I think there’s at least two aspects of modern narrative techniques from which Pulp Fiction benefits greatly, the idea of choosing a clear premise and immediately setting the most ( apparently ) incapacitated characters to achieve that premise and the enigmatic ability to hide the chronological sense that the non-linear narrative gives to stories. Quentin Tarantino demonstrates, or demonstrated back in 1995, his great ability to build complex and yet surprisingly simple stories. This, which sounds paradoxical, can be summarized in the old proverb that sometimes the simplest is the most complex, taking the narrative technique to its simplest patterns, the essential ones, altering its order, its presentation, but maintaining its deep meaning, is what allows a story like Pulp Fiction to work and not to feel like the sum of three different stories.
Take for example the idea of protagonist, for purists, for academics, this narrative element is defined as the character who carries the emotional weight in the story. From this we can intuit that there is an emotional weight in the story, right? Well this has been called the “tunnel of emotions” or the “simple emotional journey” that the protagonist goes through and that shapes the plot, or that the plot produces in the character (depending if you’re going to be a dick about it). Well apparently Quentin Tarantino took this idea of a protagonist and really just stuck with the simple emotional journey. Why do I say this? Well because the emotional journey in Pulp Fiction is shared by 3 main characters, one for each part of the story (and yes, the movie is episodic). Three major acts define the story, the first part for John Travolta, the second for Bruce Willis and the third for Samuel L. Jackson. However, if we assume that these three characters are one and the same, or in other words, that there is only a single emotional journey between the three of them, we can clearly understand what the film is about.
First, the story of Vincent Vega, the most impulsive of the characters, is the initial world of the story. A character unable to control himself, just back from a vacation in a paradise of drugs and excesses, has the mission to take care of the boss’s wife, a femme fatale that will bring him very close to betrayal and the consequences of excess, but that will not produce in him any change. After this, Vincent arrives at the bar where he meets his boss and Butch (Bruce Willis). In a tense moment, both characters measure their strength and perhaps symbolically exchange roles.
Now it is the turn of the next character, I mean Butch (Bruce Willis), who is warned not to act impulsively, not to be “proud” is what Marcellus Wallace, Vincent’s boss and owner (apparently) of Butch’s destiny, an obviously proud and impulsive boxer, tells him to lose the next fight in the fifth round. But obviously Butch is not going to do this, worse, he has cooked up a plan to win the fight and keep the betting money. A decision that, when carried out, becomes the midpoint of the film, the fulfillment of desire. If Vincent had to restrain himself from taking Mia Wallace to bed (Uma Thurman, Marcelus’ wife) this time Butch disobeys the boss and gets (potentially) what he wants. From here on the film moves on to the classic narrative archetype of the escape from the cave, described by Christopher Vogler in his “The Writer’s Journey” and carried out to the letter, the final confrontation between Butch (here protagonist of the story) and Marcellus (opponent) results in Butch’s self revelation, the honor inherited from his father, a war hero, which leads him to take the symbolic katana and save Marcellus from the hands of “corrupted soldiers”, thus ending the conflict between the two.
After this, the film gets a little strange, after the end of Butch’s story we move on to the story of Jules, who has another self revelation relatively similar to Butch’s, after miraculously surviving a series of bullets aimed to kill him. Jules decides to quit criminal activities, retire, transform himself into a kind of Siddhartha and wander the world, what he is really telling us is that he wants to get away from conflict and here I think is the crux of the whole thing. Vincent, who doesn’t see the miraculous escape as a prophetic vision, accidentally shoots Marvin, the boy in the car, causing another conflict that makes the film even longer. Could it be that Quentin already had his story ready at the end of Butch’s story but, forced to adhere to the Hollywood canon of three acts of standard movie length, got caught up in the nature of the conflict? Well, Jules does realize that as long as he remains in the criminal world, violent acts will continue to occur and his transition, the decision to stop committing violent acts, leads him to disappear from the film without explanation, because as we already know, when Vincent goes to Butch’s apartment he is killed precisely because he is not with Julius.
For me, the third portion of the film feels a bit disconnected from the rest of the story just like the first part, I understand that it is part of the non-linear plot and that it is the most meta reflection of the story, committing violent acts never ends well or committing violent acts produces conflicts that are only ended with a positive moral decision, be it honor for Butch or a religious revelation for Lucius. Recalling John Truby, the famous script consultant, he points out that in good movies the protagonists make bad decisions all the way to the end, each of those decisions a little less bad than the last, until they reach the point where they realize how wrong they are and then change, save themselves or die. In the case of Pulp Fiction both happen, two are saved and one dies, arguably the worst one of all, the unsalvageable one.
Well, I think that’s it, I decided not to talk about the non-linear editing and stuff, I think we can all make the mental effort to tell us the tale chronologically. Besides I think that’s not the point of the story, but this reflection on the nature of conflict and decisions, something like “making good decisions leads you out of conflict”. Now, for this Quentin Tarantino (the one from 1994) it seems that making good decisions has to do with factors external to the individual, a completely religious look that is closer to the youth free of pessimism and that puts him strangely on par with contemporaries like Richard Linklater. Anyway, I think Quentin Tarantino is a person very studious of literary techniques, which is strange because he keeps saying he didn’t go to film school, but it’s obvious that he has studied a lot of narrative, I also want to say, to finish, that in narrative seems to be a general idea that existence is mostly out of control for the characters, is this a product of the narrative action? I am referring to the process of writing a story. Or is it an acute reflection on the nature of conscious existence?