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This month they selected Pulp Fiction, which was released twenty years ago but only five and a half films ago from director Quentin Tarantino, who lately has built his career out of helping Christoph Waltz win Best Supporting Actor honors from the Oscars.
It's a great selection, one of the defining pieces of modern cinema, and I don't just say that because there have seemingly been whole careers for critics built out of trying to identify which filmmakers were inspired by it. Personally, I'd recommend you watch The Usual Suspects, Smokin' Aces, In Bruges, London Boulevard, Seven Psychopaths (incredibly those last three movies star Colin Farrell, but no one has ever identified him as prime Tarantino material), but start at the beginning with On the Waterfront and maybe Casablanca.
Tarantino has been called the child of pop culture, but that's not really true. He's a veteran of the video store era, back when people watched movies as a hobby, and there was no bigger aficionado than Tarantino. Except maybe this was a kid who grew up in the '70s and spent the '80s dreaming of a way to pay his respects, because that's what his budding career looks like, the best way to summarize Pulp Fiction.
Everyone remembers John Travolta, Uma Thurman, and especially Samuel L. Jackson, but perhaps the most telling elements of the movie revolve around Bruce Willis. And mind you, Pulp Fiction is basically a Western, born from the aftermath of Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name emerging and John Wayne dying and then later Eastwood's modern cowboy Dirty Harry, but with all the good guy glamour finally drained. Pulp Fiction is a world of bad guys. It's also a world without a defining war for the first time in the 20th Century, when such things came around every twenty years. You can't be an American and not have thought about that. But Bruce Willis is part of a new generation. His character's great-grandfather fought in WWI, his grandfather in WWII, and his father, as memorably explained by Christopher Walken, in Vietnam. Willis is a boxer, smack dab in the era when boxing began to become culturally irrelevant, Mike Tyson's career crumbling and nobody emerging to replace him. This is also around the time when football began to take over with two Super Bowls dominated by, you guessed it, the Cowboys.
How any of that makes sense: actually, pretty much the same way as the pretzel logic of Pulp Fiction, in which Willis shoots Travolta dead in the middle, apparently, of Travolta's adventures. I can't possibly argue that Americans liked the idea of war. By Vietnam we positively revolted it, and that's shaped our culture ever since. We'd once again be stupid enough to let Hitler run rampage through Europe. It's the idea of individuals running around doing exactly how they please. Not exactly lawless, but the law of the land is chaos. The boxer is free to go unscrutinized. Tyson bites someone's ear off, everyone screams bloody murder, then forget that boxing is already a pretty brutal past time and then decide, hey! MMA looks like an acceptable alternative! So then we embrace football, where chaos is definitely the law of the land, and by the time another war or two rolls around, everyone decides that we should end them as soon as possible regardless of whether or not our objectives are clearly identified let alone met, and yeah, so ISIS.
And crazy people running around with guns executing people. I'm not calling Tarantino a visionary, but his hand was definitely on the pulse. In his later movies, he worries less about tricks than he does explaining himself so that he can't be misunderstood with all that showmanship he's so good at, everything people expect from him. And somehow, his message keeps getting lost. I think Tarantino gets away with breaking rules because people ultimately decide, it's Quentin being Quentin, but like the old rock critics, they also proclaim that he's not as good as he used to be and they'll never make another like him.
Whatever that means.
All his good guys are bad guys, and there are huge pieces of his stories that are never told. Ving Rhames already has a band-aid on the back of his head when we first meet him, chronologically and story-wise. It's not quite as extreme as Brad Pitt with the giant scar on his neck throughout the whole of Inglorious Basterds, but it's also the visual equivalent of the story Travolta and Jackson share about the last time someone had the task of babysitting Thurman, the story Travolta has in the back of his mind through most of the movie, and by turns, the idea of the watch Willis inherited from three previous generations, and even the mystery of what's inside Rhames' briefcase that Jackson carries around throughout, what he refuses to give Tim Roth, because it belongs to someone else.
Because it belongs to someone else. That's it, really, isn't it? It's the idea of greed, and what some people are willing to do and what some aren't. Twenty years and counting without a war at that point. Everyone was waiting for the next shoe to drop. And it seemed like it never would. What does that say about us? It's a heck of a responsibility. Everyone talks about peace, but even Jackson wants to retire but to "adventures," which is to say no peace at all. The idea of "pulp fiction" harks back to a time when we glorified the bad guys (who else do you think Jesse James and Billy the Kid were, guys who helped inspire this subject matter?). Pointedly, until Willis kills his opponent in the ring, without even realizing it, without giving it a second thought because he desperately needed to save his own hide knowing that he's made a deal with Rhames to lose the fight, he's never killed anyone. He kills several people after it. He kills one person with a samurai sword (the whole idea of Kill Bill percolates throughout Pulp Fiction). It becomes a farce. Okay, the whole thing's a farce.
It's a movie with multiple narratives, like the later Traffic, Crash, and Babel, but strangely I don't know that Pulp Fiction is thought of in that way. Like I said, usually as a Tarantino film, a Travolta film, a Jackson film (arguably, somehow, still the only movie to have truly appreciated having him in it), but not a Willis film. But it is a Willis film. Watch the later 16 Block. You wouldn't have 16 Blocks without Pulp Fiction. But it's all of these things, and it doesn't even start with Travolta or Jackson or Thurman or Rhames or Willis, but with Roth, who has the least to do with anyone else. By the time he interacts with Jackson, at the end of the movie, Roth's presence has completely vanished. He's the least important element, but he's also a crucial element. What is it that belongs to somebody else but has crucial value to yourself? It's the movie's unspoken riddle, the answer you don't even realize you were looking for. Maybe this is a movie about life in general. It's a topical movie, eternally so, without even looking like it's trying to be. That's film-making.
Of course it changed everything. It's not an easy movie to figure out, and so you have all these people trying, and failing miserably, to do so, and identifying all the wrong elements about what Tarantino's contemporaries did after its release. You might as well say it's exactly the same movie as Forrest Gump or The Shawshank Redemption, which by the way it basically is. It's just, Pulp Fiction has flare.
Just as Willis is routinely overlooked, there's also Rhames. Do you even know Ving Rhames offhand? You probably should, but the fact that you might not speaks about all the injustices Tarantino is really talking about, the little crimes we perpetrate against each other (a foot message, say) while focusing on all the bad guys shooting their guns all over the place. That's why Jackson and Travolta seem to talk in trivialities, because Tarantino realized that suddenly it's no longer the big events happening, at that time, but all the mundane little moments that get to us. We try and focus on everything else, but really, who are we kidding? That's what Jackson is thinking at the end of the movie. Harvey Keitel shows up and he's the only guy who can calmly talk people through a crisis, until Jackson, the only one who learns anything, replicates the fete. Love and war. It's the idea of breaking eggs to make an omelette.
Rhames, by the way, has appeared in all of the Mission: Impossible movies, and starred in the excellent Rosewood, another unusual Western. He's still routinely overlooked. I think Thurman as a brunette in Pulp Fiction causes a lot of people to forget she was in that, too, why it took Tarantino to collaborate with her again in Kill Bill for people to remark that she was still making movies and very much capable of turning heads (you know, or decapitating them), but somehow still like Pam Grier and Robert Forster in Jackie Brown, a couple of born stars who outside of Tarantino can't catch a break.
And you know who I realized seems to have adopted a lot of her persona from Thurman in Pulp Fiction? Zooey Deschanel. Obviously there are differences, but not as many as you'd think. People tend to overlook her, too. And she's as least as lethal a catch in (500) Days of Summer as Thurman in Pulp Fiction.
This is not my favorite Tarantino film. Lately it's been whatever the newest one was, and that started with Kill Bill Vol. 2 and continued with Inglourious Basterds and currently rests with Django Unchained. Because Quentin Tarantino is, ultimately, restless. He's never happy unless he's challenged himself. He's said that he's looking to retirement relatively soon. He got angry after his script for The Hateful Eight was leaked, vowed he wouldn't make it as a result, but of course he will. This is a guy who has probably spent his whole life telling himself stories. You can see that in Reservoir Dogs, and even Death Proof. That's why he's such a vital storyteller, because he believes in stories, the stories other people have told, and the ones he wants to tell as a result. Some claim that he's nothing but a glorified rip-off artist. I call him aware. More and more, he's trying to make his viewers aware, too, cut through all the nonsense we like to tell ourselves (the telling scene in Django Unchained as Leonardo DiCaprio explains his version of why the black man is inferior, and the irony of Waltz explaining to him later that his idol, Alexander Dumas, was black).
Anytime you compare someone to Shakespeare, you have to have a really good argument, but you also have to remember, if it hadn't been for the folio of his works, Shakespeare likely would have been forgotten, and we wouldn't be sitting here explaining the eternal brilliance of him, either. Tarantino, I'm convinced, is in Shakespeare's league. Pulp Fiction might be considered, above all else, A Midsummer Night's Dream.
And yeah, it's still cool, after twenty years.