. Firstly, Tarantino really wanted this role for some reason. Secondly, It would be one thing if the use of this word added some kind of depth to the scene or made any kind of sense for the character. Instead, Tarantino intended it to be a punchline. This word and the cultural significance of it is a joke to him. In response to criticism raised against him by Spike Lee in 1997 following the release of Jackie Brown, Tarantino had this to say:
“As a writer, I demand the right to write any character in the world that I want to write. I demand the right to be them, I demand the right to think them and I demand the right to tell the truth as I see they are, all right? And to say that I can’t do that because I’m white, but the Hughes brothers can do that because they’re black, that is racist. That is the heart of racism, all right. And I do not accept that…” Source.
In order to effectively deconstruct and disassemble the power behind the N-word (which is what Tarantino was attempting to do), you have to have a solid grasp on the structural power of racism itself. This is something that Tarantino clearly lacks and therefore, cannot effectively deconstruct. All this being said, when Tarantino made the conscious choice to utilize the N-word in such a derogatory and shocking way, he put too much trust in his audience. Suddenly, white people were jokingly quoting Jimmie’s character thinking that was okay because their favorite director told them it was.
I know this has been discussed a lot online and by writers all across the country. I still think that, given the everlasting popularity of the film after nearly thirty years, it warrants an everlasting discussion. I really love Tarantino’s body of work. His collection of films is diverse, genre-bending, provocative, and intricate. Of all his films, Pulp Fiction definitely deserves a spot on the AFI Top 100. Personally, I hope his tenth and final film is fantastic. If you love an artist, you don’t want to be critical of them. I understand that. However, as an artist myself, I find it necessary to hold space within fandoms to be critical of mistakes and poor choices made by artists, even in retrospect.
In summation, watch this film. You’ll laugh, you might cry, and you’ll finally get all the references you’ve heard zoom past you over the years. Pulp Fiction is a humorous and immersive epic that warrants a close watch. Just be careful with the content.
- “Oh, man, I just shot Marvin in the face” had me rolling.
- The soundtrack! I thought it worked. Tarantino likes to pick music that gets your heart pumping, which he did effectively by opening on Dick Dale’s now iconic rendition of Miserlou.
- Christopher Walken delivers a simple yet captivating performance as Captain Koons.
- I had to rewind when I saw “Steve Buscemi as Buddy Holly” in the credits. That wig!
- Speaking of Buddy Holly, anyone wanna take me to Jack Rabbit Slim’s?