CLASSIC MOVIE SUNDAYS: Pulp Fiction (1994)
Georgios Merkouris / May 12, 2019
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Runtime: 154 min.
Starring: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Bruce Willis, Rosanna Arquette, Tim Roth, Ving Rhames, Christopher Walken, etc.
Every era in the history of cinema has had that one seminal film that perfectly captured the cultural zeitgeist and changed the industry forever. Early silent cinema had “The Birth of a Nation”, Italian Neorealism had “Bicycle Thieves”, and the French New Wave had “Breathless.” Hollywood cinema during the ‘80s was drastically different from that of the previous decade. The industry, after the unprecedented success of “Jaws” and, most importantly, “Star Wars”, focused primarily on producing blockbusters. A big shift occurred when “Pulp Fiction” premiered on October 12, 1994.
It is a daunting task to talk about this film, given how much of an impact it has had. To this day, it continues to influence cinema. It revitalized independent filmmaking, revived the careers of John Travolta and Bruce Willis, as well as made its director a household name. The story, inspired by crime novels and pulp magazines, concerns two mob hitmen, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson, in the role that made him famous and solidified his on-screen persona), their boss (Ving Rhames), his wife (Uma Thurman), and an ageing boxer (Bruce Willis). It chronicles their lives over a short span of days in a crime-infested Los Angeles, encountering a plethora of bizarre and colourful characters, including two redneck shop owners, a “fixer” who attends morning parties dressed in a suit, and a couple who tries to rob a diner. All of these short stories are interconnected and feature scenes of graphic violence and sardonic humour.
What set the film apart was Tarantino’s now iconic script, packed with one-liners and endlessly quotable lines of dialogue. Firstly, the short vignettes are present in a non-linear fashion, a technique that proved to be widely influential. This was a deliberate stylistic choice on the part of the filmmaker, which made the film much more engaging. With frequent viewings, the audience can pick up on new elements that they had previously missed. Secondly, the dialogue between the characters is utilized to its full extent. Whereas for most films this would be the most mundane part of the film, with dialogue only used to further the plot, in the hands of Tarantino it becomes a stylistic interplay, filled with playful idioms and pop-culture references. This is one of the main reasons why the film was a success. People were attracted to the flow of each scene. The gangsters don’t talk about plans of extortion but foot massages and French McDonald’s. What seems like filler to most screenwriters, when delivered in an engaging way, becomes exciting. However, these lines are not void of meaning, they are all in service of its world-building. As viewers, we understand these characters better through their interplay; get a glimpse into their personalities, their hopes, fears, and desires. They feel like real people and we understand what motivates their actions, given how much time we spend getting to know them.
Though it was only his second directorial feature, Tarantino’s direction in “Pulp Fiction” feels assured and driven. A student of cinema with an encyclopedic knowledge of the medium, he combines elements from previous films to produce something entirely original. The famous dance sequence, for instance, was inspired by the one in Federico Fellini’s “8 ½”, yet it doesn’t feel like a copycat but as something new and exciting. The framing and editing work is done in such a way as to elicit a wide range of emotions from the audience. Scenes of horrific violence are used for comedy and comic relief scenes become unsettling instantly. Tarantino has himself expressed that he wants to play with the emotions of his audience like a piano and he certainly achieves that in this film. The mood of the film also benefits from its now-famous soundtrack, a collection of soul, funk, and rockabilly classics. It is commonly assumed nowadays that these elements make the film constantly ooze “cool” but it is not always the case. There are subtle moments when one feels the desperation of the characters. The camera lingers on their most quiet, intimate moments to suggest their inner feelings, kept hidden while presenting a false facade to the outside world. Tarantino understands the importance of characterization and avoids the clichés that plague most films of this genre.
Almost 25 years after its release, “Pulp Fiction” still remains one of the most talked about and influential films of all time. The most important contribution it made is to show alternate ways to make a film engaging, namely not depending too much on heavy action and special effects. All one needs is a bit of creativity when approaching stories.
Official trailer (youtube):