Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, John Travolta
Matt and I accidentally/jointly named Pulp Fiction the greatest movie in American history when we did our podcast on the matter a little while back. It’s certainly the greatest movie released in my lifetime (not literally, but essentially, since 1991). And as we recede further and further from the movie, it seems utterly strange that Pulp Fiction could be that movie. Shouldn’t the best movie of the past twenty-five years have a better director? Tarantino would be one of the most important directors of the past thirty years without Pulp Fiction in his back pocket, but I confess to being less awed by him than I was when I was a teenager who hadn’t seen many movies. And shouldn’t the cast of the best movie of the past quarter-century be a little better? It’s one of the great ensemble performances in the history of the movies, but the headliners are Travolta, Jackson, Willis, Thurman, Keitel, Roth, Rhames: sort of a B+ group on paper. And if we’re honest, isn’t the middle third of the movie a little too weird to live? Does the movie on top of the heap since George H.W. Bush’s presidency include that lengthy rape scene and the presence of “the Gimp?”
Cary Grant never won Best Actor at the Oscars, nor Hitchcock Best Director, and as Tarantino watches his glory days fall away, it seems unlikely that he will ever win Best Original Screenplay. There’s about as much distance between The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (which is, according to Tarantino, the greatest film ever made) and Reservoir Dogs as there is between Reservoir Dogs and the present day, and that spread of time doesn’t favor Tarantino. The Pulp Fiction screenplay, as a language document, is magnificent. It sprawls and is seemingly irrelevant for long stretches, and yet even cursory viewings are sufficient to glue down conversation after conversation. The Big Ones – Royale with cheese, that is a tasty burger!, five dollar milkshake, your father’s watch, I wish I had a pot, pig’s a filthy animal, maybe I’m the shepherd – are quoted ad nauseum, but there’s a whole class of other moments which are just about as good. I’ve always been amazed at the way that Tarantino uses words like punctuation. The iconic example is probably, “Zed’s dead, baby,” but consider Pumpkin and Honey Bunny chattering incessantly in the first scene at the diner. Where there would be silence, there’s the waitress whom Pumpkin has rudely called over. “Garcon!” he cried. “Coffee!” The silence is not long before she replies, tartly: “Garcon means ‘boy.'” My personal favorite is still “Aw, man, I just shot Marvin in the face.” In Pulp Fiction, word-silence is superfluous except for long dramatic effect, as when Butch discovers Vincent in his apartment or fetches a katana in the pawn shop. Vincent’s drug trip and leisurely drive through L.A. to pick up Mia Wallace is less dramatic but arguably the most important scene in discovering what kind of person Vincent is; while we’re making arguments, there’s a strong one suggesting that the sequence where Mia and Vincent dance is the best one of the entire film, and no character speaks a word. Whether vocally frenetic or momentarily silent, the secret to Pulp Fiction‘s screenplay is not necessarily in the content, but in the rhythm of the speech itself. Whether or not Pulp Fiction is actually the best movie of the last twenty-five years is certainly up for debate, but it’s hard to think of a better screenplay in that time.
Pulp Fiction also uncommonly ambitious. I’m more or less apathetic about the literal fact of the story being out of chronological order (“Faulkner does it better,” he said, smacking his lips and pouring another tumbler of Four Roses), but what’s impressive is a three-hour movie that feels absolutely nothing like it because its ability to flit between characters. When one might grow tired of Vincent and Mia, Butch comes to the forefront; when Butch might get stale, back come Vincent and Jules. (The second-best reason for the warped chronological order is to give Jules a weird proof that God stopped the bullets from killing him and Vincent; the best reason is because the relatively lighthearted events of cleaning up Marvin, followed by the surprisingly moving conversation Jules has with the recently christened Ringo at the diner, makes for a superior ending to the chronological alternative.) Usually this sort of reliance on vignettes is troublesome, giving the movie a hitch in its giddyup. The difference between Pulp Fiction and other movies is flexibility, and that’s given to it by the non-chronological order of the film. The first time out, Pulp Fiction is utterly unpredictable. It’s not merely that Mia and Vincent fade into Butch’s childhood, but what we wait for. In most other films, the action is telegraphed and all we can hope for is a good ending. Sometimes the predictability works: in Rogue One, the obvious impending deaths of any new character with a name were paid off with the best action sequence in a Star Wars movie since 1977. Sometimes predictability doesn’t, even in critically beloved films: the arc of La La Land is almost cynical, set up as it is to give the audience a typed reluctant couple, a typed adorable couple, and a typed squabbling couple who will learn to respect one another in the end. But Pulp Fiction manages to defuse the way that we, as an audience, tend to wait for the obvious events to happen. Perhaps we might expect Vincent to die after rejecting God’s clemency, but we probably don’t expect him to die in Butch’s apartment, having come out of the bathroom and carelessly left his gun there for Butch to use on him. Of course Butch and Marsellus Wallace have to have a showdown before the former can escape the country, but no honest person would guess that the showdown isn’t really between them, but against the real-life extras from Deliverance. That’s the beauty of Pulp Fiction, a film which, by the time you get two hours in, can still surprise you over and over again.
Tarantino, a real magpie of a director, manages to do something totally fresh and new with the L.A. noir, amping up the wattage on zany and contemplative alike in a way that only Blade Runner and Sunset Blvd can equally lay claim to. (Siddown, I’m not trying to say that Pulp Fiction tries to borrow from either movie.) Blade Runner‘s duo of Deckard and Roy compares neatly with Vincent and Jules. Deckard and Vincent both seem more or less resigned to how things are done, purposefully returning to fundamentally immoral jobs which allow them very little agency and far too much temptation (Rachael, Mia). Roy and Jules, for whatever reason, are both given to looking for transcendence; their goals are totally different (extend lifespan/”walk the earth”), but they both have an eye up for something more rewarding and meaningful than what the roll of the dice had for them at first glance. I’m not going to try to compare Pulp Fiction characters to Norma and Joe, but both movies meld comedy and the grotesque with relish. Do you laugh at Norma because her only friend is a chimp, or do you feel for her because her only friend is a chimp? Do you laugh when you hear “Bring out the Gimp,” or do you shudder a little because what are those? Whatever Los Angeles is on film – and presently, the depiction of Los Angeles in popular media makes it roughly as obnoxious as New York’s has historically been – it works best when it’s a little seedy and a little creepy. It doesn’t rain in Pulp Fiction, the folks are good-looking, and even the cheap hotels look okay to stay in. But the movie hints at an underworld which stretches just as far as the freeways, at something which festers outside the realm of normal people, and its position outside the mainstream, of small-time robbers and aging boxers and failed cokehead actresses and overachieving hitmen, to say nothing of that pawn shop, makes the festering fascinating.