Odds are you’ve seen an R-rated comedy written by Andrew Jay Cohen. His most famous movies include 2014’s Neighbors starring Seth Rogen and Zac Efron (which earned $150 million domestically), 2016’s Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates starring Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza, 2016’s sequel Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, and 2017’s The House starring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler.
Cohen’s love of film was evident even as a teenager, when in 1994 he wrote a column for his high school’s arts-themed publication analyzing the then-new Pulp Fiction. Some passages analyzing the characters’ motivations and psychologies still hold up as penetrating and insightful. “He goes to the bathroom three times in the film, so he is literally in touch with his bodily needs” — not so much.
Cohen even included a Pulp Fiction reference in this scene from Neighbors, when a character begins quoting Samuel L. Jackson’s iconic Biblical soliloquy, mistakenly claiming it was from the movie Jackie Brown before Seth Rogen’s character quickly corrects him. Fair warning that there are probably at least a dozen Not Safe For Work moments in this 2.5-minute clip alone. (And in the trailers linked to in the opening paragraph. And in the rest of this post.)
Below is Cohen’s intro explaining what he remembers about writing that 1994 article back in high school, followed by an image of Cohen’s original piece (which can be viewed full screen by right-clicking the image and selecting ‘open image in new tab’), followed by a transcribed version.
Ooof. Going down memory lane like this is like skipping through a garden of rose-bushes: yeah, it’s a gosh darn hoot and who doesn’t love prancing and dancing but gat dang do those thorns hurt and do you have antiseptic and maybe a few Band-Aids? Anyway, point is, the ol’ ego took a couple hits on this journey. But let me try to put into words what I’m thinking as I re-read this early piece of writing and film criticism or whatever:
First off, this thing is a CENTERFOLD? The article is from the high-school movies and music paper The Cutting Edge, which I was an editor of (humblebrag / conflict of interest), and my article was too long and instead of cutting the piece down, I just reformatted it and made a freaking centerfold spread like OHHH YEAH LOOK AT THIS FILM ANALYSIS, spread out over two pages, HOT AND SEXY ESSAY-WRITING.
I can’t tell if this article was an act of pride, laziness, or a mixture of both, but man, reading this again is kind of embarrassing. There are some classic other pieces in this Cutting Edge issue — Mike Lamb’s sick 4.5 star review of Blowout Comb or Todd Katzberg’s classic takedown of Bon Jovi’s Cross Road, which somehow ended up being a 3-star celebration of “when you could listen to these tapes in public.”
Anyway this Pulp Fiction thing. Here’s my thoughts. The movie changed my life. I saw it four times in the theater. I think I got more out of it each time I saw it. I was (and still am) in complete awe and admiration of Quentin Tarantino as a writer and director, who remade the idea of what a movie could be for me, before I went to college and took courses on film history and theory and international cinema — but it felt like these were coded inside this movie too somehow?
I just couldn’t believe how many connections there were inside Pulp Fiction, how even as disjointed it appeared, how much care and logic and effort — and not just Tarantino-esque but written and directed by fucking Quentin Tarantino himself — with inspired dialogue and action and redemption and revenge and all those classic Tarantino tropes laid out like a masterpiece but under the guise of a cheap tawdry paperback. I really wanted to celebrate the movie publicly and share my joy with my fellow classmates.
I guess? Some people in high school used to say “You think too much.” Maybe. But in high school I at least tried to make thinking too much… sexy? Centerfold! Haaa. What a dick. “Check out my brain, Ladies. Wanna take this thing for a spin? Behold the vooooocaaaaaaaab in this esssssaaaaaayyyyyy…”
I guess here’s my high school love affair with one of the best movies of all time, up there with my other favorites, Rashomon and Trading Places. Love you Tarantino!
Slightly ashamed (but only slightly),
Andrew Jay Cohen
And here’s the actual article. To refresh your memory before reading, Jules Winnfield is the hitman character played by Samuel L. Jackson, Vincent Vega is the partner in crime portrayed by John Travolta, and Mia Wallace is the gang leader’s wife played by Uma Thurman. Spoilers follow, if you haven’t seen the film before.
Pulp Fiction: Analysis – Speech and Symbolism
A common gripe about Pulp Fiction concerns its extensive dialogues and pop culture references. Some find them boring and unnecessary; some find them meaningless but still funny. But, as much as it hurts to acknowledge, they prove important in understanding the film, particularly the philosophical differences between Jules and Vincent, two hit men working for Marsellus Wallace, their crime boss. The two men face different challenges: Jules wants to quit being a hit man, and Vincent has to take out Marsellus’ wife without touching her. Their seemingly trivial conversations aid in Jules’s and Vincent’s characterization and the random references work as symbols, lending reason for their differing fates.
Conversations and symbolism add insight into their respective dilemmas. One of the most important dialogues in the film, surprisingly, is Jules and Vincent’s conversation in the Hawthorne Diner about pork, which shows Jules’s principled nature. Jules says he does not eat pork: “A pig is a filthy animal. I don’t eat filthy animals.” He does not care how good pig may taste. He says, “Sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I’d never know cause I’d never eat the filthy motherfuckers.” To Jules, the principle overrides the desire; if something is filthy, it is filthy, no matter how good it tastes. He might as well be talking about his job as a hit man. He realizes it is a filthy job, even if it has its rewards.
Tarantino uses the stolen briefcase that Jules and Vincent have to deliver to Marsellus on two levels: on one level as a device to keep the viewer interested, on another as a symbol for Jules’s dilemma. The briefcase contains “the tyranny of evil men.” The combination of the case is “666,” and everyone looks inside the case with a sense of awe. Vincent opens it, and Jules asks him, “We happy?” Vincent replies, “Yeah, we happy” and shakes his head in amazement. Pumpkin, who attempts to rob a restaurant with his girlfriend, Honey Bunny, says, “It’s beautiful.” They see the power of evil, the rewards of a life of crime (money, drugs, etc.), and they smile. For them, the tyranny of evil men is the secret of happiness. Furthermore, when opened, the case emits a gold glow and a low humming sound, suggesting a seductive power. The glow resembles the one Tarantino uses when he shows Jules and Vincent killing Brett, an amateur crook who steals the briefcase: the shot dissolves quickly from Jules into the glow, then into Vincent and into the glow again, and finally back into Jules. After all, before he shoots Brett, Jules says, “You will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee,” showing the power he feels when executing someone.
At the diner, however, Jules does not identify with the briefcase. He tells Vincent that he is going to deliver the case and tell Marsellus that he is done being a hit man. Pumpkin asks him what is in the briefcase, and he responds, “My boss’ dirty laundry.” Pumpkin tells him that doing his boss’ laundry “sounds like a shitty job,” and Jules responds, “I was just thinking the same thing.” Despite its benefits, a job as a gangster conflicts with his morality. Pumpkin then asks him for it, and he says he cannot give it to him because “it’s not mine to give.” Then he recites Ezekiel 25:17, the passage he always recites before he kills someone: “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of charity and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children” and so on. He finally understands the passage, he tells Pumpkin. It means, “You’re the weak, and I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying… real hard to be the shepherd.” It’s his boss’ dirty laundry, not his. He must give it to Marsellus to cleanse himself.
Indeed, Tarantino believes that Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are the weak, too. After Jules stops them from robbing the diner, Honey Bunny cries, “I have to go pee. I want to go home.” With a gun to his face, Pumpkin says in a monotone, “Still cool, Honey Bunny” and “I love you, too, Honey Bunny,” without the enthusiasm with which he said the lines before. Tarantino no longer uses their pet names to suggest their love-on-the-run evil. Instead, he ridicules Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, the weak who try to be evil, in the same way he ridicules Brett and his friends, who cannot stop stuttering or shaking when they have a gun pointed at them. By comparison, when Pumpkin points a gun at Jules, he says coolly, “I hate to shatter your ego, but this isn’t the first time I’ve had a gun pointed at my face.” The case is a symbol of his evil, as is his wallet, which says “Bad Mother Fucker.” Jules does not allow Pumpkin or Honey Bunny to have either. Instead, he gives Pumpkin all his money “so I don’t have to kill you” and says, “I just bought your life.” The last image of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny is pathetic: arm in arm, they walk out of the restaurant with their precious bag of wallets. Tarantino makes a point in the failure of Brett, Brett’s friends, Pumpkin, and Honey Bunny: fake crooks cannot pull off real crimes.
Conversation and symbolism also reveal that Vincent usually follows his id over his ego. In the conversation about pork, he reveals he does not care whether a dog is filthy. He says to Jules, “bacon tastes good; pork chops taste good.” Indeed, Vincent is an indulgent character. His face is bloated, and he is overweight, as we see when he takes his shirt off. Travolta gained weight for the part, so we know that Tarantino thought his plumpness necessary. He goes to the bathroom three times in the film, so he is literally in touch with his bodily needs. And he does heroin. He even asks his dealer if he can “shoot up right now,” at the dealer’s house, as if he cannot wait. His actions when he is driving high — his eyes are squinting, his head is grooving to the music, and he smirks softly to himself — show his feeling of satisfaction.
So when Marsellus asks him to take his wife, Mia, on a date, he gives Vincent an enormous challenge: he cannot give in to his desires. Vincent himself calls his task a “moral test of one’s self.” Jules and Vincent’s apparently idle discussion of foot massages reveals Vincent’s understanding and appreciation of sensuality, which may help or hinder his ability to restrain himself, by either scaring him or turning him on. Whereas Jules does not see why Marsellus would try to kill Tony Rocky Horror for giving his wife a foot massage, Vincent does. Vincent says, “There’s a sensuous thing going on” in a massage, and of all the foot massages he has given, “every one of them meant something.” Tony Rocky Horror should have “known better.” Unlike Jules, Vincent understands the unstated sexual connections people feel with each other.
Later we see how Vincent must avoid a similar sexual connection with Mia Wallace. Thanks to Tarantino, we see Mia instantly as an object of desire. Her house, for instance, is a phallic paradise. The first shot we see of her face is an extreme close up of her lips almost touching a microphone. Then we see her hand moving a joystick that controls a camera. And scattered around the house are long, thick candles. Indeed, when she does come downstairs, the camera does not follow her body or her face; it follows her feet. Later, when she walks into the bathroom at Jack Rabbit Slim’s diner, she walks by a drawing of a speedy red race car. And after she overdoses on Vincent’s heroin and Vincent must give her a shot of adrenaline, we see another phallic symbol: the syringe. Liquid drops from the end, then Vincent shoots its contents straight into her heart. Talk about unstated sexual connections! — no wonder, after the night is over, Vincent blows her a kiss before he walks away.
However, his avoidance of contact with Mia Wallace, which may or may not have happened had she not overdosed, is one of the only times we see him restrain himself without aid from others. He is absorbed in his life, and his inability to see wrong in it leads to his death. When one of Brett’s friends shoots at him and Jules but misses, Jules sees the episode as “diving intervention”; Vincent sees it as something that “happens all the time.” While he is on the toilet twice in the film, he reads a book called Modesty Blaise. On the cover is a picture of a woman and a gun, so one can assume that he is reading a pulp fiction novel. Tarantino’s point is that Vincent is sitting on his ass, immersed in his pulp fiction world. He meets his fate when he goes to kill Butch, a boxer who wins a fight he is supposed to lose for Marsellus. He goes to the bathroom at Butch’s house, and when he walks out of the bathroom with his book in hand, Butch shoots him. His indulgences — the book, the bathroom, the life — kill him.
Evidently trivial dialogue and pop culture references are essential to understanding Jules’s and Vincent’s character as well as Tarantino’s message. Jules’s principles save him, and Vincent’s desires kill him. Tarantino asserts that popular culture is not wasted culture. Other artists, like Nathanael West, used pop culture to make some strong symbols in their works. Surprisingly enough, there is profundity in that which everyone knows. After all, no one trivializes Biblical references, and what could be more pop culture than the most popular book of all time?