💼 Oh, I'm Sorry, Did I Break Your Concentration?
For a long time I thought I was a Quentin Tarantino fan. Sure, Reservoir Dogs was a little rough, and Jackie Brown was kinda boring, and then Kill Bill was a bit bloated. But Pulp Fiction was a masterpiece, and I maintained my fandom on the strength of that. It was one of the first films I bought when I switched from VHS to DVD. And that's not hyperbole. I literally bought a copy of this movie at the same time as I was buying my first DVD player. There's a poster from it up in my children's play room.
We should probably take that down, honestly.
Anyway, at some point I realized that I don't actually like Tarantino's films all that much. He has a particular affect to his storytelling that has grown tiresome. But I still feel a lot of affection for Pulp Fiction, and it had been a minute since I'd seen the now nearly thirty-year-old film, so I was curious how it held up. Was it still any good now that I am thoroughly tired of Tarantino's schtick? I decided to watch and find out. The result?
Good news, reader: this one holds up. For the most part.
This was Tarantino's second film to direct, and while it unmistakably has his stamp on it, a lot of his excesses are either reined in or put to good use. Is it unnecessarily violent and lurid? Yeah, but given the subject matter, it at least feels appropriate to the film. I mean, there's a pre-title card that gives the definition of "pulp" in order to let you know what you're in for. Does it still have a Mexican stand-off in it? Of course, but there's only one, and it directly relates to Jules' character resolution. (For the curious: the moment I realized I was done with Tarantino was the scene in Inglorious Basterds where Brad Pitt stops the movie cold for five minutes so everyone can discuss whether or not they're in a real Mexican stand-off.)
Are the scenes still rambling and overlong? Yes, but it works here. Tarantino doesn't write scenes so much as he writes protracted digressions, but the non-linear shape of Pulp Fiction makes those sensibilities work. Instead of an arc that follows a character, it's a set of four related vignettes with a linked prologue/epilogue, and each of those tells a complete and satisfying story on their own. The first vignette after the titles--starting with the "Royale with cheese" conversation and going right up until Brett's death--is heavy on exposition. It's the shortest vignette, and it consists almost entirely of dialogue that is Tarantino's signature rambling about whatever he thinks is interesting. But again, it works in this movie in a way that it really doesn't in basically all of his other movies. It's telling us a lot about the characters and the world while laying some background that will come up in other segments.
Is it still a surreally-assembled pastiche of obscure genres that most viewers will not have ever seen? Absolutely. But it's not quite as flourishy as the Kill Bill movies were, and the vignetted story structure helps smooth some of that over. The most glaring example is in the third segment, The Gold Watch, when Butch is taking a cab ride back to the hotel. This scene is filmed as though it was part of a 40s noir: a series of static process shots where the background is not only filmy and jittery, but also in black and white. Butch's cigarette and the open window just help to reinforce how fake it looks. And this is the only scene in the entire movie that's shot this way. The closest thing is a similar process shot on Travolta in a heroin-shooting montage, but that sequence is supposed to feel dream-like, whereas the cab ride is at least pretending to be naturalistic. I'm not 100% sure it works, but it is interesting and--more importantly--is limited to a single scene.
Is it still peppered with filthy language? Yes, and this is the one point that has aged the most poorly. On the one hand, gangsters dropping a bunch of F-bombs feels germane to the world of the film, but I also remember Spike Lee's criticism of Tarantino: that he writes movies as an excuse to say the N-word on camera. I'm not going to pick a side in this particularly disagreement, except to say that a lot of the dialogue feels intentionally edgy in a very 90s kind of way. It feels very dated in a movie that otherwise seems to exist outside of time.
But I think it's safe to say that Pulp Fiction on the whole retains its place in the pantheon of not only great by wildly influential films. Remember how there was a spate of non-linear movies after this one? Remember how it got robbed at the Oscars by Forrest Gump? Remember how big the soundtrack was? Dick Dale was suddenly relevant again. Urge Overkill's cover of Girl You'll Be a Woman Soon got into MTV rotation. Remember how it revived John Travolta's career and turned Miramax into a household name? This movie blew things up, because not only is it imminently quotable and compulsively watchable, it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, and despite many attempts has never been duplicated by Tarantino or any of his imitators.
This one's special. Give it a re-watch if you're so inclined.
I'd be curious to hear your opinion of Django Unchained. There are a lot of bits in there that feel like they were included just for shock value, but I thought the rest of the movie was well-acted and I actually cared about what happened to the characters (as opposed to The Hateful Eight).