Philosophy

How Pulp Fiction can be read as postmodern

The term post-modernist, often used to refer to art and architecture, was applied to this film, and there was even a new word made specially to reflect this, namely pulpmodernist.1 The phrase pulp fiction refers to popular novels which are bought in large numbers by less well educated people and enjoyed for their entertainment value. The implication is that the film concerns topics of interest to this low culture, but as this essay will show, in fact the title is ironic and the film is a very intellectual presentation of issues at the heart of contemporary western culture and philosophy. Writing ten years before Tarantino made Pulp Fiction, the academic and critic Frederic Jameson identified some of the key features of postmodernism, and debated whether these were a true departure from modernism, or just a continuation of the same rebellious themes. His paper on postmodernism2 tends towards the latter view, but at the same time prophetically pinpointed the essential departures that postmodernism has made from what has gone before. Tarantino’s film does not continue the debate in an academic way, but instead presents a virtuoso visual performance of the ideas that Jameson could only dimly perceive. These ideas include pastiche, a crisis in historicity and a blurring of the distinction between high culture and low culture. One way that Tarantino uses pastiche is when he introduces very evocative settings, like for example the restaurant setting of Jackrabbit Slim’s Diner. The decor is flamboyantly 1950s style, which is not in keeping with the more modern setting of the main action in the film. The film set is exaggerated, with customers actually sitting in cars, and the waiters and waitresses dressed up as famous 1950s characters like Elvis Presley and Marylin Monroe. On another level the film plays with the cultural connections that the actor John Travolta has with the 1950s. The musical film Grease which is perhaps Travolta’s most famous film, takes place in this kind of setting. When Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction encounters this scene, playing a much older character, and in a much more adult and violent film, it causes an ironic ripple. The audience makes an instinctive connection with what they know outside the film, and this explodes the usual time and action frame of film. In Pulp Fiction Vegas begins to dance and this again brings in a whole host of meanings related to the famous dance between Travolta and Olivia Newton John in Grease. In the later film, however, this is no innocent flirting between teenagers. The new context is a dangerous flirtation with the wife of a deadly killer, and both of the participants are adults who know the consequences of their actions. Critics have noted that this, also is ironic, quoting elements of older film styles: The story of the flirtatious boss’s wife draws on established elements from the gangster genre, while her overdose provides an unexpected Gothic reference.3 The trickle of dark blood from the pale body of Mia (Uma Thurma) is what recalls the Gothic horror genre. These evocative touches characterise Tarantino’s exuberant style. The scene where Vincent takes Mia to Jackrabbit Slim’s Diner and then home is therefore like a pastiche of Grease, and also of old gangster movies, and then also horror films, using exaggerated and deliberate quotation of key visual features to add new and unexpected layers of meaning to the story. This layering of images from earlier artistic works creates a pastiche with a particularly nostalgic affect. Jameson remarks that this is an

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