Pulp Fiction (1994)
Experimental Cinematography in Quentin Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction'
By: Domonique Salberg
Pulp Fiction no doubt had an immeasurable impact on both mainstream and independent filmmakers in the ’90s. But for modern creators, it still is worth revisiting its teachable moments within the medium—specifically, Tarantino’s daring, experimental cinematography.
Lack of Conventional Establishing Shots
Hollywood cinema has a formula that frequently begins new scenes with establishing shots of the location where the subsequent action occurs. Before cutting into character or action, this practice of establishing shots helps adapt the audience and is a convention viewers are familiar with and anticipate. Tarantino decides to subvert our expectations with this same shot by leaving out establishing shots for most of his scenes. Therefore, only using two in the whole film: one at the start of the plot’s final scene when we visit the diner for the second time and one before Mia and Vincent enter Jack Rabbit Slim’s. However, even this is preceded by a medium two-shot of Mia and Vincent in the car.
Thus, not having establishing shots can be confusing and disorienting for a viewer, even more so in a movie like Pulp Fiction that has a fractured, non-linear narrative structure—increasing the perplexing effect. As with the two examples stated before, with Bunny and Pumpkin at the diner and Mia and Vincent in the car, Tarantino may have chosen not to begin scenes with establishing shots for many reasons. Possibly heighten the scene’s intensity or a sense of claustrophobia, bring the viewer closer to the characters (or the action), or encourage the audience to focus more on the dialogue—especially since Pulp Fiction leans more towards that than an action-driven movie.
Arguably an even more apparent deviation from mainstream cinematography is Pulp Fiction’s lengthy close-ups. Tarantino frequently uses long takes (sometimes painfully so) for close-ups or medium close-ups, building tension and a sense of anxiety in the spectator or making the audience position themselves with certain characters. As a general rule, the closer the shot, the less time it is on screen, but Tarantino chooses to manipulate and experiment with these expectations. A notable example is during the scene when Marcellus tells Butch to throw the fight—not only is there an extremely long take on the close-up, but Marcellus talks to him for over two minutes. Then later in the scene, the camera is positioned behind Marcellus’s head, over his shoulder (while talking) positioned facing Butch.
Oddly Shot and Framed Conversations
On top of the lengthy close-up, there is another layer of experimental cinematography by choosing to put the back of Marcello’s head in focus (while speaking) and simultaneously Butch’s face out of focus, creating an unsettling conversation for the viewer. Conventionally this scene would be filmed with Butch’s face in focus to allow the audience to measure his reaction. Typical movie conversations are shot with a series of over-the-shoulder shots with occasional side-on two shots, cut together in a shot-reverse-shot pattern.
So even though some conversations in Pulp Fiction are shot conventionally, many are not to further unsettle and perplex the viewer. Such as when Vincent and Jules have a conversation outside the apartment door. The shot is entirely from behind the men and focused on the back of their heads in a tightly framed medium close-up. The viewers cannot see their faces and therefore cannot read their responses and reactions through their facial expressions. Furthermore, the scene is shot in a single long take, long shot—and even though they are positioned at the end of the hall, their conversation is audible.
Tight Framing & Contrazoom Shot
Tarantino has a thing for tight framing in Pulp Fiction, too. Based on the story, it could be used to foreground the dialogue rather than the action effectively or a more economical choice. So naturally, when we see this type of framing, they evoke tension and claustrophobia and, in Pulp Fiction, suggest that the characters are trapped in the lifestyle they lead.
The contrazoom/dolly zoom technique used on Mia is a variation of experimental tight framing that effectively shows the chaotic life of the film’s characters. Plus, the numerous extreme close-up shots used by Tarantino are not exactly experimental; still, they appear so when used as lavishly in Pulp Fiction compared to mainstream films that favor a series of medium shots.
As for lighting in Pulp Fiction, a great example of stylistic, expressive lighting is the scene in the bar during the conversation between Marcellus and Butch about throwing the fight. It is the first time we meet the dangerous Marcellus in his space. Thus, the lighting is used to reinforce elements of Marcellus’s character to the viewer. It is not naturalistic but instead, a stylistic subterranean color mixed with shadows cast by low-key lighting, created using a red filter. The intense filter imbues Butch in red as if in hell and a way to imply the ‘heat’ butch is under to do Marcellus’s criminal bidding.
The “Trunk” Shot
Lastly, the experimental shot that has become Tarantino’s auteur signature is the ‘trunk’ shot seen in Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Volume 1, Death Proof, Inglorious Bastards, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. This stylistic shot appears to be shot from a low angle as if from the boot of a car. It is unusual for the viewer to witness since the actors seem to enter ‘our’ space or address us. Doing so creates a cool, novel moment for moviegoers.