Combustible Celluloid
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With: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Ving Rhames, Rosanna Arquette, Eric Stoltz, Frank Whaley, Steve Buscemi, Christopher Walken, Maria de Medeiros, Peter Greene, Harvey Keitel, Quentin Tarantino, Julia Sweeney, Phil LaMarr, Duane Whitaker, Paul Calderon, Burr Steers, Bronagh Gallagher
Written by: Quentin Tarantino, based on stories by Quentin Tarantino, Roger Avary
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
MPAA Rating: R for strong graphic violence and drug use, pervasive strong language and some sexuality
Running Time: 154
Date: 10/13/1994

Pulp Fiction (1994)

4 Stars (out of 4)

By the Book

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the minds of most people, Pulp Fiction is a collection of recycled movie scenes, punctuated by extreme violence, 70's music, and pop culture references. That's supposedly all it takes to make a Quentin Tarantino movie. Yet, how many movies have there been since which have copied this "formula" that are as fresh, energetic, alive and exciting? None. Pulp Fiction remains the best movie of the 90's.

First, to address the detractors. Yes, Pulp Fiction is an extraordinary catalog of movie references. The glowing suitcase is a reference to Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly. Harvey Keitel's "cleaner" character is a reference to Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita and its American remake, Point of No Return. Uma Thurman's haircut is a reference to silent actress Louise Brooks. The hypodermic scene (with Eric Stoltz and Rosanna Arquette) was lifted from Martin Scorsese's American Boy. The Ricky Nelson singer in the diner is a reference to Tarantino's favorite movie, Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo. Other scenes and lines of dialogue were lifted from Don Siegel's Charley Varrick, Jean-Luc Godard movies, Brian De Palma movies, John Woo movies, Jack Hill movies, and an entire video store more. Tarantino's passion is not a snobbish one. He reserves the same enthusiasm for both respected movies and trash movies. He is smart enough, though, to escape doing simple homages or remakes. He takes the scraps from these old movies and weaves an extraordinary new cloak out of them.

As for the violence, most of it, in fact, takes place off-screen. Tarantino expertly toys with us in a way that only Hitchcock did before him--letting the scene play drag on, slowly, making us believe that we have experienced more violence than we actually have. Vincent Vega (John Travolta) shooting Marvin's head off in the back of the car is played out to the point of gruesome comedy, but very little is actually shown. Likewise Butch's (Bruce Willis) run-in with the sodomizing rednecks. There is more violence in any summer explosion blockbuster you could name. It's just that you're pummeled with it instead of being tingled, and your senses are less aware of it.

As for the pop culture references, some of it is relevant; Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent discuss hamburgers just before going into the hotel room in which the three clean-cut youths are eating hamburgers (at 7 AM), which lends a strange mystical property to the scene. Likewise, the "foot massage" talk is meant to emotionally heighten the power of Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) without actually showing any violence. Some of the talk is designed to throw you; the character of Tony "Rocky Horror" is brought up several times, and he becomes a character to us, even though he is never shown on screen. Butch and Esmerelda Villalobos talk about death during their cab ride. Isn't Butch about to face certain death several times? Butch and his girlfriend (Maria De Medeiros) talk about various things; potbellies, Spanish, etc. All of it is designed to relax you more and more until the point when Butch realizes his watch is missing. It would be one thing to keep us in suspense during this whole time, but it takes a great artist to make us relax totally before building us back up again. The dialogue itself is brilliant stuff. It's not that it sounds like the way people actually talk, but it has a movie-rhythm that just sounds good. It may be Tarantino's greatest gift.

The actors love it, too. Every actor in Pulp Fiction gives a career-topping performance in every role (has Bruce Willis ever been better? Uma Thurman?). Travolta especially shines, back in top form after years of bad movies. His smooth, underconfident junkie Vincent Vega is our link to all three stories. He "plays" a different character depending on who he's on screen with. He talks jivey when on screen with Jules, cool when with Mia Wallace, and tough in his brief scene with Butch. He doesn't have the confidence to be himself at any time. It's a great performance. When Vincent and Jules begin the movie by hassling the three young cons, they "get into character" before entering the room. Jackson is mesmerizing as Jules, fearsome and religious. Frank Whaley, Steve Buscemi, Peter Green, and Christopher Walken also appear in bit parts.

The main thing about Pulp Fiction that people miss is its theme of redemption. Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plumme) are redeemed because they call off their restaurant holdup. Jules is redeemed after he believes he has seen the miracle of the bullets missing him. Vincent witnesses the same "miracle", refuses to believe it, and is dead the next day (in Butch's apartment). Butch is redeemed by going back to help Marcellus against the greater evil (of the rednecks). Marcellus lives because he sends Jules and Vincent after his "soul" (the contents of the briefcase). He is redeemed when he decides he needs his soul back. It is also a movie about pairs. Every scene is about the give-and-take of two people. There is also a running theme of men losing power to women. Jules mentions that he's a vegetarian because his girlfriend is. Jimmy (Tarantino) is afraid of what his wife will do if she catches him helping criminals in their house. Even when Butch goes back alone for his watch, he is "with" his father.

Yet another trick is that the movie contains no musical score, only carefully selected pop songs. A good deal of the songs are instrumentals and work very well to convey mood. And the songs are all over the map--funk music and surf music are fully integrated. We even have white soul (Dusty Springfield) and black surf (Chuck Berry). So many filmmakers need to learn the value of a quiet scene rather than drenching them in drippy music.

Pulp Fiction is a movie about the in-between spaces that Hollywood movies don't show. in a normal movie, every gesture, every prop, every line of dialogue is related somehow to the final outcome of the story. "Pulp Fiction" shows us people sleeping, taking showers, going to the bathroom, the scenes where characters get ready for scenes, and the scenes afterwards. The boldest move is not showing Butch's big fight in which he supposedly kills his opponent. Instead, we see the cab ride afterward. This is really quite a dangerous move giving us talk instead of action. But, after Raging Bull, how good could this fight scene have really been? And isn't it interesting how the background out the window of the cab is unrealistic black and white footage? Somehow, this ploy works.

I could go on and on. Pulp Fiction has endless puzzles and pleasures that are still to be discovered. It's a movie that says more about the nature of film and the thrill of making movies than any other film in the 90's. It's a movie that is truly alive, made with spirit and energy; intelligence, and gamesmanship. I don't expect any movie in the remaining months of the millennium to top it.

In 2011, Lionsgate, which owns the Miramax back catalog, released Pulp Fiction on Blu-Ray, and it's one of the best I've yet seen. Tarantino supervised the new transfer, and it's astoundingly bold and clear; the Jackrabbit Slim's sequence especially pops. It also comes with a new lossless soundtrack. There are two new extras: a discussion among five film critics about the film's impact, and new interviews with some of cast. The other extras are the same as on the DVD: much-coveted deleted scenes, including one with legendary character actor Dick Miller, a "Siskel & Ebert" TV special on Tarantino, short documentaries, and much more.

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