Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Great Alphabet of Films—P is For

Pulp Fiction

      I've referenced Quentin Tarantino so many times before that I feel like he's already been awarded his own Great Alphabet of films. His extraordinary breadth of influence—or more explicitly, those who have inspired him—permeates most of my broadest cinematic affections. I guess this is why, perhaps perfectly fitting, that I'm moving from a discussion of a Sergio Leone film (whom Tarantino adores for his staggering stylization) to, in my opinion, Tarantino's best film. 
      The near anthological assortment of guys who have inspired the early 90's wunderkind include the aforementioned Sergio Leone (one of his earliest influences), Sam Peckinpah, Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Melville, Raoul Walsh, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Brian De Palma, Douglas Sirk, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and so many more greats (I could write a whole piece just detailing the depths of his influences). The point that I'm trying to communicate here is that a faultless appreciation of Tarantino's immense craft requires an appreciation of cinema's history. The remuneration of Tarantino's distant influences magnifies ones appreciation of his frequent allusions to past films. From the perspective of a seasoned moviegoer,, viewing a Tarantino film is akin to enrolling in a history class, in which every lesson is communicated through a cultivated sequence of exalted illustrations (as opposed to dry lectures). Consequently, Tarantino 101 is a prerequisite for any budding film professional, and especially, for those who witness his self-referential masterpiece, Pulp Fiction.
      The Academy Award-winning script by Tarantino and Roger Avary crisscrosses three vignettes: one that features Samuel L. Jackson (Jules Winnfield) and John Travolta (one of the coolest names ever, Vincent Vega) as hitmen who are trying to retrieve a stolen suitcase—oh by the way, they also have hilarious philosophical exchanges on such thought-provoking topics as the equivalent French names for American fast foods; John McClane, (I mean Bruce Willis) as a downtrodden, albeit proud boxer by the name of Butch Coolidge, whose pride is tested in the form of a viscous mob boss, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames); and a veritable wealth of other formidable actors: Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, Tim Roth, Uma Thurman, and Eric Stoltz—whose still wondering how he managed to lose the critical, career-making role of Marty McFly in Back to the Future (of course, Zemeckis wanted Michael J. Fox the whole time). I'm sorry, Stoltz.

      Extremely violent, immersed in mundane, but sharp-witted dialogue, and littered with thrilling action-based aesthetics, Pulp Fiction is the preeminent film of the 90's, right alongside Scorsese's Goodfellas. Proving to be as perceptive in style as he is operational in substance, Quentin Tarantino harmonizes an ambitious amalgam of cinematic traditions—the violent, conversational language of Elmore Leonard and Sam Fuller, the daring violence of every Scorsese gangster film, the intricate designs of past crime films (esp. those of Jean-Pierre Melville), and the cynical tonality of film noir—into an infinitely entertaining mixture of exploitative violence, avant-garde experimentation, and Rashomon-style storytelling.
      The winner of the Palme d'Or (1st Place) at its Cannes Film Festival debut, Pulp Fiction is not merely just an endlessly exciting joyride. It is, quite profoundly, a taut, imaginative and brilliant directorial vision, focusing on destiny, choice and spiritual possibility. Not only does Jules have a spiritual awakening at the end of Pulp Fiction, but Butch and Fabiene's climactic chopper ride, fittingly called Grace (a reference to Easy Rider), is an endorsement of spiritual power. Who would've expected such penetrating enlightenment from an obscenity-spouting crew of hoodlums and washed-up boxer? This espousal of violent purpose is owed to Tarantino's genius—the genius of a man who operates with exhilarating gusto, particularly, in the realm of lowlifes and small-timers. Tarantino uses extreme behavior to manipulate his audiences in meaningful ways. The disturbing scenes in Pulp Fiction—much less gory than Reservoir Dogs—are tempered by rampant, untamed humor. He is purposely delicate with his cold-blooded characters, using the shock value of such contrasts to keep his audience off-balance. Suspending his viewers' moral judgments makes it that much easier for Mr. Tarantino to sustain his film's startling tone. When he offsets violent events with unexpected laughter, the contrast of moods becomes liberating. Far from any amoral grounding, these tactics compel the viewer to forfeit all preconceptions while under Tarantino's cinematic spell.
      In a career-making role for Samuel L. Jackson and one that reignited the once, seemingly untouchable Movie Star career of John Travolta, Mr. Tarantino's film is an actor's dream. Originally slated for Michael Madsen aka Vic Vega from Reservoir Dogs, the role of Vincent Vega ultimately went to John Travolta. The film's enormous success and his Oscar nomination as Best Actor revitalized his career. Travolta, with his immense charm, is one measure of why Mr. Tarantino's screenplays are an actor's dream. The part of Jules Winnfield was written with Samuel L. Jackson in mind, but he almost lost the part during the audition process. As the Jheri-curled, philosophical badass, Jackson owned every scene he was in, exuding "great vengeance and furious anger." He shows off a spirited intelligence and an avenging stare that causes child nightmares. He is also one-half, the dynamic comic duo, lead by the captivating Mr. Travolta.  

      And who can forget Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace. The iconic dance scene between her and Mr. Saturday Night Fever himself, John Travolta, takes place at Jack Rabbit Slims, a spectacularly photographed set complete with it's 1950's motif. Their sensual dance sequence featuring the twist to Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell (C'est La Vie) is so flashy and hallucinatory that Vincent leaves in a daze—and an indelible mark was burned in my young, curious cinematic mind, as the power of the medium was beautifully revealed to me. Bruce Willis took less money to be in the film (as he was a major star), but his role earned him new respect as an actor. According to Tarantino, "Bruce has the look of a 50's actor. I can't think of nay other star that has that look." Harvey Keitel as "The Wolf"—the suave sanitation expert, whose specialty is unwanted gore—is...well, just watch this scene. The remainder of the extremely robust and talented ensemble cast does a tremendous job. There's just too much to like about Tarantino's cast, not to mention the fact that Tarantino believes his characters wardrobes are their "symbolic suits of armor."
      Tarantino's eclectic assortment of rock and roll, surf music, soul, and pop songs perfectly capture the audacious spirit of the film. According to Estella Tincknell, the combination of well-known and obscure recordings helps establish the film as a "self-consciously cool text. The use of the mono-tracked, beat-heavy style of early 1960's U.S. underground pop mixed with classic ballads such as Dusty Springfield's 'Son of a Preacher Man' is crucial to the film's postmodern knowingness." It is, quite tellingly, a sub-culture based around a lifestyle that immediately transports you to this Tarantino wonderland of violence, subversion, shock, hilarity, and pop culture vivacity. 
      Tarantino's sophomore film, following the bold footprint of his artful and violent Reservoir Dogs, was a national cultural phenomenon. With its recursive, highly intertextual style, Pulp Fiction is created in context of movie life rather than real life, capped off by unforgettable iconography. And the arresting, extremely dark sense of humor is a wonderful homage to one of Tarantino's biggest writing influences, Elmore Leonard.
      Pulp Fiction is the work of a filmmaker whose lustful clutch of pop culture manifests itself in original, terrific ways. From Rock & Roll Surf music on the soundtrack to Jean-Luc Godard allusions, Pulp Fiction is a riveting example of flawless, cinematic entertainment. Despite Tarantino's fascination with past films, his film is completely new. As a man who accepts the creative challenge of writer-director, Tarantino's old form of storytelling is purposely meant to run awry (think oldest story in the book trope, as evidenced by the Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace's Wife vignette, in which Vincent is forbidden from touching Mia). 
      The nature of Pulp Fiction's development, marketing, and distribution, and its colossal profitability had a sweeping effect on the world of independent cinema (despite the fact that it's not an independent film in the conventional sense of the term). Tarantino's film is a cultural watershed that reflects pastiche, homage, and is quite powerfully, a prime example of postmodern film. Like every classic before it—Hitchcock's Psycho and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange—Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, with it's unfettered intensification of violence or more term-oriented, "aestheticization of violence," intimidated the tried-and-true film industry. Consequently, Tarantino's daring and ambitious film, which is defined by deliberate disconsolation and operatic violence, blazed the trail for other unique, artistic films—none that ever matched the visual luster and sharp-witted language of Tarantino's aesthetic wonderland. Ultimately, the cinematic world owes a debt of gratitude to Tarantino. His intrepid amalgam of violence and pop culture aggregation opened the door for an unhinged, creativity boon. 

*The famous Pulp Fiction trailer. It's better than most feature films. 

Source for Quotes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pulp_Fiction & http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110912/quotes


  1. It's strange how most movie trailers show five or six scenes and give away the whole story (including the ending)and this one shows about fifty scenes and you'd still never know what the movie was about.

  2. Great movie! I'm a big Quentin Tarantino fan!

  3. It took me a while to work up the nerve/guts to watch this show. My family kept saying, "Oh, Mom. You wouldn't like this show. It isn't for you. Too violent." So, I didn't know what to expect. When I finally got the DVD and watched it, with popcorn, I was amazed by the intracacies of interplay, dialogue, retro-referrals, characters, etc. It will always be a film by which other films will be measured. Good post.

  4. Pulp Fiction is a great film for sure. Love your writing, but please, I don't understand what you mean by - "sharp-witted mundane dialogue". Thank You.

  5. @ mooderino

    @ Amy

    Thanks! Tarantino is one of my favorites too!

    @ Susan

    Oh, am I glad you mustered the courage. And look, it completely blew you away, quelling any of your initial objections or concerns. This is why Tarantino is so great! He appeals to all.

    And thanks!

    @ anthony


    What I’m conveying with that rather wordy exchange (and I apologize, this is how I write), is the dual effectiveness of Tarantino’s screenplay. His characters engage in “mundane”—meaning everyday conversations—but their dialogue is far from bland or unintelligent. Thus, the “sharp-witted” connotation. While their conversations may be secular in nature, their words and observations are perceptive, witty and hilarious; a contrast of style and execution. Tarantino’s is gifted at making these routine interactions come to life.

    Hope this clarification helps! Perhaps, I should have written "mundane, but sharp-witted dialogue" to clearly illustrate the contrast!

  6. Pulp Fiction is the gift that keeps on giving. I don't know how many times I have watched this film, but I find something new each and every time. I saw this in the theater solo, actually. I had four hours to kill before an evening seminar and decided to treat myself. At the end of the week, I went again with two carloads of friends who had been so sick of listening to me talk about this movie and quote lines, they had to see for themselves. Needless to say, I unleashed Tarantino monsters.

    Every frame of this film is a feast for the senses. I can only describe it as a kaleidoscopic carnival ride that stops and starts, keeping you totally off-balance, yet utterly hypnotized. Tarantino is pure genius and his films consistently rank high on my ever changing favorites lists.

    You would make an excellent professor, one of the cool ones who have waiting lists into infinity. You have inspired me to not only re-watch some films, but to rethink the way in which I watch films in general.

  7. This is hands down one of the best. movies. ever. AND this is coming from a chick flick/comedy movie kinda gal. ;)


  8. YEEEES. This is one of my favorite (if not THE favorite) movies of all time. I have to agree with you completely--one of the best things about watching a Tarantino movie is that it's really a gift from a movie geek to movie geeks. His absolute obsession with film comes through in everything he makes. Just goes to show you it really does taste better when it's made with love.

    This is just a movie I can watch over and over and never get bored of it. The characters are brilliant, the dialogue is amazing, and the contrast of violence and humor that you pointed out really sells the movie for me. Once again, brilliant review!

  9. Oh Quentin Tarantino!!! That man is simply amazing-I LOVE him! It blows my mind how every film he has ever made is just pure genius (at least to me). After watching a film of his it can make you rethink the efforts some of the other directors might put into their films. Anyways, Pulp Fiction is simply a masterpiece and you reviewed it beautifully! You have fantastic writing skills, seriously! Great Review!

  10. Tarantino has quite a unique style, to say the least. I really liked Pulp Fiction, probably my favorite of his movies that I've seen so far (although Inglorious Basterds is a close second).

    Great review as always! :)

  11. @ Melissa

    Yes, exactly! I've not met one person who doesn't love this film.

    And thank you so much for the encouragement, although, I don't have the patience or willingness to be a Professor. I'm flattered, nonetheless!

    @ Amy

    Yeahhhh, girl power for Tarantino. Another reason why this film just completely kicks cinematic ass.

    @ M.

    Precisely. His love for film oozes out of every frame. For the Movie Geek, By the Movie Geek, Of the Movie Geek!

    @ Nicole

    Thank you so much!

    And I'm familiar with your love for all that is Tarantino. And I share it, though not in any kind of romantic, lustful way. Purely, out of awe for his wondrous talents.

    @ Liz

    Nice, and Inglourious Basterds was one of my favorite movies of 2009. So many amazing scenes and such incredible dialogue. It's what we've come to expect from this master of cinema.

    And thanks a bunch!

  12. You definitely made up for not using his Kill Bill movies for K with this post ;)

    I admire Tarantino as a writer more than anything; the man uses dialog in ways that no other screenwriter does, in the sense that he's not afraid to just have discussion in a movie. Most writers are told that for the most part, dialog should further a scene/ move the plot along. But I love when he just has his characters discussing things that just serve the purpose of giving you a little insight into the character (like the tipping scene in Reservoir Dogs). And I have to commend a filmmaker who can create those amazingly long track shots. Those things are genius.

    Awesome post!

  13. @ mooderino

    I apologize. For some inexplicable reason, I did not reply to your comment above.

    Anyway, I agree. This trailer is exciting and offers only a peak into the magic of the film. Though, if I've never seen Pulp Fiction, I'd caution one to avoid it. If they're like me, then they like to watch a film with an almost oblivious nature as to the proceedings.

    Thanks for comment!

    @ C.

    Thank you! I appreciate the thoughtful response.

    And I completely agree with your assessment. Tarantino's brilliance starts with his exceptional screenplays. His ability to imagine conversational dialogue that is neither superfluous or tedious, is a skill I very much admire. He lets the colorful exchanges inform his characters, rather than, as you articulate, merely following standard, expositional conventions of screenwriting. It is part of his gift!

    And, of course, his visual talents and camerawork are equally robust!

  14. Lol. I thought you were being enigmatic. I do that too sometimes, hit send thinking I've typed something when I haven't.

  15. Ah.. P for Pulp Fiction, I just can't agree more :) Quentin Tarantino is certainly one of the best directors of all time. Pulp Fiction is definitely one of his best works ever. I love this film because it contain a lot of ironic mix of humor and violence.

  16. "Pulp Fiction" is, hands down, one of the greatest movies ever made, a timeless classic, and one of Tarantino's best. Still "Kill Bill" and "Inglourious Basterds" remain my favorite Tarantino films.

  17. I have a copy of this somewhere but never got to watch it properly - (it was always being 'borrowed' by my son and disappearing to his house.....I must get it back!)

    Nice blog and a great choice for your A-Z theme!
    I'm off to explore the rest of your alphabet so far! (and thanks for stopping by my blog earlier, too!)

    SueH I refuse to go quietly!

  18. @ mooderino

    Haha. I wish I could be "enigmatic."

    @ Jaccstev

    It's still my favorite Tarantino film, which is a pretty bold statement considering I love so much of his work.

    @ Nebular

    I knew you were a fan of this. Both Kill Bill and Ing. Basterds are tremendous, but Pulp Fiction is his greatest film. But hey, it's okay to disagree from time to time.

    @ Sue

    Awww that sucks. Yeah, "borrowed"...right. Your son is just like me apparently.

    And thank you so much! Hopefully, you'll like my selections!

  19. Undeniably a great movie - Tarantino is a force to be reckoned with as a writer and as a director - and this is a movie I can only break away from when I run across it on TV if there's a commercial break. I'll throw in one of my patented Connected Anecdotes this time - while working on the movie Empire Records, this movie was still playing in theaters - and the soundtrack was a big hit as well. Each morning as our young cast were put through hair and makeup, the boom box in the room would be blaring out some kind of music - and the Pulp Fiction soundtrack must have been played nearly every day - sometimes more than once - quite an eye opener to have Amanda Plummer shrieking at you at 6 in morning while you're bringing coffee to Renee Zellweger, let me tell you! Fantastic post about a great movie! Well done sir!

  20. Thanks Craig!

    Part of his great mystique and bastion of rabid fandom is his dual writing and directing competencies. His ability to craft amusing, but biting dialogue is virtually unrivaled. And his ability to imagine unique and compelling stories is just as good. Oh, and then there's his terrific direction and contagious love for film. The guy's a marvel.

    I must say I'm definitely envious of your morning routines on the set of Empire Records. Haha, I would've done the same thing with the soundtrack.