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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 3 - Pulp Fiction (1994)

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Pulp Fiction (1994; Miramax)
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Ving Rhames, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer

I want to be clear here, and I do not think this is hyperbole: 1994 is one of the greatest years in the history of film.  SEVEN of my top 40 movies of the 90’s are just from 1994.  The American Film Institute released their updated list of 100 Greatest Movies in 2005, a list spanning a century of film, and there were four movies on their list from 1994.  In fact, Pulp Fiction isn’t even the last film on THIS list from that year!

Pulp Fiction is a series of interwoven stories of violence and debauchery and it is absolutely glorious.  There is no one scene that isn’t captivating.  It is a powerhouse of cool direction, a distinct and fresh look and tone, and most of all a stunning screenplay.  So, naturally, it didn’t win the Oscar in 1995, but I’ve already gone over how worthless the Academy Awards are so I won’t bother you with that again.  Instead, let’s talk about one of the greatest films of all time.

Before directing Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino made a couple other genre films including the previously-reviewed Reservoir Dogs.  Tarantino draws heavy inspiration from the classic 42nd St. Grindhouses of the 60’s and 70’s.  These theaters were known for their release of unvetted indie films, often branding the exploitation label, that for the most part remained unrated and rarely saw any release outside of these theatres until the mid-to-late 80’s.  These are the theatres that brought us the great Blaxploitation classics like Shaft and Superfly, the two of which were rare examples of great movies leaving the Grindhouse and getting a wide release (largely thanks to their hit theme songs).  We also saw a lot of graphic horror from Italian directors like Lucio Fulci and Bruno Mattei who rarely saw any form of wide distribution, even in the video market, their films mostly remaining cult classics looming in the underground horror scene.

So, what does this have to do with Pulp Fiction?  Well, this is a movie that amalgamates ideas from the various genres of the time.  The title refers to “Pulp” a largely pejorative word used to describe entertainment that is considered low-quality but is widely popular.  The movie uses directorial styles, fashions and concepts that were common in the Grindhouses, but were rarely embraced by the mainstream film industry.  This is part of what makes Pulp Fiction such an amazing film, it is a beloved, winning classic that employs and draws its inspiration from films that were almost entirely marginalized.  It’s very acclaim and success is itself a commentary on the manufactured idea of “mainstream” entertainment.

Pulp Fiction’s plot is actually a series of interconnected storylines all wrapped around a handful of jobs and the daily lives of two hitmen, Julius and Vincent (Jackson and Travolta).  They exchange memorable banter as they travel around Los Angeles, from cleaning out an apartment of misguided college kids, to taking a local crime lord’s wife (Thurmond) out for a night on the town.  Between these wrapper plot lines, we get other stories revolving around a boxer on a rough deal and a couple of crazed robbers, and that really does only scratch the surface.

The fascinating thing about the film is how everything really comes together.  We see plotlines that are, at first, complete non sequiturs, but as the film goes on, harkening back to these scenes reveals a beautifully-woven series of smaller stories forming a greater whole.  In fact, I believe (and this is speculation) a large part of why this film is so beloved is how it uses these stories to paint an involving picture that encourages audiences to see how it all comes together, creating a sort of active viewing experience.  You mind is processing the stories individually, and when it all comes together it is like an ecstatic revelation.  

There isn’t a bad performance in this movie.  Not one.  This is very rare as even the best movies have a few throwaway acting choices, but Tarantino's meticulousness pays off here.  The cast is huge and everyone has a reason to be there.  This is all supported by the screenplay and, to be honest, if this were a top 40 based on writing alone, Pulp Fiction would be number one.  This is hands down one of the greatest screenplays of all time.  It’s fast, witty and the dialogue, even from the simplest scenes, is superb.  It’s funny and has a charm and character you just don’t see in most movies, this especially goes for Oscar movies, which actually trend on the boring side (and I say this as a film snob).

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