Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Is "Pulp Fiction" Overrated?

John Travolta
On this day in history, director Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction hit American theaters nationwide and in the process, altering how many conceived of cinema. It played fast and loose and gave a profane-laced, pop culture behemoth that earned the 30-year-old director the Palme d'Or and a Best Original Screenplay award with co-writer Roger Avary. For many, it was a renaissance of film innovation equivalent to Citizen Kane or The Godfather, changing the way that independent film would be judged and consumed. With all of the praise coming out to commemorate this anniversary, there's one hypothetical that never gets explored: what if Pulp Fiction was overrated?

In general, it is impossible to be a cinephile under 40 and have negative views on Pulp Fiction. You can question his other films and their integrity, but there was something about the chemistry of Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) that has stuck with audiences. Along with Clerks, which celebrates its 20th anniversary on Sunday, it was time for film to become self-aware and admire its own appreciation. 

At least, that's how American films would become. Cut over to the French New Wave movement of the 60's and you'll see that the notion of movie obsession as a plot device for emotional exploration was nothing new. Since his debut with Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino has been a questionable artist with equal parts ingenuity and several criticisms for stealing cues from international cinema. This isn't more apparent than with his clear fascination of Jean-Luc Godard, whose experimental style began with Breathless and cinema only became more ingrained as time went on. Tarantino even named his production company A Band Apart after Godard's French title for Band of Outsiders. Still, both directors shared stylized dialogue and visual cues meant to shock the viewers' synapses. As Roger Ebert once said of Breathless: "Modern movies begin here."

Of course, with the internet a form of archiving every important film, it was harder to be an informed cinephile of international cinema. Still, along with Francois Truffaut, the concept of incorporating cinema as a form of romanticism in film was nothing new. It's been done for over 30 years prior to Pulp Fiction. That isn't to say that Tarantino didn't contemporize the concept for American audiences. To the uninformed viewer, there's only about four or five references throughout the running time. To cinephiles, there's an endless well that has been effectively chronicled on the IMDb page for Connections. It serves the film incredibly because as a cinephile will grow and become more educated, they can find more to admire about Pulp Fiction. Basically, this film is more like the American equivalence to Breathless

Still, beyond the coolness that surrounds it, what exactly makes it that great? It is essentially just an update of the French New Wave movement. Even in the world of independent cinema, Steven Soderbergh landed five years prior with sex, lies & videotapes with contribution also from Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch (who made a prototypical Tarantino film with Blue Velvet). Much like the 70's New Hollywood, these 80's directors made films that were exciting and outside the regulated norms of the past. Lynch in particular was strange and created surreal portraits of American society. This may be where things become clear as to why Tarantino was accessible: he was a stylized prodigy.

This is where the lines between style over substance and come into play. Has any Tarantino film had necessarily a complicated plot with confusing morals? No. His films exist in the "movie logic" world where certain contrivances happen in order to benefit the cadence of conversation. Things need to keep moving like a screwball comedy, but with a mix of violence, pop culture references, and more symbolism than you likely remember. He makes cinema as influenced by cinema. It pops and like Godard, feels distinctly chaotic in ways that feel like a miracle. It could also be that from an American standpoint, referencing film to this degree hadn't been done before. Think of the Jack Rabbit Slims scene and you'll be bombarded with references that will take hours to deconstruct. That's just how Tarantino works. He rewards the audience who already knows his influences.

In the case of Pulp Fiction, it is also hard to actually pinpoint what makes it great beyond the dialogue and performances. For many, the non-chronological order is a little baffling. Does the film without it? I truthfully cannot comment, though there have been torrents released regarding the film's actual order (similar projects have been done for the even more nonlinear Kill Bill films).

The film may not be able to do so well in regular order. This is a testament to Tarantino making cinema for cinema. Along with the small cue of a motorcycle engine revving at the start of the film, there's small clues as to how the film operates. It also helps to make the viewer feel intelligent in being able to piece together a film that has excessive cursing, a needle stabbing, and one messy car. The film is, as the title suggests, pulpy. While the director would continue to apply the b-movie culture to his films, most notably in Grindhouse, there's something that feels accessible here. It doesn't feel predicated on having to know everything that came before. It's about a confusing, drugged up story involving Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) and his henchmen. 

Of every plot line, the one that keeps many from calling it flawless is the one that comes almost smack dabbed in the middle. Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) is on the run from Marsellus after failing to lose in a boxing match by his orders. From there, it becomes a cat and mouse chase that is interrupted for the most part. It eventually winds up in an antiques store with a character called The Gimp (Stephen Hibbert) who does some sexual things. For those that enjoy the hyperviolent nature of Kill Bill or Django Unchained, this was tolerable. For others, it left a big feeling of "What the what?" It was a sole issue that I had with this film until I found this two-part video on Youtube from Collative Learning:

It connected to another famous scene from the film featuring Captain Koons (Christopher Walken) given his famous gold watch speech to a young Butch. He had it up his ass. When viewed through the context of Butch's personal battle with Marsellus, suddenly the significance becomes clear. The consistent anal references are all indicative of this gold watch. It gives context, but for those that don't necessarily like to think of things like The Gimp, it may remain the controversial piece of the puzzle that they will overlook when discussing the film in favor of Jules and Vincent's biblical conversations.

There's not a lot that's clear on what is from Tarantino and Avary. The two split up after this film. Avary went on to a less prolific career by directing The Rules of Attraction, which was an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' college angst novel. Not a lot is known why, though much like modern Wes Anderson, Tarantino has only gone on to embrace his more cartoonish, stylized side. This isn't a bad thing, though it does leave question on how much Avary actually contributed (who was reportedly a big influence on the gold watch subplot). 

The thing about Pulp Fiction is that it ushered in a stylized pop culture form of cinema. Suddenly it was cool to reference any movie you wanted. It was also cool to use old R&B tunes in mainstream white films. There's no denying that the film felt cool. In fact, it continually ranks as one of independent film's biggest achievements and was once ranked as Entertainment Weekly's best film of the past 20 years. Most audiences will get by on watching the "Miserlu" opening credits number going into "Jungle Boogie." It is a film that should be perceived as an excuse to discuss film as something more. While there's people who likely enjoy it for face value, there's hope that there's a frustrated cinephile out there complaining about the MacGuffin briefcase being directly lifted from film noir classic Kiss Me Deadly.

Tarantino is admirable because he is a cinephile. While there's issues with him discussing topics such as racism (see: Django Unchained and the press junkets), this film works against all odds because it is at its core a love letter to Tarantino's youth watching cinema. There's not much else to it. It even seemed like a fluke that he won the Palme d'Or over Kryztof Kieslowski's Red. It was a time before his persona became popular and he owned a theater that showed obscure double features. He is both a critic and a filmmaker much like Godard or Truffaut were with Cahiers du Cinema. He reflects the everyman who can frankly do everything if they have the passion. 

Samuel L. Jackson
Since this after all The Oscar Buzz, I have to discuss the controversial topic. I previously addressed it in July when talking about Forrest Gump. The truth is that while I adore Oscar conversation, I don't always agree with the politics. In hindsight, it is impossible to see how Forrest Gump outshines Pulp Fiction. However, there's still the reality that some films' biggest successes come from simply being nominated. The Academy was coming off of the 80's (Out of Africa, Chariots of Fire, Driving Miss Daisy), which may have been the tamest decade since the 40's. Sure, Silence of the Lambs had previously won, but the Academy was known to reward films that felt specifically prestige. Forrest Gump, for better or worse, was a film that was more immediately accepted by the audiences of the time. I mean, even Weird Al Yankovic did a song about it. Forrest Gump was more popular. Even if Pulp Fiction grossed over $200 million, the Robert Zemeckis film was more immediately beloved because it was cutting edge and appealed to the nostalgia that came with the conditions.

Also, while Shawshank Redemption is another film that has been lauded as robbed by Forrest Gump (I am less enthusiastic about this one), there's still one that felt more relevant: Quiz Show. It remains an underrated gem exploring how we perceive the media. With exception to Four Weddings and a Funeral (should have been replaced by Ed Wood or Red), it was a phenomenal year for the category. Compared to some other years, these films have held up impressively well. Still, the sting that Pulp Fiction lost has soured many people's interpretations of the Oscars. By logic, the category has generally been about what appeals to the broadest audience. Hearing Samuel L. Jackson cursing, Tarantino talk about "Dead nigger storage," and the gold watch subplot were all reasons that it wasn't going to fly. It was a miracle that this wunderkind even made it that far. I can only assume its impact of the time as I was only 5. Still, Forrest Gump was more prominent in my awareness.

It is a subject that can be explored in hindsight better than in the moment. Think of Citizen Kane losing to How Green Was My Valley. It seems preposterous now, but at the time, John Ford was an established director with Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath. It was a win equivalent to Martin Scorsese's The Departed: overdue recognition. Robert Zemeckis had an impressive run in the 80's and Forrest Gump was the closest to prestige that he ever did. Speaking as Tarantino remains an edgy guy, I doubt that he will ever win Best Picture. I think there's more frustration in that than the fact that Pulp Fiction lost, especially as the Oscars have only gotten softer.

Left to right: Travolta and Uma Thurman
I don't know if I explored the topic of overrated very well. The truth is that the film does what it sets out to do very well. I still feel like the gold watch sequence keeps me from calling this amazing. Even in terms of enjoyment, I get more out of Reservoir Dogs and its influence on independent film. Sure, Pulp Fiction is ridiculously watchable and I haven't been able to escape it for very long among my peers, but I still come away in a middle ground with the film. I admire what it did for the medium. In fact, where I usually get burned out when people excessively talk about a film, I can tolerate it a lot more with this one. There's too much that has become ingrained that people coming to it for the first time nowadays will likely be too familiar with it. 

Is Pulp Fiction overrated? In some ways, yes. It isn't flawless. There's moments that don't click. However, it isn't overrated because of Tarantino or the film itself. It's because the rest of pop culture wants it to be The Godfather (big sweeping epic, masterclass in film theory) when it's more like Breathless (jagged and loose cool incorporation of film culture). Also, the parodies can get a little trite after awhile. Otherwise, it is a film that exists in an amazing vacuum that seems to suck in everything around it. It is a film of pop culture genius because Tarantino got there first, at least in America.

1 comment:

  1. As someone who watched the film 7 times within the theater in the weeks following its initial release, I recall quite well the "What the what?!" moment I had the first time I saw the Gimp climb outta that box. It was a jarring sequence to be sure, but that you would cite it as the compelling reason to keep the movie out of "amazing" status is somewhat narrow minded.

    I argue that the Gold Watch sequence is the most noble one of the whole movie. Instantly after Koons' speech, we know the full value of that watch, and understand why Butch would risk life and limb, as well as the fruition of his fixed-fight betrayal scheme to retrieve it. He could've said "oh well" when he realized Fabienne forgot it. He could've left Marcellus in the dungeon, but he just couldn't.

    Every other sequence in the movie is self-serving for the people involved ... Pumpkin' and Honey Bunny don't want day jobs, Vince endangering Lance's way of life to save his ass over Mia; Mr. Wolf wiping Vincent's, Jules' and Jimmy's ass; and Jules' efforts to give meaning for his moment of clarity. Butch's efforts to get his watch and save Marcellus are the most noble acts of the movie.

    I read the Collative Learning interpretation of the Gold Watch sequence (the videos are no longer available), and while I found the war references to be on the money, the anal fixation seems rather contrived. The Maynard, Zed, Gimp scene is disturbing, but it further illustrates Butch's nobility to go back in there and get his man out.

    Personally, the moments that don't click for me are the taxi driver scenes.