Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
Pulp Fiction‘s status in cinema history is rather overwhelming. It was almost unanimously hailed as the fulfillment of the potential this quirky new auteur, Quentin Tarantino, had shown in his first feature, Reservoir Dogs, and also, quite flatteringly, it was seen as the saviour of modern cinema. By liberating script writers from newly ingrained plot formulas, showing linear narrative is far from necessary and filming with a minimal budget independently, Pulp, it was argued, redefined the cinematic landscape, and as such was a masterpiece. Though time is the only way of making an objective judgement, it is undoubtedly the case that the initial viewers were right. After 16 years, Pulp still packs a punch, and definitely remains one of the most entertaining films ever made.
The plot is intricate in its depth. The main protagonists are Vincent (Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L.). They play two amateur (that is, employed; they’re far from unprofessional) gangsters, who spend the film relocating a briefcase containing an unknown item (a Hitchcockian MacGuffin) for their boss, Marcellus Wallace. Meanwhile, Marcellus is involved in fixing fights, and arranges for a boxer named Butch, played by Bruce Willis, to take a dive. Marcellus is the type of guy Jules and Vincent suspect of having thrown a man off a four-story building for giving his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) a foot massage. Speaking of whom, Vincent has to take Mia out to dinner whilst Marcellus is away. We are also introduced at the film’s beginning to a pair of foul-mouthed lover shoplifters, whom we return to at the end to take the film full circle. There’s also men called Zed, the Gimp, and the Wolf sprinkled across all of this. If it sounds messy, that’s because it is.
This is not to imply that Pulp is hard to follow; on the contrary, despite its hip non-linear editing style, and the flood of characters and events (some of which eventually intertwine, some of which don’t), the film is surprisingly coherent and intelligible. The mess is more to do with the situations the bones of this story produce. When Mia trips out on Vincent, he has to drive her to his dealer’s house and sort out an adrenalin shot to her heart so she snaps right out of it, petrified of her potential death and the fact that his would almost certainly follow if it materialised. When Butch kills his opponent, instead of letting him win, he stumbles across Marcellus the next day and a chase between them leads into a shop with a basement where they’re both strapped up by sadistic homosexuals and Marcellus is gagged and raped. Vincent’s gun accidentally goes off as him and Jules are driving down a freeway, blowing off their captive’s head and splattering blood all over the windows. They pull up at a nearby friend’s house, and ‘the Wolf’ that I previously mentioned (Harvey Keitel) turns up to solve the problem. It is all completely absurd and larger than life. Such things would never happen even amongst such people, even in a city like Los Angeles. But this is the point: Tarantino, Ebert says, is in love with movie making, and he’s right. The fact that anything can happen on the screen is always used to its maximum potential and not to represent reality, but to reflect a kind of fantasy of incidents and entertainment that we could only dream of occurring in the real world.
It is made even more quintessentially cinematic by the music, which mixes rock and roll, surf and soul. It brings every scene to life, especially the ones with Mia and Vincent. He arrives to pick her up to the sound of Dusty singing Son of A Preacher Man; they dance to Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell in the craziest American burger-joint you will ever see.
The greatest thing of all about Pulp Fiction, though, like all Tarantino films, is its dialogue. The exchanges are nothing short of hilarious, and never in real life would anyone be as witty as the characters we get to observe over the course of Pulp’s two and a half hours. Vincent and Jules’ banter is dynamite, and it’s especially amusing to hear their daily chitchat minutes before they enter a room ready to shoot people down. On their way to a job, they discuss Dutch law on hemp, the European metric system and its implications for hamburgers, Mia’s foot massage and whether such acts are in the same ballpark as oral sex, and the selection process for television shows. It’s random, it’s insane, but it’s also incredibly good fun.
In fact, Tarantino’s films are always far from boring, and Pulp Fiction is no exception. But it is also a stupendously good film, and embodies the primal element every movie should strive to contain: originality. I can say with conviction that Pulp undoubtedly has this in heaps.
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Tags: bruce willis, butch, chuck berry, dusty springfield, foot massage, harvey keitel, hemp, hitchcock, john travolta, jules, los angeles, macguffin, mia wallace, pulp fiction, quarter pounder, quentin tarantino, reservoir dogs, roger ebert, royal with cheese, samuel l jackson, son of a preacher man, the gimp, the wolf, uma thurman, vincent vega, you never can tell, zed