Pulp Fiction Turns Twenty

by wombatony

Pulp Fiction just turned twenty. Wow, right after I turned forty. What are the odds? I wonder what Pulp Fiction was doing when I turned twenty.

I don’t know, but I bet I know what Quentin Tarantino and John Travolta were doing nine months before I turned twenty. Bow-Chicka-Bow-Bow!

They were probably filming a movie. Get your mind out of the gutter.

So happy birthday, with sugar on top. Now go clean the fucking car.

It’s hard for me to classify Pulp Fiction now. For a while, it was one of my favorite movies. I still think it was a game-changer in Hollywood. But I don’t know if it’s stood up to the test of time. I can’t remember the last time I’ve thought “I need to watch that movie again soon.” Part of this, I’m sure, is because so many other movies have copied elements of it, and maybe even done them better. The Matrix falls into this trap a little bit, but oddly, I don’t believe Airplane! does. The other reason it might have lost some appeal is because Quentin Tarantino might just be a one-trick pony. Why bother watching Pulp Fiction when you can check out Inglourious Basterds?

But I don’t want the film’s current status to sully how revolutionary it was at the time.

I was in college at the time, and I don’t remember if there was much buzz about the movie prior to its release. I’ve never been much of a movie aficionado, so if it didn’t have the blockbuster appeal of a Jurassic Park, I wouldn’t have known it was coming. But Pulp Fiction grew like a word-of-mouth slow burn. It feels like I overheard rumblings of this new movie, and a few outright questions if I had seen it or heard of it.

“No, what’s it about?” I would ask.

“It’s hard to, it’s just… Did you see Reservoir Dogs?” was the usual response.

“Never heard of it.”

“Oh, you should definitely go see it. Then rent Reservoir Dogs.”

(Thankfully before seeing Reservoir Dogs. I don’t know if I would have proceeded, or gone in with an open mind, had I already seen the ear cutting scene. It’s now been nineteen and a half years, I suppose, since I first saw it, and I still can’t hear “Stuck in the Middle with You” without cringing.)

I don’t know if these conversations were happening outside of college towns, but I guess they must have been or the twentieth anniversary wouldn’t make the news. It also seems that these conversations were not happening in October. Maybe closer to December or even 1995. Was this movie intended as more of a cult hit but then hit the mainstream? Was it a movie that was added to more theaters as it went along? I’m sure if I were less lazy, I could find out how many screens it was on by month.  But why do that when I can rely on spotty 20-year old memories? Crap, how did “buzz” happen before YouTube?

Truthfully, I don’t remember my exact reaction when I first saw the movie. Obviously, I loved it or I wouldn’t have gone on to see it maybe a hundred times or more in the ensuing twenty years. But it’s hard to extract my thoughts after just one viewing. How many of the scenes stuck with me? Was I confused by the reappearance of John Travolta after he had already died?

But I assume the things that jumped out at me were the same things that set it apart from so much that had come before. The pace, the dialogue, the adrenaline.

Others might say “the violence,” but I’ve always maintained that Pulp Fiction is not nearly as violent as it is given credit for. There are only a handful of deaths. The two guys in the opening scene. Then their friend Marvin. John Travolta’s character dies, but then is brought back due to non-linear storytelling. Zed and Maynard, but let’s be honest, Zed and Maynard had it coming. Plus we’re not entirely sure that Zed’s dead, Butch’s assertion notwithstanding. Only that Marcellus was about to go “Medieval on his ass.” Hard to believe that’s a phrase that did not exist twenty-one years ago.

Am I missing anyone besides those six? I don’t think I am. A few others get shot, my favorite of which was the woman who got shot in the thigh by a dazed Marcellus when she’s helping Butch after the car crash. The reason I love that particular scene is the same reason I think the movie gets credit for being way more violent than it is. The violence in Pulp Fiction is presented in a way to which we were unaccustomed in movies twenty years ago.

A person being shot, or especially killed, in a movie was supposed to be a serious, somber occurrence. Take a movie like The Godfather, a very violent movie. Almost every death in that movie is shown with a heightened sense of tension. When Sonny drives up to the toll booth and all the windows shut, the audience gasps. In war movies or life on the street movies, death is shown as the inevitable end to the unjust  struggle that is life in a pointless world. Even in campy horror movies, they are built up, a steady stream of “Ch-ch-ch, hu-hu-hu” building to a crescendo with the violin in the background. And after each death in these movies, the audience and, often, the characters are given a moment to reflect.

To contrast, when Martin dies in the back seat of the car, Vincent argues with Jules over whether or not he hit a bump. The aforementioned woman helping Butch just screams, clutches her leg and is quickly forgotten. The first murder happens when Brad is bumbling through an answer, so Jules shoots his friend lying on the couch, then quips “Oh, I’m sorry, did I break your concentration?”

So death doesn’t matter. Characters don’t even break stride when violence occurs. Even worse, the violence is often followed up with humor. We are not supposed to laugh at people being shot or killed. So when we leave Pulp Fiction, we talk about how the woman being shot was so funny. Or how awesome the “Dead N—– Storage” conversation was. And how cool it was that when Butch put the chainsaw down and grabbed the sword. This all makes us think it must have been a more violent movie than it really was – why would we be talking with such frivolity and enthusiasm about the death scenes?

Unfortunately, I think even Quentin Tarantino fell prey to the hype about how violent his movies are. While his first two movies use it sparingly, yet powerfully, it seems most of his later movies use violence (and the N word) as their focal point. The first Kill Bill is little more than violence porn. In porn, the plot is pointless, just a few minutes of dialogue to set up another twenty minute sex scene. Replace the word “sex” with “fight” in the last sentence and you have Kill Bill, Vol. 1.

So discounting the violence, I think it’s the dialogue that sets Pulp Fiction apart. The pacing, the attitude, and the violence are all portrayed through the dialogue. Few movies are as instantly quotable. Oh sure, I can run off a litany of Airplane! or Monty Python and the Holy Grail lines at the drop of a hat. But I don’t often find myself in situations where I can naturally drop a line about swallows and coconuts into everyday conversation. But “Check out the big brain on Brad?” Oh yeah, that one I can use. Even something as simple as “Mmm, this IS a tasty burger,” said with the right inflection, can bring to mind one specific scene from one specific movie. And although I don’t know if I’ve ever said “I’m a mushroom-cloud-laying mother fucker, mother fucker,” I can certainly think of some situations where I could have. I remember when my roommate bought the first computer with Windows 95 – we spent hours cuing up the VHS tape to record all of these lines and more, assigning them to every ding and ping that the computer would let us.

Of course, all three of those lines are said by Samuel L. Jackson. I know the movie momentarily revitalized Travolta’s career, and put Tarantino on the map. But nobody’s career is as closely tied to Pulp Fiction as than man who created Mr. Jules Winnfield of Inglewood. Samuel L. Jackson defines badassery. When you heard he was going to be in a Star Wars movie, you thought, “Oh, there’s going to be a badass Jedi?” He even makes shilling for a credit card company kinda badass. I remember sitting through the Iron Man credits, talking with a fellow comic book guy about the “S.H.I.E.L.D.” reveal near the end, asking “I wonder who they should get to play Nick Fury?” Then the post-credit scene came on and we both nodded. “Yep, nailed it. Nobody but him.”

How impressive was it that a relatively unknown actor would steal the show against such names as Travolta, Willis, Walken, and Keitel? Today, that would surprise nobody, but in 1994, nobody knew who Samuel L. Jackson was. I’m sure he would have made a name for himself anyway. He’s too talented of an actor.  But I have to wonder if he would have carved quite the same niche if he had a different breakout role. Would we be living in a regrettable world without, shudder, motherfucking snakes on a motherfucking plane?

As the years have passed, though, I don’t know if Pulp Fiction stands up to the test of time.  Its impact is still noticeable, but that very impact has made it a bit more pedestrian by comparison.  You can find similar quick dialogue in pretty much any Aaron Sorkin script. Want that brazen mix of humor and action? Just watch any of those Samuel L. Jackson-led Marvel movies.

If the movie is on TV, I won’t necessarily sit through it. To me, this is the definition of a timeless movie. If Star Wars is on, I’m watching it. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is on? Put down the remote control. The Rock, which came out two years after Pulp Fiction, fits this description as well. In fact, there is very little that Pulp Fiction does well that is not one-upped by The Rock. Unfortunately, this includes Michael Bay becoming more of a “keep doing the same movie over and over” director than Tarantino could ever be.

But if I scroll through the channel guide and see Pulp Fiction, my first thought is not “Click!” but “what part of the movie is it?” If it’s the first twenty minutes, I’m probably changing the channel. If it’s near the end I might or might not tune in for the Bonnie Situation and the diner scene. But if it’s anywhere near the black hole of a middle that is the back-to-back Oral Pleasure/Cab Drive scene, forget it. And if I did tune it in to watch those early scenes, I’m going back to whatever else I was doing as soon as Uma Thurman gets the adrenaline shot in the heart.

Unless it’s the edited-for-TV version, because that is a whole nother level of unintentional entertainment. But that is a subject for another post.

So happy birthday, Pulp Fiction. Like most big birthdays, let’s focus more on the zany, brilliant days when you were setting the world on fire, and not on the bloated, middle-aged Al Bundy you have become. And the less you mention those kids, Django  and Jackie Brown, the better.

And to those of you who disagree with my assessment, allow me quote Jules… “I don’t remember asking you a goddamn thing.”

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