February 2, 2010

#94: Pulp Fiction

"You know what they call a quarter-pounder with cheese in Paris?"
"They don't call it a quarter-pounder with cheese?"
"Naw man, they got the fuckin' metric system over there, they wouldn't know what the fuck a quarter-pounder is."

Next on the list is Quentin Tarantino's postmodern indie thriller Pulp Fiction, which shot him to stardom and garnered seven Oscar nominations, including Picture, Director, three Actor nods, and Screenplay, which he won. The contenders for that first award also included The Shawshank Redemption and the eventual winner, Forrest Gump, both of which are on this list.

Company: Kecia, roommate, newly employed data entrant and fabulous cook; Katie, server, student, comedienne; Stephanie, sister and prospective employee, fresh off an interview and looking stunning

Cuisine: spaghetti with red and yellow peppers (hey! just like the title up there!), out of Kecia's cooking blog book ... intense, beautiful colors, and delicious. And filling. Oof. Wheat pasta'll do that to ya. I had originally planned to get a Royale with Cheese for this movie, but this is a much healthier and beach-bodier option.

"Check out the brains on Brett! You're one smart motherfucker!" Has anyone ever owned a scene the way Jackson owns this one?

It's hard to classify this film. Is it a crime noir? Is it camp? Is it postmodern thriller? Is it a black comedy? I think it's the fact that it's unclassifiable that makes it such an important movie and adds to its relevance given that the state of independent cinema can really be viewed as pre-Pulp and post-Pulp. Its distribution, marketability and critical reception in 1994 had a huge effect on Hollywood, and it's all thanks to 31-year-old Tarantino (31!)

That is one stellar character intro.

But enough academic talk: this movie rules. I grew up on this soundtrack thanks to my oldest sister, but didn't see the movie until maybe five years later. One great thing about the soundtrack (besides the excellent choices that miraculously create a world of 'cool' without seeming to) was that it included some of the fantastic dialogue (including the opening scene, which I basically memorized). Even before we were five minutes in, I already said aloud to my movie-mates: I need to just read this screenplay. In fact, so many elements of the movie, like the fact that several conversations show only the listener reacting rather than the speaker speaking, enhance the brilliant language that has become Tarantino's trademark. When we're introduced to Mia Wallace, we hear her speak before we see her: we could read the note Vincent finds telling him to come inside and make himself a drink, but she reads it aloud. We see her lips, the back of her head, even her feet before we see her face.

(PS: that scene at Jackrabbit Slim's made me want fast food so bad that I actually paused the movie to go get McDonald's. Thanks, product placement. Of course, later on I got that rock feeling in your stomach after you eat that crap, but at the time and for the sake of the movie it was worth it.)

Of course, it's not for the faint of heart -- the movie opens with the definition of pulp, meaning "lurid subject matter." Yeah, that about takes care of it. Suffice it to say that I had forgotten a lot of the violent scenes (I haven't seen this movie in maybe two, three years) and they leave little to nothing to the imagination. The tension is palpable and as soon as you think it's over, it's so the opposite of over. When everything seems like it's going to be fine (i.e. Butch making pop tarts), you still feel like screaming "Get out of there!"

But even at their worst, these moments are still funny. Take the moment from the photo above, when Mia's just been revived with an adrenaline shot after an overdose -- the four people in the house with her comically zoom into her as she recovers. The director wants us all to know: this is all in good fun, friends. Don't take any of this too seriously. We're paying homage to those hardboiled crime novels from the mid-20th century.

Maybe that's what makes the movie feel timeless. It's obvious from the cell phones that this is taking place "now," but the combination of the soundtrack and the way all the characters seem like they belong in a different era (the hairdos of Travolta, Jackson and Thurman alone) made me think twice about labelling a decade here.

Our hero has a moment of pause. Quite the dilemma.

Much of the movie's success can be accredited to these fantastic performances -- the words are brilliant, but they could have flopped in lesser hands. John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman were all Oscar-nominated, but the supporting cast (Amanda Plummer, Tim Roth, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames, Christopher Walken, Harvey Keitel, etc.) are all right on the top of their game. These characters are all such archetypes of their source material, and yet every one of them feels so lived in. Even Mia Wallace, a role that really doesn't require much besides sultry appeal and believable overdose faces, is a fully-formed human being.

"Three fucking Fonzies."

I think what lives with an audience the most is this last scene, where Honey Bunny and Pumpkin's hysterical and poorly conceived attempt to rob a restaurant leads to a frank discussion with Jules about divine intervention and his "moment of clarity" given the events of that morning. Without this scene, and Jackson's fantastic delivery of the film's denouement, I don't think the film could work nearly as well.

He and Vincent leave the restaurant. Roll credits. Wow.

Tarantino has had hits and misses since this, which will no doubt be his crowning achievement, but I think this film has a rightful place on the list, not only because of its mastery of language and filmmaking, but also because it set the bar for independent and postmodern cinema and redefined what contemporary audiences can expect from a director that respects them. That's some deep fuckin' shit, man.

Next up: I just left 1971, and now I have to go right back? William Friedkin's The French Connection.

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