Great Film: Pulp Fiction- A Post-modern Critique of Post-modernism?
“Hearing nuns’ confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn” -Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
If the above quotation is indeed true then hearing the confessions of the character’s of Pulp Fiction would be like being stoned to death by hurtling asteroids. Sometimes you can learn more from the confession of an evil man than you can from a saint. As my mother wouldn’t hesitate to tell you, Pulp Fiction is a vile, violent over top extraveganza of violence, profanity, abuse and human degradation… and here’s a secret, I love every minute of it.
There is no modern film that can come close to competing with fandom when it comes to quoting the popular lexicon. The movie has so many iconic lines it’s hard just to choose a few for the purposes of this review. Who can forget Christopher Walken’s diatribe on how Bruce’s watch reached him from the bowels of POW hell. Nor the stimulating conversation about a foot message and its sexual nature. Or Jules famously quoting Ezekiel 25:17 right before he murdered the teens who betrayed his master. The movie is full of them, and it is because of this dialogue that it has reached the status of great reverence that all hold for it today. The dialogue leaps off the screen, it stays with us, and while seemingly disconnected from all purpose it ties the convoluted timeline of the movie together by linking scenes.
But what does it all mean? In true postmodern fashion almost all critics hold that it means nothing. That man, in his post modern state is beset on all sides by meaningless violence and random chance. The very structure of the film is pure post-modernism. It destroys the last meta narrative in film, the timeline. Thus the film’s scenes truly are a reflection on the current post-modern era, and the film becomes a microcosm of the post modern world.
This is far to simplistic of an analysis, and more to the point, just isn’t true. To get to where I’m want to be we’re first going to have to define a few terms. Post Modernism is “a tendency in contemporary culture characterized by the rejection of objective truthand global cultural narrative or meta-narrative.” Now a meta narrative in postmodern philosophy “is an abstract idea that is thought to be a comprehensive explanation of historical experience or knowledge”. Put simply, it is a grand schema, i.e. God, God’s Hand, A Hegelian view of history, Manifest Destiny, etc. It is any idea that motivates, moves, or creates some objective idea or thought that is viewed as moving or influencing humanity. Any ethical system would fit into its category. Post Modernism is a categorical rejection of these meta narratives. This is overly simplistic but post modernism is the idea that aims to “expose and undermine the frame of reference, assumptions, and ideological underpinnings of the” art it references. Basically it espouses that things can have no grand meaning, that everything can mean different things to everyone, and that there are no universal truths.
As you can probably guess from my explanation of Great Films, I’m not a fan of Post Modernism. In fact, post modernism mandates there are no great films.
Pulp Fiction certainly fits within the post modern framework, and I can see how many would miss its not so explicit rejection of post modernism. The truth, can be found in the greatness of the movie, it’s dialogue. Pulp Fiction is ultimately a contrast between two characters, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta). Both experience a traumatic and improbable event, then react in different ways to it, finally choosing or not choosing to take the event as a sign of something greater, a clear meta narrative in a post modern world.
The event I’m talking about of course is when the hidden gangster bursts out of the closest after Jules and Vincent killed his friends, popping off 7 shots point blank range with a huge revolver, and every shot misses the two hit men. Taking a moment to process what just happened, they then easily dispose of the hidden gangster and get into an immediate argument about what just transpired.
Jules: This was Divine Intervention! You know what “divine intervention” is?
Vincent: Yeah, I think so. That means God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets.
Jules: Yeah, man, that’s what it means. That’s exactly what it means! God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets.
Vincent: I think we should be going now.
Jules: Don’t do that! Don’t you fucking do that! Don’t blow this shit off! What just happened was a fucking miracle!
Vincent: Chill the fuck out, Jules, this shit happens.
Jules: Wrong! Wrong, this shit doesn’t just happen.
Vincent: Do you wanna continue this theological discussion in the car, or at the jailhouse with the cops?
Jules: We should be fuckin’ dead now, my friend! We just witnessed a miracle, and I want you to fucking acknowledge it!
Vincent however, is incapable of recognizing the meta narrative that he just witness. Instead the men with Marvin, get in the car to bring the suitcase back to Marcellus. The meta narrative has other plans for Vincent when he shoots Marvin in the face, killing him. The importance of the dialogue can be lost in the humor and shock of the scene so lets take a look here.
Jules: What the fuck’s happening, man? Ah, shit man!
Vincent: Oh man, I shot Marvin in the face.
Jules: Why the fuck did you do that!
Vincent: Well, I didn’t mean to do it, it was an accident!
Jules: Oh man I’ve seen some crazy ass shit in my time…
Vincent: Chill out, man. I told you it was an accident. You probably went over a bump or something.
Jules: Hey, the car didn’t hit no motherfucking bump!
Vincent: Hey, look man, I didn’t mean to shoot the son of a bitch. The gun went off. I don’t know why.
This is a great little easter egg hidden by Tarantino in the shock of the situation. Vincent didn’t shoot Marvin. The gun went off. Something else made the gun go off, killing Marvin just like something else made the bullets miss from the earlier scene. This time however, Vincent has no choice to acknowledge intervention from something higher, like when he claimed the previous shooter simply missed. This time he knows that something set the gun off and it wasn’t him. Perhaps a meta narrative warning him that he will end up the same way if he doesn’t acknowledge that there are greater truths, namely that God still active in the world.
Thanks to the postmodern disjointed framework of the film we see that Vincent, unlike Jules does not heed these examples of the meta narrative, which cost him his life at the hands of Bruce Willis. This however isn’t the final scene of the movie. It occurs randomly in the middle of the story, with barely any emphasis placed on the actual death. Thus Vincent’s death isn’t the point. Yes it’s a cautionary tale, but the true story and lesson lies with Jules. This turns even the perceived post modern structure of the film into part of the meta narrative. While seemingly random and disjointed, it is in fact emphasizing Jules’ conversion.
In the final scene of the movie the restaurant the two men dine at, in a wonderful ironic twist is itself robbed. The film’s structure has come full circle from the opening scene, and true emphasis is placed on what occurs after the film cut away from the original opening scene. Jules, rather than resorting to violence and killing the unsuspecting mugger when he can, has an important conversation with him. One the movie hinges on. It goes like this…
“There’s this passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17. “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is The Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.” I been saying that shit for years. And if you heard it, that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker ‘fore I popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this mornin’ made me think twice. See, now I’m thinking, maybe it means you’re the evil man, and I’m the righteous man, and Mr. 9 millimeter here, he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or, it could mean you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is, you’re the weak, and I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd.”
One of my favorite pieces of dialogue from any film, but how is it a rejection of post modernism? Before the events that transpired in the film Jules states “I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker ‘fore I popped a cap in his ass“. Like every post modern man around him, this quote meant nothing to pre reform Jules. It was simply something that could be bent to his will to intimidate those he was about to kill. The grand narrative and biblical culture behind the verse meant nothing, and God didn’t exist.
Then, citing the near death experience and death of Marvin, Jules states “But I saw some shit this mornin’ made me think twice. See, now I’m thinking, maybe it means you’re the evil man, and I’m the righteous man, and Mr. 9 millimeter here, he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or, it could mean you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. I’d like that“. At this point Jules has made progress. He recognizes that the words aren’t simple cool things to say to a man before you kill him, they have inherent meaning, a greater message behind them.
But then the real whopper of a rejection for post modernism comes. Jules finally states “I’d like that, But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is, you’re the weak, and I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd”. Jules admits that he would like to conform the meta narrative to his own world view, where the scripture meant something individual but grand to him. Smartly though, he rejects this. He comes to terms that he is in fact, an evil man. He recognizes the irony in him having read this to people he was about to execute. That piece of scripture, the one he has recited so many times into memory, is important because it does mean something greater than him, greater that Marcellus, something that he can not change. A definition above him. An absolute truth. A truth that labels him as evil, which refutes his way of life and warns of the impending wrath of God because of it.
Pulp Fiction is a movie about him recognizing the existence of truth, figuring out that truth, and ultimately following that truth. Jules learns from these experiences discovering a universal truth and attempts to subject himself to its validity, by “trying to be the Shepherd”. Thanks to the film’s post modern structure, we also learn that he is ultimately successful, as he does quit his evil profession as promised, which is evidenced by the fact that he is not there when Vincent is shot and killed.
Does this make Pulp Fiction a Christian film? I recognize I’m prone to see Christian messages in films where most don’t see them. I wouldn’t however, call Pulp Fiction Christian per se. It is certainly religious, but all of it’s religious references are based more on Old Testament instances rather than the new. This still, is besides the point, Religion in the film is there not because Tarantino is arguing for or against the existence of God, but for the importance of the objective idea of God. He could have chosen any meta narrative to refute post modernism, but in the end went with the most famous one, that of the divine hand of the deity. It is for this wonderful plot, supported by some of the best movie dialogue of all time, that I list Pulp Fiction as the first in my series of Great Film reviews.