Revisiting "Pulp Fiction"

We can start by agreeing that this 1994 bombshell is a) the most influential single film stylistically since Godard's "Breathless" back in 1959; and b) that it's also one of the most delicious of all time.

Not derived from a novel, though it gives a nod of acknowledgment to the 1930s book and film genre that popularized the phrase ‘pulp fiction’ (crime and detective stories that appeared in cheap magazines printed on newsprint, or ‘pulp’ paper, rather than on heavier stock), the film was written and directed by the now-celebrated ex-video-store clerk -- just 31 at the time the film was released -- with a story contribution by Tarantino’s associate Roger Avary.

"Pulp Fiction" is one of those remarkable creations that despite its title owes little or nothing to any previous film work. It tells us a couple of stories simultaneously. One is about a team of two Los Angeles hit men and their adventures over what appears to be a period of just a few days; the second is the story of an aging, double-crossing, has-been boxer over the same period. They are connected by virtue of the fact that they all work for a criminal boss named Marcellus Wallace. At the beginning of the film the hit men and the boxer don’t even know each other, but their lives -- and those of their boss and his wife -- are intertwined so inventively for us that we come to see them as part of a perfectly natural cosmic order. It is the kind of experience in which we take for granted such things as the fact that a character who dies in the middle of the film is still alive at the end; that a particularly comic moment is the question of what to do with the headless body of a man who has just been shot to death, with his brains, blood, and shards of skull smeared all over the inside of a car; that treating the heroin overdose of Marcellus’s wife becomes a hilarious experience. People who know the film trade moments with each other as others trade "Monty Python" or "Seinfeld" lines.

But the film is more than moments; there is a complex and carefully worked-out structure that gives weight to the entire movie, enriching the scenes as we watch them, and referring both forward and back to other scenes as well. The film asks us to put aside our notions of the ‘well-made’ film, the traditional structure of a movie that starts, say, with a shooting or a robbery or a deception and then traces the consequences of that act to a conclusion, though it has all of those elements in it. It’s not a film about the morality of a hit man’s life, or about crime in general, or the boxing world, or the relationship between a crime boss and his underlings, or even about good and evil, though we learn more than we expect to about all of those.

In fact the key to the film is that it doesn’t have any overt point of view. There is no right or wrong here. Tarantino is happy to leave all that to others. What he does is set us down in the middle of a group of lives, to watch and listen dispassionately as they experience what you might call some very remarkable, life-changing days. And this absence of a governing set of filmmaker’s values lends an ironic detachment to the film, a distancing that was incredibly shocking to audiences when they first saw it, and yet has come to open up a whole new way of making movies for filmmakers around the world. No other film since Jean-Luc Godard’s "Breathless" in 1959 has had that kind of impact.

The writing: The film begins with a young couple (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) at a booth in a coffee shop somewhere in Los Angeles. They decide to rob the place, but the scene ends as they begin the robbery. We will not see them again until the last scene of the film. Cut to two of Marcellus’s hit men, Vincent Vega and Jules Winfield (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) on their way to deal with someone who has tried to double-cross their boss by holding out some unnamed item in a briefcase. The episode will end in a long sequence that has both a multiple murder and an epiphany for Jackson. Next we meet the washed-up boxer Butch (Bruce Willis), who is getting his orders from Marcellus (played by Ving Rhames) to throw his next fight.

Tarantino keeps inventing characters and putting them in intriguing situations, moving them through unexpected developments, as fast as we can assimilate them. Vincent is ordered to take Marcellus’s wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out on a date while Marcellus is away. The problem for Vincent is that the last underling who did it was thrown from a fourth-story window afterwards. The date itself is one of the great moments in film, as the two first fence with each other and then go out to Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a restaurant where every employee is a famous movie or television star.

On and on the movie goes, making bizarre connections at unexpected times and places. Every scene is like another piece of a mosaic, neatly placed so as to enrich our pleasure with the whole. Occasionally Tarantino inserts intertitles ("The Big Fight," though there are no fight shots, and the title appears after the scene’s meaning is apparent). At one point Mia describes Vincent as a square, by making the shape in the air; Tarantino gives us an outlined square on the screen as she does it. These aren’t authorial or directorial twitches, nor exercises in egomania. Their purpose is to make sure we’re keeping ourselves distanced from the action, telling us not to take everything too personally; to sit back instead and enjoy the show. And the show is written so interestingly, with an underlying wit that gives us so many pleasurable shocks -- either of surprise or recognition -- that we sit for two hours and forty minutes with a kind of silly grin on our face.

The direction: This was only Tarantino’s second film as director ("Reservoir Dogs" was his first, in 1991), though he had written two other produced scripts: "True Romance" and "Natural Born Killers." He took a cast of experienced stars and molded them to a vision that none of them could have expected, because there had never been a film like this before. Early in the film he gives Jackson and Travolta a delicious passage as they head toward a hit on people we haven’t met yet. They discuss everything from how you say ‘Big Mac’ in French (‘Royale’) to what the consequences of giving a foot massage to a woman would be if the woman were your boss’s wife. And as they talk Tarantino moves them from driving their car to getting their guns out of the trunk to entering an old L.A. apartment house that seems to have corridors more than a block long. Never a word about what they’re there to do, and we’re so interested in their conversation that the switch from talk to action seems perfectly normal.

Tarantino fills the movie with bravura directorial moments. When Mia and Vincent are at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, the emcee -- an Ed Sullivan clone -- announces a twist contest. Thurman wants to enter, but -- surprise -- Travolta doesn’t. She has to threaten him with telling her husband that he wouldn’t dance. And now Tarantino plays off of Travolta’s early triumph in "Saturday Night Fever" twenty years before, the performance that made him a star, where he disco danced to a championship with great flair and power, by now having him barely move his feet at all as they win the contest.

On and on the film goes, never pausing for a conventional moment, never failing to surprise us with new takes on old cliches. Butch the fighter has double-crossed Marcellus by not throwing the fight, betting on himself at great odds, and trying to leave town before Marcellus can get to him. But Tarantino has them meet unexpectedly when Butch runs into him with his car in a crosswalk. Which in turn leads to the famous torture episode in the gun shop with Zed the sheriff’s deputy and the Gimp, who is a creature kept in a barred cage inside a trunk, cloaked from head to toe in studded black leather. Tarantino is so sure-handed that nothing is too far-fetched to play out, and everything works logically in the context of the film. We sit comfortably in the palm of his hand as he shows us his magic.

The acting: This is a film in which the actors must play the most bizarre scenes, and deliver the most unexpected dialogue, with complete believability. John Travolta, who’d been a name for almost twenty years but whose steadily declining career was in the tank by 1994, is asked to play a heroin-addicted, slow-thinking hit man whose idea of a worldly vision (he has just returned from living in Amsterdam for three years) is to describe Holland’s laws regarding marijuana and hash. It’s a role unlike anything he had ever seen before, and he never wavers in character. He stays completely within himself in both voice and body language. Bruce Willis, as Butch the boxer, has to show us both dumb acquiescence and the ability to create a masterful double cross plan, at the same time. He plays off his movie persona as an action hero, but does it without showing any awareness of life outside this film. He also lives completely within the part. Samuel L. Jackson’s role is the pivot around which much of the rest of the film turns. He is a deadly effective killer, who in the middle of the movie, while killing, finds a message from God that changes his life. Try conveying that yourself sometime. It became a performance that Jackson has repeated in a number of films since, though with diminishing impact each time.

The casting is so good throughout that every time we meet someone new we accept them as a part of our (movie) life. Each actor, no matter how small or large the role, has found a center around which to build his or her character, and it shows in the seamlessness of the film. Even though logically, or rather conventionally, nothing here would make sense in the real world, we have been delighted to suspend our disbelief and enjoy the film.