Pulp Fiction brought guns, gimps, and glory to the Cannes Film Festival

Pulp Fiction brought guns, gimps, and glory to the Cannes Film Festival

Palme Thursday is A.A. Dowd’s monthly examination of a winner of the Palme D’Or, determining how well the film has held up and whether it deserved the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Film festivals are a blast, but they’re also gauntlets—the cinematic equivalent of participating in an haute cuisine eating contest. After a week or more of consuming nothing but “important,” challenging, and methodically paced art cinema, even the most adventurous viewers may find themselves craving a greasy palate cleanser. That’s probably why energetic genre movies sometimes go over better than expected in a festival setting: Critics, lulled by an endless stream of static long takes and miserablism, sit up in their seats when confronted with something genuinely, unapologetically entertaining. Recent recipients of this thank-God-a-little-fun bump include the blissfully cool Drive and this year’s Argentinian omnibus comedy Wild Tales, which had the good luck of premiering immediately after the butt-numbing Winter Sleep at Cannes.

Wild Tales, incidentally, would make a fine alternate title for the surprise Palme D’Or winner of 1994, whose victory is proof that festival juries aren’t immune to the exciting-by-contrast phenomenon. To hear most of that year’s attending press tell it, the frontrunner was Red, the final installment in Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy. And so when the film failed to win any of the other major prizes, many assumed that jury president Clint Eastwood—slowly enunciating each syllable for suspense—was going to announce what everyone had guessed. Instead, this happened:

Pulp Fiction hit Cannes like a hypodermic needle to the heart. Premiering late into the festival, at an early morning screening two days before it won top honors, the film created an instant flood of opinion—critics spilling their impressions through talk and ink, the din of conversation scarcely decreasing in the five months time it took for Pulp to open in American theaters. There were dissenting voices, some louder even than that of the heckling attendee (“It’s a scandal!”) at the Cannes awards ceremony. But for the most part, everyone seemed to agree that this chatty and casually violent crime film was something special, an instant turning point in American independent cinema.

By now, the story of Pulp Fiction, and its legacy as one of the most talked-about movies of the ’90s (and possibly ever), has been told to death. Grossing more than $100 million at the U.S. box office, the film made a star out of its maker, the 31-year-old former video-store clerk Quentin Tarantino, and major players out of its producers, Miramax’s bullish Weinstein brothers. It revitalized the sagging career of John Travolta, proved Bruce Willis could act as well as smirk, and ignited new debates about how much violence was too much violence. It also inspired a seemingly endless wave of imitators, those mostly witless wise-guy flicks that started growing like weeds out of the crater created by its impact.

Those who hate Pulp Fiction today tend to cite its negative influence on the industry, the way it turned the indie film scene into a long conveyor belt of flashy, vulgar male fantasies. (Without Pulp, there could be no Boondock Saints, to name just one execrable graduate of the QT school.) What the haters tend to forget is how fresh, how vibrantly new, the movie looked upon arrival, even to those who recognized the obscure (and not so obscure) exploitation classics Tarantino was referencing. Pulp Fiction wasn’t just a cherry bomb lobbed into the prestige parade of Cannes. As Gene Siskel pointed out in a 1995 TV special entitled “The Tarantino Generation,” it was also a magnifying glass thrown over the failings of other American genre films. To watch it was to realize how dully functional modern cinematic dialogue often was, and what stiff and lifeless archetypes most crime-picture characters were.

Full disclosure: Throughout most of my teenage years, Pulp Fiction was my favorite movie. More than that, it was the movie that made me fall deeply and hopelessly in love with movies. Nothing I had seen before it—and little of what I saw after it, at least for a while—so thoroughly exploded my conception of what cinema could do or be. I didn’t know it at the time, but Pulp was my first flirtation with auteurism. What I was responding to so strongly wasn’t just the black-comic flavor of the movie—its style and bracing violence, its rock-’n’-roll swagger—but the intangible presence of a personality, the sense of someone calling the shots just beyond the frame-line. Because Tarantino is such a ravenous one-man recycling center, Pulp Fiction also doubled as a gateway drug into other movies, other movements, other genres. (I discovered Jean-Luc Godard, for example, through Tarantino.) Years later, I was foolishly amazed at how many of my cinephile friends also got into the medium through Pulp. The film kicked open a lot of doors for movie lovers of my generation.

Returning to Pulp Fiction, 20 years after its premiere and several since I last watched it, I’m struck by how lively and irresistible it remains, the succession of cheap knockoffs doing little to diminish its pleasures. Interweaving three stories of miscreant misadventure, the film is best enjoyed as a series of crackerjack set pieces, strung together by the pretzel-shaped plot. (Tarantino has been called a “rock-star filmmaker,” which makes some sense, as he organizes his movies like great rock albums.) Here are two hired guns, Vincent (Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson, in the best motherfucking performance of his motherfucking career), shooting the shit en route to a nasty assignment, Tarantino delaying the medieval comeuppance for a small, agonizing eternity. There’s Christopher Walken, applying his distinctive, oft-imitated accent to a fantastic monologue with a killer punchline. And what about the final diner showdown, when the movie comes full circle, ending where it began but not where the plot begins (or ends)?

About that jumbled timeline: Two decades on, the nonlinear approach no longer seems novel, mostly because countless other movies have shuffled their scene order like a deck of cards. (Doug Liman’s Go, to name just one example, begins and ends at the same place—a diner, no less!) But Tarantino does the temporal twist better than most. He had already toyed with chronology in his previous film, Reservoir Dogs, which employed a flashback structure to dive into the backstory of its criminal characters. Pulp is at once more playful and more confident in its knotty narrative architecture; it pays off small mysteries, like why Jules and Vincent come in for work one day dressed like yuppie slackers. Furthermore, telling the story out of order allows Tarantino to privilege dramatic logic over conventional closure. The scenes with boxer Butch (Willis) may technically happen last, but it makes much more sense to end with Vincent and Jules—specifically, with the latter’s grand turning-over-a-new-leaf soliloquy. The writer-director plays God by rewinding the clock to his ideal climax; he taketh and then he giveth back, shocking his viewers by knocking off the ostensible protagonist and then making it up to them by resurrecting him through the power of rearranged chronology. He performs miracles from the editing suite.

Tarantino’s Los Angeles is a movie-movie metropolis, chiefly informed by cinematic conventions—the stuff of noir, New Hollywood genre cinema, and Asian crime flicks. But it’s also a moral universe, where salvation awaits those who can, in Jules’ parlance, keep their eyes open. (The Bible quote is fake; the redemption isn’t.) Not that Pulp Fiction holds up to much serious spiritual scrutiny. Even at his most ambitious, Tarantino is less a big thinker than a gifted mash-up artist, borrowing even the philosophies of other movies.

But Pulp Fiction isn’t dumb fun. In its unpretentious way, it’s a lot like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, throwing a spotlight on comical sideline players. Besides Marsellus Wallace, the brutal kingpin Ving Rhames plays, most of the characters could occupy the outer margins of a more conventional crime epic. The ensemble includes disposable goons, a palooka, a gangster’s moll, a drug dealer, a problem solver, and poor Marvin, who gets shot in the face. None of these people are heroic, with the possible exception of Butch, the urban ronin—complete with samurai sword—who lives up to his soldier lineage by saving his sworn rival. All are more interesting than, say, the crusader cop that might normally headline such a project. (Notably, the only police officer who shows up here is a rapist degenerate.) QT subverts his genre of choice by filtering it through the perspective of bottom-feeding professionals and powerless small-time crooks.

He also creatively cuts around the meatier B-movie material, the stuff a less idiosyncratic film might treat as the main course. Just as Reservoir Dogs never depicted its heist-gone-wrong, Pulp Fiction omits a scene of Butch beating his opponent to death in the boxing ring. Instead, the film skips right to the post-fight cab ride. QT’s interests lie not with traditional genre thrills, but in investigating the interior lives of archetypes who sometimes aren’t even granted names, let alone psychologies. For all the bloodshed it includes, Pulp Fiction is too hooked on its loquacious characters—and their opinions on everything from potbellies to hamburgers to furniture—to treat them like bullet fodder. (Marvin excepted. Sorry, Marvin.)

To my eyes, the best sequence in the movie is the one at kitschy novelty restaurant Jack Rabbit Slims, where Vincent and his boss’ wife, Mia (Uma Thurman, leaping onto the A-list with only a few minutes of screen time), navigate a minefield of social awkwardness and sexual tension. Tarantino isn’t actively quoting anything here, unless one counts the entire 1950s theme of the setting. Instead, he’s simply reveling in his gift for written gab, and letting his two actors carefully connect, through flirtatious banter and the pregnant pauses between it. The scene also builds to the movie’s most iconic image, the complete dance to “You Never Can Tell”—a moment that serves no real purpose other than getting the star of Saturday Night Fever back on a dance floor. That’s the magic of Tarantino’s movies: At their finest, they just want to deliver a pure hit of joy.

These days, though, the filmmaker tends to operate in a more blatantly referential (and reverential) mode, wearing his film-geek preoccupations on his sleeve. The result has been movies—all interesting, to various degrees—that sometimes feel like elaborate tributes to his knowledge base and superfandom. The grand exception would be Jackie Brown, QT’s masterful 1997 follow-up to Pulp Fiction. Because it’s based on an Elmore Leonard novel, and not one of his own ideas, Tarantino has expressed less of a connection to the movie. But it was actually quite refreshing to see the director apply his immense talent to a more grounded dramatic scenario. Jackie Brown takes place not in the celluloid fantasy land of its maker’s imagination, but in some semblance of the real world—a setting that brought out his mature and even romantic side. I often feel as though it’s Tarantino’s best movie. It’s certainly his most emotionally involving. But then, nothing quite kicks like Pulp Fiction. For a two-and-a-half-hour film, it still passes in a blur, the laughs flying faster than the bullets. With due respect to the woman who cried scandal at Cannes ’94, major festivals could use more “disreputable” triumphs of its ilk. In fact, why not just show it at the Palais every year, to jerk dozing journalists out of their fatigue? Only a shot of adrenaline would work better.

Did it deserve to win? Tough call. Pulp Fiction is a great movie. But so too is Red, and Atom Egoyan’s mournful puzzle-box drama Exotica, and Abbas Kiarostami’s trilogy-closing Through The Olive Trees. For its sheer rewatchability, I’ll give the edge to Pulp. But this is one year in which I wouldn’t have wanted to be in the decision-making chair.

Next up: The Tree Of Wooden Clogs

More Palme Thursday