PULP FICTION (1994, directed by Quentin Tarantino)

© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

The opening sequence of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) is a five-minute vignette that effectively sets the tone for the entire film. Two lovers, “Pumpkin” and “Honey Bunny” (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer), are having breakfast in a diner. We learn, via their witty and unrealistically hip dialogue, that they are experienced small-time criminals who are about to rob the establishment, especially as Pumpkin has concluded that it would be much safer than robbing liquor stores. Suddenly, just as the actual robbery gets underway, the scene is interrupted with a blast of the ultra-cool California surfer music of “Misirlou” by Dick Dale and the Del-Tones (1962), which accompanies the opening credits. Then, midway through these credits, the music abruptly switches styles and even decades (the transition marked by a sound effect like the turning of a radio dial) to the cool urban 1970s funk of “Jungle Boogie” by Kool and the Gang. Most of the elements that make this film so memorable are thus already present in this initial scene: violent criminals, clever rapid-fire dialogue, ironic humor, and a rousing soundtrack of mostly well-known popular music. Moreover, while this interrupted prologue at first seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the film, it will actually be continued and completed in the last scene of the film, a sort of epilogue that links the opening scene up to the main action, thus putting a cap on the puzzle-like construction of the entire film. All in all, this fragmented structure, combined with the use of materials clearly derived from earlier films and other cultural works (with a concomitant note of cultural nostalgia) makes Pulp Fiction a quintessential example of postmodern cinema.

In his book-length study of Pulp Fiction, Dana Polan declares Pulp Fiction to be a “sheer cinematic spectacle,” and it certainly is that (7). Meanwhile, Polan goes on to note that people who like this film seem to like it precisely because it has nothing of substance to say but “renders cinematic experience as pure play,” though he also notes that those who dislike the film tend to like it for exactly the same reasons, seeing it as a “symptom of the empty post-modernity of our age” (7). Indeed, it should be noted that this film has a vast army of enthusiastic admirers but also has numerous detractors who seem to despise it with equal enthusiasm—perhaps because it epitomizes a postmodern culture that has received an equally mixed reception.

The nonlinear patchwork structure (with some pieces of the puzzle being labeled with titles, somewhat like chapters in a book) is perhaps the most immediately obvious characteristic that sets Pulp Fiction apart from classical Hollywood cinema and identifies it as a work of postmodernism. It contains a number of different plots, woven loosely together in terms of the action and also in terms of the cool, ironic humor with which they present basically dark material. As Polan describes it, the various plot segments of Pulp Fiction “are like versions of TV sitcom that have mutated into film noir” (25). And this result might be no accident: note that one segment of the dark crime satire Natural Born Killers (1995), directed by Oliver Stone by based on a story by Tarantino, is overtly presented as a mock sitcom.

The fragmentation of Pulp Fiction becomes quickly obvious when, after the opening credits, the film forgets about the action that was about to play out in the diner and immediately cuts to a scene in which Vincent Vega (John Travolta) rides in a car driven by Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), with “Jungle Boogie” now playing on their car radio. Vince regales Jules with stories of the “little differences” between the cultures of America and Europe, from which he has recently returned after an extended stay, presumably on the lam. The scene is a trademark example of Tarantino’s knack for producing dialogue that consists of little more than small talk, yet nevertheless seems impossibly cool. As the scene proceeds, it eventually becomes clear that Vince and Jules are henchmen/enforcers working for local criminal kingpin Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). They weapon up and pay a call on a group of four young men (though we see only three of them in this scene) who have crossed Marsellus, apparently stealing from him a mysterious briefcase and its contents. Vince and Jules retrieve the briefcase, which emits a strange glow when Vince opens it and looks into it, though we do not see the contents (nor will we ever, though the briefcase and that strange glow float throughout the film). Jules having already shot one of the men, he and Vince then shoot down another of the man, named “Brett” (Frank Whaley), in cold blood. That seems to be the end of the scene. However, in a much later scene, we will revisit this action, much as the epilogue overlaps with the prologue. In this later scene, we learn that a fourth young man had been hiding in the bathroom. After the shooting of Brett, this fourth man now emerges, bearing a huge handgun, which he empties at Jules and Vince, missing them with every shot in a moment that Jules declares to be a miracle. Meanwhile, we also learn in this revisited scene that one of the young men, a black man named “Marvin” (Phil LaMarr), survived and was taken by Jules and Vince in their car, where Vince accidentally shoots and kills him, causing a considerable mess in the back seat that then has to be cleaned up under the supervision of a professional “cleaner,” Winston Wolfe (Harvey Keitel).

Meanwhile, the scene that follows the initial shooting of the three young men is immediately followed by the first titled sequence, “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife,” in which Vince, at the request of Marsellus, takes Marsellus’s wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out to dinner to entertain her in Marsellus’s absence. It is natural to assume that this scene takes place soon after the shooting scene, though it will ultimately become obvious that it actually occurs much later, after most of the other action of the film. This entire sequence is filled with a certain tension, given rumors that Marsellus deals quite harshly with anyone he feels has gotten too familiar with Mia, though the evening goes well—until it doesn’t. There is then some very high tension after Mia snorts some of Vince’s heroine (thinking it is cocaine) and nearly dies as a result. After Mia is saved, the screen goes black, and suddenly we are in a flashback scene in which a young boy by the name of Butch (Chandler Lindauer) receives a visit from a Captain Koons (Christopher Walken), who had been in a POW camp in Vietnam with Butch’s now-deceased father. Koons has come to deliver to Butch an heirloom wristwatch originally bought by Butch’s great-grandfather in Knoxville, Tennessee (birthplace of Tarantino). Koons, in a hilarious deadpan performance by Walken, also delivers the colorful history of the watch, which will later play a small, but important role in the action of the film, which involves a later, adult version of Butch—now a prizefighter, played by Bruce Willis. This older Butch has agreed to throw a fight for Marsellus, but then wins the fight anyway, drawing the ire of Marsellus in a plot arc that could have been derived from a number of boxing films, perhaps most directly from the 1947 noir boxing film Body and Soul, starring John Garfield as a boxer who also runs afoul of organized crime[1].

Indeed, items and motifs continually appear, disappear, and then resurface throughout Pulp Fiction as the film moves discontinuously from one segment to another, jumping around in time—though the plot structure is ultimately a series of overlapping circles, as we cut back to the diner in the final scene, making clear that the scene involving the diner robbery takes place between the disposal of Marvin’s body and the killing of Vince by Butch, thus helping to sort the chronology of the film. Overall, the structure of Pulp Fiction can be summarized as follows, with titles of titled sequences shown in quotes:

  1. Prologue in the diner
  2. Shooting scene of the three young men
  3. “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife”
  4. Double prelude to “The Gold Watch” (a – flashback, b – present)
  5. “The Gold Watch” (during which Vince is killed)
  6. “The Bonnie Situation”
  7. Epilogue in the Diner (continuing the prologue)

In chronological order, these segments would run: 4a, 2, 6, 1, 7, 3, 4b, 5, which gives an idea of how nonlinear the plot structure really is, though it is relatively well behaved and consistent, with none of the segments conflicting with the others in terms of the information we receive. The only exception to this rule occurs in the diner scene, in which Honey Bunny is shown shouting “Any of you fucking pricks move, and I’ll execute every motherfucking last one of you!” at the end of the prologue. At the overlapping beginning of the robbery in the epilogue, however, she shouts “Any of you fucking pricks move, and I’ll execute every one of you motherfuckers!”—with the camera angle changing just before the modified dialogue, suggesting that we are now seeing this action from a different point of view (as if the dialogue has been remembered slightly differently by different observers)[2]. This final scene, of course, also ties the diner scene to the rest of the film because Vince and Jules are now shown to be among the customers eating in the diner.

The structure of Pulp Fiction makes it an excellent example of the postmodern phenomenon critic Alissa Quart has called “hyperlink cinema,” in which multiple narratives intertwine in a single film, allowing (and requiring) viewers to jump about in time within a story and from one story to another much in the way they jump about among websites on the internet. Referring specifically to Don Roos’s Happy Endings (2005), Quart notes that Roos’s film “like hyperlinking itself, is irremediably relativist. Information, character, and action co-exist without hierarchy. And we are always one click away from a new life, a new story, and new meaning, all equally captivating but no better or worse than what we have just left behind” (51). Quart is particularly enthusiastic about the way Happy Endings engages our contemporary “information-processing proclivities” (48). However, she also notes that the film is only one among many recent additions to the “new genre” of hyperlink cinema, including Roos’s own The Opposite of Sex (1998) and Bounce (2000). Other direct precedents are Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), and indeed one could identify Altman’s Nashville (1975) as the real founding textof the genre, with Altman as the genre’s founding father. Pulp Fiction, though, might be the most influential example of this kind of cinematic structure, itself a version of the kind of fragmentation that Fredric Jameson—the most important theorist of postmodernism—has identified as one of the two key formal characteristics of postmodern culture.

Polan has also used the hyperlink analogy, declaring Pulp Fiction to be “a film for the cyber-generation” (33). He goes on, however, to note the irony of this fact, given that the film is noticeably lacking in prominent signs of contemporary technology but displays its contemporaneity in “style, feel, and structure,” rather than content (34). There are a few signs of 1990s technology in the film, of course, and it seems reasonable to imagine the action occurring roughly in 1994. However, by de-emphasizing this technology, Tarantino is also able to reproduce some of the feel of the 1940s and 1950s sources of so much of his material, blurring historical boundaries in a way that Jameson has also declared to be a key characteristic of postmodern culture.

The other key formal characteristic of postmodern culture, per Jameson, is the method of construction that he refers to as “pastiche,” which Pulp Fiction also exemplifies. By pastiche, Jameson means the tendency of postmodern artists to borrow liberally from both the style and content of earlier works, treating the entire cultural tradition as a sort of aesthetic cafeteria from whose menu they can nostalgically pick and choose without critical engagement with the works being borrowed from or concern for the historical context in which those styles originally arose. Referring to this practice as the “random cannibalization of all the styles of the past,” Jameson, argues that this form of pastiche is,

like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of any laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. (Postmodernism 17)

David Harvey observes a similar tendency in postmodern culture when he notes that

postmodernists simply make gestures towards historical legitimacy by extensive and often eclectic quotation of past styles. Through films, books, and the like, history and past experience are turned into a seemingly vast archive ‘instantly retrievable and capable of being consumed over and over again at the push of a button.’ … The postmodern penchant for jumbling together all manner of references to past styles is one of its more pervasive characteristics. (85)

Importantly, for both Jameson and Harvey, this practice is not a choice on the part of individual artists, but an imperative necessitated by the conditions of life under late capitalism, the global stage of capitalism in which the historical process of capitalist modernization has essentially been completed. Jameson particularly emphasizes his view that, partly because they themselves suffer from the psychic fragmentation he associates with the postmodern condition, postmodern artists are simply unable to develop and maintain the kind of distinctive personal styles that Jameson attributes to modernist artists. In his view, “the producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture” (Postmodernism 17–18).

For Jameson, pastiche is a manifestation of the particular mode of nostalgia that he associates with postmodernism. Thus, while he sees the rummaging through the styles of the past for usable images as a central strategy of all postmodernist art, Jameson suggests the “nostalgia film” as a particularly telling example of the postmodernist fascination with the past. Jameson is thinking of overtly nostalgic representations of the past in films such as American Graffiti (1973), as well as the retooling of past film genres in works such as the neo-noir films The Long Goodbye (1973), Chinatown (1974), and Body Heat (1981). Of course, the film noir is a particularly effective source of pastiche because it is itself already so highly stylized. Neo-noir became particularly prominent in the 1980s, but one might also add more recent examples to Jameson’s list, including such neo-noir films as Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997), Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006), and Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems (2019). However, this practice of generic pastiche is only one specific example of a much broader postmodern phenomenon in which films increasingly take both their styles and their subject matter from other cultural artifacts, rather than from anything in material reality. The most obvious aspect of this phenomenon is the increasing tendency of films, in a variety of ways, to take other films as their objects of representation.

For example, the noir tradition is central to the background of Pulp Fiction—and perhaps even more to that of Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs (1992). It is by now a cliché to note that Tarantino burst upon the scene with the screening of Reservoir Dogs at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival, an event that left many in the audience agog and amazed that they had seen something genuinely new and different, something they had never seen before. But this description is not really accurate. Even the nonlinear plot structure, an early version of the hyperlink structure that would categorize Tarantino’s later films, was not all that new, being basically an extension of the time-honored flashback technique. What the first audiences of Reservoir Dogs experienced was not the shock of the new, as in the old avant-garde, but the shock of being bombarded with more recycled materials than they had ever before seen assembled in one place. Tarantino’s subsequent films (most notably Pulp Fiction)would continue and extend this phenomenon, establishing a distinctive and instantly recognizable style, yet one that is achieved primarily through the assemblage of pre-existing cultural materials. Moreover, the films achieve their consistent and recognizable style primarily through the almost compulsive repetition of certain trademark motifs, including graphic violence, hyperlink plot structure, and heavy (generally nostalgic) use of references to popular culture.

Of course, the scene in Pulp Fiction that most clearly addresses the phenomenon of postmodern nostalgia is the early one in which Vince and Mia dine out at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a restaurant/club that is a living tribute to the culture of the 1950s. As Vince says when Mia asks him what he thinks of the club, “It’s like a wax museum with a pulse.” In the club, the ambient music is generally from the 1950s, whether it comes from the jukebox or from live performers doing imitations of stars from the decade, such as Rickie Nelson. The walls are decorated with posters for 1950s films, and the booths are made to resemble classic cars of the decade. The host is an Ed Sullivan imitator, the waiters are dressed to look like such 1950s icons as Buddy Holly and Marilyn Monroe, and the items on the menu are named after various figures from 1950s culture.

Of course, the very title of Pulp Fiction evokes the 1950s, when the pulp fiction phenomenon was at its peak, while numerous aspects of the film reference the film noir tradition of the 1940s and 1950s.[3] There is, however, little genuine nostalgia for the 1950s in Pulp Fiction, which is very much a hip film of the 1990s. Similarly, the atmosphere of Jack Rabbit Slim’s is informed less by a wistful desire to return to the 1950s than by a very 1990s attempt to appropriate the 1950s for commercial use as campy spectacle. The club, then, merely simulates nostalgia, rather than evoking genuine longing for the past. As such, Jack Rabbit Slim’s is the perfect postmodern setting, drawing on images from history in a purely ahistorical way, showing little real sense of the pastness of the past or of past history as the prehistory of the present. Meanwhile, the potential nostalgia of the sequence at Jack Rabbit Slim’s is further complicated by the fact that the highlight of the evening is a twist contest in which Mia and Vince dance to the music of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.” They win, of course, as Travolta proves that he is still Travolta, even after all the years that have passed and all the pounds he has put on since his appearances in Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978), some the most memorable dance performances in American film since the days of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelley.

In this sense, the dance contest sequence at Jack Rabbit Slim’s is more an example of nostalgia for the 1970s than for the 1950s, bringing back memories of the heyday not of Chuck Berry but of John Travolta. Of course, without any real historical sense, temporal boundaries slide around freely in this sequence—and in Pulp Fiction as a whole. For one thing, “You Never Can Tell” was released in 1964, and the twist itself was a phenomenon of the early 1960s, not the 1950s[4]. Such details, of course, are unimportant in a film that flaunts its lack of historical moorings, for a director not born until 1963, or in the midst of a soundtrack that runs the gamut of popular music from the 1950s to the 1990s.

In any case, the real point to Travolta’s dance performance in Pulp Fiction may not be to remind us of the way he was, but to demonstrate that he’s still that way (sort of), that the pop culture icon of the 1970s can still do it in the 1990s. The film, in short, suggests that its star, like the film itself, has defied the passing of time. Indeed, one might argue that one of the secrets to the enormous success of Pulp Fiction was the fact that, by proving that he still had some of the old moves, the aging baby boomer Travolta provided a boost to aging baby boomers everywhere. But the film was even more popular with younger audiences, and what was really central to the success of the Pulp Fiction was the thorough hipness with which the film gleefully combined various periods, genres, and styles, producing the perfect postmodern cinematic stew. Pulp Fiction was, in fact, one of the signature films of the 1990s, and almost certainly the film of the decade that exercised the greatest influence on other filmmakers.

Part of the influence of Pulp Fiction came from its heteroglot soundtrack, which is a crucial part of both Pulp Fiction’s sense of postmodern plurality and its particularly nonspecific postmodern nostalgia. It was also crucial to the film’s commercial success, and the soundtrack itself remained on Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart for more than 100 weeks, selling more than three million copies. Jeff Smith, in fact, sees the soundtrack album for Pulp Fiction as the “most notable” example of soundtracks in the 1990s that were so commercially successful that they caused many film companies to open their own music divisions specifically for the distribution of soundtracks (195).

It is not surprising that the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction should be so important to both its nostalgia effect and its commercial success, postmodern nostalgia itself being a commodity that, like all commodities, is largely produced and marketed by capitalist enterprises in search of profit. Meanwhile, the hugely successful marketing of soundtracks such as that of Pulp Fiction is a key indicator of the more commodified nature of postmodern nostalgia, as opposed to the nostalgia Caryl Flinn has located in the use of classical music in the Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s.

Flinn notes that these films quite often employed scores based on the classical works of nineteenth-century romantic composers to create an “impression of perfection and integrity in an otherwise imperfect, unintegrated world” (9). Indeed, Flinn argues that this practice was so widespread that film music came to be associated quite generally by both filmmakers and critics with “the idea of anteriority and idealized pasts” (3). Flinn here builds directly on Richard Dyer’s influential 1977 essay “Entertainment and Utopia,” which notes the “Utopian sensibility” that informs such cultural products as the Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s. Dyer’s focus is on production in that he locates the utopian energies of such films in attempts to overcome a perceived lack of wholeness and perfection in the time of the films’ production. Flinn, on the other hand, locates these utopian energies in reception, arguing that they are produced by audiences (and critics) and that “the utopias mounted to redress these apperceived lacks are created at the moment of reading, even if those utopias are then simply thrown backward” (155).

For both Flinn and Dyer, music is associated with a utopian desire for wholeness, combined with a rather nostalgic tendency to locate this wholeness in an idealized past. In this sense, their arguments seem to ask for comparison with Jameson’s identification of a particular form of nostalgia as a crucial aspect of postmodern experience and of the “nostalgia film” as a key phenomenon of postmodern culture. Indeed, while focusing on the classic films of the 1930s and 1940s, Flinn notes that “music continues to play a key role in triggering this widescale yearning for yesterday” in more recent films, such as George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), a key example of the postmodern nostalgia film. Flinn does grant, however, that more recent films (and more recent critics) differ from their predecessors in that the films of the 1930s and 1940s (and their music) have themselves become objects of nostalgia in the later films and in the work of later critics (153). Still, Flinn seems to see no fundamental difference in the utopian nostalgia associated with film music in the 1930s and 1940s and that associated with later films of the postmodern era. Nostalgia, in short, is nothing new.

There is, in fact, almost no single aspect of Pulp Fiction that is truly new, though Tarantino’s particular knack for effectively assembling bits and pieces from the cultural past is itself a particular form of originality. One of the most self-consciously cool films ever made, Pulp Fiction was so commercially successful that it also completely transcended the boundary between independent and Hollywood film: its $213 million take at the box office might seem small by the standards of today’s MCU films, but grossing this amount off of a budget of $8 million made it one of the most profitable films of the decade. This success also helped to make the film’s distributor, Miramax, a major player in the film industry. Meanwhile, Tarantino’s film completely demolished any lingering cultural boundaries between high and low art. One of the most respected works of postmodern cinema, Pulp Fiction explicitly announces its roots in cultural forms often regarded as “low” even in comparison with other forms of popular culture.

Pulp Fiction was overtly (and extremely successfully) marketed as a film about film and as a film made by a film buff for film buffs—Tarantino’s roots as a video-store clerk have by now become almost the stuff of legend. Indeed, Pulp Fiction overtly presents itself as a cinematic spectacle and as a collection of references to earlier films. As Amanda Lipman notes in an early review, the film functions as a sort of “rag-bag of film references,” including references to earlier projects in which Tarantino himself had been involved, such as his own Reservoir Dogs (1992) and True Romance (1993, directed by Tony Scott, but scripted by Tarantino). Indeed, Lipman points out that even the casting of the film seems to be a form of pastiche in which numerous actors (including Travolta) seem to be “playing warped versions of characters for which they are known” (Lipman 51). Such references can be taken merely as signs of Tarantino’s famed coolness, as in-jokes to help audience members feel cool themselves. On the other hand, Peter Chumo argues that Pulp Fiction engages in a productive dialogue with its filmic sources, helping Tarantino to “breathe new life into the old forms he loves” (26). For Chumo, “Tarantino’s use of movie references goes beyond a simple postmodern recycling of old movie bits and generic plot lines to a thoughtful look at how such relics of the filmic past can come alive in the present” (17).

Whether one sees Tarantino’s use of images and motifs from previous films as superficial play or as a meditation on time and history may be largely a matter of interpretation, though it is certainly the case that there is very little in the actual content of Pulp Fiction that would support the latter view. It may well be, for example, that the mysterious glow inside the briefcase held by Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) at the end of the film can be taken as a reference to Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), but there is little in this fact to suggest a new reading of Kiss Me Deadly that would not have otherwise been available. Meanwhile, the way Pulp Fiction’s allusions to films (and other cultural artifacts)slip and slide around in time suggests not a renewal of the past so much as a refusal to recognize historical sequence or to historicize its various references.

The tendency of postmodern films to represent not reality but pre-existing representations of reality may be, to a certain extent, merely an extension of a trend that has been present in the film industry virtually from the beginning. Indeed, the increasing tendency, in the second half of the twentieth century, for films to base themselves on other films can be at least partly attributed to the simple fact that, as time passes, there are more and more films available to draw upon. On the other hand, the particularly self-conscious and ahistorical way in which many recent filmmakers have drawn upon previous films or other cultural artifacts seems to represent a genuinely new phenomenon, one that can be usefully described in terms of Jameson’s discussion of the importance of pastiche in postmodern culture.

In Tarantino’s case, the fact that Pulp Fiction seems more a representation of things found in other films than of reality bears on one crucial issue that has long been central to the critical reception of his work—the matter of the graphic violence that punctuates all of his films (and would, in fact, get even more graphic in the films made after Pulp Fiction). In the case of Pulp Fiction, such violence was often a crucial element of the stories found in the pulp magazines from which the film takes its title. These magazines also often included rather lurid content, which shows up in a number of scenes of Pulp Fiction as well, perhaps most clearly in the sequence during the “Gold Watch” segment in which Marsellus is captured, tortured, and sexually abused by two shotgun-toting redneck degenerates who operate a pawn shop decorated with a Confederate flag and who look like they might have escaped from the film Deliverance (1972).

Such content has caused cultural critic Fintan O’Toole to declare that “Tarantino is of considerable pathological interest. His films should be studied as Exhibit A in the museum of post-modern moral vacuity” (T16). Of course, Pulp Fiction is clearly mediated by the film’s source material and is meant to be a second-order representation of material from pulp magazines and other films rather than a representation of reality. It certainly does not recommend the kind of violence that it portrays, but it doesn’t seem much interested in critiquing that violence, either.

Pulp Fiction is thus a representation of other representations, a collection of images of other images, which again makes it a quintessential postmodern work, per Jameson’s theorization of postmodernism. Here, though the film can perhaps best be explained in terms of the work of some of Jameson’s French predecessors, such as Jean Baudrillard, whose notion of “hyperreality” describes precisely such a world of images. Even more to the point, though, is Guy Debord’s theorization of late capitalist society as a society of the “spectacle,” as a world in which rampant commodification has finally rendered the commodity completely abstract, causing it to become unstuck from material reality. Thus, when Polan calls Pulp Fiction a cinematic spectacle, he is correct both in the obvious sense that what we see on the screen is pure performance and in the sense that the film echoes the spectacular society in which it was produced. I know of no evidence that Tarantino is familiar with the work of such theorists as Jameson, Debord, and Baudrillard, but it seems clear that Pulp Fiction and Tarantino’s other films are quite congruent with the work of these theorists, which suggests both that Tarantino is very representative artist of his time and that these theorists were quite accurate in their understanding of the contemporary world.


Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulations. 1981. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser,University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Booker, M. Keith. Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946–1964. Greenwood Press, 2001.

Chumo II, Peter N. “‘The Next Best Thing to a Time Machine’: Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.” Post Script, vol.15, no. 3 (1996), pp. 16–28.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. 1967. Translated by Ken Knabb, Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Blackwell, 1990.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991.

Lipman, Amanda. Review of Pulp Fiction. Sight and Sound, vol.4, no. 11 (November 1994), pp. 50–51.

O’Brien, Geoffrey. Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir. 1981. Expanded edition, Da Capo, 1997.

O’Toole, Fintan. “Bloody Minded; Tarantino: The High Priest of Sadistic Moral Vacuity.” Guardian (February 3, 1995), p. T16.

Polan, Dana. Pulp Fiction. British Film Institute, 2000.

Quart, Alissa. “Networked.” Film Comment, vol.41, no. 4 (2005), pp. 48–51



[1] It should be noted, though, that Tarantino himself has claimed that he modeled the Butch character on the Ralph Meeker character in the Robert Aldrich’s noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and on the Aldo Ray character in Jacques Tourneur’s noir film Nightfall (1956). However, given that neither of these characters is a boxer, Tarantino’s attribution might be open to question.

[2] This variation in the dialogue could also, of course, simply be a bit of postmodern playfulness on Tarantino’s part, reminding us that what we are watching is a work of fiction.

[3] See Geoffrey O’Brien for a rousing review of the pulp-fiction phenomenon of the 1950s.

[4] Note, though, that some observers have argued that the “long 1950s,” stretching from 1946 through 1964, are really of a piece and make more sense to be considered as a cultural period than the 1950s proper. See, for example, my own Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War.