Questions in the exam could focus specifically on the ways in which cinematography (camerawork and lighting) creates meaning for audiencesBUTa number of other types of questions may require you to make reference to cinematography - even if the term is not in the title. Answers to questions onrepresentationoraestheticsmay be dominated by discussion of elements of cinematography and you should mention both camerawork and lighting in essays aboutinstitutional context(how choices may be as a result of the fact Pulp Fiction is a low-budget, Independent movie made by Miramax) and the critical debates studied for experimental film -narrativeand auteur(choices regarding cinematography are particularly useful when discussing Tarantino's auteur signature). It is very likely that any question on cinematography will ask you discuss the ways that cinematography is experimental, so you must be able to discuss what is different or unusual about Tarantino's use of the camera and lighting, discussing the ways that it differs from the mainstream.
To refresh your memory about the key terms for cinematography, click on the links below.
Cinematography: Shot Distances
Cinematography: Camera Angles
Cinematography: Camera Movement
Cinematography: Shot Composition
Remember, questions on cinematography will require you to discuss, in detail, certain scenes from Pulp Fiction - so make sure you have at least two scenes that you can recall in detail. In reality (time permitting) it would be a good idea to also mention at least one other scene; remember, that you are writing a Film Studies essay and, therefore, examiners will expect you to support your points at all times with discussion of examples from the film.
Opening and closing scenes are always useful to know in detail - though remember that this is slightly complicated by the fact that much of Pulp Fiction is told out of chronological order (so, you may consider Captain Coons' Gold Watch monologue to be the opening moment of the story, whilst the diner scene with Honey Bunny and Pumpkin is the opening scene as presented in the plot). Try, also, to memorise at least one other key scene - and make sure that you are able to make brief passing references to a number of other moments in Pulp Fiction.
There are a number of clear ways that you could discuss camerawork in terms of experimental cinematography:
- a lack of conventional establishing shots
- close ups being shown on screen for relatively long periods of time (long takes)
- unusual camera set-ups for conversation sequences
- the 'trunk' shot and other low and high angle POV shots
- a high percentage of close ups, medium close ups and medium shots (very few shots further away than medium long shot)
- frequent use of stylised extreme close ups
- tight framing
- shallow focus (used both conventionally and unconventionally)
In mainstream Hollywood cinema, new scenes frequently begin with a series of establishing shots of the location where the subsequent action will take place. This use of establishing shots, before cutting into character or action, helps orientate the audience and is a convention audiences are familiar with and have come to expect. One of the ways that Tarantino experiments with conventional uses of cinematography is through leaving out establishing shots for the majority of his scenes - arguably he only uses 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 as before Mia and Vincent enter Jack Rabbit Slim's - though even this is preceded by a medium two shot of Mia and Vincent in the car).
An absence of establishing shots can be confusing and disorientating for the viewer, even more so in Pulp Fiction which already has a fractured, non-linear narrative structure (the disorientating effect is therefore compounded). Good examples of Tarantino beginning scenes without establishing shots can be found throughout the film - for example the opening scene with Honey Bunny and Pumpkin in the diner begins with a medium shot/two shot of the characters sitting in a booth eating breakfast and the next scene in the plot begins with a medium close up/two shot of Jules and Vincent discussing Vincent's time in Amsterdam whilst they drive to the apartment to pick up Marcellus' briefcase.You must make sure that you give a number of examples of scenes where there is an absence of establishing shots; the two above are fine to start with but you must add one or two more of your own. It would also be useful to suggest why Tarantino might choose to leave out establishing shots (other than to confuse, disorientate or unsettle the viewer). This could be to bring the audience closer to the characters (or the action) and to make their viewing experience more intense. It could be to encourage the audience to focus more on the dialogue (Pulp Fiction is a dialogue-driven rather than an action-driven movie, at least partly as a result of budget) or to create a sense of claustrophobia.
In mainstream cinema audiences expect close ups to be on screen for a relatively short period, certainly much shorter than long shots or extreme long shots. Tarantino frequently uses long takes (sometimes painfully so) for close ups or medium close ups, creating tension and a sense of unease in the spectator or forcing the audience to position themselves with certain characters. As a general rule of thumb, the closer the shot the less time it is on screen for and Tarantino's manipulation of these expectations is another good example of the director experimenting with cinematography. A good example of this is during the scene when Marcellus tells Butch to throw the fight - not only is there an incredibly long take on the close up of Butch as Marcellus talks to him (for over two minutes), later in the scene the camera is positioned behind Marcellus's head, over his shoulder (as he is talking) positioned facing Butch. Tarantino frequently uses shallow focus in conventional ways (such as when Butch wakes from his dream/memory of Captain Coons giving him the gold watch) but during this scene Tarantino uses shallow focus in the opposite way from its conventional use. The back of Marcellus' head as he talks is in focus whilst Butch's face is out of focus. Conventionally, it would be Butch's face in focus so that the audience can gauge his reaction. The manipulation of this convention is very unnerving and unsettling for the viewer.
Many of the conversation scenes in Pulp Fiction are shot in unconventional ways. Typically, conversation sequences are shot with a series of over-the-shoulder shots (with occasional side-on two shots), cut together in a shot-reverse shot pattern. Whilst some of the conversations in the movie are shot this way, many aren't, which further unsettles, disorientates and confuses the spectator. The effect of this is that the audience are often unsure of which character they are supposed to be positioned with (linking to Tarantino's rejection of conventional antagonists and protagonists). Usually, it is clear to the audience which character they should align themselves with as a result of the patterning of the shots. Good examples of this unconventional approach to conversations include:
- Butch's conversation with Marcellus about throwing the fight, where Butch is shown in close up and medium close up, in shallow focus (using a long take) whilst the camera is positioned behind Marcellus' head (with the back of his head in sharp focus) as he talks
- Vincent and Jules' conversation outside the apartment door when they discuss Vincent's 'date' with Marcellus' wife Mia, which is shot entirely from behind the men (focusing on the back of the characters' heads) in a tightly framed medium close up. Throughout the conversation the audience are unable to see either character's face and are therefore unable to read their responses and reactions through their facial expressions
- Vincent and Jules' conversation outside the hallway before they enter the apartment, where they discuss the fallout from Tony 'Rocky' Horror giving Mia a foot massage, is shot in a single long take, long shot. Even though the characters are positioned towards the far end of the hallway, their conversation is clearly audible to the audience
- Butch and Fabienne's conversation as Butch is showering and Fabienne is brushing her teeth is also shot in a single shot (long take) with the characters in medium long shot. Throughout most of the conversation the camera is positioned towards the door of the bathroom with Fabienne facing the mirror with her back to Butch. Significantly, Butch is barely in shot for most of the scene as he is sitting (presumably) on the side of the bath, obscured by the bathroom wall
One unusual or experimental shot that has become part of Tarantino's auteur signature is the 'trunk' shot, which occurs not only in Pulp Fiction but also throughout many of Tarantino's other films. This very stylistic shot, shot from a low angle as if from the boot of a car can also be seen in Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Volume 1 andDeath Proof and variations of low angle POV-style shots are found in Inglorious Basterds and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In Pulp Fiction the shot occurs as Vincent and Jules pull up outside the apartment and take their guns from the boot of the car, before entering the apartment to retrieve Marcellus' briefcase from Brett and his associates. This is an unusual perspective for the audience to witness events from because it feels as if it is a point-of-view shot from the perspective of someone in the boot, yet we know that there is no-one inside.
Another frequent technique used by Tarantino in Pulp Fiction is the use of extreme close ups. This type of shot is incredibly stylistic and is usually used to signify to the audience the importance of props. Tarantino occasionally uses the technique for this purpose but more frequently these shots are simply examples of Tarantino's postmodern style and have no significant meaning within the narrative (the fact that it is a technique that Tarantino uses in many of his films means that you can discuss it is an aspect of the director's auteur signature).
Good examples of extreme close ups include Mia's lips when she speaks to Vincent over the intercom when he arrives at her apartment, an extreme close up on the needle of the record player in the same scene as Mia announces that she is ready to leave for their 'date' and multiple extreme close ups during the 'heroin montage' of various parts of the syringe and needle as Vincent shoots up. There are numerous other examples such as the extreme close up on the door knob as Marvin opens the door of the apartment to let Jules and Vincent in when they come to collect Marcellus' briefcase (and a similar shot when Butch puts his key in the door of his apartment when he returns to retrieve his watch), an extreme close up on the combination code (666) as Vincent opens the briefcase later in the same scene, and an extreme close up of the gold watch as Captain Coons recounts the story of Butch's relatives and extreme close ups of both the red dot that Vincent draws on Mia's chest before he gives her the adrenaline shot after she has overdosed on heroin and the needle of the syringe before he plunges it into her chest. Only one or two of these extreme close ups have narrative significance (the conventional way that this type of shot is usually used), such as the gold watch which is the catalyst for most of Butch's actions towards the end of the story.
Many of the shots in the film are tightly framed. This decision may be partly budgetary and as a result of Tarantino's decision to foreground the dialogue (rather than the action) in Pulp Fiction. It does, however, add a degree of tension and claustraphobia to the movie hinting to the audience that the characters maybe trapped in the lifestyle they lead (the contrazoom on Mia as she overdoses by snorting heroin, is another good example of an unusual or 'experimental' technique). Arguably, the character that is shot using loose framing, particularly in his final scenes in the story, is Butch; one of the only characters who seems to break free from the constraints of the life he leads. Overall, there are a much higher percentage of closer shots in Pulp Fiction (from extreme close ups to medium shots) than there are longer shots (medium long shots to extreme long shots). This is unusual to audiences familiar with mainstream Hollywood blockbusters which often use a higher degree of longer shots to help showcase action and special effects rather than dialogue.
It is important that in any discussion regarding cinematography you remember to (at least briefly) discuss the use of lighting. Many of the scenes in Pulp Fiction use naturalistic lighting (such as those shot outside, for example the scenes near the beginning of the plot with Vincent and Jules driving to collect the briefcase, the scenes in the diner at the beginning and end of the plot and the scenes in the street when Butch runs down Marcellus).
A contrast to this, and a good example of lighting being used stylistically and expressively, is in the scene shot in the bar and, particularly the conversation where Marcellus gives Butch his orders to throw the fight. We have already heard, through dialogue between Vincent and Jules, about how dangerous and violent Marcellus is but this is the first time the audience meet him, in his domain - the bar, Sally LeRoy's. Here, the lighting is used to reinforce elements of Marcellus's character to the audience. The lighting in the empty bar where Marcellus conducts his business is not naturalistic but instead a stylistic cocktail of subterranean colour mixed with shadows (which are cast by the use of low-key lighting), created using a red filter.
During the first two minutes of Butch's audience with Marcellus (a character frequently linked to the Devil in the movie, for example the code on his briefcase is 666) Butch is awash with red, as if in hell. In some senses, the lighting is realistic (empty bars and nightclubs where gangsters do their work, are often lit this way) but the lighting is also used metaphorically or symbolically both to imply the 'heat' that Butch is under to do Marcellus's bidding and to indicate to the audience that Marcellus is dangerous and violent; the devil incarnate whose evil spills into every corner of the room. Here, Tarantino has taken lighting to the extreme to convey Marcellus's menace and evil.
In reality, Pulp Fiction contains a variety of lighting throughout the film and often this lighting is used to compound the audience's confusion regarding antagonists and protagonists, and who they should align themselves with. Conventionally, antagonists are shot using low-key lighting or side lighting (as Butch is in his meeting with Marcellus) whilst protagonists are shot using high-key lighting to show their innocence or good intentions (as Marcellus is when Jules contacts him to send Mr Wolf to help dispose of the body in the trunk of their car). By varying the conventional lighting the spectator would associate with certain characters (using high-key lighting on Jules, for example, in the scene in the apartment before he murders Brett, or using a spotlight on Vincent's face as he drives to Mia's after shooting up heroin) undermines audience expectations. This is another good point to mention when you discuss the ways that Tarantino experiments with the audience's understanding of narrative.
Typical questions related to cinematography can be found below. It is important that you attempt them, combining the notes above with your own analysis of key scenes. When practicing essays it will help with your revision if you re-watch moments from the film and pick appropriate scenes to analyse.
1. Explore how far cinematography contributes to the 'experimental' identity of your chosen film.
2. 'Experimental film is often the result of an auteur challenging established conventions with fresh ideas.' Discuss this statement in relation to cinematography with reference to key sequences from your chosen film.
3. Explore how aspects of cinematography are used experimentally to enrich meaning in your chosen film. Make detailed reference to particular sequences in your answer.
Or perhaps, to make both ways work like Tarantino says he would love, maybe Vincent really was planning to kill Marvin and was going to shoot him. But he really did accidentally shoot him in the car, as he didn't want to get caught with the mess in Jules' car.
Jackson to ReelBlend co-host Kevin McCarthy back during the press tour for Spider-Man: Far From Home. He suggested that John Travolta's character, Vincent, shot Marvin on purpose, to get him back for not alerting Vincent and Jules that someone with a gun was hiding in the apartment.
Whenever he goes to the bathroom something unfortunate occurs; Mia accidentally overdoses when she finds his heroin in a baggie rather than a balloon and mistakes it for cocaine, the coffee shop was robbed and later, Vincent gets shot by Butch when he was staking out his apartment.
Before Zed could grab the pistol, Marsellus shot off Zed's genitals with the shotgun. He vowed that Zed's suffering had only begun, promising that he would call his crew in to torture Zed with a pair of pliars and a blowtorch.