Pulp Fiction

I have long resisted the urge to do a post on Pulp Fiction due to one simple fact: I spent the latter half of my twenties enthralled by Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film. No other movie, between 1994 and, say, 2000, had a firmer grip on my imagination. Then I hit a saturation level, and I no longer had any desire to watch or even think much about the film, and nearly 20 years elapsed between viewings. In the interim, I did not miss it. Pulp Fiction was a touchstone for me, like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, to such an extent I no longer needed to remind myself of it.

But now it’s time to acknowledge and explore the reasons why Pulp Fiction occupies a spot among my 10 favorite movies and will probably never be dislodged. Let’s say that it is among my Top 5; that sounds about right. I don’t want to engage in any hyperbole. I won’t call it a “masterpiece” or even “a great movie,” terms I tend to use freely. Instead, let’s look at some things I never noticed about it before (while acknowledging that it is, in fact, a masterpiece).

First off, music is a key component of Tarantino’s film. And I don’t just mean the soundtrack. The actors somehow find the melodies in the dialogue. They sing it rather than merely recite it, and the amazing thing is, the music is there to be heard. I think that’s part of the reason the dialogue is so memorable. When John Travolta talks about the Royale with Cheese, he finds a cadence that helps us remember. “And in Paris? You can buy beer in McDonalds.” These are song lyrics, not lines that merely advance a tired plot.

Other examples abound. “My name’s Paul, and this shit’s between y’all.” “My girlfriend’s a vegetarian, which pretty much makes me a vegetarian.” “Would you give a guy a foot massage?” “Blueberry pancakes.” “Correct. I’ll have all tonight to quack.” I didn’t look up those lines; I know them just like I know the lyrics to “Born in the USA” or “Purple Rain.”

The film followed just two years after Tarantino’s debut, Reservoir Dogs, which looks like amateur night alongside Pulp Fiction. I remember going into Pulp expecting Dogs 2, but the two couldn’t be more dissimilar in terms of tone. Whereas Dogs was excruciatingly violent and harshly comical, Pulp Fiction is far gentler, more like a charming comedy about mismatched personalities than a hardboiled crime thriller. (I like Dogs, but wow, is it a tough watch.) It has, at its center, a rather touching love story between Vincent Vega (Travolta) and Mrs. Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman); their “date night” excursion to Jack Rabbit Slims is a lengthy sequence that exults in Tarantino’s love for pop culture references (Marilyn Monroe and Ed Sullivan make appearances), then settles into an admittedly awkward dialogue session in which Vincent samples a $5 shake (“goddamn that’s a fuckin’ good milkshake!”) and Mia scolds gossipers (“when you little scamps get together you’re worse than a sewing circle”). No other writer-director would DARE spend this much time on two people talking. Yet the musicality is there. Thurman advances, Travolta retreats. Her pauses indict him. Their date constitutes a major action scene in a movie built on violence and thuggery.

Then there’s the music itself. Take the Jack Rabbit Slims scene. Tarantino constantly plays old-school rockabilly on the soundtrack, underscoring both the time-capsule nature of the restaurant and Vince’s feelings toward Mia. He’s clearly in love with her, dangerously so; Tarantino tells us as much through the music.

Speaking of music, how about those opening credits. Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” peels out of the speakers just as PULP FICTION blazes across the screen. Electrifying! The whole joint’s rocking! Then someone switches stations; there’s a blip of radio traffic; and we get “Jungle Boogie” by Kool & the Gang. The song continues in the very next scene, with Jules and Vincent on their way to their hit. Sheer genius.

Samuel L. Jackson somehow, sadly, did NOT win the Oscar for his portrayal of super-cool assassin Jules Winfield, still the finest character with the best dialogue Tarantino has ever created. (“I’m a mushroom cloud-layin motherfucker, motherfucker.”) But his scene of intimidation, where he eats Frank Whaley’s Big Kahuna Burger (“this is a tasty burger!”) is a performance of God-like genius. It’s still edgy and scary 25 years later, cementing Jackson’s place as one of the most exciting actors in a generation. He would go on to star or at least feature in every subsequent Tarantino film … with the bizarre exception of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which, strangely, contains ZERO black actors.

Another interesting thing about the movie is its visual style. It doesn’t call much attention to itself. With the exception of Jack Rabbit Slims, the color scheme is muted, the cinematography is flat, the lighting unremarkable, and other technical details merely … competent. (Look at the scenes set in Jimmy’s house and back yard. Did they even hire a production designer?) The only excuse I can come up with is that the visual style absolutely DOES NOT compete with Tarantino’s dialogue. The camerawork, etc., is barely a notch above functional (though most shots are exceedingly well-composed). We focus on what Tarantino means for us to, and that is the music in the script. If a movie is a filmed screenplay, then Pulp Fiction achieves perfection. Who cares about cinema when the words are so great?

Jules’ conversion

At the end of the movie, Jules becomes convinced he has seen a case of “divine intervention” (God came down from heaven and stopped these bullets!), and decides to retire from the gangster life. His decision is mocked by Vincent, who denies the miracle and, a few days later, pays the price for his arrogance. Jules, the ultimate hitman, has his eyes opened, and explains to Pumpkin and Honey Bun (the restaurant robbers) how and why he plans on turning his life around.

This is the point of the movie: life consists of random bad things; people must choose to do good. (This is exemplified in Vincent’s reaction to Jules’ decision.) Look at the Gimp scene, where Butch and Marsellus stumble into the basement lair of Zeke, Ned, and the Gimp. Butch CHOOSES to go back and rescue Marsellus, who likewise CHOOSES to absolve Butch of his debt. (“Don’t tell nobody about this…”) Similarly, Jules CHOOSES to repent of his violent ways and “walk the Earth, you know, like Kane in Kung-Fu.” In Pulp Fiction, it is possible for even the worst of men to turn away from evil. to turn the other cheek. (In the words of Winston Wolfe: “Just because you are a character, doesn’t mean that you have character.”)

Tarantino never followed his own advice. In all his future films, violence is seen as the ONLY viable answer to evil. And, in two of his “revisionist” films about historical events (Inglorious Basterds and …Hollywood), Tarantino seems to be creating a cinematic world where nothing bad ever happened. Hitler got rubbed out early, ending World War II, and the Manson family was thwarted by an acid-smoking stunt man (who hates hippies). Only in Pulp Fiction do we see an alternate solution to violence, which makes it not only QT’s best movie, but also his most unique and transcendent. Why did Tarantino abandon his own non-violent philosophy? (Pulp Fiction ends with Jules successfully implementing his new “walk the earth” policy, in effect saving everyone in the restaurant from the lovey-dovey robbers.) In all his other films, he relies on violent revenge-killings to right the wrongs of the past. Pulp Fiction allows at least one character to chart a new way forward.

You can see how easy it is to tumble down a rabbit hole with this movie. I could probably write a dissertation on the various meanings and implications contained in Pulp Fiction, but the truth is, it’s all there. Don’t look at me that way. I can feel your look.

Burn After Reading

“Jesus, what a cluster fuck.”

Thus pronounces JK Simmons, closing the file on the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading, the worst film in their filmography. The Coens made this movie while they were still hot from No Country for Old Men, but judged on its own merit, BAR represents something of a low for the creative team. I guess even geniuses can have an off day.

This slow-burn spy spoof is competently made, of course, but as a story, it’s a disappointment. It stars none other than George Clooney and Brad Pitt together for the first time outside an Ocean’s sequel, as well as now three-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand and John Malkovich. This is a dynamite cast, but it’s like no one cared. Maybe the Coens had time and money to burn. When even the film’s nominal bad guy throws up his hands in frustration, you know you’ve got  a bad movie.

For at least the first 15-20 minutes, Burn After Reading refuses to declare whether it is a comedy, a drama, a thriller, or something uncomfortably in between. The Coens are famous for straddling all sorts of lines, with only NCFOM announcing itself as a straight-up thriller. But Burn After Reading feels strangely neutral. It isn’t funny, it isn’t suspenseful, and it isn’t a slice of life. If the Coens wanted to make a movie that cannot be classified, well, bravo.

It involves a lost or stolen disc containing a former CIA analyst’s memoir, and the efforts of two doofuses to profit off returning the disc to its proper owner. But it chases a bunch of different tangents while trying to fulfill a 90-minute running time. McDormand and Pitt play the doofuses, in performances that go so far over the top they barely qualify as human characters and not cartoons. McDormand plays it so broadly and nonsensically that her work here all but negates her Best Actress wins. And Pitt, for the first time playing a comedic role, mugs shamelessly for the camera, searching for his motivation. This is bad writing and directing.

Then there is Clooney, who seems a stock satire of other CIA types in other, better movies. He’s building some kind of weird sex machine in his basement; its reveal is vaguely amusing, but absolutely kills any potential for suspense or character development. He’s just a weirdo. Worse, Clooney bugs his eyes and makes “funny” faces throughout, undercutting his usual charm with bizarre tics and mannerisms. It’s a performance in search of a character, and not a great entry in Clooney’s resume.

Malkovich, as the bitter ex-analyst who decides to write an explosive memoir, similarly fails to find a character, screaming the F-word in the faces of the other actors for a solid 90 minutes. Tilda Swinton, as Malkovich’s wife, fares no better, playing an ice queen whose motivations are so secret not even we can understand them.

The Coens seem to be going for a Hitchcockian “thriller” about an espionage plot that goes nowhere. There is a lengthy sequence where Pitt, hiding in a closet, observes another character moving about a bedroom. This leads up to a shocking act of violence that makes Burn After Reading the first time two major actors have been cast together without sharing a moment of interaction. (Well, Godfather II has the same distinction, but this ain’t that.) Similarly frustrating is the climactic scene, in which a character A) gets shot at close range and then B) escapes, only for the bad guy to overtake and kill him. Turns out, this isn’t even the most important moment in the scene. What the hell, Joel and Ethan?

Nothing in this movie adds up, nothing makes any sense, characters are inconsistent (McDormand actually plows her car into that of a known CIA operative and potential killer?), and the final scene involves two guys who shrug their shoulders in total confusion. The point of the film seems to be that nothing of any consequence occurs, and no one can explain anyone’s actions. My question is, how is this funny?

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