“Pulp Fiction” – Tarantino’s Postmodern Manifesto

Pulp Fiction


Title: “Pulp Fiction”

Release Date: 1994

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, Ving Rhames, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer



When Quentin Tarantino won the battle for the Palme d’Or with Krzysztof Kieslowski at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, it was known that a new era of cinema had begun. “Pulp Fiction” turned out to be a film-manifesto that tore off the heavy robe of the X Muse to clothe it in an ethereal outfit sewn of genre pastiche, distancing from all ideologies and disparaging any form of violence.

“Pulp Fiction” – a genre pastiche in the style of Jean-Luc Godard

“Pulp Fiction” is a pastiche of several film genres. The main characters of Tarantino’s movie are two mafiosi: Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), who carry out paid murders on behalf of their boss Marsellus (Ving Rhames). During one of the “actions” they miraculously escape with their lives, which Jules sees as a sign from God to get out of the business. Vincent, however, scoffs at his partner and has no intention of leaving the profitable trade. He soon dies accidentally from his too-long visit to the restroom.

“Pulp Fiction” is a conglomeration of several stories arranged achronologically. Each of them perversely uses a different plot scheme: so here we have Vincent’s failed romance with his boss’s beautiful wife, Mia (played by Uma Thurman), or the story of boxer Butch (Bruce Willis), who takes money for losing a fight, but has no intention at all of keeping his end of the bargain. Tarantino reaches for familiar conventions, only to thwart and disappoint the audience’s expectations in a moment. In turn, each clue guarantees the audience a really good time. “Pulp Fiction”, for example, perversely parodies the tradition of the musical in the sequence with Mia and Vincent (how significant in this context is the casting of Travolta in the role of Vincent!).

Pulp Fiction movie review

The convention of American films about Vietnam, evoked in the story of the male members of Butch’s family, is in turn shattered by an American soldier’s account of the history of the gold watch. This soldier is supposed to pass on a family heirloom to an orphaned young boy, but his pathetic war story is nullified when it turns out that Butch’s father and later his companion stored the watch in his rectum. The same happens with the gangster story pattern of Butch’s escape – the suspenseful plot unexpectedly ends in a grotesque homosexual orgy.

On the other hand, the spirit of Jean-Luc Godard towers over the pastiche that reigns in “Pulp Fiction”. It is to him that Quentin Tarnatino consciously refers, and he does so even before the film’s opening credits. Indeed, the subtitle appears on the screen: “A Band Apart,” a reference to the French director’s work Bande a part (Amateur Gang, 1964). Tarantino draws on the entire oeuvre of the “Pope of the French New Wave” through his penchant for cinematic quotations, allusions and deconstruction of genres. Also, the extended dialogues that delay the action and the scenes set in cafes are somehow taken from Godard.

“Pulp Fiction” – the postmodern Tarantino

All the indicated Tarantino treatments, along with the reference to the leading representative of film modernism, are an expression of the postmodern attitude of the “Pulp Fiction” director. A casual attitude to the continuity of the plot and chronology, the aesthetics of pastiche and parody or, finally, reaching for schematic figures of B-grade cinema – express the chief idea of postmodern cinema, according to which the film ceased to be a coherent story about the world, and art is not at all a privileged discourse explaining reality. Everything has already been, and the director can only process old truths and dress them in new costumes. Grotesque and parody are used by Tarantino to undermine hallowed beliefs and ideas (this is vividly emphasized by the deconstruction of American patriotism in the story of the watch) – there is no single right truth, only different points of view, as everyone perceives the world through their own glasses.

Pulp Fiction 1994 film analysis

Significant in this context is the title of the film itself – “Pulp Fiction”. It is explained already at the beginning of the picture: for “pulp” means as much as “a magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper” – so it can be translated as “tabloid literature”. Reaching out to popular culture and making it an equal component of art with high culture is an extremely characteristic feature of postmodernism. This is exactly what Tarantino does in his film: he juxtaposes stories from completely different orders, a vivid example of which is an ill-advised gangster reciting verses from the Bible.

“Pulp Fiction” and the deconstruction of the idea of violence

It is also worth noting the function of violence in Tarantino’s work. After all, brutality is a typical component of popular cinema. “Pulp Fiction” is a movie in which blood pours in streams, and the characters brandish revolvers without restraint. In this way, the director imitates the tendency so characteristic of mass productions. In Tarantino’s case, however, the violence is reevaluated.

In scenes where it would be justified, the director uses an ellipsis treatment – he omits it altogether (for example, he doesn’t show the killing of the boxer during Butch’s fight), while where we don’t expect it, blood floods everything around (for example, in the scene in the car, when Vincent accidentally kills a fellow passenger). In this way, the brutality itself exposes its own absurdity. In essence, it serves no purpose and as such becomes fundamentally suspect. Therefore, Tarantino paradoxically uses violence while simultaneously undermining its purpose.

“Pulp Fiction” – metaphysics according to Tarantino

“Pulp Fiction” is also a movie that raises very important metaphysical issues in a light-hearted form. Tarantino seems to constantly ask about the role of chance in human life – hence the accidental deaths or rescues of characters. The director seems to invoke, as an allusion, an 18th century philosophical poem treating this issue, namely Denis Diderot’s Winnie the Fatalist. The reference to the French writer also appears in the form of a cryptic quotation, during a conversation between Vincent and Jules about the role of chance in getting to know certain people. Winnie the Fatalist begins precisely with the telling statement: “How did they meet? By chance, like everyone else.” And if fate is governed by chance, what about God and man’s power over his own fate? Are we dealing with a “non-accidental chance,” or a miracle – as Jules wants to read his rescue as a sign from the Creator Himself? It seems that these questions are not at all irrelevant in “Pulp Fiction”.


M. Przylipiak, J. Szyłak, Kino najnowsze, Kraków 1999.