Are you a Beatles Man…or an Elvis Man?
Dime novels have never been confused with real literature. With all deference to a certain S. King, they, and not his writing, are the equivalent of a Big Mac and fries. Or maybe a better analogy would be that such pulp entertainment is a canteen of water in the desert or a jigger of bourbon to the drunkard. When they were created, it was done to fill a void, to get the average working man to actually pick up a book and read. The bestseller list then was filled with titles that proved they could stand the test of time (and college professor lectures), but the "disposable" theory of publishing was a new and eventually poisonous idea. What began as a doorway became an abyss, a place where the modern notions of prose and writing success became synonymous with reaching "the average reader." A quick glance over the current list of popular titles shows very little interest in hard themes and tough tomes. While never meaning to be the replacement of our more artistic text, we have long since given up on the florid writers inventing difficult narrative structures to concentrate on formulaic themes and straight-ahead forced fed story simplicity.
The same metaphor can be applied to Quentin Tarantino and his tribute to such a novelization aesthetic. Pulp Fiction is independent film for the mass market. It's controversy and challenge for those used to big budget box office bonanzas and is designed to scrape the soul and purge the mind. Tarantino wants to give movies back to the moviegoer, to combine genres and pop culture into an easily digestible package of rebellious clowning around and stupid human camera tricks. Like an Oliver Stone of film history and styles, you can almost hear Tarantino thinking, "watch my movies and you'll learn all the secrets of the specialized cinema. Only I can show you these gems of enlightenment that a hidden Hollywood conspiracy has tried to keep from you." Pulp Fiction is a primer of film passion and a shortcut to video geekville. It is also one of the finest films made in the last twenty years. How both conceits co-exist is explained and expanded on in the bona fide Special Edition DVD from Miramax. It details Tarantino's methods while accentuating his actual cinematic madness for all to see and enjoy.
Facts of the Case
It's several days in the lives of some LA criminals. Told chronologically, but referenced with a number (#) to explain their place in the film, the story is as follows:
Vincent and Jules are hitmen working for kingpin Marsellus Wallace. Jules is just back from Amsterdam. They interrupt four young criminal wannabes who've commandeered a briefcase owned by their boss. During the shoot out, something "miraculous" happens. (1)
After the showdown with the four punks, the two hitmen find themselves in a "bloody" mess and pull into the garage of Jimmie, Jules' friend, seeking momentary sanctuary. It takes a visit from Marsellus "fix-it" man, Winston Wolfe, to get the boys back on the road. (4)
After finishing up with Mr. Wolfe, the guys head to a diner to have breakfast. Jules is confronted by a pair of amateur robbers, Yolanda (or as she is called, Honey Bunny) and her boyfriend who she calls "Pumpkin." Instead of killing them outright, he discusses a recent philosophical epiphany. (5)
That night, Vincent takes Marsellus' wife Mia out on a boss-arranged date to a funky '50s throwback diner. They have an interesting evening of dinner, dancing, and "uncomfortable silences." Later, a drug-related "mishap" and a trip to Vincent's heroin connection cap off the evening. (2)
Butch, a boxer, is told to fix a fight by Marsellus. When things purposefully go wrong, he meets up with his girlfriend and they prepare to leave town. But she has forgotten Butch's watch in the haste, and he must now risk his life to regain his "birthright." (3)
When someone stands up out of the bowing masses of Hollywood mediocrity and dares to personalize his profession with each and every one of his own guilty pleasures, usually one of two things happen. Either he or she is chastised for being so presumptuous as to think the world wanted this private window into their own cinematic sounding board, or they are ridiculed as radical, someone who will never fit into Tinseltown's trade show. So imagine everyone's surprise when Quentin Tarantino, a motor-mouthed sponge brained whose film school was a video store, became the next Orson Welles, the personification of the infant terrible potential awash in wunderkind accolades. With Reservoir Dogs, QT arrived and quickly established trademarks, highlighted fixations, and proved that you could dazzle them with bullshit, as long as it was incredibly tasty bullshit. His was a singular accomplishment: the creation of a heist film with plenty of gunplay and action but centered almost exclusively on conversation and exposition, something that usually destroys a thriller's suspense. But Tarantino, literate to a fault, was able to take a turgid pop song like Madonna's "Like a Virgin" and twist it into a sexist slam on male size while keeping the main narrative focus fresh and fiery. He used violence as a weapon and a sick joke. When his second film, Pulp Fiction, landed on screens around the world, it was an event as major as the moon landing or the fall of the Berlin Wall. Quentin had done it again. He has taken the gangster saga, the seedy characters of classic noir and detective junk and, with his wonderful wording ways, created a new genre, an update of Hollywood's felonious films with a smart alecks trivial pursuit brain.
The result is a movie that's as remarkable as it is memorable. Pulp Fiction is a clash of cult directors and film styles fused together in a cinematic nuclear accelerator, producing an untold wealth of potential and kinetic motion picture energy. It is an underlined copy of The Film Encyclopedia with a well-worn edition of Cliff's Notes to Asian and French New Wave moviemaking by its side. It's a nostalgic throwback to '70s blaxploitation and independent drive-in delights harnessed to some of the most skillfully crafted words ever to hit the screenplay page. Filled with wit, wisdom, and more than a fair share of salty four-lettered sentiments, there has never been a movie to match its intoxicating interlocking of the old with the new. Pulp Fiction is single-handedly responsible for the emergence of Asian action, exploitation, '50s hard-boiled crime and punishment, low budget independent, and French new wave film appreciation in America. Sure, these genres were already established, each with their own sponsors seeing that their new, up-and-coming talent was being appreciated, but Pulp Fiction did more for all of them, like a supernova namechecking a superstar. It became a checklist for every exciting, unconventional cinematic device ever conceived by and for film, all piled within a wonderfully sumptuous pie. As a matter of fact, this Pulp Fiction tartlet was so delectable that a thousand bakeries sprung up, each trying to copy the flaky foundation and semi-sweet heat of the middle. And all failed horribly.
The historical precedent of Pulp Fiction, some 10 years after its splash, is all but forgotten now in light of its huge, resounding, influential success. Back then, people actually feared it would fail. Others thought the cast of minor Hollywood names (everyone except a certain Mr. Willis) would never sell the sure to stumble package, especially when an ex-big wig from the '70s was being asked to play a violent junkie gun for hire. Few people now remember how just plain odd it was seeing John Travolta as the dumpy, greasy-haired, and brooding lead in what was, essentially, a dialogue-heavy rumination on the nature of crime. Travolta had, by the time, become a true anomaly. He was a forgotten, almost completely faded superstar reduced to bad films about talking animals and/or standing around ringing the batshit bell for his spiritual mentor, L. Ron Hubbard and his Scientologists. Where once he was Vinnie Barbarino, Tony Manero, and Danny Zuko, he was now a jet plane jonesing joke, a punchline to every sarcastic Sweat-hog remark that one could make. Travolta had "it," demanded more of "it," felt he was above "it," and then watched as "it" went to a dozen other actors who basically learned that "it" was a treasured commodity not to be trifled with. Perhaps his performance in Pulp was (and is) so effective because he was hungry for "it" again. Or maybe he truly never lost "it," but merely buried "it" under a lot of emotional and professional pain that flashing in the pan can produce. But Pulp meant to eradicate that past. Surrounded by a magnificent cast that Tarantino orchestrated for him (including the faultless Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Ving Rhames, Bruce Willis, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, and Harvey Keitel), Travolta got lost and was found again, alive and powerful as a true movie star.
But this is a movie with much more on its mind than reminding people of how wonderful John Travolta was in Blow Out. Pulp Fiction is, in general, a movie about crime, and how it affects people. It's about how the levels of illegality respond with karmic realignments. It is a meditation on the levels of evil, about the supposed nobility and code of the criminal superimposed over acts of complete human depravity. Like Dante's layers of Hell, it slowly sinks us into a universe where killing is the most humane, mundane thing that people can do to each other, and gradually dives into levels of drug abuse and sexual defilement. In this sinful world, the stages of acceptable anti-social behavior have a kind of ritualistic code. Killing is fine. Stealing from crooks is wrong. Shooting up is hunky dory. Ass raping a crime boss is strictly verboten. Pulp Fiction has an interesting good vs. evil dynamic at work that is subtle at first, but obvious when actually recognized. Jules is the "decent" killer (if there can be such a thing), the professional who handles all of his business, be it gangland assassination or hand washing, with a certain amount of decorum, skill and grace. But Vincent is the bringer of and is surrounded by evil and bad providence. He is reckless and drug addled, addicted to the heroin that keeps the pain of human disgrace from seeping through his surface. Look back over the course of this two-hour film and see the obvious differences. Vincent is present at almost each and every act of planned or unplanned criminality in the story: the shootout at the hotel, Mia's near OD, the boxer's death, Butch's revenge at the apartment (which leads to Marsellus' defilement), Marvin's accident, Jimmie's marital woes, and Pumpkin and Honey Bunny's diner robbery. He is also inquisitive, wanting to understand about punishments (Tony Roccamora's "accident"), and confrontational. He is in the business of pushing people too far. He is the perfect antisocialist, ready to mete out his destructive force in ways people hadn't even imagined before.
Jules, on the other hand, participates in the hotel shoot-out and the diner robbery, but both times, he tries (and eventually succeeds) to avoid the problem, to "talk" his way out of killing. All of this ties in with his religious "kiss off" that he taunts potential victims with, letting them know that he could (and is trying to be) the shepherd, leading them down the path to safety and sanctuary. Make no mistake: Jules is a self-professed (and readily visible) bad motherf***er. But inside he seems to be more ambivalent than Vincent about his stock and trade. And while Vincent is involved so deeply that he is bordered by badness (he went to Amsterdam, one assumes, to "lay low" for a while), Jules sees a light and is crawling to it, out of the life that he sees damning his immortal soul and into some clarity. Jules has a spiritual side that peppers his entire life with a warped philosophical bent. Vincent is all humanism and hedonism. It's this kind of diametrically opposed ethical underpinning that redeems Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction. They are killers, but each is bound by a compulsion they cannot control. Vincent is bad and fights to be acceptable. Jules is basically moral but has to plunge himself into an amoral world to earn his living. Yet at the end, he is willing to give up "the life" and, in essence, save his mortal and immortal character. Vincent refuses to give up, scoffs at the so-called "miracle," and ridicules Jules for wanting to be "a bum." Once he leaves the diner and (we assume) continues on with the life without Jules, his payback is brutal…and final. In Pulp Fiction, it is okay to embrace evil or goodness. But mock either, and revenge is a stone cold bitch.
As said before, this is a movie that doesn't follow a straight three act narrative flow and much has been made of Tarantino's use of the non-linear story style. Excellent arguments on how it saves our hero from dying at the end, only to resurrect him for the finale, or how it allows for each segment to center around redemption and renewal have been made and seem fair. But it's really not as radical as it seems. Tarantino wants to "novelize" the movie, to make it seem as rich and as resounding as a finely written work of literary non-pulp fiction. Most novels are not action packed paperbacks filled with frenetic gunfights and car chases. Those elements are extremely difficult to set on paper. By making the movie function under a completely character driven dynamic, Tarantino is allowed to meander all over time and space, showing how the felonious life, the personal experiences, and the mental mind games these social outcasts have played color in and add to their personalities. Jules is the way he is after years of blowing away assholes for their lack of reciprocity to Marsellus. Vincent is a fun loving, trivia minded miscreant who would just as likely hang out with you as kill you. Marsellus is a suave hulk, a man with a mannered voice constantly dipping into a pool of piss to get his reward. Honey Bunny and Pumpkin are two career recidivists who over-examine their rather simple want of a little action and spending money before another long stint in county. And Mia is exactly what she portrays: a failed actress hanging onto crime as the new celebrity. All of this comes from the fact that Tarantino allows the narrative to wander over and around in connection with human conversation. Painted in a straightforward fashion, these characters would seem pathetic. Tarantino's work lifts them to the level of titans.
But for all its internal interplay and reliance on the cinema of the past to propel its story and style forward, Pulp Fiction, in the end, is simply an extremely well-acted, written, and directed film. Tarantino has managed to combine his love affair with film with his dedication to craft to expose the Hollywood hit factory for what it is: a vacant, hollow hodge-podge of half-baked ideas covered in special effects. Proving that there is more power in the word than in the image, and manipulating the medium to make it seem like this was always the case, he literally transformed the independent film industry and gave rise to a thousand substandard imitators, all of whom believed they were just one trivia laced dialogue exchange away from superstardom. But what Tarantino also proved is that his was a uniquely individual and specialized voice, one not easily imitated or improved upon. Those who wanted to make their mark by fashioning their film after his aesthetic discovered that while replication may be the sincerest form of flattery, it was also the easiest avenue to making a raging pile of unbridled puke. So many bad Pulp pretenders have been unleashed on unsuspecting cinefiles that, somehow, it seems to have seeped over into the mothership itself, turning Fiction into less of a sensation. But all one has to do is watch the film again to realize what an original and outstanding production it is. Pulp Fiction is one of the finest American movies ever made and will stand as a map point for a reinvention of the language of film, one based almost entirely in film itself.
The hefty Harv and the other ornery players over at Miramax have finally wised up and given this seminal film the DVD treatment it deserves. Originally released as a single disc, non-anamorphic bare bone nightmare, this newly minted Collector's Edition goes a long way (but not the entire Criterion route) to properly showcasing its impact and legacy. Indeed, the DVD is a lot like a primer on Pulp Fiction, the movie and Pulp Fiction, the phenomenon. Equally divided amongst film information and culture dissections of its uniqueness, there is a great deal of informative content here. But first, the image and sound issues must be addressed, and in a word, they are magnificent. Pulp has never looked better—not in its previous digital display, laser life, or video versions. The colors in the anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen transfer are vibrant without flaring, rich without being hazy or fuzzy. The sound is also supercharged, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and DTS tracks really adding an element of exciting atmosphere to the film. While more use could have been made of the channels, the clarity of the sound and the sumptuousness of the songs used to underscore scenes (all of which have since become part of the pop lexicon, thanks to this film) are incredible. The aural and audio aspects of this DVD are just superb.
As is the bonus material. Beginning with the cinema side of the coin, we get a "trivia track" that acts as a readable commentary as it plays along with the film. While it points out the obvious things we've long known about the film (Tarantino's fascination with Travolta), we do learn some interesting filmmaking references (you could describe the film's form as being a marriage of De Palma to Godard) and personal insights (Samuel L. Jackson auditioned from Reservoir Dogs…and didn't get it). Disc One also features some sneak peeks for other Miramax movies, and the DVD-ROM content that was not accessible to this critic. The remaining mountain of related substance is saved for Disc Two, and it begins with a couple of great, extended features. First up is "Pulp Fiction: The Facts," a documentary about Tarantino, his career, and his (at the time) two movies. Filled with interviews, reflections, and production secrets, it is a very good—if occasionally cursory—look at QT and his cinematic sensibility. Equally enlightening is Tarantino's one-hour appearance on The Charlie Rose Show, where he gives even more details about his filmmaking and viewing philosophy. Tarantino can be a little rapid-fire marble mouthed and Rose does let him go on for endless verbal sprints before slowing him down, but overall the appearance is excellent. Other engaging items for appraisal include the Cannes Film Festival acceptance speech in which a frazzled Tarantino and proud cast stand before the audience like pretenders to the throne, all looking like they are waiting for the inevitable recount and the tired Tarantino (along with others) trying to make his way through an Independent Spirit Awards interview with Michael Moore.
Perhaps what most lovers of the film will find most fascinating is the deleted scenes feature. Tarantino introduces each section and explains why these leftover and mini-moments are not in the film or incorporated into a "director's cut" (as he says, Pulp Fiction as it stands is the film he wanted to make; the outtakes are here for completists only). While most are unimportant (Lance the drug dealer's story about getting lost), a couple of sequences stand out. Mia's interrogation by video camera (removed because Tarantino found it "dated") has some fascinating insights and we finally get to meet Monster Joe (of Monster Joe's Truck and Tow). Yet none are crucial to the film nor would adding any of them make the movie better. A production design featurette gives us a glimpse into the fashion references and pulp culture influences in the film's look and several behind the scenes montages show how Tarantino manipulated the filmmaking process into the final, fantastic result. Combined with trailers, TV spots, and still galleries, we get a more than detailed look into the making of this remarkable film.
But the extras presentation doesn't stop there. As if to place Pulp Fiction in the proper historical perspective, we are given even more bonus content to understand the movie's importance and place in the cinematic lexicon. A real treat is the complete episode of Siskel and Ebert (always good to see old Gene in action) called "The Tarantino Generation." More or less an extended oral essay about Pulp, its impact, and lasting power, both Gene and Roger are in rare form and really add a lot of depth to the discussion about the movie's impact on Hollywood, the independents, and filmmaking in general. Also illuminating are the many articles and reviews included, both on the disc and in an enclosed booklet in the disc set. Critics seemed to get the film almost immediately, while a couple of pundits fall over themselves in condemnation of what would turn out to be a milestone in motion pictures. Like a multimedia biography of the making of one of cinema's greatest films, the bonus content on the Miramax Collector's Edition of Pulp Fiction helps to secure the film's importance and power in a DVD set for the ages. It's close, but as you'll see below, it's not quite 100%.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only quibble one can have with this film's DVD presentation is that it lacks a real audio commentary track. Considering the landmark quality of the production and the talkative nature of its creator, an alternative track seems like a no-brainer. And while the trivia track is nice—and full of fascinating tidbits—it just doesn't take the place of a full-fledged peek into Tarantino's creative thoughts or being able to hear some current words from the cast or crew. Maybe an anniversary edition of the film will feature such a bonus, or maybe the manufacturers felt that Tarantino and gang do enough talking about this film on the DVD already and that it should be enough. Either way, the lack of such a track keeps a great package from being definitive, and something authoritative is what Pulp Fiction requires.
The impact of Pulp Fiction on American movies has been substantial, and for the most part, beneficial. For a long time, the mostly forgotten field of independent filmmaking was celebrated and new voices, from the profound to the profane, were given a chance at their 24 frames per second of fame. But there has also been a backlash, a kind of gloating superiority that was never Tarantino or the movie's intention. Seems now, when a movie is the least bit self-aware or referential of other movies, it is slapped with an anti-invention moniker and told to go back to the Tarantino school of filmmaking where it belongs. Other times, when dialogue sounds written and overly obvious, critics recoil and call for an end to Tarantino's literary influence over scripts. It seems that in the ten short years since the film's release, QT and his violent, visionary child have been blamed for everything rote and redundant about the independent film movement, ignoring the fact that he really had nothing to do with why the genre is so misguided. Tarantino may have ushered in the film geek non-schooled auteur into American cinema, but it's the fault of fly-by-night hangers-on who want a shortcut to success that the current state of the art is rancid. Pulp Fiction was the result of ten years laboring in obscurity. It was never meant to be a dime store equivalent of the trashy, turgid novels from whence it gets its name, nor was it supposed to be the guidebook for all future films. Tarantino came up with something original that spoke from his inner love and obsession with movies. All pale comparisons are simply trying to capture what they don't have inherently. Pulp Fiction will always be a mainstream aberration of the archaic acceptance by the masses. And all imitators aside, it will remain the baddest cinematic motherf***er in film history.
All parties are not guilty. Pulp Fiction is a timeless classic.
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