Saturday, December 8, 2012

Pulp Fiction

PULP FICTION                      B+               
USA  (154 mi)  1994  ‘Scope  d:  Quentin Tarantino    

PULP FICTION remains Tarantino’s best film, immensely popular, currently listed #5 on Highest Rated IMDb viewer rankings and the place to start in evaluating his work, awarded the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1994, over films like Kiarostami’s final installment of his Earthquake Trilogy, THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES, Kielsowski’s THREE COLORS: RED, Atom Egoyan’s EXOTICA, or Zhang Yimou’s TO LIVE, with Clint Eastwood as the Cannes Jury President, and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, losing Best Picture to FORREST GUMP (1994) - - talk about irony.  While not sharing all the platitudes for Tarantino, finding him something of an adolescent schlockmeister who’s often more interested in provoking controversy and drawing attention to himself, since he remains attracted to super heroes thrust into lurid melodramas not far removed from a fantasy, comic book universe, creating endless dialogue about nothing in particular that some go gaga about, but really, they seem more like undeveloped sketches, especially since he tends to interrupt them midstream, jump into another lengthy dialogue sequence before resuming the story later.  That he occasionally dips into realism is no substitute, however, for the real thing, as he can’t stop himself from indulging in Hollywood kitsch pieces, losing himself in his own childlike wonder and expanding his sequences as violently or as grotesquely as he pleases, though in this film most of the violence is offscreen.  It’s unclear how serious he takes his responsibilities, as down deep, he’s just a boy that wants to have fun at the movies, constantly using movie references throughout his works as a way of communicating with his audience.  Seen as a whole, his films are not life altering, do not make you see the world any differently, and are for the most part a superficial alteration of reality.  Despite supposed subversive evidence to the contrary, Tarantino is not John Waters and instead adheres to the Harvey Weinstein method of making Hollywood films. 

Especially early in his career when he made relatively low budget movies, he both revived actors stalled careers and discovered fresh faces, while also becoming enamored with the idea of putting himself in his own movies.  While he’s hardly a groundbreaker, especially since he relishes a sense of honoring and reviving the past, he’s developed a near cult following that would beg to differ, including director Peter Bogdanovich who has called him “the single most influential director of his generation.” Between his quirky dialogue and his brilliant use of period music, he has articulated the art of cool on the set, where his energized and often youth oriented filmmaking is always distinguished by the creation of uniquely inventive sequences that many would claim are among the best they’ve seen.  Tarantino has also maintained an avid interest in hard-boiled pulp novels, like Jim Thompson and W. R. Burnett in particular, but also classic film noir, where it’s impossible not to see evidence of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) in the contents inside the briefcase Samuel L. Jackson carries around the whole movie, or traces of 40’s and 50’s hit men, but instead of faceless creatures hiding in the shadows barely uttering a word, he brings them front and center as his leading star characters.  As the title suggests, this film is filled with chapter sequences, told out of time, but all somehow pulled together by the end with the use of recurring characters. 

Tarantino pulled John Travolta out of mothballs and teamed him up with a relatively unknown at the time Samuel L. Jackson as a couple of low level hit men who are occasionally hired to do some dirty work.  Their appeal lies in their hilarious comic repartee, an explicative-laced, running dialogue between the two continually engaged in random conversation filled with pop culture references, blending comedy with violence, where they rarely shut up and instead talk their way through every situation.  Basically, these are a couple of smart asses with hair-trigger tempers carrying loaded guns and a penchant for using them.  Jackson comes off as the smarter of the two, a guy who carries around a wallet with “Bad Mother Fucker” inscribed, but the more reckless Travolta has a special charm about him that is perfectly exposed in a series of lowbrow questions asked by Uma Thurman, the boss’s wife, who is sizing him up before they go out on the town together Son of a Preacher Man from Pulp Fiction YouTube (2:01), as ordered by his drug dealing gangland boss, Ving Rhames, an enormous guy with a violent reputation who is challenging Travolta’s loyalty by dangling his attractive wife at him.  Their scenes together may be the most memorable, especially when Uma urges him to help win a twist dance contest and Travolta happily obliges Twist Contest Dance Scene (Pulp Fiction) - YouTube (3:19).  But Uma Thurman is the film noir, dark-edged, femme fatale who does not appear out of place anywhere in Tarantino films, as she perfectly fits his fantasy profile, laying the groundwork for her tough-as-nails character in the upcoming KILL BILL Pt’s I and II (2003 – 04).    

Characters are introduced, disappear, or are killed off and later return as the film's narrative structure jumps back and forth throughout, where there’s an extended sequence with Bruce Willis that doesn’t quite work because he plays the exact same one-note macho character that we see in all his other Hollywood films, playing a boxer ordered to take a dive by the same gangland boss, Ving Rhames, but instead skips town after literally killing his surprised opponent in the ring.  Out of sheer bad fortune, he meets his boss, the one guy he’s running away from, by accident on a city street, and the scene descends into a completely different moral plane, where after a mano a mano confrontation we enter a world of utter depravity, where Redneck underground sadists sodomize and torture their victims before killing them.  This entire torture porn sequence grows endlessly more gruesome and revoltingly hideous, but suggests there are layers of morality even among thieves.  At least when Travolta and Jackson return again, opening and closing the film, they retain their unpredictable gift for gab, where their time onscreen immediately uplifts the material, unexpectedly ending up in the home of Tarantino himself who uses some questionable “nigger” humor.  Samuel L. Jackson uses the word naturally and effortlessly, but out of Tarantino’s mouth it sounds repugnantly tasteless, even if he’s the guy writing all of Jackson’s dialogue. 
While he may have intended to extend black culture into a white world or character, Mark Twain already did that in Huckleberry Finn, circa 1884, and more than 100 years later it remains a controversial decision, but artistically it’s considered the accepted language of the historical era.  Not so here, where Tarantino is unfortunately suggesting that in the 1990’s in America it’s acceptable for whites to use this word onscreen in a humorous context without offensive racial ramifications.  This is an exasperatingly deluded choice, as it is now and will likely generations from now remain offensive, especially in a film layered in pop culture, where others will undoubtedly mimic or copy the same behavior and think it’s acceptable.  Spike Lee called him on it, especially with its continued and prolific use in JACKIE BROWN (1997), “I’m not against the word, and some people speak that way, but Quentin is infatuated with that word.  What does he want to be made—an honorary black man? …I want Quentin to know that all African Americans do not think that word is trendy or slick.”  So, like all Tarantino films, the writer/director tends to get carried away with his own self-indulgent crudeness, which as an artist he has every right to express, but this diminishes the maturity and overall impact of his work, where something meant to be sarcastically funny and ironic turns implosively on its ear, returning to that snarky, juvenile tone of the author.  In PULP FICTION, for the most part, it all sounds so inventively new, where Tarantino brings all these forces together, accentuated by a brilliant soundtrack and cast, where in the eyes of some it is generation defining, where PULP FICTION brings to the culture of the 90’s what Easy Rider (1969) was to the counterculture of the 60’s.

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