Saturday, February 16, 2013

Revisiting Pulp Fiction

Recently I had the experience of watching Quentin Tarantino's 1994 masterpiece, Pulp Fiction on the big screen.  Nearly twenty years old, the film remains vibrant and alive.  Seeing every shot as the director intended is full of riches. One example is just watching the eyes of the actors.  During an early, now iconic, scene when Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) turn a routine hit job into performance art, one can observe Jackson's eyes shift eerily from whimsical to thoughtful to deadly.  Television fails capture those nuances.

At over 2 1/2 hours, Pulp Fiction has a narrative drive rare in American film.  For Tarantino, plot means everything and nothing.  His screenplay (written with Roger Avary) does not follow the three act conventions of most scripts usually greenlighted by the studios.  Long sequences of dialogue between two characters are often punctuated with intense action.  Tarantino's dialogue displays his virtuosity as a writer since it is used to add dimension to the film instead of advancing the plot.

Another example of the film's genius is how it uses genre as a means to reinvent storytelling.  By working within the confines of the "mobster" film genre, Tarantino simultaneously deconstructs, destroys, and recreates. In fact, how many people even think of Pulp Fiction as a "mobster" movie?  The three stories are standard "b" movie plot - taking out the boss's wife, a boxer deciding whether to take a dive, and taking care of a job going all wrong.  Few mob films contain ongoing discussions on metaphysics or "divine intervention."  Scorsese's gritty epic Goodfellas is about wiseguys doing their thing in everyday life: Can we imagine such a scene in a Scorsese film?

In fact since the term "Tarantinoesque" is now part of cinema parlance- meaning a potent cinematic experience.  For example, when John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance to Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell" Tarantino allows his actors to reconnect with audiences through dance and nostalgia, recalling Travolta's 1970s classics Saturday Night Fever and Grease.  Meanwhile Uma Thurman's French New Wave style elevates the scene to a pastiche of Godard.  The entire setting for the sequence, a retro- 1950s car hop fits the film perfectly; a simulated artificial environment with enough verisimilitude to make it realistic, but not like real life.  Tarantino's is realistic in terms of cinematic reality- that's his playground.

Since Pulp Fiction really is what exactly the title promises it's a film of escalating moments of terror, hilarity, loyalty, and even beauty. Characters in minor roles deliver some of their best work such as Eric Stoltz as Lance or Harvey Keitel as "Mr. Wolf."  Tarantino is well aware it is character actors who make movies worth watching and uses them maximum effect.  

I always thought the "Butch's" story seemed the weakest of the three since it relied more on action and pure shock value (thinking the "gimp" scene.)  But after watching it again I was struck by its optimism and subtle themes of loyalty.  Butch decides his self-respect is more important than money so he refuses to take the dive and outsmarts Marsellus and his crew.  But in the heat of battle he decides to save Marsellus when they confront an evil neither has experienced.  Butch's redemption  foreshadows Jules in the last act. 

And what of the final scene?  In the opening scene Tarantino sets up the ending with the absurd criminals Pumpkin and Honey-Bunny (an inept Bonnie &Clyde) plan to rob a diner.  Meanwhile Vincent and Jules are having an intense discussion about what constitutes a miracle.  In a final irony the post-modern epic ends with a sermon.  But is that the final joke?  Or do we read this as "character development?" Is their a hidden spiritual meaning to Pulp Fiction?  No more than one gets from Paradise Lost or The Pickwick Papers.  Pulp Fiction is a vivid film of color and humanity pulsating with a love of film - and throwing some profound questions around in the process.