Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, January 10, 2014

Director Report Card: Quentin Tarantino (1994)

2. Pulp Fiction

I wasn’t aware enough of cinema in 1994 to recognize the effect “Pulp Fiction” had on wider popular culture. I saw the film’s instantly iconic poster in video stores and on rental shelves. I heard “Misirlou” on the radio and television, not really understanding its relevance. Cut me some slack, I was six. Even though I wasn’t in the theaters in ‘94, I can imagine the affect the film had on its first-time viewers. When I did see the movie on video years later, without exaggeration, it changed my life. To this day, it remains one of my all-time favorite movies and completely redefined the way I experience film.

Compared to “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction” is a very different experience. The direction is more self-assured, more stylized. There is an absurd comic perversity to the film’s entire run time, imbuing even its darkest moments with a certain lightness. It was a bold artistic statement from young Tarantino, insuring that every film he made in the future would take place in this particular universe, one influenced by old movies and cheap dime novels. “Reservoir Dogs” was a gritty crime flick, a first-timer proving what he could do. Right from its surf-rock assisted opening credits, the difference is clear. “Pulp Fiction” is pure rock n’ roll.

The themes of “Reservoir Dogs” continue to evolve. The director still sets his stories in the world of low-lives, hitmen and mob bosses. Unlike the vulgar thugs of his first features, you want to spend time with the characters of “Pulp Fiction.” They’re likable and funny. Once again, the director starts his scenes before most screenwriters would. We don’t open on the hitmen making their hit. We open on them in their car, having a meandering conversation about life in Amsterdam, television, and the morality of foot rubs. We see the thought process that leads to diner stick-up. The dialogue has a lyrical pace to it but is natural. These aren’t just criminals, they are human beings with inner lives and opinions.

Tarantino continues to subvert Hollywood’s tendency to paint criminals in a glamorous light. Yeah, Vince and Jules are fun to hang around, maybe even cool. Once they’re decked out in volleyball t-shirts or covered with blood, they’re harder to take seriously. Marsellus Wallace is a badass gang lord but has his macho bravado taken down rather drastically by the story’s event. Vince’s drug rush certainly makes getting high look smooth and exciting. But a later OD is anything but glamorous. The film shows the director’s interest developing, handling some of the same subjects but in a more confident fashion.   

“Pulp Fiction,” thematically speaking, has the director looking towards fate, chance, and the ability to change. Butch and Marsellus aren’t on good ground. However, through pure chance, the two are thrown together in a way that will change both of their lives. How else do you explain Marsellus stepping out of that doughnut shop just as Butch happens to be driving across? Why would the pawn shop they stumble into be home to some misplaced “Deliverance”-style hillbilly depravity? It’s not sloppy writing, it’s intentional. The theme becomes obvious during the third chapter. For unexplained reasons, Jules and Vince are saved from an onslaught of bullets. Like the doughnuts or the Gimp, this happens for a reason. Jules is obviously affected by chance’s hand, even if Vince refuses to acknowledge it. Why would the hitmen just happen to be in the diner when a pair of petty thieves decide to rob it? Honey Bunny and Pumpkin are left changed by the encounter too. Butch could have left Marsellus to die but he made the choice to save him instead. Lance didn’t have balloons, so Mia ODed, so Vince saved her, changing both’s viewpoints. The movie’s themes are summed up by the mysterious suitcase. The “what” of fate remains elusive but the “why” is reflected in the results. Things happen for a reason and that reason is usually because something needs to change.

Sometime between “Reservoir Dogs” came out and “Pulp Fiction” started filming, it’s clear Quentin got into French New Wave Cinema pretty seriously. He’s talked before about the influence Godard had on his filmmaking. This becomes clear in the film’s visual presentation. The camera is frequently placed in unexpected places. Lance reclines on the bed, speaking, his head slipping off-screen, his face visible reflected in a mirror. We focus on the back of Vince and Jules’ heads or Mia’s feet, their dialogue speaking for themselves. The long shot focusing on Vince and Jules walking through the apartment building mirrors their winding conversation. The long shot in Jack Rabbit’s Slim establishes the loose, rock n’ roll tone of the following scene. The shaky handheld of “Reservoir Dogs” even makes a brief reprise during the diner stand-off. Tarantino the Developing Stylist is most evident during an occasional burst of slow-motion or smooth, music-video-style close-ups. The more elevated direction matches the more exaggerated story.

The non-linear story constructions was present in “Reservoir Dogs” but the progression was more clear. The A-story moved forward as expected while flashbacks revealed important information. “Pulp Fiction” takes this structure far further. The segments aren’t meant to play out like chapters in a novel but instead like separate entries in a short story collection. The stories are separate because of their conflicting tones. “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife” is a charming, romantic comedy that evolves into an intense thriller. “The Gold Watch” is more character-oriented before a blackly comedic streak develops. “The Bonnie Situation” is pure dark comedy. The mixed-up structure also causes the viewer to focus more on the characters’ personalities, their roles in each segment. The movie isn’t about pure plot. Instead, it flows poetically, like a piece of music. 

The music reinforces the film’s tone while also, occasionally, slyly comment on the film’s events. The surf-rock soundtrack propels the film, providing a fierce energy, from the unmistakable power chords of Dick Dale to the relaxed, washing wave pace of “Surf Rider,” a perfect note to take the film out on. Sometimes the lyrics call out the character’s actions. “Let’s Stay Together” plays as Marsellus tries to force Butch to go along with his plan. “Son of a Preacher Man” plays as Vincent meets Mia for the first time, making it clear that, despite his good intentions, his thoughts are less then pure. As Vince and Mia dance to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” they come off like a married couple having a very unconventional first dance. Even the instrumental numbers interact with the story’s action, “Comanche” providing a rowdy, upbeat soundtrack while Marsellus is brutally rape, criticizing the scene as darkly funny. You might think Tarantino picks these old songs just because he likes them but there’s a method behind his rabid fanboy antics.

While the script and director provided the movie with a unique identity, the cast ultimately holds the picture together. The film gave John Travolta his second chance. The confident star of “Saturday Night Fever” and “Welcome Back, Kotter” is nowhere to be seen in Vincent Vega. His greasy hair, slight paunch, and sweaty, nervous demeanor stand in contrast to the character’s and the actor’s macho persona. Considering Travolta would squander his career revival, the actor himself apparently wasn’t aware that Vega’s tough guy approach is strictly ironic. Give him shit; he probably deserves it; but Travolta is energizing in the part. His established pop culture cred winds up adding extra layers to his scene with Lance or the dance number. Travolta’s chemistry with Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman makes many scenes great.

The movie made Jackson a star. While he’s been content to phone it in lately, Jackson is incredible here. His comedic timing, the F-bombs landing like big exclamation points, winds up being most memorable. The actor’s trademark, wide-eyed intensity suits him well during his infamous, early monologue. However, it’s a later monologue that’s ultimately more impressive. The Bible quote might actually be from a Sonny Chiba movie but Jules reads into it like its scripture. There’s an honesty to Jackson’s delivery. Given his own sordid history, perhaps Sam Jackson was talking about his own second chance while acting out Jules’. Uma, meanwhile, slings Tarantino’s dialogue more confidently then anyone else. Her own quick-wit is a perfect match for the director’s trademark, lightening-fast words. It doesn’t hurt that she’s utterly beautiful, sensuality and seduction dripping from every word. Of course, that’s a persona too, and Mia Wallace winds up having a deeply human, vulnerable side of her own.

Bruce Willis is another guy who just fucking phones it anymore. Here, he is at his most charming. Butch might be prone to violent outburst and has no problem killing people but is, ultimately, a good man. His scenes with Fabienne reveals the character’s big, gooey heart. The two have an effortless, romantic back-and-forth. It’s easy to see why Willis was once a sex symbol, combining a sweetness with a tough guy exterior. Maria de Medeiros plays her part like a live-action Betty Boop, all flirty come-on and cutey-pie accent. The supporting cast is mostly filled out with expert characters doing their thing. Ving Rhames’ career would mostly be defined by Marsellus Wallace’s gangster attitude, even if his smaller, softer moments are more endearing. Christopher Walken’s one scene performance depends entirely upon the actor’s established persona, as only Walken could imbue such a ridiculous story with a unique mixture of pathos and humor. Angela Jones’ career peaked with Esmarelda Villalobos which is a shame as she’s completely electrifying. The only character in the film who actually keeps his cool, his awesomeness never being deconstructed, is Harvey Kietel’s Winston Wolf. Mr. Wolf is a mysterious man who is always in control and has got everything figured out. Even Tarantino’s acting is tolerable even if the director gives himself some of the film’s funniest dialogue.

Clearly, I love “Pulp Fiction.” The movie stands above its rip-offs and would-be copies because of its energy, its performances, and its deeper subtext. However, there’s one moment that I can’t defend. When first watching the movie as a teenager, I thought Jack Rabbit’s Slim seemed like a cool place. And I suppose it still is. But, damn, that shit is cheesy. The movie is awash in references and rockabilly nostalgia. The call-outs never feel forced except when Vince and Mia step into that restaurant. Between the perfect production design, celebrity imitator waiters, the vintage posters on the wall, and the retro soundtrack, its all too cute. The rest of the movie remains cutting edge but that scene is badly dated.

If I go on much longer, I’ll probably start to sound like a real dork. Is “Pulp Fiction” the director’s best film? Confidently, yes. Is it one of the best films ever made? I’m really not one to judge but it probably deserves a place somewhere in the top one hundred. Is it my personal favorite film? There are others I like a whole bunch but this one always seems to come out on top. Anybody else want to go get some burgers? [Grade: A+]   

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