Uncomfortable Silences: Discussing ‘Pulp Fiction’ as it turns 21 years old.

Excuse the hyperbole that is sure to unfold in following paragraphs, for certain works of art are so ingrained in the modern cultural landscape that it becomes nearly impossible to discuss them without using terms like “greatest” and “classic”. In reality, there’s no greatest movie of all time. Cinema is both Citizen Kane and Jurassic World, both The Godfather and Billy Madison. But every so often a film comes around that is so undeniably influential and important to the medium as a whole that it becomes impossible to talk about it without throwing around accolades. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which turns twenty-one this week, is one of those films. If you’re tired of reading and hearing about Pulp Fiction, I get it. Your name’s Pitt, and you’re getting too old for this shit. So, stop now.

Everything about Pulp Fiction has become a cliché. That’s our fault, not Tarantino’s or anyone else’s involved with the movie. It’s arguably the most heavily quoted movie of all-time, and has become the typical favorite movie of teenagers who like cinema a little more than most of their friends. Discussing its greatness is a tired exercise, but it shouldn’t be. Pulp Fiction is more than just an entertaining movie with a nonlinear plotline. It did more than just reinvent John Travolta. It’s about more than that poster thousands of college freshman hang up in their first residence hall, the one with Uma Thurman seductively laying on a bed, pistol below her cleavage, the smoke from her Red Apple cigarette trickling up to the title.

I’d like to talk about some things in Pulp Fiction that I feel don’t get enough attention.

Part 1 – “Royale with cheese”

Pulp Fiction takes Europe by storm and changes INDEPENDENT film forever.

Shortly before the development of Pulp Fiction, Harvey Weinstein –a name now tantamount to both Oscar season and independent hits- brought the little known independent distributor Miramax under Disney’s wing. After a deal for the films script fell through with TriStar, Miramax stepped in (depending on who you ask the project scared TriStar either because of its sympathetic treatment of a heroin user or its need for A-list stars despite being a low budget film). Financing was set and once Bruce Willis signed on Miramax was able to tack an additional $3 million onto the budget due to his box-office draw. Then, they made the damn movie.

Pulp Fiction first showed itself to the world at the Cannes Film Festival, where it ultimately won the Palme d’Or, international cinema’s most prestigious feature film prize. The stories from the festival are legendary. Weinstein knew what he had on his hands, and brought the entire cast of the film out to the beaches of Southern France to party and promote the film. Instead of following this buzz up with immediate domestic distribution, Weinstein and Tarantino toured Europe for months screening Pulp Fiction at a litany of festivals and for important tastemakers at the time. The word-of-mouth was everywhere. British critic Jon Ronson famously wrote, “Not since Citizen Kane has one man appeared from relative obscurity to redefine the art of moviemaking”.

QT, Bruce Willis, and Maria de Medeiros at the '94 Cannes Film Festival
QT, Bruce Willis, and Maria de Medeiros at the ’94 Cannes Film Festival

After a final festival screening in New York, Pulp Fiction opened wide and debuted at #1 despite being shown on only half as many screens as the #2 movie (Sly Stallone’s The Specialist). There are too many box office accolades for the film to list them all, but please make note that Pulp Fiction was the first at least partially-independent film to gross $100 million.

Now, an acclaimed independent film making the rounds overseas before a U.S. release and awards season push by a semi-independent distributor (Fox Searchlight, The Weintsein Co., Focus Features) seems like clockwork. Pulp Fiction laid the groundwork for this. It proved that independent films could make big bucks, and showed A-list actors that cushioning their studio projects with smaller films was a great career strategy. Speaking of which…

Part 2 – “I’m American, honey. Our names don’t mean shit”

International superstar bruce willis takes a “pay cut” to do Pulp fiction.

Pulp Fiction launched Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman to Hollywood’s A-list. It revitalized John Travolta’s career. It provide a vehicle for gifted character actors such as Harvey Keitel and Eric Stoltz to turn in career-best work. But the most interesting, and important, piece of casting for Pulp Fiction was that of Bruce Willis as boxer/samurai sword aficionado Butch Coolidge.

Willis was certainly the biggest name to join the cast. His stock had a taken a slight hit (it had been four years since his last Die Hard movie), but he was still a legitimate movie star. Willis took a significant pay cut and, in the 90’s, a movie star doing a small film was not the norm; it was seen as a huge risk. Like most movie star contracts, Willis was promised gross points on the back end, so when Pulp Fiction made more money than anyone thought possible, he made back his quote and then some. But this was not a guarantee. As recently as twenty-one years ago, big time movie stars rarely did these types of films. Now, nearly all A-list actors in their primes balance out big studio projects and smaller, prestige films.

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There’s also something to be said for what Pulp Fiction did for Willis’ reputation as a dramatic actor. To that point, he was seen as little more than an action star. He looked badass in a wife beater, seemed natural with a gun in his hand, and was good at saying “fuck”. Of all the performances in Pulp Fiction (Travolta, Jackson, and Thurman were all nominated for Oscars) it’s Willis’ complex turn as Butch that resonates the most to me after all these years watching the film. Not only is his physique very important, but Willis does such a fine job capturing a wide array of emotions. His freakout when Fabienne forgets his father’s watch is probably the scariest moment in an otherwise detached film (though the overdose certainly has a case for this title). Willis shows a perfect mixture of nerves and confidence when going back to his apartment for the watch. And when his storyline concludes, is there another actor on the plant who could’ve made “Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead” any cooler?

Nearly every moment in Pulp Fiction is now iconic, but thanks to Willis’ performance, it’s the ones with Butch that stand out. IN. MY. OPINION.

Part 3 – “I’m the foot fuckin’ master”

Pulp Fiction as the crowning achievement of American postmodernist cinema.

Postmodernism is a term much easier to define when applied to architecture or literature than with film. A loose definition, based on what I know and have read; postmodernism in film is an abandonment of all accepted structure and formula. Postmodernism in film draws influence from film itself rather than anything happening in the world, thus making intertextuality, specifically visual references, a key component. Stylistically, postmodernism in film is a combination of various styles therefore creating a new one. Postmodernism takes an amoral stance to nearly everything, giving it a unique tone that causes the viewer to constantly jump around the emotional spectrum.

Yada yada yada.

Doesn’t trying to give a concrete definition of postmodernism sort of contradict the very idea of postmodernism?

Anyways, Pulp Fiction breaks every rule you would find in a book about screenwriting or storytelling. Its narrative jumps around. It tells us stuff rather than show it to us (can you think of a more dialogue-driven film than those of Tarantino? Films adapted from plays don’t count, obviously). Pulp Fiction doesn’t care if you despise the people in it, as long as you recognize that they are people. We have no idea how many people Vincent and Jules have murdered, probably dozens, but when they casually discuss fast food and the hidden meaning of foot massages, they sound like regular-ass dudes.

In terms of visual panache, Pulp Fiction does everything it can to look like a movie you would’ve seen at a drive-in in the 50’s, or on a TV at Jack Rabbit Slim’s (one of the most impressive constructed sets ever, by the way). Tarantino and cinematographer Andrzej Sekula chose to shoot the film on 50 ASA stock, the slowest film stock still made at the time. This calls for much more manipulated light exposure in order to get a similar image density to what you would get on faster stock. The result, well, just take a look at the look of Pulp Fiction. It doesn’t look like a movie made in the 90’s. It doesn’t want to. While its narrative structure was something new, its appearance was anything but.

References, homages, and admitted influence are also something to consider with postmodernist film. While other filmmakers whom arguably fall under the postmodernist umbrella aren’t accused of “stealing” like Tarantino, they certainly use techniques, in a respectful way, of filmmakers they look up to. Sorry, but watch a Coen Bros or Spike Jonze or Paul Thomas Anderson film and try to tell me they aren’t every bit as influenced by their idols as Tarantino is. I’m already 1,500 words deep here, so I’m not going to go into every filmmaker whose work is subtly or not subtly noted by Pulp Fiction (I’ll go into one in great detail in the next section), but here are a few of the really famous ones.

  • Sergio Leone, obviously
  • Federico Fellini, obviously
  • French new wave master Jean-Luc Godard
  • Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry)
  • Italian horror auteur Mario Bava

Then you have the seemingly endless amount of pop culture references in the script. As Tarantino famously said describing his education, “I didn’t go to film school, I went to films”. Tarantino films play like something a crazed movie fan with no formal film experience would dream up, and that’s what makes them work so well for someone like me (and probably you too, if you’re still reading this).

Part 4 – My favorite shots/moments in Pulp Fiction, besides the obvious ones.

The “Marion Crane” Shot

Here is the visual reference I spoke of in the above section. It’s probably the most obvious one in Tarantino’s career, and you don’t have to be much of a movie buff to pick up on it. As Butch drives back to meet Fabienne after retrieving his father’s watch, everything appears to be going smoothly for the first time in the film. The windows are down and he’s singing along to The Statler Brothers’ “Flowers on the Wall”. But then he gets to a stoplight and sees Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), the crime boss who happens to be after him, crossing the street. Wallace looks at the car, then we cut to Butch’s unaware face…

And then back to the aforementioned shot of Wallace through the windshield…

Hmmmmmmmm……where have I seen this before?

Ummm….

Let me think….

Oh yeah, in Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho, only one of the most well-known movies ever made.

This is Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). She worked as a real estate secretary but decided to steal $40,000 from her boss and drive to California to meet up with her boyfriend. On here way out of town, she’s driving, and then…

OH SHIT. That’s Marion’s boss. Like Butch, she sees the last person in the world she wanted to see out her windshield when everything seemed to be working out in her favor.

I say, god damn!

Absolutely love this. Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) goes into the bathroom to “powder her nose” and the other ladies don’t seem to notice and/or care. I guess they were just really focused on their hair and makeup.

In the larger context of the movie, this is an important and eerie moment. Mia is clearly in love with the coco, and seeing as she’s married to a crime boss, she probably gets it for the low-low. So much so that she can’t make it through a meal without some. When she’s back at her apartment and Vincent is in the bathroom, she finds some drugs in Vincent’s pocket. Vincent’s drug of choice is smack but his dealer did not have any balloons so it was in a baggy. She snorts it, and overdoses (this was loosely based on the rumored cause of Jim Morrison’s fatal overdose).

A motif in Pulp Fiction that people love to discuss is the use of Vincent going into a bathroom as a bad omen. When Mia goes into the bathroom here, nothing bad immediately happens.

But mostly I just really love how Uma Thurman says “goddamn”.

“You an oak man?”

I fucking love Winston Wolfe. He’s the epitome of being calm, cool, and collected. Or maybe I just love Harvey Keitel. I’m not sure there’s an actor other than Samuel L. who sounds more natural saying Tarantino’s words. This scene in Pulp Fiction finds the Wolf trying to comfort Jimmy when he’s freaking about about his wife possibly coming home to a dead guy in his garage. And Jimmy doesn’t want to use all the nice linens for cleanup.

The Wolf calls him down, suggesting that Wallace may very well buy him an entire new bedroom set if things go well. The two talk interior design, and we learn Jimmy’s preference. This is a nice little character detail that most writers wouldn’t even bother with. I also love the framing in this humble guest bedroom. And that wallpaper, so awful.

The Wolf recognized what Jules and Vincent couldn’t, that Jimmy had a right to be pissed. After all, it’s not like he had a sign outside his garage that said “dead n***** storage”.

Well, I’ve wasted enough of your time. I hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts on a movie that everybody loves to share their thoughts about.

Enjoy the fall. Peace.

 

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