By the early 1990s, John Travolta’s “it” factor had all but faded away. The late 1970s had seen him become a superstar, thanks to iconic roles in films like Grease and Saturday Night Fever and as Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back, Kotter, but his star power fizzled throughout the 80s, and he ended up playing second-fiddle to a baby in the popular-yet-cringeworthy Look Who’s Talking series. Pulp Fiction made Travolta an icon again, and he enjoyed a sizable career resurgence, starring in big-budget flicks like Face/Off and Broken Arrow (before films like Battlefield Earth shattered all of that goodwill.)
Such was the power of Pulp Fiction — so hip, so cool that it could resuscitate careers. The briefcase. Royale with Cheese. Surf-rock. Jules’ baffling-yet captivating Ezekiel speech. It’s all ingrained in pop culture now — the lingo, the visuals. I’ve seen a zillion spoofs of Jules and Vincent standing side by side, pointing their guns, replaced by the duos like Darth Vader and Boba Fett, Bert and Ernie, etc. Hey, you don’t get spoofed by The Simpsons unless you’re in the cultural zeitgeist.
With Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino made a name for himself and established many of the trademarks that would appear throughout his career. But with Pulp Fiction, he perfected the formula. He took all of the stuff that was fresh and exciting in Reservoir Dogs and cranked it to 11. It was more funny, more violent, more narratively complex. Reservoir Dogs might be a more cohesive film, but Pulp Fiction is more daring, more memorable, more iconic.
THREE STORIES, ONE FILM
You can thank Harvey Weinstein of all people for Pulp Fiction coming to fruition. The Miramax co-founder was so jazzed about the script that Pulp Fiction became the first movie that the company completely financed. They weren’t the first to see the script. Many had balked at the idea. Not only was Pulp Fiction too violent, profanity-laden and loaded with drugs, its non-chronological plot threw people for a loop. Nobody had seen anything like it before. Technically, there had been films that had interwoven distinct stories, but these were usually anthology films with the most tenuous of connective threads (e.g. Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye). That strange structure turned out to be one of Pulp Fiction’s greatest strengths.
Pulp Fiction, like Reservoir Dogs, plays with time, but it takes the technique to a whole other level. Rather than just presenting mere flashbacks, the film features several interwoven stories. For example, the first scene shows the Bonnie & Clyde-lite duo of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny discussing the possibility of robbing the diner they’re seated in. It’s revealed in the epilogue that hitmen Jules and Vincent are actually seated in the same diner. Tarantino likened this narrative structure to a novel, in which a writer can jump backward and forward in time, offering new information, building suspense. It has the effect of changing how characters are seen, and who to root for, depending on which part of the movie you’re watching. In the first major part of Pulp Fiction, “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife,” Vincent is essentially the protagonist. He’s a guy who desperately doesn’t want to mess up his “date” with Mia. He dances with her, talks five-dollar milkshakes and blows her a tender kiss after their insane night together. But in the segment “The Gold Watch,” boxer Butch Coolidge assumes the role of the protagonist. He’s on a mission to retrieve his father’s watch, return to his sweet girlfriend Fabienne and then hit the road. Vincent makes an appearance in this segment, but he’s not a hero, but rather a villain to the new hero, Butch. It’s all interconnected, but each story stands on its own — there’s a problem and the protagonist finds a solution, whether it be Butch retrieving his dad’s watch or Jules and Vincent cleaning their car with the assistance of The Wolf, played with finesse by Reservoir Dogs alum Harvey Keitel.
By plotting the film out in this way, Tarantino allows for more focus on character. There’s a big overall story here, but it’s not that compelling on its own. Who knows if it’d work in a standard linear structure.. What is interesting are the glimpses into these misfits’ lives. To think that a man on the run from a crime boss would risk his life and return to his apartment just to retrieve a watch that Christopher Walken had stuck up his ass. But it’s Butch’s one tangible connection to his father, a memento he isn’t willing to leave behind, no matter how heavy the stakes. Sure, he pals around with criminals and beats a boxer to death, but he’s got principles. Butch is revealed to have a soft side when he’s in conversation with his lover, Fabienne. Seemingly innocuous conversations about pancakes and pot bellies don’t move the plot forward or reveal any juicy info that will pay off later, but they show another side to Butch. The movie dares to humanize thugs and killers, and it succeeds. Tarantino isn’t asking the audience to approve of the vile deeds, but he does make one root for the characters in spite of their failings.
Tarantino certainly lets his characters talk. There’s decent action throughout, but it’s really the dialogue that makes Pulp Fiction a stand-out. Drawn-out conversations about TV pilots and cheeseburgers don’t really serve any narrative purpose, but they’re funny and make the characters relatable. The dialogue is sharp, witty and realistic… to a point.
POP CULTURE OVERLOAD
Pulp Fiction isn’t only influential for depicting a scuzzy L.A. underworld evocative of cheap pulp novels, but also for blending this with pop culture references and humor. It’s clear that the film was made by a pop-culture junky. From the conversations to the framing of specific shots, Pulp Fiction is a pastiche of high-brow and low-brow. Jules refers to a man he’s about to kill as “Flock of Seagulls,” a dig at the man’s obtuse hairstyle. The dance scene at Jack Rabbit Slims was inspired by a scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part. Eric Stoltz is shown wearing a Speed Racer t-shirt. It’s a world informed by pop culture and one perfectly suited for, and reflective of, the self-aware mid-90s.
Like Reservoir Dogs before it, Pulp Fiction humanizes villainous characters by showing them chatting about the most humdrum things imaginable. Tarantino kicked off Reservoir Dogs in a similar way, with a long conversation about Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” and Madonna gets another nod here when Fabienne talks about how Madonna’s belly looked in “Lucky Star.” The pop culture references keep coming in Pulp Fiction, though not to the level of, say, a Family Guy episode. Tarantino makes plenty of overt allusions to pop culture in the form of the 50s theme restaurant Jack Rabbit Slim’s — an Ed Sullivan impersonator, Marilyn Monroe, Steve Buscemi dressed up like Buddy Holly (which might be a meta-joke, since Buscemi’s Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs revealed he didn’t believe in tipping waitstaff). It’s postmodern through and through. Even casting Travolta was representative of this. The audience has meta-knowledge of Travolta’s reputation as a dancer in Grease and Saturday Night Fever, which makes his dance-off with Mia a wink-and-a-nod moment.
As a whole, Pulp Fiction hinges on the audience’s awareness of tropes, and it offers something new by subverting expectations. Two hitmen on a job to retrieve a briefcase for their boss is nothing new or particularly compelling, but add in a conversation about the danger of giving Mia Wallace a foot massage and things get more interesting. In a typical gangster movie, the villains are depicted as black-and-white thugs. But here, Jules and Vincent are two wise guys out on a job. Jules even says to Vincent at one point, “Let’s get into character.” Their banter is so casual and funny that when Jules goes into his Ezekiel speech, it’s jarring. But the audience can take a chill pill, since Tarantino never lingers too long on any of the darker elements. This is a fun time. Things get dark — there’s redneck rapists, Mia nearly OD’ing, a car splattered with blood and brain matter — there’s real tension, but Pulp Fiction is not a “dark” movie nor a typically dramatic one. Reservoir Dogs has its funny moments, but Tarantino really lets loose with this film. “The Bonnie Situation” is essentially a comedy of errors, in which seemingly “hard” hit men are at the mercy of a whiny househusband, get hosed down by a mustachioed Harvey Keitel and have to put on shorts and tees that look like they came off the rack af Salvation Army. The whole thing is played like a straight-up comedy. This irreverent tone is Tarantino’s style, and he nailed it here. It’s one of the more refreshing aspects of the movie. Pulp Fiction is less of a gritty crime drama and more of an alternative, good-time midnight movie. It ends with Jules and Vincent, in their dorky street clothes, sticking their guns into the pockets of their shorts; The Godfather this is not. And Jules’ wallet really does say “Bad Motherfucker” on it. Talk about a must-have accessory!
Speaking of Jules, Samuel L Jackson absolutely steals the show in Pulp Fiction. All of the major characters are great, but Jackson so effortlessly transitions from enraged to cool and zen-like to snarky at the turn of a dime, and it’s a real treat to watch. He wasn’t a total newbie, but this is certainly the role that would cement him as an actor to watch, and one worthy of that “Bad Motherfucker wallet. This would be the first of many appearance in Tarantino’s filmography. It’s a damn shame that Jackson isn’t listed in the cast for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Pulp Fiction was a mega-success. It was the first “indie” film to surpass $100 million, it took home numerous Best Picture-type awards and launched Quentin Tarantino into the stratosphere. No longer was he an indie director with one cult hit under his belt, and with something to prove. Pulp Fiction paved the way for a long career and still holds up within Tarantino’s growing filmography. He would still direct crime movies, but would explore other genres and archetypes as his career progressed. None would have as much of a cultural impact, however, as Pulp Fiction — and none likely will. It’s like The Rolling Stones releasing an album in the late-2010s. The music might be great, but it doesn’t compare to those early records. Pulp Fiction was too big for its own good.
John Brhel (@johnbrhel) is an author and pop culture writer from upstate New York. He is the co-author of several books of horror/paranormal fiction, including Corpse Cold: New American Folklore and Resurrection High, and the co-founder of independent book publisher Cemetery Gates Media. He enjoys burritos and has seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom way too many times.
Categories: 1990s, 2019 Film Essays, Crime, Drama, Film Essays