12 Things to Look for While Watching Pulp Fiction
With 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino established himself as a fascinating new director in a golden era for American indie filmmaking. But by his second feature, the Palme d’Or- and Oscar-winning and zeitgeist-hijacking Pulp Fiction (1994), he was his own lucrative brand.
Pulp Fiction announced a sea change in Hollywood, when Gen X upstarts could channel their personal and artistic idiosyncrasies into ambitious, commercially successful projects that just about everyone talked about. And in that subgenre, there still hasn’t been anything quite as big, daring, weird, demented, and frankly kinky as Pulp Fiction—a ridiculously entertaining meta-movie overstuffed with references and narrative cul-de-sacs. (Without it, would YouTubers be hyper-analyzing Christopher Nolan movies today? In short, no.) While a whole book could be devoted just to its visual Easter eggs, here’s a smattering of things you may have missed in Tarantino’s seminal film to catch on a rewatch.
1. Pulp Fiction is about, well, pulp fiction.
Tarantino wasn’t subtle about the inspiration for his multiple-stories-within-a-story concept: As it notes at the outset, Pulp Fiction is directly indebted to the inexpensive pulp novels, covering taboo and sensationalist material, that surged during the early 20th century and had a particular moment in the 1950s. (Todd Haynes's prestige Carol is adapted from what was originally Patricia Highsmith’s pulp The Price of Salt, which was published under a pseudonym.) Tarantino’s movie is an attempt at collecting, updating, and generally revising stories that dominated the genre.
2. Pulp Fiction had another writer, and there’s possible beef.
Quentin Tarantino heavily collaborated with screenwriter Roger Avary (his one-time fellow video store clerk) on the Pulp Fiction script, but when it came time to release the movie, Tarantino got a sole writing credit while Avary got a story writing credit. It may or may not be a coincidence that the two haven’t worked together since, but the internet certainly has speculative thoughts.
3. Samuel L. Jackson's favorite Bible verse doesn’t exist.
Perhaps the most indelible monologue in a movie teeming with them is Samuel L. Jackson’s reading of what is supposedly Ezekiel 25:17. But a quick Bible scan reveals that Tarantino mostly rewrote the verse for his own ends. Only the last line about the Lord laying vengeance is true to scripture. Luckily, it all sounds great coming from Jackson before he’s about to blow someone’s brains out.
4. Quentin Tarantino has a thing for diners ...
Quentin Tarantino's love of diners first became apparent in the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs, when a group of would-be bank robbers gather to discuss the upcoming job—and haggle about tipping. In flashbacks, we also see Tim Roth's character meeting with his partner at a perfectly retro eatery to share the details of the heist. Two years later, Tarantino both opened and closed Pulp Fiction in a diner—while yet another one (Jack Rabbit Slim's) played an integral part.
The Hawthorne Grill, where an attempted robbery bookends the movie, exudes retro LA vibes. That’s for good reason: As the crew told Los Angeles Magazine, the real-life diner was essentially abandoned after the owners left it unused for years, with napkins and place settings intact. Opened in 1956 and since demolished, the diner’s angular architecture defined many such roadside spots in Southern California from that era.
5. ... But Jack Rabbit Slim’s is not what it seems.
Jack Rabbit Slim’s is so integral to Pulp Fiction and so viscerally brought to life, you’ll be forgiven for thinking it’s a real nostalgia-themed restaurant. In fact, following the success of the film, there were plans to open a chain of restaurants bearing the name. That never materialized, which was probably for the best, because nothing could compare to the unique fantasy brought to the screen. The exterior location with a slanted roof, originally a 1959 bowling alley, was part of Disney’s Glendale campus at the time of filming, which made shooting there even easier. But the luxe rockabilly interior was entirely built, no doubt to match the epicness of Uma Thurman and John Travolta’s twist-off.
6. Quentin Tarantino's love of dirty words is gratuitous.
OK, so you don’t really look for verbal profanity in a film. But it’s impossible to ignore the sheer amount of it as you watch any Tarantino movie. In the days of Pulp Fiction as well as now, critics have accused Tarantino of gratuitous use of certain language. Pulp Fiction uses “f*ck” 265 times—a peak for that year—but perhaps more troubling are the 16 instances of the N-word. Spike Lee has speculated on Tarantino’s “infatuation” with the word, while Samuel L. Jackson has defended his director.
7. Uma Thurman’s feet steal Pulp Fiction—or at least Quentin Tarantino’s eyes.
By now, even casual Tarantino fans are familiar with the director’s foot fetish (check out that young Manson follower’s scummy toes in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood). He launched this particular desire into his filmography with Pulp Fiction, where the camera is regularly pointed at Uma Thurman's feet, which are most often bare. Kinky, sure, but at least they’re nice feet.
8. There’s an entire universe of Quentin Tarantino-invented brands.
Tarantino loves a legit era-specific brand, but he has also been known to create his own across his movies. A prime example is Big Kahuna Burger, a fictional Hawaiian-themed fast food joint that Jules endorses by exclaiming, “This is a tasty burger!” and which features in other Tarantino films including Reservoir Dogs and Death Proof. More recently, Tarantino invented a completely believable line of “Wolf’s Tooth” dog food, complete with a rat flavor, for Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.
9. The kangaroo watch holder from Pulp Fiction is a peak mid-century artifact.
If that kangaroo looks awfully familiar, chances are you’re of a certain age. The vintage animal-shaped caddy, meant to hold a watch and wallet, among other things, was a fairly standard mid-century item. You can find similar, if not identical, versions of this strangely delightful used ceramic accent for sale all over the internet.
10. No one fully understands Pulp Fiction's “Gimp” sequence.
Undoubtedly the most problematic Pulp Fiction scene involves a pawn shop’s basement, with Ving Rhames and Bruce Willis gagged and a submissive “Gimp” in full leather bondage watching over them. It betrays a long sadomasochistic streak in Tarantino’s work that fits uncomfortably alongside comedy. Tarantino and cowriter Roger Avary reportedly intended the scene to be a reworking of the brutal assault in Deliverance, and Tarantino called the setup “really funny.”
11. The world got to know Alexis Arquette in Pulp Fiction.
The late Alexis Arquette, sibling of Rosanna (another Pulp Fiction cast member) and David, has a pivotal moment in the movie nervously wielding a giant pistol. But more significantly, this was an early instance of the transgender actress being credited as Alexis Arquette—the name she would take on in her life and career.
12. Sometimes a briefcase is just a briefcase.
One of the most frequently asked questions about Pulp Fiction is, “What’s in the briefcase?” This is made all the more pressing by the fact that we can clearly see a shimmering gold-hued light emanating from the briefcase near the end of the film. While it’s tempting to read into the contents, Tarantino has repeatedly stated that it’s all up to the viewer, and Jackson clarified that the briefcase was simply filled with “two batteries and a lightbulb.” Yet another of the movie’s artful distractions.