Friday, September 24, 2010

1994 - Pulp Fiction

This post marks the 100th film to be reviewed for Matt vs. the Academy, a milestone that took a lot longer to reach than I first expected. If nothing else, it is pleasing to know that I haven't yet thrown in the towel. So, thank you for following along as I journey through Academy history and here's to the next 100!

Yesterday, I watched a modern classic from the 1994 Best Picture shortlist...

Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino & Roger Avary
John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Maria de Madeiros, Ving Rhames, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, Bruce Willis, Quentin Tarantino
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
1 win, for Best Original Screenplay

Essentially three episodes cleverly interwoven, Pulp Fiction jumps around in its chronology as it follows a few days in the lives of some less than savoury characters. In the first episode, Vincent Vega (Travolta), a well-dressed henchman of gangster Marcellus Wallace (Rhames), spends an evening with Wallace's wife Mia (Thurman) at his request. Vega is supposed to entertain her while Wallace is out of town, but her narcotic habit causes a few issues when she carelessly snorts some heroin. Episode two sees boxer Butch Coolidge (Willis) on the run after winning a fight in which Wallace had paid him to take a dive. He meets his girlfriend Fabienne (de Medeiros) in a motel, but is later forced to return to his apartment at great risk to fetch a forgotten family heirloom. Vega returns in the final episode with partner Jules Winnfield (Jackson), who vows to retire from his life of crime after the two miraculously survive a barrage of bullets from an unfriendly shooter. Before he gets the chance, though, Vega accidentally shoots their informant in the face while they are driving away. They hide the car in the garage of a friend (Tarantino) while waiting for assistance from the Wolf (Keitel), a clean-up expert.

A cult classic, Pulp Fiction features Tarantino's signature conversational dialogue. The conversations are often irrelevant to the plot and some lengthy scenes are unnecessarily wordy, but it's all so downright entertaining. And it's entertaining for different reasons at different times. Sometimes, it's gripping as when Jules intimidates his prey by babbling about tasty burgers. Other times, it's endearing as Mia and Vincent flirt over dinner. But mostly, it's just plain funny. (Do I even need to mention the discussion about the names of French McDonald's burgers?) Besides, this loquaciousness is not at the expense of the action. In fact, a great deal of Butch's story is told visually and there are plenty of tension-filled moments throughout.

Being a Tarantino film, you can also expect some eclectic music. Devoid of orchestral underscoring, the Pulp Fiction soundtrack is replete with provocative tunes, each perfectly appropriate in its placement. Most of the songs were once obscure but, thanks to the success of the film, they are now pleasingly familiar. The mood of the picture is set almost immediately when the sounds of Dick Dale's Miserlou warble over the opening credits.

Pulp Fiction sports another superb cast. John Travolta's (pictured) career was given a new direction after a smooth performance as the simple and nonchalant Vincent Vega, earning him a Best Actor nomination. In the supporting categories, Samuel L. Jackson received a much-deserved nod for his steely-eyed portrayal of the no-nonsense Jules, as did Uma Thurman for her alluring turn as the boss's wife. The great Christopher Walken appears in just one scene delivering a monologue that is intensely moving before suddenly turning absurd, the perfect vehicle for Walken. D-lister Kathy Griffin shows up in a very minor role as a passerby and is curiously credited as "Herself".

Now, if you'll indulge me for just one second, I'll relate my dubious connection to the film. Susan Griffiths, one of the world's foremost Marilyn Monroe impersonators, appears as the sultry star in Pulp Fiction's diner scene. About a year prior to the film's release, she was flown to Australia to star in a McDonald's commercial in which yours truly was an extra. To my great surprise, a Youtube search produced a fuzzy version of the spot, which is missing the first ten seconds or so. Rather unfortunately, it is these first few seconds that I could be seen. Still, I think one of those blurry bodies walking behind her is me. Just squint and imagine a younger version of me with more hair.


  1. wow, I've actually seen Pulp Fiction just once, and not in the last... 8-10 years maybe. I was never really tempeted to go back to it because, while i find it to be cool, I don't think of it as one of the best films ever.

  2. Gday Matt

    As it turns out, I just rewatched Pulp Fiction the other week. It's great stuff.

    I actually enjoy the contrast between the highly dramatic scenes and the long pauses of quiet, jokey dialog.

    It's a pattern that Tarantino continued in movies like Inglorious Basterds where you have a few intense scenes, interspersed with leisurely conversations.

    Brilliant stuff.

    Congrats on reaching 100 films, by the way. A great achievement.


  3. Quentin Tarantino took film noir beyond neo and into postmodern. It's a place where hit men become folk heroes and can die in the second act and come back in the third. It's as if Janet Leigh came back for the finale in Psycho. He's the rare example of a movie buff with pop culture sensibilities, an ear for dialogue and a fearlessness with film structure that changed the face of film. I think what he accomplished with Pulp Fiction is in many ways as innovative as Welles's feat with Citizen Kane.

    That's not to say that I feel it is flawless. For all its audaciousness, it is ultimately a pointless guilty pleasure. Tarantino's writing sometimes misses the mark. I think his greatest disservice in Pulp Fiction was the dialogue he give his own character. His other characters all shine however. I was particularly taken with Travolta's mixture of humor, cold-bloodedness and buffoonery as Vincent Vega. He deserved all the comeback kudos he received.

    For many obvious reasons, this one will certainly contend for best of the year honors from me, although I'd add that it isn't necessarily a slam dunk.
    Sorry I couldn't make you out in that video, Matt. So, what do you call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese down under?

  4. It's called a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. As a kid, I remember not understanding why on earth it was called that.

    I guess an Eighth Kilogrammer doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

  5. Just a note on the passing of Sally Menke in Los Angeles. She was Quentin Tarantino's editor and received nominations for Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds. She never returned from a hike she made yesterday, and her body was discovered this morning. It is believed that the record breaking heat wave yesterday may have contributed to her death.