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

Advertisements

96: Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing, 1989

pizza2

It feels a little weird writing this for a movie that is 25 years old, but just to cover our butts… SPOILER ALERT!!

From Jon:

This week we came across a first in our journey through the AFI’s Top 100 list, a movie that was ranked lower than it should.  Watching Do the Right Thing for the first time in 15 years was an interesting experience.  It was a trip into the past, yet a reflection of the present.  It was an intriguing piece of artistic film and a deeply relevant piece of social commentary.  It kind of boggles my mind that this landmark film is so low on this list, but what is even more astounding is that it wasn’t anywhere to be found on the original 1998 list.  Lord of the Rings (oh man, I can’t wait to write about this film… again) somehow makes it to 50 six years after release but it took almost 20 years for a deeply significant cultural movie to crack 96.  Then I take a second, I remember who makes these lists, and my ire drops a bit.  Not because I’m okay with it, but because it unfortunately makes sense.  What do 80-year-old white guys know about the African-American story?  Why would they hold up and praise a movie special for reasons they worked hard to prevent for decades?

Do the Right Thing was a landmark piece of cinema because it was the first time we got to see the African-American experience from the point of view of an African-American.  The movie was written, directed and produced by an African-American.  It starred African-Americans.  The score and soundtrack were all African-American musicians playing music that is interracial to African-American culture.  The central point of the movie was to take on race issues… from the point of African-Americans.  This wasn’t Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or In the Heat of the Night, both significant movies dealing with important and serious race issues, but written, directed, produced by white guys.  This wasn’t Melvin Van Peebles Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song either, it wasn’t about the scary angry black man and the seedy world he inhabits, it was a story about a normal African-American neighborhood.  Spike Lee accomplished something that had not been done before and was extremely successful in the process.  He paved the way for movies like Boyz n the Hood, New Jack City and Menace II Society.  Yes, they told very different stories, but they were African-American stories told by African-Americans.  Thanks to Spike Lee, big studios were finally giving them the chance to tell their own stories.

I also feel Do the Right Thing helped pave the way for the independent film movement that flourished in the 90’s.  Yes, I know, it wasn’t actually an independent film, but ask an average person and they will guess that it was.  It was basically an independent film that Universal just distributed.  Spike Lee created a piece of art that was his on every level.  He wrote, directed and starred, he had his father write and perform the score, he casted all his friends.  This was the mentality that independent film was centered around and even though it wasn’t an independent film, it showed film audiences that this style film could be both entertaining and thought provoking.  I find it hard to believe that movies like Pulp Fiction or Clerks or Swingers would have been as popular and recognized if it wasn’t for Lee.

The last point I feel I need to make about this movie has to do with its ending.  I don’t want to spoil it, but it was hard to sit and watch this movie and not think of the race issues that have been all over the news of late.  I find it both interesting and disturbing that a movie 25 years old can present a scenario that is taking up major time in current new cycles.  Lee tried to shine a light on inner city issues and, with all the acclaim and notoriety the movie got, nobody really paid attention.

Do the Right Thing is a great movie.  It needs to be much higher on this list because there are very few more important films that have been made and probably none more important in the last 30 years.  While the styles and settings scream late 80’s early 90’s, the story and the message are at timeless as can be expected.  The acting is spot on.  The cinematography tells as much of the story as the dialogue.  It has everything a movie needs to be considered great.  Add in its historical significance and it should be one of the Top 20 movies of all time.

I give Do the Right Thing 5 out of 5 bowls of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream.  It took a while before someone was allowed to put a twist on ice cream, but now we can’t imagine living without it.

From Jenny:

Out of the movies we’ve watched so far on this journey, this has been the most challenging to write about. This is because Do the Right Thing is an important film everyone should see.

 If you saw it in 1989, I’d recommend seeing it again.  It’s not an easy one to watch, and stirs up lots of difficult topics, ones that I tend to shy away from in groups of people larger than two.  Why?  So I don’t say the wrong thing, speak about something when I don’t have all the facts, offend someone, ask a question I’m supposed to know.  All my own fears.    But I don’t feel hopeless after watching it.  I feel disturbed, appropriately so, but I also feel awakened, and maybe that part of writing this blog is me finally starting to say how I feel about things I’ve don’t often discuss.

 Spike Lee picked the hottest day of the year as the backdrop for four racial groups, trying to live in one neighborhood. They ignore each other, interact, clash, try to understand each other, but clash again, throw up their hands, and collide in total violent chaos.  Depending on who “you” are, it may cause you to feel everything on the spectrum from uneasy, to angry, to conflicted, wronged, validated. And in doing so, it will make you think, and maybe discuss. But I also found myself feeling weirdly comfortable about the setting.  I began to think of it as a play, with a few scene changes:  the neighborhood, including the brownstone stoops, the sidewalks, the red wall where “The Corner Men” hang out, the pizzeria, and the inside of Mookie’s and of Tina’s apartments. I don’t know Brooklyn. I’ve been there enough times to know how to get there.  I’m white, living in middle class CT.  I don’t really have a neighborhood.  The way Spike Lee portrayed the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood was just over the line into happy and comfortable…kind of like in the first season of LOST.  There was a brief time (and I mean brief) where everything seemed ok– I’m talking early on, like the 2nd part of the Pilot. In fact, the song I’m thinking of is “Wash Away” by Joe Purdy.  You could feel the fact that some awful things were going to happen in the near future.

 I found myself struck hard by many things in this film.  The anger. The fact that no one let up– no one offered anyone any mercy, ever.  I sometimes find myself in situations where there’s a clear choice to exacerbate something, or keep quiet / try to assuage a person or keep an event from exploding.  I feel compelled to dive into sentence fragment mode now as I tell you what I kept thinking about:

 The kindness and cluelessness and sensitivity and ignorance and misdirection of Sal.

The gentle nature, the care for people, the steady calculating anger of Mookie.

The reasonableness, the wanting peace of Jade.

The unyielding and unrelenting, one track perseverance of Buggin Out.

The fact that Vito could have been saved, convinced.

The symbolic act of justice performed by Smiley at the end.

The title alone.

 Does Do the Right Thing “hold up” to the test of time?  Yes.  Despite the off-putting opening several minutes of Rosie Perez dancing, the late 80s styles, the fact that Radio Raheem carried a boom box the size of my car, and no one had their necks bowed into their smartphones, (something I think about A LOT, feeling unable to grasp this change in our culture), so people still looked each other in the eye when they spoke. The fact of the matter is, I don’t think enough has changed since this movie was made.  I was afraid of coming to that conclusion even before I watched it.  What I didn’t consider was the timing of when Jon and I sat down to watch this movie, December 5th, 2014.  While thousands of people in San Francisco, New York, Boston, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. marched in protest after the Staten Island grand jury decided to not indict the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death this past July.  As I sat there, watching the two cops on the screen choke Radio Raheem to death in front of the entire screaming, raging neighborhood, I felt sick and full of tears.  I wanted the movie to be fiction, but it wasn’t, it isn’t.

 I’m not sure what to do after seeing this movie.  It makes me profoundly aware of the fact that I have no answers. It makes me love and fear people.  It makes me make that face that causes people to ask if I’m mad (it’s called thinking, thanks). I guess there isn’t exactly something for me to do, at least tonight, but it’s caused me to look deeper into what’s going on in the world I don’t want to think about, and make connections.  There’s nothing so sad as seeing a person try in vain to reach out to another person, but go about it so badly, it causes more anger and resentment.  This movie was full of characters trying to live their lives, take a stand, make trouble, stay out of trouble, love someone, or destroy someone. The conflict and the depth of hatred and misunderstanding ran too deep to be untangled in two hours on screen.  And in under 24 hours in the story, a microcosmic house of cards came down like it was meant to be, like there was no way around it.

 I want to believe it’s cyclical, with a possibility of glacier-like progress towards peace. Mookie and Sal’s exchange in front of the destruction the morning after hinted at “just another day” in a way that almost gives false hope. In my experience, people don’t change willingly due to external forces.  But they do get the crap kicked out of them by external forces. And people get worn down, tired, and closed.

 This has not been my best piece of writing here. I want to say so much more, but I’m constrained by time and responsibilities to wrap it up.  The weight of this movie makes our scoops of ice cream rating system seem foolish.  But, sometimes you gotta stick with the plan.

I give Do the Right Thing four out of five shaved ices in paper cones, any flavor you want.

Up Next: The Last Picture Show

Jon: Black and white means good, right?

Jenny: I have a bad feeling this title is misleading.