My Pulp Fiction moment

Quintin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is one of my favourite films. Yes, it has  shockingly violent moments which for all I know this may reveal some awful truths about QT’s anger-management issues. However, I’d argue that very little of the violence is gratuitous. As in his other films, it flows from the characters he’s created and the situations he puts them in. His films aren’t about violence as such but about the things that can lead to it – greed, lust, revenge, the quest for power and all the other Horsemen of the Apocalypse that, whether we like it or not, live in all our heads. Violence, frequently ending in death, is the ultimate arbiter of such disputes.

I enjoy his films not because they are violent but because tell stories in an uncompromising way. You know that all the characters are playing for the highest possible stakes. They are also brilliantly written, directed and acted. Much the same could also be said of many of Scorsese’s films or the Godfather trilogy.

At one point in Pulp Fiction, two hitmen, played by John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson, are driving down an LA freeway with a captive in the back of the car. They are debating if a recent incident in an apartment, in which the two assassins were caught in a hail of bullets from which both emerged unscathed, was a co-incidence or a miracle. Travolta’s character, gun in hand, turns round to ask their terrified passenger, who had been present at this event, what he thinks. The car hits a bump; the gun goes off; their captive is shot in the head and blood splatters all over the car windows.

This is a wonderful example in this film – and there are several others – of where a sudden and violent crisis demands extreme resourcefulness from the surviving characters. This also helps make the violence an acceptable part of the narratives. These moments work cinematically because they are so quickly and directly expressed. One might argue that they therefore lack subtlety . This is to miss the point. The subtlety comes before: in the build up to why Vincent Vega and Jules Winfield find themselves on the LA freeway with a captive at all; and afterwards, in how they handle the consequences.

Many crises in our own lives take place in just such a pivotal second or two. They don’t generally involve a dead body in the back of car but often require a similar immediacy of reaction. To some extent, therefore, the movie violence is reduced to just being an exaggerated device, triggering a flight-or-fight adrenaline rush; it’s what happens next that’s already occupying our intention.

This isn’t the moment in the film that I find most memorable. Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis’) unspoken but wonderfully expressed decision to go back down to the basement of the Mason-Dixon pawnshop to rescue his enemy Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) is my standout. The LA freeway scene, however, is the one that most resonates, because a version of it actually happened to me.

Between the ages of 13 and 18 I was at a school at a place called Bradfield near Theale. It was a lot less depraved than the nest of pedophiles entrusted with my education in the five years before that (see Ghosts for more on Caldicott). The staff at Bradfield ran the whole gamut from near-genius teachers including Charles Leper, Charles Porter and the entire staff of the Biology department, through to a collection of pompous and manipulative sadists, principal amongst whom was my housemaster. He and I fought many battles and from the final one I emerged victorious. However, that’s another story. This nasty man had no part to play in this one.

This was a boarding school, so some kind of safety valve was required by teachers and pupils alike. This was provided by the nearby village of Stanford Dingley.

Stanford Dingley had then, and possibly has still, two pubs, The Bull and The Boot. Of the two, The Bull was much the posher; so it was to there that many of the masters would repair on Sunday lunchtime to drink G&Ts and red wine, eat roast beef, complain about the awful behaviour of their charges, discuss their lust for, as the case may be, the Head Boy or the young matron in Hillside House, vow that they’d had enough and were going to leave, outline the plot of the novel they were going to write when they finally did and generally bitch all the things that teachers discuss when in their cups.

It was to The Boot that as many of the boys who had a reasonable expectation of being served would repair at the same time to drink lager or bitter, eat ploughman’s lunches, consider glam rock and football, discuss our lust for, as the case may be, the new boy with blond hair in the choir or the young matron in Hillside House, outline the glittering careers we had before us and generally mouth off about all the other things that schoolboys discuss when in their cups.

There was little danger of running into each other en route as The Bull was reached most easily by a road from the north of the village, which the masters took, and The Boot by a footpath from the south, which we did. This path ran from Bradfield for about two miles along the beautiful river Pang. The outward journey was full of excited anticipation of the change of mood; on the return one, a rather more ragged set of reactions prevailed. These included being pushed, or pushing others, into the river or experimenting with how long a chain of people needed to be before the shock from an electric fence dispersed.

This separateness of watering holes was accepted unspokenly by all. It suited both groups to have a couple of hours during which, as when watching a film, you could pretend that the rest of the world didn’t exist. Then we could all return to real life, reassured that, no matter how shit the next week was going to be, there was another unofficial armistice waiting at the end of it.

On the Sunday in question, I was doing the usual mid-morning business of selling a couple of LPs to give me a quid or so necessary to buy several drinks, a ploughman’s lunch and ten Players Number Six. This time I must have come up a bit short, so it was the ploughman’s that would have to sacrificed. Paddington Bear-like, I fortified myself instead with a couple of raspberry-jam sandwiches and set off with Nigel, Danny, Julian, Mark, Simon and all the rest of them, down the path along the Pang towards what, for a couple of hours at least, was the only thing that mattered.

On this lunchtime in The Boot, having no money for lunch, I was seduced into believing by someone that Bloody Marys would, through their tomato-juice component, provide an adequate substitute for food. The next thing I remember was standing next to a swing door in the main school buildings at about four o’clock, chatting to a friend. At that point someone kicked the door open. It caught me squarely on the right side of my nose.

Never have I have seen so much blood. Even most of the scenes in Tarantino’s films (Mr Orange’s long decline in Reservoir Dogs and the restaurant scene in Kill Bill being exceptions) had their sanguinary aspects restrained, in the interests of advancing the plot. Here, the stuff was everywhere. Perhaps because I was quite drunk, I swallowed a good deal of it. And still it poured from my nose. I collapsed on the floor, was picked up, put in a master’s car and driven to the hospital in Reading.

It must have been a harrowing journey for my chauffeur. Due to the mixture of alcohol and shock, I could give him no coherent account of what had happened. All he knew was at that a 17-year-old boy, who may or may not have had serious internal injuries, had been scooped off a pile of blood in near the dining hall and needed medical attention. Perhaps delighted with this opportunity for driving fast with an extenuating circumstance slumped in the front seat, he put his foot down.

Like many teenagers, I suffered from car sickness. Every aspect of the situation I was in tended towards making this worse. When we were about a mile from the hospital, it got critical. I can still remember very clearly opening my mouth and having my day’s consumption of raspberry jam, tomato juice and blood erupt out of me and onto the windscreen. The car in Pulp Fiction  was, perhaps, just a pale echo of this. Here, though, there was no dead body in it – yet.

I don’t know what the master thought was happening. Having someone vomit what must have looked like a couple of pints of blood is rarely good news. He wiped off the windscreen as well as one can when driving across a roundabout at 60mph and, a couple of minutes later, we were screeching to a halt at the hospital.

“Have you drunk any alcohol today?” the doctor said to me twenty minutes later, a hypodermic in his hand. I looked up. The master was standing behind him. It was impossible for me to answer this question honestly and so shook my head. The master tapped the doctor on the shoulder and beckoned him out of the cubicle. A minute later he returned, this time with a couple of pills in his hand.

“Take these,” the doctor said. I did so. “You have a badly broken nose and have lost quite a lot of blood.” I already knew that. “Drink plenty of water and have an early night. You can go now.”

I don’t know what had been in the hypodermic nor what the doctor had thought was wrong with me until he had been taken to one side and told that that the overpowering smell from the incident in the car had been vodka, but the master possibly saved my life. We drove back in silence. I’d like to say that I thanked him and offered to clean his car: but I didn’t. I can’t even remember his name.

I adore tomatoes in every form: except as juice, which I’ve never touched since. Nor have I since drunk vodka, nor any other spirit. Aside from one incident when I was beaten up by a greengrocer (the full story of which can be read in this book) I’ve never seen very much of my own blood. I’ll be perfectly happy if that doesn’t change.

So, next time you see Pulp Fiction – and it is well worth watching more than once, if only to sort out what happened in what order – and you come to the scene on the LA freeway, remember this story. As for you, Quintin, I’m not saying you ripped me off: but you do play around with chronology in your movies. The incident I described happened well before you wrote the film, no question. So, all in all, I’ll settle for a belated credit and your having a serious chat with my agent about the fees.

Brian Quinn

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