There are movies and then there are forces of pop culture nature. Pulp Fiction is just such a film. While so much before influenced it, nothing after would ever be the same. In its wake, so many films tried to xerox its non-linear narrative, ultraviolence and wildly veering plot points. Pretty much not a single one of them is halfway decent by comparison.
Tarantino took some scenes that Roger Avery intended for True Romance and decided that none of the film would appear in true order. For many, it was the first film they had ever watched that had monologues and conversations that were at the same time about everything and nothing all at once. While TriStar Pictures turned down the film, it became the first movie that Miramax would fully finance.
Why would TriStar not want to make this film, particularly after Tarantino had become so big after Reservoir Dogs? Roger Avary said that the studio had issues with nearly every part of the movie, as they basically said, “This is the worst thing ever written. It makes no sense. Someone’s dead and then they’re alive. It’s too long, violent and unfilmable.”
I wonder how the person that said that felt after Pulp Fiction was voted as the winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for seven Oscars. Obviously, this film was also a commercial success, remaking the career of John Travolta and causing people to take notice of the acting skills of Uma Thurman and Samuel Jackson.
There’s a moment in this film that determines whether or not you like and understand Tarantino. Before they enter Jack Rabbit Slim’s, Mia Wallace (Thurman) asks if Vincent Vega (Travolta) is square and she illustrates that point with her fingers. Suddenly, the movie becomes animated and dashed lines illustrate her point and realism fades away. In this small moment, you either think that this is the dumbest thing you’ve ever seen, totally pretentious or completely and utterly awesome. I fall into the latter category and began cheering the moment it happened on screen.
Pulp Fiction begins with a diner being held up by Ringo (Tim Roth, who was in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs) and Yolanda (Amanda Plummer, So I Married an Axe Murderer) before we move into Jules Winnfield (Jackson) and Vega (Travolta, in a role originally intended for Michael Madsen, who had played the other Vega brother, Mr. Blonde, in Reservoir Dogs) taking a briefcase back for their boss Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames, Con Air), after a long discussion of what McDonald’s calls their food in Europe.
What’s in that briefcase? All that we learn is that the lock for it is 666, but it’s a MacGuffin — a term invented by English screenwriter Angus MacPhail and popularized by Alfred Hitchcock. The case was originally going to have diamonds in it, but that’s kind of boring. Instead, it opens to have a strange glow. Tarantino has been very coy about what it really is, even doing an interview with his friend Robert Rodriguez where they cut out the real answer before his fellow Grindhouse director says that the knowledge of what is really in the case radically changed how he saw the film.
There are plenty of theories of what’s really in that case. If we extrapolate that Tarantino was influenced by Kiss Me Deadly, then it’s a nuclear device. It’s been compared to the trunk in Repo Man. And an internet rumor began that it’s really Marcellus Wallace’s soul as evidenced by the band-aid on the back of his neck which is supposedly where the Egyptians believed the soul resided.
The two bring the briefcase to their boss, Marsellus, but first, he bribes Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) to do the job in his next match. Then, the boss goes out of town but asks Vega to show his wife a nice time. How nice of a time? After all, he threw a man out a window just for giving her a foot massage.
About feet — this is the movie where Tarantino reveals his foot fetish. I’m not being rude or sly; it’s 100% obvious upon watching the film.
Before the date, Vega buys heroin from Lance (Eric Stoltz), who is out of balloons, so he puts it in a baggie. This will be important after the date of dinner and dancing at the aforementioned 1950’s pop culture diner Jack Rabbit Slim’s. Their dance scene here — taken almost move from move from Fellini’s 8 1/2 scene where Barbara Steele dances with Mario Pisu — is more than just a simple physical scene. For a moment in time, it freezes reality and makes us think back to why we love Travolta the actor and not just Vincent the character that he is portraying. When we see him, we don’t just see every role that he has ever played. We are fixated on the role that we first fell in love with, Tony Manero from Saturday Night Fever, bringing back fond thoughts of what it was like when to see the actor on the dance floor.
Vega is obviously enamored of Mia and feels that things could feel the same with her, so he plans on simply leaving. However, she snorts the heroin — thinking it’s coke — and nearly dies. It takes a needle of adrenaline right to her heart to fix things, as much as they can be fixed.
While all this is going on, Butch wins the fight and kills his opponent. As he escapes in a taxi, its driver (Pittsburgh native Angela Jones, who graduated from the same college that I did, Point Park, and would go on to play the same character in the film Curdled, as well as date Slash) asks him what it’s like to kill a man.
Butch has told his girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros, who was Anais Nin in Henry and June) to get everything ready to run away, but she forgot his gold watch, which we learn his father smuggled in a very uncomfortable place, along with Captain Koons (Christopher Walken), who tells him the story of the watch in a flashback. Butch must go back home, where he encounters Vega reading Modesty Blaise on the toilet. One barrage of bullets later and he’s on the run, but when Marcellus Wallace crosses his path, he decides to hit him with his car.
Both injured, Marcellus begins shooting at Butch, who runs into a pawnshop. Maynard (Duane Whitaker, one of the racist cops in Tales From the Hood), the owner, ends up taking both by gunpoint and ties them up in a room where his partner Zed (Peter Greene, who was in The Mask) takes Marcellus from behind while the gimp (Stephen Hibbert, who was married to Julia Sweeney at the time, who also shows up briefly as the daughter of Monster Joe; Joe was going to be played by Dick Miller, but that scene was cut) watches over Butch.
Butch overpowers the man in the bondage suit and decided to go back and save his enemy, using a sword to kill Maynard while Marcellus grabs a shotgun and shoots Zed, wounding him just enough so that he can call some of his worst men to get revenge. They agree that Butch can leave, but can never come back to Los Angeles. He grabs Zed’s bike, gets his girl — who really has caused so much of this mess because she acts like a child — and gets out of town.
Why does Butch save the man who made his life hell? Because in Tarantino’s mashup universe, protagonists live in the symbolic universe of the Japanese samurai, where honor is more important than anything. Leaving Marcellus to have his manhood further destroyed and then killed isn’t the death that a warrior deserves. It’s no accident that of the weapons offered, which also include a hammer, a chainsaw and a bat, he takes the sword.
Back in time, as they get the briefcase, Jules and Vincent surviving an attack at Brett’s apartment when a man somehow misses them every single time. They argue over whether this was a miracle or not, which leads to Vincent accidentally shooting Marvin (Phil LaMarr, the voice of Green Lantern John Stewart on the Justice League cartoons). They decide to visit Jules’ friend Jimmie (Tarantino), who is stressed about his wife coming home from work. That means that the cleaner, Winston Wolfe (Harvey Keitel), must come and do his work by disposing of the evidence.
That issue dealt with, the dup come back to the diner at the beginning of the film. Jules decides that he’s going to retire and walk the earth like Kane from Kung Fu, which Vincent finds ridiculous. As he goes to the bathroom, the couple we met earlier start to rob the place. Vincent returns and this leads to a Mexican standoff, but Jules successfully uses his newfound love of peace to diffuse the situation and everyone leaves alive.
The Bible passage that Jules quotes isn’t exactly from the Good Book. It’s more paraphrased and also harkens back to the lessons that Sonny Chiba would deliver before vanquishing evil in his films.
Pulp Fiction got its start as a trilogy that would be written by Avery and Tarantino, but would also have a third director. It was inspired by Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, which is another portmanteau film. Tarantino’s original story, Black Mask, ended up becoming Reservoir Dogs. Avery’s story Pandemonium Reigns is the gold watch story within this film.
There’s no score to the film, but instead a pastiche of near underground American music. There’s a ton of surf rock in this film, as Tarantino felt that it sounded like the themes of Italian spaghetti westerns.
This is also the beginning of the incredibly self-referential universe of Tarantino films. Vincent Vega and Mr. Blonde being brothers, Red Apple cigarettes and Big Kahuna burgers show up in many of his films and Mia Wallace’s TV pilot Fox Force Five is either a tease for Kill Bill or places that film as a fictionalized part of an overall narrative. For kids that grew up reading comic books or loving when TV shows crossed over, this would become an entirely new obsession. Throw in the fact that this movie references every movie that came before it and you get the reason why we’re devoting an entire week to these films.
Pulp Fiction is 25 years old this year. It doesn’t feel that way. It achieves that rarest of movie dreams — utter timelessness.