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94: Pulp Fiction

hero_big-macPulp Fiction, 1995

From Jon:

I need to start this post by making it abundantly clear that I love Quentin Tarantino.  He is by far one of my favorite filmmakers.  He has a reserved space on my Modern Filmmaker Mount Rushmore along with Kevin Smith, David Fincher, and Wes Anderson.  I’ve seen all but one of his films on the big screen and all but three on opening day.  His ability to capture “cool” on film is bar none and his stylistic approach to every project makes going to the theater fun.  Yes, much of his subject matter people find off putting.  Yes, he “steals” (I like to call it honoring) those styles from great filmmakers of the past.  Yes, he’s an obnoxious human being.  None of that stops me from enjoying almost every second of his films.  Well, almost every second.

I know this is far from a popular opinion, but Pulp Fiction is my least favorite of Tarantino’s collection.  I’ll admit that part of that is backlash to how unbelievably popular it was when I was in college, but I think most of my critiques of the film are valid.  I can’t help but watch the film and think that it was just a way for Tarantino to show how clever he could be in telling a story, or many stories, as the case may be.  I get that it is styled after old pulp magazines and the short story or compilation film format has a purpose, but the decision to make it non-liner just doesn’t make sense to me other than just to show off.  I can’t help but feel that Reservoir Dogs is a far superior movie for using similar storytelling techniques but with a greater narrative purpose.

So much of Pulp Fiction is done just for kitsch and shock value.  Which is fine.  I like the cool characters and the pop referencing dialogue.  I don’t mind violence and subject matter that pushes the envelope of what is expected.  But in this movie it has no purpose other than to be.  It doesn’t push the narrative forward, it doesn’t provide some commentary on our society, it just appears because Tarantino can put it on film.  This point brings up two important questions for all of those people out there who quote this movie like its the Bible.  1)  Why is this movie considered better than all other Tarantino films which all contain the kitch and shock value of Pulp Fiction but use it to tell a compelling and interesting story.  And 2) What makes this movie great, while movies like Saw and Hostel, which do similar meaningless things for no apparent reason, are considered trash.

Reservoir Dogs is a much better movie than Pulp Fiction.  There, I said it.  If I had my way, AFI would swap the two films out.  I feel pretty strongly that Pulp Fiction should not be on this list, but Reservoir Dogs should.  Everything you like about Pulp Fiction can be found in Reservoir Dogs, but you get a well told story to go with it.  It has great performances (Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madson) that match anything in Pulp Fiction, just at the time these weren’t household names.  Part of what made Pulp Fiction so popular was seeing John Travolta actually give a good performance.  Here was a guy we all knew, and some people loved, whose career was dead, turning in a performance that made him box office relevant again.  It also had Bruce Willis.  Reservoir Dogs has a bunch of guys turning in great performances who we didn’t know or really care about.  It has fun dialogue.  All those funny pop culture referencing conversations that make Pulp Fiction so easy to quote are present in Reservoir Dogs and serve better to help us understand the characters and why they make the decisions they make and what role they play in the narrative.  It has unsettling violence and it’s told in a non-liner style.  Unlike Pulp Fiction though, in Reservoir Dogs both of these are used to tell a compelling story, not just function as a series of vignettes.  The cop getting his ear cut off tells us about the world the story is set in and about the characters we are dealing with.  The flashbacks reveal plot points and rollout twist and turns in an interesting manner.  Pulp Fiction just uses both of these elements as filler or to make sure you are paying attention (and if you aren’t, it doesn’t really matter).  Pulp Fiction is a fun movie to quote and interesting to watch, but if we are talking about a well constructed story that uses new and different stylized techniques to express itself, than Reservoir Dogs is much more worthy of a place on this list.

The scene that bothers me the most in Pulp Fiction is the gimp scene.  Watching the film this time I couldn’t help but wonder why it’s even in the movie.  While being one of the most famous moments in the film, I can’t help but see it as gratuitous.  What function does it play in the movie?  What does it add to the story or tell us about the characters?  I have no idea.  It just seems to be a test of what we will stand to watch on a film screen.  So, and I ask this in all sincerity, please someone let me know, what makes the gimp scene AFI top 100 worthy but the eye gouging scene in Hostel exploitive?  Why is Pulp Fiction art and Saw trash?  There is nothing  I see that makes the two very different other than we hold Sam Jackson and John Travolta in higher esteem than Danny Glover and Cary Elwes.

I think there are some great things about Pulp Fiction.  Sam Jackson is amazing, and in my opinion steals the movie.  I’m not sure what made Travolta a leading role and Jackson a supporting according to the Academy because to me this movie was all about Jules and Jackson put in a performance to help support my theory.  Uma Thurman was pretty great too.  I’m not sure what it is about Tarantino and Thurman, but the only time she looks or acts amazing is in Tarantino films.  There are also plenty of funny moments, the royale with cheese conversation, “I just shot Marvin in the face”, the whole Wolf scene.  This is a good movie, a movie I enjoy watching again and again.  But this isn’t a great movie.  It’s not the crown jewel of Tarantino movies and it doesn’t belong on this list.

 

I give Pulp Fiction 3 out of 5 bowls of Chunky Monkey ice cream.  It’s certainly an ice cream I enjoy eating, but it’s no Half Baked.

From Jenny:

Ahh. Pulp Fiction. I’ve been asking myself if there’s anything worthwhile I can say about this adored-by-others movie.  I saw it in college, which I attended two years after its release, and it was one of those movies that made those sidewalk sales lucrative for poster peddlers. From my scope, everyone worshipped this movie.  Just about everyone had a poster of Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in their dorm room, and the film became the background to those casual nights when kids sort of roamed from room to room, drinking before we all went out to whatever our primary destination was for that evening, or perhaps never made it out at all. Jon mentioned Pulp Fiction’s “cool factor” when looking back on it, and I think that, in part, was why I hated it so much: it was just overly worshipped, overly quoted, and overly referenced, so I wanted nothing to do with it.  Yet I saw it, partially because I didn’t think I deserved an opinion without seeing it through. 

This time, I tried to watch it without the distraction of eye-rolling throughout the whole thing, although I did shake my head a number of times and laugh.  It’s hard not to be influenced by Jon’s commentary sometimes, but I am trying to approach this list with a fair attitude.

As far as the cool factor is concerned, my point is: this kind of cool doesn’t appeal to me at all. Whatever that makes me, I really don’t care, but I was definitely seeking other forms of cool in the late 90s. Here are some rough thoughts in no particular order:

  • there is no point to this movie.  I get that.  I don’t really think that’s why I don’t like it though. There are some movies that are nearly pointless (now I can’t think of any, but I will).  The circular arguing of Jules and Vincent is kind of entertaining– when they discuss why Jules doesn’t eat pork, or what’s a Quarter Pounder in Paris, or Divine Intervention. Despite the rape scene, Bruce Willis (Butch) is by far the most appealing character in the movie, demonstrating patience with Fabienne (whose voice hurts me) and a likeability that no one else has.
  • That said, I really don’t care or enjoy watching Uma Thurman and John Travolta at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. It’s not entertaining to watch her drink a milkshake, or to watch them dance. I was impressed I finally placed Eric Stolz from MASK as Lance the drug dealer.
  • And thanks to Christopher Walken for continuing to scare me from afar, even in the briefest of scenes.
  • Certain aspects of this movie I don’t even think are worth mentioning.  Is Samuel L. Jackson good in this movie?  Sure. He’s great.  He’s a great actor, and he’s funny and fierce and, himself, but that still doesn’t make me like the movie.

Bottom line, there are SO many famous and talented people in this movie, but nothing about their presence makes me enjoy it much. Yes, some of the dialogue is funny and memorable (I do always fondly remember “It’s a chopper, baby…) but it mostly feels like a waste of my time, unless I’m 20 years old, male, and partying in college. Three things I can’t or won’t be doing any time soon.  

So I apologize for the unintelligent review of this movie, and I’m sure Jon’s will be much more on top of things, although not necessarily more complimentary for the Pulp Fiction fans. I will say this: I don’t hate this movie anymore, mostly because hate takes up too much energy.  I also considered opening up a can of philosophical on this movie, because I am a fan of found poetry, and can make meaning from anything. But there are plenty of articles, websites, blogs, and movie reviews that will tell you why Pulp Fiction is a work of art, and why it’s on AFI’s Top 100 Movies of all time, but I won’t be one of them. I’m glad I saw it again as a cultural reference point, as an adult who’s thinking much more clearly than the first time she saw this movie, but asperuge, I’m bored of this post already and happy to move on.

I give Pulp Fiction a two-dimensional milkshake that everyone else is sure to find deep and meaningful, but I know there’s nothing much to it, so I’ll pass.

Up Next: French Connection

Jon says: Anti-hero before it was cool.

Jenny says: I’ll sit still for this one

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