Friday, December 07, 2012

MOVIES MADE ME #53: Pulp Fiction (1994)

Let me set the scene.  It's October 14, 1994.  My best friend and I have convinced about 15 people from our high school to come with us to the very first screening of PULP FICTION at the Seminole movie theater in Charlottesville, Virginia.  We've been waiting for this for a little over a year... ever since we saw RESERVOIR DOGS on home video and started reading about Quentin Tarantino's next project.  In the meantime, we watched TRUE ROMANCE at least a dozen times, and saw NATURAL BORN KILLERS four times in the theater.  Those were test runs -- Tarantino stories filtered through the sensibilities of other directors -- but PULP FICTION is the real deal.  The second coming, so to speak.

The lights go down and suddenly we're in a greasy spoon diner, listening to a criminal couple (one of whom is vaguely recognizable as Mr. Orange, with a British accent) contemplate their next crime.  It's a natural segueway from TRUE ROMANCE and NBK, both of which were riffs on the Bonnie & Clyde formula.  The rapid-fire dialogue is unmistakably Tarantino's... but it's not just what these two loveable hoods say, it's how they say it.  They're gleeful.  They love what they do.  They love their life together.  And their enthusiasm is contagious.  Watching and listening to them, I am absolutely, hopelessly, stupidly giddy.  They conclude their dialogue with a syrupy sweet declaration of love, then jump up on the table, waving their guns in the air, barking expletives and trying to sound as mean and surly as they can.  The juxtaposition is hilarious.  Cue the surf music.  (Surf music???
And the opening credits, rising across the screen like they're on one of those old piano rolls.  The tone is set.

Next, we're in a car with John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson.  Travolta has been missing in action for a few decades now... but he's back, with love handles and hair extensions, talking about American fast food in Amsterdam.  And he's playing... Vincent Vega?  Mr. Blonde from RESERVOIR DOGS???  I read somewhere that Michael Madsen was originally supposed to reprise his role, but backed out.  Tarantino turned to Travolta, having had a man-crush on him since WELCOME BACK, KOTTER.  And what a difference that makes.  After that RESERVOIR DOGS scene where Mr. Blonde cuts off the cop's ear, I can't imagine having as much fun with Michael Madsen in this movie.  Of course, much of the fun comes from the way that Travolta and Jackson (sporting an impressive jheri curl Afro) play off of each other.  Travolta is like a little kid playing dress-up.  Jackson is a self-professed "bad motherfucker."  These guys are professional hitmen, but they're not the usual breed of Hollywood hitmen.  They don't fight like the characters in RESERVOIR DOGS.  They know and respect each other.  They talk like best friends in high school.  No doubt they have their issues and agendas, but mostly they're having fun.  You'd have to be some kind of cold-hearted cynic not to be amused by their banter about foot massages, or by the way Jackson prefaces a murder with an impromptu ad for a Hawaiian hamburger.  I'm not saying you have to appreciate the warped morality of the characters, only that you can't deny their enthusiasm.

What's amazing about being young is the way you're often able to make some of the dumbest choices imaginable, get yourself in some of the worst possible situations, and still come out unscathed.  That's what happens to Vincent when he meets Mia Wallace.  Watching them interact on their unlikely date feels like being high.  Every little thing they say and do is funny, because there's so much tension between them -- related to circumstances and, of course, sex.  Tarantino lets it build slowly.  Then, when the tension is at its peak (with Travolta advising himself to simply go home and jerk off), he drops a bomb on us.

The following scene is as shocking as Vic Vega's scene in RESERVOIR DOGS, but the tone is completely different.  This time, the shock turns into playful theater of the absurd, and the laughs keep coming... This sequence reminds me that there is a very thin line between humor and horror.  Tilt the details and the performance one way, and you've got RESERVOIR DOGS.  Tilt it the other way and you've got PULP FICTION.  Of course, Eric Stolz and Roseanna Arquette do their part.  Comedy is all in the timing, and everyone's timing is spot-on.  Tarantino caps off this story (which is, in my opinion, the heart of the film... or at least the adrenaline shot to the heart of the film) with one final, definitive character moment.  Mia tells her gloriously bad ketchup joke, and Vincent blows her a kiss after her back is turned.  Beautiful.

The second story, written by Roger Avary, revolves around Bruce Willis.  When PULP FICTION came out, Willis's stock in Hollywood wasn't as low as Travolta's, but his alternately sweet and stoic performance as prize-fighter Butch certainly didn't hurt him.  Though Willis is even today known as an action guy, the film fuses his tough guy persona with his best comedic instincts.  Avary takes the time to develop Butch and his girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros), making them just as endearing and ultimately just as vulnerable as Vincent and Mia.  Then he drops the bomb.  Actually three bombs: the almost surrealistic murder of Vincent Vega, the equally startling reappearance of Marcellus Wallace, and of course the "gimp" scenario.  Who could have predicted, in early 1994, that the surprise hit of the year would feature a comedic ode to the most notorious scene in DELIVERANCE?  I read somewhere that Tarantino wanted to highlight the comedy by editing the scene to the tune of "My Sharona."  He couldn't get the rights to use the song, but I will still never listen to "My Sharona" the same way again.  Of course, the scene works just as well without it.  Why?  Because it's clear that the storyteller is not playing by any kind of rules.  We have absolutely no idea what's going to happen next...

The third story is, in my opinion, a bit of an anticlimax.  It's nice to see John Travolta (back from the dead) and Samuel L. Jackson back in action, but I'm underwhelmed by Tarantino's performance as Jimmy and even Harvey Keitel's performance as The Wolf.  In the end, of course, Jackson's change of heart and the circular framework of the film leaves things on a high note.  As the credits roll, I can't help feeling sad to leave this crazy Hollywood underworld.  Especially after seeing Tarantino's earlier films, I feel oddly connected to the characters (and the actors) who keep popping in and out of his strange cinematic universe.  It's fun to see Steve Buscemi (Mr. Pink) in his cameo as Buddy Holly.  It's even more fun to see Christopher Walken riffing on his own madman screen persona.   I start laughing at Walken's performance all over again as soon as Butch asks Fabienne, "Do you know what my father had to go through to get me that watch?  I don't have time to go into it, but he went through a lot..."  I can't help myself.

For the actors, as for the viewers, a Tarantino movie is always a wild, wild ride.  The filmmaker himself explains his intentions this way (in a 1994 interview with Film Comment): "What I feel about the audience - particularly after the Eighties where films got so ritualized, you started seeing the same movie over and over again - intellectually the audience doesn't know that they know as much as they do.  In the first ten minutes of nine out of ten movies - and this applies to a whole lot of independent films that are released, not the ones that can't find a release - the movie tells you what kind of movie it's gonna be.  It tells you everything that you basically need to know.  And after that, when the movie's getting ready to make a left turn, the audience starts leaning to the left; when it's getting ready to make a right turn, the audience moves to the right; when it's supposed to suck 'em in, they move up close... you just know what's gonna happen.  You don't know you know, but you know... Admittedly, there's a lot of fun in playing against that, fucking up the breadcrumb trail that we don't even know we're following..."

In this type of film, you never know where you'll end up.  You can fight that or embrace it the way the characters do.  Speaking for myself: When it comes to Tarantino, I'm always along for the ride.


  1. [Head slap!] Argh!!! I just realized after I read your post's title I'd missed last night's PULP FICTION retro theater screening. Anyway, absolutely loved reading your thoughts and reactions to that film's first showing. I love this movie, now. I didn't at first. In fact, I screened it last year with my then 16-year son (my wife took a pass for some reason ;-)). He LOVED IT. Great stuff, Joe. Thanks.

  2. Sorry, Michael. Now I'm kicking myself too... I almost sent you an email yesterday to ask if you wanted to go.

    1. No worries. Maybe we can catch a future RESERVOIR DOGS/PULP FICTION double-bill that they periodically do at the NEW BEVERLY CINEMA sometime in the future :-).

  3. Thanks, Michael. I'm not surprised that Tarantino is a traditionalist... Most great storytellers know they can't reinvent the wheel...

  4. Did you catch this today in the NY Times?

    Quentin’s World »

    1. Thanks, Michael! Headed out to see Django tonight...