November 29, 2023

Gabbing Geek

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AFI Countdown Challenge #95: Pulp Fiction

Quentin Tarantino;s second--and possibly best--movie, a collection of stories about criminals and other lowlifes in Los Angeles made some careers and revived one other.

I was thinking a bit about today’s entry before I sat down to watch it, and while it isn’t a movie I routinely (or ever) rank in my top ten or so all-time movies, I think Pulp Fiction, along with Star Wars, made me want to be a film buff more than any other film.

That’s a fairly bold statement.  As it is, Pulp Fiction is actually the only movie I’ve ever been to an opening midnight screening for.  I went to a packed theater with a bunch of of my college friends, and it was so packed in there we couldn’t all sit together.  We watched John Travolta host Saturday Night Live that weekend, I played the hell out of the soundtrack, and the DVD (which I rewatched for this column, so yes, I still have it) was among the first I ever purchased.

And really, the funny thing was, I had watched Quentin Tarantino’s first film Reservoir Dogs once and not cared for it much at the time.  I didn’t “get” it.  I’ve since changed my mind, but I wasn’t initially getting the writer/director’s wavelength.  With Pulp Fiction, I did, and I’ve been on board ever since.  And, quite frankly, though Tarantino’s films have gotten bigger in many ways, I honestly think this one might be his best.  Much of what comes from how much this movie, more than Reservoir Dogs, established Tarantino’s style.  A jumpy chronology?  Check.  Giving a good role to a largely forgotten actor?  Check.  Dark humor?  Check.  A seemingly retro soundtrack and equally retro pop culture references?  Check.  Heck, when we saw it, my friends and I weren’t even sure what the time period for the movie was.  Tarantino’s love of old grindhouse movies is infused all over his work, giving everything an older look.  As it is, both Vincent and Jules have cell phones (clunky ones, but still cell phones), Vincent references the TV series Cops, and Butch Collidge’s father died in the Vietnam War when he was a boy, so the film is firmly set in the 90s when it came out.

What we have, then, is a movie where we see criminal lowlifes and the lives they lead that don’t necessarily relate to criminal activity.  The first scene past the opening credits has Vincent Vega (Travolta) and his partner Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson) on their way to a job.  What are they?  Hit men.  What are they talking about?  The differences between America and Amsterdam, particularly when it comes to drug use and McDonald’s.

By the by, I took my honeymoon in Europe, and while waiting for a flight out of Rome, I did see a McDonald’s, and yes, I did see and order a Royale with Cheese.  It was covered in shredded lettuce.  And there was a beer tap behind the counter.

There aren’t any moments in the film I thought were wasted, but that scene leading up to the hit might very well be the best in the entire movie.  Tarantino takes his time getting to the job as these two guys banter back and forth and slowly make their way to the site of their upcoming kill.  They seem like they can barely be bothered with hurrying up.  Heck, at one point, they step aside to argue a point about foot massages and the camera stays behind, suggesting even the movie itself wanted these two guys to get on with it.

And quite frankly, the scene in that grimy apartment is so tense with that long build-up, as Jackson amps up the psychopath a little at a time, that by the time he finally gets to that (made up) Bible verse, it’s a relief that he and Vincent kill that schmuck Brad.  I still have problems watching it, and I can probably recite most of that (again, made up) Bible verse by heart.

Quite frankly, I’m not sure Jackson has ever been more intimidating than he is in this movie.  It’s a star-making turn, and too many times he seems to be coasting off the reputation this movie gave him.  He still gives Tarantino fantastic performances, and Tarantino tends to use him in at least a small role in all his movies, but too many other times that isn’t the case.

Heck, I’d also say Ving Rhames has also never been more intimidating as mob boss Marsellus Wallace.  And for that matter, I’ve never found Uma Thurman sexier than she is here.  It’s easy to see why Vincent would be tempted.  There’s a sort of angular beguilement going on with her.

And then there’s Travolta, the guy working his way through the movie, a guy who yes, can still dance, and a guy whose probably had more comebacks than any major actor in Hollywood.  He makes the most of it here, and this was probably where Tarantino got his reputation as a guy who can revive forgotten careers.

It’s hard not to underestimate how big this movie was when it came out.  Sure, it lost the Best Picture Oscar to a lesser movie, but the best sketch Mad TV ever did combined those two movies into something rather funny, and it helped that a minor cast member of Pulp Fiction was also a regular on Mad TV.

So, really, I love this movie.  There are many movies I love more, but I can’t help but smile when Bruce Willis goes looking for weapons in the pawn shop, or Jackson asks for his wallet back, or Thurman struts out, face unseen, to “Son of a Preacher Man”.  About the only weak point is Tarantino the director’s worst casting is always for Tarantino the actor, and his Jimmy here isn’t that bad, but it does remind me of things like an awful Australian accent he might adopt for later films.

Maybe I didn’t talk much about the movie this time, but really, this was the one that made me the aspiring film buff I am today.  It’s movies like this that remind me of what a good writer and director can accomplish.  Tarantino’s work often has a crackle of energy to it in his dialogue and in his direction.  I know he plans on retiring after he makes ten movies, but seeing what he’s produced really makes me wish he changes his mind.

NEXT UP:  We’re not moving too far in time for what’s next as we shoot to Martin Scorsese’s 1990 mob drama Goodfellas, and there’s another director whose work often has a good deal of energy in it.