How Pulp Fiction ’s Dance Scene Paid Artistic Tribute to the Classic Dance Scene in Fellini’s

An auteur makes few com­pro­mis­es in bring­ing his dis­tinc­tive visions to the screen, but he also makes no bones about bor­row­ing from the auteurs who came before. This is espe­cial­ly true in the case of an auteur named Quentin Taran­ti­no, who for near­ly thir­ty years has repeat­ed­ly pulled off the neat trick of direct­ing large-scale, high­ly indi­vid­u­al­is­tic movies that also draw deeply from the well of exist­ing cin­e­ma — deeply enough to pull up both the grind-house “low” and art-house “high.” Taran­ti­no’s first big impact on the zeit­geist came in the form of 1994’s Pulp Fic­tion, which put the kind of com­mon, sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic mate­r­i­al sug­gest­ed by its title into cin­e­mat­ic forms picked up from the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and Fed­eri­co Felli­ni.

Few clips of Taran­ti­no’s work could dis­till this inspi­ra­tional polar­i­ty as well as Pulp Fic­tion’s twist con­test at Jack Rab­bit Slim’s. In a film almost whol­ly com­posed of mem­o­rable scenes, as I wrote when last we fea­tured it here on Open Cul­ture, this one is quite pos­si­bly the most mem­o­rable.

Taran­ti­no has explained his intent to pay trib­ute to danc­ing as it occurs in films like Godard­’s Bande à part, the name­sake of Taran­ti­no’s pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny. “My favorite musi­cal sequences have always been in Godard because they just come out of nowhere,” he once said. “It’s so infec­tious, so friend­ly. And the fact that it’s not a musi­cal but he’s stop­ping the movie to have a musi­cal sequence makes it all the more sweet.”

But as these com­par­i­son videos reveal, Godard isn’t the only mid­cen­tu­ry Euro­pean auteur to whom Pulp Fic­tion’s dance scene owes its effec­tive­ness. “This scene is a direct steal from Fellini’s  and there’s no real effort to hide it,” writes No Film School’s Jason Heller­man. “Aside from the loca­tion change, the moves and cam­era angles are almost the same.” In the dancers are Mar­cel­lo Mas­troian­ni’s besieged film­mak­er Gui­do and his estranged wife Luisa, played by Anouk Aimée. This occurs in anoth­er of the pre­cious few pic­tures in cin­e­ma his­to­ry com­pris­ing mem­o­rable scenes and mem­o­rable scenes only; the oth­ers include vivid spec­ta­cles out­lin­ing the mid­dle-aged Guido’s artis­tic strug­gle and voy­ages of mem­o­ry back into his prelap­sar­i­an child­hood.

Child­hood, writes poet James Fen­ton, was “a time of pure inven­tive­ness” when “every­thing we did was hailed as superb.” (In this sense, a young film­mak­er who makes his first Hol­ly­wood hit enjoys a sec­ond child­hood, albeit usu­al­ly a brief one.) In Fen­ton’s words, Wash­ing­ton Post art crit­ic Sebas­t­ian Smee finds a key to the elab­o­rate and enrap­tur­ing but at times bewil­der­ing . With growth, alas, comes “the pri­mal era­sure, when we for­get all those ear­ly expe­ri­ences, and it is rather as if there is some mer­cy in this, since if we could remem­ber the inten­si­ty of such plea­sure it might spoil us for any­thing else. We for­get what hap­pened exact­ly, but we know that there was some­thing, some­thing to do with music and praise and every­one talk­ing, some­thing to do with fly­ing through the air, some­thing to do with dance.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Pow­er of Pulp Fic­tion’s Dance Scene, Explained by Chore­o­g­ra­phers and Even John Tra­vol­ta Him­self

Fed­eri­co Felli­ni Intro­duces Him­self to Amer­i­ca in Exper­i­men­tal 1969 Doc­u­men­tary

Fellini’s Fan­tas­tic TV Com­mer­cials

Felli­ni + Abrams = Super 8½

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Jeff Whitfield says:

    You made an error by incor­rect­ly nam­ing the dancers in Fellini’s 81/2. The dancers were Glo­ria Morin played by Bar­bara Steele and Mario Mez­z­abot­ta played by Mario Pisu. You stat­ed ‘In 8½ the dancers are Mar­cel­lo Mastroianni’s besieged film­mak­er Gui­do and his estranged wife Luisa, played by Anouk Aimée.’

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