Pulp Fiction, Still Cool, Compelling & Game-Changing 20 Years Later (Food For Thought)
Twenty years ago today (October 14), the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction opened in theaters. The film starring a Hollywood re-tread (John Travolta), a character actor (Samuel L. Jackson), and a relative unknown (Umma Thurman), as well as a host of other actors, would go on to become an icon of cool within the ’90s. The work changed the things audiences came to expect in an action film, in scenes between the action, and in plots, period. As Heads are still cleaning/reliving the backseat of the Chevy Nova, Ambrosia For Heads opted to take some time to remember a benchmark masterpiece in retro cinema on its birthday.
By the Fall of 1994, not everybody had seen Tarantino’s 1992 breakout film Reservoir Dogs. Starring would-be stars Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, as well as the Martin Scorsese affiliate Harvey Keitel, Footloose‘s Chris Penn, and veteran film tough Lawrence Tierney, the independent picture slid under many radars. It was a dialogue-driven film with very limited settings, driven by a degree of violence that might even make a slasher-film theatergoer wince. The film featured almost no female actors, and was short on hope in an era when upward lifting premises were grabbing box offices and acclaim alike.
Before DVD releases with commentary, and constant runs on the yet-unborn IFC network, and Internet culture championing its greatness, Reservoir Dogs was still making its rounds when Tarantino unveiled Pulp Fiction two years later. However, Pulp Fiction carried a more grabbing cast, including Bruce Willis, John Travolta, Christopher Walken, Rosanna Arquette, Eric Stolz—household names that were almost all rarely associated with great films. While the work garnered acclaim on the festival circuit for six months prior, it was not a groundswell beginning. “It was not platformed, that is, it did not open in a handful of theaters and roll out slowly as word of mouth built, the traditional way of releasing an indie film; it went wide immediately, into 1,100 theaters,” recalled cultural critic Peter Biskind. Instead, Pulp Fiction opened like the films it was derived from.
In his mind—as seen throughout on screen since, Quentin Tarantino was obsessed with cool, or his own personal gestalt concept of it. A former Manhattan Beach, California movie-rental store clerk, he was clearly obsessed with the medium–black&white noires, ’70s car-chase flicks, drive-in theater sex romps, Blaxploitation flicks, heist pictures, and anti-hero classics. If you watch or listen to interviews, commentary, or see him at award shows, Tarantino isn’t cool—by traditional standards. He’s a breathless obsessive, eager to cram in thoughts and ideas. It is in that personal corner of “cool” that Pulp Fiction‘s kernel is born. It’s the suits, the signature late ’60s/early ’70s Novas, the dancing, the t-shirts, the music, and the locations. There’s almost always smoke, attitude, and some light-handed posturing. Spending almost all of his life in the greater outskirts of L.A., Tarantino colored the expansive city differently than his peers. It was all-night diners, out-of-step dive bars, back-alley Army-Navy stores, and one-of-a-kind fast food joints. This is true in the flashbacks of Reservoir Dogs as it is in the entirety of Jackie Brown, but it is 1994’s Pulp Fiction that made it just so tangible.
In those settings and amidst the cool-factor, dialogue is everything. Like the studied work of playwright Harold Pinter, every single word a character in a Tarantino flick says has been evaluated, considered, compared, and examined. Word choice is just as important as rhythm. These scenes were designed to be quoted by friends, printed on t-shirts, and recited on bad first dates. The speaking Tarantino characters are not deep in the sense that the viewer wonders what they are thinking, or who they go home to at night, but they are people that are felt and known. Audiences know when they want to reach for their gun or when they want to reach for their wallet (well, most of the time). So with that sense of knowledge in mind, Tarantino makes their thoughts real, from two guys riding around between hits discussing burgers abroad to the grand entrance of a fixer, and his all-knowing instructions. The dialogue also reminds the viewer that take away the guns, the drugs, the cool houses, the cruel predicaments, and they’re the same as us. After decades of one-dimensional “good guys” and “bad guys,” Pulp Fiction’s composites dealt with the same mundane bullshit, and everyday thoughts that the folks crunching popcorn in the seats did. They just did it in a cooler way, of course.
There is a massive underdog mentality to Pulp Fiction, which is giantly true of Tarantino’s work as a whole. This is a film student who championed works that aren’t typically screened in classes or released to Criterion collection. Whether The (original) Taking Of Pelham 123, the original Gone In 60 Seconds, or Van Nuys Boulevard, Tarantino celebrates these quirky moments in the overlooked works of yesteryear. Like his friend RZA, he samples these elements into his own work. For the film Head, the pop culture Head, and the L.A. Head, there are so many jewels in the road, from re-hashed phrases and expressions, to store names, to character names…Pulp Fiction brought this sensibility to the mainstream (by award season, anyway) that every single thing was deliberate, a celebration of cool and worth recognizing.
Like his underdog sense of great film, Tarantino and Pulp Fiction took lesser known or down-on-their-luck actors, and gave them characters that redefined their careers. Before Pulp Fiction, John Travolta was in the limelight as a former ’70s film and TV actor now starring in a talking-baby franchise (Look Who’s Talking). Pulp Fiction provided him with a trip to the Academy Awards that year. Samuel L. Jackson, for whom Tarantino famously wrote the lines, “I eat the pussy, I eat the butt,” in Tony Scott’s True Romance a year prior, was just a memorable character actor. Jackson had gotten his brains blown out in Goodfellas, botched a robbery at McDowell’s in Coming To America, and been credited as “Black guy” in the Al Pacino-starring Sea Of Love before Pulp Fiction. This film highlighted his tremendous acting abilities, convicted delivery, and unmistakeable voice—right into an Oscar nomination. This was true of other veteran stock actors like Tim Roth, Ving Rhames, and Amanda Plummer, all brought into focus in Pulp Fiction. These careers took different directions because of one film, that opened to a mere 1,100 theaters, under the radar 20 years ago.
In a score that was watching “Seinfeld” soar in popularity on Thursday night television, America (and abroad) craved story. Like Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s “show about nothing,” Pulp Fiction isn’t acting as if it’s high-concept. The plot of the show is relatively simple. However, it’s the symphony of coincidence, the altered web of universe where everything trickles back, or the butterfly effect takes shape. Even Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction intersect, making Tarantino’s works bridge together neatly. These defined, original, stylized characters live in the same world, and it all collides. Audiences embraced this sense of plot, numb to linear storytelling, tired of contrived flashbacks, or predictable outcomes. Pulp Fiction spun that on its head, and as distant as the ball-gags, the overdoses, the dance sequences, the point-blank gunshots were from our realities, somehow Jules & Vincent’s world resembled ours, if in no other way than just confines. That’s where the title comes from, and perhaps is at the core of the idea behind the work.
Twenty years later, Pulp Fiction is still the epitome of cool, style, and grit. The violence is still jarring, even in an era when cable series like “Breaking Bad” are melting bodies in barrels, and “True Detective” uncovers mass-molestations. Years after “Family Guy” crams a Paul’s Boutique-worth of pop culture references in each episode, Pulp Fiction endures as an original, alluding to films we hope to watch, connections we want to make, nods we aspire to be in on. Sam Jackson endorses credit cards, John Travolta covers magazines, and when Quentin Tarantino releases films today, multi-plexes and indie movie houses alike clamor to screen his latest work.