‘Pulp Fiction’ didn’t just change film history, it changed me

Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.

“Pulp Fiction”
Released Oct. 14, 1994
Directed by Quentin Tarantino

I’ve loved movies all of my life, but the way I’ve watched movies changed forever after I saw “Pulp Fiction.”

With a title that echoes dime-store crime novels, Pulp Fiction” follows about a half-dozen unsavory characters living their lives in Los Angeles in a series of interconnected short films. Among our protagonists include Vincent (John Travolta), a heroin-addled but savvy mob enforcer who’s just returned from a life in Amsterdam; Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), his sometime partner who can’t help but be the coolest and baddest MFer in the room; Butch (Bruce Willis), an underdog boxer looking to prove himself one last time; Marcellus (Ving Rhames), the mob boss over all of them; and Mia (Uma Thurman), Marcellus’ wife who goes out one night with Vincent. While the stories feature the same characters, they don’t necessarily build upon one another and are told out of sequence, contributing to the feeling that anything can, and does, happen.

Rewatching Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 sophomore and breakout film 25 years later, it’s still excellent but probably slightly over praised as one of the best films ever. That’s not a criticism; it’s an engaging, surprising movie that is well made in every regard, but it does feel too slight to be a GOAT contender. At it’s heart, “Pulp Fiction” distinguishes itself as a gangster picture about what criminals do when they’re not committing a crime, but it’s also what limits it from that elite status.

Even still, the film changed the pop culture climate upon its release. Travolta was hailed as the comeback kid with a career-peak performance, Jackson essentially solidified his public persona as “Samuel L. Jackson” after a previous career in supporting roles, and Tarantino became a household name alongside Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg. Countless imitators (some decent, most not) flooded the market soon afterward. “Pulp Fiction” became an era- defining turning point for films in the 90s, just as Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album did for music a few years earlier.

In hindsight, you can certainly see why the public was looking for something new. The 80s were dominated by high-concept action-adventure franchises that were starting to show their age. Movie star heroes like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t have the magic touch to make anything a hit anymore, and Harrison Ford traded in his wisecracking heroes for more serious roles. In the meantime, independent pictures were rising in industry influence as new filmmakers, writers, and actors were developing their own unique voices, beginning with 1989’s surprise hit, “sex, lies and videotape,” directed by Steven Soderbergh.

Tarantino made his own mark, trading in his encyclopedic knowledge of film to write a couple of scripts and direct his own debut feature, “Reservoir Dogs,” a 1992 movie about a heist gone wrong. Two years later, his follow-up won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and “Pulp Fiction” began growing momentum throughout the summer until its October release to the public and became an immediate hit.

The movie certainly made an impression on me. I came of age during those high-concept 80s movies that came to be known as “blockbusters.” From “Star Wars” to “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” I saw and judged films based on the text of the story itself, and mainly as a pure product of entertainment. I was aware of some filmmakers, but primarily as a brand like a “Spielberg,” as the famous director produced several other hit films including “Gremlins,” “The Goonies,” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Any behind-the-scenes interest I had was limited to special effects design.

My mentality began to shift slightly with television’s “Twin Peaks,” a mystery drama created by David Lynch and Mark Frost in 1990. The series flamed out its audience quickly, but there was enough of a passionate fan base left for Lynch to direct a prequel film, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.” The movie is definitely more intense than the series and very unusual at times (a mood I would later discover was deemed “Lynchian”). I may not have fully understood “Twin Peaks” at the time, but it fascinated me.

As the build to the release of “Pulp Fiction” grew with cover stories on Entertainment Weekly among others, the acclaim began to catch my attention as well. A crime film starring actors I was familiar with was enough to talk my friends and me into the doors of the Holiday, a now-defunct movie palace from Cheektowaga, NY. The next two-and-a-half hours were my introduction to a young, generational filmmaker who seemingly arrived fully formed.

While “Pulp Fiction” has its share of violence (some of it graphically used as a punch line), the most memorable moments of the film lie in-between the crimes: A casual conversation between colleagues about living in Europe; an awkward dinner “date” at a pop culture restaurant; or a discussion on the existence of miracles at a diner. While the characters of the film commit deplorable acts, their interactions when they’re not “getting into character” is what we find enduring about them. For these people, crime is a regular job, but they’re all looking forward to punch-out time so they can chill out at the bar or in front of a TV. It’s a remarkable difference from the decade’s other notable gangster film “GoodFellas,” which is all crime all the time.

This point of view entranced me. These characters having similar conversations in their downtime mirrored the ones I was having with my friends. Once I found out that Tarantino was also a verbose film nerd who worked in a video store, it led me down the rabbit hole of his other works and films that influenced him. From there, I was soon taking classes and watching everything I could get my hands on to study film history and theory. It was the awakening I needed to evolve as a film fan.

Looking back on “Pulp Fiction” today, it still remains entertaining, but now those casual conversations between gangsters can’t hide the fact that the film doesn’t have a lot of depth to it, or at least not much more than those high-concept blockbusters I fell in love with in the first place. The movie is structured around five short films, most of which have a central plotline that diverts completely when something unexpected (and unrelated) occurs. It’s a thrilling and confident film, keeping audiences on the edge of their seats in anticipation and tension, but as a result, “Pulp Fiction” isn’t really about anything. It’s the ultimate hangout movie because while Tarantino unleashed a new perspective in films, nothing new is really learned about the human condition. Outside of Jules, it’s hard to imagine any of these people fundamentally changing their lives after the events of the movie. It was just another day in their lives with some unusual circumstances, but they seem willing to wave them off as occupational hazards.

The takeaway from “Pulp Fiction” is the emergence of a new voice in cinema. Tarantino would continue to grow as a filmmaker (thankfully, as his role here as Jimmy is problematic in that it personifies his worst impulses and indulgences overriding his good judgment). He remains one of the few mainstream filmmakers whose latest release becomes a must-see event, exceedingly rare in an era of franchise-dominance. Tarantino is the franchise, and fans await a new film like Marvel Studios released it.

I don’t have the same reverence for Tarantino as I did in 1994. I admire his growth as a director in some ways but question his choices as well. Overall, I’ve enjoyed far more of his work than disliked, and I also look forward to every new film, eager for that feeling I had while watching “Pulp Fiction.” You can never really go home again, and that’s true here, but you can feel Tarantino’s love of filmmaking shining through on everything he does, creating environments and stories I enjoy spending time in. His hobby as a film preservationist and owner of the New Beverly Cinema is also a bright light in an art form that has seen rapid changes this century. I’m glad he continues to be part of the conversation, and will eternally revere “Pulp Fiction” as my gateway into that world.

The Weekend: While the second weekend of October doesn’t have many notable new releases, two of my favorite films ever debuted in theaters at this time.

Nine years after “Pulp Fiction” changed the landscape, Tarantino’s fourth film, “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” entered multiplexes in 2003. Thurman stars as The Bride, a woman who is nearly killed on her wedding day by her former teammates in an assassination clan led by Bill (David Carradine). Left comatose for years after the attack, The Bride finally wakes up and begins unleashing her revenge on the team, one by one, until only Bill is left. Inspired by the countless martial arts films Tarantino grew up on, “Kill Bill Vol. 1” is his most visually dynamic film and is one of his best (if not the best).

Speaking of career bests, David Lynch released what I believe to be his masterpiece when “Mulholland Dr.” bowed back in 2001. Naomi Watts delivers her breakout performance with Laura Harring as two young women coming together to solve the riddle of Harring’s mysterious past in a dream-like Hollywood that soon turns into a nightmare. Moody, atmospheric, funny, sexy, frightening, haunting, and often stunning, “Mulholland Dr.” is, in other words, “Lynchian.”

Another film was released this weekend was most assuredly not a masterpiece but is still a reasonably fun watch anyway. Sylvester Stallone’s star power was leveling off, but facing off against Wesley Snipes in the future proved to be a winning bet with 1993’s “Demolition Man.” The film also starred a young Sandra Bullock and produced enough Taco Bell and three shell memories to last a lifetime.

Next Week: “Rudy”

Originally published at http://www.markciemcioch.com on October 10, 2019.

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