The 100 greatest films of all time – 14: Pulp Fiction

by Daniel Suddes

Pulp Fiction (1994)  Directed by: Quentin Tarantino  Produced by: Lawrence Bender  Written by:  Tarantino, Story By Roger Avary and Tarantino  Starring:  John Travolta, Samuel L Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, and Christopher Walken  Oscar Count: 1 (Best Original Screenplay. Also Nominated for Best Actor (Travolta), Best Actress (Thurman), Best Supporting Actor (Jackson), Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Picture).

Amongst everyone born in the 1980s (including myself), Pulp Fiction is the sort of landmark film that will never be repeated in their life time. It was the equivalent of dropping a fox in a chicken coop – an event that so violently and significantly changed the environment as a whole that not addressing its impact would be downright ignorant.

But why is that? As time goes on, Pulp Fiction does not seem as original as it did in 1994. But then, it was not original to begin with. The film was mainly the sort of combination of the French New Wave, Blaxploitation, and Hong Kong Action films as a geek who worked in a local video store (as Tarantino did) would make after staying awake for 100 hours watching Breathless and The Killer on a loop. In other words, Tarantino did not necessarily break new ground. But then, the techniques that Tarantino re-introduced to audiences were techniques that had been forgotten. I hope I do not need to remind readers which films were at the top of the box office before Pulp Fiction was released. The fact that this indie film managed to have such a wide impact is an important part in its mythology.  Finally, masters Godard and Leone became an important part of everyone’s film going life.

What were those techniques that Tarantino understood and those he wanted to reintroduce to Generation X? For one, there was Godard’s technique of making the most mundane actions interesting. Breathless’ second act occurs almost entirely in a hotel room. Most of Pulp Fiction’s action is nonexistent; it is mostly based on conversation and the use of outdated slang. But the conversations manages to feel as alive as any action sequence and the characters who employ the language manage to feel complete. Even the supporting characters, like the drug dealers and gang assistants, seem as though their roles in this film are a very small part of their lives. Thus, their speech and mannerisms are fascinating, because the sense of voyeurism has increased; we are seeing a small part of these characters’ lives. Who knows what Jimmy does when he is not talking about how his garage is not designed to store dead bodies? His interactions, mannerisms, and the hints at his every day life make Tarantino’s universe seem that much more expansive.

I have always found the conversation in Pulp Fiction to be the most fascinating aspect of the film, for the reasons I have outlined above. But there is so much more that has captivated audiences for almost twenty years. But even then, most people get it wrong. The violence that has become Tarantino’s trademark has been imitated in many other films, but people like Robert Rodriguez ultimately miss the point completely. The scenes in Pulp Fiction are not designed to titillate. They actually make a point about violence and the effects shooting someone may have. The shootings are not stylized, nor are they heroic actions. They just…are. A life is ended, a gangster is responsible, and that is all that is noteworthy about the firing of a gun. Although the entire third act is about how hitmen try to clean up after themselves, the violence in that scene is a hindrance and danger to the characters rather than something that is worthy of praise or something that “looks cool.”  Pulp Fiction manages to be brutally honest about mob life in a way that causes most people not to notice.

Everything else about Pulp Fiction was a tapestry comprised of old, forgotten elements that were repackaged in a new way. Non-linear story-telling, violence, interlocking stories and ensemble casts were not new developments. But the way that they were presented here made these techniques far more accessible to a new generation. After the release of this, non-linear story telling became almost common place in every ambitious indie film. The ensemble film came back in a big way (these days, every holiday has a corresponding movie with a huge cast) and action films for the next ten years were determined to be as bloody as possible. But still, I cannot think of another film that is exactly the same as Pulp Fiction. Tarantino did not combine these elements in an academic way, but rather out of love for those previously obscure films. That is why the film was so effective: the audience felt the affection.  And THAT is something is missing from many indie films today. Tarantino was so excited to make a film that, even if his mad experiment did not work, it would have been a joy to watch.

Pulp Fiction’s influence is incalculable. The film has inspired many young filmmakers to pick up the camera, and officially made film geekdom worthy of praise in certain circles. But the film is also a unique masterpiece that has never been equaled, not even by Tarantino.

It is hard to find any “best” scene in this film. I want to highlight this one because it goes against the usual praise for the film. Tarantino has often been praised for his use of dialogue, at the expense of the master techn ique the film demonstrates. This dance scene has no dialogue, the choreography is poor, and the dance is never referenced again, making its dramatic impact significantly weaker. But this moment says more about the two characters involved than any of their long conversations. They both act out of a sense of duty (Mia as the wife of a gangster, Vincent as an employee of same) and know they should not be enjoying each other’s company. But they do, more than each one could acknowledge. In other scenes, this would be expressed by a long conversation about seventies cartoon characters and how they represented suppressed human sexuality. But this scene requires no dialogue and no decent dancing, just base expressions and interactions to convey so much information. Most directors struggle their entire careers to get this sort of scene into one of their films. Tarantino did it, and most critics failed to notice. That makes for a very unique film.

Did You Know: Singer Courtney Love has repeatedly claimed that the roles Lance and Jody (portrayed in the film by Eric Stoltz and Rosana Arquette) were originally offered to herself and Kurt Cobain. Tarantino denies ever meeting the duo, much less offering them any roles.

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