VHS Revival revisits Tarantino’s ageless pop culture juggernaut
It is hard to convey just how much of an impact Pulp Fiction had on popular culture during the mid-nineties.
For those who were around to witness the frenzy, you will remember a cultural phenomenon whose immediate influence was as potent as anything that went before. Not only did it resurrect the fading careers of two of Hollywood’s most famous actors in Bruce Willis and John Travolta, it made superstars out of Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson, while attracting a whole host of established faces eager to hitch a ride on the Tarantino freight train. Everybody who starred in this slice of movie magic came up trumps.
The first independent movie to gross more than $200,000,000, Pulp Fiction resonated with the public consciousness on just about every level. From the noirish poster design to an immaculately arranged, bestselling soundtrack, the movie oozed style and originality, standing tall in a period which gave us such gangster classics as Carlito’s Way, Miller’s Crossing and Goodfellas.
Pulp Fiction’s unique form blitzed the mainstream, while its delightfully stylized, yet comparatively organic screenplay set the bar for writers of the period, resulting in a half decade of imitators desperate to emulate his formula. Quotable from start to finish, the film was the subject of respectful parodies across the board, while even the Oscars showed their recognition, the ceremony’s reluctance to shower it with awards in itself an indicator of its visionary qualities.
In the years since its release, director Quentin Tarantino has become a rather self-indulgent filmmaker, and although he is still capable of the kind of dazzling set pieces that most can only dream of, the cinematic tropes that once made him the industry’s golden prodigy have become tiresome and somewhat overbearing.
With each overly-hyped blockbuster, the violence grows needlessly explicit, the racial slurs less tolerable, and his standard running times, however unique and colourful and packed with cute pop culture references, seem to long outstay their welcome. This may be due to the all-out creative control that such an infallible presence warrants, but even when his subtleties were still intact and he was producing cult classics such as Jackie Brown, people were still left disappointed. This is less a sign of his dwindling ability, more evidence that Pulp Fiction will never be bettered.
Marsellus Wallace – You see, this profession is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherfuckers. Motherfuckers who thought their ass would age like wine. If you mean it turns to vinegar, it does. If you mean it gets better with age, it don’t.
Tarantino’s colossal opus is a near perfect movie. Although it unquestionably defined an era, it refuses to be tied to one, and in a bizarre journey via a 50s themed cafe known as Jack Rabbit Slims, we follow an Afro-wielding gangster and his 70’s icon cohort, while an eclectic range of popular music traverses four decades, resulting in an enduring abstraction of time and place. Music is such a huge factor to the movie’s appeal, from the opening burst of Kool and the Gang’s Get Down On It to Maria McKee’s darkly tender If Love is a Red Dress (Hang Me in Rags), it is vital in generating both style and substance, aiding and embellishing its events and characters while revitalizing hits such as Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together and Dusty Springfield’s Son of a Preacher Man ― songs that would become instant cult classics in the minds of a whole new generation.
The movie’s plot is a simple one, although a fractured, non-linear structure gives us an illusion of complexity, just as its characters and events present us with an illusion of reality. The story is book-ended by a peculiar coffee shop stick up from two different perspectives, with a would-be-romance, an unlikely truce and a philosophical journey tying it all together.
There are also moments of overt unreality that are in-keeping with the movie’s title ― moments of rear projection effect as in the taxi of Esmarelda Villalobos, an instance in which Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace draws an imaginary square with her fingers ― while events are heavily stylized, a sequence where Travolta’s Vincent takes part in an intimate ritual of drug taking instantly iconic. So obvious are its pulp fiction leanings that the screenplay is brazen enough to acknowledge it itself. After a humourous conversation about giving a guy a foot massage, Vincent and Jules arrive at their destination with the the intention of killing everyone inside, and the latter reminds his partner that they first have to ‘get into character’ in a self-reflexive moment of charming audacity.
The Wolf – If I’m curt with you it’s because time is a factor. I think fast, I talk fast and I need you guys to act fast if you wanna get out of this. So, pretty please… with sugar on top. Clean the fucking car.
It is this kind of comic charm that helps to offset the movie’s often graphic nature, and the two elements are sometimes inseparable. This is perhaps most relevant during The Bonnie Situation, when Vince and Jules are forced to take a detour after Vincent accidentally shoots Marvin in the face. Vince and Jules always seem to be arguing on some level, and their difference of opinion reaches its zenith during a heated discussion about whether the two of them had experienced a divine intervention or a freak occurrence by escaping death under fire. Jimmy (Tarantino) is the unlucky sucker lumbered with the quarrelling pair, and when Winston Wolfe ― played with emblematic panache by Harvey Keitel ― shows up to lend an inimitable hand in disposing of the body, Vincent takes offence at his curt and demanding manner, and the comedy duo soon becomes a classic ménage à trois, resulting in some of the movie’s finest dialogue.
More than the unusual form and iconic imagery, it is Tarantino and co-writer Roger Avery’s screenplay that truly defines Pulp Fiction. Before QT, movies would invariably use dialogue as a device to move the plot forward, but there is hardly an instance of exposition in the entire movie. The film may be full of idiosyncratic characters caught up in unusual situations, but they chat like regular people, not with the words they use but in the formless way in which they communicate. They’re not talking as a means to get from A to B, they are talking about regular stuff in a regular way. It may be stylized to perfection, but discussions about Big Macs and Whoppers and Elvis and The Beatles are topics of conversation we can all relate to. The characters are familiar and unfamiliar, recognizable and completely distorted, grounded in reality yet ill-fitting pieces in a jigsaw of pop culture fantasy. Where else would you find a hick racist with a submissive troop of basement dwellers, women with pot belly fetishes and Cuban cab drivers with an unhealthy fascination with murder? The answer is everywhere, but Pulp Fiction set the bar.
Jules – Well, I’m a mushroom-cloud-layin’ motherfucker, motherfucker! Every time my fingers touch brain, I’m Superfly T.N.T., I’m the Guns of the Navarone!
Of course, you can’t talk about Tarantino without talking about wonderfully tense set-pieces, and there are plenty to delight in here. The first takes place in a grubby, rented apartment where three of Marsellus Wallace’s former associates are in hiding following a fateful decision to try to rip him off. Jules and Vinces’ abrupt transition from comedy act to ‘the tyranny of evil men’ is startling, the former’s dwindling patience and growing fury culminating in a scene fully deserving of Jackson’s Oscar nomination, and perhaps just a smidgen more.
Another example of the director’s inimitable set piece abilities, and probably the most memorable, features an unexpected overdose which hurtles toward a breathtakingly unsettling crescendo. Like the majority of the movie, it is saturated in comedy, a frenetic phone conversation between Vince and Lance culminating in the former crashing through his drug dealer’s house, Jody’s insane outbursts as the group search a stoner’s domestic junkyard for a little black medical book only adding to the frenzy. Back in ’94, an adrenaline needle through the heart was a topic of unprecedented fascination.
Almost as tense is an O.K. corral style stand-off between fated enemies Vincent and Butch and an unfortunate incident with a toaster, while the infamous rape scene has lost none of its power, the unlikely alliance of Butch and Marsellus mirrored by Christopher Walken‘s tale of assholes, watches and the kind of loyalty that can only be forged under devastating circumstances. Then there is the movie’s final stand-off between Jules and Ringo, which although without bloodshed is rich in catharsis, our t-shirt wearing “dorks” exiting the cafe to an awed and deserved silence.
The success of Pulp Fiction would spawn a whole host of Tarantino clones, from forgetful knock-offs such as 8 Heads in a Duffle Bag to punchy yet derivative imitators like Things to Do in Denver when You’re Dead. There were even a couple of memorable efforts such as 1995‘s Hollywood satire Get Shorty, while Guy Ritchie made an entire career from exploiting the movie’s various techniques and enduring popularity.
There is one major difference. When you revisit any of these films today, they immediately smack of a very distinct period in movie history, one that has lost much of its charm. Pulp Fiction forged that period, but it doesn’t belong to it. It is ageless, incomparable, and in all likelihood one of the finest, most influential movies ever committed to the silver screen.
In the words of Winston Wolfe, ‘Just because you are a character, doesn’t mean you have character.’
Time, as they say, will attest to that.