Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Pulp Fiction (1994)

On Saturday, 28 May at a special start time of 6:01 PM, the Phnom Penh Film Club celebrates one of the most iconic modern American classic movies, Quentin Tarantino’s positively seismic pop-culture statement piece, *Pulp Fiction*, starring John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Samuel L Jackson, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames, Quentin Tarantino, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Julia Sweeney, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, Maria de Medeiros and Harvey Keitel. 

When it was first released, Pulp Fiction’s reception formed a stark dividing line. People either loved this movie to the point of recommending it to strangers on street-corners, or hated it to the point of begging close family and friends to ignore the hype and do themselves a favor. And—here’s the thing—the two camps were, to a first approximation, the same size. Fifty years from now someone will make the same observation about this astonishing work of undiluted genius and folks literally aren’t going to believe it. Indeed they can scarcely be brought to believe it now, so total is the transformation that has been wrought by this very movie on the fabric and ground-rules of American pop culture. Already today it is one of the most well-known and appreciated motion pictures in history. It has friends in the remotest corners of the world. It deserves them. 

Quentin Tarantino’s playfully fractured narrative about the lives and times of suburban LA’s seedy underbelly (“I hope Jimmy’s ass is home, ‘cause Marsellus doesn’t have any other partners in 818”) is wrapped as tight as a tourniquet, quick as lightning, yelp-inducingly violent, lush with profanity and coarse sexual innuendo, peppered with stars, and acted, framed, directed, and edited to within an ace of literal perfection. All true enough. But none of these things are what make the experience. No, what makes the experience, and what makes this film so sumptuously enthralling that I can’t go more than a few weeks without re-watching it, is Tarantino’s (fleeting?) gift for the hilarity of a perfectly de-saturated gangster-deadpan badinage, some of it only hilarious once the shock of all that profanity and bloodshed can be safely shunted to a less acutely aggrieved sphere of consciousness.

“Ain’t nobody allowed to kill anyone in my store, except for me or Zed,” is but one example of a sort of line that, for some people, takes a second trip through the movie to thoroughly appreciate. 

“Oh, I’m sorry baby, I had to crash that Honda,” is another. 

“You have any idea what my father went through to get me that watch? I don’t have time to go into it right now, but it was a lot,” is a third. 

“You know what’s bothering me right now? It ain’t the coffee in my kitchen….” is a fourth. 

And I, much like the IMDB quote page for the movie, could go on and on and on. Essentially every line of dialogue is its own unforgettable little jewel of either comic hilarity, scalpel-like social comment, or both. This is the case to such an extent that, these days, starting a scene from the movie among close friends will earn not the completion of the scene by those friends, but the laughter that should have followed from the scene’s completion, with the ten or twelve lines of dialogue in-between rendered utterly implicit. No movie since Caddyshack has enjoyed the same iconic durability of stand-alone reportage, and Pulp Fiction brings the added benefit of being an engrossing dramatic tale with happy- and unhappy ends for some of the least expected characters in it, to boot.

Tarantino has sworn repeatedly that his ongoing casting philosophy has nothing to do with rescuing self-marooned acting careers, but if he’s lying as shamelessly as I think he is, then the crowning achievement in his ability to reach for the improbably out-of-circulation talent must surely be his choice of John Travolta as Vincent Vega—the short-fused and cynical bag-man for local heavy Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), and the closest thing to a protagonist that this utterly fragmented saga will permit. 

Bouncing his coolly vicious menace off colleague Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson), low-end suppliers Lance and Jody (Eric Stoltz and Rosanna Arquette), Marsellus’ wife Mia (Uma Thurman), and one-man cleanup crew Winston Wolfe (Harvey Keitel), Travolta leads us with hair-raising understatement through the life and times of a casually homicidal lieutenant in the drugs-and-shady-dealings rackets. By turns Vincent is newly arrived from Amsterdam, argumentative for argument’s sake, disinterested in thematic restaurants, adoring of his lovingly restored Mustang, reluctant to entertain the boss’ wife, an impeccable dancer, lamentably trigger-happy, un-self-consciously addicted to heroin, and, above all, ready to escalate any difference of opinion to the point of bloodshed, at the all but literal drop of a hat. (“Jules, you give that nimrod fifteen-hundred dollars, I’m gonna shoot him on general principle.”)

Meanwhile Bruce Willis is Butch—the dive-agreeing and over-the-hill prize fighter who, when fight-night arrives, naturally decides to skip the dive. There is also the tale of would-be-café-hold-up artists Pumpkin and Honey-Bunny (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer), whose chosen café to hold up is patronized at that very moment by a class of customer that will prove far more than the duo had quite bargained for (“I been through too much over this case already to just hand it over to your, dumb, ass”). Then there’s Jimmy (Tarantino), the unwilling host of a delicately tight-spotted Jules and Vincent (“When you two came pullin’ in here, did you notice a sign on my front yard that says ‘dead n----r storage’?”), and Brett and Roger, the aspiring double-crossers, soon to experience the sum and substance of Jules’ bible-quoting wrath (“Hey you, flock-of-seagulls: wanna tell my man Vincent where the case is hidden?”). There are also (second-viewing?) uproarious scenes involving near-fatal drug overdoses, twist-dancing contests, jokes that fell flat on pilot TV-shows, a disquieting exposé into the goings-on in the basement of a Compton-vicinity pawn shop, a poignantly unruffled exchange over the cleaning of a crime scene, and on through the night into the chill dawn air of such Tarantino-childhood stomping grounds as Redondo and Englewood and Toluca Lake. (“Where’s Toluca Lake?!?” “It’s just over the hill, man!!!”)

It may take some people more work to accept than perhaps it should or would with other great films, but the fact remains: To have found Pulp Fiction’s peculiar rhythm of ghastly carnage and comedic timing is to realize, as if in one of those shaft-of-light moments from other movies, just how brilliant and unique this movie really is. 

“I watched it again on your advice,” a friend of mine once said to me, a few years after the film came out on video. “An’ normally yo’ ass would be as dead as fried f*ckin’ chicken right now,” he continued, “but you happened to pull this shit while I’m in a transitional period.”

…And, just like that, I knew I’d scored another convert.

I hope everyone (convert and otherwise) will make a special point of joining us this Saturday, 28 May at 6:01 PM, for this no-holds-barred thrill ride of Gothic bloodshed, cinematic hilarity and time-capsule perfection. There may be many movies like it, today and into the future, but there will never, ever, ever be another moment quite like the one that this film had. It simply demands to be watched.  

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