The Historian: Twenty Years After Pulp Fiction

movie-poster-pulpfictionBy Spencer. Today, Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece, Pulp Fiction, turns 20. And it’s not hyperbole to suggest that no more influential film has been made in the two decades since. Seriously, name one. You can’t. Pulp Fiction may have borrowed much from Martin Scorsese, Jean-Luc Godard, 70s blaxploitation, 40s film noir, Saturday morning cartoons, MTV music videos, Jerry Seinfeld, and even M.C. Escher—but the fact that I can seriously describe one movie incorporating all those influences is signal enough of its place in history. Quentin Tarantino reinvented the techniques of moviemaking on a level we hadn’t seen since Orson Welles, and haven’t seen again since. The non-linear chronology. The omnipresent pop culture references. The hand-selected, retro soundtrack. The use of nostalgia as a stylistic device. The extremely naturalistic, conversational execution of completely absurdist dialogue. Tarantino may not have invented any of these techniques, but he’s probably the person most singularly responsible for bringing them into commonplace use among filmmakers. And a film that had every reason to feel dated by now is, twenty years later, even more rewarding than it was in its youth.

I was 14 years old when I first saw Pulp Fiction in the theater. This was, of course, three years too young by the judgment of the MPAA. But judged by the standards of when the movie would have the maximal impact on my cultural growth, the timing was absolutely perfect. Pulp Fiction is both a child’s film and an extremely adult one. The movie’s ridiculousness—the almost cartoonish quality of it—appeals to an adolescent sense of fantasy, and an even more adolescent fascination with violence, sex, and drugs. Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield aren’t gangsters. They’re a wiseass teenager’s idealization of what a gangster should be: smooth, worldly, philosophical, confident in all things. Mia Wallace is the girl you wanted to bang in high school. The Wolf drives an Acura NSX as fast as he likes, while the heroin dealer, Lance, sits around eating cereal in his bathrobe all day. And of course fast food burgers—from the Royale w/ Cheese to the Big Kahuna Burger—are a dietary staple.

Then again, this is a movie with numerous bloody executions, a heroin overdose, a robbery, an exploding head, and enough f-bombs in just the first five minutes to render the whole thing unintelligible on basic cable. Which is to say, it’s a very adult movie underneath the kid-friendly packaging. And as I go back and re-watch Pulp Fiction as an adult, my favorite parts are no longer the Jackrabbit Slim’s Twist Contest, or the Gimp, or the adrenaline shot, or the out-of-nowhere gunshot that decorates the backseat of a car with the insides of Marvin’s head. Now, at age 34, it’s the subtlety between these moments—the mature and knowing execution that ties these scenes together, hiding right there in full view as both connection point and social commentary—that fascinates me.

When Vincent and Jules arrive at the apartment to execute Brett and his friends, they’re a few minutes early, so they step down the hallway and continue their conversation about Vincent’s upcoming “date” with their boss’s wife. Stop and think about that. We’re moments away from a scene where the two main characters agree they should’ve brought shotguns—and yet both they and we are more interested in the ethics of foot massages. How many screenwriters can write dialogue like that? How many directors have the patience to stage it like this?

Later, as Marsellus Wallace lectures Butch about pride, we see a long shot of just Butch’s face—silent, unexpressive, almost unmoving. This goes on for almost three minutes before the shot cuts to the back of Marsellus Wallace’s head—marked always by that Band-Aid on the back of his neck—as he closes his speech. Why shoot it this way? Because it gives you nothing else to focus on but the words. No action. No reaction. No distraction. And that, despite Tarantino’s juvenile persona, is an incredibly adult way to shoot a scene.

When Butch and Fabienne nonchalantly discuss their breakfast plans in the motel, the camera doesn’t show them; it shows a television screen playing in the background, with scenes of violence and mayhem so commonplace in American culture that Butch and Fabienne don’t even notice or care. It’s a subtle commentary on both them and us, and the first few times you watch the film, you just might miss it.

Even the juvenile moments have their adult side. So when Christopher Walken gives that long slow walk of a speech about the gold watch he’s brought to young Butch (and the orifices it had to hide in), it’s a brilliantly-paced build-up to a punchline. But it’s also the necessary set-up for Bruce Willis’s most serious scene, when he absolutely loses it at Fabienne for leaving the watch behind at his apartment, and against all common sense, risks his life to go back for it. As a teenager, I thought it was stupidity beyond words. As an adult, I see the beauty in it: Butch is clinging to the one tangible connection he has to a father he never knew. It’s the most human moment in the film, and without Walken’s setup, it never would’ve worked.

It’s no surprise that my taste in movies has matured (at least a little) in the past twenty years. What genuinely shocks me is that Pulp Fiction has matured right along with it. It’s still the same movie—and yet it’s not.

I remember 1994 as the year in which Pulp Fiction went head to head with Forrest Gump for Best Picture. Forrest Gump won, but looking back, nobody will remember it as an important film. The important ones leave their imprint on the films that come after them. The juxtaposition of those two movies is an essential part of Pulp Fiction‘s larger narrative, in the same way that Nirvana first took the #1 slot on the charts by unseating Michael Jackson. It was a passing of the cultural baton, a point at which the new guard not only took over but made everything that came before look tired and trivial.

Pulp Fiction, a movie steeped in adolescence, was the point when filmmaking passed from childhood into maturity. From there on, movies would challenge us in a way they never had before: in their subject matter, in their tone, in their realism, and in their means of production. Tarantino’s success helped establish the small, independent filmmaker as the driving force in the evolution of film. And with that change, the economic incentives to “play it safe” that had long been a necessary corollary of the studio system slowly but surely evaporated.

Look at the pictures that received Oscar nods before 1994, then look at the ones since then, and you’ll see what I mean. Fargo. Shine. The Full Monty. Life Is Beautiful. American Beauty. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Moulin Rouge. Million Dollar Baby. Brokeback Mountain. Slumdog Millionaire. Dallas Buyers Club. Her. Without the success of Pulp Fiction, these films are likely never made, much less seen.

Bad motherfucker, indeed.

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2 thoughts on “The Historian: Twenty Years After Pulp Fiction

    • Reservoir Dogs is a classic in its own right. I love every single minute of that movie. But I think it’s also sort of pre-Tarantino in its tone; by that, I mean, he’s still finding his individual voice. There’s virtually nothing in that movie that couldn’t be found in a Scorsese flick. Starting in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino found his irreverent side. It’s that farcical, almost cartoonish sense of humor you see in the rest of Tarantino’s films that I think crystallizes his style and makes him far more that just another Scorsese acolyte.

      None of that detracts from Reservoir Dogs as an enjoyable film though. Buscemi, Madsen, and Roth are pitch perfect. The script is genius. It’s a must-watch film for anyone serious about cinema history. And if nothing else, it helped me see “Like A Virgin” in a whole new light!

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