Ever since the first time I watched “Pulp Fiction” I’ve had mixed feelings for the middle segment of the film, “The Gold Watch”. Sometimes the segment felt like a sore thumb, other times it felt like the only finger, on a beautiful hand, to have a manicure. Whatever time it was the segment just always felt out of place with the rest of the movie, and I really couldn’t figure out why. In revaluating that segment in the context of the film, I believe, that “The Gold Watch” is the most important segment as far as solidifying the themes of “Pulp Fiction”.
This isn’t obvious at first, because the film doesn’t announce its true depth until the very end when Jules sees the act of God and leaves the life to survive while Vincent sidesteps the issue and is gunned down by Butch. What I make out of all of this is time. Time spent on this earth, the single moments and hesitations that make up a person’s entire existence. Time plays such an integral part to the film as a whole. Characters don’t have enough time; they’re constantly trying to give themselves more time. The opening scene has Jules and Vincent ready to go, standing in Brett’s hallway. Do they enter? No. Why? It’s not time yet. They are willing to pause in order to continue their conversation giving time for the little man with a “hand cannon” to use the bathroom. Later when Vincent is taking care of Mia he steps into the restroom. While in the restroom Mia overdoses on heroin she finds in his pocket thinking its cocaine. Notice that Vincent is really guilty of nothing in this exchange; he merely stayed in the bathroom for much too long. Later it’s a race to Lance’s house for the adrenaline needle where Vincent asks “How long before she wakes up?” and the insane countdown from three that ends with Vincent plunging the syringe into Mia’s heart. All of this would be muddled or the stuff of intellectual inventive if not for the middle segment “The Gold Watch”.
The prologue to “The Gold Watch” is a very long monologue by Marcellus Wallace to Butch. Marcellus is manipulating Butch into believing that too much time has passed for him. He’s too old. His ass ages like vinegar. How many fights do you really think you have left? Butch seems to accept and agree with all of this. He takes Marcellus’ money. Already we have the theme of time established. The sense of desperation of time closing in, that our main characters will feel much later. Butch, like Jules, wants more time in his life, but, like Vincent, doesn’t heed the warnings to attain that time. Butch takes the money and leaves.
The opening for “The Gold Watch” segment is another long monologue this time by Christopher Walken. Again time comes into play. The age of the watch being passed down through generations to end up in Butch’s hands and his father’s desperate attempt to survive long enough to see his son which he ultimately fails at, instead Butch’s old man passes down the knowledge of time itself. Walken acts as a harbinger to time in this segment, he gives the watch it’s sentimental meaning to Butch and its thematic meaning to the audience. Shot in low angles, from young Butch’s perspective, he seems more like a deity then a man. His speech about the watch is more about imparting the wisdom of seconds to this young child. From now on the watch functions as a constant reminder of seconds ticking down, of every moment being of utmost importance, of having an understanding of those moments and the importance they play. Butch reaches for the watch but the moment he grabs it, it’s gone. He wakes up and he has to fight. His understanding of the time he has spent on this earth propels him to put everything on the line to prove he’s not that old yet. Time hasn’t killed him like it has his old man. He knows this because he has the watch in his possession…figuratively of course.
After Butch realizes that his watch is missing he loses his sense of moment. No longer does the impending train departure mean anything to him, all that matters is getting his watch, read: grasp of time, back. This is when the time it takes Butch to complete all of his actions become utmost important in the story. When he arrives at his apartment he finds the hit man Vincent Vega using the bathroom. A moment early or later and Butch would be dead and Vincent would still be alive. Vincent unbeknownst to us at this moment has already made his decision to sacrifice his later life for the now. If only Butch hadn’t wasted more time by making those pop tarts. Vincent is killed and Butch, watch fastened securely to his wrist, flees the apartment.
Next is one of the most classic scenes in a movie known for its classic scenes. Butch driving down the street runs into Marsellus Wallace. Again a moment too early or too late and this occurrence would never have happened, but now that Butch is in possession of his watch the moment is filled with much more meaning for him. Running Marsellus over and fleeing into the, let’s say unkind arms, of a pair of serial rapists. A moment later, a moment sooner and this never would have happened. Time comes into play again in Zed and Maynard’s dungeon. After Butch punches out The Gimp and flees he hesitates, trying to decide whether to go back or not, quietly taking up seconds. Once he decides to help Marsellus he spends even more time picking out the perfect weapon. A moment sooner and the real nastiness of the torture may not have begun and Marsellus may not have forgiven him. A moment later and their might not have been enough of Marsellus left either physically or emotionally to do anything. Butch chooses the right moment and saves both Marsellus and himself. He rides away, back to his girlfriend, and nearly forces her onto the bike because their train is almost leaving, and time is short.
In a movie filled with characters being either condemned or enlightened, not by their actions, but by the timing of those actions “The Gold Watch” is unique. Before the ending of the film when the theme of time is stated it acts as a precursor building our understanding of the role of time in our lives so that when the end does finally come we can completely understand it rather than feeling baffled or betrayed. Without this segment the depth and meaning of that final diner scene would be either lost or so muddy as to become irrelevant. For a film this earth shaking only an earth shaking ending will do and it is a brilliant display on the parts of Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avery to fit this middle story in, away from the main action of the rest of the film so that the ending feels as natural and effortlessly important and cool as the rest of the film.