by Matt Levine
Twenty years after its original release, it’s nearly impossible to view Pulp Fiction on its own merits, as a self-contained entity. It’s easy enough to be thunderstruck by Quentin Tarantino’s ease with dialogue, his confident willingness to experiment structurally in only his second feature, and the sheer stylistic verve of this ultra-artificial concoction. But then, thoughts of overzealous film students proclaiming Pulp Fiction the greatest thing on earth—not to mention memories of the grating imitators it spawned (anyone remember 2 Days in the Valley?)—might rankle the sensibilities of film buffs who lament Tarantino’s pervasive influence on the industry. Yes, Pulp Fiction catalyzed the independent-film scene like a bolt of lightning and reached delirious, Möbius-strip heights of postmodernism—but whether or not that’s a good thing is another matter.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Producer: Lawrence Bender
Writers: Quentin Tarantino, Roger Avary
Cinematographer: Andrzej Sekula
Editor: Sally Menke
Cast: Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Phil LaMarr, Frank Whaley, Burr Steers, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames, Paul Calderon, Rosanna Arquette, Eric Stoltz, Uma Thurman, Christopher Walker, Maria de Medeiros, Duane Whitaker, Peter Greene, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel
Premiere: May 12, 1994 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 14, 1994
US Distributor: Miramax Films
Considering my ambivalent history with Pulp Fiction—from an awestruck 15-year-old in love with its shallow air of coolness to a stubborn college student who tried to argue that there were other, better American directors besides Tarantino—it’s somewhat refreshing to revisit the film. Returning to it again, one is struck by its breathtaking energy--Pulp Fiction works best as a hyperkinetic genre exercise, thrilling and wildly unpredictable, though not ultimately very substantial. Of course, the shuffled chronology disguises the simplicity of the storyline, though the audacious, logic-defying plot structure—in which dead characters reappear a moment later and we never know quite when we are—is integral to the film. In movies like Memento, the disordered chronology is a lame crutch to support a vacuous story—told linearly, Christopher Nolan’s film would amount to nothing but a puff of hot air. Pulp Fiction, on the other hand, is about cinematic storytelling—the images and styles and memories of a shared Movieland history that together form an eye-popping alternate reality. As Pulp Fiction plummets down the meta-textual rabbit hole, it’s only fitting that its time structure becomes warped along the way.
After an opening title card winkingly relates to us the definition of “pulp” (even citing the American Heritage Dictionary as a source), we find ourselves in a sun-drenched Los Angeles diner. Two British crooks, Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer), plot to rob the restaurant instead of the seedy liquor stores they’ve been targeting. They’re a foul-mouthed Bonnie and Clyde—Tarantino clearly sympathizes with their criminal iconoclasm, or at least admires their larger-than-life intensity. They draw their guns and scream the customers into submission, at which point Pulp Fiction leaps into its opening credits: a pop-art smattering of white and yellow text accompanied by Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” (the most sinister surf-rock song ever made).
The story skitters forwards and backwards from here. Two hitmen, Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), drive to a banal apartment complex to retrieve the briefcase of their employer, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), from a gang of doomed petty crooks. En route, Vincent and Jules memorably converse about McDonald’s in Paris (“Royale with Cheese” became part of the pop-culture lexicon in this scene) and the etiquette of giving another man’s wife a foot massage. As he often does, Tarantino balances lengthy, almost mundane dialogue scenes with explosive acts of violence, imagining the most visceral genre thrills taking place in a world that’s steeped in pop-culture artifacts. It can be a clever balancing act, but it also reaffirms the suspicion that Tarantino’s films are artificial to the point of vacuity, presenting themselves as merely mediated constructions with no connection to a reality outside of the movie theater.
After blasting away the inept crooks, Jules and Vincent retrieve Wallace’s mysterious briefcase—one of the great MacGuffins in all of cinema, with a combination of 666 and an ethereal golden glow that entrances anyone who opens it. (“What’s in Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase?” was a popular message-board topic in the burgeoning mid-90s sphere of online movie discussion.) Having evaded an unknown gunman’s fire, Jules is convinced that they’ve witnessed an act of divine intervention and sets about changing his violent ways—though not before Vincent accidentally blows the head off of another petty criminal in the back of Jules’ car (the weakest and vilest of Pulp Fiction’s storylines). There are several other interweaving stories which take place weeks or months or even years before or after: Vincent’s date with Marsellus’ wife, Mia (Uma Thurman), who mistakes his heroin for coke and nearly dies when she ODs (leading to the infamous adrenaline-syringe-to-the-heart-scene, an apt metaphor for the audience’s experience if ever there was one); or the plight of Butch (Bruce Willis), a boxer who fails to throw the fight as instructed by Marsellus, and whose path reconnects with Marsellus after they’re apprehended by hillbilly pawn-shop owners with a caged Gimp in the basement and disturbing sexual proclivities. What does it all mean? Do these intersecting stories amount to anything emotional or unique? Not exactly, though with Pulp Fiction, the journey is more important than the destination.
The episode with Butch and Marsellus in the pawn-shop basement is a perfectly ugly example of Pulp Fiction’s blunt inhumanity. Marsellus is raped by pretty-boy Zed (Peter Greene) while a sneering redneck named Maynard (Duane Whitaker) cheers him on; Butch escapes from his restraints, grabs a sword from the pawn shop, and slices up one of his captors. Marsellus avenges his rape by shooting Zed’s genitals with a shotgun and watching him writhe around in pain. This is the kind of juvenile, self-consciously shocking violence that mars later Tarantino films like Django Unchained: scenes of mutilation and murder don’t really mean anything since these characters are all empty prototypes anyway. The homophobia in Marsellus’ rape scene, especially when coupled with the film's embrace of virile men shooting and beating the shit out of each other, is a repugnant sign of Tarantino’s immaturity (at least as of 1994); even if he’s recreating tropes from his favorite sleazy exploitation movies, he must have been aware that you can’t recycle such stereotypes without retaining their noxious bigotry.
The brain-splattered end of poor Marvin is another unfortunate example of the film's off-handed cruelty. In the midst of an intriguing conversation in Jules’ car about the possibility of miracles and the strictures of morality, Vincent shoots Marvin in the face when the car goes over a bump. This might have been an interesting, pitch-black dissection of fate and coincidence, but it quickly becomes clear that the whole episode is an excuse for a grating comedic scenario at a suburban home in Toluca Lake. The home belongs to Jimmy, played by Quentin Tarantino with his usual smarmy dweebiness; his brief appearance allows him to say the word “nigger” about six times in the span of a minute. It’s all about provoking the audience, not to mention exuding an air of desperate hipness that allows Tarantino to emulate his blaxploitation idols: in this “post-racist” world, whitey can drop any number of N-bombs he wants—at least if it’s in the movies, and if he has a cool enough soundtrack from the fringes of American music to accompany him.
Aside from Jimmy’s abhorrent character and the fact that Marvin exists as nothing other than a black, headless corpse, the racial relationships in Pulp Fiction are one of its most interesting elements. The dialogue between Vincent and Jules flows so easily because they’re clearly good friends, even if that friendship often takes on a combative tone; and Butch and Marsellus, onetime nemeses, eventually band together and discover a new respect for each other. The racial inclusiveness shouldn’t be applauded too much—Vincent again denotes his figurative blackness by using black slang and diction, and Butch and Marsellus bond over their murderous disgust at the gay rapists that have abducted them—but the blurring of boundaries between white and black remains an interesting subtext, especially considering the movie was released less than a year after two LA police officers were found guilty of violently beating Rodney King. Pulp Fiction is both offensive in its embrace of so-called ghetto-speak (an issue that famously enraged Spike Lee) and idealistic in its vision of white and black characters whose races are irrelevant to each other.
Much of Pulp Fiction, in fact, is strangely bipolar: campy and serious, brightly-colored and dreary, nihilistic and ardent. Vincent’s death, for example, seems like a tossed-off afterthought: a series of coincidences allows Butch to wield Vincent’s machine gun against him, which throws the rest of Vincent’s scenes into a morbid light and seems to indicate the absurd futility of these characters’ actions. But if we’ve seen the movie before, perhaps we’ll remember the conversation between Jules and Vincent at that fateful diner—in which Jules quits the business having “found God,” while Vincent apparently plods along the same path until this meaningless destruction. The ironies and mournful coincidences are here—they’re simply shrouded by Tarantino’s all-consuming desire to appear flippant and provocative.
Considering Pulp Fiction went on to redefine production and distribution at the independent level—though American indies had been strong since the late ‘80s, this was the first time a wide-released independent film grossed hundreds of millions of dollars—it’s interesting to note the film’s rather modest initiation. Tarantino and his co-writer Roger Avary simply concocted a trio of stories in homage to the Black Mask crime fiction of the 1950s, throwing in a litany of cinematic allusions to boot. That such a seemingly impulsive lark could go on to revamp the industry and influence cinematic style for decades afterwards is a sign of Tarantino’s agile writing, narrative ingenuity, and visual exuberance. Of course the talent of his collaborators should be mentioned: Andrzej Sekula’s bright, pink-yellow-blue cinematography, which often seems to linger gracefully around the edges of reprehensible actions, vividly reaffirms Pulp Fiction as a meta-cinematic fantasy land, in which the weight of its pop-culture richness ultimately implodes on itself—the ultimate postmodern contraption.
So, twenty years later, what have we learned? Tarantino is still essentially playing the same game of wink-nudge artifice, though at least such cleverness took on human poignancy in Jackie Brown (far and away his best movie) and historical deconstruction in Inglourious Basterds. We can also be thankful that the slew of violent-funny, blatantly self-reflexive crime capers of the 1990s has abated somewhat. It may be true that no American independent film has arrived as explosively as Pulp Fiction did in 1994, though the film’s repeated appearance atop “Best Movies of All Time” lists seems unwarranted: the film is too willfully empty, too disinterested in human characters and a non-mediated reality to have much of a lingering impact. But let’s recognize Pulp Fiction for what it is: a breathtaking, captivating thrill ride, hurtling down a Memory Lane of forgotten surf-rock and cinematic pastiche with reckless abandon. It’s a nasty Fabergé egg of a movie—dazzling to behold but ultimately hollow.