Thursday, 9 August 2012

Pulp Fiction (1994)

I'm going to take a break from the Batmania today to take a gander at Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994). This film was Tarantino's second home run, following 1992's Reservoir Dogs (I guess he probably spent 1993 mucking around as the screenwriter on Tony Scott's True Romance). Pulp Fiction earned Tarantino the mass approval his earlier work never drummed up (including that ultimate bourgeois booby-prize, an Academy Award) and that's the story of How Tarantino Became King of the Movies.

Long may he reign.
Pulp Fiction follows multiple story threads: gangster Vincent Vega's (John Travolta) date with his boss' wife (Uma Thurman); a boxer (Bruce Willis) accepting a bribe to fix a match, then winning anyway and leaving town; a pair of gangsters (Travolta again, plus Samuel L. Jackson) cleaning up post-wetworks. The stories don't happen in any special order, so the characters wander in and out of each other's worlds, generally to destructive effect. When the dust has settled, there have been near-death experiences, there have been actual death experiences, there have been rapes, drug overdoses, botched robberies and dance-offs. It's not too surprising that the movie wraps on Jules Winnfield (Jackson's thug) decision to retire: after a nearly three-hour run time, he's had enough of this shit.

Truthfully, I'm not interested in talking about whether Pulp Fiction is a good or bad movie. It's neither. Tarantino has been called a DJ rather than a director, and rather than taking this as an insult, I think it's the most useful way to interpret his work. His innovations are structural: they have nothing to do with the narrative content. We've seen, for instance, the aged boxer and the mob boss a million times before. What we've never seen is the boxer save the mob boss from sadomasochistic hillbilly pawn-shop owners with a handy katana. That's where things get interesting. Even Tarantino's widely-touted dialogue is not so much novel as unexpected. I've had lots of stupid conversations with my friends about TV show pilots and what to eat for breakfast. It's just that we expect people up on the silver screen to be a little more erudite.

If you know a lot about movies and pop culture in general, you are likely to enjoy Pulp Fiction. If you are not particularly fascinated by McDonald's menus from France or doing the Twist in tacky fifties diners, you might want to give it a miss. It's the cinematic equivalent of D+D's neutral-neutral, and therefore un-rateable: you'll get out of Pulp Fiction however much you can put into it. I give it a 1-5/5, depending.

Blueberry pancakes play a pivotal role in this movie.
SCENE STEALER: Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer as Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, lovesick robbers who impulsively turn their brunch into a stick-em-up. Pumpkin and Honey Bunny bookend Pulp Fiction, pulling their guns just before the starting credits roll and being politely sent packing by Jules and Vincent at the close of the film. Although this is one of those movies where you want to learn more about all the characters (the fascinating Mia Wallace disappears after the first act, one of Pulp Fiction's only major disappointments), Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are unique in that they almost seem to deserve a movie of their own. Who are these British brigands? Did love or crime come first? How did they wind up inhaling pancakes in a lousy LA diner? I guess we'll never know.

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