Saturday, March 2, 2013

FIlm #96: Pulp Fiction (1994)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: around nine or ten, at least (last seen about five years ago)

(Relatively) Rapid-Fire Plot Synopsis

*For those who haven’t seen it, Pulp Fiction is told in non-linear style, making summation a rather odd task. I will present it in the only way that I can manage to keep it reasonably concise. However, I am aware that events play out in the film in a different order. Bear with me…

Los Angeles, the early- to mid-1990s. Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) are low-rent hit men for local crime kingpin, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). The two appear at the apartment of a few younger guys who have a briefcase belonging to Marsellus. Jules and Vincent spend some time intimidating the young men before killing them and taking the case. After they kill two of the young men, a hidden third man nearly kills them, though all six of his shots freakishly miss their targets, from virtually point-blank range. Jules and Vincent kill their assailant, but Jules feels that God had a hand in saving him from death.

Jules and Vincent complete their executions of the unfortunate rubes who tried to rip off Marsellus Wallace, the kingpin of Los Angeles.

Shortly after, in their car with their inside informant, Marvin, Jules and Vincent debate whether their escape from certain death was an act of the Almighty. In the midst of the discussion, Vincent accidentally shoots and kills Marvin – the result of careless handling of his pistol. Jules and Vincent then hurriedly get their car to a friend’s house, where they spend the next hour or so in a race against he clock to clean their car and dispose of the body. With the help of a professional “cleaner,” Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel) the men are able to dispatch the car and body, though not without a fair amount of tension.

After the ordeal, Jules and Vincent have some breakfast at a diner. They continue their discussion of their avoidance of death earlier, and Jules decides that he is going to give up his life as a hit man and become a wanderer who rights wrongs. Vincent is highly skeptical and all but mocks his colleague. While Vincent is in the restroom, a pair of boyfriend/girlfriend thieves rob the diner. When the man attempts to rob Jules of Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase, Jules turns the tables and pulls his gun on the robber. After several minutes of tense discussion, Jules explains that he has given up killing people, pays off the robber, and lets him and his girlfriend go, all of this to the great chagrin of Vincent.

A day or two after, Vincent has an assignment to be a guard and companion to Marsellus Wallace’s wife, Mia (Uma Thurman). Vincent takes Mia to a retro restaurant, where the two engage in stimulating discussion and even win a dance contest.

The unlikely dancing duo of hit man Vincent and mob wife Mia. This joyous routine will soon be followed by a harrowing drug overdose that puts a serious damper on the evening.

Back at the Wallace residence, as Vincent struggles in the bathroom over his growing attraction to Mia, she discovers a bag of heroin in Vincent’s discarded coat pocket. Thinking it to be cocaine, she snorts it, goes into immediate shock and collapses. Vincent discovers her and rushes her to the house of his drug dealer, Lance (Eric Stoltz). Vince and Lance get through their extreme panic and manage to revive Mia with an adrenaline shot directly to her heart. After these harrowing events, Mia and Vincent amicably agree to keep the entire affair a secret from Marsellus, and they go their separate ways for the evening.

Several days later, a major boxing match takes place. Aging but capable boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) shocks Marsellus Wallace by actually winning a fight that the crime boss has bribed him to lose. Butch, in a supremely risky double-cross, took the cash from Wallace, wagered all of it on himself, and won big. The only thing that he needs to do is quietly flee from the country the next morning. This simple plan is foiled, however, when Butch learns that his girlfriend, Fabian, has left his most prized possession - an heirloom watch that his forebears took unspeakable pains to pass down to him. Butch must risk returning to his apartment to retrieve the watch.

Butch carefully returns to his apartment, which at first seems to be empty. He grabs the watch, and then notices a silenced machine gun sitting on the kitchen counter. In an odd turn of luck for Butch, the hit man sent to stake out his apartment is in the bathroom at the exact moment Butch has arrived. When the assassin emerges, it turns out to be Vincent Vega, whom Butch quickly kills with his own weapon.

Butch prepared to take out Vincent, the man who would have killed him had the careless hit man not left his gun outside of the bathroom.

Upon fleeing his apartment in his car, Butch unfortunately runs across Marsellus Wallace himself. Wallace chases Butch into a pawn shop run by a redneck, Maynard. Maynard pulls a shotgun on them both, knocks them out, and brings them to the basement where he and his perverted companion, Zed, make clear that they will take sexual advantage of both men and kill them. While Maynard and Zed have their way with Wallace, Butch quietly manages to free himself. Rather than escaping and leaving his adversary Wallace to a horrible fate, however, Butch decides to save him. After the rescue, Wallace grants Butch a sort of amnesty, telling him to leave L.A. for good. Butch readily accepts, returns to pick up his girlfriend, and leaves.

My Reaction to the Film (Done after this most recent viewing)

I think I could go another 50 years before watching this film again, and I still could not see it with fresh eyes. That is how much of an impact it had on me when I first saw it, and that’s how much impact it’s had on countless films since its release.

Back in 1994, I was 19 years old when I saw Pulp Fiction for the first time. I had no idea who the director was, but the movie blew me away. I had never seen a film so funny, engaging, tense, entertaining, novel, and just plain fun. There were so many different things to soak up that I went back to the theater to watch it three more times, over the course of the next few weeks. Any time I found a friend who hadn’t seen it, I would bring them immediately. It quickly became a mainstay of the pop culture landscape, and references to nearly everything in the film have abounded ever since.

Now that nearly 20 years have passed and Quentin Tarantino has released several other movies, it’s become rather easy to deconstruct his work and view it as overdone and perhaps a bit too heavy on style at times. Still, this doesn’t take away from just how novel a blend it all was back in 1994, and it still shows his style as a brilliant one that is, as the saying goes, “often imitated, never duplicated.”

Of course, the dialogue is the most engaging part of watching Pulp Fiction the first, third, or even tenth time you see it. Basically every line shows a certain amount of wit or unexpected humor. Tarantino’s hallmark of seasoning the dialogue with pop culture references was put on full display in Pulp Fiction. He had done it to a degree in his previous film, Reservoir Dogs, but not to this extreme. In the same way that details and references make a good stand-up comedian funny, the running spoken interplay between characters in Pulp Fiction is as entertaining as it gets. Virtually every line from the film is quotable, and I was just like millions of others in going back to the theater repeatedly in order to soak it all up and commit it to memory.

Vincent and Jules in the diner. Arguably the best of the many great conversations in the film. Samuel L. Jackson's take on Jules's introspection earned him a well-deserved Oscar.

When describing a Tarantino film (especially the earlier ones), fans will never have the word “cool” very far from their vocabulary. The characters themselves are all great archetypes of “cool.” The stony-eyed hit men, the mythically-powerful mob boss, the aging boxer with one last shot to hit it big – these major characters were all drawn from countless noir and pulp stories from the previous several decades. Tarantino cast them into modern settings masterfully and made them fun to watch. Even all of the minor characters – Pumpkin and Honeybunny, Lance the drug dealer, Maynard and Zed the perverted rednecks, Winston Wolf, and all of the others have become almost iconic, based on amazingly composed vignettes. Tarantino is obviously a lover of what he terms “badasses,” and Pulp Fiction probably has the highest badass factor of all of his movies.

Yet another element to the Tarantino film is the music. Never before had I taken in a movie in which the music enhanced the atmosphere so effectively. From the moment that Miserlou relentlessly kicks in during the opening credits, the soundtrack deepens the mood with every song. Once again, the word “cool” finds its way to the forefront.

Though I’ve seen this movie at least ten times, and I know it basically by heart, one thing was more noticeable to me this time around. I had never really taken in just how obviously “cinematic” it all is. Sure, there is a certain amount of realism to some of the settings, and the actors’ deliveries of the dialogue are astoundingly naturalistic. Still, when you focus on the costumes, the set designs, and the composition of the other elements, it’s abundantly clear that the world of Pulp Fiction is just that – fiction. From the eye-popping colors of Jack Rabbit Slims to the minimal yet memorable suits of Jules and Vincent, and even the obviously phony backdrop in the cab that Butch takes from the boxing arena, there are plenty of moments that remind you that you are, indeed, watching a movie. Sure, there are really tense and violent moments (something for which Tarantino has been recognized and criticized for two decades now), but it is quite clear that these are, in many ways, comic book characters. In film, this makes for pure cinema through a concoction that very few directors can manage.

Butch peruses which weapon he will use to kill a couple of deranged hillbillies. This visceral scene is one of several almost cartoonish ones that show off Tarantino's skill with the nearly-lost art of visual storytelling.

I don’t know if Pulp Fiction will be as enjoyable thirty, twenty, or even ten years from now, when the pop culture references lose their sparkle and meaning and more and more filmmakers try to ape its magic. But no critic can ever diminish the effect it had on the cinematic landscape. It’s still a really fun movie to watch, and may be the quintessential “1990s American” movie.

Some Final Thoughts on Tarantino:

As stated, I became a tremendous fan of Quentin Tarantino after Pulp Fiction, and I still go to see every movie that he either directs or for which he writes the screenplay. Here are my quick thoughts on each of his major motion pictures:

Reservoir Dogs (1992): Outstanding crime flick, featuring everything that a Tarantino fan could love. The sharp dialogue, intensity, and non-linear storytelling are all tight, and the acting is absolutely top-notch.

True Romance (1993): Director Tony Scott took Tarantino’s script and fashioned another great movie. It has one of my all-time favorite movie scenes – in which Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken stare each other down and engage in a captivating exchange.

Natural Born Killers (1994): Director Oliver Stone took Tarantino’s basic story and some of his script and created an uneven mess. Stone can never help himself from making grandiose statements, and he went way over the top in this one, often drowning out the strengths of the Tarantino-penned script.

From Dusk ‘Till Dawn (1996): Directed by Robert Rodriquez, a great vampire movie that combines Tarantino’s strengths with crime writing and vampire lore. Over-the-top fun that I still occasionally watch and enjoy.

Jackie Brown (1997): The sleeper Tarantino movie. It’s actually my second favorite, behind Pulp Fiction. Adapting an Elmore Leonard novel, Tarantino put together his most accessible movie, for those who are put off by the graphic violence in most of his movies. I always recommend this one to people who haven’t seen it.

Tarantino's most underrated film, in my view. Great direction and acting bring a cracking Elmore Leonard tale to life. If you dig crime movies, check it out.

Kill Bill, volumes 1 and 2 (2003, 2004): Tarantino’s homage to kung-fu and spaghetti western movies. They work very well in some places, and they’re quite a bit of fun; however, they became a bit tiresome by the end of the second part. The movie gore hits new heights in these ones.

Grindhouse/Deathproof (2007): This is where my patience with Tarantino started to wear thin. This is his most self-indulgent, tiresome film. There is some great acting and decent verbal exchanges, but Tarantino was clearly in love with his own dialogue just as much as the B-movie exploitation horror films that he was channeling. Not a bad movie, but I’ll never watch it again.

Inglorious Basterds (2009): Still overly enamored of his own dialogue, Tarantino nonetheless made a solid World War II flick. It’s a preposterous re-imagining of history, but still an entertaining watch. Could have been edited down a bit, but I enjoy it. Christoph Waltz and Brad Pitt help with excellent performances.

Django Unchained (2012): Very much like the previous movie, only set in the 1850s old West. Again, Tarantino falls back on his passion for spaghetti Westerns, but does it with his own panache. Also a bit long, but still a solid movie. Like “Basterds,” it’s worth watching just for Christoph Waltz.

As of now, I still consider myself a fan, but I now qualify it a bit more. At this point, I would really like to see Tarantino get away from the same wells that he’s drawn from for years now – exploitation, kung-fu, and spaghetti western films. I understand that these are his strengths and passions, but I think he’s a capable enough filmmaker to try something a bit different. Although, with word coming out that there is a “Kill Bill, part 3” in the works, I probably shouldn’t hold out much hope.

That’s a wrap. 96 shows down. 9 to go.

Coming Soon: Chunking Express (1994)

 I know a few of director Wong Kar-wai’s movies, and I’ve liked them. I’ll see how this early work of his stacks up.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.