Directed Viewing: “Pulp Fiction” and the 90s Megaton

Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.

Continuing the adventures into the cinematic wonderland of Quentin Tarantino, I’m left with a really serious admittance coming into today’s movie: the last time I watched Pulp Fiction, I hated it. Not the first time, where it blew my mind (like I feel it does anyone who watches it at a certain age), nor in the subsequent times where I introduced it to various friends of mine. I’d quote lines, I still have a ‘Bad Mother Fucker’ wallet, and I never really denied its impact. I just fell out of love with it. The way you do with many things you fall for in your teenage years when you hit your mid-20s and everything you once loved seems kind of embarrassing.

So I was hesitant to revisit it, worried that I’d be left trying to explain why I hated what is undoubtedly still Tarantino’s most influential film (certainly not his masterpiece, but more on that in future weeks) and struggling to be the minority opinion on a much-loved film. Thankfully, the reality is that this revisit has become a real adventure in rediscovery, so I not only don’t have to be in that shitty position, but I have plenty to talk about. So let’s take a trip into Tarantino’s big, messy, ambitious nightmare of hard boiled surf noir.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

I ended up live tweeting a lot of my off-the-cuff impressions of Pulp Fiction during my rewatch, but around the time I compared it to Magnolia and Southland Tales people got upset. So let’s start there. At its core, when you untangle the chapter structure and the broken chronology and focus only on what happens, Pulp Fiction is another one of those giant sprawling day-in-the-life epics, the type of movie with a cast of dozens that is almost always about how coincidence links us all and can lead to profound cosmic moments in everyday reality if only we stop to consider them. Of course, all three of those movies do it differently, but ultimately I feel like they’re essentially the same film.

But from that comes Pulp Fiction‘s greatest strength: the depth of its cast and the breadth of its storytelling. From career redemptive turns like Travolta to relative unknowns getting a breakout shot like Ving Rhames to people at the height of their careers like Bruce Willis. And the story stretches into decades of crime and noir tropes to play freely and gleefully with conventions from dozens of films from old Hollywood and the French New Wave. Everything is fair game, and Tarantino kicked out of the limited confines of that single warehouse in Reservoir Dogsto say something bigger with all of LA turned into a timeless, heightened world of guns, suits, and pop culture.

And it’s that heightened world that Tarantino has never come out of after this movie that really sells the weirdness. Just take Butch’s story, which starts as a typical 1940s noir with a boxer who should have taken a dive instead killing his opponent and is now running from both the law and the gangsters he was employed by. It even starts with Butch in a cab, black and white cityscape that certainly isn’t LA projected behind the island of modernity in the car. When he gets to the hotel, his girlfriend is already hiding out, a French pixie that evokes a sort of living dream, rambling on about trivialities in a way that screams Godard and Truffaut, the kind of lover’s talk that grounded the quieter moments of French New Wave.

Nothing I can say can affect how timeless this image is now.

But Bruno is more Mike Hammer than Jean-Paul Belmondo, and blunders around his girlfriend like he doesn’t know quite how to relate to her earnestness, fixating instead on the Golden Watch that was set up earlier as this movie’s third MacGuffin (the first two being the famous glowing briefcase, again evoking Kiss Me, Deadlyand the mysterious strife between Marsellus Wallace and Tony Rocky Horror [more on this in a second]), because items are easier to quest after than women. Which leads him back into the viper’s den, where he manages to not only kill the presumptive leading man up to this point (I still feel gut punched every time I see Vincent bite it like that, but again more on that later) but then runs afoul of Wallace himself. The shootout is short, brutal, and mostly done in handheld, a moment of crime that actually does feel savage and awful in the way Tarantino’s cartoon-gore rarely does.

But then, just when you think you have a handle on it, he pulls the rug out from under everything again, and suddenly Butch and Wallace find themselves at the mercy of a couple of redneck rapists who just happen to operate some sort of crazy sex dungeon underneath their otherwise normal (if weirdly confederate for LA) pawn shop. They’re quick to subject Wallace to sexual assault, leaving Bruno to not only fend off the weird monster/rape threat of the Gimp, but to decide to do the heroic thing—come back, katana in hand, and cut down these rapists and save the man who had been trying to kill him. Because while crime sometimes makes you enemies, even people who are trying to kill you don’t deserve rape. A moral we could all learn from.

But just think of the chutzpah required to even have this section jammed in the middle of two mostly conventional gangster/hitman stories, both with their own heroes who read much more likable than this loser we’re following through the middle. No wonder they cast the really famous guy, because without Willis’ star power backing him Butch would be hard to back. As it is, he’s still relatively indefensible, especially after the whole run in with Vincent.

I bet after that story he was really Walken funny. (I’m sorry.) ((No I’m not.))

Ah, Vincent, you sad bastard. Vincent’s story is the easiest to fall for, a cinematic romance that can never be, the drug addict burn out hit man who drifts back into LA from years away in Amsterdam only to end up in one dumb situation after another. Vincent is a hard luck case if there ever was one, the kind of guy who always makes the wrong choice and then has six excuses about what happened because of it. From denying the little miracle he and Jules discover (more on that later when we get to Jules, I promise), to the mess with Marvin and the brain matter, to even simple things like getting his car keyed because he mouthed off to Butch and getting chewed out by Harvey Keitel for whining like a petulant child: Vincent is lazier and dumber than almost all of us, and is thus impossible not to love just a little bit.

So when he’s thrust into the situation of having to care for Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman, in what is still probably her second most defining role after that other Tarantino project) one night, you just know he’s going to fuck it up. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when and how badly. You see, she’s the boss’ wife, and the boss has a reputation of being the kind of guy who doesn’t appreciate people even making subtle gestures of affection towards his bride. But Mia isn’t some gun moll, she reads as dangerously clever and deliberately aloof under a veneer of trophy wife, needling Vincent in all the ways that seem decidedly more (or less, depending on how you look at it) than friendly. It’s pretty obvious early on that she is toying with him, a long line of thugs she’s been chaperoned by who shift uncomfortably through a night.

Of course, all that is defused with the now timeless dance sequence, a bit of non sequitur fluff that manages to basically rip off two of Godard’s films (Vivre sa vie and Bandè a part) while putting it in a new, surrealistically kitsch context surrounded with the cloying overabundance of 50s Americana. Travolta himself, too, is something of a relic from a bygone era, a man who rose to super-stardom on dancing (certainly not the twist, but let’s not split hairs) and his inclusion in this scene is one of those cosmic harmony moments that remind you that sometimes the entire universe decides, on the rarest of occasions, to offer up a single perfect moment. How lucky we are that someone put that in a movie.

I like to think this was a random Hattori Hanzo sword. It seems to do the trick.

Either way, it goes a long way to diffuse the tension, and by the time the whole overdose happens these characters have suddenly had a night so full of good and bad times that you feel like their relationship is firmly established and far deeper than one very weird first date. When they part, exhausted and emotional and uncomfortable with their sudden closeness, you get the sense that maybe—and only unconsciously, or in their weakest moments—both of them regret the circumstances that are going to keep them apart. That they’re little more than cordial to each other the only other time they meet (in the periphery of Butch’s story) is just a twist of the emotional knife. We don’t want them to end up apart, only acting like nothing happened. We were there! We saw something happen, something magical. Their denying it bothers us because we know better. And that ultimately is the unfulfilling truth we end on, given Vincent’s fate.

Which leads us to Jules, and the mess with Marvin, and the miracle that Jules and Vincent experience. Ultimately, everything else is just leading up to this single point of revelation, the few hours of story we skipped early on in the movie. And here we learn that while Vincent was busy worrying about his upcoming date with Mia and getting his next fix, Jules was having a moment of revelation about their way of life and the fate they’d both suffer if they didn’t heed the warnings that god or the universe or karma or whatever were giving them. That survival instinct, that ability to try to piece things together, is totally absent in Vincent. But Jules is not just the tough one, he’s also the deep one. While he originally comes off as aloof and maybe a little showy compared to Vincent’s laid back likability  ultimately it’s Jules that discovers the lesson that it took Butch a whole adventure into hell and back to realize: sometimes life shows you a door, and if you don’t take it you’re an idiot and deserve what you get.

And ultimately it’s that door that he takes that leads them out of the situation in the diner, where things could go so horribly wrong. That moment, tense but still kind of stupid, is the ultimate powder keg in a movie full of them: Jules is a real bad guy, and these thieves are two bit suckers who barely know what they’re doing. The room for things to go bad when one of them jumps the gun is huge. And yet, Jules talks his way out of it, not only choosing the path of nonviolence but trying to instill in Tim Roth’s character just how difficult a choice that is and how deep and irrevocable that path is in someone’s life. Ultimately, then, the story of all the violence and tropes of Pulp Fiction isn’t one of the celebration of noir and crime drama, but an examination of how easy it is, and how difficult the other way of life is. Everyone who isn’t stumbling around racking up a body count seems to only have gotten there through dear sacrifice, and Jules wants a piece of that happy ending too. Given how things turn out for everyone else, who can blame him?

Jules and Vincent are cool guys. Not that you’d know it from this.

Either way, all of this is after the fact. There’s plenty to dig into even without the consideration of what is or isn’t meant by it all, because ultimately the movie plays fast and loose and is incredibly funny and exciting. And that’s something to take away, even past all of the critical considerations. It’s a movie that clips along fast through three whole separate stories, riffing on a world that is full of jokes and references that we’re allowed to sit in on but never fully get all of. From the visual quirks (Mia’s drawn rectangle, the constant rear projection, the flashing lights when Jules and Vincent unload on the guy in the apartment) to an assortment of lines that have entered popular lexicon or just manage to linger on the edge of thought like a particularly neat story someone told you once, Pulp Fiction is full of great bits. That it manages to hold together to create a whole is a miracle, but even if it didn’t it’d be worthy all on its own.

I suppose it’s only fair that I end this with some considerations on what a massive influence Pulp Fiction had and still has on movies today. While it wasn’t an independent movie, its low budget and small festival-launched distribution model have become an arthouse standard, while its critical appeal trickled down into independent film embracing genre in a way they hadn’t before. It’s hard to really grasp just how influential the movie was upon release if you weren’t around for it, but references to it continued on for years afterwards, and the movie became one of the first real cultural touchstones of the 90s. So few movies capture the zeitgeist in such a way, and honestly I’m not sure another movie did until The Matrix landed on the other end of the decade.

Not only did it make a whole lot of money, but it also inspired a whole bevy of imitators. The term Tarantino-esque entered the discussion nearly immediately, as people rushed to jam together genre and references haphazardly to try to recapture some of the pop culture spewing, violent, rough and ready film making aptitude that Tarantino brought to the scene. Some films managed to do so well (Desperado is a decent example, especially since we’ll be talking about Robert Rodriguez soon) and other movies managing to ape the style and get everything wrong (Sorry fans of Boondock Saints, I’m talking to you. You love a shitty movie). Directors as diverse as Edgar Wright, McG, Guy Ritchie, Joe Cornish, Tony Scott, both Paul Andersons and probably a half dozen more all have grown out of the post-Tarantino generation.

And all this on the back of a film that is ultimately just about some gangsters in LA over two fateful days.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
This entry was posted in directed viewing, Tarantino and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Directed Viewing: “Pulp Fiction” and the 90s Megaton

  1. clint says:

    Great writeup. You got a lot more out of the movie than I did philosophically — I always viewed the different plotlines as a sort of dramatic equivalent of Seinfeld. There are emotions and meaningful characterizations here, but the movie is so flippant in style that it’s easy to dismiss the substance. Stuff to think about.

  2. Pingback: Directed Viewing Redux: Race and the Meaning of “Django Unchained” | The No-Name Movie Blog

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