Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)
!!!!! AVOID !!!!!
“You need to watch Pulp Fiction,” my best friend told me in high school, in the middle of loaning me her VHS copy. “It will change everything about the way you look at movies.” She was right in at least one capacity: it was the first movie that bothered me, a word I mean to use very specifically. This was early 1999, before film was anything like a hobby of mine, and part of my experience with the medium ever since has been structured by my wondering just why I sat in such discomfort for the next (nearly) three hours. Slowly I’ve come around to blaming something in my genetics more than the film itself, but it’s become so much the yardstick of what I like versus what I don’t in the movies that it’s hard to know where and how those lines blur. I had a sci-fi phase, a John Hughes phase, a Kevin Smith phase, some parts of which were all probably in progress around this time — so why all the cringing? I loathed the film so much it made my stomach hurt, the only time that had ever happened to me by then and still one of the few times.
That statistic doesn’t include this revisit fourteen years later — for one thing, I’m not so easily dumbfounded. But I wanted to determine what provoked such a violent reaction, and lord knows it’s hard to gauge the teenage mind so far after the fact. Looking down the list of what films I’d seen by then and what films I’d hadn’t, it’s a fair bet that Quentin Tarantino’s gigantic game-changer was perhaps my first encounter with a particular sort of cinematic machismo (slash self-fellating). I wouldn’t have known then how much he had cribbed and strung together from other films, and pastiche itself is not objectionable to me. But what the film reminded me of was those pep rallies and anti-drug presentations and Boy Scout recruitment assemblies from my youth: I felt that I was being sold something, that something was consciously and calculatedly attempting to appeal to my demographic: a naked bid to look cool for the teenybopper mass appeal. In this sense, maybe it was the first rumbling of the fixation I now have with empathy and sincerity, because nothing about this film displays much of either. (The gold watch is sentimentality, and contrived as hell.)
Kids know when adults are trying to “look cool” to them, and that was this experience. People saw something badass and vibrant but I saw visual posturing, verbal posturing, posturing as a shortcut to a cinematic reaction — shortcuts to emotional release and catharsis being one of the things that has always raised my hackles in film, even though I likely couldn’t articulate it then. It’s the same reason Star Wars doesn’t connect with me, and the same reason Star Wars is so massively popular: its absence of specificity and blank-slate nature increase its utility. But if people loved George Lucas’ film because it articulated their fantasies and allowed them a chance to fill in the blanks of its bold-strokes plotline, Tarantino offers a backscratcher of another kind: he spends the full running time of this film telling his audience how smart they are.
Now, of course, the excesses are familiar with me from throughout the American film canon and I can’t in good conscience declare this one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, or even the worst movie to be nominated for Best Picture in 1994. (Hint: the worst one won.) Either Kill Bill, to name but one artifact that springs to mind, is worse. However, I used to say Pulp Fiction carried everything I hate to see in movies in one convenient package, and that still basically applies. It’s still a callous film that feels pointless and deeply, irksomely smug to me, to the extent that it feels like its swearing and random bloodiness are just a bid for “adult” appeal — even if I have a hard time feeling like anything this cutesy is really meant for grownups. The generous age-of-irony pandering is carried forward by its supposed upending of genre tropes, which actually reinforce stereotypical B-movie laziness. The two uber-cool hitmen played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta are perversely flawless antiheroes whose actions have no meaningful weight in the film, because they are so wholly disconnected from any sense of cause and effect. When Travolta is killed, we feel nothing; when he is resurrected, we feel nothing except bland surprise at the chronological fuckery.
Earlier on, it’s John Travolta’s task to take Uma Thurman out on a non-date — Thurman being his hitman boss’s “wife,” a connection that’s never strongly fleshed out. Of the several episodes (three? four? It all depends), this seems to have the least actual story content but is the most iconic, riding largely on just a flashy dance sequence and a contrived one-man mirror show about “honor” (code, as usual in macho films of this type, for the fear of being murdered) and then a leering overdose sequence. I vividly recall that the “square” Thurman makes in midair was the moment that sealed for me the certainty that I was going to find this film unbearably cutesy, and its agonizingly dull extended sequence at the retro diner is only a belaboring of the essential element of all this: it’s a naked and unadorned outlet for Tarantino to foist his personal taste upon the world. He loves kitsch, and worse yet, he has terrible taste in it; he thinks the idea of a Buddy Holly or Marilyn Monroe impersonator is automatically hilarious, which is part and parcel with the way he thinks that speeches about honor and miracles are automatically deep because he expends such a large Corel WordPerfect word count on them. Tarantino is quite believably One of Us; he is a fan of things and his outlook on the world is formed by his cultural touchstones. There’s nothing wrong with being the guy with a lot of B-movie posters on your wall if those things mean something to you and inspire you. But that doesn’t make you a director, and that doesn’t give you any insight to humanity — the absence of which renders any attempt at a “point” to Pulp Fiction quite laughable.
The Bruce Willis episode is worse yet — a painfully protracted comedy of errors about a somewhat inexplicable fixed boxing match (in which someone is killed!?) but that’s not our story tonight, our story is the mishmash of business afterward as Willis’ hardass leaves town, comes back and gets ruffled up with gay NRA nuts in a pawn shop. It’s “film noir” for the person who thinks Hollywood Babylon isn’t quite sleazy enough. The characterization is half-baked, especially of Willis’ badgering girlfriend, and the neatly wrapped-up resolution, offhandedly involving the slaughtering of Travolta and the redemption of saving your enemy from Deliverance in a pawn shop, seems so trite and to bear so little relation to the wider scope of the film that by the end of the inexcusable running time, it may as well not have happened at all. The fragmented vignettes don’t speak for themselves, and they don’t complement one another, and finally they are just all flexing the same empty muscle.
But they are not completely and outright idiotic until the last two extended sequences. The closing restaurant holdup that goes on for-fucking-ever is a remarkably anticlimactic series of community theater monologues, most delivered with characteristic wide-eyed self-adoration by Samuel L. Jackson, but that’s nothing compared to the crassness of the “Mr. Wolf” sequence, wherein we skip back to the earlier part of the picture to find Travolta and Jackson forced to dispose of the body of Phil Lamaar and enlist the aid of a Magic Man who can Fix Things to clean up the mess in a limited amount of time, not for any more compelling reason than that the director’s wife (he wishes) is about to come home. The result? Oof. It has the depth of a 6th grader’s school-newspaper parody of a Twilight Zone episode and is far less amusing than that sounds. It’s during a moment like this that I feel some kinship with the utter infuriated contempt I felt the first time — the Mr. Wolf debacle is possibly the most excruciating twenty minutes in any supposedly “classic” American film. (Would that Julia Sweeney appeared in a greater number of those minutes.)
Whereas the earlier moments did boast a sense of style and tightly edited enough chutzpah that I can sense what might be appealing about them, though the film would be impossible to tolerate if you don’t happen to enjoy the same records and movies as QT, in the last hour I can’t even detect what I’m supposed to find appealing about Pulp Fiction. I’m not asking for help on this, I’m accepting that I see a different movie than other people do; it doesn’t make me better or smarter, in fact probably the opposite. But in all the hollow performances and nonexistent story resonance, this is what I see, for what it’s worth: all that interested the filmmakers about this was the chance to flex their taste in pure 20th century sleaze, because the stories have nothing whatsoever to offer. For the most part, the vignettes just sit there, ramble on and peter out, and the final impact of how superficial all the ideas and execution are is that the film is really, really goddamn boring. That’s because it talks a whole hell of a lot — one of the talkiest movies I’ve ever seen, probably — and has, no lie, nothing to say.
Among the most common debates among the legitmate admirers of Pulp Fiction — disregarding the budding film fans whose appreciation of it comes largely out of its body count — is how the film would play if it were cut in chronological order. It wouldn’t disturb the flow of separate stories since they are not intercut. But there’s a reason why the film can lurch from now to much earlier to later to later still to earlier to earliest again — because it completely doesn’t matter! The only relationship between the stories is superficial, and the reason you can’t fathom how you’d feel about Travolta in the back half if you didn’t know he was going to die is that there’s nothing under the hood. No meaning or depth to glean! The characters are too undeveloped for anything about how their arcs are handled to matter, unless you think speeches make us who we are.
No summary can get at just what percentage of these two plus hours are just endless pages upon pages of dialogue, and not about anything remotely interesting, and certainly not realistic. Tarantino fails the dialogue test: his characters say exactly what they’re thinking, and boy is it vapid. It’s just such a cheat that the renegade movie that’d prove most influential for the subsequent twenty years is the one that spends minute after minute on conversations about milkshakes, fast food and what the definition of “miracle” is. The movie runs on for almost three hours but if you took out all the dialogue that sounds like the two most annoying cranky old men in your neighborhood bickering, it’d amount to maybe fifteen minutes, all of it heads being blown off and people wielding guns and making sure the audience knows how fucking cool and in-on-the-joke they are. Aren’t we hip? Aren’t we? Please, for the love of god, tell us we’re hip.