The Unintentional Birth of The Work You See Before You
Let’s be perfectly frank: I had absolutely no intention of writing about Pulp Fiction. This was not a pit stop on my current agenda of breathing life into my dying blog. The years have passed since I originally saw the movie. My opinion has gone from one of intense, passionate dislike to that of total indifference.
So what happened? The usual: I was flipping through my “on demand,” and there was Pulp Fiction (with an ironic “NEW” next to it). My hatred is by now a part of history. Was it still justified? Didn’t I have an hour or so before bed?
Why not? I hit the “select” and away I went.
The Mystique of Pulp Fiction
Yes, I never have liked Pulp Fiction (and apparently still don’t). We are talking about something that is now almost twenty years old (feel free to have a shocked reaction to that nasty little fact...I did). I can’t speak for the youth of today, but I wonder if Pulp Fiction is still as hot a commodity for them as it was for...(gasp) my generation.
The ghost of Tarantino’s self conscious crime saga loomed large over my college years. You just couldn’t get away from it. There was the endless quoting of the dialogue: everyone remembers the “royale with cheese.” There was the influence in fashion; you could always spot a fan in the crowd by the skinny tie and black suit.
How many dorm rooms did I go into that were adorned with Uma Thurman in her black bobbed hair cut? The poster is ingrained in my memory with a vague sense of dread. (“Someone else who thinks Pulp Fiction is great?” I would mentally groan.)
I had seen the movie once and was underwhelmed. I suppose I had found it in the same way most of my cohort had. This was primarily a rental phenomenon because we were all too young to get into R-rated movies. There are most likely people out there who snuck in, and love the movie simply for the memory.
I was not one of them.
To the best of my memory, I believe I watched it with my parents. (That must have been incredibly comfortable.) The tape ended and I thought: “What’s the big deal?” I had even read about Tarantino’s triumphant storming of Cannes that year...and how sensational and (cough) revolutionary Pulp Fiction was. (Yes, I followed the film industry then, too. My level of dismay hasn’t waned over the years...no, just my obsessiveness with the splendor of Hollywood.)
Truth be told, I had forgotten about Pulp Fiction by the time I got to college. It was just one more item to add to the cinematic dung heap.
What happens when something is that popular? Everyone has a copy of it, and you are subjected to the same film multiple times. I even read the screenplay all the way through because my roommate had a copy. (This, come to think of it, was the first screenplay I ever saw in my life. This was before most scripts were leaked onto the internet).
I still didn’t embrace it, because I just didn’t think it was that good.
What Didn’t I Like About Pulp Fiction?
I can hopefully draw on my memory here, as biased as it is.
Here is my makeshift list of reasons not to approve of Pulp Fiction.
- I found it to be unbelievably smug. There was always the sense that this was a gimmicky work designed to show off Tarantino’s talents. (“Hey, look at me...”)
- The entire thing just felt empty to me. I understood that it was designed primarily to entertain, and that was fine. Still, I found nothing to care about beyond surface flash.
- I had no immediate need to ever bear witness to it again. I did (and still do) rate movies on if I would ever watch them an additional time.
There was at least a scant basis of an intelligent filmic judgement. I hadn’t spent (wasted?) as much time studying film as I have by now.
There were some additional factors to consider:
- There was no way that Pulp Fiction was going to live up to its legend. I have what might be politely termed an “aversive” personality. Once anything is promoted to legendary status, I grow insanely suspicious of it.
- Quentin Tarantino used to be much more into being a “personality” than he is these days. He was always (ill advisedly) showing up in movies, hosting Saturday Night Live, or giving endless interviews to Charlie Rose. Let’s make no bones about it: The guy is an enormous dickhead. I found it hard to separate the dickhead from the dickhead’s movies. There was the same undeniable smugness in his public appearances as there was in his artistic output. Where does personal dickheadness end and creative dickheadness start? That, dear readers, is one of life’s great unanswered questions.
I have allowed myself a giant digression. Remember my original story about finding Pulp Fiction on cable?
What does an older, more sophisticated viewer think of Pulp Fiction?
I still think it sucks. I believe that “sucks” is one of the most popular verbs in Academia, is it not?
Let me at least qualify that with some rational thinking.
First, I will strain my mental and emotional faculties by praising it:
- The constant driving pace of the film is explosive and undeniable. I wasn’t about to switch it off because it at least hooked my interest. This is a two and a half hour excursion with very few dull spots. That means that Tarantino is at least faultless as a craftsman.
- There are undeniably iconic scenes. Everyone remembers Uma waltzing through the apartment to the Neil Diamond song. The same could be said for Bruce Willis going back into the pawn shop with the Samurai sword.
- No one ever mentions the production design. The film (I’m guessing) is primarily shot on location...with most of the dingy diners, apartments, and swimming pools “popping” on camera. The wardrobe is appropriately chosen for each character...most of the clothes look vintage and torn up.
- The acting: Everyone raves about how this was John Travolta’s “comeback” role. I don’t find his performance anything more than competent. I was surprised at how well Bruce Willis built a character, and the actors with smaller parts win the day. The two pawn shop rapists (Duane Whitaker and Peter Greene), Willis’ cab driver (Angela Jones), and Travolta’s drug dealer (Eric Stolz) all come to mind. My favorite? Harvey Keitel’s sophisticated and quietly menacing take on “the Wolf.”
- I can’t fault Tarantino’s taste in music. I was constantly recognizing obscure nuggets from every era.
That hurt me deeply, so let’s resort to the negative. I’ll state my problem simply: There is just not enough here for a great movie.
Now what don’t I like about Pulp Fiction?
- I mentioned “smugness” before, but a better way to state that would be: “immaturity.” I would point out the ridiculous amount of sadism and violence on display here. Remember the scene in the basement of the pawnshop, which leads to the “medieval on your ass” line? Everyone loves a twisted laugh, but Tarantino has no perspective on what he is showing us. He is just using it for shock value...and that’s the work of a teenage prankster.
- I mentioned that I felt like Pulp Fiction is empty. You could probably debate that point by mentioning the “golden briefcase.” That’s a point we could ponder: What’s in the brief case and what does it represent? What does the fight over it symbolize? Honestly, who cares? The suit case is just there as window dressing: a macguffin and nothing more than that. I suppose you could also debate with me (as someone once did) that a man finds religion at the end. Even the final scene with Samuel L. Jackson feels hollow to me. The progression towards it is clever, but you can’t credit it as a genuine character arc. The movie just isn’t about anything besides its own cleverness.
- To add to the above point: I still find this film to be a non-stop gimmick. The non-linear storytelling doesn’t have much of a pay off (other than being unconventional). The dialogue, as well written as it is, starts to jumble together. There are memorable lines, but they are difficult to credit to a single character. The scenes which I find iconic still don’t have much gravitas when compared to other movie moments. There is nothing as resonate here as Robert DeNiro asking: “Are you talking to me?” I wouldn’t pit Uma dancing against Orson Welles pining for “Rosebud.”
I haven’t gone to all this effort to enrage Tarantino fans. You are more than welcome to champion Pulp Fiction.
I just don’t need to watch it again anytime soon.