Pulp Fiction (1994) is often termed as a Neo-Noir film. The film does indeed incorporate stylistic characteristics of film noir, but it would be wrong to reduce it in this way; Pulp Fiction is more than that. For many critics, it is a masterpiece of postmodern cinema although there is no general consensus in the field of film theory as to what a postmodern film is and how it is different from other genres. The boundaries are, without a doubt, rather fluid, but there are some aesthetic, stylistic features and sociocultural aspects that many postmodern films have in common. According to Eder, they are linked by a network of similarities (see Eder 2008, 12).
On a narrative level, postmodern cinema is marked by a non-linear narration style and a high tolerance to ambivalence. Contradictions are left unresolved and extramedial references are not embedded in the narrative logic. As for codes, symbols and references, there is a high level of intertextuality and intermediality. In this perspective, postmodern cinema can also be termed a ‘cinema of references’, which facilitates various levels of meaning and points to sources outside its own medium. By double-coding the narrative level (the film’s story) and discursive level (reflection of the narrative), various target groups and types of viewer can be addressed (see Bleicher 2008, 113).
Furthermore, postmodern films lean towards hyperbole, aestheticisation, the spectacular, and demonstrative artificiality – all features innate to Pulp Fiction. The cross references in Quentin Tarantino’s film are almost inexhaustible: “Pulp Fiction has even more pop culture references, including those to Fonzie, Green Acres, Flock of Seagulls, Pepsi, Big Macs and Quarter Pounders, and the 1970s TV series Kung Fu; Travolta’s dancing is reminiscent of his role in John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever (1977); and, of course, the Jack Rabbit Slim’s scene is full of icons like Ed Sullivan, Marilyn Monroe, and Buddy Holly. Further, Tarantino’s movies very often reference earlier films, and they frequently blend genres in the way described above.” (Conard 2007, 108)
The intertextual references in Pulp Fiction are broadly trivial, superficial allusions to pop culture and Pop art: “For all his talent, Tarantino’s ‘hypertext’ is relatively narrow, made up largely of testosterone-driven action movies, hard-boiled novels, and pop-art comic strips like Modesty Blaise. His attitude toward mass culture is also much less ironic than that of a director like Godard. In effect, he gives us Coca-Cola without Marx.” (Naremore 1998, 218)
There are clear similarities between the references in Pulp Fiction and the popular motifs in Pop art (consumerism, mundane and trivial culture, mass media). In the US, in particular, Pop art is a deliberate departure from abstract art (especially abstract Expressionism). One of the major figures in Pop art is Roy Lichtenstein, famous largely for his large-scale comic motifs. Lichtenstein reduces his primary colour motifs to underlying patterns of expression, which take a highly simplified form (see Osterwold 2003, 184).
M-Maybe is a romance comics-based work created in 1965. The image depicts a young woman wondering why she is being left waiting: “M–Maybe he became ill and couldn’t leave the studio.” Despite the speech bubble dialogue leaving itself wide open to interpretation, the iconic, stylised woman appears emotionless and static, even mechanical. Lichtenstein simultaneously includes the viewer in the search for deeper meaning: “The relationship between picture an viewer suddenly seems based on false premises. The artificiality of the style corresponds to the stereotyped female image derived from comic books. And also to the cheap sensations this image was designed to elicit in us, which suddenly put us in the role of Pavlov’s dog.”
Conard, Marc T.: Reservoir Dogs. Redemption in a Postmodern World. In: Conard, Marc T. (Hrsg.): The Philosophy of Neo-Noir. Lexington 2007, 101-118.
Eder, Jens: Die Postmoderne im Kino. Entwicklungen im Spielfilm der 90er Jahre. In: Eder, Jens (Hrsg.): Oberflächenrausch. Hamburg 2008 (2nd ed.), 8-61.
Honnef, Klaus / Grosenick, Uta (Hrsg.): Pop Art. Cologne 2004.
Naremore, James: More Than Night. Film Noir in Its Contexts. Los Angeles 1998.
Osterwold, Tilman: Pop Art. Cologne 2003.