It’s been 20 years since Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction burst upon the scene at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palm D’Or and changed the cinematic landscape. It was released in the U.S. in October, where I saw it twice within one week, something I almost never do–just once wasn’t enough. I have it tied for the best film of the ’90s (with Fargo, I just can’t choose between them). I watched it again yesterday for probably the fifth or sixth time and I was glad to see it hold up, as fresh and invigorating as ever.
Pulp Fiction’s anniversary has been getting a lot of play in the media. I was listening to NPR and heard Stephen Hibbert, the guy who played The Gimp, being interviewed. For a certain level of film fans, it has gained a classic legacy, full of quotable lines and distinct scenes that resonate with its fans. To be sure, it has had its detractors, particularly from an older generation (my mother walked out on it, disgusted) and perhaps from those who found it cool once, but have moved past it. Tarantino hasn’t helped by spinning his wheels since then, never quite achieving the promise that Pulp Fiction showed.
For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a cornucopia of the old movies that run continuously in Tarantino’s head. The title itself refers to a style of paperback book that was sold in bus stations (the covers of which are expertly captured in the movie’s iconic poster). It tells basically three stories, with a few corollaries, that are presented non-chronologically, an ingenious gambit that pays off, even when it shows the death of one character before he reappears at another time.
The plot is difficult to summarize, but mostly it has to do with three characters: two hit men, played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, who are sent by their boss to retrieve a mysterious briefcase, and boxer Bruce Willis, who, after paid by that same boss to throw a fight, double-crosses him and goes on the lam. But there’s so much more than that.
What made this film such an immediate sensation was the breaking of many rules, which today are commonly broken. To start, Tarantino includes a lot of dialogue that does not further the plot. The earliest and best example is when Jackson and Travolta are discussing whether a foot massage is sexy or not. They arrive at the door where they need to be, but are early, so walk down the hall and continue the discussion. In any screenwriting book or class in the world he would have been told to cut this, as the digression is purely for amusement only.
The non-chronological stuff was not new, but bookending the film, which is two and a half hours, with characters that otherwise do not appear in the film, is also audacious. The opening scene has two crooks (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) make sweet talk before they pull out guns at a coffee shop. They are then forgotten for the entire movie, only to re-appear at the end. I’m sure a huge number of audience members at that moment went, “Oh yeah, I forgot about them!” and were delighted by the trick.
Tarantino also employs little moments of flair throughout, usually only once, like having Uma Thurman make a “square” symbol with her hands, and a graphic appears on the screen, or having a title card read “Nine minutes fifty-seven seconds later” after Harvey Keitel tells someone he’ll be there in ten minutes. Or the delicious moment when Willis chooses a weapon. First he has a hammer, then a bat, then a chainsaw, and finally a Samurai sword. I read on Wikipedia that each was an homage to another film: hammer for The Toolbox Murders; baseball bat, Walking Tall (or The Untouchables); chainsaw, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; and the sword, any of several Kurosawa films. Two weapons, or even three, would have delivered the gag, but Tarantino, like Spinal Tap, turned it up to 11.
If Pulp Fiction is about anything, it’s about American culture drowning in pop culture. While the film makes many references to other films–the scene at Jack Rabbit Slim’s is the epicenter–it has in turn becomes it’s own factory of iconic moments, such as the “royale with cheese” dialogue, the dance between Travolta and Thurman, the insanely funny monologue by Christopher Walken, the even insaner scene with Willis, Ving Rhames, and the hillbilly sodomites in the back of the pawn shop, where The Gimp appears, and Jackson’s recitation, three times, of the Biblical passage from Ezekiel, or Travolta stabbing Thurman in the chest with a hypodermic, all becoming part of our collective consciousness.
The movie also is like a giant puzzle. First, you have to keep straight the elements. For example, it took me a few viewings to realize that it was probably Willis who, after Travolta calls him a “palooka,” keys Travolta’s Malibu. We’re left wondering what kind of party Winston Wolf (Keitel) was at, wearing a dinner jacket at eight o’clock in the morning. Or even the time period of the film itself–it’s clearly contemporary, given the cell phones, but Tarantino sets it in a world where there are no generic brands. We get cabs that look like they’re from the ’40s, cereal like Fruit Brute that no longer exists, and he even makes up brands entirely, like Red Apple cigarettes.
The use of music is one of Tarantino’s greatest strengths, as he has a vast jukebox in his head. Pulp Fiction is full of surf-rock, starting with Dick Dale’s “Misirlou,” (how can anyone hear that and not be forced to the edge of their seat) which then transitions, as if a radio dial is being turned, to “Jungle Boogie” by Kool and the Gang. But there’s also such oddball inclusions as “Flowers on the Wall,” by the Statler Brothers and “Son of a Preacher Man,” by Dusty Springfield. None of them seem out of place, as if they were written for the occasion.
The film does have missteps. It’s not exactly a triumph for female characters. Thurman fares better as the vampish Mia Wallace, and she excels in the Jack Rabbit Slim’s scene, but Marie de Madeiros, as Willis’ simpering French girlfriend, is an embarrassment. Her bubbling over blueberry pancakes and pot bellies is surely Tarantino’s wish fulfillment, but man, I love that shot when she is reflected in the television screen as a war movie is going on.
And, given his usual self-indulgence, Tarantino giving himself a part as Jimmy is pushing it. He’s not terrible, but he took away a role from a million guys better, and then he repeatedly uses the n-word, which is, in itself, not unique in this film, but his repeated use of it seems like he’s rubbing our noses in it. When Samuel L. Jackson says the word, it has a ring to it. I believe Travolta’s character does not use it.
Watching this film is like eating in a favorite restaurant, for when it’s over you kind of pat your stomach and burp in contentment. It’s therefore fitting that the best scenes are in restaurants or about food–“Royale with cheese,” Jack Rabbit Slim’s (“The Five-Dollar Shake”) or the coffee shop, when Travolta and Jackson discuss the merits of eating pork (I die every time Jackson says, “It would have be one charming motherfucking pig, a lot more than Arnold on Green Acres“).
Pulp Fiction is an American classic, just like the Corvette or The Beach Boys or Andy Warhol’s soup cans. The imitators may have tried to drag it down, but it remains nonpareil.