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The Tao of Tarantino: An Analysis of Pulp Fiction

Updated on July 30, 2017
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Since its release in 1994, Pulp Fiction has received much praise and is considered one of “the most influential films of the 1990sa delirious post-modern mix of neo-noir thrills, pitch-black humor, and pop-culture touchstones.” (Rotten Tomatoes) It is a critic and moviegoer’s darling, with a 94% (out of 78 critics) and 96% (out of 1.1million views) on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie received twenty-six nominations from the Oscars, BAFTA, and Golden Globes, winning eight including the prestigious Palme d’Or. In 2007, it was ranked #94 on the American Film Institute’s list of top 100 films.

Tarantino is an auteur filmmaker; he has control over every aspect of the movie-making process. From this, his films possess a certain look and feel that is signature to him, Tarantino’s style. He is known to experiment with different techniques, quite successfully. Pulp Fiction is a great example of his fearless use of the camera; its stylized feel comes from, in part, his use of camera movement, crosscutting, and tension release.

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Camera movement is “the use of the camera to obtain various camera angles and perspectives” (Dirks). There are seven basic camera movements: “(1) pans, (2) tilts, (3) crane shots, (4) dolly shots, (5) zoom shots, (6) handheld shots, and (7) aerial shots” (Giannetti 110). Tarantino uses differential focus, a variation of the zoom shot, in the scene in the pawn shop basement. This is where the subject is zoomed in and clear in the shot, and everything around is blurred. First, the focus is on Marcellus and Butch and their reactions to the blurred unknown behind them. The focus on the two men blurs as the as the gimp is revealed to them and the audience. A dolly shot, also known as a track shot, is used at the beginning as hitmen Jules and Vincent go to retrieve the briefcase. From the moment they leave the elevator, the camera tracks out in in front of the men, as if leading them to their destination. Once they reach the door, the two men briefly walk away. Once they reach the doorway, the camera stops. Realizing they are a little early, the men step away from the door to finish a conversation, but the camera remains stationary. The camera instead pans, as to remind the viewers this is where they will be coming back to after this minor slide trip.

Crosscutting is used to great effect in the film. Also known as parallel cutting or intercutting, it is “quickly alternating back and forth between two actions taking place at separate locations…creates the impression that the two action are occurring simultaneously” (Petrie and Boggs 172). The most prominent use of crosscutting is in the section "Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace's Wife" and its prelude. In the prelude as Vincent prepares for his “date” with Mia, a scene of him driving to pick her up is juxtaposed with shots of his memories of his drug use earlier in the day. Later in the evening, after they have returned from Jack Rabbit Slim’s, Mia dancing is crosscut with Vincent talking to himself in the bathroom reviewing his current situation. A variation on crosscutting is the shot/counter shot, which Tarantino uses for the scenes in the restaurant’s booth. To create a sense of “psychological undertones…the Travolta character ‘keeps his distance’ from her-an aloofness that intrigues her,” Tarantino employs the shot/counter shot to place the characters “in separate space cubicles…stresses their psychological apartness. The editing keeps a distance between them” (Giannetti 144).

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As the movie is filled with violence and intense scenes, tension release is a necessity. This film technique, also known as comic relief, is “a humorous or farcical interlude in a dramatic film, usually provided by a buffoonish character, intended to relieve the dramatic, built-up tension or heighten the emotional impact by means of contrast” (Dirks). The segment “The Bonnie Situation” is a comical interlude sandwiched between the intense “The Gold Watch” and the ending at the diner. Tarantino accomplishes this as well through clever and well timed dialog throughout the film. Probably one of the most intense moments of the film is when Vincent has to give Mia the adrenaline shot. After she comes to screaming and flailing, she is asked to say something to let everyone know she is alright. She responds by saying “Something.” To add tension relief to the line provides, another woman, Jody giggles and says “Trippy.”

The film’s well known and documented use of biting dialogue and nonlinear narrative, a Tarantino trademark, showed him to be a cinematic tour de force. Images and lines from the film have become a part of our pop culture. Yet, it is to his credit that his overall filmmaking techniques have cemented his place in movie history, starting with Reservoir Dogs and solidified with Pulp Fiction. Tarantino sowed the world he was a force to be reckoned with. His ingenious use of camera movement, crosscutting and tension release is part of why Pulp Fiction is a modern classic.

Works Cited

Dirks, Tim. " Film Terms Glossary C-2." AMC Filmsite. American Movie Classics Company LLC, 2017. Web. 29 July 2017.

Giannetti, Louis. Understanding Movies. 12th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2011. Print.

Petrie, Dennis, and Joseph Boggs. The Art of Watching Films. 8th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2012. Print.

"Pulp Fiction (1994)." Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango, 2017. Web. 24 July 2017.

Pulp Fiction: Collector's Edition. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Maria de Medeiros, Ving Rhames, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken and Bruce Willis. Miramax, 2002. DVD.

© 2017 Kristen Willms

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