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Quentin Tarantino's films revisited: Pulp Fiction (1994)

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In anticipation of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, we're recapping all his previous films.

Following last week's recap of Reservoir Dogs, we're taking a closer look at what many still consider Tarantino's masterpiece: Pulp Fiction.


WARNING: STRONG LANGUAGE AND VIOLENT CONTENT


What's the story of Pulp Fiction?

In this multi-stranded opus, we follow a collection of oddballs and criminals whose destinies overlap in unexpected and often shocking ways.

Bickering hitmen Jules and Vincent are on a mission to reclaim a valuable suitcase for their boss Marsellus Wallace, only to find their quest takes a surreal and violent turn. Pugilist Butch is paid by Marsellus to throw a fight but reneges on his promise and takes the money, which puts his life in danger. And Vincent finds himself in a compromising position when he is tasked with taking Marsellus's wife Mia on a date to a movie-themed restaurant.



How did Pulp Fiction get made?

In 1992, Quentin Tarantino exploded onto the moviemaking scene with Reservoir Dogs. The crime thriller cemented many of his most startling attributes, from the non-linear storytelling to the graphic violence and coruscating, witty dialogue threading in all manner of quick-fire pop culture references.

Following Dogs' barnstorming success at film festivals across the world, the movie swiftly established itself as something of a cult classic, and the film was picked up for distribution by Miramax. It was therefore only natural Tarantino would next turn to a self-referential deconstruction of the same B-movie tropes that had informed his debut feature.

As the opening title card explains, pulp derives from the yellowed nature of the pages that made up salaciously violent and sleazy pulp paperbacks. And the movie follows suit with an unapologetically lurid yet uproariously entertaining wallow in the seamier side of Los Angeles life – never one to back away from controversy, Tarantino now doubles down on Reservoir Dogs' more controversial elements.

The inspiration for Pulp Fiction dated back to 1990, when the idea originated with Roger Avary (who would later take co-writing credit for the Oscar-winning screenplay). Tarantino himself said the idea "was basically to take like the oldest chestnuts that you've ever seen when it comes to crime stories – the oldest stories in the book ... You know, 'Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace's Wife' – the oldest story about ... the guy's gotta go out with the big man's wife and don't touch her. You know, you've seen the story a zillion times.

"I'm using old forms of storytelling and then purposely having them run awry. Part of the trick is to take these movie characters, these genre characters and these genre situations and actually apply them to some of real life's rules and see how they unravel."

Tarantino began work on the script in March 1992 and the script assimilated elements from Avary for the earlier True Romance screenplay (credited to Tarantino). These included Jules and Vincent's supposedly 'miraculous' avoidance of getting shot and Marvin's notorious backseat head shot. The end result mixes up three different stories and finds delightful ways for the characters to overlap, playfully messing with our expectations of narrative structure.



Prior to completing the script in March 1993, Reservoir Dogs had taken the world by storm and Tarantino was officially Hollywood's hottest new film-maker. Such was the impact of Tarantino and Avary's blistering screenplay that studio Jersey Film signed on to the project before Reservoir Dogs had even been released. Working in tandem with Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender's newly formed production company A Band Apart, everything looked to be going well until Jersey got cold feet.

Enter Harvey Weinstein and Miramax: on signing up to the project, the budget was established at $8.5 million (Tarantino explains his aim was to make the film look like a $20 million production). The presence of Bruce Willis as boxer Butch helped secure overseas distribution and the rest of the cast began to take shape.


John Travolta was at the time considered unbankable following a series of movie flops. He accepted the role of Vincent Vega for a reduced salary, although it was originally set for Michael Madsen (who had played Vic Vega aka Mr White in Reservoir Dogs).

Madsen had to back out owing to commitments on Kevin Costner's Wyatt Earp movie, and rumour has it Tarantino took several years to forgive him for the snub. Travolta also beat out Weinstein's preferred choice, Daniel Day Lewis, and the role would catapult Travolta back to mega-stardom, leading to acclaimed roles in the likes of Get Shorty and Face/Off.

The real star of the movie, however, would turn out to be Samuel L. Jackson. Already a familiar face from the films of Spike Lee, Jackson was by no means an established A-lister, but that would all change with his fiercely charismatic, Bible-quoting Jules. Originally set to sport an afro, Jules ended up with a jerry curl wig following a misunderstanding with the props department, and he would clinch his first Oscar nomination for the part.

The rest of the movie's formidable ensemble, one of the best of any film in the 1990s, swelled to encompass Uma Thurman as Mia, who fought off the likes of Holly Hunter, and Reservoir Dogs veterans Harvey Keitel as Winston Wolf (let's forget those insurance ads) and Tim Roth as Pumpkin. Even the small roles are memorable: Christopher Walken's monologue as Captain Koons, in which he speaks to a younger Butch, is an five-minute marvel of florid dialogue, made possible by Walken keeping his throat lubricated with hot sauce during takes.

Shot in a mere two months, the movie emerged as a commendably ambitious project that built upon the latent potential of Reservoir Dogs. More complex in its structure (seemingly deceased characters appear alive again as the chronology is shuffled out of order), and sleeker in its design (the $150,000 Jack Rabbit Slims set is a treasure trove of movie references), Pulp Fiction remains a luxuriant yet typically confrontational experience.

Throughout, Tarantino's rat-a-tat dialogue is a deadlier, more impactful weapon than the guns wielded by the many characters. And as with Reservoir Dogs, the wonderfully eclectic soundtrack communicates an array of complex information, piped straight in from Tarantino's record collection to lend a swaggering outlaw vibe to the script's miscreant misfits.

The music ranges from the twanging surf guitar of The Lively Ones' 'Surf Rider' to Al Green's sublimely mellow 'Let's Stay Together'. Elsewhere we're treated to the infectiously upbeat 'You Never Can Tell' from Chuck Berry (accompanying the famous Travolta/Thurman dance scene) and the oddball, forgotten 'Flowers on the Wall' by The Statler Brothers, a deceptively jaunty number that anticipates extreme violence in the film's middle chapter, 'The Gold Watch'.





What are some classic quotes from Pulp Fiction?

Jules: "Royale with cheese!"

Jules: "And I will strike down with great vengeance and furious anger, those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers!"

Mr Wolf: "So, pretty please, with sugar on top, clean the f*****g car."

Honey Bunny: "Any of you f*****g *p*****s move, and I'll execute every motherf*****g last one of you!"

Vincent: "Ah man, I shot Marvin in the face."

Mia: "Don't you hate that? Uncomfortable silences..."


How was Pulp Fiction received?

Not just an enormous critical and commercial success, Pulp Fiction was an epochal moment in early-nineties pop culture. Premiering at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, where it went on to win the coveted Palme D'Or, the movie caused an immediate sensation.

Anticipation was further stoked by the first positive review to emerge from Variety: critic Todd McCarthy lauded it as a "spectacularly entertaining piece of pop culture ... a startling, massive success". 

The film also proved controversial, not just because of its violence, language and drug content but also due to Tarantino's post-modern sensibilities. Did the movie ultimately have much to say about its own excesses?

Some critics weren't convinced, like The Guardian's James Wood who wrote, "Tarantino represents the final triumph of postmodernism, which is to empty the artwork of all content, thus avoiding its capacity to do anything except helplessly represent our agonies ... Only in this age could a writer as talented as Tarantino produce artworks so vacuous, so entirely stripped of any politics, metaphysics, or moral interest".

Nevertheless, the outrage over the movie's more extreme moments only helped fuel interest. Released in America in October 1994, it went on to gross an impressive $213m against its relatively meagre $8.5m budget. And the positive responses kept on coming.

"You get intoxicated by it," wrote Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman, "high on the rediscovery of how pleasurable a movie can be. I'm not sure I've ever encountered a filmmaker who combined discipline and control with sheer wild-ass joy the way that Tarantino does."




What is the legacy of Pulp Fiction?

Tarantino's rock star status was further cemented during the 1994 awards season where, after an aggressive publicity push from Harvey Weinstein, the movie triumphed at the Oscars. Tarantino collected the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and also won a Golden Globe in the same category (curiously, Roger Avary was only credited at the former ceremony). The film was nominated for an additional six Oscars: Best Motion Picture - Drama, Best Director, Best Actor (John Travolta), Best Supporting Actor (Samuel L. Jackson) and Best Actress (Uma Thurman).



Awards hype aside, Pulp Fiction exerted an enormous influence on movie-making throughout the 1990s. Released in the same year as Kevin Smith's Clerks, the film is widely credited as helping to kickstart an desire for maverick, independent crime and drama movies throughout the subsequent decade, with many aping Tarantino's brash style while missing out on the magic.

Offbeat crime stories like the aforementioned Travolta-starring Get Shorty owed much of their sparky attitude to Pulp Fiction (although it should be noted that was based on an Elmore Leonard novel, as was Tarantino's follow-up movie Jackie Brown). The non-linear likes of Amores Perros, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, were also redolent of Tarantino's style while the film's brazen mixture of horror and comedy led to many inferior imitators (several critics point to Christian Slater-Cameron Diaz comedy Very Bad Things as a prime example).

Put simply, the effortlessly bold approach laid down by Tarantino in Pulp Fiction helped an entire generation of fledgling film-makers to find their voice. Violence could be handled ironically, stories could be told out of order with the expectation that an audience could keep up, and characters would signal their trendy credentials by dropping pop culture references left, right and centre.

And as for Tarantino? He would take a drastic about-face in 1997 with the subdued, yet arguably more dramatically mature, Jackie Brown. And that's where we leave you for now...

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is released on 14th August, so tweet us @Cineworld with your favourite Quentin Tarantino movies of all time.