PULP FICTION After All These Years

A look back at a film for which we should all be thankful.

To say a movie changed your life sounds like such a big, dramatic deal. Sometimes it just means you can pinpoint an exact cinematic moment when your world became a little different than it was before. That movie for me was Pulp Fiction. I always enjoyed watching movies, but I don’t believe I was truly really a film fan until this movie made me one.

Similar to the first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Sprit” on the radio, my first viewing of the Pulp Fiction trailer was an important experience I felt aware of even as it happened. I don’t recall which VHS rental brought it to my attention, but I do remember perking up at that music and feeling an overwhelming sense of new coolness from everything onscreen. I was too young to drive and stuck almost literally in the middle of nowhere, so my initial assumption - one that would get lots of use in the years to come as more and more interesting indie films started coming out - was that a theatrical showing would be impossible for me, but with some luck I might be able to eventually rent it.

I would not have to wait so long. Pulp Fiction ended up having a pretty big effect on everyone, and late in its release the film had earned enough commercial clout to screen in Joplin, Missouri, a sprawling metropolis (to me) only one hour away. I was thirteen and went with my mom.

It’s hard to remember what a endless string of surprises the film was when I first watched it, especially with little film history knowledge to help prepare me for Tarantino’s tactics. The overdose scene, Vincent’s death and “resurrection”, Marvin’s face, the hilarious shot of Marcellus catching Butch in that crosswalk… almost every inch of the film now seems iconic, but once upon a time it was brand new and worked amazingly well. I was in absolute Heaven.

Pulp Fiction made me a nerd. During the wait for it to hit VHS, I taped every Quentin Tarantino television appearance I could (including his awful episode of Margaret Cho’s All American Girl). I read and reread the screenplay dozen times. I watched Reservoir Dogs over and over again. I saved my allowance to buy the film’s cool character posters. I’ll never have this kind of relationship with a movie again, and I recall it now with a bit of wistfulness.

When the film finally arrived on VHS, my mother purchased it for me at a Suncoast where an employee explained to her why she should buy the special widescreen version of it instead of the typical fullscreen VHS. It’s embarrassing to admit, but that was my introduction to the superiority of widescreen, something what would make watching movies at home kind of painful until DVD took over. Even after its theatrical run, Pulp Fiction continued affecting the way I watched movies.

I don’t know how many times I watched my Pulp Fiction VHS over the years. But one day I decided I had seen it enough. There’s a level of iconography and cultural influence to the film that moves it beyond just being a simple work of art and oddly makes it easier to dismiss the same way I almost never listen to The Beatles anymore, preferring instead to explore solo Paul McCartney records or watch Django Unchained.

This week I watched Pulp Fiction again for the first time in many years and was shocked by how great it still is (having never watched it on DVD, I was equally shocked by how good it looked on Netflix). Watching the film now makes very clear Tarantino’s evolution as a storyteller. It’s not so hard to see how the same person made Jackie Brown or Kill Bill, but there’s a pretty huge difference between Fiction and Tarantino’s last two films. The voice and playfulness with form remains present throughout his career, but while those films have themes and pathos, Pulp Fiction is 100% posing affectation. Normally that would be an awful demerit, but from the very beginning Tarantino - through his dialog, character creation, and manipulation of narrative - oozes originality. His posing affectation creates new icons right and left.

Pulp Fiction has no central character, nor does it contain a central plot. It is a very hard film to explain to someone unfamiliar with it. While it follows a number of stories, it does no do so with that Altman-esque aplomb we associate with films like Magnolia. Tarantino builds his cartoon gangster world almost exclusively through dialog. We see very little of it. Who is Tony Rocky Horror? What is the relationship between Jimmy and Jules like on a less-stressful day? Why did Vincent Vega go to Amsterdam for three years? It’s remarkable how little Tarantino lets us know these characters. We do not get a sense of them living before or after the film’s running time. They are all surface, costumes with only a vague humanity underneath. But they are so incredible. The imagery of Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta here is so strong I often forget Bruce Willis is even in this movie.

Despite its massive influence on ‘90s popular culture, time has made Pulp Fiction a more unique and smaller film than its reputation would indicate. Tarantino will forever be synonymous with this one movie, but it’s more an anomaly than opening statement of intent, one he subverted immediately with the very human and moving Jackie Brown, then blew up completely with the sprawling indulgence of Kill Bill

Almost every Tarantino film is a masterpiece, but claiming Pulp Fiction as HIS masterpiece seems wrong considering what he accomplished with Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. And yet it remains tempting. Pulp Fiction is how so many of us came to know Tarantino, after all, and it’s about as informed by singular personality as films get. 

Luckily, it’s not my job to decide such things. I’m just grateful it exists. I’m grateful it came along when it did. And I’m grateful for what Tarantino has done (and continues to do) with the luxuries it afforded him as a filmmaker. If, like me, you’ve waited a while to rewatch it, I highly recommend you go back and take another look. I doubt you’ll regret it.

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