by David Denby
Its not hard to see why actors have been eager to work with the young writer-director Quentin Tarantino. A bad-boy entertainer, “dark” but playful, Tarantino writes an American gutter rant—golden arias of vituperation interlaced with patches of odd, hilarious formality (the formality functions like an outbreak of classical movement in the middle of a modern dance concert). His latest, Pulp Fiction, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last spring and just opened the New York Film Festival, is an ecstatically entertaining piece of suave mockery. Tarantino serves up low-life characters and situations from old novels and movies, and he revels in every manner of pulp flagrancy—murder and betrayal, drugs, sex, and episodes of sardonically distanced sadomasochism. But the language pours forth with a richness never heard in conventional pulp, and he plays havoc with our expectations. There are three overlapping stories in Pulp Fiction, and the structure is bound with words—anecdotes, debates, rococo profanities, biblical quotations. Amazingly, the complex of overturned expectations gets set right by the end.
Like Altman and Scorsese twenty years ago or Godard a decade before that, Tarantino, thirty-one, has quickly become an international film festival celebrity. At the moment, he’s an avatar of American hip, perhaps the only one in the movie business. (Jim Jarmusch’s stylized ennui has come to look like artistic and personal enervation.) Tarantino, commercial yet intransigent, is the hero of those who long to be produced, those who have daring ideas but no way of realizing them. Like the earlier movie men, Tarantino is immersed in cinema; he even comes garlanded with a myth comparable to Scorsese’s asthmatic, movie-enriched childhood. A sort of Southern California swamp-mall creature, he rises, unschooled, from a clerks position at a video store with thousands of films in his head and grand ambitions in his heart. Having seen and digested everything, he understands the logic and secrets of movie genres, the hidden strength of their conventions; therefore, he can play, he can mix cruelty and formal inventiveness (sometimes the formal play is itself cruel), teasing, undermining, subverting, while telling a story at the same time.
Pulp Fiction is about Los Angeles crumbums—gangsters, a boxer ordered to take a dive, molls, a pair of sadists. The movie is not meant to be sincere. In a Scorsese movie like Mean Streets or GoodFellas, the characters, as much as lovers in an opera by Verdi, suffer and die. But Tarantino’s gangsters are not “real.” Pulp Fiction is play, a commentary on old movies. Tarantino works with trash, and by analyzing, criticizing, and formalizing it, he emerges with something new, just as Godard made a lyrical work of art in Breathless out of his memories of casually crappy American B movies. Of course Godard was, and is, a Swiss-Parisian intellectual, and the tonalities of his work are drier, more cerebral. Pulp Fiction, by contrast, displays an entertainer’s talent for luridness. It’s a very funky, American sort of pop masterpiece, improbable, uproarious, with bright colors and danger and blood right on the surface. And yet the movie is not heartless like Natural Born Killers; and for all its joking, Pulp Fiction is not a put-on. Tarantino gives us the great pulp theme without its attendant clichés. It’s a movie about loyalty.
What a jump forward! I can’t say I was a fan of Tarantino’s 1992 debut film, Reservoir Dogs. The movie was like a nihilistic film school exercise— a malignant gloss, perhaps, on Stanley Kubrick’s early heist picture, The Killing. I enjoyed the virtuoso cursing, the grotesque ironies, but Tarantino depended on blood and sadism so thoroughly that the genre tease lost its wit. (Being bullied by hipness is the same as being bullied by anything else.) Apart from enjoying one baroquely nasty scene between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper, I also hated True Romance, a movie that Tarantino wrote but Tony Scott directed. A commercial hack like Scott working on Tarantino’s material revealed what trash unredeemed by irony might look like. True Romance was all processed, violent thrills, with cocaine dust for glamour. Pulp Fiction isn’t nihilistic, and it certainly isn’t stupid. If the theme is loyalty, the basic dramatic unit is the couple—men and women and men and men. Two petty thieves sitting in a diner, played by Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer, skinny and intense, mated like rabbits, rise from their seats and announce a stickup. Lightweights, thrill-seeking amateurs, they pull out their guns—and the episode breaks off. That’s the beginning of the movie, and we return to them at the end, though what appears in the interim isn’t all flashback. Some of it takes place before that moment, some after. The chronology of the three stories is daringly skewed so we can see people in the midst of different yet connected actions. Call it collateral narration. What goes around comes around.
The two principal characters are hit men in black suits, white shirts, and black ties. John Travolta, overweight, puffy, with long hair falling from a knot in strands (at times, in his black suit, he looks like a Hasid), and Samuel L. Jackson, lean, curly-haired, with a mean tongue, work for a local crime boss (Ving Rhames). That morning, on the way to the job (killing yuppie punks who have taken something that belongs to their boss), the two hit men have a long conversation about a man who massaged the feet of the boss’s wife and was tossed out the window. Is massaging a woman’s feet an offense worthy of death, like adultery? The conversation goes on and on, with perfect seriousness—the two thugs could be disputatious monks in the late Middle Ages. The movie is less about crime than about what happens before and after crime—the shadows and echoes of an act rather than the act itself. Tarantino has pushed to an extreme the pleasures of pulp, which are, of course, the pleasures of sensation and cheapness, and moods of shallow, voluptuous despair. Pulp fiction, especially in its aesthetically and intellectually respectable noir forms (the books of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the movies of John Huston, Howard Hawks, Robert Siodmak, Robert Aldrich, et al.), is a disillusioned, dark-shadowed urban poetry of losers, chippies, meatball thugs. But so much has been accomplished in the noir tradition, you can’t do it straight anymore. So Tarantino works in banal daylight, on the L.A. streets, and we never do find out why the hit men kill the punks or what’s in the stolen briefcase. And what had seemed incidental—the conversation about tending the boss’s wife—turns out to be the essence of the first story.
Travolta is himself given the job of entertaining her for the evening. Witchy in dark hair, bangs, and matching ruby lips and nails, Uma Thurman’s predatory moll has the lacquered beauty of those only-in-the- movies women (Veronica Lake, Jane Greer, Gene Tierney, et al.) from the 1940s. She takes Travolta to a glowing retro-1950s restaurant that features tables placed inside long-finned cars and a headwaiter imitating Ed Sullivan—the period references dance around deliriously. Afraid of his boss (if he sleeps with the wife, he’ll die), Travolta walks on eggshells until the instant that Uma snorts heroin by mistake and the scene turns toward black comedy with moments so appalling you can’t take your eyes off the screen even as you are close to nausea.
Most of the behavior on-screen is outrageous, yet each character feels justified in what he does and engages in long tirades of rational discourse when anyone disagrees. Samuel L. Jackson’s blistering rant draws on the traditions of black street preachers and con artists; the rhetoric of insult and indignant, high-voiced hyperbole propels the language beyond Scorsese’s tough-guy repetitions into a new movie poetry—Jackson dominates the screen. The movie is not so much a set of stories as a way of life and a habit of consciousness. Tarantino may be saying that Scorsese’s kind of sincerity is no longer possible: These people know they are playing a role. Gangsters imitate movies and movies imitate gangsters in an endless chain. That situation could produce a stale, literary “postmodernist” cinema, but Pulp Fiction stays wild. The genre situations are invaded by weirdness, mess, coincidence. People talk much longer than you expect. The second story begins with a stoic Hemingwayesque loser—a boxer, played by Bruce Willis, who has been paid by the crime boss to take a dive, and who refuses to go down. Holed up in a motel room with his kittenish French girlfriend (Maria de Medeiros, who could be Maria in the sleeping bag from For Whom the Bell Tolls), Willis realizes he has to return home to retrieve a family heirloom, a watch his father once stored up his ass in a Vietnamese prison camp. A sacred treasure! What follows, as Willis runs into the angry crime boss, and they both wind up as prisoners in an S&M dungeon, is so startlingly funny—so far out yet logical—that Tarantino seems to be goosing the entire solemn history of action cinema. And the last sequence, in which the two hit men, with a dead body on their hands, require the services of a gentleman hood, the Wolf (Harvey Keitel), also seems a kind of preposterous valedictory The dead bodies must be disposed of Farewell to pulp fiction! As we return to the diner, and the two rabbity amateurs from the opening scene, the executioner played by Samuel L. Jackson movingly resigns from crime.
Tarantino has himself expressed his desire to make other kinds of movies. In the roundelay of violence and comedy that is Pulp Fiction, he has hilariously summed up an immense genre and gloriously achieved his exit from it. Life beckons from beyond the video store.
New York, October 3, 1994