Friday, May 30, 2014

20 on 20: Pulp Fiction

On May 12, 1994, Pulp Fiction premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. This was the second film by Quentin Tarantino, who’d barnstormed his way into the public consciousness with Reservoir Dogs two years earlier. By the end of the fortnight, Pulp Fiction had garnered the first of several breathless reviews and the festival’s grand prize, the Palme d’Or. It’s gone on to become one of the classics of modern cinema – an ambitious patchwork of interconnected stories that messes with time and cinematic conventions. On its 20th anniversary, here are 20 reasons why Pulp Fiction is the greatest film since Pulp Fiction.

1. It reaffirmed the promise of Reservoir Dogs
Despite budgetary limitations, Reservoir Dogs was a swaggering, confident debut. Its success meant that Tarantino had a sizeable budget and the chance to cast major actors in his next project. The result was a film that aimed higher and wider, and hit nearly all its targets.

2. It was going to be Paul the Bartender and anyone but Travolta
Tarantino’s uncanny casting instincts played a big part in the film’s success. Paul Calderon, who ended up with a bit part as a bartender, was earmarked for the role of Jules Winnfield until Samuel L Jackson turned up and gave a scarily intense audition. Also, John Travolta was cast as Jules’ partner only after Tarantino overcame the strong objections of producer Harvey Weinstein.

3. Ezekiel 25:17
Hitman Jules has a habit of quoting from a Bible passage before he kills people. When we hear him read from Ezekiel 25:17 for the first time, the emphasis is on phrases like “furious anger” and “lay my vengeance upon you”. Yet, when he recites it in the closing scene, the delivery is rueful, and we notice “his brother’s keeper” and “shepherds the weak”. It sets up Jules’ ultimate decision to let Honeybunny and Pumpkin live – which is also the grace note on which the film ends.

4. It’s a mutated Cassevettes homage
Those riffs on pop culture and philosophy that go nowhere? Tarantino told Elvis Mitchell on his radio show The Treatment that the scene with the hitmen and the terrified kids they’ve come to collect from was him “trying to write one of [Cassevettes’] big improv-y set pieces”.

5. It’s got a crackling soundtrack
Like Scorsese, Tarantino mostly takes a jukebox approach to scoring his films. Pulp Fiction brought back old hits like Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man”, and immortalised Dick Dale’s “Misirlou”, the song that hurtles past in the opening credits.

6. It’s movie-mad
Before he became a writer-director, Tarantino worked a video store. And it’s a video store clerk’s sensibility that flows through all his films, the idea that that Antonioni and Argento may well be found on the same shelf. Pulp Fiction has a wealth of movie references, from French New Wave films like Alphaville and Jules and Jim to blaxploitation classics like Coffy and forgotten gems like The Warriors. My personal favourite is the scene where Butch is in the taxi and the rear projection is very obviously from an old black-and-white movie. It’s Murder, My Sweet, a 1944 adaptation of a novel by Raymond Chandler, the original king of pulp fiction.

7. It made twisted time games acceptable
After Pulp Fiction, it became okay for filmmakers to structure their films in tiny loops (Memento), giant loops (Irreversible), and generally mess with time and viewers’ heads. David Denby wrote as much in a March 2007 New Yorker piece, in which he argued that the modern trend of ‘disordered narratives’ – from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Babel – followed in the wake of Tarantino’s film.

8. Everyone’s welcome
Critic, regular moviegoer, snob, genre enthusiast, exploitation buff, film theorist: you could belong to any of these camps – or none of them – and still love Pulp Fiction.

9. Minutiae 
Unlike other ‘important’ movies, Pulp Fiction isn’t really bothered with weighty ideas like honour and freedom. What makes the movie special is its focus on the smaller stuff: TV pilots, foot massages, the metric system, potbellies, wristwatches, gourmet coffee...

10. It’s endlessly quotable
All Tarantino films are quotable, but Pulp Fiction is in a league of its own. You can tell how big a Pulp Fiction fan someone is by the relative obscurity of the quotes he or she favours. “You mind if I have some of your tasty beverage to wash this down?”: Run-of-the-mill fan. “That’s thirty minutes away. I’ll be there in ten”: Proper fan. “My name’s Paul and this shit’s between y’all”: Devotee.

11. It made Samuel L Jackson a star
Jackson had been an actor since the early ‘70s, but Pulp Fiction made him a star, setting him on the road to Shaft and his recurring roles in the Avengers and Star Wars movies.

12. It created a template for the new gangster film
Pulp Fiction casts such a long shadow over the modern gangster film that it’s difficult to separate the films that were simply inspired by it from those that wouldn’t exist without it. Still, without Tarantino’s film, we probably wouldn’t have Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, In Bruges, The Sopranos...

13. Gregory Peck may not have approved of the delivery method…
…but it’s customary for the boy to have his father’s watch.

14. It still makes people mad
Though there’s nothing as gratuitous as the ear-cutting scene from Reservoir Dogs, there’s still enough violence to get people jumpy about recommending Pulp Fiction. I also have a friend who can’t see past Jimmie’s “dead nigger storage” line – though I’d argue that this scene is an illustration of how badly Jules needs the obnoxious Jimmie’s help at that moment. (It’s also worth noting that Jimmie’s wife is African-American, and that the film’s cast is a Benetton ad of white, black, British, Portuguese and Hispanic actors).

15. The MacGuffin
The initial idea was to have a briefcase with diamonds, but Tarantino and his co-writer Roger Avary realised that it would be more interesting to leave the contents up to the viewer’s imagination. So we never actually find out what’s in the briefcase that Jules and Vincent are to deliver to Marsellus, only that it glows and renders anyone who looks at it momentarily speechless.

16. The twist
Uma Thurman and John Travolta’s dance at Jack Rabbit Slim’s is a goldmine of movie allusions. First, there’s the obvious reference to the white-bread teen movies of the ‘50s. Tarantino asked Thurman to imitate the famous ‘Madison’ sequence from Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part, as well as Duchess’ moves from the Disney movie The Aristocats. There’s also Travolta’s history as a dancing star from Grease and Saturday Night Fever.

17. Shot through the heart
If you’re Tarantino’s muse, you’re going to suffer. This has long been the fate of Tarantino heroines: from Alabama in True Romance to The Bride in Kill Bill. But the height of twisted romance is Mia Wallace overdosing in Pulp Fiction and being brought to life with an adrenaline shot to the heart.

18. The little studio that could
Miramax had scored with its 1992 release of Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape – made for $1.2 million, it grossed $24 million. Five years later, Pulp Fiction blew those numbers out of the water, netting a cool $100 million. Harvey Weinstein later referred to his company as “the house that Quentin built”.

19. Le Big Mac
It’s almost certainly the liveliest, least obviously arty film to win the Palme d’Or in the past 20 years.

20. Because Tarantino has never been as good since
Jackie Brown, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained all have their moments, but I’d trade them just for the “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife” segment from Pulp Fiction.

This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Dial L for Latin

Wrote this for GQ's March issue.

The late 1990s and early aughts were an exciting time for Latin American cinema. In Brazil, Walter Salles directed Central Station (1998) and The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), while Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund made City of God (2002). And in Mexico, the trio of Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón – ‘the three amigos of cinema’ – found their distinctive voices. Today, nearly all these directors have shifted to Hollywood, working on projects ranging from Gravity to Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. Their departure notwithstanding, the fertile Latin American market continues to yield new directorial talent. Here are three South American filmmakers likely to be on Hollywood wishlists soon.

Pablo Larraín

Pablo Larraín had already made two films about the Pinochet years (Tony Manero, 2008; Post Mortem, 2010) before he teamed up with actor Gael Garcia Bernal for No. Fittingly, for a film that completes a loose trilogy, No focuses on the 1988 plebiscite that marked the end of the Pinochet regime and the unlikely role that advertising men played in this success. Bernal is René Saavedra, an adman who gives members of the opposition party the same pitch he sells to a Cola company at the start of the film. Improbable as it may seem, the cheery, cheesy ‘No’ campaign helped the opposition win the plebiscite.

Since Larraín knew he’d be using the actual campaign ads, he took a crucial stylistic gamble. Instead of shooting on digital or even 16mm, he used a dodgy, ancient format called U-matic to make the rest of the film look as tacky and dated as the ads. This paid off in droves: No had the look and feel of a documentary shot in 1988. Larraín later explained to Sight & Sound: “If you can see the difference, it destroys the illusion.”

Sebastian Lelio

When Gloria played at Berlin Film Festival last year, it was warmly received; its lead, Paulina García, eventually won best actress. It also charmed the pants off the audience I saw it with at the 2013 Mumbai Film Festival. The film – the fourth by Chile’s Sebastian Lelio – is about a 58-year-old divorcee called Gloria aggressively pursuing the singles scene in Santiago. She’s worked out a routine: she dresses up, goes to the club, drinks, locks eyes, dances and, if there’s a spark, takes the party to a hotel room. This is how she meets Rodolfo, another divorcee, but one who’s more strongly tethered to his family than Gloria is to hers.
Lelio’s direction is at once wry, sympathetic and unsentimental. An English-language remake would probably tone down all the (gasp!) senior citizen sex, but García’s physical exposure is certainly in tune with her exposed emotional state – open to scrutiny by Rodolfo and the audience. Lelio balances out the drama with some outlandish moments, such as one character’s deadpan explanation for how cats ended up on Noah’s Ark, and a climactic bout of you-go-girl paint gun glory.

Carlos Reygadas

It’s difficult to imagine any Hollywood studio – indie-friendly or not – green-lighting Post Tenebras Lux (2012). Before its release, its director, Mexcio’s Carlos Reygadas, was bracketed with ‘slow cinema’ proponents like Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Nuri Bilge Ceylan. But Post Tenebras Lux deserves another label: weird cinema. It’s not just that bizarre things happen in this film – and they do, from a swingers club with rooms labeled Hegel and Duchamp to appearances by a suitcase-carrying, neon red devil – it’s how little these events seem to connect with each other. Yet, the film is often mesmerising, especially the opening scene, with Reygadas’ own toddler running in a sodden field with dogs, cows and horses.

Reygadas’ earlier films – Japon (2002), Battle in Heaven (2005) and the interminably slow Silent Light (2007) – all courted controversy, but have proved popular on the arthouse circuit. Of the three directors mentioned here, he seems the least likely to be tempted by a Hollywood project. Then again, maybe some far-thinking exec will hit upon the idea of getting Reygadas to reinvent the slasher film (you have to watch the last few minutes of Post Tenebras Lux to see why).  

Children of War: Review

Google “Bangladesh War” and one of the first results you’ll get is a Wikipedia entry for “Rape during the Bangladesh Liberation War”. This is testament to the centrality of systemised sexual assault by Pakistani forces in the nine months of conflict before Bangladesh became independent. Some 400,000 Bangladeshi women were estimated to have been raped during this time. Many subsequently had abortions, fearing that the children they were bearing would be ostracised – as several were. It’s worth noting that Children of War was earlier called “The Bastard Child”.

Almost from the start, the screenplay is split into three parallel stories, each of which echoes a key strand of the actual conflict. The first involves Fida (Raima Sen), who is raped in front of her husband, journalist Aamir (Indraneil Sengupta), and then taken away and interned in a camp run by the sadistic Malik (Pavan Malhotra). The second is about two young siblings attempting to cross the border into India. We also see how Aamir ends up joining the Mukti Bahini, the blanket term for armed Bangladeshi rebels.

Children of War is a very difficult film to watch. The director, Mrityunjay Devvrat, making his feature debut after a couple of documentaries, evidently feels strongly enough about the events of ’71 not to dilute them. You’re dragged, wincing, through rape and torture and slaughter. There’s no let up, and for most of the running time, no catharsis. During the first half in particular, the film’s relentless onslaught feels more numbing than powerful.

The film nearly messes up things for itself trying to find aesthetic solutions to all the sadness. The camerawork by Fasahat Khan is best when it’s kept simple: there’s a very jarring POV sequence, and slo-mo is used too often for it to be effective after a while. And there’s one unmitigated disaster, a scored montage just before the interval which begins as a sort of torch song and then unexpectedly changes into a rock number. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the accompanying visuals – shots of crying babies, flowing blood, a boy running with a Bangladesh flag – look impossibly staged and arty, like someone trying to trick you into feeling bad.

Despite this passage – and two similar ones later – the film manages to pull itself together. After a key cameo by Tillotama Shome as a rebel fighter, there’s a rapidly accelerating build-up to a climax that’s as concerned with everyone’s survival as it is with whether Aamir will accept Fida now that she’s pregnant with a “war baby”. The film also links to the controversial war tribunals initiated in 2008, which tried and sentenced several “razakars” (the term used for Bangladeshi informants).

The actors commit admirably to the material – despite the incendiary potential in most of the scenes, there isn’t as much playing to the gallery as one would expect. Pavan Malhotra’s Malik is as odious and mesmerising a figure as Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. Less showy, and equally effective, are Riddhi Sen and Rucha Inamdar as the siblings; Sen’s hardening into a young guerrilla is one of the more subtly tragic things in the film. Like Madras Cafe last year, Children of War is a welcome indication that some Hindi filmmakers are starting to look outside India for stories. That Devvrat tackles his subject head-on is something else to feel encouraged about.

This review appeared in Time Out.