Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Films of Quentin Tarantino: Pulp Fiction (1994)

Pulp Fiction (1994) 
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino.
Written by: Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avery (story).
Starring: John Travolta (Vincent Vega), Samuel L. Jackson (Jules Winnfield), Uma Thurman (Mia Wallace), Harvey Keitel (Winston Wolfe), Tim Roth (Ringo/Pumpkin), Amanda Plummer (Yolanda/Honey Bunny), Maria de Medeiros (Fabienne), Ving Rhames (Marsellus Wallace), Eric Stoltz (Lance), Rosanna Arquette (Jody), Christopher Walken (Captain Koons), Bruce Willis (Butch Coolidge), Bronagh Gallagher (Trudi), Phil LaMarr (Marvin), Quentin Tarantino (Jimmie), Frank Whaley (Brett), Burr Steers (Roger), Angela Jones (Esmeralda Villalobos).
It’s impossible to describe just what an impact Pulp Fiction had on movies when it came out in 1994 – and probably even harder to describe what the film did to me when I finally saw it in 1995, when it finally came to home video (yes, back in those days, it was on VHS – and big movies could take months to get there – and since I was 13 in 1994, there was no way I could it in the theater). Pulp Fiction was hailed as revolutionary by many at the time – and you certainly wouldn’t have to make a very long list of the most influential films ever made before you got to Pulp Fiction (for better or worse). For me, watching it then (and again and again and again countless times throughout my high school years) I had never seen anything like it – anything close to it. It is one of the key films that made me fall in love with movies – and got me to the point I am today. All of which is a fancy way of saying I may not really be able to see Pulp Fiction clearly – without some sort of bias or nostalgia. Perhaps the biggest reason I have hesitated for so long in doing a Tarantino retrospective is because I feared that the film Pulp Fiction really is, wouldn’t measure up to the film it is in my head, or that the film that made my 14 year old head spin all those years ago, wouldn’t do much to my 38 year old head now – after knowing more clearly Tarantino’s influences, and having sat through so, so, so many films trying to be a Pulp Fiction clone, by people who are not anywhere near as talented as Tarantino. I’ve seen Pulp Fiction easily 30 times – and yet, if I’m being honest, it’s probably been close to a decade since I last sat down and watched the whole thing. My memories of the film were pure – why would I want to mess with that?
Pulp Fiction was, of course, the same film it always was. And like the experience I had re-watching the Coens Fargo a few years ago for the first time in years (a film I saw, if anything, more times than Pulp Fiction – probably because it’s an hour shorter) – I still knew every beat of the movie, every cut, every line reading, etc. And yet, while I think it’s impossible for me to say I saw a different film this time, I do think certain elements of the film played different to me now than ever before. And yes, I still loved every minute of it.
The opening scene still has that kind of raw power. Tarantino is, of course, playing with use a little bit – both Reservoir Dogs and True Romance also opened in diners, with their main characters talking, but here he’s doing something slightly different. The scene is similar to those other opening scenes – it’s got the same patter of the dialogue, the same mixture of humor and something more dangerous. But there is a highly sexual electricity in the air between Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer in that scene – something Tarantino hadn’t really done before – and of course if we think these are going to be the main characters, we’re wrong. We won’t see them again for well over two hours before we arrive back here once again, the movie coming full circle.
From that opening scene, we are thrust into the world of criminals, violence and sex – and we’ll stay there for the duration of the movie. We flash from that diner to the blaring soundtrack of Misirlou, to the car alongside a couple of hitman – Vincent (John Travolta) and Julies (Samuel L. Jackson) – shooting the shit on the way to a job. The now infamous conversation about burgers in Europe – and what they are called – is still great writing, even if endless copycats may have dimmed its originality a little. But the performances are still great – Jackson, of course, owns the screen in this movie – no matter how great he is in other movies, he may never top this performance. But I was more impressed with Travolta’s performance here than any other time I’ve seen the film. I’m pretty sure he’s stoned in that scene – there is something about his eyes – that I’m not quite sure how he does it. The scene in the apartment – where Jackson just completely and totally takes over – is still brilliant.
From there, we keep moving from one story to the next. As an idiot teenager, I thought that if there was a weaker segment (relatively speaking) in the movie, it was the extended date between Vincent and his bosses’ wife, Mia (Uma Thurman) – but watching it this time, I realize how wrong I was. More than any time before, the erotic charge, the sexual tension between Travolta and Thurman hummed at a frequency that was perhaps too high for me to hear back then. There is a real sense of danger between them, that they will not be able to resist what they both want, and what they know could both doom them. It is all masterfully played by Travolta and Thurman – and brilliantly written by Tarantino, because we are sensing one kind of danger, and then, of course, he plunges us into another kind of danger with the overdose – and the almost unbearably intense adrenaline shot sequence.
No, if there is a weaker segment (relatively speaking) it’s probably the Bruce Willis one that comes next – where he plays a boxer who is supposed to throw a fight, and decidedly does not – meaning Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) – wants to kill him. He knew that, he has a plan to get away – all of which is undone by his girlfriend forgetting his watch at their apartment – that he has to go back for (by the way, I never noticed before, but how old is Bruce Willis supposed to be in this film? If his dad was a POW in the Vietnam War – let’s say Christopher Walken’s character was released the same time John McCain was, in 1973, and Butch then is what 8? Meaning Willis is supposed to be 29 in the film – a full decade younger than he was at the time). Anyway, the segment is still great – it’s one of Willis’ best performance (a few years before The Sixth Sense would seemingly make him believe he should walk through every film nearly comatose), and the film has a couple of true shocks and twists in it. Part of me cannot help but wonder though if that scene’s ending borders on, if not quite crossing the line, into homophobia – or at least indulging in some fairly harmful stereotypes. It’s worth considering, especially in film (his third written in the row) that throws the “n-word” around with reckless abandon – mostly by white characters that the films don’t code as racist.
The final stretch – returning to Vincent and Jules in that apartment, and then proceeding from there back to the diner that opened the film – with a stop at a house to clean up a car that has been splattered with someone’s brains – is perhaps the most fascinating of the film. It is a study in tonal shifts, as much of it is hilarious, but it’s also horrifying in other respects, and brings us back to the diner for what qualifies for a moral argument in this film – which is not really interested in morals. It’s also somewhat surprising, and perhaps even sad, since Travolta is back just a few scenes after we see what his ultimate fate is.
Even after 25 years, Pulp Fiction has the power to shock and entertain. It is more ambitious than anything Tarantino had written before – with it’s large, sprawling cast of characters, multiple timelines than divide and converge throughout the film. While perhaps the most famous bits of dialogue in the film have perhaps been repeated too often – where their impact is at least a little bit blunted, but not much. The performances are across the board great. And each segment has an energy of its own, while still fitting into the larger film.
Am I biased? Perhaps. Am I seeing the film clearly for what it is, or the film that I want it to be from my memory? I honestly don’t know. The list of films that were more important to me when I first fell in love with movies is probably non-existent. And yet, watching it again, the film still has that strange magic that time and hundreds of imitators cannot, and has not dulled. I do wonder what younger people – people raised on films that came in Pulp Fiction’s wake, make of the film. They clearly may not see it as revolutionary as it was at the time – but I think Pulp Fiction works beyond that – beyond that influence. It is perhaps the seminal film of the 1990s. And it deserves to be.

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