Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Great Movies: "Pulp Fiction"

Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino, 1994.

I watched Pulp Fiction at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, Kansas, during its original release. During the first round of killin', my then-girlfriend burst into tears and fled out of the theater. Assuming that she had gone to the restroom to regain her composure, I resolved to keep mental notes to bring her back up to speed once she returned. At some point much later in the movie, I noticed that she had never returned. After the show, I caught up with her at her apartment. You're flying first class all the way with michael5000, baby!

- - - -

There is a contingent among you, Gentle Readers -- include one of you who is married to me -- who will find Pulp Fiction objectionable because, first, it is graphically violent, and that, second, the violence is to an extent pitched as madcap fun. I don't have a good answer to this, and I can't really argue that this is a movie to nurture to the better angels of our nature. But on this rewatching, I once again found Pulp Fiction wildly entertaining.

Plot: None. The movie consists of five remarkable episodes in the lives of some unsavory but colorful Los Angeles criminal types. The episodes are closely related but, famously, shown out of order, and one is split between the beginning and end of the movie. Pulp Fiction is hardly the first movie to have played with the flow of time, of course, but it went asynchronous with a cheerful gusto that influenced movie making for at least a decade afterwards.

Nothing that takes place in the movie is remotely plausible. It is all a sensationalized, glamourized, self-consciously cinematic vision of what criminal life might be like in an alternative, cartoon-like reality. But then we are told this from the get-go: the title of the movie, after all, is "Pulp Fiction." For all of its ironic pose, it actually delivers exactly what it offers: a hard-edged but foolish criminal fantasy.

Visuals: Sunsoaked, sleek, a little garish, and crafted with loving attention to detail in set and costume design. Tarantino's camera is so intentional -- showing us details in precise sequences, lingering on telling details, wandering among the characters -- that it is almost a character in its own right, an implicit narrator who follows along and makes visual comment on the action.

Dialog: There is almost no expository speech in Pulp Fiction whatsoever. The dialog, intelligent and witty even when the conversations are banal, develops the characters and provides a wry counterpoint to the action, but rarely has much to do with the action. Mostly, the dialog just entertains.

Now this is where we can make a fine distinction, because Pulp Fiction really isn't a movie where violence is presented as funny or entertaining. What is funny and entertaining is the dialog that surrounds the violence. The violence, in and of itself, is as shocking as violence in any other intelligent violent movie. In fact, it has to be in order for the movie to work. It's the horror of the violence that sets up the extreme bathos of the ensuing dialogue. We don't laugh at the shootings, in other words; we laugh at the strange, stylized responses to the shootings. These are funny not only because they deviate from real behavior but because they deviate from how we've been conditioned to expect fictional and cinema characters to respond to violence.

Still, this kind of humor is not for everybody. I wouldn't want to watch it with my mom.

Prognosis: This is an important stop on the History of Film tour, certainly one of the top two or three most important movies of the 1990s. Not recommended for anyone who objects to brief but moderately graphic portrayals of human lives being gruesomely snuffed out in hails of gunfire. But you know what? Highly recommended for everybody else.


mhwitt said...

I remember discussing this movie with you back when we first saw it in our respective local theaters. I remember you liking it back then, but with more qualifications than you give here. Or maybe it was still just the one qualification -- the violence -- but perhaps it was a more front-and-center concern. The visceral nature of the violence is remarkably reduced by watching it on a TV screen though, and I wonder how your review might change if you watched it on the silver screen this time.

Is the weapon selection scene still among your favorites?

You might be surprised to realize that this movie is a favorite for a certain non-pay cable network known as Bravo. Being that it's a non-pay cable network they must cut out a significant portion of the violence and dub over most of the curse words. Pulp Fiction is far weaker as an expurgated work, I can tell you that.

IamSusie said...

Because you love Pulp Fiction, I forgive you for not liking The Silence of the Lambs. I loved this movie when it came out and I love it still. It is extremely violent, but the whole thing is so stylized and crazy it doesn't seem to matter.

Remember this coming out at the same time as Forrest Gump? I really dislike Forrest Gump and I can't believe it won Best Picture that year. I would have voted for Pulp FIction if the Academy would only let random midwesterners vote for the Oscars...

Kritkrat said...

Um, hello? You didn't even mention that Pulp Fiction has one of the best movie soundtracks EVER.

Aviatrix said...

I'm one of the people who will never see this movie because of the violence; I walked out of 48 Hours during the opening credits because it was too violent. When it's presented as comedy it's worse for me. I was okay with Saving Private Ryan for example.

I'm an advocate of movie ratings, but not of censorship. I want everyone to have the right to see or not see the sort of movies they prefer.

Anonymous said...

I didn't like because like all of Tarentino's films, its simply derivative and not very good.

Rebel said...

You've just confirmed my decision never to see this movie.

Jenners said...

This is one of my favorite movies of all time. I remember seeing it and sitting there stunned ... not realizing movies could be like that.

I went to see it again immediately after seeing it.

The whole needle in the heart thing is so freaking funny.

And I was just dying at your intro... I love that you just stayed but I so understand.