Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Pulp Fiction - 1994

"Pulp Fiction" - 1994
Dir. by Quentin Tarantino - 2 hrs. 34 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

We're almost at the twenty-year anniversary of the release of "Pulp Fiction," which seems like a fair enough amount to time to see exactly what came in it's wake, and how it's held up over time.  On another note, I'm sure that this means there will be another super-snazzy home video package next year, trying to entice me (and others) to re-buy a movie that I've already re-bought repeatedly.  But that's another issue entirely!

"Pulp Fiction," if you've never seen it, is a series of crime-based vignettes that do not play out in chronological order, with certain characters that reappear over the course of the film.  There are a pair of hitmen, Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta), who have to retrieve a mysterious glowing briefcase and return it to it's owner, local crime boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames).  Wallace also is involved in fixing a fight, paying Butch (Bruce Willis) to throw the fight, although he's visibly reluctant.  And there's also the scenes that bookend the film, where Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) attempt to rob a diner.  Plus, unexpected gunfire, wildly inventive and frequent swearing, and more style than ten films usually combine for.

As far as I'm concerned, "Pulp Fiction" is the kind of film that I use to measure other films by.  By that, I mean there's a certain exhilaration that I feel when I've watched a perfect film.  I felt that after I watched "Pulp Fiction" for the first time when it came out, where I was completely amped up, and wanted to watch it again immediately (but I couldn't, because the rest of the night's screenings were sold out, and I had hitched a ride into the big city with one of my friends anyways).  To me, that's the difference between a really good film and a flat-out great one - that feeling where I'm so flabbergasted that I need to watch it again to make sure it was real.  I could understand if someone coming to "Pulp Fiction" now didn't quite get the same feeling out of it that I did; the things that made it stand out have been imitated (or plainly copied) and parodied so much that the iconic scenes might not hit as hard.  Even so, and even after having watched "Pulp Fiction" as frequently as I have, this is a sound film.

The main thing that has suffered in PF over the years is the heavily pop-culture referential bits of dialogue.  It was quirky and clever (in that referring to things in a sideways manner), and now it's just okay.  That doesn't diminish the film, but I'd say that Quentin Tarantino agrees.  His recent films are largely devoid of that pop-culture chatter (I'd suggest that his choice to make period pieces of a sort are one way of forcing him away from that stylistic crutch).  But what stands out still are the idea of theatrical criminals who feel the need to verbally dominate people before committing whatever crime has to be committed.  The guns aren't even the point, they're a post-script.  The point is enjoying a little pretense before brutishness, ugliness, and inevitability takes over.

If Tarantino's dialogue has suffered a bit over the years (although it did win the Academy Award for Best Screenplay that year), that shift means that a repeat viewer might notice the acting performances even more (although Travolta, Jackson, and Uma Thurman were all nominated, so it's not like no one noticed back then).  The cast almost universally turns in incredible, spell-binding performances.  It's to the point where, if you're recalling great moments from "Pulp Fiction," it's tough to find a starting point.  There are endless piles of quotable lines, there's Christopher Walken's monologue, the entire final diner scene.  Even Tarantino's acting role, while not exactly proficient, serves a larger purpose.  Like introducing an intentional flaw into a piece of artwork that sets off the skill the rest of the piece is executed with, watching Tarantino act against Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel shows the difference between real actors and someone trying to act.  When you see Tarantino deliver his own lines, and then Jackson deliver lines Tarantino has written, you explicitly see what good, dynamic acting does to elevate written material.  But to throw a little love Tarantino's way, these actors rarely reach the same levels working with other writers' material.

But honestly, the best part of watching "Pulp Fiction" is seeing what a lot of filmmakers were trying to pull off, but done well.  As is usually the case, the imitations take the stylistic surface innovations (lots of swearing, chatty lowlifes, abrupt violence, cool characters) and ignore what it is that makes Quentin Tarantino unique: his ability to build tension and tease it out for what seems like an impossible amount of time until the audience is squirming for resolution.  This skill has popped up over and over through his career (see the opening scenes of "Inglorious Basterds" or "Django Unchained" for more recent examples), and it's very easily to get distracted by the stylistic hallmarks.  But the overdose scene, the Gimp sequence, and the final diner scene is absolutely masterful storytelling.  It's on par with Alfred Hitchcock's finest work, and these scenes are built on a rock-solid foundation that has aged like fine wine (and not like turning to vinegar, to flip Marsellus' speech to Butch).  For one film to have three extended sequences of this quality is a bounty, an all-time classic.

5 / 5 - Blu-Ray

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