The city that shaped Quentin Taranitno’s ‘Pulp Fiction’: “So tell me again about the hash bars”
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The city that shaped Quentin Taranitno's 'Pulp Fiction': "So tell me again about the hash bars"

“So, tell me again about the hash bars.” They’re the first words you hear after the opening credits of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. “Get a load of this; all right, if you get stopped by a cop in Amsterdam, it’s illegal for them to search you,” the character of Vincent Vega continues, sounding like a man just home from a gap year. That’s near enough accurate as the director spent his time wandering around the city amid a series of European Film Festivals. 

Clearly, he really liked the place, writing it into this iconic scene while tinkering with the script during his trip. As Vega and his partner, Jules Winnfield, drive through Los Angeles, Tarantino uses them as mouthpieces to reflect on his time on the continent.

From observations on the Europeans’ love for Mayonaise to differences in the McDonalds menu items, the scene could very well be line for line a conversation Tarantino had with a friend upon returning to his trip. It could simply be that this silly discussion sets these two figures up as slight comic relief, but the director’s engagement with Europe as a subject matter works towards a grander cinematic purpose, too.

It’s a fact that Tarantino spent time in Amsterdam while working on the script, making sense of the inclusion from a merely factual and logistical basis. He spent time in the city’s various coffee shops, smoking and editing the film in between a run of film festivals for the release of Reservoir Dogs, so clearly, the city’s inspiration crept in. 

But the contrast between Europe and America, and in particular the sense of European sophistication Vega is hitting at verses their own silly American ways, ties the film to both the American and European lineage of crime films. “[In Pulp Fiction], Tarantino wasn’t riffing on American crime movies so much as French riffs on American crime movies,” Ian Nathan writes in his retrospective of the director’s career. 

Through Pulp Fiction’s various vignettes, tales and characters, Tarantino paints a seedy scene of Los Angeles and its underbelly of criminality. Throughout, action is contrasted with seduction, just as America is contrasted with Europe. Even in the coming together of Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace, you could see their whole relationship as a metaphor for the two cinematic histories and stylings. Wallace’s slick, sophisticated, yet wild character has the energy of European cinema, like the films of Federico Fellini or Michelangelo Antonioni. In contrast, the comedic relief paired with the physical braun Vega brings feels solid like American cinema, or perhaps more complexly, how Europeans see American cinema.

“That he reworked most of the screenplay while on a three-month sabbatical in Amsterdam only added to the feeling of a seedy Los Angeles infused with European sophistication,” Norman continues. For a brief period as he lived in Amsterdam, Tarantino not only got to experience European culture as he frequented cafes and watched foreign films borrowed from video stores, but he got to be the American guy in Europe, seeing how others regarded him.

Pairing all this with his day-to-day task of reworking the Pulp Fiction script seems to have directly led to the somewhat parody of an American crime film as if it was written through a European lens but with the self-awareness and humour of an American looking on. 

“Oh, man, I’m goin’, that’s all there is to it. I’m fuckin’ goin’,” Winnfield responds to his partner after their riff about European laws and food. As if playing out a conversation he knew he would likely have on his return, Tarantino’s brief trip to Amsterdam found its way into Pulp Fiction on both a minor and a major scale.