Each week, one of the Filmoria team digs deep into the cinematic archives and chooses a film they’ve never seen before – one that’s regarded as a classic. This week, Freda Cooper goes back to the 90s for a large slice of Tarantino. With cheese.
How I’ve managed to lead a Pulp Fiction-free life I honestly don’t know, and it’s made all the more staggering by the fact that I was blown away by Reservoir Dogs – the style, the classical structure, the whole enchilada. Twenty three years after Pulp Fiction roared onto cinema screens, it was about time I put that right.
Twenty/twenty hindsight when watching a film for the first time isn’t exactly risk-free and trying to stop all that knowledge influencing my view of the film was nigh-on impossible. It has its own place in cinematic history, thanks to some indelible scenes – John Travolta and Uma Thurman in the twist competition, the “Royale with cheese” banter between Travolta and Samuel L Jackson. To a 2017 audience, the cast is full of big names, but in 1994 the only really familiar one was Travolta, and his career was on the slide: Saturday Night Fever was already 14 years old and just about everybody had forgotten how light he was on his feet. Pulp Fiction took him in a new direction and simultaneously re-instated him on the A list. Whether TV’s The People vs O J Simpson has managed to pull off the same trick is another question.
This was Tarantino’s second feature film. Today his movies are an event, still challenging, audacious and as bloody and as spectacularly foul-mouthed as ever. Except that now we don’t turn a hair at the 265 f-words in Pulp Fiction, or the explicit drug use. Both are Tarantino’s stock in trade, along with his crackling dialogue, legendary use of music and characters that are, at best, anti-heroes. The film’s 90s setting is apparent from the absence of computers, the clunky, early mobile phones with their retractable aerials, TVs without remotes and, of course, the cars. Unusually, though, one character from the film has made the transition onto present day commercial TV – in the UK at least. And Winston Wolf still drinks his coffee with “lots of cream, lots of sugar.”
While he used the unities of classical drama to discipline Reservoir Dogs – place (a single location), time (usually within 24 hours) and action (one main story with minimal sub-plots) – Tarantino went for something less linear in Pulp Fiction. This time he offers up three separate stories which overlap with each other and where the characters intertwine. So we start by eavesdropping on a conversation between lovers Pumpkin and Honey Bunny (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) as they decide to rob the diner where they’re having breakfast. Then there’s Vincent (Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L), hitmen for local crime lord Marcellus (Ving Rhames), who entrusts his wife Mia (Thurman) to Vincent’s care while he’s out of town. And there’s boxer Butch (Bruce Willis), who Marcellus has paid to throw a fight but who plays by different rules – and that means Vincent and Jules are on his tail. When the end arrives, it’s all come full circle and, even though the timeline jumps around, the whole thing is nothing short of seamless.
The visual gags abound, with Jules owning a wallet embossed with “Bad Motherf**ker” (in full). It reputedly belonged to Tarantino himself. Vincent saves Mia’s life with an injection in a drugs dealer’s house that has various board games scattered on the floor – one of which is Operation. But don’t go thinking the film is all fun and games. This is Tarantino, after all. In the story about Butch, there’s an unpleasant sequence, which involves both him and Marcellus being held captive by the owner of a second hand shop. It’s as if Deliverance has arrived in an urban setting yet, although it casts a disturbingly dark shadow over this part of the film, it’s not wholly out of kilter with what we’ve seen so far.
Questions about the film still do the rounds. Vincent and Jules are looking after a briefcase for Marcellus, but what’s inside it? And why does it produce a golden glow every time it’s opened? Why does Marcellus wear a plaster on the back of his neck? That is, incidentally, the only view we have of him until about half way into the film. One theory is that it was the only way to cover up a genuine scar on Ving Rhames’ neck. Fans of the film, on the other hand, connect it with the contents of the briefcase. The decision is yours…
With my most glaring – and most surprising – cinematic omission now under my belt, I’m already feeling the need to watch it all over again. It’s packed with so much – references to other films, subtle connections, visual gags – that I’m convinced there’s plenty I’ve missed. Not that a repeat visit will be any hardship.