Pulp Fiction: 25 Years Ago–Really???

Pulp_Fiction_posterWatching Uma Thurman being interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel last night made me realize that her breakthrough role in Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” occurred almost 25 years ago.   Has it been that long???

Revisiting the film, I had almost the same reaction that I had when it world premiered at the 1994 Cannes Film Fest, where it won the top prize, the Palme dÓr.

Here is what I wrote back then:

Quentin Tarantino’s follow-up to his stunning 1991 debut, “Resevoir Dogs,”  displayed even more of an entertainer’s talent for luridness–“a funky American sort of pop, improbable and uproarious with bright colors, danger and blood,” wrote David Denby.

The New Yorker critic Pauline Kale may have put her finger on the special appeal of “Pulp Fiction,” when she described it as “shallow but funny.  And it’s fresh. It was fun and there aren’t that many movies that are just fun.”

Pulp_Fiction_1_travolta_jacksonTarantino is not an original or visionary filmmaker in the way that David Lynch is at his best movies (“Blue Velvet”)–he lacks Lynch’s powerful imagination.  His scripts are not taken from real life, but from previously existing films, books and TV shows. Tarantino does not so much create his stories as build and reconstruct them, using material that already exists. But it’s not the stories that he tells; it’s how he tells them. More than other directors, Tarantino understands that in a society that takes all its points of reference from pop culture, Americans’ sense of identity is largely based on media images, which explains his appropriation of the most common artifacts of our culture.

Pulp_Fiction_5_willisLurid, low-life characters in cheap crime novels of the 1930s and 1940s provided the inspiration for Pulp Fiction, which is set in a modern-day Hollywood populated with hoods, gangsters, corrupt cops, and black widows.

Boasting an audacious structure, Pulp Fiction comprises three interconnected stories that don’t match up evenly. Tarantino breaks Hollywood’s honored norm of presenting events in sequence. Yet, by the end, the chronology falls into place.

Pulp_Fiction_4Each story centers on two characters. The first duo are lovebirds, Honey Bunny and Pumpkin (Plummer and Roth), in a coffee shop contemplating a career change–the question: whether to hold up restaurants instead of liquor stores. The second pair, which forms the central core of the film, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) are talkative hit men who work for crime boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). Wallace is jealously married to the exotic heroin-addled Mia (Uma Thurman). There’s also a double-crossing prize-fighter, Butch (Bruce Willis) and his girlfriend (Maria de Medeiros); Butch is supposed to take a dive, but instead takes the money and run. The movie ends with Vince and Jules dealing with a drug hit that goes uproariously awry.

Pulp_Fiction_3_travoltaThe thematic novelty of Pulp Fiction is that it’s less about the depiction of crime than about what happens before and after crime–how to cope with the bloody mess of a man killed in the back seat of a car. Tarantino creates a character named Wolf (Keitel), a mobster cleanup man who instructs on how to do the job. What holds the movie together is its inspired playfulness and cool nihilism in stories that are pitched at a resolutely human scale. Tarantino neglects plot mechanics and linear narrative in favor of lengthy, sustained scenes presented out of sequence. Like Reservoir Dogs, there’s very little action in Pulp Fiction: Tarantino’s hit men spend more time talking than killing. At the end, a sociopath killer is transformed into a spiritual shepherd. In the final scene, Jules quotes Ezekiel 25:17 to his victims before blasting them.

Pulp_Fiction_2_thurmanIn the self-enclosed world of Reservoir Dogs, there was no room for women, except for a cameo of a woman who shoots Keitel’s character. But in Pulp Fiction, one of the central figures is Mia, Marsellus’ attractive wife, whose date with Vincent provides an exhilarating scene. Knowing that her husband once threw a man out a window for giving her a foot massage, Vince escorts her with trepidation. A leisurely buildup of their date culminates with the memorable sight of Travolta and Thurman twisting on the dance floor of a 1950s themed restaurant.

Once again, Tarantino shows his penchant for the rhythm of words–the talk has the drollery of gangland Beckett with exuberant verbal riffs. As Vince and Jules drive to their first “mission,” they talk about fast food in Europe. “Do you know what a Quarter Pounder is called in Amsterdam” Vince asks. “A Royale with cheese.” The two bicker endlessly about whether a foot massage counts as a sexual act. Tarantino is a master at taking trite situations and giving them a sudden, vertiginous twirl, as the farcical scene of Mia’s drug overdose demonstrates.

The three overlapping stories brim with anecdotes, debates, profanities, and biblical quotations. Tarantino’s scripts contain so many stories that it’s easy to overlook the restrained lucidity of his style and his respect for actors. Unlike most action films, in which actors compete with–and are upstaged by–special effects, actors are central in Tarantino’s movies. In Pulp Fiction he builds the entire film around the cadence of their performances. When characters converse, Andrzej Sekula’s camera gracefully observes the dialogue, without movement or other distractions.

Stylistically inventive, Pulp Fiction differs from the conventional landscape of film noir, showing a different side of L.A. Most noirs are set at night, but Tarantino’s action is set in a sun-blasted sprawl with no palm trees, no shots of the ocean, no montage of Rodeo Drive shopping, no reference to the Hollywood sign. Pointedly avoiding a slick look, Tarantino replaces these icons with squalid settings of barren streets, dilapidated buildings, plain coffee shops.

Many directors have borrowed from classic Hollywood genres, but the achievement of Pulp Fiction is how, despite secondhand parts, it succeeds at being coherent and fresh. Tarantino takes familiar situations and subverts them with sudden outbursts of violence, radical changes of tone. As a postmodern work, Pulp Fiction succeeds where Soderbergh’s Kafka, which was also made of borrowed elements, failed. David Denby has observed that Tarantino works with trash, but by criticizing and formalizing it, he emerges with something different: an amalgam of banality and formality.

There are weak scenes, such as the flat romance between Butch and his girlfriend, or Butch’s gaudy encounter with rednecks, replete with S&M and male rape recalling the Gothic of Deliverance. Like the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino indulges in unadulterated villainy. His adolescent delight at showing physical torment and his uncertainty about female characters may derive, as John Powers noted, from the fact that his primary experience comes from old movies; he still doesn’t know much about human behavior.

Released by Miramax (which in 1993 was bought by Disney), “Pulp Fiction” became the most morally subversive movie to come out of the Disney empire. But the public reacted with unprecedented enthusiasm, elevating Tarantino and his picture to a cult level. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Miramax planned a brilliant campaign. Sweeping most of the critics awards in 1994, including Oscar nominations, Pulp Fiction became one of the few independent film to cross the magic $100 million mark.

According to the scholar Robert Kolker, Tarantino was particularly attentive to Scorsese’s 1978 documentary, “American Boy,” a painful but hilarious monologue, where Stephen Prince (who played Andy the Gun fence in “Taxi Driver”) tells a strange story of reviving a woman suffering from a drug overdoze by plunging a syringe full of stimulant into her heart, which became one element of the plot of “Pulp Fiction.”

As beautiful and sexy as she was two decades ago, Thurman is promoting Lars von Trier’s provocative treatise, “Nymphomaniac: Volume 1,” which opens in the U.S. this Friday.

Watch for our review.