Postmodern Pulp Fiction
In the 1920s, the USA began producing cheap, sensational fiction in a range of genres, including crime, fantasy, science fiction and horror. The stories were printed on cheap paper made from wood-pulp, and for this reason they were called ‘pulp fiction’. The stories were published in magazines like Black Mask, Amazing Stories, Dime Detective and Weird Tales. The content was often more explicit than anything available in mainstream culture. Pulp fiction offered an undercurrent of sex, violence and weirdness. Pulp fiction has fuelled popular culture ever since it began. The most famous characters have endured to the present day, and still dominate Hollywood blockbusters. Recently, postmodern culture has revived the conventions of pulp fiction.
In 1994, Quentin Tarantino made a film entitled Pulp Fiction. The title was inspired by pulp writing of the 1930s-50s. In fact, the working title of the film was Black Mask, in homage to the pulp magazine of that name. The film embodies the seedy, violent and crime-filled spirit of the original magazines. Pulp Fiction can be seen as a postmodernist film because it quotes from established stylistic conventions as a form of pastiche.
It starts with a dictionary definition of pulp: the name emerged because this type of fiction was printed on cheap, pulp paper. The film’s narrative is cut into separate strands, presented in an unconventional order so that they resemble episodic pulp fiction texts. Each strand has a chapter title. This means that the film’s structure is a pastiche of the pulp idiom.
Postmodernism has been described as an ‘aesthetic of quotations’ and Quentin Tarantino’s films exemplify this: they quote from a range of sources simultaneously, including pulp fiction, blaxploitation movies and Kung Fu films. Uma Thurman is playing a femme fatale in a quotation from classic film noir sources. The film also quotes from blaxploitation movies of the 1970s. Blaxploitation was a cycle of films made for black audiences. Most of them were urban crime films like Shaft and Superfly.
Superfly, a classic blaxploitation movie with a funk soundtrack by the great Curtis Mayfield.
Foxy Brown starring Pam Grier.
Tarrantino's film evokes the atmosphere of the 1950s. A major scene is set in a fifties-style diner called Jack Rabbit Slim’s, where members of staff are dressed as icons of fifties popular culture: Ed Sullivan, Marilyn Monroe, Buddy Holly and Mamie Van Doran. This scene features an impromptu dance sequence. John Travolta was a star in the 1970s due to films like the disco movie Saturday Night Fever. This scene is a quotation from Travolta’s earlier roles.
This is the poster for Pulp Fiction, which quotes from pulp sources in a very self-conscious way. It was designed in the style of a pulp fiction cover, with key elements like the alluring woman, guns and cigarettes. The image is ‘scuffed’ to simulate a battered old paperback. Uma Thurman’s hairstyle is very distinctive, with a severe fringe and bangs framing her face.
This was based on a hairstyle worn by Bettie Page, who was a pin-up model. She was a major sex symbol of the 50s, a dark counterpart to Marilyn Monroe. Bettie Page is a cult figure who has also influenced contemporary burlesque performers and people like Katie Perry, who wears the same hairstyle in the video for California Gurlz.
In conclusion, pulp fiction represents a murky undercurrent in popular culture. It portrays a seedy, violent world of gangsters, femme fatales and private eyes, offering cheap thrills to its audience. Operating under the radar of mainstream culture, it was able to offer more explicit and provocative content. Pulp fiction has fuelled popular culture ever since. Recently, there has been a postmodernist revival; the conventions of popular culture have been reworked in the form of pastiche.
Haining, P. (2000) The Classic Era of American Pulp Magazines. Prion Books.
Hutchison, D. (1995) The Great Pulp Heroes. Mosaic Press.
Lesser, R. (2003) Pulp Art: Original Cover Paintings for the Great American Pulp Magazines. Book Sales.