Pulp Fiction

On Film / Essays — Jun 11, 1996

Ever since Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction created a sensation at [this year’s] Cannes Film Festival, where it won top honors (the Palme d’Or), it has been swathed in the wildest hyperbole. In fact, it has sparked an excitement bound to look suspect from afar. It must be hard to believe that Mr. Tarantino, a mostly self-taught, mostly untested talent who spent his formative creative years working in a video store, has come up with a work of such depth, wit and blazing originality that it places him in the front ranks of American filmmakers.

But [tonight, as Pulp Fiction opens this year’s New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center,] the proof is on the screen.

What proof it is: a triumphant, cleverly disorienting journey through a demimonde that springs entirely from Mr. Tarantino’s ripe imagination, a landscape of danger, shock, hilarity and vibrant local color. Nothing is predictable or familiar within this irresistibly bizarre world. You don’t merely enter a theater to see Pulp Fiction: you go down a rabbit hole.

This journey, which progresses surprisingly through time as well as through Los Angeles and its environs, happens to be tremendous fun. But it’s ultimately much more than a joy ride. Coming full circle at the end of a tight, deliberate two and three-quarter hours, Pulp Fiction leaves its viewers with a stunning vision of destiny, choice and spiritual possibility. The film needn’t turn explicitly religious to reverberate when one character escapes death on a motorcycle labeled “Grace.”

Remarkably, all this takes place in a milieu of obscenity-spouting petty hoodlums, the small-timers and big babies Mr. Tarantino brings to life with such exhilarating gusto. Reservoir Dogs, the only other film he has written and directed (he also wrote True Romance and has a story credit on Natural Born Killers), offered only a glimmer of the high style with which he now conjures lowlifes. It also prefigures some of the chronology tricks that shape the much more ambitious Pulp Fiction.

Reservoir Dogs attained well-deserved notoriety for its violence, especially in an expert but excruciating sequence involving the playful torture (from stories by the director and Roger Avary) are tempered by wild, impossible humor, it’s especially clear that there is method to Mr. Tarantino’s mad-dog moments. He uses extreme behaviors to manipulate his audience in meaningful ways.

Surprisingly tender about characters who commit cold-blooded murder, Pulp Fiction uses the shock value of such contrasts to keep its audience constantly off-balance. Suspending his viewers’ moral judgments makes it that much easier for Mr. Tarantino to sustain his film’s startling tone. When he offsets violent events with unexpected laughter, the contrast of moods becomes liberating, calling attention to the real choices the characters make. Far from amoral or cavalier, these tactics force the viewer to abandon all preconceptions while under the film’s spell.

Consider Christopher Walken’s only scene in the film, in which he plays a military officer and delivers a lengthy monologue explaining how he happened to come by a gold watch, which he is now presenting to a little boy named Butch. The speech builds teasingly to an outrageous punch line, after which Mr. Tarantino knows just when to quit, moving on to the story of the adult Butch (Bruce Willis). Anyone surprised to be laughing at the gross-out gold watch anecdote will be even more surprised to admire the noble side of the sadomasochistic episode in which Butch is soon embroiled.

Butch’s story is the second of three vignettes presented here, though the order in which the tales are told on screen proves not to be the order in which they actually occur. In addition, the film is framed by opening and closing coffee-shop scenes that turn out to dovetail. Far from confusing his audience, Mr. Tarantino eventually makes the film’s time scheme crystal clear, linking episodes with dialogue that may sound casual but sticks indelibly in memory. When a man named Pumpkin (Tim Roth) off-handedly addresses a waitress as “Garçon!” it’s not easily forgotten.

Trapped together in absurd predicaments, splitting conversational hairs about trivia that suddenly comes into sharp focus, Mr. Tarantino’s characters speak a distinctive language. The bare bones of the stories may be intentionally ordinary, as the title indicates, but Godot is in the details. So the first episode, “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife,” finds Vincent (John Travolta) and his partner, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), debating emptily and pricelessly while preparing to embark on a professional mission. Their profession is killing. Jules, easily the more thoughtful of the two (it’s no contest), likes to recited Ezekiel’s prophecy against the Philistines to scare those who are about to die.

Like all of Mr. Tarantino’s characters, these two are more appealing than they have any right to be. They’re all also worried, in Vincent’s case with good reason. Vincent has been recruited to take out Mia Wallace (a spirited Uma Thurman) while her husband (Ving Rhames), the impassive kingpin he and Jules work for, is out of town. Marsellus is rumored to have had a man throw out of a fourth-story window for massaging Mia’s feet.

The date makes for a deliriously strange evening, featuring a drug-related mishap (involving a fine group of miscreants, among them Eric Stoltz and Rosanna Arquette) and a dance contest at a fantasy restaurant called Jack Rabbit Slim’s. This set, spectacularly photographed by Andrzej Sekula with a 1950’s motif dreamed up by Mr. Tarantino, is so showy and hallucinatory that it leaves poor Vincent in a daze. When he finally tells Mia what he has heard about that foot massage, Mr. Tarantino proves he can write clever, sardonic women on a par with his colorful men. “When you little scamps get together, you’re worse than a sewing circle,” says the mischievous, glittery-eyed Mia.

Mr. Travolta’s pivotal role, which he acts (and even dances) with immense, long-overlooked charm, is one measure of why Mr. Tarantino’s screenplays are an actor’s dream. Mr. Travolta, Mr. Jackson and Mr. Willis may all sound like known quantities, but none of them have ever had quite the opportunities this material offers. Mr. Jackson, never better, shows off a vibrant intelligence and an avenging stare that bores holes through the screen. He also engages in terrific comic teamwork with Mr. Travolta. Mr. Willis, whose episode sags only slightly when it dwells on Fabienne (Maria de Madeiros), his baby-doll girlfriend, displays a tough, agile energy when placed in the most mind-boggling situation.

The third story, “The Bonnie Situation,” finds Harvey Keitel playing a suave sanitation expert named Wolf, whose specialty is unwanted gore. “Now: you got a corpse in a car minus a head in a garage,” Wolf says. “Take me to it.” Lest this sound too hard-boiled, consider details like the fact that Wolf is first glimpsed in black tie, at what looks like a polite party that happens to be under way at 8 A.M. And that Mr. Tarantino turns up wearing a bathrobe and offering everyone coffee. Small pleasantries don’t count for much here, but at least they’re mentioned, as when Wolf brusquely gives Vincent orders about cleaning up after the corpse. “A please would be nice,” Vincent complains.

Pulp Fiction is the work of a film maker whose avid embrace of pop culture manifests itself in fresh, amazing ways. From surf-guitar music on the soundtrack to allusions to film noir, television, teen-age B movies and Jean-Luc Godard (note Ms. Thurman’s wig), Pulp Fiction smacks of the second-hand. Yet these references are exuberantly playful, never pretentious. Despite its fascination with the familiar, this film itself is absolutely new.

Mr. Tarantino’s audacity also extends to profane street-smart conversation often peppered with racial epithets, slurs turned toothless by the fact thatthe film itself is so completely and amicably integrated. When it comes to language, Pulp Fiction uses strong words with utter confidence, to the point where nothing is said in a nondescript way. High praise, in this film’s argot, has a way of sounding watered down if it’s even printable. But “Bravo!” will have to do.

Reprinted with permission from the New York Times.