Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Greatest Movies That Made Going to the Movies Suck #4 Pulp Fiction

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Sebastian Appears Courtesy of Detailed Criticisms

So, Pulp Fiction. It is a title that is synonymous with wit, absurdity, violence, vulgarity, and all around brilliance. A film this original, smart, and consistently entertaining only comes around every so often, and when it does, it ignites a firestorm of praise and mayhem! Quentin Tarantino's meisterverk did just that. Before Pulp Fiction, no one had really seen anything of the sort. Characters had never talked that way; events like that had never occurred. Plots were a strictly linear affair, and changing it up and going back and forth in the timeline of the film was unheard of. The vulgarity was never so vulgar, the violence was never so violent, and the comedy was never so comic, as it was in Pulp Fiction. It proved to be uber popular, winning the Palme d'Or at that year's Cannes festival, raking in tons of cash, and winning the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. It took the world by storm, which, depending on how you look at it, was a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, Tarantino had ushered in a new era of movie making, one that celebrated the conventions and reveled in prolonged, elaborate stories. On the other hand, it quickly became apparent, as various writers and directors attempted to emulate this style, that filmmakers like Tarantino were a rare breed. To this day, he is still the master of his craft. No one has come close to touching him.

From the very first shot of Pulp Fiction, where Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer talk about the various methods of robbery over coffee, you know you are for something special. Immediately, you are whisked on a bizarre and fascinating journey involving a pair of bible spewing hitmen, their boss, his trophy wife, the down and out boxer he paid off, his girlfriend, a drug dealer, and a suitcase with an ominous golden light coming from it. What made Pulp Fiction standout in my mind, even more then Tarantino's less known debut, Reservoir Dogs, is how it takes its sweet time to get to the point.
The first big segment sees Samuel L. Jackson's Jules Winfield and John Travolta's Vincent Vega heading off to a job at the behest of their boss, Marcellus Wallace. On their way, they talk about, in no particular order, the city of Amsterdam's policies on the distribution, possession, and use of marijuana, the differences at McDonalds between America and Europe, television, Samoan people, and what it means emotionally to give a woman a foot massage. There are multiple scenes like this, of characters talking about bullshit on their way to big events. It's great! On top of that, the big events are some of the weirdest and most absurd ever seen on film, ranging from an encounter with a pair of rapists and their gimp, to a brush with God, to a frantic and surreal rush to dispose of a dead body. Again, it's great. Also the soundtrack is awesome, and the performances are top notch!

So, what's the problem? Well, Pulp Fiction was a big deal when it came out. Everyone wanted to see it, and the studios noticed this, and they, in all their wisdom, decided to try and mimic whatever it is that Tarantino accomplished. The result was a slew of lackluster, soulless knockoffs that quickly fell into obscurity. The problem was that all the writers and directors thought that all they needed to do was watch Pulp Fiction over and over again, take the words off the screen, mix them around on the page, and they'd be done. What they failed to do was capture the magic that Tarantino was creating. As Roger Ebert so eloquently put it, "they knew the words, but not the music." Films like Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead, Smokin' Aces and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels are all examples of mimicking Tarantino's style without first determining what is special about it. They all had quick, witty dialogue, shocking scenes of ultra violence, and curse words up the wazoo. But, they were missing that certain something, and that something is humanity. In pretty much every Tarantino movie, his characters go through redemption, cope with loss, ruin their lives, make terrible decisions, fueled by greed, sadness, or anger, and pay the penalty. This is all layered on to the witty dialogue, ultra violence, and curse words up the wazoo, giving a realism not found in any other filmmakers work. This human aspect is lost in all other films that sought to mimic him. It's all style, but no substance.

Every movie about criminals these days owes something to Pulp Fiction. Whether it's the inclusion of two snarky hitmen (In Bruges), multiple, interconnecting story lines (Crash, Snatch), or just an overuse of vulgarity and pop culture references (uhhh... all of them), at some point, the makers were influenced by Pulp Fiction. It's completely understandable. A small, independent movie turns into a pop culture phenomenon, and suddenly, everyone is attempting to cash in on the craze, whether they know it or not. Tarantino awoke a vicious monster the day he premiered his tale of violence and redemption, and, so far, he is the only one who knows how to tame it.


  1. Certainly. Love this movie, love this piece, etc. That's not to say I don't like any of Guy Ritchie's films (I find it curious that Lock, Stock is both mentioned as a ripoff of Pulp Fiction, yet remains on this very same list).

  2. Simon you are quite right and yet it still seems fitting that they both deserve their own place. Although I don't think Lock, Stock is anything special (it's entertaining and I am more in the camp who find it more a Pulp Fiction knock off than an original work) it's interesting because it also plays with British Gangster conventions (stuff like Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa, etc.) as well which I think is why it deserved its own slot.

    One of the Pulp Fiction knock offs that I kind of like is 2 Days in the Valley with James Spader. That one seems to get overlooked probably because it did come in the wake of Pulp Fiction and it is merely good and not great but nevertheless.

  3. Would "Go" be considered a "Pulp Fiction" knock off?

    I'm into that movie.

  4. Ya, I'd say it is, even Doug Liman was paying homage to Tarantino with Swingers.

  5. @Simon and Mike: In terms of Pulp Fiction ripoffs, LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS is one of the best. Like the last post made clear, it brought enough of its own stuff to the table to make it passable.