A Wax Museum With A Pulse: How I Fell Back in Love With Pulp Fiction

Most compelling movies are akin to a romantic relationship: sometimes its love at first sight while others rely on a hard earned trust that can grow tenuous at any given moment. Pulp Fiction, for me, started off in the former category but over the years has transitioned into the latter. As with most kids born in the early nineties, I discovered the film on home video in my burgeoning teenage years when I was desperate to get a hold of anything different and more mature than the safe films I had spent my childhood devouring.[1] I can distinctively remember new releases like The Departed, No Country for Old Men, and There Will Be Blood transforming a healthy love for cinema into an additive drug that left me begging for more. I began to go through films of many eras and genres, particularly crime and gangster films, to make up for what I perceived as lost time that needed to be shaded in. Eventually, I encountered Pulp Fiction and fell in love with the breadth of Quentin Tarantino’s filmography. For a young cinephile desperate to get a handle on the scope and variety of the medium, Tarantino films were like catnip that cherry-picked from more sources than I can recognize even all these years later.

As my tastes began to broaden, I soon found the lavish praise thrown at Tarantino continually towards other film fans a bit tiresome. Sure, he’s a bold filmmaker whose output demands sharp opinions and multiple re-watches but his movies felt more and more like carefully designed Easter Egg hunts that lacked the humanity of his predecessors and contemporaries. I became fascinated in the pitch black comedy of the Coen Brothers, the naked earnestness of Paul Thomas Anderson, the rock and roll energy of Martin Scorsese, and the technical mastery of Stanley Kubrick. These and many other cinematic artists felt alive to me in a way that Tarantino movies no longer did. There were exceptions, of course: Jackie Brown is as mature a work as we can expect from the director, Inglorious Basterds took his genre mashing powers to dizzying new heights, and The Hateful Eight was an ugly punch in the gut to Westerns and our modern sensibilities as an audience. But his attempts to recreate the lurid grindhouse pictures of his youth culminated into the fun but problematic Kill Bills and Death Proof while Django Unchained made the dangerous suggestion that maybe he didn’t understand his antecedents as clearly as he thought he did.

As I hinted to earlier, my general malaise with his films was born in no small part to the untempered enthusiasm of Tarantino’s fans, who hailed him as the greatest director of all time without a second thought. If I were to have taken a poll during my time at college asking the favorite films of my fellow students (especially the male ones), Pulp Fiction would have ranked right up there with Fight Club and Scarface, along with Kill Bill and Django Unchained. These surface estimations of cinema left me constantly frustrated with people who considered their tastes measured and curated. My own hipsterism was growing tired with the faux enlightenment that sprouted up to hoist Tarantino as film’s last true maverick. I was allowing the problems of the fandom to damage my feelings for its subject. I felt like I was moving on while Tarantino was just doing doughnuts in the field of self-congratulations.[2]

Pulp-Fiction coffee

I’ve been conscious of these feeling for a while and decided to revisit Pulp Fiction for what I assumed would play like a chore of a view. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how the film more closely resembled my initial encounters with it when the novelty was as fresh as anything I’d ever seen. I knew the visuals, the characters, and the iconic dialogue by heart but I had forgotten the particular beauty they created when paired with one another. While I still contend that many of Tarantino’s later films lack the humanity I was alluding to earlier, it wasn’t until this time that I fully appreciated why the movie works so well: the characters. Samuel Jackson, Tarantino’s male muse, embodies the director’s writing like no other, making Jules Winnfield one of the all-time great show stealing performances. John Travolta’s washed-up persona gives Vincent Vega a level of blissful ignorance that only gets better with age. Uma Thurman’s unpredictable sexuality is at once disarming before it turns threatening. Even Bruce Willis, an actor I generally don’t care for, gives the anarchic plot an antiquated masculinity that prizes self-preservation despite his possession of a sentimentality that threatens to end his already shrinking lifespan.

All of these performances and characterizations work part and parcel with the defining theme of Pulp Fiction: the randomness and horror of violence threatening everyday life, even when that everyday life is as exotic as the Los Angeles underworld. This isn’t exactly the most original of themes but the film’s structure gives it the illusion of originality. Plenty of films have even used the anthology format[3]  to tell the stories of various vignettes that connect or refuse to connect according to the writers’ and directors’ interests. Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963) is frequently compared to Pulp Fiction, particularly in terms of their structures. But the homages don’t end there, as the film is jam packed with countless references to film, television, and music history. In isolation, these moments have the capacity to engage the viewer in either a positive or negative way, a fissure that transcends traditional lines of age or culture.

Pulp Fiction’s release in 1994 coincided with a wider moment in American history where long held walls of separation between highbrow and lowbrow cultures were beginning to open up. With the Soviet Union defeated and the United States all out of enemies, the nineties relative stability allowed for more adventurous crosspollination between communications mediums that naturally extended to commercial products, particularly storytelling. The birth and expansion of the Internet was contemporaneous to Tarantino’s rise to power in Hollywood and I don’t consider that a coincidence. Video stores had allowed the director’s generation to absorb disparate works into a taste that was previously unknown or unwanted. An ever expanding, all-inclusive force like the world wide web sought to bring together global concerns and ideas in an accessible way. Tarantino was the cinematic equivalent of this, taking as much joy in referencing Joe Dante as he does Jean-Luc Godard.[4] The rip-offs of his work that followed in the late nineties rested their laurels in the mechanics instead of the adoration that Tarantino felt for his predecessors.

It’s in this vein that Pulp Fiction shares more than a few similarities to George Lucas’s 1977 science fiction classic Star Wars. Star Wars re-wrote all the rules for genre films in its combination of historical, literary, and film references that re-contextualized its sources for an unsuspecting audience just looking for space battles and laser sword duels. Conversely, Pulp Fiction was a smash hit thanks to its creative mashup of high and low art in a loud, fast, and often violent fashion. Like Star Wars before it, Pulp Fiction’s critical and commercial success had less to do with the content than it did the packaging and arrangement of said content. While one is the ultimate all ages fare and the other is intended for mature viewers, both stopped cinema in its tracks and forced it to reckon with the wider swath of product it was producing at the time. The former halted the New Hollywood movement’s brief reign of power, which would be replaced with B-movies with A-budgets. The latter was part of the nineties indie film boom that tried its best to carry the torch from the glimmer of sparks that remained from New Hollywood. The two films are very different but are both great examples of daring cinematic experiments that quite simply demanded unprecedented responses from the greater industry at large. Star Wars and Pulp Fiction both pulled from the past to create a future that shifted the direction of cinema in a dynamic way.

 

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Many have taken issue, including me at times, with the nature of Pulp Fiction’s nostalgia for past works and whether or not it prevents it from being the grand artistic statement it so desperately wants to be. This most recent re-watch made me change my tune a bit when I began to recognize the film’s understanding of its place in the pop culture lexicon. The very setting of Jack Rabbit Slims is an outright assurance on Tarantino’s part that his film is harkening back to a time that hardly existed in real life but is being excavated from our cultural remembrance of it. The fifties themed restaurant features a litany of posters on the wall, period music, and waiters and waitresses who resemble Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Ed Sullivan, as well as several icons of the era. The characters all throughout the film are name dropping various aspects of pop culture, watching old TV shows, singing along with songs on the radio…the list goes on and on. Like Reservoir Dogs before it, Tarantino showcases his perverse skill at matching the aural and the visual with a soundtrack nearly as important to the movie as the dialogue, which is really saying something.

But let’s talk about that dialogue for a second. Even all these years later, I laughed out loud at more than a handful of moments that I had totally forgotten about. Whether its debating the finer points of a pig’s identity as a filthy animal, Jules explaining to Vincent the process of a TV pilot, or Marsellus’s shakedown of Butch regarding the latter throwing a boxing match, Tarantino and co-writer Roger Avary offer up a little something for everyone. What the pretenders got wrong was assuming that the inclusion of colorful details and profane language was the essence of what Tarantino and Avary were getting at. Though nearly every Tarantino character feels like an offbeat extension of himself, all of them have a clear set of priorities, ethics, and even choice pop culture hang-ups that are all their own. Most importantly, the actors’ interpretations of Tarantino and Avary’s material gives us a set of characters we want to hang out with even when their lives are falling apart.

The characters that populate Pulp Fiction fill their days with conversations probably not far removed from Tarantino’s former life as a video store attendant, albeit with more discussions regarding picking up pieces of skull in the backseat of a car. Much like us in the real world, it’s the small talk and trivial pursuits of conversation that keep the characters distracted from the ugliness that surrounds them on a daily basis. The recurring violence and its gruesome aftermath must be tempered by familiar and treasured aspects of our cultural past if these character have any chance of escaping with an ounce of sanity. For all its flashy aesthetics and over the top violence, Pulp Fiction has some honest to God things to say about coping with the brutality of everyday life. This isn’t an observation I was prepared to make until today but it’s one I would be remiss to dismiss. The film’s pop cultural footprint will continue to make it essential viewing amongst cinephiles for generations to come but it’s our desire to spend more time with these rich characters that’ll keep us coming back for more.

[1] It’s not until later we can truly acknowledge just how peculiar some of the movies we grew up with were. I’m not sure Beetlejuice was designed for children yet so many of us youngsters of the eighties and nineties adored it as if it was.

[2] Funny enough, the director said he felt a similar sensation when encountering the works of Jean-Luc Godard. Skip to 3:30 if you’re interested.

[3] Which has broadly transformed into hyperlink cinema, a subgenre that Pulp Fiction is a part of.

[4] I borrowed this line from a previous blog post, which in some ways this piece is an indirect continuation of: https://blockbluster.wordpress.com/2016/03/20/planet-hollywood-hells-club-and-the-art-of-the-remix/. I initially felt bad about reusing material but considering we’re talking about Tarantino, I think it’s apt.

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