Pulp Fiction (1994)
Pulp Fiction (1994) brought director Quentin Tarantino, a B-movie fanatic and ex-video store clerk, to mainstream attention with this stylish and inventive episodic thriller about corruption and temptation. It featured guns, femmes fatales, deadly hit-men, and drugs. This non-formulaic, defining film of the 1990s was known for its violence, ensemble cast, and pop cultural references. Writer/director Tarantino had co-written the screenplay with Roger Avary, after his earlier first feature Reservoir Dogs (1992) - a preparatory film for this R-rated energetic work, with the same kind of rich and witty dialogue, blood-letting, vulgarities, 'sick' and dark humor, an AM radio pop music soundtrack, and startling action.
The self-indulgent low-budget film, a modern B-movie cult classic, with production costs of $8 million, became an immensely popular, major independent hit for its distributor Miramax, earning $108 million (domestic), and $214 million (worldwide). It was the 10th highest-grossing (domestic) film of its year, when it was competing against Forrest Gump (1994), The Lion King (1994), True Lies (1994), and Speed (1994). It helped open the doors for film school graduates and other independently-made films (from the likes of Bryan Singer with The Usual Suspects (1995), UK director Danny Boyle, and Paul Thomas Anderson with Boogie Nights (1997)), and changed the direction of contemporary cinema. However, it was indirectly criticized and cited, by Republican Presidential candidate Senator Bob Dole in the mid-1990s, as an example of the perverse and immoral direction that the Hollywood film industry was taking - with displays of casual violence and sex, "nightmares of depravity," and for promoting "the romance of heroin."
Originally, 'pulp fiction' referred to tawdry and cheap 'pulp' magazines in the early part of the 20th century, mostly of escapist hard-boiled detective stories, serial novels or science-fiction tales, that provided entertainment for the masses. Tarantino provided rampant references to hard-boiled fiction, to TV shows, Hong Kong action films, and to other films from The Killers (1946) to Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Psycho (1960) - and many others. Many of the long dialogue sequences in the film were not there to advance the plot, but just to entertain (and show off).
The unpredictably shuffled, post-modern film shocked with its hip combination of violence, sex, drugs, and profanity (including 269 F-words), and a body count of 8 dead (the three that were executed for stealing the briefcase, the two in the pawn shop, Butch's boxing opponent, Vincent in the bathroom, and Marvin in the back-seat, not including Zed's future off-screen death). It also contained an inordinate number of bathroom scenes with hitman character Vega - in each case, he returned to difficult situations: the diner robbery, Mia's overdose, and at Butch's place when he was murdered.
When the influential neo-noirish crime film opened in May of 1994 at the Cannes Film Festival, it won the "Best Picture" or prestigious Palme d'Or, snatching the top award from Krzysztof Kieslowski's trilogy swansong Three Colors: Red (1994). It was also honored with seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (John Travolta), Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actor (Samuel L. Jackson), Best Supporting Actress (Uma Thurman), and won one Oscar - Best Original Screenplay (Avary and Tarantino).
John Travolta was brought from has-been obscurity to fame (and a revived career) as the off-beat quirky character of hit-man Vincent Vega, for which he received his second Academy Award nomination. (Travolta had most recently been delegated to a talking baby screen voice in the Look Who's Talking series.) And he was able to allude to his pop-icon past when featured in a memorable dance sequence with co-star Uma Thurman, as the pair entered a Jack Rabbit Slims contest and recreated the Batusi (a dance invented for the mid-60s Batman TV series), to the tune of Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell," as they made hand movements (horizontal arm movements across their faces). [The dance sequence was actually inspired or influenced by Jean-Luc Godard's French New Wave film Bande a Part (1964, Fr.) aka Band of Outsiders and its "Madison Dance" scene.]
The main characters were low-life criminals, thugs, drug-dealers, hitmen, a washed-up crooked boxer, and restaurant-robbing English lovers. In most of the tales, a very simple activity went very wrong - a diner robbery, a fixed boxing match, a dinner date, and the return of the boss' dirty laundry. The two hitmen called on gangland cleanup specialist The Wolf (Harvey Keitel) when their job became messy. Specifically, the stories involved a number of couples:
- a pair of young, small-time hold-up thieves, "Pumpkin" (Tim Roth) and "Honey Bunny" (Amanda Plummer), who plotted a robbery in a diner
- two philosophically talkative mob hit-men, Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta), hired by vengeful, underworld boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) to carry out hits against double-crossing college-aged kids
- the gangster boss' irresponsible moll wife Mia (Uma Thurman), whom Vincent entertained one evening, when she unexpectedly overdosed on heroin
- wily boxer Butch Coolidge's (Bruce Willis) story (involving a gold watch) with French girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros); by not taking a dive, Butch scammed Marsellus during his last bout and planned to skip town with the prize money
The pop oriented film has become legendary, with a number of very quotable lines, including: "Bring out the gimp," "Zed's dead," "I'm gonna get Medieval on your ass," "I just thought it was some cold-blooded s--t to say to a mother f--ker before I popped a cap in his ass," the mostly-fabricated Book of Ezekiel speech: "I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger," and "Did you notice the sign on the front of my house that said, 'Dead Nigger Storage'?" Add to the fragmented story a great soundtrack, the mystery of the contents of a glowing suitcase (a prominent MacGuffin, and originally filled with diamonds in the script) with the devil's '666' as its combination, a philosophical discussion on French names for American fast food, and many flashbacks, flash-forwards, plot twists and unexpected turns.
Four different short-story tales were interwoven together to tell a non-linear, non-chronological, and intricate story of nihilistic criminal activity in LA's sleazy underworld. The skewed script structure was revolutionary in the way the vignettes were told. The three primary storylines were preceded by identifying inter-titles on a black screen - [Note: the 3-story structure was borrowed from Black Sabbath (1963).]
The Ordering of the Sequences The Film's Order of the Sequences The Real-Time Order of the Sequences The Pre-Credits Sequence (Diner) Prelude to "The Gold Watch" (the flashback about young Butch learning the history of the Gold Watch) Post-Credits Prologue - Prelude to "Vincent Vega & Marsellus Wallace's Wife" (Car-drive and hit) Post-Credits Prologue - Prelude to "Vincent Vega & Marsellus Wallace's Wife" "Vincent Vega & Marsellus Wallace's Wife" "The Bonnie Situation" - Story 3 Prelude to "The Gold Watch" (the flashback of young Butch hearing the scatological tale about the watch) The Pre-Credits Sequence (Diner) "The Gold Watch" (the present) The Epilogue (Diner) "The Bonnie Situation" "Vincent Vega & Marsellus Wallace's Wife" - Story 1 The Epilogue (Diner) "The Gold Watch" (the present) - Story 2
The pre-credits sequence was itself preceded by two American Heritage Dictionary definitions of 'pulp' - both cheap:
(1) A soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter
(2) A magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper
The film opened in an LA coffee shop or diner, the Hawthorne Grill, where two English lovers - Ringo or "Pumpkin" (Tim Roth) and Yolanda or "Honey Bunny" (Amanda Plummer) - sat in a booth for breakfast. The two neophyte hotheads frantically debated about how their lives of hold-up crime had to change. Robberies of multi-cultural Asian family stores, bars, gas stations and liquor stores were too risky and dangerous and not very profitable, and banks were not feasible. They impulsively decided to rob the patrons of the coffee shop. They stood up with their .32 caliber weapons. Pumpkin yelled: "Everybody be cool, this is a robbery!" and Honey Bunny shouted: "Any of you f--kin' pricks move, and I'll execute every motherf--kin' last one of you!"
The credits were accompanied by surf guitarist Dick Dale's version of the Greek song "Misirlou."