Pulp Fiction Turns Twenty

Pulp Fiction starring John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson

Image courtesy of Miramax Pictures

Pulp Fiction Turns Twenty

By R. Alan Clanton | published December 14, 2014 |
Thursday Review editor

I went to see Pulp Fiction a few days after it came out. I was in Atlanta at the time, visiting friends in Decatur, Lawrenceville, and other places on a long weekend. As it turned out I had some time to kill one day when all of my Atlanta-area pals were at work or on appointments…so a couple of hours in the movie theater seemed a reasonable way to beat the Atlanta heat while also avoiding getting sucked into driving around aimlessly in the worst traffic imaginable south of Staten Island and north of Miami.

I had what I believed were several good movie options that weekend, one of them being Wyatt Earp, directed by Lawrence Kasdan, and starring Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, Bill Pullman, and (more about this later) Michael Madsen. Being a history buff, and being that I connect genealogically (albeit distantly) the most notorious of the Earp nemeses, the Ike Clanton-Frank McLaury Gang, a movie about the old American west seemed appropriate. Plus, I could root for the “bad guys” in that infamous conflict, since I knew from my careful reading of that watershed feud, the Clanton’s were no more a band of ornery, violent hoodlums than were the Earp’s and their inner circle which included Doc Holliday. The Earp’s were just polished, slick, and had a taste for better clothes.

But based only on the fact that I had seen the film Reservoir Dogs earlier that same year on a premium channel—a movie I had totally missed at the theaters when it first came out—I decided to give Pulp Fiction a whirl. Reservoir Dogs was a visceral thrill—the young director Quinton Tarantino’s remarkable attempt to capture a microcosm of LA gangsters planning, then badly botching, a jewelry store heist. The film’s title is allegorical, for there is no reservoir, and there are no dogs, and—as it turns out—no actual scenes of the robbery itself, save for a brief foot chase along a sidewalk presumably a block or two away from the crime scene. Diamond hold-up gone awry, escalating into murder and bloody mayhem, and suspecting that one among their crew might be an undercover cop, this crew of black-suited hoods rendezvous in a deserted warehouse (as planned), where they violently sort out friend from suspected foe. In between shouting threats at each other, waving guns in faces, and torturing a hapless policeman, there are a few flashbacks to the happier times days and hours before the crime.

To characterize the violence as Shakespearean would be an understatement, but it would insult neither The Bard nor Tarantino. Still, the razors, 9 mm bullet holes, and general gore are not what make Reservoir Dogs fun: it’s that naturalistic banter—at times comic, at times ironic, at times sentimental, at times pedestrian—that keeps us fixed on the non-linear tale, a kind of shaggy-dog yarn in which everyone inevitably dies at the end. Once you get hooked by that pre-heist breakfast diner banter in the opening sequence, you can’t look away—no matter who gets a bullet in the belly or who has an ear slashed off with a straight razor. And throughout the narrative, there is the endearing and deadpan sound of writer/comedian Steven Wright, in this case a droll radio station disc jockey specializing in pop and rock sounds from the 1970s.

It was widely regarded as a masterpiece for Tarantino and his writer/producer/collaborator Lawrence Bender. Shot and edited on a tiny budget of $1.1 million, and starring Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and others, it became a cult classic. It was also hailed by the non-mainstream film press as one of the great achievements of independent (non-studio) filmmaking. The movie’s success quickly immortalized Tarantino and Bender, professed movie geeks who both were working part-time in a video rental store in a beach suburb of Los Angeles, elevating them from minimum wage rental jockeys to Made Men within the world of anti-studio, independent film production.

Snubbed and frowned upon at Cannes and Sundance, despite the movie’s enormous street buzz, the film was picked up by Miramax, and then went on nonetheless to rake in more than $2.8 million in immediate theatrical rentals. Over time, it gained even more momentum, selling in VHS units by the millions. It remains a powerful seller on DVD and Blu-ray even now, and it is widely considered one of the most important independent films ever produced. At the time, some critics wondered aloud if Tarantino had caught the same lightning in a bottle once caught by the young Orson Wells upon completion of Citizen Kane—which inevitably left many pondering the possibility that Tarantino, like Wells before him, might become a One Hit Wonder.

But it was not to be. Challenged perhaps by the fact the Reservoir Dogs fell short among the sometimes snobbish literati at the prestigious honors and awards gigs, Tarantino upped the ante, as it were. His response was Pulp Fiction, released in 1994 by Miramax to a much larger theater audience than Reservoir Dogs.

There are two types of people who have seen Pulp Fiction: those who hate it and regret the experience, and those who think it was audacious and transformative. Almost no one watches it without taking one or the other position.

Non-linear to a fault, Pulp Fiction tells the fragmented, picture-puzzle tale of a dozen or so characters moving about in the shadowy region just below the threshold of legitimacy in greater Los Angeles. Presented in small chapters, many of the interludes deliberately positioned out of their chronological order, we quickly learn that our main protagonists are two local mob soldiers—Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), a down-and-out a middleweight boxer, Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), and Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), wife of the mob kingpin. The characters move around in this rarified society and interact with each other in small, fragmentary stories in time and place, but all are eventually shown to be part of a larger mosaic.

Many of the characters engage in hilariously mundane small talk amidst the grimy, violent business of organized crime. On their way to collect stolen swag (or perhaps an overdue debt) from rogue twenty-somethings who have disrespected the local boss, Vince and Jules discuss the merits of American fast food versus what is found in Europe. Later, after accidentally killing one of their own gang members while he was riding in the back seat of the car, and forced to go to the suburban home of a civilian friend to engage in clean-up and disposal, Vince and Jules calmly discuss the quality of their friend’s freshly-brewed gourmet coffee. Typical LA lowlife ironies abound: Vince spends thousands of dollars to buy high-grade heroine from his drug dealer, Lance, but later complains repeatedly for having to pay five dollars for a fancy milkshake at a retro-themed restaurant. Hamburgers and other staples of fast food are repeatedly discussed: Jules is moments away from murdering an incompetent Bret (Frank Whaley), but takes the time to compare varieties of burgers found in Los Angeles, as well as the pros and cons of vegetarianism.

As a personal interjection, the movie was—for those first 20 or 30 minutes—almost incomprehensible in its strange, darkly fragmented flow. Where are we going with this I whispered to myself. So jarring to my sensibilities were those abrupt time-scene-shifts, that I entertained the possibility that someone in the projection booth had placed the film reels in the wrong order, and that they were now attempting to fix the problem—Laurel and Hardy style—only to make it worse. I was preparing myself for standing up and walking out of the theater, something rare for me no matter how bad a movie gets. But something nudged me to stay a little longer, and after a few more minutes, I realized what Tarantino was up to. Pulp Fiction did not merely grow on me, it grabbed me and took hold. Liberated from concerns that the story was “out of order,” I relaxed and let the sequences hit me just the way Tarantino had intended with his non-linear editing style. By the time it was over, I realized I had just experienced one of the most audacious films I had ever seen.

The end result, of course, is now legendary. Tarantino broke almost as many filmmaking rules as had been broken by Wells decades before with Citizen Kane, and with similarly transformative effects.

Indeed, Pulp Fiction’s now famous rule-breaking triggered, in fact, a paradigm shift in our understanding of what those rules were, and why they probably needed breaking when Tarantino brought the edited version to the big screen. Pulp Fiction also, like Kane, and like some of the groundbreaking films of Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock, and Francis Ford Coppola, created a few new tools in the filmmaker’s took chest, if not a few new canons.

First, let’s state the obvious things that most people associate with Pulp Fiction. The film marked one of the most remarkable comebacks in Hollywood history: John Travolta’s acting career had been languishing almost to the point of no return when the opportunity came along—for relatively low pay—to take on the role of Vincent. Michael Madsen had been Tarantino’s first choice, but because Madsen chose to take on the role of one of the Earp brothers in Wyatt Earp, he had to pass on working with Tarantino, and therefore missed the chance to play the role which ultimately went to Travolta. As Vincent, Travolta not only scored—but scored big, and that performance (which of course included one dance number) put him back on top. Travolta received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Vince, and Madsen has publicly expressed his regret at choosing Wyatt Earp.

Secondly, Samuel L. Jackson’s riveting performance as the ice-cold Jules established Jackson as a heavy to be reckoned with. Indeed, some of his lines are among the most memorable of the movie, and among some of the most famous of any crime film. Most notable were his infamous readings of Ezekiel 25:17, a darkly vengeful Bible quote he routinely employs in the moments before he carries out his assignments as executioner and hit man. Those versed in Bible passages—or those who bothered to check on this (as I once did)—know that no such passage exists, at least not the way Tarantino has written it for maximum effect. But in the hands of Jackson’s chilling rendition, which is a lynchpin for several interconnecting scenes, and does—in fact—bind some of the earliest scenes to the very last. Jackson received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Bruce Willis, like Travolta, had seen his fortunes decline somewhat, though in Willis’ case the drop had not been as precipitous. The once and future star of the money-making Die Hard series was watching as both the number of offers declined, as well as the caliber and pay check of each role. His best option seemed at the time (and in retrospect) a good move—take smaller roles in independent or smaller films…stay working, stay on the radar, and ride out the drought. Pulp Fiction turned out to be a savvy move, rebranding him as a versatile actor, and unshackling him from being forever type-cast as the John McLain of Die Hard fame.

Ving Rhames also saw his Hollywood fortunes rise after his impressive performance as Marsellus Wallace, the carefully calculating criminal gang leader. Rhames was not Tarantino’s first choice for the role of the boss; an offer had been made to Sid Haig first, but Haig turned it down. Rhames made the best of the opportunity, and his portrayal—along with many classic lines—earned him more offers and higher fees thenceforth, including classic roles in Mission: Impossible and Con Air.

The movie’s overlapping time frame motif, and—in a couple of cases—scenes retold from varying perspectives—was considered wildly out-of-the-box. Tarantino accomplishes the unorthodox approach through a sort of willful fusion of audacity and classical skill, embedding bits and pieces of pop culture and retro culture with unvarnished homage to classical moviemaking. Many sections of the narrative feel very much like film noir of the 1950s; other sections seem to have stepped out of the exploitation films of the 1970s. The “date” sequence during which Vince is obliged to entertain Mia Wallace fuses contemporary and retro into one elaborately staged sequence which includes Hollywood look-alike waiters and waitresses, a Twist dance contest on stage, followed by a return to the Wallace home where—in a contrarians love of retro audio, Mia chooses to play smooth 60s R&B sounds on a classic reel-to-reel tape deck. Many critics said that the movie was a mix of noir and gritty realism.

Pulp Fiction is also Tarantino’s encyclopedic homage (and that of co-writer Roger Avary) to his movie and TV heroes, mostly the directors and producers he admires—along with scenes borrowed from the pantheon of classical film shots and TV language which have obviously influenced his style and tone. In one scene, Vincent must open a leather briefcase to confirm its contents—ill-gained swag which remains obscure to moviegoers even to the end of the film. As Vince unlocks the case and opens it, a soft amber-gold light baths his face. This shot, complete with its dramatic low light casting vertical shadows upward across the face, bears uncanny resemblance in composition to a scene from Kiss Me Deadly (1955), a Mike Hammer story in which the actress Gaby Rodgers opens a briefcase, her face alight in a soft glow. Bruce Willis’ character Butch is taken consciously from the movie canon of great fictional and not-so-fictional gladiators of the ring: Butch bears a resemblance in form and style to other doomed movie fighters, and Tarantino goes to great pains to add a tinge of grimy, discolored 50s and 60s grit—notably similar to what we saw in Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull. Butch’s story could have just as easily been shot in black and white. Tarantino also spends much of the movie placing our characters in front of television sets, even when the characters have no idea what they are watching—as in one scene in which Butch asks his girlfriend what she is watching on the ancient TV set in the discolored, dilapidated motel room. She has no idea what she is watching, or why; the television set just happens to be on to fill and space with noise and light.

Much has been written and spoken about Travolta’s dance sequence on the center stage in a restaurant called Jack Rabbit Slim’s. The scene is, of course, a case of life-imitating-art-and-art-vindicating-life. Travolta, the down-and-out actor known so profoundly for a generation as that 70s disco dancer from Saturday Night Fever (and for the increasingly parodic dances scenes in subsequent lesser movies), takes his own story as an actor with him onto that stage when he dances the twist with Uma Thurman. Tarantino surely used this device to leverage nostalgia from the audience, but also to seal the deal, as it were, for the King of Disco. Could Travolta have made such a real-life comeback without a dance scene like that? That scene takes us full circle, injecting all the 60s and 70s kitsch brazenly into one masterfully executed dance number in which we find ourselves rooting for old Tony from Saturday Night Fever.

At the core of the various plot devices: what Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) calls “the miracle,” wherein he and Travolta astonishingly avoid being shot by one of Bret’s comrades early in the movie. A hoodlum lunges suddenly from behind a closed bathroom door, and unloads all six bullets from a .38, without striking Vincent or Jules—his intended targets. This sets in motion the slow but inevitable realization in Jules that it is time for him to retire from the nasty, violent business of organized crime. Jules and Vince debate this theme—on and off—for the remainder of the film, and in the movie’s final, critical dovetail (where a half dozen other stray plot elements soon come into focus) Jules even re-evaluates his interpretations of his oft-quoted Bible verse. This scene, in the same restaurant where the film began with the planning of an apparently unrelated robbery by two hold-up artists (played by Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth) unaware of who Jules and Vincent work for, brings us full circle, but also brings Jules to his denouement from gangsterism: under normal circumstances he would have killed these petty thieves simply for disrupting his path through the day, but in his newly realigned world, he lets them leave unharmed. His “righteousness” as often deployed by his use of Ezekiel 25:17 is now righteousness as clarity as he sets forth as a more peaceful man—much to the displeasure of his pal Vincent.

Pulp Fiction—often characterized as a fusion of black comedy and film noir—also intertwines the gangster’s world into the mundane and the ordinary: a restaurant which serves pancakes and omelets and bacon; a unimaginative, banal suburban home where two mobsters face the challenge of cleaning up a car now drenched in blood; the home of a drug dealer where cartoons and ancient slapstick movie shorts are the preferred entertainment; a low-ball pawn shop filled with the swag of decades past—eight track tape players, turntables, CB radios, ancient stereo equipment, even swords. Food is threaded throughout as a lynchpin of the small talk: hamburgers, milk shakes, Pop-Tarts, bacon; even a bag of potato chips in the hands of Jules’ first victim. Coffee, too, plays a continuing role, from the opening sequence as “Ringo” and Honey Bunny (Roth and Plummer) plan their ad hoc restaurant robbery, to the final scene moments before their unfortunate encounter with Vincent and Jules—along with a half dozen other references in between.

The non-linear structure proved to be the hook for many audiences perhaps expecting something more mundane; filmgoers in tune to the street-smart language and the criminal ethos were being challenged also to stay focused on a story which, after a few minutes (in my case it took about 20 minutes) they realize will connect seemingly unrelated vignettes into one singular mosaic. Pulp Fiction also succeeds because of its paradoxical mix of the familiar with the shocking, but also for Tarantino’s complex love of homage which runs full-tilt alongside his wicked originality. Moviegoers had literally never seen anything like this. And even those already familiar with Tarantino’s style, via his success with Reservoir Dogs, now felt that they had scaled the Mount Everest of independent filmmaking.

Upon its completion, Miramax and the Weinstein Company agreed to back the film and market it. This time, the buzz coming from the film elite was almost unanimous, and by the time Pulp Fiction hit the United States, people were waiting. Though it only cost about $8.5 million to produce, it ended up earning a cool $108 million at the box office alone.

What’s great about Pulp Fiction, as any fan of the movie will attest, is that it remains fresh upon each viewing—a critical hurdle to navigate if a film is to become (and remain!) a classic. Tarantino broke a lot of rules to get there, but in the process shattered a stilted, ossified Hollywood formula machine based on too many rules, too many recipes, too much reliance on cookie-cutter patterns, and too much obsession with “stars.” As one film critic friend said to me one: Quinton Tarantino broke a hell of a lot of eggs, but he also made one hell of an omelet.

Pulp Fiction also invented a new genre, or, as some might argue, reinvented several lost art forms—including film noir, gritty realism, and the black comedy. Some film historians have said Pulp Fiction was the first Postmodern Film Noir Comedy. Tarantino also single-handedly spawned a thousand imitators, so many that it became pointless for him to ever again approach the same theme head-on, as would be a natural temptation. So many imitations were churned out by so many writers and directors, that critic Peter Biskind called the phenomena the “guys-with-guns-frenzy.”

And aside from resurrecting Travolta’s career and making Jackson a household name, Tarantino also singlehandedly introduced the great resurgence in interest in 1970s pop music—ushering in a tsunami of nostalgia for pre-disco radio tunes almost on the same scale as the great wave of interest in late 50s rock and roll that swelled from the success of American Graffiti some 20 years before. Proof that if you wait long enough, everything comes back in style—only in Pulp Fiction’s case, accompanied by a lot of 9 mm guns and a lot of talk about hamburgers.

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