I’ve seen Pulp Fiction at least a dozen times, but never in chronological order. So I’m grateful that Dangerous Minds has made me aware that this chronological edit exists, and maybe one day soon I’ll get around to watching it.
For now though, I’ll just say that while it’s really cool of Marc Campbell to share that video despite not being much of a Pulp Fiction fan, his criticism of the movie’s non-linear structure seems overly dismissive to me. He calls the structure “a mind game, not a mind expander,” though in all my viewings, I never got the sense that Pulp Fiction was trying to be a mind expander, at least not in the way that, say, Memento or Rashomon were.
But just because Pulp Fiction may not have a bold statement to make about time or memory or perception like those other movies do, that doesn’t mean the structure is, as Campbell calls it, “hollow.” To me, the kinky timeline works perfectly on at least two levels: rhythmically and emotionally. Let’s look at the opening scene, where we drop in on fast-talking criminal couple Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer discussing business strategies. First of all, it simply feels like the most ideal introduction into the movie’s funny, zippy and dangerous universe. The first scene chronologically- Christopher Walken’s monologue about how he hid a gold watch from the Viet Cong- is a great scene, but it’s more of an interlude. It’s funny, but only after a couple minutes, after Walken tells us where he hid the watch. And Walken’s relaxed delivery contrasts with most of other characters’ quicker cadences, so it wouldn’t be a great idea to open a movie with a scene that contrasts much of what will follow. Starting Pulp Fiction with this scene would throw everything out of whack, like if Led Zeppelin opened their fourth album with “Stairway To Heaven” instead of putting it as the centerpiece.
Seeing the movie the first time, you’ve probably forgotten about Roth & Plummer by the time they show up in the same diner where legit bad-asses Samuel L. Jackson & John Travolta are eating their muffins and bacon, so their reappearance has a pretty strong impact. Maybe Tarantino could have introduced Roth & Plummer at the same time Jackson & Travolta sit down to breakfast, maybe intercut between their booths, but I get the feeling that choice would have severely bogged down the momentum of both conversations. At this point we’ve just watched Jackson clean up the exploded skull and brain of a guy Travolta accidentally shot, and now Jackson’s having serious thoughts about leaving the criminal life for something more righteous. Then boom– Tim Roth calls the waitress “garcon” and instantly, we now know that Jackson’s new resolution is about to be tested right away by the motor-mouthed Bonnie & Clyde wannabes at the other end of the diner. Without Tarantino’s chronological tomfoolery, that boom isn’t there.
At its core- below the self-awareness, the pop culture references, the flashy style- Pulp Fiction is a touching story of how a shadowy, sometimes alluring underworld changes its characters. The non-linear editing enhances that angle, as well. After we might start feeling somewhat attached to Travolta’s charming hit-man, he’s gunned down on a toilet by Bruce Willis. When he reappears alive and well in the flashing-back third chapter, we’re reminded of how much we miss the guy, even if he did murder people for a living.
Back at the diner, we now get the idea that Samuel L. Jackson could die just as easily as Travolta did. And ideally, we’re rooting for Jackson (unless you think someone who’s sinned that much is beyond redemption). We want Jackson to escape the world that will soon claim his partner, that will soon traumatize his boss Ving Rhames, and will quite possibly change Bruce Willis forever, if not outright traumatize him too. As we wonder whether Jackson will walk out of that diner with his soul and his life intact, the tension would be far duller if we didn’t already see the consequences Travolta, Rhames and Willis suffer earlier in the movie.
So yeah, there seems to be a lot of meat inside that so-called “hollow” structure.