The first scene of ‘Pulp Fiction’ is like many first scenes in many of Quentin Tarantino’s films – people sitting at a table and talking over some sort of food or drink. The banter is mostly inconsequential, poppy and bouncy but not really about anything. And then, ever so gently something shifts, and we begin to see a mechanism at work in the scene. We’re moving towards something big, some sort of narrative explosion that will propel us into the film at breakneck speed. It’s a technique used many times by Tarantino, from ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992) to ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009), but never has it been as iconic (or sudden) as in ‘Pulp Fiction’. Without even really shifting the shot, Ringo (Tim Roth) and Yolanda (Amanda Plummer) go from sitting down to a cup of coffee to brandishing guns and threatening the other patrons of the diner they’re in, and before you know it, ‘Misirlou’ kicks the hell in, and one of the most influential and iconic films in the history of cinema erupts.
Back in 1994, ‘Pulp Fiction’ was like a punch in the collective face of audiences across the world. I was only seven or eight at the time, and even I knew something had happened. It’s hard to really comprehend this now, over twenty years after the fact and with endless imitations of it, but there really had never been anything quite like that film. Remember, there’s no ‘Lock Stock…’ or ‘Snatch’, no ‘Sopranos’ or ‘Breaking Bad’, and the brand that would become Tarantino hadn’t started yet. During the podcast recording for this episode of ‘The Podfather’, someone asked if Tarantino’s films are all inherently trying to be cool, or whether that was just what vibe we now get from him and his films. While we may be used to his idiosyncratic style now, back then, ‘Pulp Fiction’ was THE definition of cool. The dialogue was razor sharp and impossibly funny, the structure was uncompromising and inventive, and its characters were utterly hypnotic. Even as a kid, I knew the world had shifted when ‘Pulp Fiction’ came out. I could see it in the hysteria when it came out on VHS, I could see it in my parents excitement as watching it again and again, and I could see it every time I looked at that impossibly cool film poster, Uma Thurman’s eyes and smile still as arresting as the Mona Lisa’s.
I should probably provide a caveat though – I don’t think ‘Pulp Fiction’ is Tarantino’s best film. Personally, I think his masterpiece is ‘Basterds’. In fact, it would barely make the Top 5 for me. I would watch ‘Reservoir Dogs’ or ‘Death Proof’ rather than re-watch it. I don’t think it hits the artistic perfection of ‘Kill Bill’, the stylistic coup of ‘Death Proof’, or the conviction and fury of ‘Django Unchained’. And yet, as much as there are many things I don’t love about this film, I still find myself instinctively praising it. Sure, I might not love it as much as most, but that doesn’t mean I appreciate any less the things about it that are damn near perfect.
What catches up ‘Pulp Fiction’ (in my probably incorrect opinion) is what catches up most portmanteau films (those being films that are made up of short stories; you could also call them ‘anthology films’). That problem is, at least one of the stories is not going to be as good as the others, and in the case of ‘Pulp Fiction’, the difference in quality between the good stories and the bad are enormous. On its own, ‘The Gold Watch’ is a good enough little yarn, following Butch (Bruce Willis) as he tries to retrieve his father’s watch while on the run from gangster Marcellus Wallis (Ving Rhames), but what catches it up is that it has to follow arguably the film’s best, ‘Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife’. In a structural misstep, the film starts with its best story, and by comparison, Butch’s story feels like a step down. After the kinetic electricity of the first chapter, what we end up doing is watching Butch walk and drive around a bit, before descending into the Gimp sequence which is just a bit too ridiculous. The film slows down very suddenly, and every time I watch it, I find my attention lagging. This might just be me, and enough people have threatened violence towards me for implying there is any fault in ‘Pulp Fiction’, but while what surrounds the middle act of the film is often sublime, the fact the film drops in energy and rhythm right when it shouldn’t keeps the glue that holds the film together from ever really drying.
Then again, maybe that’s what Tarantino was trying to do. As much as we now think of him as the ultimate cinematic bowerbird, borrowing and providing homage to the entire breadth of cinema history, ‘Pulp Fiction’ now almost feels like a piece of anti-cinema, an attempt to deconstruct the rules of film and narrative and see what else you can do with them. Re-watching ‘Pulp Fiction’, it reminded me the most of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960’s classic ‘À bout de souffle’, itself a gangster film that forgoes traditional narrative structure for something more freeform and reactionary. Maybe applying the usual rules of storytelling to ‘Pulp Fiction’ is doing it an injustice and missing young Quentin’s point. Remember, this is a filmmaker in development, and one who would use each individual film to hone his skills. There aren’t many Tarantino films that are alike; even the two sublime volumes of ‘Kill Bill’ are startlingly different. If we see ‘Pulp Fiction’ as a stepping stone in the development of a master storyteller (and a pretty enormous stepping stone at that), then its flaws seem to matter less. It also helps that, when ‘Pulp Fiction’ gets it right, my god does it get it right.
The cast have never been better. Some of Tarantino’s dialogue and direction has never been better. It still feels immediate and dangerous, blasphemous and cheeky, explosive and assaulting. There are moments in that film, too many moments, that I will never get sick of watching. I could list them all, but you already know which ones they are. This might be far from my favourite of Tarantino’s films, but it has probably more of my favourite moments in any of his films than any of the others. Maybe we need another film like ‘Pulp Fiction’, another film that questions the basic rules and structures of cinematic storytelling, that removes anything extraneous and unnecessary (even narrative) and focuses with frightening intensity on character and situation. The phrase ‘pure cinema’ gets thrown around a lot by film critics, and I don’t really know what they mean most of the time, but I reckon there are a few moments of ‘pure cinema’ in this film. ‘Pulp Fiction’ showed us exactly what kinds of tricks Quentin Tarantino has up his sleeves, and yes, he’s been using the same tricks again and again ever sense, sometimes with lesser impact and often with greater impact. But the shit we get in ‘Pulp Fiction’ is the pure shit, the uncut stuff, the one that goes straight for the nerves and hits like a freight train. It may not always be Tarantino at his finest, but it’s definitely Tarantino at his purest.
The Podfather Score: 7.625