Pulp Fiction: Quentin Tarantino’s Deconstructions Of The American Mythos

 

PulpFiction8It’s been twenty years since I first saw Pulp Fiction.  I was so enamoured with the film I saw it three times in the theatre.  As a teen, I was draw in by the bizarre and entertaining plotting, the stylistic characters, and the juxtaposition seemingly trivial pop-culture references and hyper-violence.  Having recently heard about the film celebrating its 20th anniversary and then coincidentally coming across a copy of the screenplay at Juniper’s Used and Rare Books, I figured it was time that I re-read the script.  When viewing the film in the context of Quentin Tarantino’s later films, most especially Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, I was amazed at how mature Pulp Fiction is and how well it fits into Tarantino’s oeuvre of self-critical explorations into America’s psychological make-up, an exploration that both celebrates and criticizes Americana by using a metaphoric narrative that speak to American foreign policy and a less veiled narrative that speaks to the flaws of the war on drugs.  The film, unlike many whose stylistic nuances I fell in love with as a teen, has improved with age, demonstrating that Tarantino, even in his earliest films, manages to find a happy medium between style and substance.

 

Amanda Plumber and Tim Roth.

Amanda Plumber and Tim Roth.

In terms of America’s foreign policy, Tarantino provides an introduction to America’s flawed approach in the first scene.  When Ringo (Tim Roth) and Yolanda (Amanda Plummer), a pair of gun-toting lovers who have a fondness for holding up liquor stores, make plans for their future crimes, they lay out a metaphor for the West’s imperialistic tendencies.  It is important to note that Ringo is English and that Yolanda, an America, follows Ringo’s lead, much as America has follow Britain’s imperialistic example.  Just as Britain colonized America, India and Africa, America has gone on to ‘colonize’ other country, such as Korea, with some success, and Vietnam, with far less success.  Ringo bemoans that the pair’s most recent excursions into relieving liquor stores of their profits has featured “Too many foreigners [who] own liquor stores”, noting that the “Vietnamese, Koreans, fuckin’ don’t even speak English” (10).  Though Tarantino could have referenced any numbers of nationalities, he picks the two that America went to war with for extended periods of time.  The sentence also demonstrates how egocentric the pair’s mentality is as they are disheartened that the people they are robbing don’t speak their language, expecting those they exploit to cater to their desires.  This mentality is reinforced by the fact that Ringo misuses a foreign language later in the scene, calling out for the waitress by shouting “Garçon! Coffee!”  The waitress, who Ringo had just rebuffed when she offered to fill his cup up, corrects Ringo, telling him that “Garçon means boy” (11).  The hypocrisy of Ringo’s criticism of others who do not speak Ringo’s language is on full display as he butchers the French language.  The scene also displays Ringo as a figure who views himself as entitled as he flatly turns down coffee when the waitress offers it, but then shouts for it almost as soon as she walks away, demanding, not asking, for more.  This display suggests that Ringo feels the waitress should be serving his whims and that he ought not to have any consideration for her.

 

 

Uma Thurman, who stars as Mia Wallace.

Uma Thurman, who stars as Mia Wallace.

This imperialistic entitlement is further explored as the scene unfolds.  Ringo complains that those who they rob “make it too personal” (10), as if those being stolen from shouldn’t take the theft of their personal possessions as a personal attack.  Ringo’s language also mirrors the dehumanizing process linked with American military action.  Rather than refer to the exploited as people, Ringo, like many American military men, categorizes them into nationalities and then uses pejorative terms to refer to them, like ‘gooks’.  Ringo worries that if they “keep on, one of those gook motherfucker’s gonna make [Ringo and Yolanda] kill ‘em”, and when Yolanda claims that she doesn’t want to kill anybody, Ringo says that he doesn’t “want to kill anybody either”, but then claims that “they’ll probably put [the pair] in a situation where it’s [Yolanda and Ringo] or them” (10).  This egocentric approach is typical of the American military.  When, for instance, America went into Vietnam, the Vietnamese were simply trying to hold national elections so that they might be able to govern themselves rather than be ruled by a foreign power like France or America.  When America invaded Vietnam, many military personal killed members of the Vietcong indiscriminately, blaming the Vietcong for the actions despite the fact that it was the Americans who invaded Vietnam and initiated the conflict.  The Gulf Of Tonkin is the epitome of this approach.  America, who had ignored the UN’s order to hold elections, sent the USS Maddox into Vietnamese water, a hostile act.  When the Vietnamese responded by defending their territory, America saw this as an act of war, not an act of self-defence.  This mirrors Ringo’s view that a Vietnamese store owner, by defending his property, would be ‘making Ringo kill him’, and putting Ringo in a situation where it’s either Ringo or the Vietnamese store owner.  One could imagine a more current interpretation of this conversation speaking to concerns about robbing convenient stores run by Iraqis and Afghans, which would be equally effective and appropriate given America’s most recent imperialist ambitions.

 

Kathy Griffin, who has a bit part in Pulp Fiction.

Kathy Griffin, who has a bit part in Pulp Fiction.

When the violence of America’s foreign policy proves too costly to be profitable, they opt to invite foreign people into their own country that they might exploit them there, along with America’s own citizens.  Ringo suggests robbing the diner in which they are eating.  This essentially amounts to robbing the middle class.  When Ringo proposes this, he suggests they will receive little resistance.  The busboy, who he describes as “some wetback getting’ paid a dollar-fifty a hour” is not going to care if they steal from the owner.  This speaks to the nature of exploitation, referencing how immigration laws allow employees to exploit migrant workers who have not secured residency in America, but it also speaks to the divisions such relationships create.  Because the middle class is put in a position where they need to exploit migrant workers to turn a profit, and migrant workers are put in a position where they have no other work available to them, the relationship between the two is inherently exploitative and in turn antagonistic at best.  Third parties, then, can exploit one group without fear of reprisals from the other.  The same works for the patrons as Ringo hypothesizes that they will allow the robbery to take place and hand over their wallets and purses so long as they don’t get killed.  This represents how easily groups of people can be persuaded to handover their rights in exchange for relative safety, such as many Americans did when the PATRIOT Act was signed into law and again when the NSA was granted unconstitutional rights to spy on Americans.  It is fear that is used to confiscation of the diners’ wallets and purses, which is akin to the excessive tax burden put on the working and middle classes in the name of supporting a defense budget, which is likewise rationalized by fear.

 

IngloriousBasterdsThe nature of these relationships is subtly packed up in the context of a discussion on robbery and may seem like a stretch to some, but in the context of Tarantino’s other works, it is clear that this preoccupation with America’s psychology is present in all of Tarantino’s films.  This is perhaps most notably exemplified in Inglorious Basterds during the basement scene where the Americans, who pride themselves on killing anti-Semitic Nazis because of their policy on eugenics, are reminded of their own history that includes the enslavement of millions of people through a reference to the 1933 film King Kong (not to be confused with the 2005 film of the same name).  This criticism of America’s notions of entitlement and romanticized, mythological history is further criticized in Django Unchained, which much more overtly criticizes America’s past relationship with slavery.  Though some might view a link between American foreign policy and a conversation between two armed robbers as a stretch, it is clear that Tarantino’s filmography is comprised of several films that serve as an cathartic examinations of America’s violations of human rights.  But Tarantino doesn’t allow the substance of the scene to usurp the style, balancing the two and allowing viewers to either enjoy the stylistic dialogue, or engage with a deeper reading.

 

Butch receives the watch his father left behind from Captain Koons, played by Christopher Walker.

Butch receives the watch his father left behind from Captain Koons, played by Christopher Walker.

This link with imperialist conquests moves from dining-room metaphors to actual conflicts when the narrative surrounding Butch (Bruce Willis) is introduced.  Butch’s father had been given a watch that had been handed down from his grandfather, and was worried that when he was captured and sent to a Vietnamese POW camp, that the “slopeheads were gonna put their greasy yella hands on his boy’s birth right” (86).  We are shown how Butch, at an early age, is taught to dehumanize entire ethnic groups under the pretense that he is entitled to something by birth, calling on the practice of primogeniture.  Butch carries this cultural insensitivity with him into adulthood.   When he is getting a cab ride after the conclusion of his boxing match, his Colombian cab driver initiates a conversation, introducing herself as Esmarelda Villalobos.  He asks if the name is ‘Mexican’, but she corrects him, saying “The name is Spanish, but [that she is] Colombian”, offering that the name means Esmarelda of the wolves” (93).  Butch conflates Columbian people with Mexicans whilst mistakenly referring to Spanish as Mexican, demonstrating his utter ignorance.  This ignorance is not only present in relation to other cultures, but to his own as well.  When Esmarelda asks him what his name stands for, he replies that he’s American and that American names, like foot massages, “don’t mean shit” (94).  ‘Butch’, however, does mean something.  It is an abbreviation of ‘butcher’, but Butch seems unaware of his own heritage, much as many Americans are deluded about their history, romanticizing a group of slave owners by referring to them as the ‘founding fathers’.  The name proves to be prophetic as Butch literally ends up cutting ‘meat’ in the form of Maynard, a redneck rapist who Butch slices up with a samurai sword.  Butch, unaware of what his past is, and what his heritage is, is doomed to repeat it.  Because he doesn’t know that he is a ‘butcher’, he is fated to fulfills the role of butcher, ending up with with red blood stains down the front of his white t-shirt, much like butchers have on their white frocks.

 

Butch the butcher.

Butch the butcher.

America’s conflict in Vietnam is portrayed as less than altruistic throughout Butch’s narrative.  When Butch awakes the morning after his fight, it is the 1970 film The Losers (not to be confused with the 2010 film of the same name) that wakes him.  The film depicts The Hells Angels taking on the Vietcong army, linking the American military with a motorcycle gang: not the most flattering portrayal.  Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), who paid Butch to take a dive, finds out Butch double crossed him and tells his henchmen that if “Butch goes to Indo-China, [he ]wants[s] a nigger hidin’ in a bowl of rice, ready to pop a cap in his ass” (91).  This mirrors the American policy of containment, where by the American military aimed to stop the ‘spread of communism’ (thanks McCarthy) at all costs.  And if there were communists in Indo-China, say Vietnam, then the American military was going to send some troops there to hide in a bowl of rice and pop a cap in their asses, even if that meant usurping the autonomy of a sovereign nation and killing innocent people while impeding the democratic rights of a people and refusing to allow them to hold democratic, national elections.  And if the pinkos were in Afghanistan, then the American military would send troops there too.  Because Wallace, like The Hells Angels, is a representative of a gang, this approach of fighting one’s battle in another persons’ back yard is again linked with organized crime, suggesting that the American military is the international version of an organized crime family.

 

 

Sam Jackson

Sam Jackson

Tarantino’s presentation of American imperialism isn’t entirely dark, and the internal struggle to improve the world is encapsulated through hippster hit man Jules (Samuel L. Jackson).   Like Ringo, Jules states that “if push met shove”, he would “take care of business” (150), alluding to killing his friend Jimmy, as well as Jimmy’s wife, but he is also extremely reluctant to do that.  Jules, instead of being aligned with American military actions in Vietnam, is linked with American military actions from WWII, as he frames himself as The Guns of Navarone (159), referencing the WWII film about the Battle of Leros.  Unlike the Vietnam war, WWII was a defensive war where America was attacked first. Jackson, then, is aligned with justifiable military action, such as when he kills men who tried to rob Marcellus Wallace, and likewise when he himself is robbed by Ringo and Yolanda.  Ultimately, though, Jules is uncomfortable with his role of avenging perceived wrongs, which is made clear in the climactic scene when Jules confronts Ringo.  During the scene, Jules offers Ringo an alternate version of the iconic speech he gave earlier in the narrative: a liberal paraphrasing of Ezekiel 25:17.  The original Biblical text is explains the difference between justice and revenge, noting that Philistines took “revenge with malice in their hearts” (Ezekiel 25:15).  Jules speaks of the ‘path of the righteous man’, the ‘tyranny of evil men’, the ‘shepherds’ and the ‘weak’, and tries to situate himself within this group of people.  The truth of the matter is that many Americans see themselves as ‘the righteous man’, even as American assaults sovereign nations like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then sees groups like the Vietcong, al-Qaeda, and ISIS as the ‘tyranny of evil men’, failing to realize that the violent actions of these groups are largely responses to violent actions America has taken against them.  Jules realizes, though, that he is the tyranny of evil men and that people like Ringo, who allow or participate in violence, are the weak, but emphasizes that he is “tryin’ real hard to be a shepherd” (187).  This seems to be the spirit of American foreign policy, or at least how the government packages it up to its citizens, shepherding the weak and protecting them from dictators and tyrants.  Sadly, in the context of stories like the rape of Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi and the My Lai Massacre, it seems as though America is the tyrant acting with malice in their hearts.  Jules tries to change his path and reject a life of violence.  What happens to Jules is unclear, as we see no more of his character after this part of the narrative, but his partner Vincent (John Travolta) continues his life as a hit man, ultimately meeting a violent death.  Tarantino’s narrative demonstrates that while we may not know what happens should we reject violence, we do know that embracing violence will only end in tragedy.

 

 

Uma Thurman and John Travolta.

Uma Thurman and John Travolta.

Vincent’s narrative also offers some insight into the problems associated with American individualism and the romanticization/mythologizing of America’s history.  Vincent notes that the Quarter-Pounder with Cheese is called a Royale with Cheese in France because France uses the metric system and “they wouldn’t know what the fuck a quarter pounder is” (15).  This demonstrates how America, despite the fact that every other nation on the fucking planet (outside of Myanmar and Liberia) uses metric, INSISTS on using standard because they don’t want somebody else telling them how to do something.  American individualism at is most useless!  That is, of course, unless America has really strong trade ties with Myanmar.  This creates communication issues as other nations don’t use the same measuring system.  Likewise, when Vincent and Mia (Uma Thurman) go out for dinner, they visit Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a 50’s themes restaurant that celebrates America’s past.  This past is celebrated, but it is not accurately or comprehensively represented.  There is, for instance, no mention of the fact that in the 1950’s, people of colour would not have been allowed to eat at the same restaurant as whites.  This mythologizing of the past sanitizes America’s history, leaving out the inconvenient truths and replacing them with Marilyn Monroe impersonators.  The restaurant also serves as a venue  to demonstrate the American tendency to categorize people as Mia confuses Mamie Van Doren with Marilyn Monroe.  This demonstrates the temptation to categorize people into archetypes: curvaceous blondes, for instance, are equated with Marilyn Monroe.  Whilst this may seem innocuous in this instance, when in foreign countries like Iraq or Vietnam and American troops are supposed to be protecting civilians, it is all too easy to confuse and conflate a civilian with a member of the Vietcong or al-Qaeda since they share a similar appearance, like Van Doren and Monroe do.

 

A young John Travolta.

A young John Travolta.

Tarantino’s commentary on the war of drugs also speaks to American imperialism.  When buying heroin from his dealer Lance (Eric Stoltz), Vincent is offered a brief catalog of products to choose from: “Panda, from Mexico… Bava… And… Choco from the Harz Mountains in Germany”.  Vince suggests that the standard for heroin in Amsterdam, where he just visited, is much higher, but Lance says that he would “take the Pepsi challenge with Amsterdam shit any ol’ day of the fuckin’ week” (40).  What is important to note is that none of the products are produced in America.  They are all imported.  America, then, is relying on other countries to produce these drugs, allowing the violence associated with them to take place largely outside of America before importing them.  The drugs are then no different than conflict diamonds.  It is also interesting to note that this economic structure mirrors Rome in the years leading to its fall.  The ultimate imperial nation was no longer producing goods and exporting them, but rather importing them.  America, likewise, acts strictly as consumer of goods and exporter of violence, a system that will eventually crumble in on itself.

 

John Travolta (left), Rosanna Arquette, and Eric Stoltz.

John Travolta (left), Rosanna Arquette, and Eric Stoltz.

More problematic are the issues caused by the war on drugs.  When drug users, for instance, suffer from an overdose, the users and their friends are discouraged from seeking professional medical assistance because it might lead to criminal prosecution, as Lance notes when Vincent asks him to help Mia, who is overdosing on heroin.  Lance tells Vince to “bite the fuckin’ bullet, take ‘er to a hospital and call a lawyer” (73).  Rather than having a doctor look at Mia, a drug dealer ends up instructing a hit man to stab Mia’s heart with an adrenaline needle (79-81).  The ‘war on drugs’ has created a significant amount of ‘collateral damage’, and though most might not be sympathetic to somebody who overdoses on drugs, the innocent people who have been killed or injured in during no-knock police raids is frighteningly high.  A Georgian toddler, for instance, had a hole blown in his chest by a concussion grenade that was thrown into his crib by police.  This excessive authority given to police is a far cry from the scenario in Amsterdam.  Vince outlines the hash laws in Amsterdam:

It breaks down like this: it’s legal to buy it, it’s legal to own it and, if you’re the proprietor of a hash bar, it’s legal to sell it.  It’s legal to carry it, but, but, but that doesn’t matter ‘cause – get a load of this, alright – if the cops stop you, it’s illegal for them to search you.  I mean, that’s a right the cops in Amsterdam don’t have.  (14)

With citizens allowed to use recreational drugs, violence is drastically cut down, police are not allowed to use excessive force, and the criminal element is removed from the selling of drugs.  In this context, one has to wonder what value there is in maintaining this ‘war on drugs’.  Tarantino does an excellent job of highlighting the absurdity of the war on drugs through his quirky and endearing dialog.

 

 

Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino

Though the screenplay does differ slightly from the final cut of the film, the spirit of the film remains the same.  Much has been said about the theme of redemption present in the film, but the characters in the film call upon certain archetypes and ask the viewer to frame this notion of redemption in the context of American history, a theme that runs throughout many of Tarantino’s films.  Strongly rooted in reference to the Vietnam war, Tarantino seems to be acutely aware of the impact that imperialism has had on America’s psyche.  Tarantino ultimately argues that if America is going to have malice in their hearts, they will forever be the ‘tyranny of evil’, and though the path of the shepherd is unknown, the path of the malicious heart is fated for tragedy.

 

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. Interesting piece. I especially enjoy the pick about the guessing game in Inglorious Basterds. I never thought of it like that before, but it makes so much sense. I’m going to have to re-watch Pulp Fiction now.

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