Sunday, August 23, 2015

Birthday Take: Roger Avary in "Pulp Fiction" (1994)

Left to right: John Travolta and Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Roger Avary
Born: August 23, 1965 (50 years old)
Nomination: Best Original Screenplay (won) for Pulp Fiction

The Take

By this point, everyone knows about Pulp Fiction. It has gone from being this cool, stylized movie that influenced 90's cinema to a cornerstone alongside Citizen Kane or The Godfather. There is something to it that embodies the growth of American cinema in ways that few other contemporary auteurs have. In fact, it still remains debatable on if it should have won Best Picture over Forrest Gump. But what does remain is that it is director, writer, and actor Quentin Tarantino's calling card. If you have to even question his legitimacy, you will always go to this film and its whirlwind of references and dialogue that embrace the essence of cinema. Is he a hack? That is a debate for another time. What is known is that the influence this film has is unquestionable.

Yet there is someone else who seems to have been written out of cinema's history books. While we always associate Pulp Fiction with Tarantino, there was another writer on the project. Ladies and gentlemen, I introduce Roger Avary. While the two haven't worked together since this 1994 film, it does seem indicative of the tonal shift. Between this film and Reservoir Dogs, the two worked together to form what became the Tarantino cool. They wore suits, shot a lot of people, and referenced almost everything that elevated their style. As I am simply a casual fan of Avary's post-Pulp Fiction work (his directorial film The Rules of Attraction was pretty good), I cannot enter the debate on how much of the film's success is on his shoulders. What I do know is that he may be one of the oddest write-offs in film history, considering the impact that Pulp Fiction continues to have.

The thing is that Tarantino hasn't gone anywhere. He has been here for the last 20 years producing nonstop genre movies that have won him Oscars and gotten him two additional Best Picture nods. We are familiar with his style to a ridiculous degree and while the debate on authenticity will always be open-ended, the better question is on if Tarantino is better on his own. Consider that with exception to Jackie Brown (based off of a novel), he has made original stories that lack the contemporary subject matter. He has ditched the suits and has only become more coy with the references. His dialogue is still rich, but I feel like something was lost when he broke up with Avary. I am not entirely sure what, but there has to be something.

Just consider the subtext of Pulp Fiction's various motifs. There's the watch as it ties into themes of rectum insertion. There's the tragedy that follows trips to the bathroom. There's that briefcase. Those are just a few things that inevitably strengthen the film as being more than just style. There's subtext that you can continue to catch with each subsequent viewing. As much as it pains me to say, Tarantino hasn't had this level of intricacy since. Yes, he has had complicated stories (notably Inglourious Basterds), but you don't get motifs on par with the watch or bathroom visits. All you get is style that is unadulterated odes to what cinema can be. Does it make his work better? Again, that's up to you. However, there's still some testament to everyone citing Pulp Fiction as an indisputable masterpiece.

If I had any goal of choosing Avary for this entry, it is mostly to remind people that he exists and went the other direction following the success of Pulp Fiction. Maybe that's what he wanted to do. I have not researched the partnership that well. But considering that Tarantino made Django Unchained, a controversial blaxploitation epic, into a box office giant, it is bizarre to notice that none of Avary's later work even resonates half as well. So, was he the brains behind the operation, or did they just bring out the best in each other? I don't really know. With The Hateful Eight coming out this Christmas, it feels like time until we talk about how great Tarantino is once again. It isn't a bad thing, but I do wonder if Avary deserves a little more attention for his work.

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