A Brief Video History of the Pulp Fiction Square

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 22 2012 11:31 AM

A Brief History of “the Pulp Fiction Square”

The Pulp Fiction square

Still from "The Pulp Fiction Square: A Brief History."

Quentin Tarantino is famous for his use of pastiche: Each of his movies is jam-packed with hundreds of references to other movies and touchstones from popular culture: Spaghetti Westerns, b-movies, blacksploitation, kung fu flicks... the Muppets?

On a visit to the Museum of the Moving Image’s great Jim Henson exhibition last weekend, I thought I discovered the source for a memorable visual gag in Pulp Fiction. During a short called “Visual Thinking” from Sam and Friends—an early Henson series that ran from 1955 to 1961—Kermit the Frog discusses music with a more short-lived Muppet, Harry the Hipster. When Kermit confesses to Harry that he doesn’t like jazz, a square (or, more precisely, a rectangle) appears in the air over his face (it’s around the 1-minute mark, but the charming short is worth watching in full). The little joke immediately brought to mind the odd moment when Mia Wallace tells Vincent Vega, “Don’t be a…” and draws a square in the air, where the square magically appears.

Was Tarantino making an homage to the Muppets? Maybe, but a bit of poking around online showed that I wasn’t the first fan to make this connection—and that Henson was not the first filmmaker to employ the gag. Rob Getzschman noticed the similarity a few years ago, and wrote an impressively comprehensive history of the mid-air square at the music blog Best New Bands. Several different shows from the period used the gag, it turns out, with perhaps the earliest mid-air square popping up in the 1957 Looney Tunes cartoon Three Little Bops (1957)—and at least two more popping up within the next five years, in The Flinstones (1961) and the opening sequence for The Parent Trap (1961). Henson himself would reprise the sketch for The Ed Sullivan Show and (sans Kermit) Sesame Street.

Getzschman wasn’t able to determine which of them may have been Tarantino’s source, but he did make a handy video compiling each instance:


The video ends with a dotted square and the message “1957 – 1994.” But of course the mid-air square gag didn’t end there. These days Tarantino’s films refer almost as often to themselves as to other filmmakers’ work, and Kill Bill: Volume 1 has Thurman return to the gesture. (It’s around the 6:00 mark below—without the skywriting effect.) I’m reminded of one of the best video essays on Kill Bill, which comes courtesy of the video series “Everything Is A Remix”—a phrase that rings particularly true with Tarantino.

Update, Feb. 22, 2012: Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings has found an even older instance of the mid-air square on his blog. According to Jennings, the square appeared in an Alice in Wonderland parody in the December 1954 issue of what is now Mad magazine.

A Brief History of “Mahna Mahna”
Did You See This? Jim Henson’s 1963 Short About Robots

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 



Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Oct. 2 2014 9:19 AM Alibaba’s Founder on Why His Company Is Killing It in China
Oct. 2 2014 8:27 AM How Do Teachers Kill the Joy of Reading for Students?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Oct. 2 2014 9:08 AM Demons Are Real A horror movie goes behind the scenes on an Intervention-like reality show.
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 2 2014 7:30 AM What Put the Man in the Moon in the Moon?
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?