When 'Pulp Fiction' Bloodied American Cinema

When 'Pulp Fiction' Bloodied American Cinema

By Jack Doyle

A scene from Pulp Fiction


Because two decades after the release of his first big hit, Tarantino is still the most controversial director in Hollywood. 

By Jack Doyle

For fans of Quentin Tarantino, the lines still evoke so much, 20 years later. “All right, everybody be cool, this is a robbery!” And, “Oh man, I shot Marvin in the face.” And of course, the “Royale with cheese.” The images remain, too: The Bonnie and Clyde wannabes, ineptly robbing a diner. Samuel L. Jackson pointing a gun, wanting to be the shepherd. And most of all, a bloated, greasy-haired John Travolta in his first major comeback. 

Pulp Fiction is not your typical masterpiece. There’s no hero. Its soundtrack is laden with tacky disco. It’s full of profanity and gratuitous violence. But who can forget the opening, one of the most bizarre scenes in cinematic history: A pair of hit men arguing about dating etiquette enter a room, weigh the merits of different hamburger joints and shoot the place up while quoting fictional Scripture.

Asked why audiences like violence, Tarantino exclaimed exasperatedly: “Because it’s so much fun!”

Many audiences were appalled by the violence. But in the end the movie grossed more than $200 million. It became such a hallmark of modern American cinema that it was inducted into the Library of Congress. And 20 years after it hit U.S. cinemas, it’s more of a cult film now than ever before, enshrined by Banksy and quoted by millions

What’s so compelling about Quentin Tarantino? Thanks to his controversial trademarks — graphic violence, gore, the N-word and rampant profanity — this question gets asked every time one of his films tops the box office. 

The answer is hard to pin down and depends on whom you ask, but one thing’s for sure: That elusive quality first blasted off the screen with Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s second feature-length film.

For a movie often referred to as an “indy Star Wars,” Pulp Fiction took audiences completely by surprise back in 1994. Tarantino had enjoyed moderate success with his debut, Reservoir Dogs, but suffered a flop as the screenwriter for True Romance. So it was a bit of a shock when Pulp Fiction took Cannes by storm — and made its director an instant celebrity when it collected seven Oscar nominations.

a beautiful caucasian woman sips a milkshake inside a restaurant

Uma Thurman in a scene from Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction’s winning formula? Violence. Loads of gratuitous violence.

Tarantino has been hounded by critics who question his appetite for no-holds-barred gore since then-Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole condemned him as a purveyor of mindless violence. Pulp Fiction is no exception; it features a graphic heroin overdose, bloody shoot-outs and a man’s head exploding in the back of a car. 

But Tarantino has always denied the connection between violent movies and real-life mayhem. His intentions are more subversive. Tarantino actively challenges the members of his audience to turn the camera on themselves. “Laugh, laugh, now be horrified,” he once urged in a 2010 interview, citing that delicate turning point in violent scenes as the hook in his films.

“This is the oldest argument there is,” he said shortly after the release of Pulp Fiction. “Whenever there’s a problem in society, blame the playwrights: ‘It’s their fault; it’s the theater that’s doing it all.’”

And indeed, when Tarantino’s films coincide with violent events — Reservoir Dogs after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Django Unchained after the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting — the movies tend to catch more heat from the media than the painful, complex cultural roots of the tragedies themselves. 

The chopped-up narration of “Pulp Fiction” feels like a comic book.

Tarantino’s brand of violence taps into something we can all identify with — even if we don’t like to admit it. Summing this up while being grilled by a critic who asked why audiences like violence, he exclaimed exasperatedly: “Because it’s so much fun!” His blood and gore is deliberately over the top; it’s more absurd shoot-’em-up spectacle than serious event. As a devout fan of Westerns, kung fu movies and blaxploitation, Tarantino knows better than most how epic-style violence is a tried and tested part of our cinematic experience.

If, then, Tarantino’s violence is the fiction, the other essential ingredient is the pulp.   

a movie scene inside a restaurant involving two young caucasian men

John Travolta (left) and Quentin Tarantino during the making of Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction is awash with references to everyone’s favorite tropes in American cinema. Tarantino, a former video store employee, is a self-professed movie freak — Inglourious Basterds parodies classic war films, while Django Unchained pays homage to spaghetti Westerns.

But Pulp Fiction, with its neon Hollywood-themed diner, Goodfellas-esque mobsters and John Travolta dancing his way to a comeback after Saturday Night Fever and Grease, is another level of meta. The chopped-up narration of Pulp Fiction feels like a comic book, with the pivotal scenes taking place in diners and dive bars. Not to mention, characters dressed like noir hit men and gangsters. 

And, in turn, Pulp Fiction created several tropes of its own. 

Hit men Vince and Jules, for example, cemented black-and-white suits as a distinctively Tarantino aesthetic. The movie’s surf and rock ’n’ roll soundtrack became a staple for indy films. Pulp Fiction paraphernalia, from T-shirts to “Bad Motherfucker” wallets, can be found online. And Pulp Fiction’s chaotic narrative, jumping between time periods, characters and story lines, redefined what Hollywood can expect from its audiences — and how audiences perceive clever indy film.

And it makes for a great cinematic experience, whether at home with friends or at one of the many theaters around the globe that still offers a “Tarantino Night.”