There are no truly original ideas. In the whole myriad world of art, there are several different permutations, but no singularly new concepts. The job of the artist, as the French philosopher Roland Barthes put it, is to be merely a “scriptor,” compiling several different elements into one, cohesive whole. Think of the painter; one who takes the colors at hand and arranges them in such a way as to create something; a painting. The best artist, regardless of the medium, is one who can take the resources already available and rearrange, and occasionally subvert, them into something that feels genuinely fresh and original. In reality, it is not original, for nothing really is. But that is art. Deception for the sake of the audience. Of course none of this is really authentic, but damn, if it doesn’t sure look like it is.
Quentin Tarantino is one of the very best scriptors in the art of cinema. His 1994 classic Pulp Fiction shows his skill at filmic rearrangement better than any movie he has made, before or since. For this, it is a masterpiece. Pulp Fiction, fittingly, opens with a dictionary definition of the word pulp, as in, “PULP (pulp) n. 1. A soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter. 2. A magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper.” The definition of the word serves as an enticing opener, being both opaque and odd enough to draw the viewer in. Why, precisely, would Mr. Tarantino put that in the beginning of his film? First and foremost, it serves as a joke between Tarantino and the viewer. He’s no idiot. He understands that his film is filled with references; he’s never been a guy to shy away from his influences, and this opening is proof of that.
Tarantino is self-deprecatingly calling his film nothing but a “shapeless mass” of half-baked ideas, and late night movie specials. Pulp Fiction is nothing but The Guns of Navarone, mixed slip-shod together with some Mario Bava joint, that all in all comes out as something “lurid” and “rough.” Or at least it should, in theory. Except the films of Quentin Tarantino are not for theory. They do not work out mathematically on paper, nor should they. They are cinematic anomalies that really only work because their creator has arranged their elements in just the right fashion. The films could not work in any other way than the way they do currently, and in that way they work just fine.
The clearest explication of Tarantino’s movie-making philosophy comes during the scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta’s character, Vincent Vega, eats dinner with Mia Wallace, played by Uma Thurman, in a kitschy, neon-painted restaurant establishment called Jack Rabbit Slim’s. The interior of the restaurant looks as if several candy colored Oldsmobiles crashed into a repertory theater showing only monster flicks and Billy Wilder movies. “A wax museum with a pulse,” quips Vincent as he walks in. In some ways, the restaurant serves as a grand metaphor for the surrounding motion picture in which the two individuals are half-willfully self-aware participants.
In a way, Pulp Fiction, like Jack Rabbit Slim’s, is a cartoon world and brutal reality crashing into each other in some pulchritudinous blaze. Moments after Mia Wallace overdoses and gets an adrenaline needle plunged violently into her breast, she tells Vincent a joke about anthropomorphic tomatoes. After Vincent accidentally shoots a man in the head, he and Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Jules Winnfield, subsequently engage in what is arguably the funniest set piece of the entire film. The wildest and most absurd moments are juxtaposed with unflinching violence. The moments of terror are certainly terrifying, yet, the comedic moments still land with just as much power. And infused within it all is an unstoppable stream of cultural references so thorough that it seems to go beyond mere homage.
Tarantino is not giving a subtle nod; he has bathed his film in the culture from which it was born. The acts of violence in his films are just a side effect of that fact; the culture is violent, and Tarantino is just calling it how he sees it. John Travolta’s bolo tie-wearing, heroin-cowboy gangster, is one of the main heroes of the film, it’s answer to John Wayne, a repackaged offering of what our society deserves. Before going into execute some people who have gotten in the way of things, Jules says to Vincent: “Come on, let’s get into character.” They are all characters who have bled into the real. The falling anvil, violent insanity of their world is still present, but the collateral damage is now based in reality.
Although it may all look manic and rapidly quilted together on first glance, there is clearly an immense amount of forethought and painstaking care put into this film. It is not a shapeless mass of matter at all, but a perfectly thought out, full piece of artwork. He first had to mash both the cartoon and the real to get his materials, but afterward, Tarantino was free to mold it all into something that connects exquisitely. There are no loose ends.
Take, for example, the segment of the film devoted to Bruce Willis’ character, Butch Coolidge, the explosive prizefighter. Before the match Butch is supposed to throw, he has a dream in which he recalls a childhood visit from a man, played by Christopher Walken, with whom his father was imprisoned in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. The man goes into explicit detail as to how Butch’s father kept a wristwatch, a sacred family heirloom, up his ass for years until he died of dysentery. The man then describes keeping “that uncomfortable hunk of metal,” up his own ass for the next two years, until he was finally released. Now, he has come to give the watch to Butch. Butch awakes from the memory in an intense sweat; subsequently, he goes out to fight and kills the man whom he was supposed to allow victory.
The memory affected Butch to such an extent that he could not go through with the lie he was about to engage in. Later, he gets kidnapped with Marsellus Wallace, played by Ving Rhames, the very man who wants Butch dead. Yet, Butch saves him. He felt inferior after reliving that memory. His father had gone through so much to get Butch a fucking watch, and what had Butch done? Had he earned the watch? The newfound sense of initiative and responsibility comes about all because of this dream. This is not initially clear, but Tarantino has clearly thought everything out to its most explicit details. A shapeless mass of matter this is not. Pulp Fiction has a rigid structure like little else.
So, there are no original ideas? Everything has been done before? Who cares? Quentin Tarantino is proof that if one simply draws from what is already available, and is able to not only accept this, but revel in it, something truly great can be produced. If all of the pop culture references, and shot-for-shot homages are thrown together in just the right way, and given real connection between them, there is no limit to the brilliance that will emerge. Pulp Fiction is Tarantino’s best film because it strikes just the right balance between filmic arrangement and straight narrative storytelling, between cartoon and reality. It is a collage of film history, soaked in a bath of corn-syrup blood. Quentin Tarantino is one of cinema’s best sculptors, and Pulp Fiction is proof of that. Absurd, bloody, beautiful proof.