dir. Quentin Tarantino
“Pulp Fiction” is an explosion of postmodern film-making, the blast from which was so powerful that 22 years later cinema is still quaking. Anyone who’s ever aspired to be screenwriter has thought long and hard, on at least one occasion, of hanging up their keyboard and leaving their dreams behind. My occasion was “Pulp Fiction”. Quentin Tarantino’s writing doesn’t just leap off the page, it grabs you by the throat. It possesses the power to daunt young film students, myself included. It’s brilliant. No, it’s superlatively brilliant. No, it’s… Excuse me while I try to find the right platitudes to do it justice. It was unlike anything else that came before. It’s still unlike anything else that has come after, and that includes a shit-ton of copycats and rip-offs; all who know the words but not the music. Tarantino’s dialogue fluctuates effortlessly between the humorous, the poetic, and the tense. Always profane. As with other great contemporary dialogue writers like David Milch and David Mamet, that’s often part of the verse. It’s a testament to the writing of the film that I’d be hard pressed to name a quote that didn’t end up printed on a T-shirt somewhere. Everyone has their favorite passages. Mine comes in the middle of a discussion about why it’s acceptable to eat pigs but not dogs, despite both being filthy animals. “But a dog’s got personality. Personality goes a long way.” Jules Winnfield rationalizes. Partner in crime Vincent Vega counters with, “Ah, so by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, he would cease to be a filthy animal. Is that true?” “Well we’d have to be talkin’ about one charming motherfuckin’ pig.” is Jules’ reply. This is dialogue of the highest order. Not only is it whimsical and funny, but it examines the mannerisms and ticks of the characters. You have unique and interesting characters saying unique and interesting things. When most screenplays nowadays amount to little more than heavy-handed exposition and sporadic exclamations (“Hey!”, “Get over here!”, “Look out!”) it’s a breath of fresh air to see a writer so joyfully playing with our expectations. It’s a remarkably fun script. The fun comes from being surprised. Whether it’s by an unexpected back-and-forth about the sensitive nature of a foot massage or how a Quarter Pounder with Cheese differs in France.
Inspired by an onslaught of films that must’ve enlightened Tarantino at a young age (namely, Mario Bava’s “Black Sabbath” and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing”), there is plenty of influence to be found. Just as there was in “Reservoir Dogs”, Tarantino’s 1992 debut film. Sometimes he walks a fine line between homage and forgery. Some scenes and lines are inspired by existing films and some are directly lifted. But the films of Quentin Tarantino exist in their own stratosphere. Like a remix of a classic song, it’s all about the execution. It’s like unweaving the threads of a ratted down T-shirt and sewing them back into an elegant robe. There is an exuberant love for the cinema in “Pulp Fiction” that is infectious. Tarantino wears his influences on his sleeve and has all the impassioned enthusiasm of a kid in candy store. He once said that, “When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, no, I went to films.” Sure there were cool filmmakers before Tarantino (Godard inspired a generation of a too-hip hipsters) but none were as cool. For many, Tarantino singly demonstrated that being a film-buff wasn’t just for the nebbish and socially awkward. But that film could be cool and even sexy. It’s not inaccurate to say that Tarantino is one of the few filmmakers to achieve an almost rock-star level status among his fan-base. When Tarantino makes a new film it’s an event. You see the film FOR Tarantino. When I saw “Django Unchained” in the cinema there was applause when his name appeared in the opening credits. As I write this review Tarantino has now made 8 films. Some are better than others, sure, but none are poor. His name has become synonymous with quality. His latest film, “The Hateful Eight”, was shot in glorious 70mm. He’s one of the most consistently audacious and innovative filmmakers around. To him cinema isn’t just a means to an end, it’s the end. In “Kill Bill” Tarantino plays with color and black + white, aspect ratio, montage, long sustained tracking shots and and dynamic POV angles. Cinema has had it’s bag of tricks long before Tarantino burst onto the scene. There were magicians before too: D.W Griffith, Carl Dreyer, Orson Welles. But for many, myself as well at a young age, Tarantino taught us what these words meant. Yes, he didn’t create the vocabulary of film, but I’ll be damned if he didn’t make it accessible and alluring to a mainstream audience. He’s like that one kooky and off-the-walls high school teacher who actually manages to make reading Shakespeare fun.
But I digress, back to the screenplay of “Pulp Fiction”. It’s not just great in the way that the dialogue is written. The script is also a masterpiece of structure. It paved the way for more films that would relish in the joy of screwing with chronology. Most films follow a linear blueprint, “Pulp Fiction” follows a more circular one. There is still an A, B, and C but they don’t necessarily fall in that order. It’s more C, A, B, A, C. Sound confusing? It’s not. Tarantino manages to weave all of his plots together in the most organic way possible. We’re essentially watching four different films (Honey Bunny and Pumpkin/Jules and Vincent/Vincent and Mia/Butch and Marsellus), but never do they feel disconnected from each other. Tarantino crosscuts between threads with precision. The greatest punchline in the film comes when Butch (Bruce Willis) finds Vincent (John Travolta) in his apartment and shoots him dead, only for Vincent to appear, in flashback, in the very next scene, and in the remaining half hour of film. There have been plenty of films since to defy the typical rules of structure (“Memento”, “The Usual Suspects”, “Inception”), but none with such confidence. Like building a jigsaw puzzle, Tarantino realizes that placement is key. We never get the sense that we’re viewing this story in a non-liner structure for the technique alone. Each scene works very well as it’s own little moment, but it’s when you step back and look at the big picture that you can fully grasp the genius of the storytelling. It’s only when we return to Pumpkin and Honey Bunny’s redemptive robbery at the very end do we realize what a perfect way to start the film it is. Some characters are reoccurring, kingpin Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) for example, who’s only spoken of in one plot but plays a major role in another. It aids in building the mystique of the character. We’ve heard all about his legendary badassery long before it has to be put to use in a later scene. “I ain’t through with you by a damn sight. I’ma get medieval on your ass.” he memorably tells a pair of hillbilly rapists. Medieval. What a perfect piece of writing! What follows doesn’t have to be shown on screen. We already know the kind of cruel, sadistic things that Marsellus is thinking. In fact, it’s almost more graphic not being shown. The things you can do on film are limited, but in your mind… Ah!
Tarantino has a technique that he uses to stage his scenes. There is always a constant ramping up of tension but never does it come through violence. The violence is the catharsis. The suspense is derived from the dialogue. Think of it like a western standoff, but more word-play than gun-play. A lot of anticipation and posturing followed by a sudden burst of violence. It’s a technique that he employs in all of his films. The opening sequence of “Inglourious Basterds” contains a verbal exchange so gripping that when the violence finally does come it comes as a relief. Or the famous “Say what?” scene from “Pulp Fiction’. It’s hilarious, yes, but also startling. We’re left laughing while covering our mouths in shock. The violence in his films always comes when we least expect it. Recall a later scene that takes place in the back of a car where Jules and Vincent engage the only surviving goon (named Marvin) in a conversation about spiritual intervention. BAM! Out of nowhere the goon’s head explodes into the back windshield. “Oh, man”, Vincent apathetically groans, “I shot Marvin in the face!”. It’s because of the offhand way that he implements scenes of bloodshed that they feel almost more shocking than gratuitous scenes from exploitative horror movies. I can see some audience members being appalled at Tarantino’s casual depiction of graphic violence. “Kill Bill” memorably features a scene where Uma Thurman cuts a man in half with her sword, and not width-wise. However, it’s important to distinguish the difference between violence and ‘movie’ violence. Only rarely does the violence in a Tarantino film carry emotional weight. It’s more celebration than exploitation. I can see something Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” being too much for some people. But the violence in that film is meant to provoke. Personally, I think it’s important that we also expose ourselves to that level of emotional reaction, but that’s up to the viewer. However, Tarantino’s violence carries all the weight of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Relish in the film-making and humor and take it for what it is. Tarantino himself has become something of a whipping boy for violence in the media. As if any given video game or horror movie doesn’t feature just as much cultural debauchery. But that’s an issue for an entirely separate article. And really, Tarantino himself said it the best, “Sure, Kill Bill’s a violent movie. But it’s a Tarantino movie. You don’t go to see Metallica and ask the fuckers to turn the music down.” The ending feels almost subversive in this regard, as a scene of escalating violence is diminished by words. I’m reminded of how in “Kill Bill”, when Uma Thurman finally confronts the fabled Bill, they share 20 minutes of hypnotic dialogue before a scene of violent resolution that lasts all of 10 seconds. Take note Hollywood: the action is the punctuation, not the complete sentence!
There is a lot of variety to the scenes. It’s a testament to the film that each moment has gone down as an iconic set piece by now. You have the flock of seagulls, an action buddy-comedy moment, then you have Vincent and Mia at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a scene which fully embraces the comedy and even throws a musical segment in there. The dialogue between Butch and his girlfriend, Fabienne, (Maria de Medeiros) is surprisingly tender. Upon discussion of her desire to grow a pot belly she reflects, “I don’t give a damn what men find attractive. It’s unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye is seldom the same.” Butch and Marsellus’ run-in with two “Deliverance” style rednecks is straight from a twisted horror movie. The film is never tedious, even with a 154 minute run-time. By the end I found myself wishing that it was longer. Tarantino keeps things moving at a unhurried, but brisk pace, and is constantly surprising us. Just when we’re sitting at the edge of our seat, he throws us a scene that makes us laugh out loud, and vice versa. It’s Tarantino’s greatest gift that he knows exactly how long to draw a scene out for. At the 50’s swinging bar Vincent and Mia talk and talk, about everything and nothing: a TV pilot she stared in, a $5 milkshake, classic movie actors. The irony comes when after sharing a moment of silence, Mia says, “Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?” But still, there is a constant heightening of tension throughout the scene. Because we can feel the obvious innuendo between them building and because we know what happened to poor Antwone over a petty little foot massage. When Mia OD’s on Vincent’s hidden stash of drugs, we know the sheer size of crap that he’s in. It’s great set-up and pay-off and there are many occurrences of it. Tarantino never let’s a piece of dialogue go neglected. Some scenes feel superfluous, like Christopher Walken’s darkly comic monologue about the watch that traveled from Hanoi to the States in his ass. However, when Butch risks death to retrieve the watch later in the film, oh boy, do we know why.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Tarantino’s writing, as I should, but “Pulp Fiction” is also an actor’s movie. It’s an impressive cast: John Travolta, Samuel Jackson, Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman, Ving Rhames, Christopher Walken, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth. What’s even more impressive is that nearly everyone delivers a career-best caliber performance. Even the minor characters. I’ve always loved Roth’s depiction of Pumpkin and Amanda Plummer’s hysterical turn as Honey Bunny. Keitel manages to steal every scene he’s in as the great Mr. Wolf. A fast talking grease-ball who’s impeccably good at his job, as well as impeccably punctual. For my money, Uma Thurman out-acts everyone else in the film with a stunning performance that’s absolutely unforgettable. It’s all in the eyes. Seesawing between sexy and dangerous, Mia is the archetypal femme fatale and the most enduring of all the characters. In the film that features Samuel Jackson’s powerful Jules Winnfield, that’s not something to be taken with a grain of salt. You can just tell that the actors all enjoy chewing on Tarantino’s words. Can you imagine having to rehearse lines from one of Micheal Bay’s “Transformer” movies? There’s a reason that Tarantino always manages to attain such phenomenal cast lists. Just look at the great Christoplh Waltz, who went from off-the-map to two time Oscar winner within a few years. It’s because Tarantino writes with the actors in mind. The characters and performances come first. We don’t even see Butch’s brutal boxing match, just his conflicted reaction afterward. When he comes home he takes his time. He takes a shower, he cuddles with his girlfriend. The mannerisms and ticks in his performance says it all. He’s not just a great visual director but a great actor director. His films have scenes of pure kinetic film-making energy, but also scenes where he allows the camera to just sit back and observe. The opening segment of “Reservoir Dogs” where our characters discuss everything from Madonna to tipping, or a scene that takes place in a German bar in “Inglourious Basterds”. If you’ll notice, most of shots are done in long. Very rarely does Tarantino cut to a close-up. When multiple actors are talking on screen it’s almost always in a two-shot. As Jules and Vincent muse on the innuendo of a foot massage Tarantino’s camera glides with them down the apartment corridor. As Vincent and Mia talk across the table at Jack Rabbit Slim’s they are given equal framing. The actors are always central to his compositions. There are no throwaway shots. It’s because of this that all of his films contain not just one, but a few memorable performances. Like any great writer he observes and he listens. The writing in “Pulp Fiction” feels like an assortment of anecdotes that Tarantino has picked up over his life.
“Pulp Fiction” is all about redemption. By the end, all of our well-drawn characters have gone through a transformation of sorts. Jules gives up his life of killing to follow the divine word. Just watch as he departs with his BAD MOTHER FUCKER wallet. Vincent does not. He gets his comeuppance about thirty minutes earlier in the film. Butch keeps his code of honor and Marsellus takes a noble turn. Like “Reservoir Dogs”, the film uses the least decent of men to show how even among them exists dignity and trust. It’s an incredibly hopeful and moral film. A fact that those who condemn it for corrupting our youth fail to grasp. You just have to be smart enough to read between the lines. It is also one of the greatest of all films. No film in the 90’s was more alive. Few films since have been as striking. It belongs on any list of the 10 most influential films, and certainly on any list of the 10 best. Quentin Tarantino bows at the altar of cinema and helped introduce me to it’s innumerable pleasures. There aren’t many movies that I would call life-changing. “Pulp Fiction” is surely one of them. Seen as 14 year old neophyte, the film helped show me the highs that cinema could hope to achieve. I’ve been living in a funk ever since. Tarantino inspired a wave of future filmmakers to pick up a camera and a wave of future writers to do away with the formalities. “Pulp Fiction” rode into town like Marlon Brando in “The Wild One”, rebelling against anything and everything. It’s one of the few films to be as unanimously praised at the time of it’s release as it is today. It struck the world of film like a lightening bolt and still possess the power to incite. I’ve seen the movie well a dozen times at this point in my life. I expect to see it well over a dozen more. Like a comforting childhood memory it’s always a joy to revisit the individual scenes and characters. They still feel as fresh as they did on my initial viewing. I can’t imagine a day will ever come when “Pulp Fiction” feels dated. It’s pitch perfect in writing, acting, cinematography, music, and in attitude. Watching it now makes the majority of today’s cinema feel slight, like it’s still struggling to catch up to Tarantino’s 1994 vision. There have been hundreds of imitations since it’s release. But with each new film Tarantino continues to prove that he can still Tarantino better than anyone else. So if you haven’t seen it by now, get out from under that rock and clear your social calendar. If you haven’t seen it lately, well it’s about time to revisit this BAD MOTHER FUCKER. It’s as satisfying as a Royale with cheese.
Rating: A+ (MASTERPIECE)