Pulp Fiction (1994)
It seems that I’d seen a number of Quentin Tarantino films before I got to see this, regarded culturally as perhaps the peak of Tarantino’s vision. Certainly, it’s his most famous work. But is it the best?
There’s a case for a number of his films; I’d venture that Reservoir Dogs acts almost like a “trial run” for Pulp Fiction; the Kill Bill films wow with their patchwork of anime and kung fu violence; and there’s even a case for Inglourious Basterds, not only for its relatively subversive political commentary but also for Tarantino’s move into a more personal, dare I say intellectual, sphere. (Brad Pitt’s accent remains woeful, though.)
But with Pulp Fiction, there seems to be such a smooth, imaginative, inventive fusion of Tarantino’s trademarks. The out-of-sequence chronology, the stylised shots (Mia inexplicably and unexpectedly actually producing a square with her fingers), the well-timed crime scenes. Gratuitous violence is a charge often levelled at Tarantino’s work, but I would suggest that viewers who bemoan his “over-use” of violence are missing the point. Yes, there’s violence, but why focus on that when the violence is, more often than not, central and plausible, and also when the rest of the film’s elements are so strong?
What about the dialogue, for instance? I’ve always been a lover of great dialogue in film, and whereas a film like Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950) reads like a stage script, Pulp Fiction feels more naturally funny and quirky and real. There are a great many scenes where the dialogue is particularly winning – the diner scene with Uma Thurman and John Travolta, or the sequence near the beginning of the film where Samuel L. Jackson and Travolta have a surprisingly involving debate about the merits and drawbacks of giving a foot massage. The various vignettes ultimately add up to a film that works both as “chapters” and as a whole story; for the whole story feel, maybe repeated viewing is in order. There’s no denying that Tarantino’s liberal manipulation of chronology can be disconcerting for a first-time viewer; but even when you’re well-versed in Tarantino, trademarks like this don’t seem to become old. Certainly, with this film, it all adds to that feeling of arty experimentation. But where “arty experimentation” can sometimes be read as a term to send one screaming for the hills, here it’s more than welcome. (I, for the record, am not against arty experimentation or self-indulgence; if you don’t indulge a little, how do you keep away from unoriginal mediocrity?)
I’ll finish with another point about Tarantino’s films that I love: his use of music. Not only does Tarantino have great taste, but his song choices really seem to bring the scene to life. A scene like the one where Mia is waiting for Vincent Vega. And in another wonderful move, what starts out as joyous and carefree and full of hope and life ends with Mia in dire straits from a drugs overdose.
It’s 17 years this year since Tarantino filmed Pulp Fiction, and it’s rightly regarded as a modern classic. If you’ve not seen it, you must. It’s one where that “classic” tag rings true.