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Dissecting the Classics – Pulp Fiction

March 25, 2019 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Pulp Fiction

Wide Release Date:
Written and Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Produced By: Lawrence Bender
Cinematography By: Andrzej Sekula
Edited By: Sally Menke
Production Company: A Band Apart and Jersey Films
Distributed By: Miramax Films
John Travolta as Vincent Vega
Samuel L. Jackson as Jules Winnfield
Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace
Bruce Willis as Butch Coolidge
Ving Rhames as Marsellus Wallace

What Do We All Know?

I’d be hard pressed to think of a movie that has come out since Pulp Fiction that has had more influence on live-action cinema. Quentin Tarantino’s sophomore effort is his seminal work, codifying his signature style. While Reservoir Dogs had the shocking violence, electric dialogue and non-linear storytelling, but Pulp Fiction is a sharper, more impressively constructed sprawling narrative filled to bursting with outstanding characters. The film arrived like a bolt out of the blue in 1994, winning the Palme d’Or before becoming the first independent film to gross more than $100 million. Critically praised, commercially successful and controversial right from the get go, the film put Tarantino’s name on the map while revitalizing or making the careers of its stars.

Unsurprisingly, I’m a huge fan of Pulp Fiction, even if I’m last enamored with Tarantino’s ouvre than I was half a decade ago. We’re not going to go the usual route that I do in this column where I ask if the movie holds up over time here; Pulp Fiction is the very definition of an unassailable classic. It’s a film that’s not only a game changer within the industry, but stands as a crowning piece of virtuoso art and popcorn entertainment. And we’re going to talk about what makes it so good.

What Went Right?

If I had to boil down what makes Pulp Fiction work so well to a singular aspect, it would be that it’s a movie where characters have interesting conversations about subjects that nobody talks about on film. We’d seen Bonnie and Clyde rob banks, but had we seen a couple in a diner discussing the hedge maze of factors that go into deciding which establishment to stick up? We’d seen heavys kill off someone for their gang boss, but had we ever seen that scene start with a conversation about burgers before veering off into an extended quote from scripture? John Travolta looks at home dancing at a 1950’s nostalgia bar, but how often do you take your boss’ wife on a date so she can talk to about failed TV pilots? Boxers looking for glory at the tail end of their career are a dime a dozen, but how many of them talk about blueberry pancakes or use a samurai sword to solve their problems? Everything about Pulp Fiction feels familiar, but new. And more than perhaps any screen writer or director before him, Tarantino captures the authenticity of conversation: how people reveal themselves while talking about food, TV shows, the minutiae of their day to day jobs, and even foot massages.

Pulp Fiction also has the advantage of an outstanding cast. This movie took Samuel L. Jackson, to that point mostly just a barely notable supporting actor, and made him a genuine star by giving him the opportunity to show his incredible charisma and fierce intensity. Uma Thurman was a nobody, but this movie showcased her talents and made her career. John Travolta may be a severely limited instrument, but he’s perfectly cast as Vincent Vega, a character designed to make the most of Travolta’s charms while hiding his weaknesses. It may be easy to forget now that he mostly sleepwalks through movies, but Bruce Willis is an incredible physical actor and Tarantino gives him plenty of room to stretch his acting muscles. Tim Roth is as reliably great as he always is, and Ving Rhames is a force as Marsellus Wallace. And while they aren’t major players, this movie features Christopher Walken and Harvey Keitel for key scenes, and you can never go wrong with those two.

The fact that this is a dialogue and acting driven movie certainly helps explain why Pulp Fiction appealed to Cannes and the Academy. The excellent cinematography and superb editing by the late Sally Menke don’t hurt either. But Tarantino’s films are not just Oscar bait – he has a love of movies and not just classic dramas. This film showcases his love of lurid gangster movies, cheesy romance movies, and hints of the blaxploitation, Samurai and Western genres that he’d tackle in later movies. And I think it’s that bridge between B-Movie genres and Awards worthy screenwriting that defines Tarantino as a writer. Anything done well enough can be high art, and can bridge the gap between hardcore cinephiles and the mainstream audience.

Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the briefcase, the film’s unusually vague MacGuffin. The golden glow has been the source of much fan speculation, with some people even believing it contains the soul of Marsellus Wallace. Personally, I’m not really interested in the contents of the briefcase but I am impressed by how effectively Tarantino uses omission to create mystery and importance with very little effort. He’s making us engage with the narrative by deciding for ourselves what is inside. It shows how we can attach value to something just because it intrigues us, and how perhaps the most valuable things aren’t really knowable.

What Went Wrong?

Pulp Fiction is a masterwork that makes very few missteps, in my opinion. With the obvious caveat that Tarantino’s work is not for everyone and some are going to be put off by the vulgarity, violence and barrage of slurs, there’s just not a lot wrong with it. But, I do think that the scene in which Marsellus and Butch find themselves trapped by two rapists has not particularly aged well, despite it serving a clear function in the narrative (i.e. “How can Butch escape death from Marsellus?”). What was once shocking because “Holy shit, that man is raping another man!” now feels shocking because it’s just in poor taste. While Tarantino doesn’t go so far as to make rape a joke, the scene can’t help feel like an antiquated attack on gays, preying on their fears and anxieties of the presumably straight male adults who are drawn to Tarantino’s movies. It’s the kind of thing that makes me leery about recommending the movie to a lot of my friends.

And In Summary…

While not exactly perfect and often the victim of its own hype, Pulp Fiction was an instant classic that remains at or near the top of Tarantino’s output twenty-five years after the fact. It’s influence on dialogue, its propulsion of Samuel L. Jackson’s career, and it’s announcement that Tarantino had officially arrived are all undeniable and have changed the landscape of cinema. If it’s not the best movie of the 1990s, it’s an easy top five.

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