Thursday, September 11, 2008

Pulp Fiction

The Action Mutant…
comes from the country of What (where they, in fact, speak Swahili).

Pulp Fiction

review by Joe Burrows

As with most likely millions of film geeks everywhere, Pulp Fiction was one of the seminal films of my cinematic upbringing. Sure, I watched films before. I was curious about them and wanted to know more about them. But, it took something like Quentin Tarantino’s neo-masterpiece to make me start reading about film; dissecting it and looking at it as more than a Sunday afternoon diversion. It isn’t the best film ever but its status as a cultural phenomenon has rarely been equaled in time.

However, Pulp didn’t completely change the landscape for the better. Like Nirvana did to Hair bands & All in the Family did to wholesome, family sitcoms, Pulp Fiction & its jut-jawed creator killed off the dominance of the Action film at the American box office. As mentioned on other sites, one of the main reasons people were so drawn to PF was that it was totally aware of the universe that it was cultivated from. When Jules Winnfield admits that his patented “Ezekiel 25:17” speech was “just a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker before you popped a cap in his ass”, he should definitely know it is…because QT lifted it straight from the Sonny Chiba vehicle The Bodyguard! Before, movie characters lived in their own universes and if things were said that you have heard hundreds of times before, it was never admitted and life went on. However, Tarantino eats, drinks, shits, pisses and sweats film daily and he was more than willing to let that show in his films. With that, his characters were quick to admit that Bronson & John Wayne were their inspirations in life. Pulp Fiction (and Tarantino’s earlier Reservoir Dogs) fully embraced all of the macho bullshit and camaraderie of Action films with a wink at the audience…and their straight-laced Action equivalents weren’t invited for the ride. Don’t believe me? Look at the drop-off of production from Hollywood’s elite Action stars after Pulp Fiction made itself known:
Seagal: Had a few more decent box office performances but soon fell into the direct-to-DVD trap, where he resides today.
Van Damme: see Seagal.
Bronson: Got old, did made-for-TV movies and died. Kind of depressing, so let’s move on.
Willis: Interestingly, this film was the catalyst of him becoming an actual actor, due to him taking a lesser role here after a string of box office disappointments. His mix of eclectic projects has kept him going.
Schwarzenegger: Managed to stay relevant through family comedies & effects laden Actioners. Was somehow deemed the least inept of hundreds of candidates to become Governor of a so-called “state”.
Stallone: Career went down the toilet and only came back over a decade later when he took his two most prized creations & updated them for the modern day.
Snipes: He isn’t Wesley Snipes anymore. If the IRS comes calling, say hello to Miguel Sanchez!
See, these guys either had to update themselves to stay on top or get run over along the way. People were tired of the usual “saving the world, no challenge involved” Action films that were becoming commonplace, so it was refreshing to see a genre film (in a sense, as it has many of the same elements) that had moments that were treated to be trivial as if it were an episode of Seinfeld. Simply put, Pulp Fiction was something fresh in an era that (many felt) was in need of tweaking. It is a little bittersweet that it seemingly took down many careers with it (ironic, considering it made & re-made its share of careers) but it’s not as if Action films ceased to exist afterwards. Many are pointing to a slight renaissance in the genre during the 2000s & even the much maligned direct-to-DVD market has its moments. And as for its inclusion here? Well, you can’t discuss Jesse James if you don’t bring up Robert Ford, right?

The Plot, as it was:
Through non-linear storytelling, tales of gangsters, drug dealers and other (really f’ed up) people in the California valleys are told. John Travolta & Samuel L. Jackson are Vincent & Jules, two low level hitmen that chat about the metric system and proper foot massaging etiquette while on the way to a job. The results of said job lead to one contemplating the concept of “divine intervention”…and a bloody mess inside their car. Later, Vincent accompanies Mia (Uma Thurman), the wife of boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), to a night on the town that (also) doesn’t go as planned. Prizefighter Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) defies Marsellus’ orders to take a dive during a big fight and attempts to get out of town with doe eyed girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros). However, an unplanned retrieval of his priceless gold watch (which has an interesting back-story, to say the least) leads to more trouble than expected. And Pumpkin & Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer & Tim Roth) plan the robbery of a local diner…and if you think that’s the end of that story, then you’re not catching the pattern.

Don’t shoot me…I’m only the reviewer!:
What’s wrong, TAM? You haven’t praised this movie enough already? Obvious kidding aside, Pulp Fiction is a classic not unlike The Godfather or Goodfellas in the sense that it never seemingly rings a false note or overstays its welcome. The main claim of its staying power resides in the fact that (at the time, since it’s been copied several times to no avail) Tarantino manages to craft a film that is totally like nothing ever put out before, despite using several tried and true conventions (try and imagine the film with a different soundtrack, for one). Its part New Wave crime drama, part dark comedy, part introspective work, part character study and part hard boiled mystery. Juggling so many hats would usually prove the fault of someone that has only directed their second film but it comes off so effortless here. A great thing about it is if you get confused by the film’s non-linear structure (which I have heard happen a few times), there’s so much that grabs you upon the first viewing that it’s a continuous treat to go back and keep picking stuff up. The much lauded non-linear framework is the flick’s greatest touch, as the majority of Tarantino’s menagerie of dissidents & miscreants have their heroic & honorable moments somewhere within the storyline; they become heroes through choice luck & leave antiheroes, even if the lesson may never be fully grasped (we, the viewer, don’t know if they’re truly changed people but lets not take that as code for “needing a sequel”.). Every character is memorable in some way, with Travolta & Jackson bringing Vincent & Jules to life and then some on screen. Sure, much of it is QT’s machine gun delivery-like dialogue but the two take the words and mold them into career performances (and, in both cases, career saving performances…though more Travolta’s in historical canon). Travolta adds little comedic nuances to many of his lines & actions and Jackson’s many “sermons on the mount” as Jules have taken on lives of their own. The Vincent/Jules segments are the meat of the film and include other odd turns from Eric Stoltz as a hippie drug dealer (“Heroin, it's coming back in a big fucking way.”) and Harvey Keitel as a more suave version of the Cleaner he briefly played in Point of No Return (“…pretty please... with sugar on top. Clean the fucking car.”). However, the “Gold Watch” segment proves to be a show stopper, with Willis delivering a solid homage to his usual “tough guy” image and Christopher Walken stopping by for a classic monologue (with one of the best non-verbal punchlines, ever! Gets me every time!). The segment’s shocking conclusion is what most likely got the film’s initial notoriety but that’s just one cherry on top of this multi-layered sundae. If there’s anything close to wrong with this film, its that QT makes another one of his glorious cameos…though its his film, so he has enough sense to only be on screen for three minutes tops. There’s so much more that could be said but I don’t go joy-poppin’ with bubble gummers, so I best leave this at “To be continued”.

Body Count/Violence: 8. Fiction has gotten a rep over the years as being incredulously violent and while it’s violent at times, it isn’t continuous & gratuitous in the vein of the same year’s On Deadly Ground (another similar argument can be used for the Tarantino-penned Natural Born Killers). When it does get violent, its scenes are sudden and usually belie the film’s darkly, comic tone. There are a few shootings, with two of them being particularly gory (and one leading to one of the film’s more hilarious exchanges). Along with the gunplay, there’s a car crash, swordplay, drug use (which leads to memorable use of a needle) and some fighting. In my opinion, the main reason people have focused on the flick’s carnage the most is because its realistic results are juxtaposed with a very “matter of fact” attitude toward the acts (i.e. the long, casual monologues before the apartment shooting, the entirety of “The Bonnie Situation”, etc.).

Sexuality/Nudity: The confrontation between Butch & Marsellus leads to the most uncomfortable of situations for one of them (and to spoil it for the few that have never seen the movie or heard about said sequence, would take away from the shock). There’s a scene of (implied) oral sex and de Medeiros’ panties are visible in one scene, as well as Willis’ lower regions when he gets out of the shower (partially obscured with a towel but hair is noticeable). Oh, and QT’s ever growing foot fetish gets more apparent in this film (I mean, Thurman’s a joy to look at in this film but her feet wouldn’t be my first choice. Personal preference, people).

Language/Dialogue: A plenty, as the F- bomb is dropped 265 times in 154 minutes (making that 1.7 times a minute). Other profanity is accompanied by plenty of sexual dialogue involving anatomy, “oral pleasure”, etc. More than a few racial slurs are used, which endeared QT to Spike Lee to this very day (though I am sure there are places in the South that are/were called “Dead N____er Storage”).

How bad was it?:
This was THE critic’s darling of 1994, as every reviewer praised it for its freshness & verve. It still maintains that status to this day (Rotten Tomato rating: 96%) though it has occasionally been soured upon since its inception brought about countless rip-offs & clones. Of course, the Academy spread its legs like the cheap whore that it is and gave the majority of Oscars that year to Forrest Gump (leaving the Best Original Screenplay award for Tarantino & Roger Avary) but let’s face facts: Fiction was the more original, wholly satisfying film. Zemeckis was just showing off & the Academy just loves them “mentally challenged” portrayals!

Did it make the studio’s day?:
After winning Cannes’ Palme D’Or in May of 1994, Pulp Fiction debuted in America on 10/14/94 under the Miramax banner. In a shocker at the time, it bested Stallone’s The Specialist for the top spot that weekend with $9.3 million (The Specialist was in its second week of release but it only dropped 38% from its first weekend peak & was expected to win out this time). The amazing thing is PF managed to do this while being in 1,184 screens less than The Specialist, almost doubling that film’s per screen average! With an $8 million budget (high by true Indy standards but still catering fodder for some Hollywood projects), Fiction stayed in the top 10 through Thanksgiving & ended its run in May of 1995 with a total gross of $108 million. Raking in another $106 million overseas, Pulp’s $214 million take was a monumental number for what was considered an Indy film (though you should read Peter Biskind’s Down & Dirty Pictures for that particular argument) and is still amazing for today’s standards.

Film: *****/*****
Entertainment value: *****/*****

Copyright 2008 The Action Mutant.

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