Hierarchies of Control in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction

Joe Allen, Lancaster University

tarantinoOn initial viewing Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994) is a an array of visual and mental stimuli; a multi-faceted cult movie that has somehow made the difficult crossover to the mainstream, achieving widespread recognition both from audiences and the film industry itself. Whilst it is simple to deduce that it is about criminals and Los Angeles 'lowlife', the movie refuses to comply with the majority of generic conventions, manipulating accepted notions of character, narrative and text to audience relationship in the process. This piece will examine the position of the notion of control within this seemingly overwhelming text. Attention will be focused upon the textual (intertextual), structural and character hierarchies that the film exhibits in order to locate the notion of 'control'. In doing so it is hoped that questions such as 'What is the audience's position in relation to the text?' and 'Who, if anyone, is truly in control in Pulp Fiction?' can be answered.    

            Pulp Fiction is split into three small stories - 'Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace's Wife', 'The Gold Watch' and 'The Bonnie Situation' - encapsulated by what is perhaps best described as a preface and prologue at the very beginning and very end of the film.  These are the metanarratives that Lyotard speaks of when he speaks of postmodernism's 'incredulity towards metanarratives', and the narratives that Barry refers to when he speaks of the shift away from ''Grand Narratives' of ... human perfectibility' towards 'metanarratives which are provisional, contingent, temporary ... and which provide a basis for the actions of specific groups in particular local circumstances' (Jean-François Lyotard and Peter Barry in Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, Manchester University Press, 1995).  In terms of both the crime and pulp genres these 'mininarratvies' are as Tarantino states himself (in interview), 'the oldest chestnuts in the book': for example, the small-time gangster having to take the boss' wife out to dinner hoping nothing will go wrong, the boxer who is supposed to throw his big fight but decides instead to try and make off with the money and the cliche of the 'hitmen' who with professional accuracy make their kill and depart.  Except that, as most noticeable in this final case, Pulp Fiction moves outside these generic stories since instead of ending each of these narratives in the conventional place the narrative continues in an attempt to show what occurs outside the traditional stock elements. For instance, Vincent and Jules go to Brett's apartment to recover the briefcase of Marcellus and with the utmost professionalism (the whole affair taking place in approximately 15 minutes of real time) execute Brett and his friends before making off with the briefcase and 'their man' Marvin. This is the stock tale that a generic text would utilise and at this point in such a tale the narrative would stop.  In Pulp Fiction, however, after Vincent and Jules have 'miraculously' avoided being hit by any of the fourth man's bullets, they do indeed as Jules says, 'continue this discussion in the car' and hence we see Vincent and Jules continuing their animated discussion regarding miracles whilst driving in the L.A. morning sunshine. Tarantino declares that these are stories that we have seen before, but never played out in such a way: indeed, they are 'genre situations unravelled in REAL WAYS.'        

At certain points, the visual element of the medium is used in order to further display Pulp Fiction's moves from generic to real. For example, as Vincent and Jules arrive at Brett's apartment they notice that they are indeed early and so they take the opportunity to move further along the corridor and continue their 'everyday' and non-generic conversation regarding the sexual intimacy of a foot massage. At this point the film instigates a camera / character split in order to visually display the generic and the 'real'; the camera, metaphorically representing the generic focus of such a narrative, stays firmly fixed outside Brett's door, spinning through 90 degrees to focus upon Vincent and Jules further down the corridor (the 'real'), the camera steadfastly refusing to move from it's location outside Brett's door. A similar thing occurs during 'The Gold Watch' narrative. Vincent and another of Marcellus' men are seen walking down a corridor and knocking on a door; the door is opened by Mia to reveal Marcellus, with his back to the camera, questioning a man about Butch's disappearance. Marcellus clicks his fingers without turning around, thus gesturing the man with Vincent into the room. The generic focus at this point would be on following this man as he moves into the room to begin a conversation with Marcellus. Here, however, Mia, who opened the door and remains by it, begins a conversation with Vincent ('I never did thank you for dinner'), and rather than move straight into the room there is a fleeting moment in which the camera hangs back, placing part of the focus upon Vincent and Mia before moving past them and focussing upon Marcellus and his man, with Mia and Vincent now out of shot.

            In both these cases, Pulp Fiction is showing generic situations with moments of the everyday pervading the narrative fabric. In fact, in postmodern terms, what the text is offering is the fourth stage of Baudrillard's 'four stages of real' - the hyper real.  As Baudrillard himself states in Simulacra and Simulations, the first to third stages are variations upon an 'appearance', whilst in the fourth stage 'it is no longer in the order of appearance at all, but of simulation.' Stage one's concept of 'real' is based on an appearance, hence appearing like a generic tale, whereas the fourth stage's hyper real presents the removing of this 'appearance' - this generic content - and showing moments of trueness, or as Baudrillard refers to them, 'simulacra'. This element of the hyper real is key to an understanding of Pulp Fiction, forming the theoretical justification for structural, thematic and textual details as will be discussed later.

            What this represents in terms of 'control' is the stock elements of the story vying for the attention of the audience, and foregrounding in the text, with the hyper real elements, the outcome being a narrative where at certain points elements of the hyper real are allowed to permeate its fabric. These two elements are then both competing for control over the audience's gaze.

            If so far attention has been given to issue of textual control in isolation from any other concern, what can be said for the role of the characters? It has been established how each of the three mini-narratives passes the generic point of closure, and it is what happens in these moments that is key to an understanding of the characters' roles. The influence of the seemingly accidental is paramount. Vincent, for example, after returning Mia to her house at the end of their dinner together, finds that on his return from the bathroom she has overdosed on his heroin mistaking it for cocaine. Similarly, as Butch awakes the morning after his fight he finds that Fabienne has forgotten his watch, before later chancing upon Marcellus and being involved in a traffic collision; and finally, after successfully regaining custody of Marcellus' briefcase, Vincent and Jules find that an unexpected gunshot leaves them driving a decapitated corpse through L.A. In each of these instances, once the narratives have passed the safety of the generic 'cut off' point, the unexpected occurs, thus leaving the characters with a situation that desperately has to be resolved. In psychoanalytical terms these instances could be manifestations of the text's id - its subconscious desire to subvert and shock both characters and audience - permeating its ego, and thus providing an opportunity for the characters, as manifestations of the text's superego, to regain control of circumstances through acts of redemption.

             Up until these instances, the characters are in control of their individual narratives - as established previously, Vincent and Jules appear models of professionalism in the calm and collected way which they obtain their objectives.  As the accidental occurs, however, the narrative moves one step ahead of the characters, alleviating the impression that they are in control of events and thus rendering them shocked and disorientated. At certain moments the characters' onscreen astonishment parallels that of the audience, as they too are left trying to piece together exactly what is happening. Vincent is one such character.  Like an audience member who leaves momentarily to got to the bathroom, Vincent literally takes such breaks, which lead to his ironic death. Upon returning to Mia's house Vincent uses his trip to the bathroom as an opportunity to try and regain control of himself, this potential loss of control hinting that something 'unplanned' is about to happen: "One drink and that's it. Don't be rude. Drink your drink, but do it quickly. Say 'Goodnight' and go home."   And indeed, upon his return from the bathroom, Mia has overdosed. Vincent's bathroom habits have the same effect at two more points in text: he goes to 'take a shit' in the diner, resulting in him being shocked to find a robbery in progress on his return; and a similar objective whilst performing a 'stake out' at Butch's flat finds him on the receiving end of machine gun fire.  In both instances, the text is responsible for Vincent stepping out of the action with the motive of being in control of his bowels (an initial loss of control) before re-entering the action only to find that he has further lost control. It is at these points when the text, its hyper real moments and manifestations of the subconscious are in control of both character and audience.

            Arguably, though, if one ignores Vincent's death, then these moments in which the accidental occurs have a positive as well as negative affect. Whilst these incidents prove to initially throw both character and audience off-balance, they provide vital opportunities for the character to regain control of what the text makes both character and audience believe is an impossible situation. Mia's overdose leads both Vincent and the audience to expect that she will die, but Vincent manages the ultimate heroic feat in regaining enough composure to drive her to Lance's and to personally give her an adrenalin shot straight to the heart with no prior medical experience and thus to bring her back to life. Similarly, the accidents are recovered from by heroic feats in both 'The Gold Watch' and 'A Bonnie Situation', with the final act of heroism occurring at the very end of the film, as Jules manages to foil Honey Bunny and Pumpkin's robbery attempt.

            At these points there is an overwhelming sense of the characters truimphing against the odds, and subsequently the control that the text really has over them is questionable. The audience perceives these as narrative jumps whereby one minute all seems to be going according to plan and the next the pace has increased and characters are battling against the odds and even the notion of time; there is a real sense that the character to text relationship offered here is not a conventional one in which events are predetermined by the script and the characters merely follow their pre-assigned paths. Rather it appears that both parties are vying for control over one another and the subsequent focus of attention in the audience's mind. There is indeed, in psychoanalytical terms,  an overriding Oedipal concern in which the characters and text represent warring siblings desperately seeking the approval of the audience as parent, thus privileging the audience's position and making it one of control.   

            The task of the characters becomes an even more difficult one considering that they also have to vie for position with one another. Indeed, coupled with the idea of redemption, this notion of inter-character power relations can be said to be one of the central themes of the film. Overall, there is a constant dialogue regarding notions of professionals and amateurs, and thus, if one were to continue with Oedipal connotations, of the parents and siblings. Both professionals and amateurs are on display in the film - Marcellus the 'big boss' of organised crime compared to Lance the 'slacker' who can afford to sit up late into the night watching television and eating cereal - but what is most interesting is how throughout the film these divisions are seen to break down at certain points so that our notion of 'who is who' becomes somewhat unstuck.

            For instance, 'The Gold Watch' sequence appears to question ideas of conventional authority through the way in which characters interact. From the moment Butch deliberately drives his car into Marcellus until he leaves the pawn shop there are a large number authority shifts within the scene. Marcellus has until now been seen by the audience only from behind and thus it is intriguing that the first time he is seen facing the camera he is struck by Butch's car. The question of professional authority and of the extent to which this authority is said to be stable is foremost in the audience's mind, as the most authoritative and professional figure in the film is literally knocked off his feet. From this point on, the  highest position in the character hierarchy switches frequently: it changes to Marcellus as he regains consciousness and shoots at Butch, chasing him down the street; then to Butch as he hides inside the door of the pawn shop before wrestling Marcellus to the ground; then the pawn shop owner gains the torch as he points a shotgun at both Butch and Marcellus. Zed's arrival sees him take on the position of utmost authority as he orders his accomplice to 'bring out the gimp' before promptly sending Marcellus to the very bottom of the hierarchy by anally raping him. Butch's escape and subsequent freeing of Marcellus from the tyranny of the two men temporarily places him at the top before Marcellus re-establishes overall control by ordering Butch to leave town. Notably this section occurs as a result of two interventions of the accidental - the forgetting of the watch and Butch's chancing upon Marcellus - and so the erratic shifts of authority could be said to mirror the characters' desperate attempts to regain control of their situation. However, the section still undoubtedly makes some very stark comments on the question of 'who is the most professional / authoritative'. Marcellus - holding a position at the head of organised crime - and Zed - a policeman - are the two figures who are most clearly associated with authority. The rape of Marcellus, however, reveals his authority to be dependant on his surroundings and his accomplices.  Indeed, if it weren't for Butch choosing to go back for Marcellus he would have remained a perpetual victim of defilement and humiliation with no prospect of reasserting himself. The fact that it is a policeman performing the rape is firstly symbolic of a perverse punishment at the hands of the law for his wrongdoings, but perhaps more importantly a representation of authority and law as corrupt. What then for a text in which the majority of characters as criminals are socially perceived as 'bad' if its overriding sense of 'good' is seen to be equally corrupt? Such an action reveals notions of law and order in Pulp Fiction's world to be destabilized and therefore arguably incomprehensible. Such a situation only serves to privilege the audience's position further as they are invited to construct their own hierarchy of law and order.

            Elsewhere in the film there is much to question the received notions of professionalism and as well as its subsequent authority. Socially, it is widely regarded that appearance has some bearing on such notions, and thus Vincent and Jules' suits are visible signs of their status as professional criminals, which helps confirm their status within this circle. At the other end of the spectrum there is Lance, his appearance (non-changing T-shirt, shorts and dressing gown) performing the same task of adding a visual dimension to categorise his social status as 'slacker'. However, in their exchange whilst Vincent is at Lance's house to purchase heroin, the pair are revealed to have a mutual respect for each other, which goes some way towards alleviating any incongruities in their relative social status. As Dana Polan (Pulp Fiction, BFI, 2000) asserts, 'Lance can wisecrack along with the coolest of the cool professionals and make popular culture references [the key to 'cool' in Pulp Fiction] just like them' (6). Lance's position in any social hierarchy is somewhat strengthened by the fact that he has a wife, and furthermore one who has a tongue-stud as a sex-aid, as Polan identifies. Compare this to Vincent's somewhat non-existent sexuality and their polarised positions become less clear: indeed, as far as employment / professionalism is concerned, Vincent's is no conventional employment; thus Lance's 'occupation' of drug dealer, which, pushing the matter somewhat, is possible to re-categorise as self-employed businessman, is within the same league as Vincent's.

            Ultimately, then, the only true difference is appearance. The text urges the question, 'What would happen if Vincent were to be stripped of his suit?' in an effort to gauge how deep his status as professional runs. The end of the film answers the question. In an effort to avoid being caught for their accidental shooting of Marvin, Vincent and Jules are forced to shed their blood-stained suits in favour of some clothes borrowed from Jules' friend Jimmy. They look, as Jimmy declares, 'like dorks', an observation backed up by other comments such as that from Joe's daughter, 'You guys going to a volleyball game?'  Yet despite this derision and much embarrassment on their part the pair do in fact manage to remain 'cool'. It is whilst dressed as a 'dork' that Jules manages to perform what is arguably the most authoritative and power-laden act of the whole film, the foiling of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny's robbery. In this act Jules is shown to be a figure of great control even when stripped of the properties that once embodied this control. Perhaps his ability to attain ultimate control here is related to the fact that he is utilising what is until that point a virgin method: instead of fighting fire with fire Jules is seen to control the situation using diplomatic methods. Admittedly his gun presents an ever threatening violent edge, but its influence is much less than firearms have possessed at previous points throughout the film.

            Final discussion must focus upon the role of the audience in relation to the control hierarchies that have already been established. There are two main areas of focus when considering the audiences relationship, namely narrative and dialogue, and in both cases the notion of intertextuality is paramount.  Both in terms of narrative and dialogue, Pulp Fiction is a deeply intertextual work; furthermore, in its desire to allude to both 'high' and 'low' forms of art it can be said to be postmodern. The fragmented narrative structure renders the audience active receivers whose key role it is to piece together the story in their own minds. In terms of the crime or detective genre, Pulp Fiction urges the audience to take on the role of the detective as they seek to piece together the narrative fragments in an effort to deduce some form of overall meaning. For Pat Dowell the fragmented structure has another beneficial effect on the audience in that 

'... should be familiar to any television watcher, for it is our psychological accommodations to TV's dramatic shape that Tarantino exploits for his narrative purposes. Everyday Americans are quite at home with stories that come to a rest, divided into segments to be interrupted by other stories, and then resume. The interruptions are called commercials and increasingly they are commercials for other stories...' [1]

Therefore, whilst being different enough in terms of conventional film narratives to render them an active audience, the narrative concept on display is not so far removed as to be alien. Furthermore this allusion to pop culture is just one of many such allusions that litter Pulp Fiction. Whilst some are fairly obvious - in an attempt to calm Honey Bunny in the diner Jules asks 'What's Fonzie?' - thus alluding to the popular sitcom Happy Days- others are positively obscure. For instance, in Brett's apartment Jules calls the man on the sofa 'Flock Of Seagulls' due to a similarity between his hair and the hair of the lead singer in the band Flock of Seagulls. Visual allusions are used to similar effect. There are, for example, characters reminiscent of characters from other (cult) films: Mia Wallace's hair bears a resemblance to that of Anna Karina in Godard's Vire sa vie; moments in the film reminiscent of key moments in 'pop' films, perhaps most obviously Butch picking up the chainsaw whilst being covered in blood, resembling The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Combine these with an almost constant musical presence of some widely known and some cult songs and the effect is the 'wax museum with a pulse' that Vincent refers to when talking of Jack Rabbit Slims. An audience does not have to identify each of these references in order to understand the narrative progression of the film itself, but on the other hand an understanding of such references builds up a mental picture of the intertextual world that Pulp Fiction inhabits, and the more references an audience picks up on the more powerful that audience becomes. Through such an array of allusions the film invites an almost fetishistic level of inspection from an audience keen to grasp every facet that it contains. The key to an audience's control here, then, is the question, 'How many references can they pick out?'  The intertextualness sparks a competition amongst audiences to see who can identify the greatest number of allusions and consequently it is this particular audience member who would find themselves in a superior position to the majority of the audience. In Oedipal terms the audience resembles siblings competing amongst themselves in order to gain entrance to the 'club of cool' created by the text (parent) through inclusion of such a high number of allusions.  

            Pulp Fiction is, then, full of competition on all levels due to destabilized notions of authority and conversely control. Whereas conventional text to character relationships see the text structuring events followed by characters, in the way that Pulp Fiction is influenced by the accidental and allows the hyper real to pervade its narrative fabric, its characters begin to work against the text and the unexpected events that it throws at them, thus creating the impression of text and characters at odds with one another. Yet characters have the added worry of maintaining their position within their own hierarchy as the text displays a disregard for traditional notions of authority by stripping the suit-wearing 'professionals' and portraying members of state authority as corrupt, thus destabilizing the reference point by which authority can traditionally be gauged. All of this serves to privilege the audience's position, inviting them to be the judge of these situations and evaluating who is actually in control, the fragmented narrative structure only serving to further privilege their position as they are also left with the task of formulating the story. Yet in the moments of accidental influence the audience are just as disorientated as the characters, and hence the text regains a moment of control over both parties. This piece has highlighted the Oedipal overtones of any such competition throughout, and perhaps here, combined with constant postmodern edge, is where the answer lies. Is the solution to these questions of control a postmodern reworking of Oedipal relations in the same way that the narrative represents a postmodern reworking of received notions of narrative form?

Copyright © 2003 Joe Allen


[1] Pat Dowell quoted in Polan, Pulp Fiction, pp.24-25.