Monday, December 14, 2009

PULP FICTION and the Grandfather Paradox

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.

Before I conclude these posts on structure I want to cover two more films which I feel put 3-act and my model of multi-level structure for popular narrative films to the test: Pulp Fiction and Memento. Because of the length of my analysis of Memento, I’ll leave it for the next post, and deal here only with Pulp Fiction.

I will not present my analysis in the format I’ve used up to this point. The reason for this is that the films up to this point were, while popular and commercial hits, essentially conventional. Five of the eight were, in fact, standard 3-act narratives. The sixth, Annie Hall, while still in 3 parts on both structural levels (the surface-level Physical, and the deeper-level Logical), told its story with an unconventional assembly that was, nonetheless, still causal. 
Pulp Fiction (1994) is a film held up by many as effectively destroying structure because of its re-ordering and scrambling of causality, not to mention the traditional 3 acts. From an examination of the linear progression of the scenes through time, it seems to have the beginning partly at the beginning, and partly at the end, the end mostly in the middle, and the middle mostly near the real-time beginning.
In fact, the break-down in causality suggests the film may have more in common with science fiction than it does pulp fiction. Structured as it is, it recalls the famous time travel scenario by science fiction writer René Barjavel in his 1943 book Le Voyageur Imprudent (The Imprudent Traveller), known as the grandfather paradox:
“The paradox is this: suppose a man travelled back in time and killed his biological grandfather before the latter met the traveler's grandmother. As a result, one of the traveler's parents (and by extension the traveller himself) would never have been conceived. This would imply that he could not have travelled back in time after all, which means the grandfather would still be alive, and the traveller would have been conceived allowing him to travel back in time and kill his grandfather. Thus each possibility seems to imply its own negation, a type of logical paradox.” (1)
Vincent Vega dies in the middle of the story but is present at the end. And yet the events surrounding this are essentially causal. Either causality or linear time have been violated.
The film seems to succeed despite this scrambling on sheer “chutzpah” and Quentin Tarantino’s & Roger Avary’s amazingly baroque dialogue riffs.(2) The structure may have taken its cue from director Jean Luc Godard, who, when asked if films need to have beginnings, middles, and ends, famously replied, “Yes, but not necessarily in that order.” While this seems overly coy, in the case of Pulp Fiction, it applies.
I submit that the film does, indeed, succeed due to its classic Fieldian (Syd Field) 3-component structure. If one examines the deeper, logical-level of the film, the true structure, as always, emerges. The protagonist is effectively the criminal gang headed by Marsellus (sic) Wallace. Its cohesion is threatened by a series of events: Vincent’s near losing of Marsellus’s wife, Mia, to her ingesting of a heroin overdose; Butch’s betrayal of Marsellus; and Jules and Vincent’s accidental killing of one of Marsellus’s hench-men. As each of these obstacles is overcome, the group grows in illumination: Vincent, as it pertains to his calling to the gang and his precarious relationship to his employer; Butch, in his rescue of Marsellus despite his earlier betrayal; and Jules as his estimation of his own odds of survival has determined they’ve bottomed out. Marsellus, himself, grows in releasing Butch in thanks for his rescue, after having planned to kill him upon discovering the betrayal.
For each of these examples of growth to work in concert, the film requires assembly as it, in fact, was assembled. The true structure emerges from this assembly, and only this assembly. So while logic and causality would seem to influence if not govern the laws of narrative, in Pulp Fiction they negate its structure. For the film to work structurally, it must, paradoxically, defy logic, defy causality, while yet behaving causally and logically sound. Linda Seger and Carolyn Miller, in an essay on unconventional narrative forms for Creative Screenwriting magazine (March/April, 2001), identified a variety of new structural forms appearing in films today. Concerning Pulp Fiction, they said:
“PULP FICTION...employs a curved structure, a Loop, since it starts with the beginning, but the ending loops back and is played in the middle of the story. The structure helped solve the essential challenge of the piece: how does one create a form to unite several disparate parts? If the film had not used this looping structure, characters would have dropped out of the story part way through--either because of death, escape, or simply by choosing to get out of the killing business. This would have given the story a lack of cohesiveness, and robbed it of a transformational arc that started in the second scene of the film and ended in the last scene of the film.”

And later, they say:

“For the Loop, writers Tarantino and Avary had to continually weave connecting threads between the multiple, seemingly disconnected story-lines, as well as the various scenes that take place out of chronological order... they created an overall umbrella to the story through all the characters’ fear of the villain, the evil and powerful Marsellus (sic).”

Apply the Field Paradigm to Pulp Fiction and it breaks down unless the protagonist is seen as the criminal gang as a whole, joined by, among other things, that “umbrella” of fear identified by Seger and Miller. The time juxtaposition, with Vincent Vega dying in the middle, but being present when Jules decides to quit the gang at the end, among other juxtapositions, effectively destroys a time-only causality requirement implied by a superficial reading of Aristotle and Field.
This is even clearer with the Christopher Vogler model of myth-based archetypes. Who is the journeying hero? Vincent? Jules? Butch? None of the others has enough screen time. But none of the first three fills the bill sufficiently, either. Which archetypes are present? Is there a mentor? (Mr. Wolf, perhaps?) Some have said that the protagonist is, indeed, Jules, as he exhibits the true transformational epiphany at the end, and his gradually deeper understanding of the Ezekiel verses which he recites during the film seems to articulate an arc-of-transformation. But Jules is wholly missing from Butch’s story and much of Vincent’s story, so the reasoning, once again, breaks down.
If structure is mere connection of parts, then Pulp Fiction is, while a structured assembly, to understate it greatly, a unique example. If structure is connection and support of parts, then, an only-the-gang-as-protagonist view achieves it. Tarantino, himself, signals this when he states at the outset, Pulp Fiction is “Three stories about one story.” There’s only a single candidate for the “one story” in the film, and it’s the gang’s story. And this, I suggest, implies the title might better have been Science Fiction.
In my final post in this 8-part series on structure I will analyze Memento, a film that is one of the most distinctive films in history. For sheer narrative and technical audacity, it ranks right up there with (for their times) A Trip to the Moon (1917), Un Chien Andalou (1929), Citizen Kane (1941), The Lady in The Lake (1947), Rope (1948), Last Year At Marienbad (1961), Head (1968), El Topo (1970), Eraserhead (1977), Twin Peaks (1990-92), and Lost Highway (1997).
(1)   Source:
(2)   The script was based on a “show” script by Avary called, Pandemonium Reigned. But Avary sold it to Tarantino for $25,000 (because Avary needed the money to get married) and Tarantino did his own revision. The effect of this was to split the friendship, a lesson to all collaborators. Avary, who went on his own to make Killing Zoe, claims Pulp Fiction is half his work, and a description of the original script’s plot suggests there may be something to this. But Tarantino claims only the middle section of the original was Avary’s. (But, as all Fieldians know, the middle act in the paradigm is half of the story! And as all Pulp Fiction-eers know, the end was in the middle! So, was it the real middle or the end that got placed in the middle? - Perhaps the story of the script’s writing was as non-causal as the script’s story! Perhaps causality was lost along with the friendship, and Avary’s middle was written at the writing’s end!) Ultimately, the dialogue sounds like Tarantino’s - though the two had worked together long enough that that may be arguable, too. And Tarantino bought sole screenplay credit from Avary in exchange for lots of money and an original “story by” credit. So Avary can cry in his beer.
Lee A. Matthias

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