Almost three decades on, Pulp Fiction remains the go-to Cool Movie for people who aren’t cool.
Is there really any point in writing about Pulp Fiction? I’m pretty sure everyone reading this will have seen the film. You probably all know it a lot better than I do. Is there anything I can add at this point? Probably not. But like the bloody-minded person I am, I’m going to do so anyway. There’s a very good chance that you are not going to be very happy with what follows, but c’est la vie.
I have a rather troubled relationship with this movie, with Quentin Tarantino and with his more slavish fans – and at the time that Pulp Fiction was released in 1994, that appeared to be pretty much everyone. But let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
I saw Reservoir Dogs in the cinema on its initial release and was fairly impressed. I wasn’t blown away, by any means, but I thought it was a solid, stylish crime movie. Maybe no better than some of the other movies I would see around that time that didn’t get picked up for theatrical, and clearly derivative as hell (I hadn’t seen City on Fire at the time, so didn’t know just how derivative), but a slick and entertaining effort nevertheless. Tarantino seemed to be a fan of the right sort of movies, back when that was still unusual for filmmakers, and his motor-mouthed enthusiasm had yet to slip into rampant egomania, and so it was easy to cut him a lot of slack. I even ran a Tarantino interview in my old mag of the time, Divinity.
Then, Tarantino mania began in earnest. Reservoir Dogs had been a triumph of marketing to hipsters – the individual character posters and the whole styling of the artwork were so achingly cool that the film was certain to grab the attention of people who wanted to be in on the latest thing. And while it was essentially lifted from the imagery of European cinema from a few decades earlier, that sort of promotional imagery wasn’t a cliché back then – it definitely felt new and fresh (especially if you hadn’t seen those European films), effectively standing out from everything else around at the time. It was, admittedly, a triumph of graphic design over filmmaking, but it all helped make Tarantino hipper than hip and attracted a new army of slavish fans. These new fans were the sort of people who would never, ever see the films that he was lifting ideas and visuals from – and indeed, who would have no interest in any of the work that Tarantino referenced either in his films or in his interviews, but who now drooled over their new hero with the desperate adulation normally displayed by teenage girls for the latest pop idol. Empire readers – of course – pretty much declared the director to be God. Tarantino was a genius, perhaps the greatest filmmaker to have ever lived. Anyone who failed to worship at the altar of St Quentin – like Oliver Stone when he reworked Tarantino’s screenplay for Natural Born Killers and so ended up in a public slanging match with him – was seen as the Great Satan. It’s a long time ago now, but for a while, it seemed that every discussion about film, every magazine, every TV show, every critic and every filmmaker was in thrall to the cult of Tarantino. After a while, it became rather annoying, because quite honestly, he wasn’t all that.
I don’t play well with others. I’m not, as some would claim, intentionally bloody-minded, but I’m instinctively suspicious of shameless hype and herd mentality, especially when it comes from the sort of people who are shameless trend chasers. The build-up to Pulp Fiction felt like a giant, global act of vigorous masturbation, which erupted in a horrible gushing mess once the film finally came out. We see this all the time now, of course, but in those pre-social media days, it felt horribly strange. Even the Star Wars films didn’t seem to have been anticipated with such orgasmic delight. And all this was, you might note, about at someone’s second movie – before anyone had even seen it. It was, to say the least, disproportionate.
People can talk themselves into believing anything, especially when it seems as though everyone else also believes it. When you work yourself up to think that a forthcoming film will be the greatest thing ever – the cinematic equivalent of ambrosia, perhaps – then your critical faculties are, by default, restricted. Very few people go into a film saying “this will be the BEST FILM EVER!” and come out saying “well, that was absolute shit”. Anticipation, excitement and peer pressure will convince you that you’ve seen the best film in the world, even if deep inside you know that isn’t true. We see this a lot at film festivals, where attendees will hit the bar and talk themselves into declaring the movie that they’ve just watched as the future of horror, while everyone who watches it when it finally gets a release is left scratching their heads wondering what all the fuss was about. Those first impressions last, though – a critical consensus evolves that is often based on the early gushing of – ahem – ‘influencers. Similarly, people will often look back on the films they loved when younger through rose-tinted glasses rather than the critical revisionism of the older, wiser viewer. I’m not sure anyone who saw this film and was part of the Tarantino fan club in 1994 can look at it any more objectively today, and now the film’s collective critical position seems unassailable. Pulp Fiction is a masterpiece and that’s all there is to it. Only the worst sort of miscreant contrarian would suggest otherwise.
I didn’t think Pulp Fiction was a masterpiece then, and still don’t now. If I were to discuss my all-time favourite movies, I could probably talk for hours and this film wouldn’t come up once. That doesn’t mean I think the film is a bad movie. For the record, I think it’s a film that oozes with style, is packed with ideas (some of them even original ones!), is wildly ambitious and grand in scale. It’s certainly not a film by a director who lacks self-belief. I also think it’s bloated, messy, self-indulgent and is constantly, painfully aware of the need to be cool – and often lifts that cool, magpie-like, from a variety of much more interesting sources. If you recognise those sources, it isn’t to the film’s advantage because you are always going to start thinking about better movies. That’s not a problem for Tarantino by and large, because he knows most of his viewers will never get those references no matter how telegraphed. His work is not usually aimed at people who watch a lot of old movies.
What’s more, much as he did with Grindhouse some years later, Tarantino seems to entirely misunderstand the very thing he is paying tribute to. Pulpy crime novels were lean to the point of being skeletal, sharp, and cynical. Pulp Fiction could never be called ‘lean’. But that’s okay. We shouldn’t take the title literally. I get that he was taking the overall vibe of the pulps and rebooting it in his own image – and brevity, as we’ve come to see, is not in Tarantino’s lexicon. It’s an exercise in style over substance – again, the very opposite of much of the material that he is taking inspiration from – but when you compare this to the slew of movies that emerged in its wake and tried to copy the Tarantino style, you can see that he definitely had something going on – most of those movies (some of which he wrote, some of which were made by his producers) are unbearably empty and desperately, cluelessly trying too damned hard. Pulp Fiction is also trying very, very hard to be cool – but it succeeds rather more than True Romance or Killing Zoe or Dobermann or any of a hundred other movies that introduce characters with captioned freeze-frames and drip with self-aware edginess. If we can judge a film’s quality simply on how much better it is than everything it inspired, then this movie is several cuts above the average. It’s a backhanded compliment, perhaps, but at least Tarantino understood how to take his myriad of second-hand ideas and make his own thing from them; the films that came in his wake, perhaps already now working with third-hand references to cultures that they had no connection with, never managed that.
Pulp Fiction was something of a high point for Tarantino; for a variety of reasons – not least of which is that his films increasingly lifted from less stylish genres and so became less inherently cool for a certain type of person – his work has never quite been greeted with the same sense of anticipation since (though Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, with its own appropriation of a revisionist and culturally familiar late Sixties style certainly came the closest of all his subsequent work). While a new Tarantino film invariably leads to the re-release of some of the films that ‘inspired’ it, there’s no evidence that his fan base is remotely adventurous or interested enough to explore those works – sales of films by Jean-Luc Godard, Toshiya Fujita and Enzo Castellari are still very much restricted to cult audiences already familiar with such works. We can’t blame Tarantino for that – he has, after all, done his best to bring such work to new audiences through interview references and his Rolling Thunder distribution outlet. But it perhaps reflects the essential shallowness of his gushing fan base of critics and fans who are too film illiterate to ever know – or care – where his cool ideas come from. This is a cult movie for people who only like mainstream cinema but still want to feel edgy and alternative – the Nevermind of cinema.
The real legacy of Pulp Fiction, above everything else, might be the power of hype – the was that audiences can be whipped into a frenzy of anticipation and have immediate adulation for films that they have yet to see. The film itself, looked at almost three decades on, is not the masterpiece it was initially hailed as; what could be, frankly? But it’s still an audacious piece of filmmaking, one that can finally be appreciated on its own merits. Even if the cooler-than-cool style has been tarnished by the subsequent career choices of the actors (John Travolta now seeming as far from being hip as he was when cast in this) and the actions of those who produced it (Roger Avery; Harvey Weinstein), it’s a film both of its time and increasingly timeless, the retro references now no more retro than the movie itself.
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