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Pulp Fiction

…because we still have no idea what’s in that damn briefcase. "Pulp Fiction" is notable for its mind-bending use of interwoven narratives that jump back and forth through time. Quentin Tarantino and his editor Sally Menke structured the film’s three main plotlines into chapters with overlapping characters and chronologies, creating the signature “Tarantino style” of storytelling that is often imitated but rarely equaled. Although the soundtrack plays a large role in the film – particularly in the iconic dance scene set to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” – Menke did not actually listen to any of the music while cutting the film.


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While Tarantino is known for his ability to write dialogue, "Pulp Fiction" demonstrates his innovation as a storyteller. The title of the film is a reference to the crime stories from the early 20th century that Tarantino grew up reading. Taking this literary allusion a step further, "Pulp Fiction" structures the plot into chapters that disrupt the story’s linear timeline, making the film more like a novel than a traditional three-act narrative right down to the prologue and epilogue scenes. The film’s characters also move in and out of storylines, making “guest appearances” in certain segments. The most famous example of this involves Vincent Vega (played by John Travolta), who is the lead character in most of the stories, but also plays a minor yet surprising role in a chapter centered around the boxer Butch (played by Bruce Willis) and his missing watch. The film’s jumps in chronology and merging storylines have become essential devices in Tarantino’s signature style. Although the late screenwriting teacher Syd Field claimed that "Pulp Fiction" actually does adhere to the traditional three-part structure he formulated in his books and lectures, "Pulp Fiction" is an excellent example of a different approach to presenting a story on film.

The complexity of "Pulp Fiction’s" narrative structure required a skilled editor in the cutting room. Sally Menke, who worked on every one of Tarantino’s films until her untimely death in 2010, deserves a lot of credit for her role on the project. Her ability to layer scenes that match continuity between the chapters and across the film’s timeline is impressive in its own right. Yet her style as an editor perfectly synched with Tarantino’s own instincts. Tarantino is famous (or infamous) for his countless references to and sampling of other films, so he and Menke carefully studied scenes they wished to draw on while editing. The dance scene in "Pulp Fiction," for example, takes inspiration from a similar dance number in Jean Luc-Godard’s "Band of Outsiders." Yet there are also the little details that make the editing of "Pulp Fiction" worth studying. Another famous scene, the needle in the heart, balances the signature elements of both "Pulp Fiction’s" tone and Tarantino’s signature style through its mix of humorous cutaways and violence accentuated by running the stabbing shot in reverse – in the footage, Travolta is pulling the syringe away quickly, so that in the film he appears to be jamming it into Uma Thurman’s heart with brutal force.

Upon its release, the "Pulp Fiction" soundtrack became almost as well-known as the film itself. Tarantino had previously raised additional financing through the soundtrack to "Reservoir Dogs," so he knew the importance of the song list for this film. None of the music on the soundtrack is contemporary to the film’s release, with tracks from the 1960’s through 1970’s intended to evoke the periods of filmmaking that influenced Tarantino. As with the overall “Tarantino style” that "Pulp Fiction" helped establish, the songs often provide a humorous contrast to the scenes, overlaying surfer music on scenes of intense violence and including novelty hits like the Statler Brothers’ “Flowers on the Wall” in the build up to a moment of suspense. Interestingly, Sally Menke did not listen to any of the songs while cutting the film, even in the dance scene. However, Tarantino had actually filmed John Travolta and Uma Thurman with Chuck Berry’s song playing on the set, so that their dance moves naturally reflected the rhythm of the song. As further demonstration of the importance of the songs to the action of the film, the commercially released soundtrack included snippets of dialogue to place each within the right context.


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