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Great Movies Roundtable: Pulp Fiction

#94 on AFI’s 100 Movies, 100 Years – 10th Anniversary Edition is Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.”

General thoughts

CRH: Pulp Fiction is a very entertaining movie. The film is supremely cast but I think the thing that draws the viewer in and keeps them in is Tarantino’s excellent dialogue. The conversations feel organic and they give the viewer enough information to be able to keep the narrative in focus through the 3 different storylines. The three stories are very good stories. However the non-linear structure allows for the themes to be developed fully. Pulp Fiction is oddly a movie about redemption. Most of those exploitation movies that Quentin Tarantino references are about very simple themes and human drama. I think trashy stories are the best mode to talk about the really deep things like redemption.

WK: “Pulp Fiction” revolutionized the film industry when it came out in 1994. It felt like a new kind of cinema; a reinvention of what movies were and what they could do. It seemed like we were on the edge of a new New Hollywood. But we weren’t. A lot of films tried to be the next “Pulp Fiction,” to borrow from its bag of tricks — the nonlinear structure, the dialogue, the liberal borrowing from exploitation films — but none of them succeeded. Even Tarantino struggled to recapture the magic, and eventually gave up and made Westerns instead. I can’t think of a single film from the ‘90s that borrows from “Pulp Fiction” in a good way. I can think of a lot of really bad ones. Like “Boondock Saints.”

What works?

WK: So much. The nonlinear structure works. The quirky side characters, like Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, and Christopher Walken, and Esmerelda Villalobos, all add so much texture and richness.  Even Zed.

And of course, the dialogue, which is so unique.  This is a film of individual scenes strung together, an there’s isn’t a single bad or dull scene in the movie.

I think that the reason “Pulp Fiction” stands apart is because its three stories all resonate emotionally.  All three stories are about redemption in one way or anothers; they’re about someone facing a crisis and overcoming it. That’s fundamental, classic storytelling. That’s  an element missing from most of Tarantino’s films, which too often feel nihilistic.

CRH: It’s technically excellent. The acting is top-notch. But the fact that it is a cohesive, interesting, and entertaining story (in this case three stories) iswhat makes it a classic. And, as I mentioned, the dialogue is very entertaining. If the movie had this structure and the same direction and the same story but did not have the dialogue to carry the audience through the movie I think that movie would be unwatchable. You want to see these very unique characters talk to other characters. I think the character work in this movie is the best. The characters have arcs which is something that a lot of movies neglect these days. The characters go on a journey from the beginning to the end of the story.

What doesn’t work?

WK: One of the common complaints against this film, and all of Tarantino’s work, is that it’s too violent. I don’t think that’s exactly right —  someone in the special features points out that more people die in “Bullets Over Broadway” than in “Pulp Fiction” — but it’s the way the violence is portrayed that is disturbing.  There’s a story out there that at the New York premiere, an audience member actually had a heart attack during the overdose scene. When asked about this, Tarantino’s response was “Wow! This film really works!”  That’s a tacky response; first he should have expressed some concern for the actual human being that nearly died, and/or some relief that he was okay.  But that same cavalier attitude toward life and death is present in the film: when Vincent accidentally shoots the guy in the back seat, the problem is never that a young man is dead, even a young man who didn’t deserve it; it’s that there’s now a bloody mess in the back seat.  That’s kind of disturbing.

CRH: I agree. I don’t think the violence in movies is a problem. But I think as long as the violence has a point that helps move the story along, I think that is what really matters in a movie. This movie is very violent. It’s probably not as violent as some movies (the movie Excalibur comes to mind.) How it affects an audience is dependent on the context of the violence. I mean when we see an innocent bystander get shot down by Marcellus Wallace, I think that was a good moment but it’s all really horrifying because she’s just a random person trying to help and she gets shot for the trouble. Or Marvin getting his brains blown out. It’s kind of upsetting because Vince and Jules spare his life and he gets killed accidentally. I think that’s probably what upset most people.

Favorite scenes

CRH: One of my favorite scenes is the scene where the Wolf comes in and starts directing the situation to fix it. There’s a dead body in the car but he’s calm clear and collected. Harvey Keitel has probably about 6 minutes in this movie. But his character is so strong and well-developed it’s compelling.

WK: For me, it’s the diner scene, without a doubt – but maybe for different reasons than most. I just really love that Jules’ spiritual conversion feels authentic.  I know it’s being played for laughs, but it never feels like the movie is mocking my religion.  In fact, it grasps the nature of a conversion better than most.  When Jules tells Vince that it doesn’t really matter whether they actually witnessed a bona fide miracle, what matters is that he felt the presence of God in that room and it changed him – I’m nodding my head. Yes.  Exactly. And then, when Jules realizes/confesses that he has been an evil man, but is now trying real hard to be a shepherd… well, that’s the stuff, right there.

Buying or Selling? 

CRH: I’m definitely buying. 1994 was kind of a messed up year. Not saying Forrest Gump is bad: I really like Forrest Gump but this movie is better. This seems to happen — sometimes good movies are kind of pushed out of the way in Oscar consideration or even public acclaim and popularity by other films. I think Pulp Fiction will be around for a while because I think it’s Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece. I don’t think he’s done better than this movie because the rest of his movies lack a core element or piece of humanity. The rest of his films seem to be merely violent; this one is transcendent.

WK:  It’s interesting to note that opinion, at least at the American Film Institute, hasn’t changed since 1994 – they still think “Forrest Gump” is a better movie, placing it at 74 on their list.  But I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a cinephile under the age of 50 who really thinks “Forrest Gump” is a better film than “Pulp Fiction.” (Neither of us think so.) I guess we’ll get more into that when we cover “Gump” –  in about 20 months!

I really like this film, and I’m impressed watching it this time around how much it captures a particular moment in cinema history.  So I think it’ll rise.

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Posted in All Reviews, By Courtland Hopkins, by Will Krischke, The Classic Movie Series.

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