To understand a film’s structure is the first step in understanding a film’s meaning. Few filmmakers are as audacious and original than that of Quentin Tarantino. His use of music, cool and breezy dialogue, and shocking, often impactful violence has changed the landscape of modern cinema, never having witnessed a filmmaker so brash and proudly indulgent. With Tarantino now a household name, it’s difficult to remember a time before Kill Bill, Django Unchained, or Inglourious Basterds. In 1994, Quentin Tarantino changed nearly ever facet and convention of the cinematic artform with his second feature, Pulp Fiction. A film that is so iconic, so well beloved, that a viewer can easily be overwhelmed and even intimidated by its popularity. While his debut film, Reservoir Dogs, contained several elements that went on to be common traits in future films, it wasn’t until Pulp Fiction where those elements were more finely tuned and used more effectively. However, these very things that made Pulp such an iconic film would have fallen on deaf ears, or seen as simply unremarkable, if it hadn’t been for structurally odd, yet iconic, storytelling.
While Tarantino is no stranger to non-linear narratives, his films essentially use a conventional, three-act structure with a beginning, middle and end. In other words, the ending of the film is the last thing that happens. Aldo Raine stares in awe at his “masterpiece”; The Bride and her daughter are happily reunited; and Django and Broomhilda ride off together after blowing up Candyland. Pulp Fiction’s ending however, would fall in the middle of chronological events. Jules and Vincent Vega leaving the diner (with “BAD MOTHERFUCKER” wallet intact) would barely be included in a traditional film’s second act. Instead, the film tells its stories through a series of chapters that are told almost completely out of order, with various characters crossing each other’s paths along the way. Technically speaking, Bruce Willis’ segment in the film would act as the finale, and is instead placed in the end of the second act. This unorthodox structure helps give the film a compelling and, more importantly, unpredictable pace that breathes life into worn out stories.
These characters and stories are, for lack of a better term, are old, and Tarantino is keenly aware of this fact. The first image of the film is a dictionary definition of the word “Pulp”:
Even before showing a single frame of film, Tarantino is showing his acknowledgement of how these stories typically are: inconsequential, lifeless and boring. It is with the film’s unique structure where he gives life and relevance to stories that have been repeatedly told for ages. Pulp Fiction is a tribute and revival to the stories of old, showing a hitman with a love of burgers, complete with an existential crisis. The poster girl, Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace is the archetypal gangster’s wife, but it’s Tarantino’s screenplay and knack for character development that helps alleviate a tired shell of a character to one of cinema’s most endearing roles. Pulp Fiction is often credited to have perfected the concept and template of the postmodern film, which is a kind of film that strays away from narrative conventions and makes a wholly new picture. Such a definition points to why Pulp Fiction is as enduring now as it was back in 1994. Traditional films are obsessed and terrified of the notion that their story may grow boring or overlong, hoping that the story can gradually build and result into a spectacular climax. Tarantino knows the hand he’s dealt with in Pulp Fiction. At the slightest hint of mundanity, the film abruptly fades to black and tells another, seemingly unrelated story from the one previous, keeping the momentum from what came before. His mission to make new from old is the DNA of this film, from the Jack Rabbit Slim’s diner with various actors portraying some of pop culture’s greatest hits of yonder, like Richard Nixon and Marilyn Monroe, to the iconically eclectic soundtrack spanning from Rock ‘n Roll to Soul.
Pulp Fiction is a landmark in original filmmaking. Quentin Tarantino deconstructs pop culture, and the audience’s knowledge of it, and creates a motion picture that is in a genre unto itself. Through all the retrospective pomp and circumstance, it is easy to forget the true, understated mastery of its storytelling. It is Tarantino’s awareness of the stories’ limited longevity that makes the film’s structure endlessly vital to its eventual success and enduring relevance. Had it been told by conventional means, its brilliance and acute self-awareness would be suppressed to a tragic minimum. Pulp Fiction is greater than the sum of its parts because of how the story is told, turning what was once thought to be pastiche into true cinematic ingenuity.