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.

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