Interpreting Pulp Fiction as a complex visual image while focusing only on one site and one modality sounded not good to me at first. In trying to unravel and explore the rich meaning residing in a particular visual image, I believe that one must exhaustively consider all the aspects that govern the work – production, image and audience and the technological, compositional and social considerations for each aspect. One must recognize that all of these aspects and considerations are constantly interplaying with one another in shedding light to and even associating greater meaning to the visual image at hand.
However, for the purposes of this paper, I shall select one site of meaning-formation and within it, one modality which I deem is the most important. That should not mean though, that in doing this selection, I will be totally ignoring the other sites and modalities. That would only confuse with the uneasiness I expressed above.
At first, it was tempting for me to focus on the site of the image itself. Since the image to be interpreted is a movie, full of characters in motion, character conversations, sequences of events and material details, I deemed it most suitable to focus on these multiple elements that compose the movie and where meaning is most likely to lay snug. In other words, if this is a literary work, I am highly tempted to do a formalistic reading of the text. The same with literary texts, I believe that in approaching and trying to understand a movie, one should begin by looking at its formal elements – the formal elements of the image. However, where one begins does not necessarily mean that it is also where one ends (Quite interestingly, this nearly happened in the movie Pulp Fiction). And I believe the reason why I am selecting the site of the audience and the social modality in interpreting Pulp Fiction lies on my perception of meaning-formation. It is a process that does not start and ends with the image and it alone. Meaning-formation for me is not a task that can be completed, not like a jar that can be completely closed or sealed, with all its contents protected inside and never meant to be touch again. For me, it ought to be an unending process of reading and interpreting, rereading and reinterpreting. This will only direct us to greater productivity. And for me, this can be achieved best only by focusing neither on the production of nor the image itself but on the audience –the real meaning-makers — and how do they engage themselves with the image.
Towards a critical methodology in approaching Pulp Fiction
What follows here is my own interpretation of Pulp Fiction – an interpretation that I am claiming as coming not exactly solely from the movie (the image) itself but more of from me as its interpreter (after engaging with the movie and its elements). The modality I chose is the social one because I agree with what Rose has said in the reading Researching visual materials: “there are, then, two aspects of the social modality of audiencing: social practices of spectating and the social identities of the spectator” (Rose 2001, 27). (This part still seems to be a spillover of the preceding discussion: a reflexive explanation and justification of where the interpretations have come from). The general trend of popular movies nowadays, the general attitude and responses of people towards movie-watching, and the ongoing analyzing of the movies as a historical and cultural product can be considered as part of the social practices of spectating. Meanwhile, my gender, nationality, educational background and social and political orientation can be dubbed as being part of my social identity as the spectator. These factors definitely influenced my interpretation of Pulp Fiction which at last, is here to follow.
Meaning in Pulp Fiction
Coming from the framework laid down and justified above, here is my “reading” of Pulp fiction as a visual image, specifically, a movie.
It is clearly an unconventional movie, with its deviations from many patterns established in conventional movies. This idea of convention rests within a social context operating with its own rules. These rules are precisely where the convention is basing itself from and relying for sustenance. In this social context, there is a certain, dominant way of understanding movies and the functions they serve. Movies are generally perceived as containing narratives that are complete and can be a source of several things like entertainment, profound morals and insights. The completeness of these narratives are exemplified by ultimately arriving at an “ending” where previous conflicts are resolved and usually, happiness is attained by the protagonists while retribution falls to the antagonists. The existence of an “ending” implies that the narrative is consisting of other elements. It also has a setting, a plot, a conflict, a climax among others, all of which has a role in leading the movie to its ending. The interrelation of these elements paves the way for the recognition and understanding of a uniform structure of movies (i.e. beginning, rising action, conflict, and so on until the resolution and ending) – which can also be tagged as its conventions. Then, this perceived uniform structure of movies gives rise to certain expectations from the viewing public.
This structure, created and continually maintained in a current social context, is precisely where the “unconventionality” of Pulp Fiction is being based from. We can judge or claim it to be unconventional by looking at its relation to the existing film conventions in the present social order.
One of the traits of Pulp Fiction that makes it unconventional is its sequencing of the events in its plot. Clearly, it defies the chronological pattern that is common to many movies of today. The order of events does not follow a defined order, i.e. from earliest to latest or vice versa. Rather, it interfuses scenes culled from varying time, as if jumping from point b to point e then jumping back to point c only to end up at point a. The movie begins with the restaurant scene where Honey Bunny and Pumpkin announced a robbery before jumping to the scene where Vincent and Jules killed a man who was told to have business transactions with their boss, Marsellus Wallace. When the movie is nearing its end, we were suddenly led back to the continuation of these earlier scenes. In the former, we saw Jules and Vincent also eating in the same restaurant where Pumpkin and Honey Bunny planned to rob, and ending up thwarting the plan. In the latter, we saw a young man listen from outside of the door how Jules and Vincent killed Roger and Brett, the persons whom Wallace has some deals with. The man could have avenged the two by killing Jules and Vincent, if only he was more accurate in gun shooting and his gun had a bit more bullets. He ended up being killed as well.
Another trait of Pulp Fiction that makes it unconventional, although somewhat related to the first one, is its intertwining of several story lines in a single narrative. This is quite different from the common case of a single storyline or the less common yet more familiar (in relation to several stories intertwined) case of separate storylines altogether (the only example I can think as of now is the local film Shake, Rattle and Role which sometimes comes up with two or three “stories” in a single movie. The “mini-movies” within the movie are not related or hardly allude or relate to any of the scenes or characters in the other movies).
In Pulp Fiction, we saw the small stories of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny attempting to rob a restaurant, Mia Wallace nearly succumbing to severe drug influence, Bruce’s struggle after accidentally doing the opposite of what Marsellus has paid for him to do and his act of saving Marsellus to sort of make up for the glitch he has done, and the two hitmen — Vincent and Jules’ – divergence from the path of violence and merciless killings. As we have seen, these small storylines are related to one another, the occurrences in one storyline having impact on some others.
These two digressions from film conventions are clearly not a random choice made by the director.
First, the chronological blur that is present in the movie can be interpreted as the movie’s way of demanding a different kind of approach from its viewers, an approach dissimilar to the way they get in terms with “normal” movies. Perhaps the movie wants its viewers to be more engaged in their film viewing, be keener at observing details and character behaviors, and be more cautious and careful in drawing inferences. Also, it can be read as its way of undermining the idea of the movie as a “complete” medium, of it being completed after the ending. Pulp Fiction ends with Vincent and Jules walking out of the restaurant just after foiling Honey Bunny and Pumpkin’s attempt to ransack the place. However, in the actual sequence of events, this scene is not the last among everything that has been shown in the movie. Earlier, we saw Vincent being killed by Bruce, implying that that scene came much later than the “final” scene of the movie. With that, the movie’s actual ending (Vincent and Jules walking out of the restaurant) prevents the viewers from making that sigh of “Good thing, it’s over” (enemies killed, problems solved etc.) as the credits begin to appear. They rethink, recall the earlier scenes and connect the dots to conclude that Vincent will be killed later, making the “ending” not precisely the last thing to happen in the movie’s story. By doing that, I believe that the movie wants to jolt its readers from the convenient way by which they make something out of film viewing. The movie implicitly asks the viewers to unconsciously change their manner of reflecting about the movies they see. Simultaneously, they offer an alternative way of seeing and perceiving.
On a more general tone, these disgressive acts in film-making techniques can also be seen as an act of implicitly criticizing and exposing the weaknesses of established norms and pioneers novelties in film-making and film-viewing.
The title itself and the way it was made to call attention to itself in the movie squares with the previous point. Before the start of the film, an American Heritage Dictionary definition of “pulp” was flashed on the screen. The two definitions read: (1) a shapeless mass of matter and (2) a magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper.
The first definition connotes ambiguity, being amorphous, having no clear definition or form. This is relevant to the movie because it appears to be like that, a hodge-podge, messy, and thus, hazy. In a way, this already prepared the viewers of what is to come while only at the start of the movie. It is hinting to them that the movie they are about to watch will be unlike most movies which are too generous and lenient when it comes to expressing their message or point. With that, the movie can be also said as implicitly demanding closer observation from its readers if they want to make sense of the movie.
The second definition, meanwhile, seems to me as a foregrounding of the idea of shock and crudeness. It silently shouts: this movie is pulp. It will shock you, or surprise, or befuddle you. It is lurid; it will not be like your usual fancy and predictable movie where lovers kiss at the end, where wounds are mended and evil spirits vanquished. In other words, that is announcing the unorthodox content of the movie — unorthodox because it does not merely tell stories of love, friendship or virtue. It reeks with violence and surface-value foulness and unabashed display of vice only to speak of redemption and salvation in the end. Next, the idea of crudeness, carried by the phrase “printed on rough, unfinished paper,” seems to call attention to the form of the movie. It is not printed out of special paper or whatever grand type of paper so one may infer that it is of subpar quality. It is not polished in the sense that it does not conform to the conventions. It is a rebel of film norms, and hence, can be easily judged as crude, or bad.
However, the film, by calling attention to these “lack of definite form” and “unpolishedness” and “luridity,” is not taking shame or being anxious about being dismissed right away by movie viewers. It is calling attention to itself, trumpeting its given characteristics. Why so? I believe that the movie actually sees this “unconventionality” as its strength and more basically, its real essence and so it must not be mute about it. That is precisely its point. Announce the possibility beyond conventions and on a much larger scale, exclaim the possibility of alternative perspectives in understanding and creating the world.
Finale: an analysis of the analysis
Finally, in constructing this analysis of Pulp Fiction, I chose to put my emphasis on the site of audiencing and the social modality. This stems from my conviction that ultimately, the meanings of things (not just movies) do not lie on the things themselves but on the outsider who appraises, observes and reads it. The audience decides on the meaning, not locate or identify the meaning of a thing. Still, this act of deciding on the meaning must still be tied to the formal elements of the thing being analyzed and other relevant details surrounding it and the whole situation. This is also why I focused on the social modality. I deem it very important to assess and consider the entire context of the situation in trying to make something out of particular things existing in that situation. Looking only at the technological and compositional factors is not enough, although both are needed. The point is that after all, these two factors are also subsumed under the greater social context where the image to be analyzed and the spectator/analyst both reside.