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Saturday, May 10, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Pulp Fiction (1994)

Director: Quentin Tarrantino
Starring: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis

You don’t have to look far to see the influence of Pulp Fiction. It spawned any number of imitators, some good, many simply a pose of alt. filmmaking, and instantly became a pop-culture touchstone, it’s language seeping into our own. But even laying aside the way it changed how people made films - and how people watched them - it is, on its own terms simply as a film, an excellent one.

The film is split into three stories, which unfold out-of-sequence. We begin at the end – which isn’t really “the end,” chronologically speaking - with Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) holding up a restaurant. Hitmen Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), and Vincent (John Travolta) happen to be dining at this particular establishment, which is either good or bad news for Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, depending on how you look at it, because on the one hand Jules lets them have the loot and manages to calm the situation down so that no one actually ends up getting shot; but, on the other, he practically makes both wet their pants.

The first story concerns Vincent’s “date” with Marsellus Wallace’s wife, Mia (Uma Thurman). This story unfolds like a dream sequence that turns quickly into a nightmare as Vincent and Mia’s troublesome attraction to each other gives way to near-death experience. We listen to them talk and are fascinated less by what they say, than by how they say it. Thurman, especially, has an interesting cadence to the way she utters her lines (“I do believe Marsellus Wallace, my husband, your boss, told you to take me out and do whatever I wanted”) and there's a naturalness to the way they - and all the other characters in the film - speak to each other, talking casually rather than in plot-driven sentences. They enter a dance competition then the film cuts away, showing them back at the Wallace house with trophy in hand (at another point in the film, a radio announcer states that a dance competition trophy was stolen from Jack Rabbit Slim's – just one of many little details that can be picked up through multiple viewings and make the film all the more rewarding). The attraction that has grown between them is, at this point, palpable and Vincent excuses himself, going into the bathroom to give himself a pep talk. Obviously, nothing can happen with Mia. She’s his boss’ wife, and his boss isn’t just anyone, it’s Marsellus Wallace, a man who may or may not have thrown Tony Rocky Horror out a window simply for touching Mia's feet. He reasons himself out of his impulse, rehearses his lines, then goes back out… to find Mia ODing on what she found in the pocket of his coat. The only thing worse than sleeping with Mrs. Wallace would be letting her die on the junk you bought.

The second story follows Butch (Bruce Willis), a boxer who was supposed to take a dive for Marsellus, but decides instead to win the fight then disappear with his girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros). Unfortunately, in her haste to gather their things, she forgot his prized pocket watch, the history of which is colourfully explained in a flashback where the indispensable Christopher Walken appears as Captain Koons. This leads to Butch going back home, killing Vincent, and then accidentally running into Marsellus. The two engage in an epic battle which ends in exactly the wrong place and sets the scene for one of the film’s many immortal lines, “Bring out the gimp.”

In the third story, we go right back to the beginning (of the film, at least). Jules and Vincent have retrieved a briefcase belonging to Marsellus and Vincent accidentally shoots someone in the back of the car (“Oh man, I shot Marvin in the face”), necessitating an emergency stop to the home of Jules’ friend, Jimmie (Quentin Tarrantino) and a call to The Wolf (Harvey Keitel), who will clean up their mess for them. Afterwards they go to the diner, which is where we came in.

The style of Pulp Fiction is very flashy, very post-modern in it’s intertextuality (everything refers to something else) and the way that it throws conventional narrative forms out the window and becomes its own distinct animal; but this isn’t just a film of high style, which is where many of its imitators went so wrong. The cast isn’t just an assembly of eccentric characters spouting quirky lines that digress from the plot – these quirky, digressive lines actually add depth to the characters. I’ve already mentioned the scene where Vincent talks himself out of trying anything with Mia, but there’s also, amongst many others, the scene where Butch and Fabienne lay in bed talking about how she wants “a pot” (“You want some pot?” “No, I want a pot”), and, of course, the Royale with Cheese and foot massage conversations between Vincent and Jules. For every bit of action in this film, there is twice as much dialogue, dialogue of the kind you hadn’t heard in films before, which is probably why it immediately became one of the most quotable movies of the last twenty years, if not ever.

Pulp Fiction is, in essence, a movie lover’s dream made by someone who obviously loves movies very much. There are so many little bits to pick out that you find something new with each viewing, and so much to dissect and theorize about from the Band-Aid on the back of Marsellus’ neck, to the contents of that mysterious glowing briefcase. It is also frontloaded with really stellar performances, most notably that of Samuel L. Jackson who gets to play arguably the film’s greatest moment, the Ezekiel 25:17 speech to Pumpkin which comes at the end. This film is endlessly watchable and always entertaining, often imitated, but never improved upon. In short, this is the real deal.

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