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 revolution, 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, attracting a whole host of established faces eager to hitch a ride on the Tarantino freight train.
A post-Die Hard Willis, in particular, long-since typecast as a generic action star and drowning under the weight of commercial flops, such as Hudson Hawk and Striking Distance, would redefine himself as an actor with much more to offer. A post-Pulp Fiction Willis was a whole other entity, taking on a variety of roles for a series of smash hits that once again made him hot property in Hollywood. Travolta would forge a notable comeback in his own right, returning to the gangster fold to headline Barry Sonnenfeld’s punchy Elmore Leonard adaptation Get Shorty and leaping on the modern action bandwagon to star in the likes of Broken Arrow and John Woo’s deliriously OTT Face/Off with the equally ludicrous Nicholas Cage.
By the time Pulp Fiction was released, SLJ was already something of a screen veteran with almost 30 features under his belt, but asides from providing notable support in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Stephen Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, he was mostly background noise, even for a brief but memorable turn as careless mob associate Parnell Steven “Stackz” Edwards in Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic Goodfellas. Similarly, Thurman’s was a face we were kind of familiar with after memorable turns in Philip Kaufman’s Anaïs Nin adaptation Henry and June and John McNaughton’s hugely underappreciated crime comedy Mad Dog and Glory, but as sex symbol Mia Wallace she truly announced herself as a lead player — ironic since she initially resisted the role and had to be persuaded by a director intent on having her. It’s fortunate that QT was finally able to convince her, because everybody who starred in this slice of movie magic came up trumps.
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!
The first independent movie to gross more than $200,000,000, Pulp Fiction resonated with the public consciousness on just about every conceivable level, thanks largely to Tarantino’s presentation and keen eye for the emblematic. The film, which would provide the basis for an entire episode of cultural juggernaut The Simpsons, would even impact the notoriously PC Oscars, the ceremony’s reluctance to shower it with awards in itself an indicator of the movie’s visionary qualities. We all remember Samuel L Jackson’s apparent disgust at having missed out on the gong for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, a prize that would go to Martin Landau for his astonishing portrayal of troubled Dracula icon Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s biopic Ed Wood. Following the release of Pulp Fiction, conversations about fast food restaurants, light emitting briefcases and expletive-laden leather wallets would all become woven into the very fabric of culture, but just as notable was the director’s use of music.
Tarantino has the ability to pluck tracks out of veritable obscurity and make them relevant, and whenever you hear that track afterwards you immediately relate it to his movies. It doesn’t matter if it’s an obscure, relatively unknown song or a mainstream staple, so memorable are his choices for certain scenes that the two become one. Can you really listen to Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” without recalling a certain conversation about a Royale with cheese? Does Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”, already a long-established hit, not immediately transport you back to a conversation between Willis’ burned-out boxer Butch Coolidge and a plaster-sporting Ving Rhames — yet another actor emboldened by the Pulp Fiction effect?
Tarantino was extremely assured regarding the movie’s choice of music, as he is with all of his movies, a fact punctuated by a real-life discussion between him and Thurman during filming. Unsure of the suitability of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” for the iconic Jack Rabbit Slims dance-off, a scene which cleverly tapped into Travolta’s cache as a dancer in equally iconic movies such as Saturday Night Fever, she was quick to voice her concerns about a track that she didn’t necessarily like, claiming that it just didn’t fit. In response, the director simply replied, “Trust me, it’s perfect,” a remark that is impossible to dispute. To recycle songs in a way that impacts a whole new generation is an art form in itself, and no movie does it quite like Pulp Fiction.
In the years since its release, director Quentin Tarantino has become a somewhat self-indulgent filmmaker, and though 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 shallow, 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 people were still left disappointed. Though in the case of movies like the superb Jackie Brown, this was perhaps less a sign of Tarantino’s 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.
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 instances 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 as much. After a humourous conversation about giving a guy a foot massage, Vincent and Jules arrive at their destination with 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 delightful audacity.
It is this kind of comic charm that helps to offset the movie’s graphic nature, and the two elements are often inseparable. This is perhaps most relevant during “The Bonnie Situation”, when our two lovable gangsters 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 had experienced a divine intervention or a simple 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 in what is essentially a cameo role ― 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. I mean, how often do we fit the words Superfly TNT into an argument about a headless corpse? At the same time, we’ve taken part in those petty squabbles; we’ve been involved in bizarre situations that have helped forge the most unlikely of friendships. In spite of their fanciful incarnations, we can empathise with these characters completely.
More than its unusual form and iconic imagery, it is Tarantino and co-writer Roger Avery’s screenplay that truly defines Pulp Fiction. Sure, QT had done the same for City of Fire derivative Reservoir Dogs two years prior, as he had for Tony Scott crime caper True Romance and the yet to be released but already written From Dusk Till Dawn for friend and long-time collaborator Robert Rodriguez, but Pulp Fiction is far and away the most quotable. Almost every line would become the subject of widespread imitation, not only from fans and enthusiasts, but from writers and directors looking to tap into Tarantino’s innovative formula. 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 heavily stylized and calculated to perfection, but discussions about Big Macs and Whoppers are topics of conversation we can all relate to. The characters are both 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.
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 rip him off and escape with the long-fabled briefcase that leaves even the thrill-seeking Vincent staring in astonishment. Jules and Vince’s 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. This scene, arguably more than any other, personifies the Jules character and his religious spiel, but as wonderful and iconic as it is the character’s true value becomes apparent during the quasi-finale, which picks up where the movie’s startling yet seemingly insignificant prologue left off.
Fabienne: Whose motorcycle is this?
Butch: It’s a chopper, baby.
Fabienne: Whose chopper is this?
Butch: It’s Zed’s.
Fabienne: Who’s Zed?
Butch: Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.
Pulp Fiction does not provide a conclusive ending in a conventional sense, but it does offer closure, and it does so with what seems like the most peripheral of all narratives, that of Jules’ divine purpose, which until that point has provided nothing but comic relief for the most part. In the opening scene, the two dime store crooks whose destiny they will forever alter are nothing but assertive, Tim Roth’s “Pumpkin” and Amanda Plummer’s “Honey Bunny” dreaming of a bright future robbing coffee shops that will “cut down on the hero factor”. But heroes they will surely meet, and as far as their occupational aspirations are concerned, that meeting will not end well. At the time this scene may have confused or disheartened the passive movie goer, but it is an inspired finale that leaves us feeling humbled, enlightened, and, most crucially, satisfied with what is for all intents and purposes a happy ending. Jules may be blowing in the wind and Vincent may have a date with death that we have already experienced thanks to an excruciating O.K. corral style stand-off between fated enemies Vince and Butch and an unfortunate incident with a toaster, but by the time our t-shirt wearing “dorks” exit the coffee shop to an awed and deserved silence, we get the resolution we all craved, even if the movie’s nonlinear timeline tells us that it is not the definitive one.
Though Pulp Fiction‘s final scene is arguably the most satisfying, others are just as memorable. The movie’s two most controversial involve a hypodermic needle and a graphic rape respectively, though the latter relies as much on our imagination as it does its vivid nature. The first of those scenes features an unexpected overdose which hurtles toward a breathtakingly unsettling crescendo. Like the majority of the movie’s set-pieces, it is excruciating to behold yet punctuated by the kind comedy that offers the most unlikely sense of levity, a frenetic phone conversation between Vince and Lance culminating in the former crashing through his drug dealer’s house, while Jody’s insane outbursts as the group search a stoner’s domestic junkyard for a little black medical book only adds to the frenzy. Again, we are presented with outlandish characters in outlandish situations, but we can identify with their human frustrations and petty quarrelling. We recognise the tone of their banter and smile in disbelief as they do. Back in 1994, an adrenaline needle through the heart was a topic of unprecedented fascination.
Lance: You’ve got to pierce through that. So what you have to do is, you have to bring the needle down in a stabbing motion.
Vincent: I-I gotta stab her three times?
Lance: No, you don’t gotta f***ing stab her three times! You gotta stab her once, but it’s gotta be hard enough to break through her breastplate into her heart, and then once you do that, you press down on the plunger.
Vincent: What happens after that?
Lance: I’m kinda curious about that myself.
The second of those scenes is even more unsettling, but the comic touch doesn’t falter. It’s almost impossible to muster a smile when it comes to a subject such as rape; I say almost because of the location’s slowly consumed gallery of potential retribution, Butch going from baseball bat to chainsaw before settling on the kind of samurai blade the director would later fetishize in the Kill Bill movies. Before entering the most sordid pawn shop ever committed to celluloid, Butch and crime lord Marsellus Wallace want nothing more than to wipe each other off the face of the planet, but there are some cruelties so calculated and sadistic that they transcend even the bitterest of feuds. All Butch wants is to escape the gangster’s wrath and begin a new life with his inimitable love Fabienne — a name curiously similar to Rocky Balboa’s Adrian — but when the chance finally presents itself he just can’t go through with it. As much as it is a risk on his part, Butch can’t bear to see a fellow man subjected to such an ignominious death, and takes great delight in seeking vicarious vengeance. As foreshadowed by an earlier flashback scene involving Christopher Walken and a crudely hidden watch, such loyalty can only be forged under the most devastating and unique of circumstances.
Pulp Fiction‘s brand of character interaction revolutionised the craft of screenwriting, its delightfully stylized yet comparatively organic script setting the bar for writers old and new, resulting in a half decade of imitators desperate to emulate his formula. The movie’s success 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 aforementioned Hollywood satire Get Shorty, and even 1998’s fractured narrative thriller Run Lola Run, while Guy Ritchie made an entire career from exploiting the movie’s various techniques and enduring popularity.
Of course, 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 in the ensuing years. 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.