Going Mad: Randomness and Causality in Pyscho and Pulp Fiction

A Scripted Freelance Writer Writing Sample

A pair of slick gangsters, a mysterious briefcase, an ageing boxer, and a surprising place to hide a watch, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994) is about many things, but mostly, it's about the way Hollywood tells stories. Famous for its innumerable cultural references, one notable standout is the homage to Alfred Hitchcock's _ Psycho _ (1960). When Butch, stopped at an intersection in his car, runs into gangster Marsellus Wallace as he crosses the street, it's a re-enactment from _ Psycho _ when Marion is seen by her boss crossing the street as she drives out of town with stolen money. But the relationship between Pulp Fiction and Psycho is much deeper than mirrored scenes. Psycho shattered the conventions of classical Hollywood cinema. Characterised by air-tight narrative causality, where each scene directly develops the plot toward unambiguous closure, in classical Hollywood cinema nothing occurs randomly. In addition, because classical Hollywood cinema demands an unobtrusive style that doesn't call attention to itself, this strict causality is presented as if it's natural. In this way, film is often an expression of the human discomfort with randomness. This is, to a large extent, why Psycho is so disturbing: Marion's murder is meaningless. As even the police are surprised to discover, she was not killed for the stolen money, but because she's a woman. The rain that drives Marion to seek shelter, that she accidentally leaves the main road and happens to stop at the Bates Motel: none of it need happen. As the camera lingers on Marion's blood circling the shower drain, then fades to an extreme close-up of Marion's eye, the sense of a wasted life is oppressive. This infamous shower scene creates an unexpected legacy in Pulp Fiction. Psycho was the first Hollywood film to feature a toilet flushing on screen, and in Pulp Fiction , the plot is punctuated by characters taking bathroom breaks, becoming the cinematic equivalent of the phrase 'shit happens.' But it's more than a joke: Pulp Fiction uses the bathroom to implant the randomness of everyday life, something wholly out of place in classical Hollywood cinema. This extends to the dialogue, which almost revels in its own pointlessness as characters bicker over details and carry on conversations about foot massages and fast food which are fun, but tangential to the plot. Yet, neither Psycho nor Pulp Fiction totally throw out classical Hollywood's causality as both films struggle to explain the often arbitrary nature of life. In full classical tradition, Psycho hopes "If anyone gets any answers, it'll be the psychiatrist." And though he seems to explain Norman's behaviour, insisting "Norman Bates no longer exists. He only half-existed to begin with," the film itself suggests there is no clear line between Norman and Mother. While Mother murders Marion to suppress Norman's sexual attraction, the real Mrs. Bates was killed by Norman for taking a lover. Clearly, the sexual repression originates in Norman. In addition, when Norman kills Detective Arbogast, Norman is still wearing his own clothing underneath those of Mother, suggesting he's far more conscious of what he's doing than he lets on. And in the final sequence, Mother herself is ambivalent about whether she's really Norman's violent side. Ultimately, the best explanation for Norman's behaviour may be that there is none: "We all go a little mad sometimes." Pulp Fiction nearly structures its narrative on synchronicity, as much of the film revolves on pure luck: as Marion happens to run into her boss on her way out of town, and then happens to stop at that motel, so Butch runs into Marsellus (literally), and the two of them happen to stumble into that pawn shop; Vincent and Jules randomly visit a diner that's about to be held up; and Vincent is killed by Butch because he uses the bathroom. But Pulp Fiction also explicitly questions the nature of causality. Debating whether or not their narrow escape from being shot is a miracle or luck, Vincent holds it's just a freak event, while Jules feels it's "divine intervention" and takes it as a sign to retire. Right as Jules seems to have the upper hand in the argument, the arbitrary reasserts itself when Vincent accidentally shoots Marvin even though he's experienced with guns. Later, Jules's belief in miracles leads him to explain to Pumpkin the experience causes him to reevaluate the meaning of the bible verse he likes to quote. While Jules admits he embodies the "tyranny of evil men," he's now "tryin' real hard to be the shepherd" by taking the opportunity to retire. But divine intervention is undermined by the fact that this entire opening section of what Jules claims is Ezekiel 25:17 is actually made up. When _ Psycho _ was released in theatres, Hitchcock realised its impact relied on being seen strictly from beginning to end, and required theatres to schedule start times for the first time in film history. Pulp Fiction plays with this legacy by ordering its narrative threads non-chronologically, enhancing the theme of randomness. Yet, while Psycho uses chronological order to create its unsettling affect, Tarantino can't resist using non-chronological order to stage a Hollywood ending. As Pulp Fiction's final image, Jules's righteous retirement announcement to the held-up diner and his cool exit with Vincent is far more cinematic than their respective ends in chronological order: Vincent is unceremoniously killed, and Jules disappears to take a piss. This is, perhaps, what makes Psycho a more subversive film. Psycho does not shy from leaving the viewer disturbed, and Hollywood on the cross: film was never the same again. Pulp Fiction builds on Psycho's tradition of skewering classical Hollywood cinema, certainly, but it's ultimately a love letter.


Sinead D

London, Ontario, Canada •

I'm a writer based in London, Ontario. I'm passionate about film, television, and literature. I have an Honors Specialization in English, and a Major in Film Studies from the University of Western Ontario.

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