PULP FICTION (1994)

  • Director: Quentin Tarantino
  • Writer: Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, Story by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary
  • Starring: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Maria de Medeiros, Ving Rhames, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, and Christopher Walken
  • Accolades: AFI Top 100 list (#94), 1994 Cannes International Film Festival – Palme d’Or, 1 Oscar (Best Original Screenplay), 6 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Quentin Tarantino, Best Actor – John Travolta, Best Supporting Actor – Samuel L. Jackson, Best Supporting Actress – Uma Thurman, Best Film Editing), 4 Independent Spirit Awards (Best Feature, Best Director – Quentin Tarantino, Best Actor – John Travolta, Best Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with Subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

I think there’s probably a lot of people who just sort of like going to the movies sometimes and watching them when they come on TNT, and are not like really into how movies get made and who is making them. That is obviously fine. Most of those people have probably seen or at least heard of Pulp Fiction, or know some of the lines or famous scenes. But they might not know the movie’s standing among people who (1) actually make movies and (2) are really super into the nuts and bolts of movies. It has quotes on its (very long) Wikipedia page that include “unquestionably the most influential movie of the 1990s,” “the Star Wars of independent movies,” “not since Citizen Kane has one man emerged from obscurity to so redefine the art of moviemaking,” and a “watershed moment” that “simultaneously resurrected John Travolta and film noir.” I’m not even sure I’d actually call this movie a film noir. One British film critic described a screening of five student thesis films at the British National Film Institute less than a year after Pulp Fiction’s release, in which he found that four of the five “incorporated violent shootouts over an iconoclastic 1970s soundtrack.”

Which is all to say, even if you haven’t watched Pulp Fiction over and over, for better or worse most of the people directing the movies you have watched have. While at the same time, I sort of wonder if someone coming to this movie for the first time 27 years after the fact may not feel slightly underwhelmed, or overhyped or some combination thereof. There also seems to be a school of thought more recently that this is sort of Quentin Tarantino’s first great movie but not actually his best (maybe Inglorious Basterds or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, depending on your preferences) or his most Tarantino-y (almost certainly Kill Bill). There are things to complain about. Bob Dole called it a “nightmarish depiction of depravity,” then admitted he hadn’t actually seen it. I have, several times over the years, and I find a lot of the famous dialogue a bit… odd, I suppose? I have seen all the Tarantino movies, and I think I enjoyed all of them to varying degrees, some of them I loved, but in Pulp Fiction he doesn’t quite feel like he’s mastered it the way he would in some of those later movies. All of that said, I mean almost all of this movie is pretty great, and I would say undeniable.

Certainly Tarantino movies are generally violent, but these days, perhaps because of his general influence to some degree, they don’t feel more violent than anything else for the most part. I think for people who are really into Tarantino movies, what really defines them are a few other things (1) the way they play around with their own structure, (2) the post-modern way it exists in its own movie world, and (3) that dialogue, which tends to happen in these long speeches that most movies would not have time for. Tarantino may do gunfights sometimes, but it’s the dialogue that creates suspense. We the viewers know things, or we don’t know things, and the characters are sitting here talking around whatever point they’re trying to make. In the movie’s first full sequence, we watch John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson drive somewhere, walk up a bunch of stairs, come to a door, decide not to through the door yet. The whole time they talk about what they call Quarter Pounders at McDonald’s in France and whether giving a woman a foot massage is “in the same ballpark” as going down on her, and then they walk into the apartment, guns drawn, and it becomes clear violence is imminent. Even then, however, Jackson has to take a bite of a guy’s burger and expound at length about how good of a burger it is, and how his wife’s a vegetarian, and then quote a full passage from Ezekiel, at the end of which he finally shoots the guy in the head.

Pulp Fiction is not told in order, but it may be an hour plus into the movie before the casual viewer recognizes that fact, one of the many ways this movie was influential. There are basically three long stories with a couple of shorter ones. In one Travolta, playing a hitman named Vincent Vega, is told to entertain the wife (Uma Thurman) of the scary crime boss he works for (Ving Rhames). He is worried about what will happen to him if he is seen as being too familiar with her, but those worries take a backseat after she overdoses on heroin and he ends up having to stab her in the chest with an adrenaline needle to save her life. The second story stars Bruce Willis as a boxer who agrees to throw a fight for Rhames’ crime boss, but then bets on himself and wins. His plan is to skip town, but when he realizes his girlfriend (Maria de Medeiros) forgot his father’s watch back at their apartment, he has to risk his life to go back for it. This story does not end up where it starts out, let’s say. Then Jackson and Travolta accidentally shoot off a guy’s head in their car (as you do) and have to desperately call in what is now the quintessential debonair “Fixer” character (Harvey Keitel) to get them out of a literal sticky situation.

What this does not do is give you a sense of the way almost every scene of this movie is burned into movie fan brains these days. I could go through and just list different scenes that, through a combination of visuals, the soundtrack, and dialogue, are extremely memorable. I don’t know how productive that would be. It is worth remembering, however, that a bunch of studios read this script and turned it down. Eventually Miramax head, yes, Harvey Weinstein backed it, got financing together, and allowed Tarantino to make more or less the movie he had wanted. It was not his first feature (that would be Reservoir Dogs, which I actually might rather watch but is much smaller in scope), but its breakout status provided him both Tarantino and Weinstein unparalleled stature in Hollywood. In Weinstein’s case, this might have led to some pretty good movies, but also left a trail of abuse. Tarantino has since apologized to his actresses for not taking them seriously when they came to him about Weinstein’s behavior, for whatever that’s worth. Rosanna Arquette, who has a small-but-memorable role as the much-pierced wife of Travolta’s drug dealer (Eric Stoltz), claims her career basically ended after she refused to sleep with Weinstein during filming.

The other thing you’ll often hear discussed with this movie, at least among some segments of the critical world, is its copious use of the “N” word, to the extent that it can be kind of shocking to 2021 ears. And not just in a vaguely hip-hop-ish, Black people using it with each other sort of way, but also lots of times with white people using it to refuse to Black people. Today you will almost never hear this in a movie where the character using it is not supposed to be an awful racist. The most infamous scene in this regard, bizarrely, is given to Tarantino himself, who plays a friend of Jackson’s character who they go to for help after they accidentally shoot the guy. He gets a fairly gleeful speech that uses the word like five times to talk about the dead guy. Tarantino has frequently publicly discussed this issue and others with this movie (if there’s one thing he loves to do, it’s talk). He says that he went to school in LA with a lot of Black kids and that was just how they talked. It seems to me that he was in a group of people at some point where it was normal to talk this way and even today doesn’t quite have the social skills to realize that most people don’t. He’s always struck me as kind of a movie savant. This issue came back around again when his Django Unchained was setting new records for number of times the word was used in a movie, but at least in that case most of the time it’s being used by slave-owners who are supposed to be the villains. 

Anyway, Pulp Fiction is one of probably twenty movies I would say to watch if you really want to understand how movies got to where they are now, and of those twenty it is one of the most recent. So even if it does not become one of your favorites, I think it’s worth watching in that sense. Tarantino one of the great directors of the past thirty years, and even though one could argue he’s made both better and more representative movies, this is certainly the one that, a lot of the time, stands for the rest in the minds of movie fans. If you’ve never seen it and you like movies, check it out.

4 thoughts on “PULP FICTION (1994)

  1. Okay, how’s this for weird? Yesterday, I was asked to write a blog post on the Buffalo Bill dime novels I worked on that are archive on Project Gutenberg. This is the first line of my first draft: Thanks to movie director Quentin Tarantino, most folks are familiar with the term “pulp fiction,” but the more common “dime novel” was used to describe everything from the pulp magazines starting around 1860 to the “penny dreadfuls” popular in the United Kingdom, featuring such characters as Sweeney Todd and Varney the Vampire.

    Liked by 1 person

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