It’s been 22 years since Pulp Fiction made Quentin Tarantino a household name. If you were to pile the misbegotten films that sought to recreate a severe misreading of the “Tarantino formula” in the time that’s passed, you could climb it all the way to heaven’s gates. His pastiche-heavy style tends to get simplified down to orgiastic violence sprinkled with homages to old films and the liberal use of racial epithets for gritty, real world color, but that isn’t what made Pulp Fiction special. If all it took was a bunch of foul mouthed assholes in suits saying “nigger” to character actors while ’70s pop hits played, the mid-Nineties would have produced a lot more certifiable classics. Pulp Fiction made such an indelible mark because it took a high art approach to a low culture genre and it did it with an ambitious attention to detail. Everything that stumbled in its footsteps after was an ill-fitting reproduction, but Pulp was the original knockoff, a bespoke imitator with such character and idiosyncrasy as to outshine its progenitors.
Pulp Fiction is essentially an anthology film flipped on its ear, with three narrative strands interwoven into one patchwork quilt of repurposed noir trope ephemera. The set-up for each arc is about as bargain bin a writing prompt as one can imagine. A boxer refuses to throw a fight. A gangster has to take his boss’ wife on a date. Tarantino and co-writer Roger Avary take these threadbare pulp premises and free them from the confines of traditional film noir, placing them instead in a charming simulacrum of “the real world.” But it’s only real in the sense that it feels lived in. It has the look and the texture of IRL LA, but it’s filtered through the equally fictive lens of Quentin Tarantino’s personal aesthetics. His version of reality isn’t particularly far removed from the real world Jean Luc-Godard’s jump cuts and non-sequitor scenarios presented during the halcyon days of French New Wave. It’s about three steps removed from “real,” but that distance allows for the manipulation of time and logic that gives the film its power.
Tarantino’s approach to time here is like a DJ’s, with the chronological order of the narrative cropped into thematic drum breaks and resequenced for maximum rhythmic impact. In the macro, the nonlinear storytelling is the most blatant evidence of chronal distortion, a stylistic trick that filmmakers love to employ when they get unnaturally jealous of novelists, but it’s in the micro that the real magic happens. Over the years he’s become known for ever increasing runtimes and a palatial approach to pacing, but the time Tarantino takes to tell the tales in Pulp serves a different purpose. In later films, he would learn to craft his circular dialogue exchanges as the building blocks of a specific kind of suspense, but on his second feature, he took his time for a very different reason. Here, it’s to luxuriate in the world he’s created. The dramatic beats in Pulp Fiction could rather easily be compressed into a ninety minute flick, but the film goes on for two and a half hours. It’s not indulgent padding, either. By creating space around the well worn vernacular of the crime genre, Tarantino is able to elevate the events that unfold, subverting expectations in a truly stirring way.
The proceedings get artfully chopped and screwed, and time slows to a crawl at just the right times. Certain repetitive acts, like recreational self destruction, are presented as lengthy processes we watch from start to finish, whether it’s Vincent rolling his own cigarettes or shooting up heroin. Certain set pieces, like the introduction of Jack Rabbit Slim’s or Butch surreptitiously returning to his apartment, all unfold in single takes, letting the viewer explore the world surrounding the protagonist in an immersive way. A variety of visual techniques, both subtle and overt, pop up at crucial junctures, like the slow, discomfiting push in on Butch realizing his watch is missing, or the comically dramatic slow-mo used before Marcellus is raped. No sequence in the film exemplifies this better than the expert editing used in Mia’s OD-ing scene. The dearly departed editor Sally Menke made Tarantino look more like an artist for years, but perhaps never moreso than in this particular master class in time distortion. As the adrenaline-filled needle hovers over Mia’s heart, time and space clock out to witness her rebirth.
There’s also a strangely mythic power imbued into every one of the film’s many MacGuffins. A story about a boxer who double crosses a gangster after he’s supposed to take a dive is fine, but starting that story with an overlong monologue about his father’s gold watch and the many wars and anal cavities it survived is pure insanity. It’s the kind of seemingly indulgent excursion Tarantino is known for, but relative to the dividends it pays in terms of tragicomic predestination, the time spent with Christopher Walken in that little prologue is totally worth it. Ditto the mysterious briefcase Vincent and Jules have to retrieve for Marcellus. Forget every idiot nerd theory on YouTube about how the briefcase houses Marcellus’ soul. It doesn’t matter if it’s gold or the diamonds from Reservoir Dogs in that briefcase. What matters is how a totally Noir 101 bargaining chip is given a dreamlike majesty, heightening the sense of wonder around any interaction it’s the center of.
Similarly, Tarantino’s trademark dialogue, run-on though it may be, serves far more purpose than mere exposition or characterization. The prolonged introduction to the Mia Wallace chapter, while setting up the later arc of “The Bonnie Situation,” is littered with trite seeming asides that, cumulatively, create a billowing fog of foreshadowing. The initial shootout and the meandering banter that precedes it set a tone for the film overall, but they also let you know the kind of person Marcellus Wallace is and what a high wire balancing act taking his wife on a date is sure to be. Once that chapter begins in earnest, the throwaway lines about not touching another man’s car and Vincent’s vital urge to know how a five dollar milkshake tastes all feel like pointless repartee on their own, but together, they’re symbological portents of the dilemma Vincent finds himself in. That little exchange about uncomfortable silences creates direct symmetry with Mia, lifeless and bloody on the floor. (That same symmetry can be found between chapters as well. Every story involves something awful happening whenever Vincent goes to the bathroom.)
There’s so much about the film that stands out, like how the costume design creates instantly iconic character portraits. Or the curious role food culture plays in this world. Or the way a needle drop soundtrack culled from the director’s personal favorites plays like the dawn of mash-up culture. When you go back and watch movies like Boondock Saints and their Tarantino riffing ilk, the trappings are there. The guns, the blood, the profanity. Sometimes there’s a nonlinear structure or the semblance of self reference. What’s always missing is the magic. Many of the imposters that came later are barely watchable the first time around, but nearly a quarter century later, Pulp Fiction remains endlessly rewatchable. It’s the apex of postmodernity in Nineties independent film, but it never feels dated. The film was birthed deliciously out of step with its era, so it remains as timeless as the litany of influences that inspired it.
Pulp remains a veritable smorgasbord of self-reflective cinematic techniques that explore the real world through the prism of movie-borne wonder. It’s not quite Tarantino’s best (that would be his next film), but it might be his most iconic. If he never made another film, this would be a satisfying monument to his style. It’s a movie that encapsulates everything we love about movies, folding unto itself and the history that enabled it, while paving a path for future on screen cool.
Check back throughout the rest of January for more essays on the films of Quentin Tarantino.