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Pulp Fiction

Alan A. Stone

If you take no pleasure in popular culture, with all its manic excesses, then you are likely to be bewildered, even offended, by Quentin Tarantino's extraordinary film, Pulp Fiction. Tarantino unapologetically enjoys popular culture at the same time that he satirizes it. Unfortunately, he also seems to specialize in violence. Still, taken on its own terms, Pulp Fiction is a rare accomplishment; it opens a new aesthetic horizon in film. Like Van Gogh's sunflowers, the ordinary suddenly takes on a striking vibrancy; from the dazzling title colors on, it is easy to recognize the artist, but almost impossible to imagine how one could imitate him. Tarantino, a one-time video store clerk, now the hottest director in Hollywood, has memory banks packed with movies and he draws on some of the most ordinary to create something brilliantly original. This is no experimental film of intellectual pretensions and high-brow obscurantism. Pulp Fiction is already building a cult following, even as its mother-fucker language and graphic violence offends others.

Violence in film is a serious matter, and for some people an inexcusable offense. They can see no justification for the scene in which John Travolta's character accidentally blows a young man's brains out. Even worse for those concerned about film violence, most of the audience laughed despite the spatter of blood and brain tissue -- and with spontaneous amusement, not the nervous hysteria often heard at horror films. The violence of Pulp Fiction is essential to its aesthetic; though he knew that many would complain, Tarantino meant the audience to laugh.

Deliberately violating the conventions of action-violence films, Tarantino reimagines stylized moments of violence and exaggerates them until they are almost surrealistic. Then he creates dialogue that leads up to the violence and then away from it. When most directors would be building tension and suspense, Tarantino has his killers chatting. When most directors would cut away from the violence, Tarantino stays with the aftermath. And he has achieved something I would have thought impossible; he has made violence humorous by doing it tongue-in-cheek -- and the tongue has a stud in it.

Tarantino's film garnered top honors at the Cannes Film Festival but will probably pay for its "punkness" at the Oscars. Its box office success, however, should comfort the many aspiring Hollywood directors who dream of doing something different. But they will not find it easy to follow in Tarantino's tracks. His film is put together with touch, spin, and nuance, and then goes off in your face like a letter bomb.

What Tarantino has crafted in this film can be best appreciated in the performance he has extracted from John Travolta. In 1977, Travolta gave his unforgettable portrayal of the cock-of-the-walk dancer in Saturday Night Fever. Far from a natural dancer, he nonetheless gave a heart-winning performance. Ever since then, he has been fighting the battle of the bulge and trying with less and less success to prove that he can act. One might have concluded that he was too old, too fat, and too far over the hill for Pulp Fiction. But it turns out that he is brilliantly cast in the film; everything wrong about him is right for this part. In his early-forties he still has a teenager's winning vulnerability. His broad mouth and high cheek bones are now bejowled but there is still a promise of sensuality in that ruined face. His appealing and familiar presence brings just the feel of movie nostalgia Tarantino wanted.

Travolta plays a laid back, get-along kind of guy who is living a depraved and drug-addicted life as a paid killer, but has an astonishingly innocent soul, as do most of Tarantino's low-life characters. This innocence in depravity is Pulp Fiction's central theme. It keeps the film from being an exercise in sado-masochistic perversity; it is the source of its humor and its creative energy.

The film title Pulp Fiction harks back to the 30s and 40s when newsstands featured an array of monthly short story magazines. Among the most popular were those about hard-nosed private investigators. Written by such authors as Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain, these stories were the forerunners of dark, city crime movies that became film noir. Pulp fiction stories typically began in the front of the magazine, competing for the reader's attention, and were then continued in the back. Tarantino, though not old enough to remember this genre of pulp fiction, has put his film together as if he had that structure in mind.

We begin with one short story: a hopped-up British couple (Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth) deciding to rob the coffee shop where they are having breakfast. Before they do, we turn the page -- a dark screen -- to the next story of Travolta and Jackson going off to retrieve a mysterious briefcase and to kill some drug dealers who didn't pay off their boss. Then another dark screen -- to the childhood of the Bruce Willis character who grows up to be the boxer who refuses to throw the fight. Unlike the old pulp fiction magazines, the triptych of stories eventually comes together as the seemingly disparate plots are interwoven by coincidence and by Tarantino's central theme. Because the film is set in Los Angeles, its anthology structure may of course owe much more to Robert Altman's Shortcuts or to his brilliant Nashville than to pulp fiction magazines.

But Tarantino's borrowings are no defect. He is winking at his audience; he wants them to be aware of his references. The more they recognize the more they will enjoy the texture of his tapestry. It is because John Travolta carries so much baggage that he is so wonderful in this film. Moreover, everything Tarantino borrows is a cliché that has been given an original spin. Pulp Fiction takes the dead genre of film noir and gives it new life. Finally, Tarantino's startling humor takes his film beyond anything he has drawn from others.

Tarantino's interweaving of his three stories complicates the linear time structure of each plot. The most surprising result is that the Travolta character is killed only to reappear in the final scene of the movie, which took place earlier and is presented out of sequence. Once you figure out the puzzle, it becomes clear that Tarantino is playing with convention rather than rejecting or deconstructing it. Tarantino's entire film is playful, but he is playing with the imaginary world of film, not with reality itself.

There can be no doubt that the self-taught Tarantino intends to shock his audience. The many scenes of graphic violence testify to that. European film-makers are concerned that violence in American film is pornography that appeals to the lowest common denominator and, like American fast food, is destroying the taste for better things. Some psychologists believe that film and TV violence teach America's young people to be violent, or at the very least, inure them to real-life violence. Perhaps most troubling is the idea that graphic violence, like pornography, exploits an appetite in our basest instincts that degrades rather than edifies. Many people are refusing to see this film and a surprising number of my middle-aged friends report that their teenage children love it but have warned them they will hate the film. These reactions to the violence are too important to be dismissed, but I do not believe that Tarantino has dismissed them. His film exploits violence but as the jury at Cannes recognized he is neither lacking in moral sensibility nor, even though he wallows in popular culture, is he a Philistine.

If violence is a form of pornography, then like pornography it presents the same problem of line-drawing between exploiting our passions and edifying them. But as our modern courts have recognized, it is necessary to go beyond that simple categorical distinction and ask whether an admittedly exploitive work of art has redeeming social value.

When Shakespeare wrote Hamlet and King Lear, he intended to exploit his audiences' violent passions as well as to edify them. There is, after all, a great deal of violence, even graphic violence, in Lear -- remember "out vile jelly" as Cornwall gouges out Gloucester's eyes on stage. The greatest works of Western Civilization mock those who count graphic violence as ipso facto unredeemable exploitation.

This is not to say that Tarantino intends to redeem the violence; if anything, he seems to be mocking the arbiters of good taste with his "wicked" humor. This is most blatant, not in the scenes of violence, but in the quirky introduction to the Bruce Willis/boxer story. Christopher Walken, an actor who will be remembered for his Oscar-winning performance in Deer Hunter (a Vietnam war-film), makes a brief appearance in Pulp Fiction as a former Vietnam POW. He has come to deliver his dead cellmate's gold watch to the young boy who never knew his father. The Walken character begins to tell the boy what happened to his father in standard heroic pulp fiction rhetoric, but then veers perversely into a description of the intestinal orifice where the father hid the watch, and the intestinal disorders that complicated its concealment.

It is an account that no sane adult would give a child and a scene right out of a graffiti imagination. Other directors are capable of imagining such graffiti, but Tarantino was brash enough to keep it in his film. Like all toilet graffiti it can be understood as an example of adolescent bad taste and Tarantino knows that. It is "gross," it is inappropriate, it is irreverent, and one can understand why the younger generation would be warning off their fuddy-duddy parents. Yet even this heavy-handed moment belongs in the film. The scene begins as a patriotic-die-for-your-country cliché in which the reality of how the gold watch survived would have been unimagined. Tarantino's script takes up the challenge of an explanation and as he veers into scatology, he gives the finger to the false norm of noble death in all such war clichés. But Tarantino is interested less in making an anti-war gesture than in doing a send-up of a movie cliché. Similarly, this is not an anti-violence film. It is a send up of movie violence.

One astute teenage critic remarked that Tarantino learned something from his first film, Reservoir Dogs. All the guys in her high school loved the macho violence but there was not much in this male-oriented film for her and her female friends. Despite its violence and male orientation, Pulp Fiction has something for the female gender, particularly the scenes between Travolta and Uma Thurman.

This teenage critic and her girl friends especially enjoyed the episode in which the Travolta character is required to entertain the black crime boss' white wife (Uma Thurman). The previous man charged with this task had given her a foot massage; the boss took umbrage and had the massager thrown out of a four-story window. The Travolta-Thurman episode quickly turns into an over-the-top parody of a blind date. Travolta prepares himself by going to his drug dealer for a batch of the ultimate hit -- a mixture of cocaine and heroin that only a seasoned addict could tolerate. Travolta mainlines the stuff the way a nervous guy might take a drink to boost his confidence before a date. Meanwhile, Uma Thurman is sniffing cocaine, not because she's uneasy, but because she is a man-eater whetting her appetite.

Thurman takes Travolta to a dance contest where they do the twist, to the delight of Saturday Night Fever fans. Tarantino's elaborate set features vintage 50s convertibles as booths, pop culture look-alikes as servers, top-of-the-charts music, all of it so extravagant in its evocation of nostalgia as to be unreal. The scene is somehow true to the spirit of Pulp Fiction, a film that parodies popular culture without ever condescending to those who take pleasure in it.

The Travolta/Thurman blind date has clever dialogue, the twist is a trip, and the sexual tension escalates as they tango back into her home at the end of the evening. But while Travolta is in the toilet (it turns out he is always in the toilet at critical moments) Thurman finds his drug stash, snorts it, and overdoses. Instead of a sexual conclusion, the evening ends with a slapstick resuscitation involving a huge syringe stuck in her sternum. In this funny and surreal scene it becomes clear that Travolta and his low-life friends are playing overaged adolescents. Indeed the whole film has the spirit, energy, and sensibility of adolescence. No wonder teenagers love it.

Although Tarantino wants to shock us with violence, his film is politically correct. There is no nudity and no violence directed against women; in fact a man, the crime boss, gets raped and the only essentially evil people in the film are two sadistic honkies straight out of Deliverance who do the raping. The film celebrates interracial friendship and cultural diversity; there are strong women and strong black men, and the director swims against the current of class stereotype.

It is the British couple who, out of place in Los Angeles in the very first scene, fill the sound track with British-accented "mother fuckers." Amanda Plummer, who was born to play Ophelia, does a crazed "Honey Bunny" to Tim Roth's "Pumpkin." They are two waifs holding hands in the storm of their strung-outness on drugs and their hare-brained career of sticking up liquor stores. The juxtaposition of their lost teddy bear attachment to each other with their nervous trigger-finger desperation establishes Tarantino's tone of innocence in depravity. Samuel Jackson, who will best be remembered as the drug-addicted older brother in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, sustains that tone as Travolta's hit-man partner. His presence on the screen is a match for Travolta; he has a face that looks different in every camera angle and he radiates strength. These professional killers engage first in an earnest discussion about the European nomenclature of American fast foods and then a subtle analysis of the sexual significance of the foot massage as they make their way to the apartment where they will kill three men. The Jackson character miraculously eludes a point-blank fusillade of bullets. As they leave, they debate whether he was saved by divine intervention or simple luck. Jackson, who quotes from Ezekiel to spellbinding effect when he kills people, suddenly understands his Biblical text in a quite different way. As it turns out, his life and perhaps -- if it is possible for a killer -- his soul will be saved by this epiphany.

This theme of redemption is present in each of the three stories. Willis as Butch the boxer rescues his would-be killer, the black crime boss, from the honkey rapists. Butch, who was to be their next victim, has the opportunity to escape, but goes back. Redeemed by this act of solidarity, he is forgiven by the crime boss for not throwing the fight and is sent on his way.

The British couple are also saved. They try to rob Jackson who has ended up in the restaurant where the film began. He has drawn his gun under the table and could easily blow them both away. Instead, in the spirit of justice and honor that prevails among the low-lifes in this film, Jackson does the right thing. He stares the amateur criminals down, letting them take his own money but not the mysterious briefcase that he is dutifully returning to the crime boss. We believe that the strung-out British couple are capable of a killing rampage in the restaurant -- Amanda Plummer is a remarkable sight standing on a restaurant table screaming obscenities and waving a Saturday-night special. We also know that the day before Jackson would have killed them without blinking an eye, and that he will have to kill them today if they try to take the boss' briefcase. Instead Jackson sends the couple peacefully out of the restaurant clutching each other and a trash bag filled with stolen money.

But the best scenes involve Jackson and Travolta. When they are not killing, they are like college sophomores, one black, one white -- both amateur philosophers eager to share their ideas and experiences. Tarantino's ingenious dialogue humanizes their homocidal partnership. The improbable juxtaposition of their earnest dialogue and the violence is the stylistic twist that allows us to laugh at the spatter of brains and blood in the backseat of their car. Travolta reacts like a teenager unjustly blamed by his buddy for accidentally spilling the beer. And like children of over-indulgent parents, they have no idea how to clean up the mess.

Yes, they seem oblivious to the fact that a person has been killed. In that light their conversation is ludicrous. But this absurd dialogue unexpectedly transforms the meaning of the violence cliché. If Tarantino wanted to defend his film, this is where he could make his strongest arguments. Pulp Fiction unmasks the macho myth by making it laughable and deheroicizes the power trip glorified by standard Hollywood violence. But Tarantino is irreverent, not didactic. He goes from Road-Runner cartoon-violence humor in the Bruce Willis segment to whips and chain homosexual rape that silences the laughter. Tarantino will stop at nothing and yet never loses control. He dives into a nightmare and comes up with something funny, taking his audience up and down with him. Though Tarantino thinks his screenplay is funny, and would be disappointed if no one laughed, he doesn't consider Pulp Fiction a comedy. He is quite right; but if you don't get the studded tongue-in-cheek humor, you may not like this extraordinary movie.

Originally published in the April/May 1995 issue of Boston Review

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