Pulp Fiction ****

Pulp Fiction ****

Starring: John Travolta, Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson 

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino 

Available to rent or buy from major digital providers

 

I’ve resisted writing about Pulp Fiction for a long time—over 20 years at this point. I don’t know that I can really write about it in any rational or logical manner. After all, it’s the movie that changed my life. The movie that defined me. I’d been a movie fan for years prior to seeing Pulp but after watching it, I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. Not only is it my favorite movie, but it's the most important movie of my life.

 

For all of the ways in which Pulp was revolutionary—dialogue, soundtrack, casting and more—the thing that really stuck out to me was that this could be a movie. While ostensibly being a crime film, Pulp Fiction is much more concerned with hanging out, with long discussions and with etiquette among criminals than with an overarching plot or the details of a crime. Writer and director Quentin Tarantino had already established his lack of interest in the actual details of crime with his first film Reservoir Dogs, which shows the lead up to and aftermath of a heist gone wrong without showing the actual heist. Instead, Tarantino dug into human behavior, into what makes his all too human characters tick, their foibles and beliefs.

 

In Pulp what makes people tick is any number of things—drugs, religion, the names of McDonald’s sandwiches in France and the intimacy of foot massages. These people might be criminals, or at least crime adjacent, but that doesn’t mean crime is the only thing on their minds. None of this furthers the plot either, serving rather to illuminate the characters and their idiosyncrasies. 

 

Take Jodie (Rosanna Arquette), the heavily pierced wife of drug dealer Lance (Eric Stoltz), who is introduced by making a detailed list of all of the places she’s had pierced on her body. None of this really advances the plot, but comes back with a vengeance later when Mia Wallace (Thurman) overdoses on heroin and is administered a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart by Lance. Jodie, the piercing fetishist, looks as though she has just seen the ultimate piercing.

 

Or Vincent (Travolta), just back from Amsterdam and eager to illuminate for his compatriots the intricacies of the metric system and Dutch views on marijuana. Witnessing what his partner in crime Jules (Jackson) considers to be a lifesaving miracle, Vincent is dismissive and scoffs at Jules' newfound desire to “walk the earth like Caine in Kung Fu.” This lack of belief will have dire consequences for Vincent along the film’s loopy narrative arc.

 

Jules, meanwhile, begins the film as an assassin brutally dispatching a group of men who have crossed his employer Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) and using Bible quotes to scare the men before their execution. He sees the miracle as a wake-up call. He can no longer go back to the life of crime he has been living and sees he must now take seriously the words he has so long been quoting.

 

However, this doesn’t serve as a simplistic “crime doesn’t pay,” “evil must be punished” narrative. Rather, Tarantino uses it to illustrate the complexity of people, to show their belief systems put to the test.

 

Above all, Pulp is a movie that loves movies and the cinematic form. From rear projection shots of Travolta driving at night to long tracking shots as characters converse and an array of allusions to other films (Zatoichi, Deliverance, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to name a few), as well as a litany of pop culture references (to Jayne Mansfield, trash TV and beyond). Playing with the form, Tarantino begins and ends the film at what should be the middle of the movie during a coffee shop robbery. This lines up thematically and emotionally for Jules, who has just witnessed what he considers a miracle and uses the opportunity of the robbery to impart his newfound wisdom on the robbers. The proper end to the film, the ordeal of boxer Butch (Bruce Willis), occupies roughly the middle third of the film. Butch, who has bet heavily on himself in a fight he was supposed to lose, plans to make off with a large amount of money and finds himself trapped in a nightmare scenario with Marcellus Wallace, the crime boss he ripped off. As well as structural details that play with the form, Tarantino employs split screens, overlapping dialogue, non-diegetic music and other details to form his world. The best of these is prior to Vincent and Mia’s dinner at the retro diner Jackrabbit Slim’s when, after telling Vincent not to be square, Mia draws a box with her fingers and a rectangle appears on the screen, which disappears with a little brush of her hand. This would break the fourth wall of most films, but merely serves as an affectation, a slight moment of unreality, in the world of Pulp Fiction.

 

I’ve been rambling on for nearly 900 words now and still haven’t been able to say exactly why I love Pulp Fiction. As a young film fan, Pulp hit me like a ton of bricks and opened up my film viewing world to a host of new ideas and influences. The dialogue still crackles with as much wit and humor as it did in 1994, with phrases like “get medieval on your a**” and “Royale with cheese”  immediately entering the cultural lexicon and Pulp would inspire a whole decade of cinema, with crime film after crime film seeking to imitate its mix of violence, humor and pop culture wit.

 

The film will celebrate its 30th birthday soon and it still inspires me with each viewing. Sometimes you just love something because you love it and there’s really no explaining why. Such is the case with my love of Pulp Fiction. It’s simply my all-time favorite film.