PULP FICTION: Tarantino’s Sophomore Epoch

Tarantino’s multi-limbed magnum opus began in 1990 as a collaboration with writing partner Roger Avery, a three-part anthology modeled on Mario Bava’s 1963 horror movie BLACK SABBATH (1963) and inspired by the crime fiction magazine Black Mask. The project quickly morphed into two separate feature-length scripts – the Avery-penned Pandemonium Reigns, which was never produced, and Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS (1992), which fared a little better.

The visceral impact of RESERVOIR DOGS, described by Film4 as “Undoubtedly one of the best films of the 90s, and probably one of the best directorial debuts of all time,” instantly proclaimed Tarantino a filmmaker of rare, even unprecedented talent, a rock star provocateur the like of which had not been seen since Orson Welles put the cat among the pigeons with CITIZEN KANE in 1941. A pop culture savant, wearing his enfant terrible credentials on his sleeve, ex-video store clerk Tarantino suddenly found Tinseltown at his feet. His next move was anticipated with the kind of giddy excitement that infects small children on Christmas Eve. He did not disappoint. Returning to the concept of an anthology, he set to work on the script for PULP FICTION (1994) in Amsterdam in early 1992, writing new material but also incorporating scenes and storylines originally conceived by Avery. The resulting film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994. The screening was introduced by Tarantino with the words: “Who here liked REMAINS OF THE DAY (1993)? Get the fuck out of this theater!”. It was an instant sensation. If, as one poster quote claimed, RESERVOIR DOGS “roared across the screen”, PULP FICTION exploded out of it, spewing white hot shards of game-changing shrapnel in all directions. DOGS was a cinematic event; its follow-up was a full-on cultural epoch.

Plotwise, PULP FICTION boasts two distinct narrative strands – a pair of hitmen, Jules and Vincent (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta) attempting to return a mysterious stolen briefcase to their crime lord boss (Ving Rhames), and a fading boxer (Bruce Willis) on the lam from the self-same crime lord after double-crossing him in a fixed fight. Simple enough, right? Wrong. Played out against a garishly Hollywoodized backdrop, woven entirely from pop-culture touchstones and fanboy obsession, a hyper-violent fun-house facsimile of reality, storylines merge and collide, ricocheting backwards and forwards in time, veering off into myriad asides before looping back to an arbitrary start point like a lurid Möbius strip spinning on adrenaline and pure self-belief. If Jean-Luc Godard’s philosophy was that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order, Tarantino’s seemed to be that a film should have several of each, and in no order whatsoever. He had played with nonlinear narrative in RESERVOIR DOGS, but this was something else, even going so far as to have a major character killed on screen only to reappear alive and well several scenes later (character name withheld, just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last 25 years).

PULP FICTION poster with Uma Thurman

It’s generally held that PULP FICTION revived John Travolta’s ailing career, which had been on a steady slide since the mid 80s. More accurately, the role of paunchy, smack-addict hitman Vincent Vega cast him so rudely against type it reinvented his on-screen persona entirely, opening up opportunities he wouldn’t have had a sniff at even in his prime. And Travolta’s presence adds a delicious meta twist to proceedings. Tarantino has always claimed that the scene where Travolta and Uma Thurman dance the twist was based on a sequence in Godard’s Bande à part, and that it was in the script long before Travolta signed on. Even so, if the ghost of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER’s (1975) Tony Manero is never far from Vincent’s elbow, when Travolta slips off his shoes and takes to the floor, he’s there at center stage, in all his white-suited, pompadoured glory. It’s a great moment made transcendent by the power of nostalgia. Furthermore, as has been alluded to more than once, since Jack Rabbit Slim’s is an homage to 50s Americana, while the twist recalls the 60s and the lurking specter of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER suggests the 70s, it is, however inadvertently, a near-perfect example of the postmodern ideal. At the very least, it’s the instance where the postmodern label, affixed to PULP FICTION with tiresome regularity, adheres most readily. More importantly still, it introduced a new generation to Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell, a song of such effervescent brilliance that once heard it banishes all thoughts of the grotesque My Ding a Ling from the mind.

And it wasn’t only Travolta’s career that got a boost from PULP FICTION. It thrust Uma Thurman (who plays Marcellus Wallace’s wife Mia) to the front rank of stardom and shone a new light on Bruce Willis too. At the time, Willis was a major Hollywood star, still perched near the top of the A-list despite not having a solid hit since 1990’s DIE HARD 2 (1990). His decision to work for scale on a project that offered cool-over-coin set an important precedent. PULP FICTION also fundamentally altered the dynamics of independent filmmaking. Originally shunned by the majors for being too outlandish, Tarantino’s script was snapped up by the then up-and-coming Miramax, who reaped the rewards in box office dollars and priceless credibility. PULP FICTION was such a monster hit, that in its wake, the major studios fell over themselves in their eagerness to establish boutique offshoots that mimicked the indie model. On the whole a very welcome development, providing funding and distribution to independent and foreign films that would’ve struggled to get a look-in otherwise. Needless to say, however, a fair amount of product emanating from Fox Searchlight and its ilk was designed to cash in on PULP FICTION’s success, with predictably dire – and in retrospect, rather pathetic – results. As duds like DESTINY TURNS ON THE RADIO (1995) (in which Tarantino had an acting role) and THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD (1995) came and went, it became increasingly clear that simply ramping up the gunplay while a cast of quirky characters discussed the finer points of GET SMART did not cut the mustard, no matter what mix-tape of golden oldies and neglected surf-punk gems populated the soundtrack. Another point comprehensively missed by these self-consciously eccentric turkeys was that Tarantino deliberately chose the most generic of dime-novel scenarios on which to imprint his vision. That’s another of PULP FICTION’s unalloyed joys: seeing the old and familiar refashioned into something dazzlingly new.

On its release in the summer of 1994, it left audiences reeling and, with few exceptions, had critics reaching for new superlatives. “There’s a special kick that comes from watching something this thrillingly alive,” wrote Peter Travers in Rolling Stone, capturing the overarching mood. “Brilliant and brutal, funny and exhilarating, jaw-droppingly cruel and disarmingly sweet,” wrote The Washington Post‘s Desson Thomson.

Attempting a broader critical overview of PULP FICTION, is to get in the ring with a bear. A bear pumped to the gills with steroidal cult status and a quarter century’s-worth of earnest punditry working its corner. The big question is, where to start? A tried-and-trusted tactic is to jump in with an iconic scene that, in some way, encapsulates the movie as a whole and go from there. The trouble with PULP FICTION is that it consists almost entirely of iconic scenes. Thread it up in the movie palace of your mind, set the projector running and throw a few darts at the screen. Royale with Cheese? Ding! The gold watch? Ding! “Go get the Gimp” Ding! Jack Rabbit Slim’s twist competition? Ding! Ding! Ding! And like anything else that lodges itself so instantly and indelibly in the popular imagination, it has been the subject of intense academic analysis. Which is as it should be, but wading through the ocean of ink spilled on teasing out its cinematic reference points (the dizzying number of which would probably surprise even Tarantino), its socio-cultural significance, its postmodern bona fides, or its metaphysical subtext is a wearisome undertaking.

Naturally, Jules’ habit of reciting Ezekiel 25:17 (“And you will know my name is the Lord, when I lay My vengeance upon thee”) comes in for more than its fair share of attention. Which is understandable since a) it’s the sort of thing film scholars always lose their shit over, and b) it effectively bookends the movie, delivered first to the hapless Brett before Jules blows his brains out, and then later, in the epilogue, when Jules explains his abrupt spiritual awakening to Vincent. And, thanks in large part to Samuel L. Jackson’s masterful delivery, it fits the bill perfectly in both, very different, instances. (For the record, the speech was cobbled together from several Bible passages and, true to form, cribbed by QT from a 1976 Sonny Chiba movie). Elsewhere, the dead hand of pseudo-intellectualism creeps in. Here’s critic Catherine Constable on the scene where Uma Thurman is revived from a heroin overdose with a massive shot of adrenalin to the heart: “[It] can be seen as effecting her resurrection from the dead, simultaneously recalling and undermining the Gothic convention of the vampire’s stake. On this model, the referencing of previous aesthetic forms and styles moves beyond empty pastiche, sustaining an inventive and affirmative mode of postmodernism.” Whatever else this kind of cerebral pud-pulling achieves (aside from sustaining an inventive and affirmative mode of “lighten the fuck up, Prof!”), you can’t help wondering what Tarantino would make of it. In all probability, he’d agree wholeheartedly, congratulate the writer on their perceptiveness, then reveal which obscure kung fu movie or long-forgotten episode of LAND OF THE GIANTS he borrowed it from.

Apart from predictable gripes about excessive violence and alleged misogyny/misanthrope/homophobia/racism, what irked the few reviewers who didn’t like PULP FICTION on its release was that it was a clear case of style over substance, all sizzle and no steak. “Both empty and retrograde,” proclaimed Dereck Malcolm of The Guardian. Foster Hirsch, author of Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen and A Method to Their Madness: The History of the Actors Studio, found it “Authoritative, influential and meaningless.” Mark T. Conrad, who has written books examining the philosophy of, among others, Friedrich Nietzsche, Spike Lee, and The Simpsons, simply asked the question “What is the film about?” His underwhelming, and *** vague answer was “American nihilism.” In fact, it’s not really ‘about’ anything. It doesn’t grapple with any fundamental aspects of the human condition; it isn’t a metaphor for the decline of American society, or an allegorical treatise on post-Vietnam guilt/post-Watergate loss of innocence, or any of the other things contemporary American movies are held to represent, often with very good reason. It isn’t even a legitimate tale of redemption, even though both Jules and Butch achieve something akin to a state of grace at the end. Neither of them is the true protagonist – no one is – and, in any case, whatever redemption they find doesn’t come at the end because, to labor a pervious point, there isn’t one. We know what happens after Jules’ ‘moment of clarity’ because we’ve already seen it happen. And it’s hard to imagine him sticking to the path of the righteous man after that.

The reason so much of the intellectual screed directed at PULP FICTION rings hollow – and there are entire essays examining the role of the bathroom in it – is that it seems to be barking up the wrong tree, desperately searching for ‘meaning’ where there is none and resorting to pretentious claptrap when a deeper subtext fails to reveal itself. By the same token, some very astute things have been written about the film. For instance, Alan Stone, in the Boston Review, countered accusations of multiple-isms by proclaiming it to be, in fact, rigorously politically correct: “There is no nudity and no violence directed against women. [It] celebrates interracial friendship and cultural diversity; there are strong women and strong black men, and the director swims against the current of class stereotype.” That’s the kind of analysis you can live with. Comparing a hypodermic needle to a vampire’s stake in reverse, not so much. I mean, no phallic symbolism? Come on!

In the end – to deploy an idiom that has been hovering in the wings for at least three paragraphs – the value of PULP FICTION isn’t in what it means but in what it is, which is bravura filmmaking of the highest order. The dialogue alone, rightfully praised, endlessly imitated, elevates the mundane to the sublime, throwing up one-liners so ubiquitous they’ve long since passed into the realm of cliché (when was the last time you got medieval on someone’s ass?). It’s brilliantly written, audaciously structured, masterfully shot and edited old-fashioned cinematic entertainment. And if you can’t find something to love on its best-oldies-station-ever soundtrack, you’re clinically dead. If it is, as cultural historian Geoffrey O’Brien would have it, “A guided tour of an infernal theme park decorated with cultural detritus”, then so be it. Who among us has not, at one time or another, yearned for a guided tour of an infernal theme park decorated with cultural detritus and found no substitute for PULP FICTION. As guided tours of infernal theme parks decorated with cultural detritus go, it’s the best. And if proof were needed of its staying power – the devil take its cultural significance – consider this: Twenty-six years after it hit theaters, Direct Line are still using Harvey Keitel in the guise of tuxedoed fixer Winston Wolf to sell their insurance policies. Now that must ‘mean’ something, surely.

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