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Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.

Movie

Pulp Fiction
(1994)

 

From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video). It was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump. And, unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

Although, it was more Samuel L Jackson’s reaction to being pipped by Martin Landau that attracted the headlines at the time. How many remember that John Travolta and Uma Thurman were also nominated (only those who recall one-time-only Oscars host David Letterman’s mirthful but much-maligned Oprah-Uma joke)? 

Pulp Fiction’s main boast was that its most resounding element was rewarded – the screenplay – even if Tarantino would have to wait another eighteen years to scoop a solo Best Original Screenplay statuette (that pesky Roger Avary, muscling in on his glory). I tend to wonder, with hindsight, if Avary’s involvement/collaboration shouldn’t have been a regular thing; whatever Tarantino’s achievements since – and his movies have never been less than watchable (okay, excepting Death Proof) – the more successful he’s been, the more indulgent he has become. Pretty much everything he’s made since the millennium could have used someone standing over his shoulder, prodding him to cut this or pare down that.

On the other hand, it could just be that the decision to tell three different stories (well, two and a half) instilled its own natural economy. You can’t go too far in expanding the narrative of each or you’ll lose all sense of structure and form. Of which, Tarantino’s work here is masterfully deft. He makes it all look so easy, the clearest sign of a great talent (again, while I don’t think that faculty has diminished, he’s become flabbier and less willing to hone material as the years have gone on, and as the adulation has increased).

One of the first things one thinks of with the regard to the movie – besides the “Royale with Cheese” exchange and numerous other choice cuts of dialogue – is the playing with time frames. But it’s easy to forget how seamless these transitions feel (in contrast to TriStar’s objection, as related by Avery, that when the studio was initially courted to produce “It makes no sense. Someone’s dead and then they’re alive”). To boil it down to the essentials, the first hour is about Travolta, the second about Willis, and then after all that intensity, there’s the take-the-foot-off-the-gas epilogue. One might argue the latter is where the mistakes are made, but there are so few in Pulp Fiction, they cannot ultimately blight it, even when they stand out a little garishly.

A little garish being Tarantino the actor, then brazen and unrelenting in his performance ambitions, as Jimmie, of “Dead Nigger Storage” fame. The story goes that Steve Buscemi was earmarked for the role but couldn’t schedule it, and anyway, the director had his eye on that part or Lance (Eric Stolz).

So, in one respect, we dodged a bullet in not having the director intrude on one of the film’s very best sequences (nothing quite beats a first-time audience’s reaction to Mia’s resuscitation), and Stolz has never been better as the pally drug dealer who actually wants nothing to do with a client if they have anything heavier on their mind than the simple exchange of narcotics for cash.

What this means for The Bonnie Situation, though, the tail-end story, is that it’s simply breezily likeable rather than great. You can’t honestly credit Jules’ deference towards Jimmie, because it’s gangly geek Tarantino spewing racist epithets, and it makes no sense that the fearsome hitman should behave this way, just because he “knows him”. This is made even worse when Keitel’s Mr Wolf arrives and is similarly respectful towards his writer-director. The result is the air of unflattering ego-fanning, indulging someone who doesn’t realise they’re out of their league (which was always Tarantino’s problem as a performer, not that he can’t act).

So his presence serves to encourage the lightweight tone of the last sequence, which peaks with Vincent’s misfire. It doesn’t make it a bad thing, but it’s definitely less essential. I’ve also never been entirely convinced by Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer). Roth and Plummer are fine (Plummer’s particularly good at unhinged disintegration when Jules is talking her down), but they’re too manufactured to believe in as lovers. And crucially, I don’t find myself invested in their fates. Contrast that with the playfulness between Butch (Willis) and Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros), where they seem like a fully-fledged couple replete with foibles (albeit, her “like Madonna in Lucky Star” is only ever Tarantino dialogue sounding like Tarantino dialogue, rather than a believable character’s).

I’m hard-pressed, though, to find serious fault with the rest of Tarantino’s confection. Robert Rodriguez would later embrace noir pulp trappings wholesale with Sin City, with too much of Frank Miller’s crudity and exaggeration and too little to care about beyond that. Tarantino indulges himself – the movie environment of Jack Rabbit Slims – but the only time it’s truly at the expense of the content is through casting himself.

The protracted opening exchange between Jules and Vincent is the best kind of Tarantino indulgence, allowing divergence from topic to topic before bring it back round to its plot purpose. They segue from hamburgers to foot massage in a manner that presents the duo as likeable everyday joes sent on another humdrum job before pulling away the rug with Jules’ uncharted violence at their appointment, disposing of some hapless minor-league associates of Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) who have allegedly double-crossed him.

One might suggest this a slight stretch, as they seem entirely ill-equipped for any strategy whatsoever. But who knows what Tarantino’s backstory sketch was (how the unlikely lads even came to be retrieving Marcellus’ briefcase in the first place).

One might also suggest Jules’ flash of divine intervention could have benefited from a little more weight on his part, as it never takes on profound import, other than as a conversation piece and a means for Pumpkin and Honey Bunny to survive. I don’t have a sense of how truly life-changing it is for Jules, such that I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised, were it not for Vincent’s fate, if he hadn’t reconsidered his decision a few days’ later (alternatively, if not for his decision, sceptic Vincent would not have been sent to sort out Butch alone and so pay the price on the can; it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy).

It’s Tarantino’s modus operandi of seeing what happens when best laid plans go off the rails that makes the Mia Wallace date work so well. He fosters a leisurely, sense of real-time unfolding at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, secure in the knowledge of where events are heading and so lending the subsequent overdose the greater impact.

Likewise, with Butch and Marcellus ending up in the basement. It’s the last place we’d expect their conflict to take them (and not showing Bruce’s match – the obvious “feature attraction” – is akin to skipping the heist in Reservoir Dogs).

With hindsight, I don’t think Walken’s watch monologue is perhaps quite as indelible as it thinks it is, though; it’s too assured of its own impact, and Walken, great as he is, was already becoming (over?) familiar by this point in his ’90s second wind (Batman ReturnsTrue Romance). The same is true of Keitel coming back to the Tarantino-verse (and then reprising Mr Wolf in a series of insufferable adverts two decades later). But killing Travolta at the ninety-minute mark, only to “resurrect” him for The Bonnie Situation, is particularly audacious (it allows the audience to leave the movie on a high).

Tarantino was seen as a go-to-guy for career revitalisation due to Pulp Fiction. Albeit, that didn’t last very long when no one from Jackie Brown was similarly sprinkled with magic fairy dust. It’s interesting to revisit Pulp Fiction and see those then “old-timers” now looking so relatively young. Today’s Travolta is like an actor who’s career began with Pulp Fiction, rather than the kid who died a death around the time of The Experts and for whom Look Who’s Talking was a tragic epitaph to his former potential.

He garnered a good five years grace from Vincent Vega, though, of which only one role (Get Shorty) could be considered a great one. In that sense, the resulting respect paid was a flash in the pan. But he’s funny, playful, even bashful with Uma’s Mia. The moments where he seems genuinely amused, be it something Jules says or mistakenly insulting Stolz’s wife, are the kind of thing Tarantino can’t write, and why a star is so important.

Bruce meanwhile, had been making something of a habit of career self-sabotage, just about keeping his foot in the game despite a string of flops (Bonfire of the VanitiesHudson HawkStriking Distance). This and Last Boy Scout curiously identified him as playing “over the hill” types when he wasn’t yet forty, but he has that kind of face. Like Travolta, Pulp Fiction would carry him until the end of the decade, when The Sixth Sense opportunely came along (after that, well, the choices tend to speak for themselves).

Uma’s also granted a never-bettered role, but while Tarantino enabled her to graduate from ingenue parts (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues didn’t quite succeed in that respect), I’m not sure his obsessing over her feet and penning Kill Bill ultimately did her any favours; for all her posturing – or perhaps because of it – the Bride isn’t actually very interesting.

But it’s Samuel L Jackson who would be most intertwined with Tarantino’s career. Just a year before, he was surfacing in small roles in the likes of Jurassic Park and True Romance, his most notable turns courtesy of Spike Lee failing to break him out. After Pulp Fiction, the sky was the limit, even if he rather got typecast as shouty/angry (at least in part due to his own indiscriminate choices). So, like Travolta and Willis, his new-found cachet didn’t necessarily lead to great parts; how many are memorable? And Mace Windu and Nick Fury don’t count; even his subsequent Tarantino characters can’t compete with Jules. The counterpoint is that he’s always been in demand and never far from a high-profile role in a high-profile movie.

Despite nit-picks, Pulp Fiction still feels as fresh as it ever was. And despite a legion of imitators in subsequent years (a precious few, The Usual Suspects and Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead among them, can stand comfortably on their own two feet). It looks great, thanks to Andrzej Sekula’s rich cinematography and the lavish choice of film stock. The soundtrack is another gem, following the example set by Reservoir Dogs (Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon accompanying Mia’s OD is still most impactful choice) with equally idiosyncratic choices. But I don’t think Tarantino’s ever been as strong since.

A certain section of movie fandom extols him as an unparalleled genius, but each passing film only underlines that he makes what he makes because he thinks it’s uber-cool, rather than because he has anything to say (which there’s nothing wrong with per se; only if he or others are trying to make out that it’s otherwise). Jackie Brown never felt as essential as it should, a riff too far – at the time – on the crime genre. The Kill Bills started the tendency towards giving him too much rope. And if his most recent trio have been more cogent, they still don’t feel like films Tarantino needed to make, not in the way Pulp Fiction does. Of course, he’d have to make one charming motherfucking film to top Pulp Fiction, and it’s the rare director who doesn’t peak early. Even one planning to make just ten movies.

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