Pulp Fiction: Shortcomings of a “Neo-Noir” Essay

The remarkable stylistic conventions of classical film noir have made it one of the most memorable and recognizable film genres to this day. Each film noir picture is uniquely told though it use of degrees of darkness, contrasting lighting, rain-covered city streets, isolated protagonist, and devious dames that effortlessly lure men into a cold trap of criminal deeds. Pulp Fiction, a film by Quentin Tarantino, is said to be one of film noir’s strongest roots with its setting of a dark, criminal underworld.

While the film does play around the edges of traditional film noir, it cannot be accurately be claimed a “neo-noir” due to several variances it takes with some of the most fundamental elements of film noir. Many visual and narrative devices have taken a different route in such a manner that one cannot classify it as conventional film noir. One of the most obvious breaks that Pulp Fiction makes from traditional film noir is the film being shot primarily in the daytime.

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When one thinks of film noir, they automatically think darkness because it is always the film’s visual theme. The symbolic use of heavy shadows and key lighting is what makes film noir so great and gives the overall grim mood to the picture. When the murders occur the lighting is very dark, and most of the time, only illuminates the killers face as he is firing the bullets such as in The Killers when the two assassins come and kill the Swede. This style shows how emotionless the murders are as we only focus on their face from the lighting, thus giving the audience a very cold and dark feeling. We never get this feeling or situation in Pulp Fiction as all of the killing is done in the daytime, with the room well lit. There are no murders at night; in fact there are only two night scenes shot in the entire movie. There is not as much emotion or overall visual effect that we usually see with murders in film noir.

A similarity we see between classic film noir and Pulp fiction that adds to the visual detail of the film is constant smoking. Almost every character in Pulp Fiction smokes and they do it every chance they get. In classical film noir this smoking added to the effect of the darkness and lighting because the rooms where always filled with smoke which increased the feeling of uncertainty and gloom. In Pulp fiction, it has a greatly diminished symbolic effect because of the shots always being in the daytime. The only scene that compares to classic film noir is the shot of Butch in the taxicab with Esmarelda. This shot is the only one in the entire film that comes closest to a typical noir setting. This scene is shot at night in a cab traveling in the city streets of Los Angles. There is heavy contrast lighting from the streetlights and the camera angle is shot from the third-person facing the two characters in the car. From this view the audience gets a great visual picture of their faces because of the contrast of light that only illuminates both Butch and Esmarelda.

Butch asks for a cigarette and Esmarelda gives him one right away, striking the match on the dash as we see in most noir films. Now the setting is dark and the car is filling with smoke, which gives a great setting for Esmarelda to ask, “what does it feel like to kill a man?” This moment is a perfect resurrection of classical film noir because we see the murderer and a questionable femme fatale having strong interest on what it is like to take a life. As Butch claims that he did not know that he killed the man until she told him, there is a pause, and then he tells her that he does not feel “a damn thing.”

This is the cold moment we see from the noir style but they usually last much longer in traditional film noir. In contrast, the scene in Pulp Fiction ends abruptly as Butch leaves the taxi and goes home to Fabienne, whom he is having an intimate relationship with. The mood of the movie completely changes and all possible questions about Esmarelda being the femme fatale are erased as she is now out of the story. This scene is as close as we get to a typical noir setting with all the elements of darkness, lighting, and smoke combined to create a better feeling of how cold Butch is towards killing another man.

A film noir with out a femme fatale is hardly a film noir at all. Often called “spider woman” they play the most important role in all film noir as they weave a trap to which our male antagonist always falls into creating the plot and crime of the story. “Independence is her goal but her nature is fundamentally and irredeemably sexual in film noir” (Place 6). In Pulp fiction, the audience is drawn in to believe that Mia is our femme fatale as the first time we are introduced to her all we hear is her seductive voice and then the camera flashes to a shot of just her lips, covered in fresh red lipstick. The next shot we see of her is only her feet as she tells Vincent it is time to go. This is a typical visual style we see in noir as it shows how the man begins to get seduced such as the shot of Phyllis’ legs as she goes down the staircase in Double Indemnity. With the background knowledge of Mia being the millionaires, Marsellus Wallace’s wife, we are led to think that she is a typical femme fatale who wants to escape like Kathie in Out of the Past.

As they go out on their date, Vincent and Mia have some of the same back and forth flirtatious dialogue that we see in film noir such as when Mia says, “That’s when you’ve found somebody really special, when you can just shut the fuck up for a minute, and comfortably share a silence.” They have a good time, win a dance competition, and it seems as if Mia is certainly seductive enough towards Vincent to get him trapped when they get home. It is exactly at this point that the typical principles of film noir begin to fall apart. Vincent takes himself in the bathroom and has a self-debate on whether or not to sleep with the boss’s wife. In traditional film noir, rational is completely taken over by impulse and the male-lead always falls into some kind of trap.

In Pulp fiction, Vincent decides that he is just going to say goodbye and rejects the advances of the femme fatale, which is completely out of line if we want to classify this film as noir. Immediately after, Mia overdoses which completely changes the entire mood of the movie. We are no longer thinking about Mia seducing Vincent, it has now turned into a climactic struggle to save Mia’s life. Although Mia has her juicy red lips, smooth voice, and powerful sexuality, her downfall proves that there is no place for a character such as a femme fatale in this movie. “Her failure as an actress and her later overdose leaves her weak, powerless and deathly pale, a far cry from the sexually potent and glamorous fatales of the classical noir period” (Em L, “Film in Focus”).

A feature in Pulp fiction that related to classic film noir was the use of a non-sequential narrative structure. Although Pulp fiction did not use the exact same structure, the events were seen out of chronological order. The structure typically seen in noir is encompassed by on overall flashback that gives detail and explanation of the downfall of the male protagonist. Stories in film noir typically begin at the end or middle, and the flashback us usually narrated by the protagonist. In these fist-person voice-over narrations we learn how the protagonist got to the situation he is in now. Since the character is relating the story directly to the audience, we are able to create a connection with the character, and understand his disturbed thoughts. Pulp fiction takes a different approach, as there is no specific male protagonist in the film. Instead of one person illustrating events from past to present, we are given multiple characters experiences in various timeframes. The audience is show different points of departure from each character in the story and the story rewinds and we experience the same timeframe but from someone else’s point of view.

This continues until we come full circle to the robbery scene, where now, all of the pieces of the puzzle have been put together. “Director Quentin Tarantino said he was aiming to make a trilogy taking elements of the old crime stories and mixing them together” (Blake, “Linear Narrative”). “Part of the trick is to take these movie characters, these genre characters and these genre situations and actually apply them to some of real life’s rules and see how they unravel” (Tarantino). Although this was a great style to put the movie together it is unclear if it could be used to show the downfall of the protagonist. The flashback marks the solidified fate of the noir heroes, showing how he was doomed from the start. If the audience has to relate to many characters rather than just one, the powerful connection we get in film noir is lost.

The most noticeable and prominent variation from the framework of film noir in Pulp Fiction is the rejection of pessimism expected from the conclusion of the film. All noir heroes are doomed from the start. Since the flashback structure is completely different than classic film noir we do not see how any of the characters are trapped in a fate they cannot escape. In fact, almost everyone does get a happy ending. Jules decides he is done being a hit man after is “divine intervention” and says that he is not going to kill a man again but become a sheppard for the lord.

Butch is free to go after he comes back for Marsellus who was getting raped by Zed. Vincent does die but with the timeline out of order he is killed in the middle in the movie rather than in the end where he walks out of the restaurant with Jules. Even Ringo and Yolanda have a happy ending as Jules teaches them a lesson and they still get away with lots of money. Noir films are supposed to leave the audience with a dark and cold feeling, which was definitely not the case here. The pessimistic tone we get from the confessional nature of the flashback creates the view of negativity that last the entirety of the film.

Film noir may even be called it’s own genre because of its many visual and narrative elements that made it like no other style. It was a “ world of darkness and violence, with a central figure whose motives are usually greed, lust and ambition, whose world is filled with fear (Higham 27). Although Pulp Fiction carries some of these elements it should not be classified as a “neo noir” as it lacks some of the greatest aspects that made film noir so special. If it is the roots of film noir, it greatly undermines the movement that was like no other ever scene in American cinema.

Works Cited
Em L. “Film in Focus: Suburban Noir & Pulp Fiction.” Film Student Central. N.p., 11 Oct. 2009. Web. 20 June 2012. <http://filmstudentcentral.wordpress.com/2009/10/11/film-in-focus-suburban-noir-pulp-fiction/>.

Higham, Charles, and Joel Greeburg. “Noir Cinema.” Film Noir Reader. New Jersey: Limelight Editions, 1996. 27. Print.

Place, Janey. “Women in Film Noir.” N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.

Blake, CG. “Linear vs. Non-linear Narrative.” A New Fiction Writers Forum. N.p., 6 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 June 2012. <http://cgblake.wordpress.com/2011/12/06/linear-vs-non-linear-narrative/>.

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