Looking at some of the more popular books, films, and songs over the last few decades, it is obvious that there are works of art that come to define every half-generation as being ‘of’ the time: works that tally up the culture, and still leave room for that culture’s response. This is a cliche, I know, but what is less understood is how a work of art comes to play that role in the first place, and, even more importantly, WHY these roles are so often conflated with immanent worth. For the 90s, in cinema, I’d put Fight Club, The Matrix, Clerks, American Beauty, and Office Space in that category, not necessarily for their execution — most of those films are atrocities — but in what they say about the viewers that have accepted them. Yes, American Beauty eventually came to derision, and Office Space was relegated to a cult classic, but, at some point, fans had responded to them and still wanted ‘more’. After all, the comic-book stuff in Matrix wasn’t serious enough; Fight Club lacked realism, even if it was catchy. So, fans — ‘serious’ fans, I mean — needed something else to rally behind, and prop up as a true artist’s masterpiece. Yet they also needed to be able to understand it, too, to have it refract their interests, their personal view of the world, a stipulation that eliminated a number of great films and narrowed things down to what was termed the ‘masterpiece’ of 1994.
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was that film, and makes up the sixth work I’d argue as representative — for better or worse! — of the 1990s. It is, to be fair, a solid film, with a number of good moments, but just as many flaws clinched by one overriding defect that keeps even the good in a kind of stasis. In short, Pulp Fiction has neither purpose nor depth, which is further marred by its indecisiveness over being a comedy, drama, or something in between. Yes, there have always been successful fusions, but they come not at the expense of a genre’s individual strengths, and work in synergy to enhance the innovations within. By contrast, Pulp Fiction attempts drama without well-defined characters, comedy without a ‘deeper’ sort of humor (a la Fellini’s Amarcord), and stylizations without a final, totalizing point. It is an almost wholly reflexive film, referring back only to itself, as if it were an island crumbed and set adrift from its archipelago. At best, it is a good snapshot of what passed for innovation in the 1990s, replete not only with that era’s fun and interminable flaws, but also a handful of ‘what-if?’ moments that point to something higher, had there only been an artist Artist enough to capitalize upon them.
The film starts at its chronological middle with two criminals, Ringo (Tim Roth), and Yolanda (Amanda Plummer), publicly discussing their next heist before settling on robbing the very diner that they’re gabbing in. Right away, then, a good viewer knows Pulp Fiction — despite its reputation — has exactly zero realism. The characters arc from sweet, to dopey, to threatening, to self-destructive as if they are a composite of loose, vaguely human traits as opposed to genuine people. And while critics often point out that this is merely in the nature of meta-fiction, as well as the genres (“pulp”) the film’s parodying, the real issue is that the lead-up to all this — that is, HOW it is all enacted — is over-long, gives no real glimpse into these characters, and, save for the occasional line or two, not even that funny. In a sense, all one needs to do is flip through Tarantino’s ‘innovative’ script to see just how formulaic it is. I mean- cue two average people, in a diner, as one cryptically notes that “it’s too risky,” and that he’s “through doin’ that shit” as his partner pokes fun at his resolve. This is textbook ‘pulp,’ not satirized, nor inverted, nor enhanced by some new context, but pulp and nothing but, from the slow revelation of malice in media res, to 1) the characters’ inability to say anything of substance on this front, and 2) barring that, the director’s inability to accrete depth from the characters’ inabilities, as John Cassavetes often did with his own actors, and those films’ surrounds. Yes, the shots are all quite good, from beginning to end, and the film’s over-the-top nature ensures that even a mediocre actor can pull things off, but what can it all mean, really, if the lead-up is nothing, save for a promise of some meta-comment that never even comes?
Lest you thought the first scene was a fluke, the second opens with two hitmen, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vince (John Travolta), chatting in a car before they enter an apartment complex and waste a couple of small-time thugs for their boss, Marsellus (Ving Rhames). The set-up is identical: a slow revelation of malice, meant, in the guys’ chit-chat, to give them personhood, but succeeding only in giving the viewer a few moments of fun. In the process, we learn the status of hash bars in Amsterdam, fast-food nomenclature in France, and that a man was almost killed after giving Marsellus’s wife, Mia (Uma Thurman), a foot massage, as the two goons debate whether such an act is justified. The two agree to disagree in an iconic snatch of dialogue that, for better or worse, defines much of the film’s thrust and anomie:
You remember Antwan Rockamora? Half-
black, half-Samoan, usta call him
Tony Rocky Horror?
Yeah maybe, fat right?
I wouldn’t go so far as to call the
brother fat. He’s got a weight
problem. What’s the nigger gonna
do, he’s Samoan.
I think I know who you mean, what
Well, Marsellus fucked his ass up
good. And word around the campfire,
it was on account of Marsellus
What’d he do, fuck her?
No no no no no no no, nothin’ that
Well what then?
He gave her a foot massage.
A foot massage? That’s all? What did Marsellus do?
Sent a couple of guys over to his
place. They took him out on the
patio of his apartment, threw his
ass over the balcony. Nigger fell
four stories. They had this garden
at the bottom, enclosed in glass,
like one of them greenhouses – nigger
fell through that. Since then, he’s
kinda developed a speech impediment.
That’s a damn shame.
Still I hafta say, play with matches,
ya get burned.
You don’t be givin’ Marsellus
Wallace’s new bride a foot massage.
You don’t think he overreacted?
Antwan probably didn’t expect
Marsellus to react like he did, but
he had to expect a reaction.
It was a foot massage, a foot massage
is nothing, I give my mother a foot
It’s laying hands on Marsellus
Wallace’s new wife in a familiar
way. Is it as bad as eatin’ her out
– no, but you’re in the same fuckin’
Whoa… whoa… whoa… stop right
there. Eatin’ a bitch out, and givin’
a bitch a foot massage ain’t even
the same fuckin’ thing.
Not the same thing, the same ballpark.
It ain’t no ballpark either. Look
maybe your method of massage differs
from mine, but touchin’ his lady’s
feet, and stickin’ your tongue in
her holiest of holies, ain’t the
same ballpark, ain’t the same league,
ain’t even the same fuckin’ sport.
Foot massages don’t mean shit.
It is a funny and well-written scene — unfortunately, the funniest Pulp Fiction ever really gets — that’s underscored by good camera work, offering shots of the two men from doors and vestibules as if they are being watched, or dramatic pauses and changes of scenery to keep pace with the conversation. Yet the scene’s end is little more than a double murder (triple, later) written for the unearthing of the film’s symbolic hinge: a briefcase with a mysterious object, which, while interesting, plays only a stylistic role, thus blotting a film that already depends on its style to be watchable. In other words, after so many critical moments in, the characters are still blank slates and will remain so. And why not, for one only sees their reactions to things superficial: burgers, drugs, murder. And yes, murder, to two psychopaths, is a superficial thing, too, and while death, as a concept, might not be, the thing is never broached: the ‘thing’ is merely their actions here, which are not special enough to build empathy, antipathy, or something in between for later, when Tarantino tries — and fails — to deepen the surrounds and MUST depend on character to pull it off.
The ‘pulp’ continues with Butch (Bruce Willis), a boxer in Marsellus’s club whom Marsellus asks to throw his next fight. The moment only partly works, for the camera stays on Willis’s face: Willis, an actor who simply cannot emote, forcing the viewer to get more from Marsellus’s voice than the shot’s ostensible focus. We see Vincent insult Butch, then hugging and quietly speaking with Marsellus in the background — a nice touch, for it is clear that Butch is still thinking about the insult, and whether the two men are now talking about him. So far, so good, even if nothing much happens. Vince learns he needs to take Mia out to a restaurant as a favor for Marsellus, and visits drug peddler Lance (Eric Stoltz) to help him deal with the nervousness. There are more scripting errors at this point, for while the dialogue tries to be punchy, hip, and real, it is anything but, as the petty criminal tries to ‘teach’ the seemingly ignorant Vince — a hardened criminal who seems to have moved drugs on another continent — about the drug world. “This ain’t Amsterdam, Vince,” he tells him when he waffles on heroin. “This is a seller’s market. Coke is as dead as disco. Heroin’s comin’ back in a big fuckin’ way.” Such moments ring especially false given what one sees of Vince and Jules: trusted by a man with quite a few underlings and international reach, to the point that Jules, on one occasion, even curses and yells at Marsellus without consequence. Sure, the two might be scumbags, but they are not the lowlifes critics make them out to be, as if they are on par with Lance or common street thugs. Not that realism is necessarily ‘better’ than Tarantino’s fantasies. It is more that the fantasies so often conflict with what remains, thus damaging the already poorly-sketched characters who, barring depth, poesy, and the like, are now unmoored from the real world as well.
Vince gets high and takes his car over to Mia’s home. Predictably, the set-up is such that sexual tension between the two is already a given: the focus is on Mia’s lips when Vince comes to the door, her voice is made feminine and reverberates over an intercom, and her quirks — at least here — are mostly physical, from the way she stands (with one foot up, like a dancer), to the way she gazes at things, and at Vince. It’s not a problem, exactly, since the predictable can be well-wrought before one reaches the expected end. It is just that, here, all of the ‘surprises’ are mere plot-points (such as Mia’s overdose) or stylistic flourishes that do nothing to deepen what is happening on screen. In fact, their flirtations don’t go beyond a few poorly-scripted lines (“Could you roll me one of those, cowboy?”), lingering glances, and a banal little tale (just as tritely told) about Mia’s what-if? acting exploits. Yes, it is likely the two are simply no deeper than this, as people, but there is nothing in their situation — no novel phrasings, no recognition, no defining moments — that might show WHY it matters: why it needed to have been put on screen.
In a way, this inability to connect, on a deeper level, reminds one of the wonderful restaurant scene between Michael Rappaport and Mia Sorvino in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite. But whereas that scene brilliantly captured how two losers can bond over minutiae, replete with a hilarious metaphor that neither of them can quite understand, even as the viewer does, Tarantino’s offering is a prosaic one, with nothing really exchanged, and this nothingness never zoomed-in upon, nor telescoped, nor enlarged, for ANY purpose. One scene ends in a mutual dearth that the characters are so clearly drawn to: a dearth the viewer ‘gets’ as an extension of these personages, and can therefore engage with. The other ends in a dance that merely shows a wannabe couple having fun, a stylistic flourish heaped upon still more stylistic flourishes (an Elvis performer, a waiter in the form of Buddy Holly) underpinned by nothing in particular. And later? Mia continues to take drugs at home, proceeds to overdose on Vince’s heroin thinking it’s coke, and Vince, knowing he’ll be held responsible, drives her back to Lance’s place who tells Vince to administer an adrenaline shot into her heart. Forget, for a second, that a man of Vince’s standing does not have a real doctor in his pocket for this sort of mishap, or that he’d willingly take even part of the blame for Mia’s death: the point is, she lives, and that gets Tarantino from A to B without much issue. Mia wakes up, offers to keep the night a secret, and decides to tell Vince the “corny joke” she refused to earlier: a lame, by-the-book attempt to show two characters ‘bonding’ over some quirk.
The next scene shows a boy Butch in his childhood home. Butch and his mother are visited by Captain Koons (Christopher Walken), who tells him of Butch’s father’s demise in a POW camp in Hanoi. Koons pulls out the father’s watch and recounts its history, from Butch’s grandfather’s ownership of it in World War II, to the way the men had to hide the watch in Vietnam (“up his ass,” he says), then drops it into the boy’s hand as his inheritance. It is a good, funny scene, but while viewers have always singled it out for its humor, it is also the closest one gets to some kind of sustained depth from the film’s characters. In short, it provides Butch a ‘thing’ to base his motivations on, and even gives us a memory whose provenance that the viewer can be never be quite sure of. After all, Butch wakes up right away, suggesting the memory has been filtered through dream: which, for all of the film’s lack of realism, is the only exaggeration that’s logical, giving the viewer a child’s conception of things — down to Koon’s quirks — that must have felt surreal as they were happening.
Heading out to his big fight, Butch refuses to lose, ends up killing the other boxer, and, recognizing the danger, ends up at a motel as he makes plans to leave for good with the money he’s made ‘cheating’ Marsellus. His girlfriend, Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros), manages to get a few good lines in as well (“I want to have a pot belly…I don’t give a damn what men find attractive. It’s unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye is seldom the same.”), as they wake up and get ready to go. Butch realizes, however, that Fabienne forgot to pack his father’s watch, and decides to go back to his apartment to get it. Inside, he grabs the watch and notices a machine gun on his kitchen counter. He aims it at an expressionless Vince, who is just exiting Butch’s bathroom, kills him, and drives off, only to be intercepted by a wandering Marcellus in one of the film’s several dei ex machina. He tries to run him over, crashes, and runs away from a hurt Marcellus who — in yet another ridiculous moment — pulls out a gun and goes on a shooting rampage in front of a half dozen witnesses. Marsellus stalks Butch into a pawnshop, Butch knocks him to the ground, grabs the gangster’s gun, and is only stopped by the shotgun-wielding owner (Duane Whitaker), who leads the two men into a BDSM dungeon manned by a cop, Zed (Peter Greene), and features a bound-and-gagged slave, ‘The Gimp’. The two are now tied up, as Zed calls dibs on Marsellus and drags him to “Russell’s old room”. Butch breaks free, and is about to escape when he hears the two men with Marsellus. He grabs a sword from one of the shelves and enters the room to see Zed sodomizing Marsellus as the shop owner watches in ecstasy. He kills the owner and turns his sword on Zed, who is ultimately shot by Marsellus just enough to cripple and torture him. Marsellus forgives Butch but tells him to never come back, and we’re left to assume that this is precisely what happens.
The entire sequence, of course, serves no real purpose. Yes, it helps tie up a few plot-points (‘How does Butch escape?’), but as with much of the film, nothing of substance is exchanged as the story unfolds. In fact, the film’s remainder has much the same problem: a handful of scenes that serve as a kind of structural padding to lead the viewer back to the diner scene, wherein Jules attempts a kind of self-change that is not only well outside of his character, but also coming at a point when — given the blank slate that he’s been for the film’s entirety — the viewer can only half-heartedly care about. To wit: the Butch/Marsellus sequence (which is actually the last point, chronologically, in Pulp Fiction) gives way to Jules shooting the two men at film’s start, wasting a yet-unseen fourth man who charges them but misses every shot, Jules’s recognition of a godly ‘miracle,’ and the accidental death of accomplice Marvin (Phil LaMarr). This is the film’s final deus ex machina, since it happens by way of Vince ridiculously pointing a gun at him, without explanation, loosely held, and in plain sight, as they are all driving. Of course, this gives Tarantino an excuse to introduce yet another sequence: that of ‘The Wolf’ (Harvey Keitel) instructing the men to clean up in Jimmie’s (the director, himself) house, who rages at their intrusion. Yet it is the film’s worst scene, from the ridiculous dialogue (to a seasoned criminal: “Now Jimmie, don’t do nothin’ stupid like puttin’ [the bloody clothes] out in front of your house for Elmo the garbage man to take away”), to The Wolf’s insistence that the two men, dripping in blood, get washed in broad daylight as they complain (“Is this really necessary?”), to the fact that The Wolf is the ‘brain’ called in to fix difficult situations, like this, yet merely advises them to do the things — change their clothes, clean up the car — that would be second nature to them, anyway. In fact, the only reason why this scene exists (beyond Tarantino’s desire to insert himself within it) is to give a little breathing room, structurally, before Jules’s desertion of the gangster life. As necessary as this is, however, the padding feels like, well, padding, an obvious scripting flaw that not only suggests Tarantino’s good instincts in feeling the need to pace the film a little further, but also his inability to make good on these instincts, and execute them in a meaningful way.
Pulp Fiction’s last scene starts right before the couple’s robbery, as Jules and Vince discuss the day’s events. It is another good moment, partly based on how ‘complete’ it all feels despite the fact that they have spent a few hours, at most, at this point together, a credit to Tarantino’s skill in navigating the film’s chronology. No, the viewer does not know these characters, at all, and any empathy is therefore superficial, but there is at least a clear bond between the two men for reasons we do not know, nor need to know. The point is, it is believable, and when the robbery begins, Jules eventually pulls a gun on Ringo, as Yolanda holds a gun to Jules, and Vincent (now out of the bathroom) holds a gun to her. There is no bloodshed, and Jules, after refusing to give Ringo the mysterious briefcase, rattles off some of the film’s most famous lines:
Now I want you to go in that bag and
find my wallet.
Which one is it?
It’s the one that says Bad
Motherfucker on it.
That’s my bad motherfucker. Now open
it up and take out the cash. How
much is there?
About fifteen hundred dollars.
Put it in your pocket, it’s yours.
Now with the rest of them wallets
and the register, that makes this a
pretty successful little score.
Jules, if you give this nimrod fifteen
hundred bucks, I’m gonna shoot ’em on
You ain’t gonna do a goddamn thing,
now hang back and shut the fuck up.
Besides, I ain’t givin’ it to him.
I’m buyin’ somethin’ for my money.
Wanna know what I’m buyin’ Ringo?
Your life. I’m givin’ you that money
so I don’t hafta kill your ass. You
read the Bible?
There’s a passage I got memorized.
Ezekiel 25:17. “The path of the
righteous man is beset on all sides
by the inequities of the selfish and
the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is
he who, in the name of charity and
good will, shepherds the weak through
the valley of the darkness. For he
is truly his brother’s keeper and
the finder of lost children. And I
will strike down upon thee with great
vengeance and furious anger those
who attempt to poison and destroy my
brothers. And you will know I am the
Lord when I lay my vengeance upon
you.” I been sayin’ that shit for
years. And if you ever heard it, it
meant your ass. I never really
questioned what it meant. I thought
it was just a cold-blooded thing to
say to a motherfucker ’fore you popped
a cap in his ass. But I saw some
shit this mornin’ made me think twice.
Now I’m thinkin’, it could mean you’re
the evil man. And I’m the righteous
man. And Mr. .45 here, he’s the
shepherd protecting my righteous ass
in the valley of darkness. Or is
could by you’re the righteous man
and I’m the shepherd and it’s the
world that’s evil and selfish. I’d
like that. But that shit ain’t the
truth. The truth is you’re the weak.
And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But
I’m tryin’. I’m tryin’ real hard to
be a shepherd.
It’s a stylish end, and, in the small exchange between Vince and Jules, it is Jules that is clearly the more thoughtful one, ensuring that while Vince’s eventual death is a mere side-effect of a criminal existence, Jules’s escape (and probable survival) is his recognition of something more. No, one should not make too much of this, given the two characters’ inner lacks up until this point, but it is one of the few times in the film that Tarantino attempts some sort of poesy: and, in the limited way that such a flawed work can allow it, the scene works.
That said, the film’s artistic successes have been overblown for two decades now, partly by those who had come of age during its release, and knew how to connect it something so simple when other films (such as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s brilliant Red, of the Three Colors trilogy, which lost the Best Original Screenplay Oscar to Pulp Fiction) seemed more challenging, and therefore just out of reach. Yet other, more established critics cannot be excused as easily for their oversights. Roger Ebert, for instance, complained of the “zombie writers who take ‘screenwriting’ classes that teach them the formulas for ‘hit films’”, but did not recognize the formulas, here, as they passed before him on the screen. He takes Vince’s inadvertent killing of Marvin as a character quirk as opposed to a cheap plot-ploy; Mia’s “soap opera” qualities as a ruse rather than her true, unfleshed self; and even the plot-like (as opposed to narrative) nature of the film as a good thing, whereas great art requires character, and meaning, and not simply a handful of comic lines and some faux realism. Yes, every character in Pulp Fiction is ‘quaint,’ as he argues, but given how much of it is novelty for novelty’s sake, could this be anything BUT a comic book drama writ large? It is not so much that there is an issue with comic books as entertainment. It is that Ebert, while instinctively recognizing this, and even arguing for this distinction in some of his best film reviews, now goes on to argue something else entirely. In short, he argues for something that’s between the business side of film, on the one hand, and fan-fiction — with all of the genre flaws unfiltered — on the other. No doubt it is an interesting combination, but it is also one that MUST be dated as soon as it’s released, forever trapping the film in the 1990s, looking in, rather than peering out of its vista in order to catch another.
Jami Bernard, of The New York Daily News, wrote that “Pulp Fiction is a wild ride, with one insane scene at the heart of it that will truly give you an adrenaline rush…”, thus at once cycling through the very sort of cliches, in his own review, that Bernard implicitly claims the film avoids. Bernard says the film transforms Willis into a “serious actor,” but in where, exactly, does this occur? He alludes to “poetic” moments, but what are they: does he really know? He praises the film’s chronology, but what effect does it have on the viewer, and why does it matter? In criticism, it seems, such things are thought to be better left unsaid: that they deserve to merely ‘be’ by fiat, all evidence be damned. Ironically, Peter Travers, writing for Rolling Stone, once claimed that Tarantino “disdains…lofty style,” whereas, if anything, Pulp Fiction is really style turned up a few notches in order to deal with the lacks at its core. He praises the first conversation scene between Jules and Vincent as smart and punchy, but says nothing about how such dialogue — which comes at the expense of everything else — hinders character, since little is done to play off of the scene at large. In fact, he even drops an ignorant comparison to Scorsese’s Mean Streets, due, I suppose, to the fast and gritty nature of both films, but ignores how Mean Streets, while brimming with characters of the same ilk, puts these characters in situations that reveal their flaws in ADULT ways. Recall Johnny Boy’s escalating gambling debts, and his hyper-realistic antiphons: from the tantrums, to the nastiness, to the violence, even as the viewer recognizes his weakness? Or the way that, practically scene by scene, Michael’s composure — not violence, nor aggression, but composure — is shown to be a facade, and Michael’s resultant need — a deep, human need — for recompense? Or Charlie’s Catholic guilt: an in-joke to no one but the viewer, himself, who is expected to be more intelligent than the film’s characters? It is these tendencies that made Mean Streets so wonderful a film, and, by extension, is the measure by which Pulp Fiction stumbles.
Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic was more negative, and, after summarizing the film’s plot, went on to damn the film’s character cliches — true, but almost necessary in a genre-suckling film like this — and point out the lack of realism of many supposedly ‘realistic’ scenes. Yet even in a review that I’d otherwise agree with, Kauffmann starts to moralize at the end, complaining about the film’s, and America’s, need for “cultural slumming” — as if the source material, rather than the method of its re-telling, is at issue here! Unfortunately, this becomes the core of his complaint, at once belying the claims of Tarantino’s innovation, but also ignoring the fact that, had the film been deeper, more poetic, but just as sloppy, “grungy” (Kauffmann’s words), and violent, it could have been an excellent work. Indeed, one of the better analyses of the film comes from Kenneth Turan’s 1994 review in The Los Angeles Times, which hammers the film’s solipsism, as an artistic flaw, rather than its origins, which are irrelevant:
But despite all the attention, this is not the resurrection of anything. Pulp Fiction’s anthology of stories about gangster fun and games in Los Angeles doesn’t merit sustained veneration… Because Pulp Fiction is sporadically effective, the temptation to embrace the entire two hours and 29 minutes of Tarantiniana is strong. But in truth this is a noticeably uneven film, both too inward-looking and self-centered in its concerns and too outward-bound in the way it strains to outrage an audience, to be successful across the board.
To its credit, Pulp Fiction does not merely spoon-feed ‘back stories’ to the viewer as many bad critics suggest all art should do. Yet by going to the opposite extreme, Quentin Tarantino creates artistic holes that not even long stretches of padding — particularly in the film’s last third — can fix. Yes, it is true that the ‘change’ these characters experience rings false (which is one kind of narrative flaw) but it also rings irrelevant, which is a sin co-equal, since the common denominator to both is Tarantino’s poor starting point: that of stringed events, wherein things happen to characters, as opposed to the creation of living, breathing characters, first, who can filter events through themselves.
No, the bias for ‘pure’ realism is as silly as the biases against it, but even a fantasy world needs to be recognizably human in motives and growth. Such things simply cannot happen from afar. Nor can they happen to. To be sure, they must emerge from within, not by a director’s hand, as if fashioning clay, but by people made fiction, and the fiction — the untruth — made immaterial. By contrast, Tarantino ‘wills’ a symbol and it is so; he wants conversation, and there is pitter-patter. The issue is not so much the lie, really, for art is but the deeper, less tangible end of the world’s vast business of deceit, but that there’s nothing to the lie; that it wants too much to be believed, but refuses to make itself believable. And so, Pulp Fiction: the perfect metonym of the 1990s, of the world’s most prosperous decade, and perhaps — if film is to be believed — its most magical, as well. Yet illusory, too, where few could apprehend the illusion even two decades on.