The Simpsons Decade: Pulp Fiction
I was recently flown out to Los Angeles to be a talking head for a Vice TV show about stoner movies. We taped in what appeared to be one of the last functioning video stores in the nation. As a longtime video store clerk in the early nineties, it brought back a flood of memories. Every impossibly lurid video box of an erotic thriller induced the film-world equivalent of a Proustian reverie. I was instantly transported back in time to an age when videos were everything to me, and school was just some nonsense I had to get through till I could start my shift at Blockbuster Video.
I was asked about the first time I smoked pot. It was easy to remember that milestone because the first night I smoked pot I also lost my virginity, got a girl pregnant and watched Pulp Fiction. The only reason I would not count watching Pulp Fiction as equally important to the evening’s other momentous firsts is because I fuzzily remember having seen Pulp Fiction three or four times already by that point.
When I re-watched Pulp Fiction that fateful night of terrible, terrible mistakes I had been a video store clerk for three years, both because it was the only kind of job I could secure and because I worshipped Quentin Tarantino to the extent that I could conceive of no cooler job (outside of filmmaking of course) than video store clerk, Tarantino’s profession before making the big, inevitable leap to auteur.
I was such an obnoxious baby cinephile at the time that I distinctly remember my first response to Pulp Fiction was that it did not entirely realize the potential of Resevoir Dogs, which I solemnly deemed the superior film, nor did it justify the enormous hype greeting its zeitgeist-shaking, culture-transforming release.
I was a teenager so I was of course wrong. Yet it seems fitting that the movie was so important to my own story, because Pulp Fiction posits that the world is not made up of atoms or molecules or clashing ideologies so much as it is made out of stories. Like previous Simpsons Generation subject Goodfellas, with which it shares a great deal, Pulp Fiction is both a tribute to storytelling in its micro and macro forms, and a movie overflowing with characters telling stories, minor and major, life-changing or barely of interest even to the person telling them.
Also like Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction depicts life on the other side of the law largely as a matter of killing people, disposing of the bodies of the people you’ve killed, and telling funny stories to your underworld cohorts about the humorously macabre incidents involved in disposing of those bodies. Like Goodfellas, Tarantino’s iconic smash derives an astonishing amount of comic mileage out of the wacky afterlife of its many corpses, who only wish they were afforded the posthumous dignity of Terry Kiser’s character from Weekend at Bernie’s. Forget slapstick, this is more like splatter-stick.
The movie opens on a very Tarantino note, with lovers Pumpkin (Tim Roth, returning from Resevoir Dogs) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) discussing the nature of their curious profession. Pumpkin is mounting an argument on why they should rob the restaurant they’re in, and consider such outside-the-box ideas for robberies in the future, but Pumpkin is also telling Honey Bunny stories, stories about how the world works, stories about right and wrong, and stories about who makes out like bandits in this rigged game of life and who ends up getting screwed.
What follows is even more prototypically Tarantino: these lovely young people whip out giant guns, and angrily, profanely demand that everyone in the restaurant give them their money.
We return to Pumpkin and Honey Bunny and the restaurant robbery much later in the film but before Roth and Plummer reappear climactically, the movie scrambles time and chronology in ingenious ways whose aftereffects are still being felt, but were particularly in evidence in the film’s immediate aftermath, when jumbled chronologies quick went from being a clever innovation to a groaning cliche.
Pulp Fiction is the kind of movie where a central character is brutally gunned down in what feels like a strangely throwaway moment, yet who, through the magic of editing and non-chronological storytelling, nevertheless plays a central role in the film’s third act, even making it to the end of the film alive, if you’re willing, of course, to forget about his earlier onscreen death.
Pulp Fiction is the most 1994 film in existence even if much of it seems to take place in a time-warp version of Los Angeles where nothing has changed since 1976. Along with the Beastie Boys and their prankish collaborator Spike Jonze, Tarantino changed the way pop culture saw the 1970s with Pulp Fiction. He made the 1970s dark and gritty and lurid, less Donnie and Marie disco cheese and more Son of Sam and the Zodiac Killer.
Tarantino’s 1970s by way of 1994 is all about sex, drugs, Hollywood, music and blaxploitation, as well as the profane, transgressive vocabulary that goes along with it. Tarantino’s seventies obsession extends to giving the lead role of Vincent Vega, heroin-addicted career criminal and all-around fun guy, to a genuine relic of the Carter era in John Travolta, whose career had dead-ended to the point where the only vehicles he could get theatrically released around this time were the Look Who’s Talking trilogy, and in those he played second fiddle first to a talking baby (voiced by his Pulp Fiction costar Bruce Willis, uninterestingly enough) and then other babies and finally talking dogs.
Pulp Fiction brings back the Travolta of the 1970s, but it’s the dark, brooding, angry, New Hollywood Travolta of Carrie and Saturday Night Fever rather than the smiling, wholesome Travolta of Welcome Back, Kotter and Grease. Vincent murders without remorse and feels similarly non-conflicted about his heroin addiction. Even more disturbingly, in terms of the film’s worldview, Vincent does not watch TV, which may define him as much as being a heroin addict and killer does.
Vincent is fairly unique amongst the film’s characters in purposefully abstaining from watching the boob tube. A television set lingers in the background of many scenes, like when a young Butch (the boxer character who will grow up to be Bruce Willis) is watching Clutch Cargo and his previously scheduled entertainment is interrupted by a soldier colleague of his father giving young Butch a very narratively important watch along with the unlikely and just plain gross of this watch’s astonishing and stomach-churning tale of survival. Pulp Fiction is devoted to storytelling in all its forms, from religion to sociology to TV to film, but it’s seldom more straight-forward in its devotion to storytelling than when it brings out one of the greatest actors and icons in all of film just to tell a particularly disgusting, absurd, ridiculous anecdote delivered with a stone-faced gravity that makes it even funnier.
When people in Pulp Fiction aren’t telling endless stories or getting high, they’re passively watching television or talking about television.
Uma Thurman, who plays Mia Wallace, the ex-actress kept woman of terrifying mobster Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), has a great monologue about, what else, a Charlie’s Angels-like female action series called Fox Force 5 that never quite made it to the pilot stage but nevertheless provided her with her greatest story, and in this world great stories are worth more than any role, no matter how cheesy and ridiculous.
The movie pairs a resurgent Travolta with an ascendant Samuel L. Jackson in his career-making role as Jules, a contract killer with a suspiciously bottomless curiosity about how the world works who likes to “recite” terrifyingly vivid Old Testament passages with the wild-eyed conviction and intensity of an unhinged cult leader before sending his victims to meet their maker.
There’s a rich, funky musicality to the dialogue and acting in Pulp Fiction, a profane staccato rhythm interrupted by long stretches where its charismatic deviants banter and bicker and flirt and goof around like outsiders on the fringes in the moody character studies of the French New Wave or the gritty dramas and comedies of Hollywood’s 1970s.
Within the cosmology of Pulp Fiction, the Bible is the source of Judeo-Christian morality and the moral backbone of our society, but perhaps more importantly it’s a collection of stories, not unlike Pulp Fiction. It’s a book that contains wisdom and helps Jules renounce his wicked ways and follow a righteous path, perhaps saving his life, as well as his soul, in the process. Then again, the 1970s television series Kung Fu serves a similar, possibly equal role in giving Jules the tools to lead a moral life. I’m not sure Jules, or Tarantino, consider The Bible a greater text than Kung Fu, just as I’m not sure Tarantino considers God a better storyteller than whoever created Kung Fu (Bruce Lee, unofficially, who is, in fact, like God only better and cooler).
On one level, Jules’ “moment of clarity” is treated with tongue-in-cheek irreverence. After all, when people experience bona fide spiritual revelations (like the alcoholic’s “moment of clarity” Jules references in regard to his own moment of truth), they generally do not compare them to half-remembered martial arts television shows from the 1970s starring future Kill Bill villain David Carradine.
On another level, Jules’ spiritual transformation feels weirdly sincere. Pulp Fiction embodies Generation X’s sneering irony, default cynicism and disillusionment, pitch-black humor, casual transgression and pathological obsession with the pop culture of its youth, particularly as it relates to television, music and film. Yet there’s a scruffy, underlying morality underneath the hiply nihilistic veneer.
This is a movie about criminals, low-lifes, junkies, robbers and killers. It’s about people who break laws for a living, as well as for fun, whose crimes and identities are inextricably intertwined yet who nevertheless abide by a moral code of their own devising that has everything to do with loyalty and devotion and honoring the past and nothing to do with the actual laws of our country.
Tarantino doesn’t just come close to depicting heroin addiction in a glamorous and sexy and disconcertingly appealing light: in the languid, seductive sequences where Vincent shoots up and immediately seems to experience an almost unimaginable level of ecstasy, he flat out makes heroin seem cool.
Yet the heroin chic of Vincent’s dangerous bliss is undercut by the purposefully jarring moment when Mia accidentally snorts Vincent’s unusually pure heroin and just as instantly devolves from a cinephile wet dream, a Clinton-era femme fatale half Anna Karina, half Mata Hari, into a comatose, graceless, ugly mass of meat and blood and snot and bone.
Pulp Fiction is a story about stories but it’s also about the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. When Jules and Vincent, for example, walk away uninjured after getting shot at repeatedly at close range, Jules sees the incident in narrative terms, as conclusive proof that God had saved him from certain death for a specific purpose that he must now honor. Vincent sees only the random dictates of fate and some astonishingly poor marksmanship in their theoretically miraculous survival. He is not a man of faith, and perhaps not coincidentally, he is not saved by Tarantino, the movie’s angry yet benevolent Old Testament deity.
Pulp Fiction defined dark comedy in the 1990s as much as The Simpsons did television satire. Tarantino’s valentine to pop culture and Los Angeles and film and the 1970s and John Travolta and the thundering cadences of Samuel. L Jackson has consequently gone on to become a seminal piece of American pop-culture. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the history of American crime films can be divided neatly into two eras: pre and post Pulp Fiction. This story about stories has itself become a story we as a culture never tire of.
Pulp Fiction helped make pop-culture references and gleeful, giddy post-modernism both popular and populist. So it seems all too fitting that just about every element of the movie has been strip-mined by an army of admirers and imitators, some brilliant (Boogie Nights, Get Shorty) but most absolutely dire.
For the most part, filmmakers learned the wrong lessons from Pulp Fiction. The Troy Duffys of the world gravitated to the seamy, seemingly easily replicable aspects of Tarantino’s masterpiece, luxuriating in violence and profanity and smartass attitude while missing the soul and wit and sophistication completely.
So it’s weirdly perfect that the internet, as is its wont, has re-purposed Pulp Fiction partially as a series of Gifs, most notably of Travolta’s Vincent Vega lurching around looking confused, an indelible image in part because it seems to comment on the confusion and helplessness that has characterize the last decade or so of the increasingly unfortunate actor’s once-storied career. This weirdly self-conscious moment has been de-contextualized and smuggled into a dizzyingly wide-ranging series of unlikely scenarios, becoming one of the most popular memes on the internet and a weirdly perfect post-script to Tarantino’s generation-defining masterpiece.
This cheeky re-contexualization seems perfectly in line with Tarantino’s aesthetic and Pulp Fiction, which isn’t just an unusually beloved and influential pop culture milestone so much as it’s pop culture personified, then, now and always.
Join a nice community, get access to patron-only content and be a mensch over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace