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

If you never do anything, you never become anyone.

An Education (2009)
Carey Mulligan deserves all the attention she received for her central performance, and the depiction of the ‘60s is commendably subdued. I worried there was going to be a full-blown music montage sequence at the climax that undid all the good work, but thankfully it was fairly low key. 

Alfred Molina and Olivia Williams are especially strong in the supporting roles, and it's fortunate for credibility’s sake that that Orlando Bloom had to drop out and Dominic Cooper replaced him.
***1/2

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…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

Can you close off your feelings so you don’t get crippled by the moral ambiguity of your violent actions?

Spider-Man Worst to Best

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

Everyone who had a talent for it lived happily ever after.

Empire 30:  Favourite Films of the Last 30 Years
Empire’s readers’ poll to celebrate its thirtieth birthday – a request for the ultimate thirty films of the last thirty years, one per year from 1989 – required a bit of thought, particularly since they weren’t just limiting it to your annual favourite (“These can be the films that impressed you the most, the ones that stuck with you, that brought you joy, or came to you at just the right time”). Also – since the question was asked on Twitter, although I don’t know how rigorous they’re being; does it apply to general release, or does it include first film festival showings? – they’re talking UK release dates, rather than US, calling for that extra modicum of mulling. To provide more variety, I opted to limit myself to just one film per director; otherwise, my thirty would have been top heavy with, at very least, Coen Brothers movies. So here’s they are, with runners-up and reasoning:

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

You want to investigate me, roll the dice and take your chances.

A Few Good Men (1992)
(SPOILERS) Aaron Sorkin has penned a few good manuscripts in his time, but A Few Good Men, despite being inspired by an actual incident (one related to him by his sister, an army lawyer on a case at the time), falls squarely into the realm of watchable but formulaic. I’m not sure I’d revisited the entire movie since seeing it at the cinema, but my reaction is largely the same: that it’s about as impressively mounted and star-studded as Hollywood gets, but it’s ultimately a rather empty courtroom drama.

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

What, you're going to walk in there like it's the commie Disneyland or something?

Stranger Things 3 (2019)
(SPOILERS) It’s very clear by this point that Stranger Things isn’t going to serve up any surprises. It’s operating according to a strict formula, one requiring the opening of the portal to the Upside Down every season and an attendant demagorgon derivative threat to leak through, only to be stymied at the last moment by our valorous team. It’s an ‘80s sequel cycle through and through, and if you’re happy with it functioning exclusively on that level, complete with a sometimes overpowering (over)dose of nostalgia references, this latest season will likely strike you as just the ticket.