Pulp Fiction at 25

One thing that is most striking about Pulp Fictionon its 25thanniversary is its mundaneness. Quentin Tarantino de-emphasizes everything but the dialogue, which is the entire focus of this, his biggest and most popular film. This is not necessarily a flaw, but a tactic. We go to Tarantino’s movies to hear them, not just watch them. Pulp Fictionis all about the words coming from the characters’ mouths.

Take, for example, the way Tarantino portrays, or doesn’t portray, Los Angeles. Other crime pictures make stars, or at least supporting characters, out of their locations. In Michael Mann’s Heat,L.A. is draped in stylish nighttime glory. In Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese portrays Times Square as a skeevy, scuzzy sin pot. You want to take a bath after watching it. Even the Coen Brothers manage to turn L.A. into one of the main characters in The Big Lebowski. Who can forget The Dude’s ill-fated trip to In-n-Out, or the Ralph’s supermarket, where he writes a check for 75 cents?

Tarantino would go on to make important L.A. pictures with Jackie Brownand Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but not so, Pulp Fiction. He makes the city as drab and visually unappealing as possible. This is not a bad-looking movie, but it’s clear that he spent very little money on art direction and sent his location scouts to find the most dismal pockets of L.A.

The movie has scenes set in vacant lots, seamy alleys, sun-blasted parking lots, dimly-lit corridors, bland diners and humdrum bedrooms. You can see a roll of toilet tissue on the toilet tank in the bathroom where the Jerry Seinfeld assassin hides from Vincent and Jules. There are green trash cans overturned by the chain-link fence behind Butch’s seedy motel. The streets are wide and empty, void of bystanders who might witness the criminal doings of the characters. (I discount, of course, the scene where Butch runs over Marcellus with his car – plenty of bystanders standing around to catch bullets.) We see no freeways, no sports venues, not a hint of traffic. There is no movie-premiere glamor, nothing to suggest a Beverly Hills or Rodeo Drive. This is the blandest and most boring L.A. has ever looked.

The biggest scene in the movie is set in Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a nightclub that Vincent calls “a wax museum with a pulse.” Here we finally get to see some colorful production design. The scene also plays up the artificiality of Pulp Fiction; the extras all come across like movie extras, not like real people out for a night on the town. They seem every bit as “dressed up” as the faux-actors (yes) portraying Marilyn Monroe, Zorro and Ed Sullivan. One clever joke has Steve Buscemi – Mr. Pink from Reservoir Dogs– turning up as a Buddy Holly-styled waiter. Why? Because Mr. Pink bitched about waitresses in Reservoir Dogs. The whole movie, from start to finish, is a meta-commentary on other movies, including Tarantino’s own.

The drab production design, flat lighting and understated photography (lots of widescreen interior shots) heighten the unreality of the film and emphasize the true action, which is the dialogue. As Tarantino recently said, he’s paying actors to show up and say his lines – he does not encourage improv. Pulp Fictionis a dialogue-delivery device – every motherfucker stands out, every FUCK is underlined, bold-faced and in all-caps. And really, this is some of the best dialogue ever written. I haven’t sat through this long, meandering, sometimes stilted and unnecessarily padded, crime epic in probably 20 years – start to finish, anyway – but I can still quote right along with whole scenes. There is a poetry to Tarantino’s dialogue, a flow, a rhythm, that makes it easy to memorize.

The interesting thing is that Tarantino managed to grow as a director from here, even though his scripts produced less memorable dialogue. I can’t recall a single line fromOnce Upon a Time in Hollywood, but that film is better-directed than Pulp Fiction, and is much more visually impressive. Same goes for Inglourious Basterds– I can’t quote it word-for-word, but Tarantino directed the shit out of that movie. For the first time this year, I fully expect him to win Best Director IN ADDITION to having a lock on Best Original Screenplay. He’s gotten that good.

As for Pulp Fiction… it’s not my favorite film. As I say, it’s long, and in love with its own voice. Everybody in 1994 portrayed it as this ultra-violent, Scorsese-level gangster picture, but the truth is, it’s sweet and nostalgic and just a teensy bit immature, a teenager dropping F-bombs and N-words hoping to get attention. I still like it – the acting is sublime, and the structure of Tarantino’s script is still a neat time-traveling trick. I just think it was telling us all along that Tarantino was meant to direct bigger, better things, and he is indeed doing so.

 

 

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