The following is a paper I wrote for Film Analysis:

Pulp Fiction and Smart Sound

Mr. Quentin Tarantino is obviously a master of his art, a genius.  However, it is not until close inspection of his masterpiece, Pulp Fiction, that one can truly understand how good he is.  This paper is not about the genius of Tarantino, but is made possible by that genius.  With Pulp Fiction Tarantino proved that he wasn’t just a hot fad that would come and go, he showed that he could hang with the best.  His control over visual style and especially dialogue is famous (“An interview with Quentin Tarantino”.)  What is less talked about is his mastery over sound.  Sure, his movie soundtracks are some of the most popular out there; however, his ability to use famous songs to great effect in scenes is not what is most impressive.  His mastery of diegetic, or actual, sound in film is what impresses.  The diegetic sounds in Pulp Fiction work seem to always function in more than one way.  They often foreshadow negative events and mirror the character’s feelings and actions, highlighting discursive elements of the film.

With very few, truncated exceptions all the music in Pulp Fiction is diegetic, or actual.  Even the two tracks that play during the opening credits are shown to be diegetic.  We can hear the radio switching channels at the same time the music director is credited and, more obviously, the second track is playing faintly during Vince and Jules’ infamous Amsterdam conservation.  In the bar scene the same tactic is used.  The song being played during the “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife” intertitle is brought into Marsellus’ bar.  The song is revealed as actual when Vince and Jules show up with the briefcase and the song fades but can still be heard over the outside noise.  Again, we see the use of a door to reveal the diegetic nature of music when Vincent Vega goes to buy heroin Lance.  In this scene, the music cuts out as Lance announces that he’s “out of balloons”.  However subtle, this foreshadows that something is awry.  Cocaine is not commonly stored in balloons for personal use.  If the heroin had been stored in a balloon then Mia would have been less likely to mistake it for cocaine and therefore totally change the outcome of this chapter.  Maybe Vince would have actually gone home straight away like he convinced himself to in the mirror.  Or maybe Mia would have convinced him to stay and they would have a much different secret to keep from Marsellus.

A few interesting things happen after Mia and Vince return to Marsellus’ house.  First, as they dance inside the house alarm goes off.  The alarm is actually a warning for a real alarm which would call the cops to the house if the correct password is not entered in time.  Mia leans back, enters the code to deactivate it, and throws herself back into Vince, closer than ever.  This act will be mirrored by the “adrenaline” scene.  Mia will overdose which could separate the two forever.  When Vince enters the correct code, or adrenaline shot, and awakens Mia they become closer than ever before.  Close enough for Mia to tell her cheesy “Fox Force Five” joke to Vince.  More simply, the alarm could be a warning that Vince needs to leave before he goes too far with Mia, prompting the talk with himself in the bathroom.  Second, Vince and Mia’s second uncomfortable silence of the night is punctuated by crickets.  Crickets epitomize uncomfortable silences, almost always comically, during awkward scenes or after jokes that fall flat.  Tarantino uses crickets here in conjunction with romantic looks between the two to emphasize that they are going too far and they know it.  After Mia is revived these same crickets chirp while Mia and Vince make their pact to keep the events of the night a secret.  Mia tells Vince her “Fox Force Five” joke, followed by a comfortable silence.  The crickets no longer punctuate awkwardness but instead punctuate the intimate relationship of Mia and Vince.  After their return from Jack Rabbit Slim’s, Mia turns on “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” by Urge Overkill.  This is the same move Tarantino used in Reservoir Dogs before Mr. White cut off the ear of the officer.  People tend to mature or at least change in a major way after near death experiences and this choice of song suggests that Mia’s mishap with heroin will be no different.  Of course, having sex is also often equated with “becoming a woman”.  So before the heroin incident, the song could have been thought to foreshadow Vince and Mia having sex.

Television audio plays a huge role in Pulp Fiction.  In television’s debut in Pulp Fiction, a chaotic, darkly humorous program entertains Lance until Vince calls and informs him that he is bringing Mia.  Vince exclaims, “She’s fuckin’ diein’ on me man!” and the television seems to sarcastically reply for Lance, “Just dandy.”  The screaming, chaos, violence, and even the humor of the television program will define the scene to begin with Vince’s crash entrance to Lance’s.  The screaming of Vince, Lance, and a rudely awoken Judy mirrors that of the television program.  Tarantino used the chaos of the television to help build suspense and a feeling of being out of control from very early on in the scene.  On Vince’s arrival, the chaos from the television is no longer needed because reality just got that much more exciting – Lance can turn it off.  In television’s second major appearance, a full eighteen seconds of Clutch Cargo, the cartoon young Butch watches, takes up our entire view before Butches mother introduces Captain Koons.  The cartoon Eskimo calls his dog stupid for thinking a totem pole is alive.  The only other reference to a totem pole in the film is an Indian statue shown in the back ground as Butch takes Zed’s scooter.  More importantly, this is an innocent cartoon that Butch is enjoying watching immediately before he is told the horrific story of the Gold Watch by Koons.  Filling our view with Clutch Cargo emphasizes the importance television will have later on in Butch’s life.  In its last major appearance, a television violently wakes up Butch to the sounds of guns and motorcycles.  Koons’ story may have ruined T.V. for Butch for his whole life.  The war sounds works in the past, the present, and the future.  As mentioned before, it brings back the stories told to Butch by Koons in his childhood.  In the present, it works to create a sense of discomfort in the audience before they know the watch is missing.  Even while Butch and Fabienne are in bed kissing the audience cannot be at total ease because of the violent sounds coming from the television.  The soundtrack from the “motorcycle movie”, as Fabienne calls it, comes to a climax in conjunction with Butch’s anger.  As the music climaxes Butch violently throws the T.V. against the opposite wall and screams at Fabienne.  Butch gains his composure in the absence of the soundtrack and apologizes to Fabienne, telling her that it’s not her fault she forgot the watch, it’s his.  The soundtrack of war and motorcycles foreshadows Butch going to war and Zed’s motorcycle.

As soon as Butch leaves Fabiennes’ Honda the diegetic sounds make it obvious he’s at war.  The focus on sound here highlights the fact that he knows this is his war.  In conjunction with the brush and dilapidated fences the sounds work to create a scene straight out of countless war movies where our hero is sneaking through enemy territory to save someone or something.  The sound of bushes being pushed aside is much louder than it would be in real life.  Radios are playing in unseen rooms bringing to mind pictures of troops walking through seedy buildings in search of “the bad guys.”  One radio mentions Jack Rabbit Slim’s.  A horn prompts Butch to run ahead and look around the building.  The absence of sound is just as important.  Like a soldier, Butch feels the vulnerability of silence in an open field so he crouches down and begins to move faster again.  Even the sound of an ice cream truck is suspenseful as Butch nears his apartment complex.  At this point, a car drives by and sounds like a bomber.  This brings to mind the airplane that flew overhead during Koons’ story.  As Butch enters the apartment complex he hears people talking, laughing, babies crying, things dropping, and dogs barking.  All of these represent everyday life, but to Butch they could mean his death.  His glances at each separate sound show just how on-edge and alert he is.  Just like a marine clearing out a building must be.  As Butch wins the “war” by retrieving his watch and killing Vince, his smoke alarm goes off.  This alarm tells us that Butch’s victory isn’t a clean one; more specifically it signals us that it’s time for Butch to go to his version of a P.O.W. camp as his father did.  Butch stays in the apartment more than a minute after the alarm goes off, making viewers uncomfortable.  As Butch exits the apartment building the sounds are sparse other than the alarm continuing to beep.  A helicopter can be heard above as Butch nears his car; conjuring pictures of copters flying overhead the foot soldiers on their way home after victory.

Butch enters the car to return to Fabienne when he hears a motorcycle and looks at it carefully.  Butch saw Zed.  Upon Butch’s entrance into Zed’s Pawn Shop, the radio is playing “If Love is a Red Dress” by Maria McKee and Maynard is looking Butch up and down.  Whistling is often a sign of sexual desire, not in a loving way but more of a carnal, lustful way.  Pairing whistling with Maynard “checking out” Butch foreshadows Maynard’s attempt to extract derive pleasure from watching Zed have sex with Marsellus.  Maynard’s sexual urge is expressed through the whistling in the radio.  The whistling pauses while action happens between Butch and Marsellus, then Butch and Maynard.  After knocking out Butch, Maynard calls Zed and looks down at the two men he plans on raping, the whistling resumes.  As Marsellus passes out the song goes, “… you are my angel…” as if he is calling out to Butch to save him.  After Maynard douses the two, we hear the same motorcycle (or chopper) that Butch saw earlier.  The fact that Maynard knew it was Zed arriving just by sound tells the viewer that the chopper is unique.  The deep rumbling and familiarity of Zed’s motorcycle is a sign of his power; this power is highlighted with a high angle shot of Maynard, Butch, Marsellus.

A lot of what Tarantino does with sound seems at first look basic, it is not until further inspection that his genius is revealed.  Many people argue that, “anyone can put together a great mix tape, hell, I’ve made plenty better than his.”  This is true, it’s not song selection that makes Pulp Fiction a masterpiece.  It’s the subtle intricacies of sounds.  It’s the television mirroring “real life”.  It’s the way he brings us deeper into a scene by bringing the song into the diegetic world.  It’s the way he ties scenes together with similar ambient noises that nobody listens for.  It’s the way he allows characters to communicate through a radio.  It’s the way he professes his love for movies in movies.

Bibliography

“An interview with Quentin Tarantino.” Charlie Rose – An Interview with Quentin Tarantino. Web. 12 Apr 2010. <http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/7257&gt;.

Tarantino, Quentin, Dir. Pulp Fiction. Dir. Quentin Tarantino.” Miramax: 1994, DVD.

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