Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the movie that crystalized the 1990s indie film movement and, in doing so, changed mainstream moviemaking forever. To mark the occasion, I’m happy to present this excerpt from my book on the film, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece, available from Amazon or at your fine local bookseller.
“I make violent movies,” Quentin Tarantino announced in 2012. “I like violent movies. I’m on record about how I feel there is no correlation between art and life in that way.” It’s a question he had been answering, at that point, for twenty years (and would answer many more times that fall, often testily, as his ultraviolent Django Unchained opened shortly after the bloody school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut). His impatience with it is understandable. On one hand, he is an artist whose films traffic in—perhaps even revel in—intense, graphic violence. On the other, he is but one of hundreds of filmmakers who paint with those images, and most of his fellow travelers do so with far less artistry than he. So why does Tarantino always seem to be wearing a bull’s-eye?
Whatever the reason, he has been consistent on the subject. Clear back in 1992, he had this to say: “I love violence in movies, and if you don’t, it’s like you don’t like tap-dancing, or slapstick, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be shown. My mom doesn’t like Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have been making movies.” The same year, he told Variety’s Todd McCarthy, “I’m not going to be handcuffed by what some crazy fuck might do who sees my movie. The minute you put handcuffs on artists because of stuff like that, it’s not an art form anymore.”
The cause for all of this discussion was Reservoir Dogs—specifically, the infamous scene where Micheal Madsen’s Mr. Blonde tortures uniformed cop Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz) to the strains of Steeler’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You.” It prompted a discussion of both the morality and the aesthetics of onscreen violence that has followed the director throughout his career, with much wringing of hands from even his friendliest critics. “What’s transgressive in Reservoir Dogs,” wrote Amy Taubin in Sight and Sound, “is not the level of violence or the terrifying realism of bodies that bleed and bleed, but the way Tarantino lays bare the sadomasochistic dynamic between the film and the spectator.” Tarantino told McCarthy, “The cinema isn’t intruding in that scene. You are stuck there, and the cinema isn’t going to help you out. Every minute for that cop is a minute for you.” But McCarthy demurred: “He’s wrong; the cinema is intruding. That scene is pure set piece; it may even be pure art. That’s what scares me.”
In retrospect, it seems that what frightened these critics was not a filmmaker who dramatized violence, but one who took it seriously. There was nothing “scary” or “transgressive” about the Friday the 13th films or Charles Bronson’s revenge thrillers. But here was a director who understood what he was doing and was willing to grapple with the implications of it. “There are two kinds of violence,” he explained while promoting Reservoir Dogs. “First, there’s cartoon violence like Lethal Weapon. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not ragging on that. But my kind of violence is tougher, rougher, more disturbing. It gets under your skin. Go to a video store, to the horror section or the action-adventure section, nine out of ten of the films you get there are going to be more graphically violent than my movie, but I’m trying to be disturbing. What’s going on is happening to real human beings. There are ramifications to it.”
Forcing his audience to deal with those ramifications can lead to overreaction and hyperbole, and it’s amusing to read reviews and profiles in esteemed periodicals like the Los Angeles Times reporting breathlessly that Reservoir Dogs contains a “ten-minute torture sequence,” when the scene itself runs barely half that time (for the record: four minutes and forty seconds elapse between the time Mr. Blonde pulls out his razor and when he is shot dead by Mr. Orange). What no one mentions is the way that Tarantino holds on Roth’s face as he witnesses the violence his trusted friend Mr. White inflicts upon his fellow officers, or as he realizes that he has just shot a woman in cold blood.
Now consider Pulp Fiction, which favors intensity over explicit gore and often either places violence outside the frame or shoots it in an oblique way. When Butch takes out Maynard with the samurai sword, the camera is at first between him and his victim, so we only see Maynard’s back; after he turns and Butch steps into close-up, the second slash is below the frame line. “Flock of Seagulls” is dispatched in a long shot, his shooting a surprise, but accompanied by no gore. When Jules and Vincent kill Brett and the fourth man in the bathroom, the camera stays on the killers, not their victims. Even the messy shooting of Marvin is seen from outside Jules’ car, the explosion of blood softened by our view of it through the back window.
“As I saw it a second and third time,” Roger Ebert wrote in 1995, “I realized it wasn’t as violent as I thought—certainly not by the standards of modern action movies. It seems more violent because it often delays a payoff with humorous dialogue, toying with us.” Ebert also noted that, in a rather sly bit of gun control commentary, the weapons in the film are seldom used by the person, or on the victim, for which they were intended: Marsellus’ gun kills Vincent instead of Butch, Maynard’s gun maims Zed, the fourth man’s gun doesn’t kill Vincent and Jules, Vincent’s gun accidentally kills Marvin, and Jules’ gun prevents, rather than causes, violence in the coffee shop.
Writer Edward Gallafant points out another interesting moment, one that is not “narratively necessary” (and one that is curiously absent from the screenplay): the brief exchange between Vincent, Jules, and Marvin after Brett’s shooting. Marvin seems panicked and upset by what he’s seen, and Vincent advises Jules that Marvin should either quiet down or leave. Gallafant suggests that it “underlines the massive difference in sensibility here between the hit men, who have no reaction to the situation beyond a calculation of who is dead and who is not, and Marvin, to whom the violence is present as something awful and immediate happening to the body of another.” It’s the kind of moment all too uncommon in mainstream cinema—one in which a character is allowed not only to consider violence, but also to be affected by it. What’s particularly crafty about that beat is that Tarantino places it at the moment in his screenplay when his two cold, calculating killers are about to approach something like those feelings themselves (by the oncoming miracle/freak occurrence).
“I get a kick out of violence in movies,” Tarantino has said, while emphasizing, “I don’t get a kick out of badly done violence or action scenes in movies. It’s like, ‘How far is too far?’ Well, if they do it well, there shouldn’t be, ‘How far is too far?’” Besides, he points out, everyone’s tolerance is his or her own. “What I find offensive,” he was fond of saying during the Dogs publicity tour, “is that Merchant-Ivory shit.”