CINEMA CLASSICS: Pulp Fiction (1994)

Aldo Raine was wrong. This is Tarantino’s masterpiece.

Who made it?: Quentin Tarantino (Director/Writer), Lawrence Bender (Producer), A Band Apart/Jersey Films/Miramax Films.

Who’s in it?: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Eric Stoltz, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames.

Tagline: “You won’t know the facts until you’ve seen the fiction.”

IMDb rating: 8.9/10 (Top 250 #7).

Pulp Fiction is a true celebration of cinema. It is the outcome of a mind who saw The Wild Bunch as a child, and one who worked as an usher at a porno theatre when he was sixteen. Quentin Tarantino has never lived for anything but film, and his second feature is well and truly the work of an ex-video rental clerk who spent his time going through the shelves. He can’t help but fill-out his films with reminders of pictures past and present. If cinema pastiche can be qualified as a genre, then Pulp Fiction is the number one entry. It also firmly added the term “Tarantino-esque” to the critical lexicon; though it is a very cine-literature work with allusions as far-reaching as Dashiell Hammett and the French New Wave, it is very much the logical progression of 1992’s Reservoir Dogs.

Both films open in sun-drenched LA coffee shops with shady individuals, although rather than a group of sharply-dressed hoods, we find a couple. Thieves “Honey Bunny” (Amanda Plummer) and “Pumpkin” (Tim Roth) are in love and clearly bad news. They are an archetypal Tarantino creation; his scripts for True Romance and Natural Born Killers focused on a similar partnership. The dialogue fires and the seeds are sewn for a labyrinthine narrative of interconnected stories. (Listen carefully in the opening scene, and you’ll hear the distinctive tones of Samuel L. Jackson.) It already seems like a riff on his debut. But rather than tip the waitress and saunter out into the car park to a rocking golden oldie, Honey Bunny and Pumpkin proceed to stick up the joint. Tarantino is honing his auteurist notions as well as playing with our expectations. Following a wave of foul language, the titles kick-in to the sound of Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” and his gift as a filmmaker is immortalised.

Though he has attained his fair share of detractors in the last twenty years, there is little doubt in my mind that Pulp Fiction is a masterpiece. It moves like a dream. Pulp is two-and-a-half hours long but no one ever calls it slow. Dialogue and music power the film, not the plot(s). It’s all there in our introduction to hitmen Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Jackson). The oft-quoted “Royale with cheese” conversation still works because it informs us about the characters. We know these people before they unload their pistols on the pitiful Brett (an uncredited Frank Whaley). There’s some plot talk, sure, but mostly they’re just Average Joes doing a job. Hitmen are stock roles we’ve seen many times in Hollywood gangster films, but that knowing dialogue gives them an extra dimension. They’re culturally aware, and while you could argue that Quentin’s “natural” scripting is a little larger-than-life, it sounds right coming from Jackson and Travolta. Has anyone ever delivered his verbal sparring better?

Another thing that makes it a stylistic progression is the non-linear narrative. It was there in Reservoir Dogs but Pulp is his definitive use of the form. Like all of his films, there are vignettes or “chapters.” Q.T. has always been quick to point-out that his work shares a kinship with novels, and you can clearly see the ties to hard-boiled literature throughout. His work isn’t composed of flashbacks, as many wrongly call them; these chapters are a way of telling the story so that it makes the biggest possible impact. There’s a lot about Pulp Fiction that is conventional, and the fractured sequencing of events had been done long before it (see Citizen Kane or Rashomon), but no one uses a non-linear structure as well as Tarantino. It embellishes the shopworn Noir elements, and allows the film to be free in the choices it makes and to get as unpredictable as possible. This is a film where the coke-snorting “femme fatale,” Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), refers to fellow addict Vincent as a square, only for the shape to magically appear on-screen. A film where the characters go to a 50s-themed restaurant and dance the batusi to land a trophy. A film that uses old-fashioned rear-projection shots in driving scenes just because it can. Pulp Fiction is a Godardian romp and it’s difficult to imagine why some stuffy critics got so hung-up on the bloodshed.

Importantly, for Daily Mail readers at least, Pulp is a violent film. A promise from any of the director’s movies it seems. But after almost two decades of upping the ante, this classic seems somewhat restrained. Tarantino’s zeal as a craftsman makes every moment hit hard, although some will be surprised at how much is implied on revisits. Brett’s death on the first go-around is composed only of close-ups of Vincent and Jules as they fire their weapons. Or what about the infamous incident with Marvin (Phil LaMarr)? The perpetually-unlucky Vincent accidentally blows the poor bastard’s head clean off, but we don’t get a clear shot of the bullet entering his skull, just the Manga-level spray of blood that splatters the car windshield. It’s too over-the-top to be taken seriously. Imagine that scene playing out in the Kill Bill films and you can see how refined Pulp Fiction is and how much further the director has taken his Gonzo style over the intervening years.

Also look at the scene in which Vincent finds the OD’ing Mia on her living room floor. Due to a crafty bit of exposition early on, she has confused Vincent’s “Bava” heroin for cocaine. She’s his boss’s wife and Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) wouldn’t let Vince off the hook for that (we already know what he did to that Samoan for merely touching his wife’s feet). In a shining example of Tarantino’s ability to mix humour with pathos, the terrified hitman speeds her over to his dealer’s for a shot of adrenaline. Lance (a great Eric Stoltz) can only scream and shout with his wife, Jody (Rosanna Arquette), as they argue over who gets to plunge the needle into Mia’s heart. It’s still hilarious, although Q.T. builds the tension like a seasoned pro. Due to the late Sally Menke’s fantastic editing, we think we see the moment of penetration but we don’t. No matter how many times I see it, it still has the desired effect.

Such moments have branded the film as sadistic viewing, but Pulp Fiction is a very redemptive picture that offers hope to these despicable characters. The story following Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) is proof that Tarantino wanted to do more than line the film with shock content. On orders from Mr. Wallace, Butch was meant to go down during a fight but actually killed his opponent. When the big man finally catches up with Coolidge, the pair are inadvertently held captive by a crooked cop and a gimp, in what can safely be called a tribute to Deliverance. Butch gains the upper-hand and a chance to escape, but instead of leaving Marsellus to a grim demise, he does the right thing and saves his life. This shot at redemption is also shared by Jules, who, after a bout of “divine intervention,” decides to quit his life as a crime enforcer. Vincent dismisses his conclusion and ultimately pays the price. Who said Tarantino isn’t a moral filmmaker?

What’s left but to comment on the absolutely stellar acting, the peerless scripting, the perfect soundtrack selections, and the sheer cinematic joy in every shot? If you’re like me, you know Pulp Fiction like the back of your gold watch. Simply timeless.

Best Scene

How about all of them?

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The passage from the Bible that Jules has memorised (Ezekiel 25:17) was mostly made up by Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson. The only part that’s similar to what the Bible says is the part where he says, “And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger. And you will know My name is the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon thee.” However, the parts about the righteous man and the shepherd are not real. The speech was originally written for Harvey Keitel’s character in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996).
  • Roger Avary’s story credit stems from the incorporation of his short film script for “Pandemonium Reigns” forming a core element of Tarantino’s screenplay. Avary’s input can largely be found in the Butch/Fabienne scenes. He nevertheless shared the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay with Q.T.
  • The shot of Vincent plunging the syringe into Mia’s chest was filmed by having John Travolta pull the needle out, then running the film backwards.
  • Knoxville, Tennessee, where Butch was meeting his connection and where his great-grandfather bought the watch, is also Tarantino’s birthplace.
  • The director hesitated over the choice between the character he was going to play: Jimmie or Lance. He ended up choosing Jimmie’s role because he wanted to be behind the camera in Mia’s overdose scene.
  • Tarantino was quoted as saying that Butch is the one responsible for keying Vincent’s car after he mocked him in an earlier scene.
  • The movie cost $8 million to make, $5 million of which went to pay the actors’ salaries.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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