Age Old Questions #1: Pulp Fiction — What is Really in the Briefcase?

If you’re talking about the significance of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, or about the glowing light in the briefcase, or even just about what’s physically in the briefcase, you’re really talking about what function the Pulp Fiction briefcase serves. Before you think about what’s in the briefcase, you need to know why Pulp Fiction even has a briefcase.

This is the mistake most analysis of the film makes: it looks at the symbolism of the briefcase before it understands the purpose of the briefcase. Most analysis does this because the purpose of the briefcase seems pretty obvious, but also because the briefcase’s glowing orange light seems pretty meaningful and important. The glowing light is so incongruous and strange that it has to be symbolic of something. Right?

So most critical-and-fan analysis overlooks the purpose of the briefcase and goes straight to the symbolism of the glowing light. The popular theory is that the glowing light represents Marcellus Wallace’s soul. It’s obvious why this is the popular theory: it makes the film seem meaningful and it makes the person analysing the film seem insightful.

There are reasons to believe the popular theory. For one, the orange glow is strange and unsettling and seems somehow supernatural — it’s clearly not of this world. And if you believe that the glowing light is not natural and can’t be attributed to Reservoir Dogs diamonds or to gold bars, you have to wonder what supernatural thing could be of such importance to Marcellus Wallace. Logically you’re going to think that it’s his soul. As further evidence fans cite the plaster that Marcellus Wallace has on the back of his neck. According to unverified Chinese mythology, the human soul can be extracted from the body by making a hole in the back of the neck(1). To some people this makes rough theological sense because it’s backed up by the briefcase’s combination number. 666, if it needs be said, is the sign of the New Testament devil — but what the number of the beast has to do with Chinese mythology has, to my knowledge, never been explained.

At this point there are a few obvious questions. The first is: Why? As in ‘Why is Marcellus Wallace’s soul in a briefcase?’ And even as you’re trying to answer this first question you’re lead to wonder who took Marcellus Wallace’s soul out the back of Marcellus Wallace’s neck, and why that person put the soul in a briefcase. As I hope to show, the fact that the film doesn’t attempt to answer these questions is significant.

The obvious rebuttal to the ‘soul’ theory is provided by Tarantino himself, who has gone on record to say that the briefcase is a ‘MacGuffin’(2). As a MacGuffin, the closest analogy to the Pulp Fiction briefcase is the box in the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. This is at least partially because, like Tarantino, the Coen Brothers went on record to say that the contents of the box in Barton Fink are irrelevant — i.e., the box is a MacGuffin. It’s also partially because Pulp Fiction andBarton Fink came out at roughly the same time, and partially because the Coens and Tarantino are considered to be of the same generation. But unlike the Coens, whose comments about the Barton Fink box were disingenuous (because the box in Barton Fink does have at least a symbolic function), the briefcase inPulp Fiction really is just a briefcase. It’s the reason Jules and Vincent turn up at the apartment, and it’s the thing that sets them on their respective journeys, but it has no purpose beyond its initial MacGuffin-y function.

barton-fink1
“Does have at least a symbolic function.”

So if the briefcase has no function or purpose except to move along the action, the function and symbolism of the orange light is redundant: the orange light can’t mean anything because the briefcase doesn’t mean anything. All you can say about the light is that it draws attention to itself, which makes it self-reflexive in the Brechtian sense of the word(3). To explain how this works, think about Beckett’sWaiting for Godot, in which the sparsity of the set decoration draws attention to what’s actually on set (i.e., a single tree). The point in all this is that a play’s set decoration represents the play’s location and time but is otherwise meant to be invisible. But because the tree is the play’s only set decoration, because it says nothing about where or when the play takes place, and because it changes impossibly between acts (growing leaves apparently overnight), the tree’s significance is magnified.

And so think how significant it is that Godot’s characters try to deduct something about their location from an object that by all accounts is designed to be ignored, and which by all accounts defies interpretation. To this day people have gone mad trying to work out the meaning and symbolism of the tree inWaiting for Godot, and Beckett got mad about people trying to work it out. That’s because Godot’s tree refers only to itself as set decoration; it says only something about theatre.

All of which is a long-winded way of defining self-reflexivity and self-reference, but it’s probably the closest you’re likely to get.

waiting-for-godot
“Godot’s tree refers only to itself as set decoration.”

The same principle applies to the Pulp Fiction briefcase: the glowing light ultimately refers only to itself as a cinematic prop in the same way that Godot’s tree refers only to itself as a theatrical prop. But there’s a crucial difference: Samuel Beckett was consciously making theatre that said something about theatre, but Quentin Tarantino is not consciously making cinema that says something about cinema. Rather, Tarantino is making cinematic homages — to films and scenes and moments that remind him of other films. This is why Tarantino’s films rarely amount to more than jumbles of loosely related vignettes; it’s why most of his films don’t really hang together; and it’s why the briefcase in Pulp Fiction has a glowing light: the glowing light is actually the glowing light of the briefcase in Kiss Me Deadly (1955):

Kiss-Me-Deadly-Criterion

(Another way to put all this is to say that the briefcase has a weird orange glow because Quentin Tarantino wanted the briefcase to have a weird orange glow.)

So if this is true, what about the plaster on the back of Marcellus Wallace’s neck? If the briefcase really has no purpose, why does Wallace have a plaster covering the exact thing that Chinese mythology (allegedly) says a human soul can be pulled out of? Here the ‘soul’ theorists are clutching at straws. The plaster is there for prosaic reasons: it’s covering a scar that actor Ving Rhames has on the back of his head and which he asked the make-up department to cover. That Tarantino chose to fetishize the plaster is merely another exercise in sub-conscious self-reference, one that David Foster Wallace called ‘Lynchian’ — comparing it to something from a David Lynch film(4). Really, the plaster is an opportune piece of trivia which Tarantino liked and decided to keep in the film.

So really, when you ask about the meaning of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, you might as well ask about the meaning of any other aspect of the film. You might as well ask why John Travolta is doing a John Travolta dance. You might as well ask what relevance the chopped-up, fragmented narrative structure has. To which the short answers are: no reason why, and no relevance at all(5). Perhaps the more important question is: why does the briefcase have to mean anything? Cinema itself doesn’t have to mean anything; plenty of good films exist which have barely anything beneath the surface. So why do fans need to feel that there’s something more than homage in Tarantino films, and why do Tarantino detractors feel the need to trash him so mercilessly? Partly it’s Tarantino’s reputation as the most influential and groundbreaking director of his generation, and partly it’s the way his influence changed film in the 1990s (it’s hard to like a director who influenced a generation of film makers and film school students to turn their films into fragmented narratives full of irreverent pop culture dialogue). For Tarantino detractors who see nothing but empty cinematic homage where others see relevance, the reputation is particularly hard to swallow. It’s not hard to see why: to detractors, Tarantino films are fanboy homage gone mad; they’re tributes given cinematic weight at the expense of the films from which the tributes came. To detractors, Tarantino’s success and influence is not only false, it’s willingly deceitful; and by this logic Tarantino’s fans are not real cinema fans because they do not recognise true cinematic innovation.

This is of course unfair. If Tarantino is anything, he’s a cinema fan getting to remake the films that he loves — and he’s clearly having a great time doing it.

Travolta

But let’s be honest: it’s hard to like Tarantino. His ego has grown with his reputation; he’s become invested in the popular myth of Quentin Tarantino as innovative cinematic genius. And because Tarantino has become invested in his own myth, logically he has to believe that his films are more than empty homage: he has to believe that his films mean something. This is why Death Proof is the nadir of Tarantino’s career — by going way beyond homage and way beyond parody Death Proofrenders starkly and nakedly just how empty of meaning Tarantino’s films really are. Another way to put it is to say that Death Proof is an exercise in watching a director painstakingly explain the origins of every piece of homage and reference in a given film over and over again for two hours.

Starting with Inglourious Basterds, and continuing most recently with Django Unchained, Tarantino has started to retroactively see political dimensions in his films. In particular he has retroactively framed Django in the context of modern racism (which is a little like saying that David Lynch’sMulholland Drive is about sexuality; or indeed, it’s like saying that Tarantino’s own Jackie Brown is about race). There is a fairly simple but strange reason why Tarantino’s started attributing politics to his films: people outside his traditional fanbase have bought into the myth of Tarantino as innovator and cinematic genius (without necessarily agreeing with the myth). By doing this they’ve started to apply meaning to Tarantino films that previously would have been dismissed as meaningless postmodern irony. So Django is recast in the light of politics and race and not in the light of Spaghetti Westerns and Blaxploitation films.

djangounchained

Tarantino’s own ego has lead him to believe that, if people are finding political dimensions in his films, his films really must contain political dimensions. Which is the reason why Tarantino’s started retroactively applying politics to his films, and it’s the reason why he’s suddenly started appearing at Police Brutality Marches (he’s suddenly, apropos of nothing, become politically active — it’s as if somebody flicked a switch inside his head). It’s also the reason why he’s decided that new film The Hateful Eight will be an explicit allegory for modern racism. That he’s done this after discussing in length the new film’s biggest influences (those influences being Spaghetti Westerns generally and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly specifically — which let’s not forget that The Hateful Eight will, like TGTBATU, be set around the American Civil War) is a cause for concern, and worrying evidence that Tarantino has achieved the strange ability to retroactively apply political meaning to his films before those films have even been made.

And so this re-evaluation of Tarantino’s films, and this seeming need to apply political dimensions to them, is getting Tarantino into trouble. As extensive homage, his films are necessarily apolitical; so when interviewers ask Tarantino about the excessive violence and the extensive use of ‘nigger’ in his films, he doesn’t understand enough — or his reputation has rendered him unable — to come clean and say thatDjango Unchained is just so much Spaghetti Western and Blaxploitation mixed into one fanboy homage.

It will be interesting to see if The Hateful Eight will mark a new phase in Tarantino’s career — one in which Fanboy Tarantino matures into Politically Active Tarantino — or if it will be a catastrophe beyondDeath Proof proportions; one that will definitively destroy the Tarantino myth the way that Death Proof threatened to. This blogger suggests that it will most likely be neither. Like Tarantino’s own films, it’s most likely that not much will happen at all.

 


Notes:

  1. This is something that’s thrown around a lot by fans (such as in this forum), and is erroneously attributed to Chinese mythology. I’m not sure where the idea has come from, but it’s possible that fans are mistakenly thinking about the nukekubi of Japanese mythology. As a variant of the rokurokubi, the nukekubi are ordinary-seeming women by day whose heads come off at night and suck the blood of humans and animals. One theory about the nukekubi is that the soul detaches from the body with the head (why do you think eyes are drawn so large in Japanese manga? The Japanese believe that the eyes are literally the windows to the soul, which is why innocent characters in manga and anime have much wider eyes than evil or sinister characters).
  2. Coined — and widely used –by Alfred Hitchcock, a MacGuffin is something that has no purpose in itself; it exists only to move along the plot. Two of the most famously cited MacGuffins in cinema are the statue in The Maltese Falcon and the meaning of ‘Rosebud’ in Citizen Kane.
  3. Bertolt Brecht pioneered a method of theatre in which the audience was deliberately ‘distanced’ from the action of the play. Brecht’s theory was that an audience could not meaningfully engage with the play if it (the audience) was too engrossed emotionally in the action. So Brecht developed his ‘alienation technique’, which sought at opportunities to remind the audience that it was watching a play, and which forced (in theory) the audience to react and interpret the play on a conscious, detached level. Chief among Brecht’s techniques were title cards that appeared incongruously at the start of each act, and highly stylised acting that encouraged Brecht’s actors to behave in a way that drew attention to the fact that they were actors (rather like film actors breaking the fourth wall; but with Brecht it’s probably closer to say that there are no walls at all).
  4. In which ‘Lynchian’ is described as the unexplained presence of something incongruous and ‘off’, and is ‘off’ in a way that’s difficult to describe. Wallace’s best example is (paraphrasing from memory) the idea that a man murdering his wife would be Lynchian if two policemen turned up to investigate and the three men had a discussion about why the man killed his wife — it turns out that the man killed his wife because his wife continued to buy him the wrong type of cereal even after he repeatedly asked her not to — and the police have to agree that, well, the man kind of has a point.
  5. The longer answers — if you’re interested — are provided by Tarantino himself, who is a huge fan of French New Wave cinema and has confirmed that the John Travolta dance scene is an homage to musical interludes in Jean-Luc Godard films. The Travolta dance is not, as many critics have unconvincingly argued, a meditation on the actor John Travolta’s career nor is it a comment on Travolta’s turn as Tony Montana in Saturday Night Fever — this is just the effect it has on the audience, the members of which are aware that they’re watching the actor John Travolta recreate something which made the actor John Travolta famous. Tarantino also confirmed that Pulp Fiction’s narrative is chopped up and fragmented because Tarantino heard it was a technique used a lot in books (Tarantino confessed he did not fully understand the effects of a fragmented narrative until he had watched the film with an audience, at which point he apparently retroactively ‘got it’). All of which really just leads back to the short answers: there’s no meaningful reason why John Travolta does a John Travolta dance, and there’s no meaningful reason why the film’s narrative is chopped up and fragmented.

More information:

 

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