Pulp Fiction (1994)
Right then you reprobate muthafuckers, let’s get this year’s retrospective screening programme started with a brain splattering blast shall we? Regardless of your opinion on Quentin Tarantino’s mischievous magpie style this was the film that defined a decade and launched a thousand crude imitations, redefining screen scorched postmodernism in a blast of explosive exploitation, self-referential semiotics and censorship shredding deviancy – Pulp Fiction. The film has been given a number of airings in London cinemas over the years including a digital projection just last year, but like a patient Buddha I have been holding out for an analogue experience which is more in tune with its makers and my retrospective preferences. I don’t wish to get significantly derailed as I have nothing against digital projection or shooting, but if I’m going to spend valuable time on a film I’ve seen a dozen times before then it needs to have some tangible authenticity to make the experience worthwhile – maybe I’ll get round to a proper post on that phenomenon later in the year. Anyway, like most budding cinephiles Quentin’s arrival on the scene was a bloody slap in the face of a genre swarming with Bruckheimer action pyrotechnics, Steven Segal hilarity and Chuck Norris imperialism, while Scorsese seemed to be the only talent holding the torch for incendiary American underworld flicks with both Goodfellas and Casino waiting in the wings. I distinctly remember seeing this scene on an MTV movie show and immediately feeling gut-punched into wondering ‘wow, what the hell is this?’, and shortly thereafter the marketing tsunami spread across the UK. Although I saw Dogs at a midnight screening I never saw Pulp Fiction at the cinema, I was at college at the time with no cinema nearby, but I did get my claws on a reasonable quality VHS rip. With the exception of Jackie Brown, probably the best movie of his eight movies I’ve now seen all his films at the flicks, not a bad effort for a director I find both arrogant and exasperating, but undeniably important. Crucially we sprout from the same tribe, we can energetically quote the cinematographers of sixty, seventy year old movies (Greg Toland!, James Wong-Howe, Boris Kaufman!, Karl Freund!), we can recite pull-quotes from memorable Pauline Kael reviews, and we coo with delight when some obscure character actor in one picture crops in another parched print, an umbilical link of references and connections that make us love the seventh art with such devoted and detailed intensity.
The key to unlocking Pulp Fiction isn’t secreted among the crime genre trappings of these desperados squatting on the fringes of the L.A. underworld, it isn’t buried within the eclectic soundtrack whose obscure warbling entered the popular cultural lexicon, it isn’t even personified in the expertly selected cast who piston power the memorable dialogue and vivid characterisations, no the key to Pulp Fiction is that deliberately fractured narrative, the overlapping time frames and interlocutions which won over the critics and genre fans alike in the staid and formalised storytelling straightjacket of the early 1990’s. That the film juggles three distinct arcs and doesn’t diffuse its impact is a testament to its success – Vincent Vega’s (Travolta) fraught date with the Louise Brooks bobbed Mia (Uma Thurman), the coke addled wife of shark statured crime boss Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). In the same treacherous waters swims pugilist Butch Coolidge (Willis) who throws a crooked bout before scurrying with his girlfriend to safer, shallow depths, before embarking on a dangerous mission to recover a priceless family heirloom. Finally Vincent and Jules retrieve a stolen briefcase which contains a mysterious golden hued cargo, their mission scuppered when a stray round decimates a hostages cranium, igniting a frantic effort to conceal the homicide and grab some breakfast. These three strands interweave and coil within each other across locations and timeframes in a suppliantly oozing design, both bookmarked by a tense restaurant robbery which further embedded the trademark Tarantino gun-cocked stand-off. Now, let’s talk about violence;
Let’s be clear about this – broadly speaking, for many viewers, violence in movies is fun. It is cathartic, audiences love it, and the entire Hollywood model, the dominant cinema form of the past 120 years is centered around all problems being solved and conflicts settled by a superhero gauntleted fist or the business end of a 9mm Berreta. Since the silent days there have been gunfights, fisticuffs and violent framed solutions pummeled into narrative conclusions. Our heroes and heroines very rarely overcome their dramatic obstacles through mediation and negotiation, and when was the last time you heard an audiences cheer the elimination of an antagonists goals through a carefully structured summit that respectfully considered both sides of a complicated disagreement? Right or wrong this is the common cinematic paradigm, and Tarantino’s hyper stylized and unforgiving approach to the visceral is at least more honest than the digitally sterilized massacres promoted by the major studios blockbuster carnage. Like Nicholas Winding-Refn, Gasper Noé and Lars Von Trier these men are showmen, they are canny provocateurs that giggle at every pearl clutching opinion piece on the depravity of ‘violence in cinema’ that yields another $50,000 to the box office take, every accusatory interview or pull-quote generating far more buzz and marketing bite than any executive could hope to imagine. We’re a violent species, and it has littered our art, our texts and spiritual instruction since, well, we decided to etch charcoal communiqués in caves and on fragile parchments, they reflect society rather than promote behaviours, and there is not one single shred of peer tested evidence to the contrary. That’s not to say that all violence in cinema is justified, that sometimes it isn’t earned or appropriate to the characters and overarching idiom of a movie, but I think we’re lying to ourselves and to others that we don’t get some sort of sensational thrill when Aragorn beheads that Uruk-hai or John McClane quips through another climactic altercation, or the Bride obliterating a host of hara-kiri henchmen in a dazzling ballet of amputated limbs and quivering entrails.
Given that many of the scenes, dialogue exchanges and events have permeated into popular cinema culture this was still a thoroughly entertaining screening, a little like slipping into a comfy pair of old slippers which you can relax into and enjoy, with a few mild surprises and 1990’s affectations which situate the film firmly in its historical context. I’d forgotten just how funny it is, particularly Jules expletive laden tirades in the final section, although the whole enjoyment of the Mr. Wolf sequence has been irrevocably stained by those inexcusable adverts for fucking insurance or whatever they are prostituting, and I can only surmise that whoever sanctioned that atrocity from (presumably) the Weinstein’s on down deserves an entire clip of hollow bore cartridges to their screaming faces. The directorial style is mannered but not exhausted with the indulgent pyrotechnics of Tarantino’s later work, the story and character remain centred through sultry introductions or setting scenes play out in their full screen mayhem. The fractured narrative which so beguiled critics back in the day suggest a breathing LA underworld teeming with larger than life inhabitants, a vivid imaginary world that connects from film to film and text to text, one of the staples of post-modern universe building which delights fans and fanatics with Easter eggs and references that ricochet across the squalid suburbs and tawdry strip joints. Some of the scenes and designs are now iconic, from Uma’s smoke stained Mia to the assassins black suited armour, Travolta may have got the nomination but it’s Jackson who sermons shout from the screen, quite an achievement given that he only makes brief appearances in the opening and closing sequences of the picture. The print was fine, slightly jittery around the reel changes with a few distressed hairlines in a couple of reels, but that was all part of the experience for a film which references back to the sordid and murky B-movie crimes the past, and now finds itself aging gracefully into its early twenties.
Some random observations – I’m sure I knew this but it was corrupted somewhere from in the memory banks, but that was Steve Buscemi as the Buddy Holly waiter in Jack Rabbit Slims wasn’t it? Although this wasn’t Ving Rhames first film it was certainly the first that assaulted mainstream public attention, but apart from his running role in the Mission Impossible franchise he doesn’t seem to have got much luck.- he’s worked regularly but not exactly in the A list supporting stratosphere. In opposition the film in one fell swoop made bona-fide stars of Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman, as well as the overnight resurrection of John Travolta’s career despite QT facing the same executive wrath that Coppola weathered with his casting of Brando in The Godfather – ‘he’s not commercial’, ‘over my dead body’ etc etc. As someone who has a generalized loathing of Travolta I’ll admit that he is eminently watchable in this role, and he pulls off the dozy eyed indifference to a professionalism that you can’t imagine anyone else in those flip-flops and beach wear – ‘ha, ha, they’re your clothes motherfucker‘. Without wanted to delve too deeply into controversial arenas the jury is still out on whom exactly was responsible on leading the writing on which section, or who assembled the interlocking the various jigsaw pieces which were so brilliantly arranged in the Oscar winning screenplay. Although he was convinced to take a ‘Story by’ credit producer Lawrence Bender is reputed to be the equal of Tarantino’s scribing, in keeping with the auteur theory of a films single vision and tyrant, making the film easier for Miramax to sell as ‘the director of Reservoir Dogs exciting new picture’. It’s just a dark delight of a film which might be a little overrated, its entertaining and quippy without harbouring much in the way of any residual effect, but it has that elemental command of cinema and storytelling which its imitators failed to supply, dressing their imitations up in the same sunglasses and trcnchcoats without the same control of pastiche or black comedic charm.
My favourite line in the script comprehensively encapsulates the film, when Jules and Vincent are preparing to retrieve the suitcase and it’s mysterious golden cargo he utters ‘OK, now, let’s get into character’, thus setting the prism of mirrors and genre reflections which emulates the history of crime movies past and elevates its future direction to come. Finally, structuring your finale around a bible spouting speech that bookends the narrative beats of the movie is an exquisite touch, it builds tension from the first act as we have been instructed that this little soliloquy usually results in brain splattered bloodshed, but instead they have the audacity to give that shark suited hoodlum some sense of character development, closing the picture with a soundtrack shuffle rather than a ballistic bang. This retrospective screening was a savage start to the year and I’m excited to see a number of 70mm and 35mm screenings already dropping into my schedule over the next couple of months, some mid-level works from Menagerie favorites are on the horizon, taking us from a bivouac in Vietnam via a detour to Beckton Gasworks, while a delivery to the Chinatown district of San Francisco might result in some trouble – Big trouble. Until then we have the small matter of a half dozen Academy Award nominees to see and a scattering of BFI events – so no pressure;