Pulp Fiction (1994)

98

Well, where to start? This is the review I have been dreading to have to write. That isn’t to imply that Pulp Fiction is a bad film. In fact, I consider Pulp Fiction to be in my pantheon of near-perfect films. I don’t need to explain how important Quentin Tarantino is to me as a student of cinema. For those of you who missed it the last dozen times I mentioned it, it was after watching Django Unchained that I decided I could no longer simply watch movies – I needed to write about them, trying to tell the world what I truly felt about them. The title of my website came so easily – it had to be named in the honour of the film that inspired me to start, and by an extent, pay tribute to someone I consider to be one of the most important directors working today. However, Django Unchained was not the first Tarantino film I saw – in fact, by that point, I had seen all of the maestro’s work, and I adored each and every one of them (well, I adored Death Proof less than the others…much less).

It all started when I was a young, naïve movie-loving teenager who just happened to stumble upon Pulp Fiction, a film that was described as “bloody”, “violent” and “not for children” – and naturally, any film that had this kind of reputation had to be different from anything else I had seen. Naturally, being the 13-year-old rebellious teenager that I was at that time, I made my way to the video store, rented it (covering the visit up with the excuse that my parents needed it), and I went home and watched it. This personal little anecdote may seem trivial, but it was quite a transcendent moment. Before that point, I had always seen cinema as being compartmentalized – you had your comedies, your dramas, your westerns, your romances and many other genres. They all remained in their assigned boxes, for the most part, with a little crossover of elements of each in many films, but nothing noteworthy. In my mind, everything had their preconceived, assigned place in the cinematic world.

Now seeing Pulp Fiction, I was taken aback by how this is a film that is almost uncategorizable. It had elements of neo-noir, black comedy, action, drama and perhaps even a few moments of horror. There was a lingering supernatural element, and even brief touches of romance. These weren’t different genres briefly interacting with one large genre – this was a film that was composed out of several different genres, all working together in perfect synchronicity. My mind was blown, and I was never able to look at cinema the same way again.

Pulp Fiction is one of the most discussed pieces of art ever produced. There are countless essays, videos and books that discuss the film and its plethora of themes. Over the past twenty-three years, it has become perhaps the Hamlet of 1990s independent cinema, in the way that for every theory or idea one has about it, there is a dozen more that develop the same idea and in a way that is a lot more nuanced and detailed. There is nothing I can say about the themes of Pulp Fiction that haven’t been said before by people that are a lot smarter than me, and more qualified to be making the judgments. People with degrees on their walls and their names on the front-covers of highly-acclaimed books. People who have dedicated their life’s work to cracking the code to Tarantino’s iconic but slightly confounding postmodern masterpiece.

But screw it, I have a blog called Movies Unchained. My opinion and thoughts are just as valid.

However, I am genuinely bewildered at where to begin. I can’t dare discuss everything – that would just serve to be an exercise in redundancy because there is far too much to say about Pulp Fiction. Trust me, I am well-aware that I have yet to actually discuss the film itself, rather opting to discuss the culture surrounding the film. Perhaps this is a good place to actually start – looking at Pulp Fiction as something that somehow transcends being just a film, rather becoming a cultural phenomenon, a film that has been embraced by highbrow critics, incredibly intelligent academics and most of all, the general population. It is the rare film that manages to be held in high esteem by both sides of the cinematic audience society, the critics and the general public (not to say that those are mutually exclusive groups, we see crossover between them all the time. I personally will wax-poetic about Bergman and Tarkovsky and Fassbinder and Ozu, but will never admit to seeing and enjoying Beverly Hills Chihuahua, which I was disappointed to see wasn’t a canine-centered remake of Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop).

The culture that exists around Pulp Fiction is so intense, and the film has become such a definitive part of film culture, it is impossible to say anything new about this film – and it is a tricky situation as well, because, with anything popular, there are bound to be detractors who consider it to be “overrated” – I won’t deny that I’ve contributed to that with certain films that I felt were ridiculously overhyped. It is often easier to praise more obscure or less-popular films, because it precludes an influx of criticism towards your apparent adoration of said film being only due to the fact that you are a “populist pig” (an epithet I have been called and held in high-esteem, specifically for my love of Tarantino). Yet, if there is a film that deserves its status as a classic film, then it is most certainly Pulp Fiction. I will refute any idea that Pulp Fiction is overseen or over-discussed, because every single time a new person is introduced to Pulp Fiction and they love it, this insatiable and deserving cult(ure) surrounding Pulp Fiction becomes stronger, and even if you despise Quentin Tarantino (for reasons I will touch upon later on), you can’t deny the lasting influence this film has on the cinematic landscape.

So how does one go about writing about Pulp Fiction? Clearly, not well. I have spent the last seven paragraphs discussing the concept of Pulp Fiction, rather than the film itself. Yet, it isn’t an easy film to write about at all. I am fearful that I will miss something, so a part of me wants to just stop writing this piece altogether – but then I wouldn’t have the chance to say everything I wanted to say about this film. It is a quandary. I sometimes wonder what Quentin Tarantino would say if he was in my shoes, having to discuss a film as complex as Pulp Fiction. Perhaps this is the key to unlocking the riddle of Pulp Fiction – the approach to take isn’t that of the cinematic academic, or the film critic, or even the casual film-fan. The correct approach is to look at Pulp Fiction through the eyes of the only person who can truly understand it. Obviously, we don’t quite know what Tarantino was thinking when making this film, but we certainly can approach it from his perspective, as anyone who adores cinema as much as Tarantino is bound to understand this film.

So now that the introduction is finally over, let’s talk about the film.

I could call Pulp Fiction a pioneering piece of independent cinema. I could call it as postmodern masterpiece that sticks to the traditional idea of a lack of answers and metanarratives to tell a layered and bewildering story. I could even call it a complex piece of social commentary that blends various genres and uses its radical intertextuality to remind the audience of what has come before, and how it can be used to construct something that reminds us that we live in a decaying world. Or I could tell you the truth, which is that Pulp Fiction is a film made by a man who adores cinema and set out to create the ultimate fantasia for cinephiles. I want to try and avoid discussions on the themes of Pulp Fiction, mainly because I don’t want to detract from the countless other discussions surrounding this film. However, what has to be done has to be done, and at the fear of making this review even more rambling and incoherent, onwards we go.

So…the cast. That’s a good place to start, maybe? Tarantino has never had a problem assembling fantastic casts – and Pulp Fiction is one of his greatest ensembles. Everyone works so well together, and he uses the talents of his actors in such wonderful ways. I will spare you the contrived explanation about how Pulp Fiction revitalized John Travolta’s career. That’s an interesting anecdote if you’ve never heard it before, but it is such a common fact about this film, it bores me to even write about it (and there I go, doing the exact thing I am criticizing – what a postmodernist I am). To get to the point, Pulp Fiction represented a high-note in Travolta’s career and set him off back into the A-list after he made some truly trashy films. He also made Look Who’s Talking, an underappreciated work of art that represents the struggles of a post-capitalist society and how one struggles with raising a child in a radically declining economy on its way to another crash (actually, it is the very definition of trash, except for the talking killer toilet, which is a very serious problem in our world today). He is paired up with Samuel L. Jackson, who began his critically-acclaimed Profanity Tour with this film, which is constantly being rebooted because of its popularity. Putting jokes aside, Travolta and Jackson have such wonderful chemistry, and I feel Pulp Fiction is a perfect film (or close to being perfect), and part of that is due to the performances of Jackson and Travolta. Add Uma Thurman to the mix, and you have a trio of stars that really made their best out of their collaboration with Tarantino. I don’t even need to explain why the iconic dance scene between Travolta and Thurman is one of the greatest moments in cinema history (because no one lets you forget it).

In terms of smaller performances, I actually do have a complaint about Pulp Fiction – Bruce Willis. Perhaps not his performance itself (he was great), but Butch’s entire arc was somewhat disposable. It did stick to the theme of redemption and covered several ideas that are explored elsewhere in this film. I want to choose my words carefully, because many people adore Butch’s segment of the film. Personally, as good as it was, it felt like a bit of an interlude to the truly brilliant segments that occur both before and after it. I won’t deny that on occasion when re-watching Pulp Fiction, I tend to skip over some of the slower moments of Butch’s arc, because it just doesn’t feel fitting to the film. Some people may love it, and it has its moments of transcendent brilliance, but personally, I felt for a film that was over two-and-a-half hours in length, a little trimming could’ve been done. That is literally my only complaint about Pulp Fiction. Look at me, reviewing Pulp Fiction like it is a conventional film.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room – violence. Once again, there are so many people that dismiss Tarantino’s films because they are overly violent. I am under the impression that the vast majority of these people haven’t actually seen a Tarantino film. Pulp Fiction seems to be the film that is most often seen as being the epitome of violence in a Tarantino film. Watching this film, you are struck by one thought – where is this supposed violence? Of course, Pulp Fiction is not a tame film – it has its moments of genuine horror and outrageous violence. Yet, there are only seven deaths in this film in total. Contrary to popular belief, Tarantino does not condone violence. He actually finds it despicable – and he is just interested in showing the effects of violence on society and how it occurs around us without us even knowing. The brutality of his films is only due to this fascination with showing violence in an artistic manner, and while it can sometimes be a bit too excessive, for the most part, it manages to be quite the opposite of glamorous and exciting – only in Kill Bill is violence shown to be somewhat glamorous – the rest of the time, we are experiencing representations of violence that are used for effect. There is absolutely nothing wrong with disliking how Tarantino uses violence, but if you use that as an excuse to dismiss his career, and Pulp Fiction specifically, then you are missing the copious amounts of humour and intelligent discussion across a broad spectrum.

What else is there to say about Pulp Fiction? There is so much that I could say and discuss, but there is a limit to how incoherent and rambling this can get. If it isn’t clear already, I am way too much of a fan of this film to be objective. But in all honesty, Pulp Fiction is a wonderful film. It is filled with complexities and nuances in terms of its story, and it features some of the most iconic moments in recent cinema history. I know this film is somewhat overblown and seen as too popular, but there is a reason – it is a film made by someone who is so truly passionate about cinema, and all he wants to do is to impart that love of cinema on audiences. He’s built an entire career out of making various pastiches to other works that have inspired him, and whether it is with Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, or one of his later “revenge-films”, he is a filmmaker who uses his knowledge of cinema and legitimate talent to craft something that is entertaining but also highly intelligent when you get down to it. What defines Pulp Fiction for me isn’t the popular conception of the effortlessly-cool gangsters performing hits in-between banal discussions – it is, in fact, those very banal discussions that fascinate me the most about Pulp Fiction. The lingering melancholy and themes of redemption that underpin Pulp Fiction are what makes this such a brilliant film. Underneath the elaborate and entertaining surface, there is a deeply human film. There is a reason Pulp Fiction captivated audiences two decades ago, and for whatever reason, that depends on the person who is watching it. It is a film that contains such radically subtle meaning, it will cause ranging responses in every viewer. That is why Pulp Fiction is such a masterpiece, and why it is so difficult to write a clearly objective piece about it.

Alas, I am sure I will have more to say about this film later on. But for now, I think I’ve said everything that needs to be said. This is a film that has different meanings for every person who watches it, and that is why it is a part of our culture. I feel like I really haven’t said anything at all, but then again, there is very little that can’t be said about Pulp Fiction.

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