Pulp Fiction, one of the most audacious, intense, electrifying, and unpredictable films ever made just celebrated its 20th Anniversary.
For sure, the film remains one of the wildest rides ever committed to celluloid, an absolute passion project and one that looks as if it was done with great ease by latter-day maverick director Quentin Tarantino (who also scripted the film with Roger Avary, both winning an Oscar for their work), and it’s a film of unconscious narrative, which has a road as slick and wet as driving in a hurricane down a slippery slope, and brimming with spontaneous abandon.
Tarantino, at the time, was fresh off of his bouquets riddled with bullets all around with heavy laurels for his jarring debut, the testosterone on high Reservoir Dogs. But even though that picture was extremely original, fresh, and evocative, even in a genre that had already done diamond capers and tough guys banging heads in the metaphoric schoolyard, nobody was prepared for the kind of scope and vision Tarantino had with Pulp Fiction.
Stories and narrative intertwine with exposition and set pieces that at first glance seem uneven in tone, and that may be the point, as each chapter, or sequence if you will, has its own kind of bottled visual and verbal energy to them. The common thread is that it’s a tale of low life; it’s not a peering in, but more like the audience member is grabbed by the back of the neck and thrust right into the action on screen, as B-level gangsters, hoodlums, junkies, sexual deviants, misfits, and the underworld all collide into a patchwork bloodstained quilt of story and action. As is Tarantino’s wont and now his personal folklore style, it’s the unpredictability which usually leads to an intensity, more than not portrayed in the manifestation of violence, that time and time again happens in all of his pictures, Pulp Fiction notwithstanding.
The beauty of the film is in so many layers the mostly ’70s music soundtrack, which had its origins in Reservoir Dogs but sears through blisteringly in Pulp Fiction. Be it the explosive funk of Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” that opens the picture, to the kind of gauzy, pathetic quality of Uma Thurman dancing to Urge Overkill’s cover of Neil Diamond’s “Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon,” to Al Green crooning “Let’s Stay Together” when Ving Rhames’ Marcellus Wallace charmingly yet frightfully gives broken down three-dimensional pug ex-boxer Bruce Willis no choice but to take dives for a short end of the money. And there are plenty more.
Everything has a sort of sealed in its moment kind of detailed energy to it, and it’s brimming with little details, like the unexpected hair of John Travolta’s Vincent Vega, to the equally bizarre and opposite end of the spectrum Jheri-curled sinister snarls of Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules to Big Kahuna Burgers which get washed down with Sprite, to fetishes for blueberry pancakes when a prized watch is at stake via a dangerous situation, to the close up of the pop tarts which makes the viewer jump out of their seat, to so much more. So many sequences and scenes, it’s impossible to mention here in one article — or ten, or thirty.
Then there’s the dialogue, which could fill up a quote book the size of the Britannica Encyclopedia. And last but not least, which in a way is the most dazzling of all, is the way Tarantino plays with linear narrative structure; the last scene is near the middle of the film, which itself is book ended by the opening and closing diner sequence which sort of makes the whole story cyclical and with a whiplash sense of closure. It’s that kind of craft that put Tarantino over the top during a Hollywood of the 1990s that still was sort of in its own funk, a cinematic black hole of sorts, which sort of was in a flux at the time, save for the films Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese were doing (Do the Right Thing, Goodfellas).
Pulp Fiction was like the ice bucket on the skin; it kind of jolted the entire community and filmgoers. It made it fun to be unabashed at the movies again, to be uncensored and not giving a fuck what anyone on screen or off thought about it. It lives, breathes, and pulses by its own absolute volition. And that was part of the film’s charm wholeheartedly, that it seemed not to wink at the audience, but be side-by-side with them giving the middle finger, to convention, establishment, and cinematic set-in-stone ways. It was like shaking an etch-a-sketch with a machete.
Ultimately, it’s why Pulp Fiction remains and always will remain one of the classics of the 20th Century and beyond.