As one of the most well-known and well-liked films among my generation, Pulp Fiction (1994) is known and lauded for creativity in almost every aspect of filmmaking, from the fast and witty script, to the near perfect casting choices. Much of the film’s distinctiveness comes from stylistic decisions and complete comfort when integrating popular culture and gritty criminal behavior in a light-hearted manner. This style has made the film a pop-culture icon without feeling outdated, even to those too young to understand certain references. Most importantly the director, Quentin Tarantino and cinematographer, Andrzej Sekuła place a huge focus on the intricacies of cinematography and camera movements as a means of storytelling and as a way to focus or distract the viewers. The film focuses on the intersecting lives of two hitmen, Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega, their boss and his wife, Marsellus and Mia Wallace, two small-time robbers Ringo and Yolanda, and a boxer named Butch Coolidge.
The importance of camera movements and the intricacies of the film’s cinematographic choices comes from the intersection of so many different story lines in the film. This intersection makes panning, cuts, perspective, and alternating wide, medium, and close-up shots essential to showing plot connections and to foreshadow and contextualize many plot points. Tarantino also popularized certain angles that were not commonly used prior to Tarantino, based simply on how he preferred the scene to be set up. For example, Tarantino is known to have a signature angle called a “trunk shot” in many of his films, which is a low-angle shot with characters looking down at an angle into the camera, at something the audience is unable to see immediately. The camera is actually located in the trunk of a car in the shot in
Tarantino also popularized certain angles that were not commonly used prior to Tarantino, based simply on how he preferred the scene to be set up. For example, Tarantino is known to have a signature angle called a “trunk shot” in many of his films, which is a low-angle shot with characters looking down at an angle into the camera, at something the audience is unable to see immediately. The camera is actually located in the trunk of a car in the shot in Pulp Fiction and serves to create a visual connection between the audience and characters, as well as contribute to a power balance among characters. This specific shot occurs as the two hitmen, Jules and Vincent, casually yet confidently take out and clean their guns from the trunk of their car, in preparation to go threaten and kill some people that owe their boss money. This low angle and casual mannerisms between the two men creates a sense of power and dominance of the men above their surroundings. This dynamic serves to further the point that the two characters are experienced and that this is not at all unusual for them. The trunk shot also utilizes negative space, lighting, and shadows to focus the scene on the nonchalant power of the two characters.
In addition to shots that add personality and power dynamics, many of the most memorable shots from Pulp Fiction are those scenes showing the intersections of multiple different characters’ storylines. These intersecting scenes all tend to occur during suspenseful or climactic periods of the film, making the intersection even more dramatic. For example, Butch, the boxer, and Marsellus Wallace, the crime boss have intertwined stories in that Butch deceived Marsellus and then tries to skip town. The scene where Butch and Marsellus see each other again after Butch doesn’t follow Marsellus’s directions is amazingly composed. It starts with a close-up, eye-level shot of Butch casually driving, with the camera taking the role of a dashboard camera.
Just as Butch turns his head to look to the side, the scene makes a quick cut, and the camera literally seems to just flip to the opposite direction, at the same level, position, and angle, but facing outwards from the car, showing a crosswalk with Marsellus at the very edge, framed by the car’s dashboard. With the camera flip, despite being at a similar location, it becomes a medium shot from a lower angle.
The intensity of the scene is enhanced by how slowly Marsellus turns his head, in comparison to the speed of the cars behind him. Viewers are almost able to see the gears turning in both characters heads when each finally notices the other in front of them. Marsellus’s expression immediately shifts to rage, while Butch’s immediately shifts to fear. The cuts in this scene are once again, incredibly important. In addition to the cut between watching Butch drive and watching the crosswalk, there is a sharp cut into Butch’s foot slamming on the gas, and another cut back to what is essentially Butch’s perspective. This new perspective shows Marsellus slamming into, and breaking the dash.
This scene is similar to many other throughout the film where characters with intertwining stories intersect at various points. The skill and precision involved with sharp, fast cuts and transitions, as well as framing and point of view create an interesting ongoing trend for these certain encounters. This unique style is characteristic of Tarantino’s style as a director and filmmaker, by creating dynamic, oddly composed scenes by bending and manipulating common cinematographic techniques.
Pulp Fiction has won numerous awards including Best Screenplay from the Golden Globes, and Palme d’Or from the world renowned Cannes Film Festival, which is the top award. These types of awards are only given to films the have recognizably innovative or creative artistic merit. As such a complex film with a fairly simple central plot, Pulp Fiction combines painstakingly composed scenes with lighthearted characters attempting to fulfill specific tasks or social engagements. This dynamic is incredible, making sure that viewers can never be bored, as well as making sure the audience is focused on what Tarantino wants them to see, and unaware of whatever Tarantino wants to remain hidden.