Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Three


#3 — Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
Before he was a brand, Quention Tarantino was just a filmmaker, and when Pulp Fiction arrived in 1994 he still had the capacity to surprise. It was only his second movie, after all. Certainly his fine debut Reservoir Dogs was distinctive and stylish enough that it created some expectations for is follow-up. And then there was the unexpected approbation of the film winning the the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the fourth American film to snare the honor in a six-year span. So it was hardly some anonymous feature that completely snuck up on people, but it arrived with expectations rather than preconceptions.

Pulp Fiction is a vividly alive pop culture gem, an exuberant blast through everything that movies can do with Tarantino exploring all the shifting facets of his complex towering puzzle like an excited dog racing through his new home, sniffing every corner. He directs like a guy who thought he’d never be given a big fancy movie camera, and is so, so certain that someone’s going to rip it out of hands forever at any minute. He shoves in every influence he soaked up at that Manhattan Beach video store that famously served as his self-administered film school, but manages to keep the finished product from feeling derivative. It’s the complete opposite, in fact. It’s a delirious, exuberant celebration of film itself and the endless possibilities it holds when a band of sharp-tongued, colorful characters are set interacting with one another like tricked out bumper cars. Tarantino tells his story with rigor and respect from the useful confines of narrative norms wile managing to play around just enough to keep the film devilishly off-kilter. It had the feel of a careening vehicle that go anywhere at any moment with the wheels often liberated from the pavement in such a way that defying gravity itself seemed as plausible as could be. Sometimes the correct answer to the question of whether or not a samurai sword should be inserted into a scene is a plainspoken “Why the hell not?”

Generally though, plain speaking is not the approach the film takes. Tarantino and his screenwriter collaborator Roger Avary create a symphony of the verbally ingenious and profane. If the film noir classics contain dialogue that sounds like the way people should talk, then Pulp Fiction is populated by characters who’ve taken that wish as a personal directive and then manifesto. Scene after scene is filled with inspired exchanges of tough, sharp dialogue. Unlike many of the films that followed in Pulp Fiction‘s wake, desperately trying to evoke it’s style and crispness (including, it should be noted, a couple of offerings from Tarantino himself), this grand cascade of language isn’t delivered at the expense of character. Even though the dialogue is all recognizably crafted by the same pen, everyone on screen speaks with their own distinct voices.

The acting helps that along, of course, and Tarantino pulls pure acting genius out of his accomplished cast, many who’ve rarely topped their work here. John Travolta finally achieved his comeback-for-life with his turn as hitman Vincent Vega, especially working the character’s edge of impatience and expertly showing how a trip to his dealer could dull it down nicely. He’s matched beautifully with a partner played by Samuel L. Jackson, easily imparting intimidation to make the fearsome concept of furious anger fully knowable. The remainder of the cast is equally exceptional, from seasoned hands like Christopher Walken, Tim Roth and Harvey Keitel who come across like born residents of Tarantino country, to the smallest bit players. With very little prompting, I can come with a few hundred pointed words about the usual shortcomings of Eric Stoltz’s acting, but damned if he isn’t note perfect in his couple of scenes as Vincent’s dealer Lance.

Pulp Fiction is built with an unique command of the medium, a desire to master it while in the process of learning it. The images are framed with great creativity and respect for the need to convey information, the cinematography is sharp and evocative, the editing is brisk without being clumsy or overly anxious. It looks great and arguably sounds even better. Tarantino builds up a fully formed world and then clearly relishes playing within it. Pulp Fiction represents one of the clearest instances of loving movies inspiring a whole new flush of affection for anyone who witnesses it with the same openness that its filmmakers had in the first place. Every fresh joy Tarantino felt upon making some discovery in that old video store is translated, repurposed and presented anew in his film. The movie is his own racing heartbeat, keeping time with a dark Dick Dale surf rock song.

3 thoughts on “Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Three

  1. seeing this film was like the first time I heard punk rock…something so NEW that with little effort pointed the way to it’s own amazing and important influences…containing both a high-mindedness of serious desire to appropriate and join the cannon while also displaying an adolescent need to destroy it…

    1. Great analogy. And, like punk, the mad rush of imitators eventually destroyed the formula through repetition and watering it down.

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