Skip to main content

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction
(1994)

(SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump. And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

Although, it was more Samuel L Jackson’s reaction to being pipped by Martin Landau that attracted the headlines at the time. How many remember that John Travolta and Uma Thurman were also nominated (only those who recall one-time-only Oscars host David Letterman’s mirthful but much-maligned Oprah-Uma joke)? Pulp Fiction’s main boast was that its most resounding element was rewarded – the screenplay – even if Tarantino would have to wait another eighteen years to scoop a solobest screenplay statuette (that pesky Roger Avary, muscling in on his glory). I tend to wonder, with hindsight, if Avary’s involvement/collaboration shouldn’t have been a regular thing; whatever Tarantino’s achievements since – and his movies have never been less than watchable (okay, excepting Death Proof) – the more successful he’s been, the more indulgent he has become, and pretty much everything he’s made since the millennium could have used someone standing over his shoulder prodding him to cut this or pare down that.

On the other hand, it could just be that the decision to tell three different stories (well, two and a half) instilled its own natural economy. You can’t go too far in expanding the narrative of each or you’ll lose all sense of structure and form. Of which, Tarantino’s work here is masterfully deft. He makes it all look soeasy, the clearest sign of a great talent (again, while I don’t think that faculty has diminished, he’s become flabbier and less willing to hone as the years have gone on and the adulation has increased).

One of the first things one thinks of with the regard to the movie – besides the "Royale with Cheese" exchange and numerous other choice cuts of dialogue – is the playing with time frames, but it’s easy to forget how seamless these transitions feel (in contrast to TriStar’s objection as related by Avery, when the studio was initially courted to produce, that “It makes no sense. Someone’s dead and then they’re alive”). To boil it down to the essentials, first hour is about Travolta, the second about Willis, and then after all that intensity, there’s the take-the-foot-off-the-gas epilogue. One might argue the latter is where the mistakes are made, but there are so few in Pulp Fiction that even they cannot ultimately blight it, even when they stand out a little garishly.

A little garish being Tarantino the actor, then brazen and unrelenting in his performance ambitions, as Jimmie, of “Dead Nigger Storage” fame. The story goes that Steve Buscemi was earmarked for the role but couldn’t schedule it and anyway, the director had his eye on that part or Lance (Eric Stolz). So in one respect, we dodged a bullet in not having the director intrude on one of the film’s very best sequences (nothing quite beats a first-time audience’s reaction to Mia’s resuscitation), and Stolz has never been better as the pally drug dealer who actually wants nothing to do with a client if they have anything heavier on their mind than the simple exchange of narcotics for cash.

What this means for The Bonnie Situation, though, the tail-end story, is that it’s simply breezily likeable rather than great. You can’t honestly credit Jules’ deference towards Jimmie, because it’s gangly geek Tarantino spewing racist epithets and it makes no sense that the fearsome hitman should behave this way just because he “knows him”. This is made even worse when Keitel’s Mr Wolf arrives and is similarly respectful towards his writer-director. The result is the air of unflattering ego-fanning, indulging someone who doesn’t realise they’re out of their league (which was always Tarantino’s problem as a performer, not that he can’t act).

So his presence serves to encourage the lightweight tone of the last sequence, which peaks with Vincent’s misfire. It doesn’t make it a badthing, but it’s definitely less essential. I’ve also never been entirely convinced by Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer). Roth and Plummer are fine (Plummer’s particularly good at unhinged disintegration when Jules is talking her down), but they’re too manufactured to believe in as lovers, and crucially I don’t find myself invested in their fates. Contrast that with the playfulness between Butch (Willis) and Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros), where they seem like a fully-fledged couple full of foibles (albeit, her “like Madonna in Lucky Star” is only ever Tarantino dialogue sounding like Tarantino dialogue, rather than a believable character’s).

I’m hard-pressed, though, to find serious fault with the rest of Tarantino’s confection. Robert Rodriguez would later embrace noir pulp trappings wholesale with Sin City, with too much of Frank Miller’s crudity and exaggeration and too little to care about beyond that. Tarantino indulges himself – the movie environment of Jack Rabbit Slims – but the only time it’s truly at the expense of the content is through casting himself.

The protracted opening exchange between Jules and Vincent is the best kind of Tarantino indulgence, allowing it to divert from topic to topic before bring it back round to its plot purpose, segueing from hamburgers to foot massage in a manner that presents the duo as likeable everyday joes sent on another humdrum job before pulling away the rug with Jules’ uncharted violence at their appointment, disposing of some hapless minor-league associates of Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) who have allegedly double-crossed him.

One might suggest this a slightstretch as they seem entirely ill-equipped for any strategy whatsoever, but who knows what Tarantino’s backstory sketch was (how the unlikely lads even came to be retrieving Marcellus’ briefcase in the first place). One might also suggest that Jules’ flash of divine intervention could have benefited from more weight on his part, as it never takes on profound import, other than as a conversation piece and a means for Pumpkin and Honey Bunny to survive. I don’t know how truly life-changing it is for Jules, such that I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised, if not for Vincent’s fate, if he didn’t reconsider his decision a few days’ later (alternatively, if not for his decision, sceptic Vincent would not have been sent to sort out Butch alone and so pay the price on the can; it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy).

It’s Tarantino’s modus operandi of seeing what happens when best laid plans go off the rails that makes Mia Wallace date work so well. He fosters a leisurely, sense of real-time unfolding at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, secure in the knowledge of where events are heading and so giving the subsequent overdose the greater impact. Likewise with Butch and Marcellus ending up in the basement. It’s the last place we’d expect their conflict to take them (and not showing Bruce’s match – the obvious “feature attraction" – is akin to not showing heist in Reservoir Dogs). With hindsight, I don’t think Walken’s watch monologue is perhaps quite as indelible as it thinks it is, though; it’s too assured of its own impact, and Walken, great as he is, was already becoming (over?) familiar in his ‘90s second wind by this point (Batman Returns, True Romance). The same is true of Keitel coming back to the Tarantino-verse (and then reprising Mr Wolf in a series of insufferable adverts two decades later). But killing Travolta at the ninety-minute mark only to “resurrect” him for The Bonnie Situation is particularly audacious (it allows the audience to leave the movie on a high).

Tarantino was seen as a go-to-guy for career revitalisation due to Pulp Fiction, although that didn’t last very long when no one from Jackie Brown was similarly sprinkled with magic fairy dust. It’s interesting to revisit Pulp Fiction and see those then “old-timers” then now looking so relatively young. Today’s Travolta is like an actor who’s career beganwith Pulp Fiction, rather than the kid who died a death around the time of The Experts and for whom Look Who’s Talking was a tragic epitaph to his former potential. He garnered a good five years grace from Vincent Vega, though, of which only one role (Get Shorty) could be considered a great one. In that sense, the resulting respect paid was a flash in the pan. But he’s funny, playful, even bashful with Uma’s Mia. The moments where he seems genuinely amused, be it something Jules says or mistakenly insulting Stolz’s wife, are the kind of thing Tarantino can’t write, and why a star is so important.

Bruce meanwhile, had been making something of a habit of career self-sabotage, just about keeping his foot in the game despite a string of flops (Bonfire of the Vanities, Hudson Hawk, Striking Distance). This and Last Boy Scout curiously identified him as playing “over the hill” types when he wasn’t yet forty, but he has that kind of face. Like Travolta, Pulp Fiction would carry him until the end of the decade, when The Sixth Sense opportunely came along (after that, well, the choices tend to speak for themselves).

Uma’s also granted a never-bettered role, but while Tarantino enabled her to graduate from ingenue parts (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues didn't quite succeed in that respect), I’m not sure his obsessing over her feet and penning Kill Bill for her ultimately did her any favours; for all her posturing – or perhaps because of it – the Bride isn’t actually very interesting.

But it’s Samuel L Jackson who would be most intertwined with Tarantino’s career. Just a year before, he was surfacing in small roles in the likes of Jurassic Park and True Romance, his most notable turns courtesy of Spike Lee failing to break him out. After Pulp Fiction, the sky was the limit, even if he rather got typecast as shouty/angry (at least in part due to his own indiscriminate choices). So while, like Travolta and Willis, his new-found cachet didn’t necessarily lead to great parts – how many are memorable, and Mace Windu and Nick Fury don’t count; even his subsequent Tarantino characters can’t compete with Jules – but in contrast, he’s always been in demand and never far from a high-profile role in a high-profile movie.

Despite nit-picks, Pulp Fiction still feels as fresh as it ever was. And despite a legion of imitators in subsequent years (a precious few, The Usual Suspects and Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead among them, can stand comfortably on their own two feet). It looks great, thanks to Andrzej Sekula’s rich cinematography and the lavish choice of film stock. The soundtrack is another gem, following the example set by Reservoir Dogs (Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon accompanying Mia’s OD is still most impactful choice) with equally idiosyncratic choices. But I don’t think Tarantino’s ever been as strong since.

A certain section of movie fandom holds him up as an unparalleled genius, but each passing film only underlines that he makes what he makes because he thinks it’s uber-cool rather than because he has anything to say (which there’s nothing wrong with per se; only if he or others are trying to make out that it’s otherwise). Jackie Brown never felt as essential as it should, a riff too far – at the time – on the crime genre. The Kill Bills tipped started the tendency towards giving him too much rope, and if his most recent trio have been more cogent, they still don’t feel like films Tarantino neededto make, not in the way Pulp Fiction does. Of course, he’d have to make one charming motherfucking film to top Pulp Fiction, and it’s the rare director who doesn’t peak early. Even one planning to make just ten movies.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018)
(SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop.

Welcome to the future. Life is good. But it can be better.

20 to See in 2020
Not all of these movies may find a release date in 2020, given Hollywood’s propensity for shunting around in the schedules along with the vagaries of post-production. Of my 21 to See in 2019, there’s still Fonzo, Benedetta, You Should Have Left, Boss Level and the scared-from-its-alloted-date The Hunt yet to see the light of day. I’ve re-included The French Dispatch here, however. I've yet to see Serenity and The Dead Don’t Die. Of the rest, none were wholly rewarding. Netflix gave us some disappointments, both low profile (Velvet Buzzsaw, In the Shadow of the Moon) and high (The Irishman), and a number of blockbusters underwhelmed to a greater or lesser extent (Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Terminator: Dark Fate, Gemini Man, Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker). Others (Knives Out, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) were interesting but flawed. Even the more potentially out there (Joker, Us, Glass, Rocketman) couldn…

It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)
(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

They seem to be attracted to your increasing nudeness.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was put in mind of Shazam! watching Pokémon Detective Pikachu, another 2019 tentpole that somewhat underperformed based on expectations. Not particularly due to any plot resemblance, but because both movies fall apart under the weight of an overblown and underwhelming finale. In the case of Shazam! that may be more damaging to its prospective sequels (if they keep the team of super-adult kids), whereas Detective Pikachu will simply have to struggle with a whole heap of unnecessary expositional baggage attempting to imbue the proceedings with emotional resonance.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

You’re a slut with a snake in your mouth. Die!

Mickey One (1965)
(SPOILERS) Apparently this early – as in, two years before the one that made them both highly sought-after trailblazers of “New Hollywood” – teaming between Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn has undergone a re-evaluation since its initial commercial and critical drubbing. I’m not sure about all that. Mickey One still seems fatally half-cocked to me, with Penn making a meal of imitating the stylistic qualities that came relatively naturally – or at least, Gallically – to the New Wave.