Semiotics is the study of symbolism and the ways it is used to create meaning and recognisable imagery. For this essay, it is required to select a text to analyse. My picking is the official DVD cover for the cult film, Pulp Fiction. I chose this because Pulp Fiction is an iconic film, and this cover has a great deal to do with it’s success. Another part of why this was chosen is because it’s an older film, that was released around twelve years ago, and I felt it would be interesting to see which of the techniques and symbols used here have carried through into more recent years.
I will be covering five points here. These are:
- “Pulp Hero” magazines
- The Femme Fatale image
The cover of Pulp Fiction is an extremely targeted and everything is placed where it is for a specific reason. The title is one the first key points, extremely noticeable as it stands out brightly. The text is a warm yellow set on a blood-red background and gives the cover an edgy feel. Yellow is also associated with happiness and joy, so this causes a deep juxtaposition of the lettering from the background, and also hints at the film being of many genres, and it could be argued that this was done to appeal to a larger audience, convincing more people to watch the film. This is arguably false advertising, however the line between where it is and where it is simply a clever marketing strategy is thin and the overall effect of this cover’s design and ideologies leans it closer to the latter. With a slight black “shadow” effect placed underneath, the text appears to protrude slightly from the page. The text is also centered but has been placed a very slight lean which is almost not noticeable, but looks just out of place enough to catch the attention of the viewer and convince them to take a closer look. The bright colours are used to create a spark of interest and entice the viewer to look at the rest of the cover and, ultimately, watch the film. Running down the left hand side of the page is a list of actors who starred in the film, written in the same bold yellow text, yet this time against a black background. Black and red are the main colours throughout. Looking at this from a colour theory perspective, we can see that black symbolises the ideas of power, elegance, death, and fear. Red represents blood, danger, and strength, and also shares the theme of power with the colour black. The consistent use of these two colours pays homage to the ideologies of violence and mystery, themes which are heavily explored, while the lighter yellow brings forward a sense of enjoyment and goodness within the film that can be delved for.
This cover features a choppy, ragged effect along the edges and in some other central areas. This is meant to make Pulp Fiction look like an old but well-read book you might find in an opportunity store. The effect is doubled with the orange ten cent symbol. It is made to look aged, cheap, and a bit tacky. Overall this makes it look more like a book cover than the DVD cover it really is. This, on top of the trashy effect the designer was aiming for, makes it look accessible and traditional, relying heavily of an audience’s assumed ability to recognise the era that this cover tries to emulate, so that it in turn becomes something the audience can relate to regarding their personal experiences. All this and the content in the previous paragraph are effects and techniques that were used on the covers of 40s – 50s era magazines, which, coining the nickname “pulp fiction” or “hero pulps”, clearly shares the title with the film. Quentin Tarantino is a known fan of these magazines and films of the same “trashy” genre, and takes a great deal of inspiration for his films from these texts. This is most evident towards the beginning of his directing career, with films like Pulp Fiction, one of his first, paving the way for many more odd, sinister adventures like it.
The director’s name is written in black just beneath the title, where it doesn’t stand out when not actively looking at the cover. The font used is a running-script like the kind used on old advertisements from the 1950s era, and this is done to create that bridge of trust with its’ audience. It caters both to previous fans of Quentin Tarantino’s work, and to people newly discovering it by making it look like a brand name rather than just stating the director. Tarantino is a household name in recent years, and he is generally more talked about as an entity, or a phenomenon, rather than an eccentric film director. One could assume this is due to heavy examples of using his name as a key selling point, and creating a highly successful brand around the Tarantino name and his work within the film industry.
The woman, main female actress of the film Uma Thurman, is positioned to the slight right of the page, but still remains the dominant feature of the cover. This is the overall theme the cover is aiming for, as she is the only person shown without any of her male counterparts that star alongside her in the film. This serves to suggest her dominance over men, due to their absence from the scene. She stares straight into the camera, making a kind of false eye contact with viewers that leaves the impression that she is waiting for them. The book in her placed face down suggests interruption, and her curt expression shows her waiting for the viewer to say their piece or leave. This could also be used in affect to show the viewer in a “victim” kind of position in relation to her; she is dangerous, and thus the viewer is IN danger. The lamp in the room is tilted towards the woman, illuminating her as the main figure and again expressing superiority, showing that she is in charge. The blinds are drawn, signifying a need for privacy and this reinforces the idea of the audience as victim effect.
Thurman’s expression also has a bored, blank look, and serves to reinforce the authoritative effect of the image. She is made to seem tough and strong, where female characters usually take second place to the male ones in many films, and so this cover art stands as a bold reversal of typical gender roles, and also hints at Thurman’s character in the film. Her red lipstick and the red pendant around her neck are the same shade as the bold red used in the background at the top of the cover and this creates an easily flowing colour scheme throughout this text. Red is also a sultry colour, used to represent passion as well as the themes of blood and danger that were mentioned earlier. The placement of the gun in front of her and the cigarette she holds carries on the implication of danger, and so the femininity portrayed by her outfit and the way she is daintily posed becomes slightly downplayed, and she becomes both a feminine and strong, “bad-ass” type of character. This imagery also provides more insight into the overall genre and themes of the film.
The covers and content of the pulp magazines that this product is inspired by can be seen as sexist and were created to appeal to young men. Because of the seductive nature of the image used here, however, it is very likely to have been used to appeal to the same demographic, the male population circa the mid-nineties. While there are decades between this film and the old magazines it’s inspiration was derived from, the technique is the same and is still effective carrying through to today. With that in mind, this cover can be regarded as both a reversal on gender roles and the kind of stereotypical content that aids the expectations of both genders; women to be sexy, submissive, and to look pretty, and men to be attracted and convinced by these things. The effect of something being both very progressive and not at all is actually very effective. The portrayal of this seemingly strong woman on the cover can serve also as a source of empowerment for the female audience, though this does not mean at all that every woman will take it as such. Nor can it be assumed that every male member of the viewership will be enticed by the suggestiveness of the photograph.
The DVD cover of Pulp Fiction is an extremely effective text for it’s target audience, and this due to some very specific uses of semiotic theory and symbolism. Bringing juxtaposition, vintage and outdated effects, colour theory, themes of danger, dominance, and secrecy together to create a descriptive image that tells its audience all about the film without them having to read the synopsis. It allows the viewer a window into Pulp Fiction, as a DVD cover should.