At 20 years old, Pulp Fiction (1994) is a classic to me. It came out as I was becoming a teenager (somehow I managed to see it), and it had a major influence on me. This film, along with Reservoir Dogs (1992), and films like The Usual Suspects (1995), introduced me to a different type of film to what I had seen up to that point. It was my first introduction to big people films. Pulp Fiction came out in the same year as Interview With A Vampire and it was basically an awakening to see these films. Suddenly I wasn’t a kid anymore. I am not simply talking about the sex and violence in these films, I am talking about realizing that dark movies existed and not everything was a happy comedy or a Disney cartoon. Not knocking Disney though. The Lion King came out in 1994 and it was a revelation.
Pulp Fiction is Quentin Tarantino’s homage to the B-film’s he grew up watching, his inspirations for becoming a filmmaker. I would say Kill Bill 1 and 2 were his other love letters to these films. Pulp Fiction is bright, vulgar, and funny. Borrowing themes and archetypes from noir films, gangster, and crime novels like the urban setting (L.A.), the flawed hero and aging boxer Butch (played by Bruce Willis), and scenes that take place in dives, bars and diners, Quentin plays around with conventions of the noir and B-film genres. With this playfulness with conventions and even classic plot structure he makes a film that is both his own and at the same time a tribute to those conventions and films.
The film was so influential to me as a budding cinephile that aspects of the film became ingrained in my psyche. The film became part of my vocabulary, but I knew the film off by heart. It became a part of cinematic culture. After its release, Hollywood and myself were never the same again.The film’s dialogue still slips itself into my speech. I still find myself giving a finger gun when I say the phrase “take care of her.”
The thing that impressed me the most about thisPulp Fiction is Tarantino’s use of music. Following in the retro/nostalgic theme of the film, Tarantino takes old radio tunes and gives them new life. I absolutely loved the soundtrack. It infects the entire film. Scenes are linked to a specific song and for me those songs have never been the same since. A lot of the film’s scenes shaped how I heard and pictured the songs in my head (does no one else see pictures when in their head when they hear songs?), after the movie, much like with Reservoir Dogs did with its own outstanding soundtrack. I cannot hear Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” without think of the scene in the club where Marcellus Wallace tells Butch that he will throw his next fight. Tarantino has always been good at picking the right songs for a scene. It is done so well that it becomes impossible to separate the song from the scene.
The other thing that got me about this film is the strong reliance on dialogue. It’s a very calculated speech in Pulp Fiction. Everyone is speedily loquacious (Well, maybe except for Butch). It is not only because Tarantino is a man of many words, but he uses the dialogue in a very specific way and for very specific means. There are long monologues before any actual plot actions take place, for example, the sequence where Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) are headed to an apartment for a job. We have no idea where they are going and for what, until they actually arrive at their destination. These long scenes are Tarantino’s way of revealing his characters to his audience before the actual story. It is also a means for him to link disjointed unchronological scenes together. The foot massage story that Jules tells Vincent as they are walking up to the apartment to collect Marsellus’s (Ving Rhames) goods, develops Marsellus’s character before we even meet him, (We hear him in the next scene; where we see the back of his head but we don’t actually “see” him until halfway through the film). This long monologue also introduces the character of Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), Marsellus’s wife, and gives Vincent something to talk to her about on their “date.”
Speaking of chronology, for the most part the film is presented to the audience in a nonlinear way. I have often wondered why Tarantino chose to do this. It only really occurred to me why after mapping the film out scene by scene and then putting it into in chronological order. It is a strategy Tarantino employs not to confuse us, but to make the film more interesting and entertaining. As the Chicago Tribune puts it :
“Tarantino isn’t trying to confuse us. He’s employing the trick-and-tease style of the mystery writer. Telling us something, whisking us somewhere else, skipping around and doubling back to show, finally, how it all fits together.”
It is all very deliberate. I honestly don’t think the film would have been as interesting as it is if it was done in the traditional order. After looking at the scene map I made, the film begins to loose something as a linear story. While you watch the movie, you are constantly trying to piece it together,and while you are doing that you are discovering new things. The characters grow and change the same as they would if the film had a linear format. For example, Jules still decides to change his ways when he miraculously leaves the apartment unscathed after he and Vincent are shot at point blank while collecting Marsellus’s case at the apartment. This is still clear if the film were in sequential order.
Pulp Fiction and Quentin Tarantino have become notorious for launching and relaunching careers. John Travolta’s perfromance and subesquent Oscar nomination revitalized his career. John Travolta went from being a star after films like Saturday Night Fever (1997) and Grease (1978) too playing the father in the Look Who’s Talking movies(1989 to 1993). It wasn’t until Pulp Fiction that people cared about him again. Sadly that all ended around the time he made Battlefield Earth (2000), but let’s not go there. What I really want to say about Travolta in Pulp Fiction is that he was really great. He was in a role that was way out of his comfort zone, but it worked.
What also worked was Uma Thurman. Everyone knew who Uma Thurman was after her role as Mia. She became Tarantino’s muse. Heck, she became my muse. I remember emulating her style and even buying the same nail polish she wore. Bruce Willis was a well known star by the time this film came out, but he was in a bit of a slump at the start of the 90’s. His role as Butch boosted his career and he went on to play the lead roles in films like The Fifth Element (1997) and Armageddon (1998). He suited the role perfectly. He was the Bruce Willis of Die Hard (1988) again and who doesn’t love that Bruce Willis? Ving Rhames pretty much owes his career to Quentin. We would not have seen him in his roles in the Mission Impossible series or one of my all time favourite movies Con Air (1997).
Harvey Keitel and Samuel L. Jackson where already Hollywood household names by the time the film came out. Harvey Keitel as Mr. Wolf plays a cooler version of his Mr. White character in Reservoir Dogs. It is a character that we know all too well but never get tired of when Harvey does it. Samuel L. Jackson reinforces the legend that is himself with his roll as Jules. It is that badass, take no shit from no one, “I got this” persona that I think is character of who Jackson really is, but in a good way. It is a role that only he can play. It wouldn’t seem real if anyone one else did it.
This film is iconic. It will forever be on lists of top films of all time, most influential, etc…. It will forever be on my list of films that forever changed me as a film lover and shaped a part of who I am. As I am sure it did for many people of my generation. How many cult classics can lay claim to that?
Wilmington, Michael. Bad To The Funny Bone: ‘Pulp Fiction’ Is a Hard-Boiled Mix Of Mith, Murder, Chicago Tribune, October 14, 1994