Quentin Tarantino’s films treat talk as action; torrents of words spill out of his characters' mouths, defining and redefining them, in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world. Words as clay, the speaker as sculptor, the rest of the world as spectator, art critic, vandal: this vortex of monologue and dialogue draws the viewer into the curiously theatrical spectacle of people attempting to create, refine, and propagate their own mythology. They are what they say they are, and more, and less. They build themselves up, and the film does, too; then somebody else tears them down, and the film grinds the last remaining pieces of their fragile self-images into powder.
The gang boss Marsellus Wallace is granted a Col. Kurtz-level buildup. Jules and Vincent’s early dialogue about how he threw Tony Rocky Horror out of a window for giving his wife Mia a foot massage establishes that he’s not a man to be trifled with. In the film’s second section, Marsellus orders the boxer Butch to throw a fixed fight, but remains tantalizingly undefined. He’s a big, bald head with a Band-Aid on its neck—a totemic abstraction on par with the fabled briefcase, contents unknown, that emits hellish light when opened. We see him again from the back right after Butch pulls a double-cross, kills his opponent in the ring, and flees with the money he made by secretly betting on himself: again, no face, just a voice and some words. When we finally see Marsellus’ face 95 minutes into the movie, Tarantino instantly demystifies him as a burly man standing in a crosswalk holding a box of donuts—whereupon Butch runs him over. Marsellus’ first close-up represents Pulp Fiction’s storytelling strategy in microcosm: after all that advance press, he’s just a stranger bleeding on the street, his face framed upside-down as if to certify what we already suspected, that his mythology has been suddenly and violently flipped.
Vincent Vega creates a mythology of a globetrotting hipster on a voyage of self-exploration, but as the movie unreels, it becomes increasingly clear that he’s a bullshit artist whose main target of deception is himself. He can’t take criticism, advice or even notes from other people (“You have to ask me nicely,” he tells the man entrusted with cleaning up Vincent’s accidental shooting of Marvin). And when the film’s fractured chronology is rearranged in linear fashion, we realize that the poor bastard learned nothing from the According-to-Hoyle Miracle that stopped the bullets and spared his life. He dies on the toilet reading Modesty Blaise while his buddy Jules—who had a religious experience after the near-miss, and pledged to stop murdering people and “walk the Earth, like Caine in Kung Fu”—lives on. “I was sitting here, eating my muffin and drinking my coffee and replaying the incident in my head, when I had what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity,” he tells his friend, who’s locked away so deep inside his own mythology that he doesn’t recognize that Jules has just handed him a second chance, an opportunity to escape, to be free, to live.
Matt Zoller Seitz is a co-founder of Press Play.
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