Friday, September 28, 2012

Pulp Fiction (1994)

USA, 154 minutes
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writers: Quentin Tarantino, Roger Avary
Photography: Andrzej Sekula
Editor: Sally Menke
Cast: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Ving Rhames, Maria de Madeiros, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, Bruce Willis, Quentin Tarantino, Steve Buscemi, Frank Whaley, Paul Calderon, Angela Jones, Julia Sweeney

Well, a lot of the people born the year Pulp Fiction came out will be voting in their first election this November, starting college and families, or, perhaps, the most mature of them, even beginning to give some thought to their retirement plans. They have lived only in the world created by this nervous-talking candy-colored pastiche of post-Scarface gangster cliché (Brian De Palma's Scarface, that is) and hard-boiled detective fiction tropes, with its sweeping reinvention of indie ethos and aesthetic, which turned everything in popular culture in its wake on its head. Its impact is felt to this day, for better and for worse.

I don't have a good sense of what those first-time voters make of it now, but speaking for myself it was a big deal, even when the ruckus itself got to be tiresome. I saw it the week it opened and several more times after that and have checked in on it regularly. It's just such a kick to take the ride. Even though I know well all that is to come* (brief list beyond the fold, spoilers, folks, spoilers), once begun I still don't want to turn away from this long, brash, vivid, dazzlingly confident, viscerally gripping mash of pulp fiction tales from straight out of the Black Lizard catalog, the various storylines coexisting and connecting across a series of time cross-currents that is nearly perfectly plotted.

In the end, it resolves in unexpectedly blissful symmetry, an experience almost musical, like the return of a song to its root chord, cartwheeling across fortune and vicissitude, unified by a nearly perfectly abstracted MacGuffin—a mysterious attaché case whose contents glow gold when it is opened and leave people speechless. It starts and ends in the same place, a breakfast joint in Los Angeles one specific morning, joining the two main characters, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), in media res and, at first, off-camera. Yes, it's flashy, even cocky, constantly calling attention to itself, but that doesn't mean it doesn't work. In fact, Pulp Fiction is practically all nerve and gesture and the hilarious spontaneous post-adrenaline laughter that erupts when one realizes something impossible is actually working. There's a great story about the premiere of Pulp Fiction at Cannes in 1994 and a man who passed out during the heroin overdose scene, where Uma Thurman as the gangster moll Mia Wallace is revived by an adrenaline shot directly to the heart, and director/screenwriter Quentin Tarantino's gleeful (if vaguely inappropriate) response that it meant his movie was working.

And work it does—very hard and very well. It's buoyed most of all by Tarantino's endless streaming chattering dialogue, which ultimately packs on at least an extra 40 minutes in running time just in the scenes with people making conversation, but honestly I wouldn't have it any other way. Like Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon, Tarantino has a gift for this stuff, in his case a muscular rhythmic masculine style of talking that is unmistakably him, and as sparkling as jewelry, animating the best and oddly soothingly anchoring the madcap in the mad events.

It's still plain as day that everybody involved was having a ball. The titles are a good example, handy because occurring early. They are electrifying, and a lot of that work is done via the simple but shrewd expedient of the resurrection of an old surf-rock song by Dick Dale, "Misirlou." That's all; very simple. In fact, more broadly, Pulp Fiction stands as one of the purest examples still of a soundtrack movie—with no credit for original music, it's all just one great riff after another from some uncanny ideal of a jukebox stocked by Tarantino, plucking out great soul and rock 'n' roll standards from multiple eras and deploying them with pinpoint accuracy. (Interestingly, the soundtrack album itself is marred by inclusion of too much extraneous dialogue from the movie. But the songs are not hard to track down.)

In many ways, Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman have emerged as Tarantino's most carefully calibrated mouthpieces; the evidence starts here. Jackson, in particular, is working as hard, as deliberately, and as transcendently as any player I have seen. His performance is loud, as intended, and up to the standards of early Brando in its raging, titanic force. It can also be devastatingly funny. Bruce Willis as the boxer Butch Coolidge is good. Harvey Keitel as fix-it man Winston Wolf is good. Christopher Walken as Captain Koons gets a very nice soliloquy almost, a great story well told, peppered with great lines and throwaways ("I had this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass two years," he says matter-of-factly, brandishing the watch). Tarantino was having such a good time he even put himself in the movie. He's not great, but he's better than adequate, with an obvious affinity for the dialogue and an interesting chemistry that develops between him and Harvey Keitel.

One aspect of Pulp Fiction that I think may be forgotten now is a sense of how much was at stake for both Tarantino and especially John Travolta, for whom this was a kind of comeback bid. His dance floor scene with Uma Thurman, dancing the twist to the 1964 Chuck Berry standard "You Never Can Tell," was a calculated moment fraught with tension, clearly staged, performed, and even viewed, initially, with Saturday Night Fever lurking in the back of everybody's head. It was all triumph on that level, so much fun to see him playing the part, and cemented the deal for a lot of people, including me. (I suspect those first-time voters this year that I mentioned before might not even pick this thread out, as the impression has faded and now it's just another comical moment in the storyline, but it would be interesting to hear what they make of it, or the movie itself now).

Is Pulp Fiction excessive? Please. Yes, it's excessive, and precious, and full of itself. Take the faux Ezekiel quotation that Jules so loudly and lustfully declaims prior to murdering his victims. It gets run through, in its entirety, three separate times. And it's long. But look. First, on some level it really does encapsulate the whole moral play that undergirds Pulp Fiction. The story in the passage, with all its shifting ambiguities and febrile biblical language, is ultimately the focus of everything here, as Jules himself tries to explain at the end. Second, I really can't think of a better way for this particular movie to go over the top than with an apocryphal passage from the Old Testament. And third, who wants this movie to be shorter anyway? It's exactly the kind of entertainment you want never to end.

*"All that is to come" (a brief list of spoiler discussion points off the top of my head, each worth 1,000 words):
—the foot massage discussion
—Big Kahuna Burger murders
—twist contest
—heroin overdose and recovery
—Mia's pilot
—the fixed boxing match
—the Colombian cab driver
—the gold watch
—pawn shop, Maynard, Zed
—the miracle and responses to it on terms of destiny

Top 20 of 1994
I'm occasionally tempted to call 1994 the best year for movies of the '90s mostly on the strength of Pulp Fiction, which certainly belongs on the short list of most influential movies (in the U.S., at least) of the '90s. There's a lot of good ones for this year, stuff I like a lot. But head-and-shoulders Great? I think only Satantango, which I saw for the first time earlier this year, has the other shot at such a claim (the Kieslowski trilogy entire also, maybe, but the first of those is a '93). Still, two Greats and a few handfuls of "really good to excellent" don't add up to any bad year either. As for the mysterious popularity of The Shawshank Redemption, it is a notable enough phenomenon that I don't feel I can ignore it entirely. But it puzzles me. I remember it as rather nice and obvious, but it has become wildly, and enduringly, overrated (still the #1 movie on the IMDb Top 250, one of the strangest lists I know, I must say)—or lost on me. I guess I need to see it one more time?
1. Pulp Fiction
2. Crumb
3. Heavenly Creatures
4. Satantango
5. Three Colors: Red
6. Ed Wood
7. Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey
8. Hoop Dreams
9. Shallow Grave
10. The Crow
11. Barcelona
12. The Mask
13. Chungking Express
14. Fresh
15. Once Were Warriors
16. The Kingdom
17. Muriel's Wedding
18. Serial Mom
19. Picture of Light
20. Il Postino

Didn't like so much: Bullets Over Broadway, Forrest Gump, The Lion King, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Natural Born Killers

Gaps: Clerks, A Confucian Confusion, Jeanne la Pucelle, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, Through the Olive Trees

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