Sunday, June 27, 2010


From the Vault: Pulp Fiction

NOTE: Ranked No. 51 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

As a filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino works like a crafty pickpocket, approaching strangers and diverting their attention with entertaining conversation. It's only later that the victim realizes something more serious has transpired. This is definitely the case with Tarantino's second film, Pulp Fiction. There is so much energy and joy overflowing in Pulp Fiction that the viewer has too much fun to realize there is a deeper film at work. It takes awhile for the film's full wallop to register.

Like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction is a true ensemble work with a brilliant cast. Pulp Fiction builds on the unique structural technique Tarantino utilized in Reservoir Dogs and takes it several steps further, telling disparate stories out of chronological order. To tell too much of the story would diminish the visceral and comic impact of the film, which Tarantino also wrote from stories he and Roger Avary conjured up.

From the tale of a prize fighter (Bruce Willis) paid to take a dive to the amazing speech that Christopher Walken gives that lurches from the reverent to the absurd, Tarantino's words are almost quicker than the ear's ability to catch them. The performances are all top notch, with special notice given to Walken, John Travolta, Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth. Samuel L. Jackson, who gives one great performance after another, paints perhaps his most vivid portrait as Jules, a verbose hit man considering a career change.

Harvey Keitel, one of the most intrinsically interesting actors around, pops up late in the film, steals his scenes and makes a hasty exit. In a vengeful mobster's drug-taking wife, Uma Thurman finally finds a role that capitalizes on the potential she's shown. The actors are able to perform well thanks to the script itself. No one writes dialogue like Tarantino. Every word sounds as if it came from the same mouth, yet every character has humanity and individuality.

Tarantino's direction has grown more polished. He's got a great eye. His gift isn't really an animalistic passion like Martin Scorsese, but a biting comic brilliance rarely seen. What's so fascinating about Tarantino is as much what he takes out as what he leaves in. He tells a boxing story without showing a fight, makes the contents of a briefcase important without revealing them.

In fact, Tarantino's method is reminiscent of a passage from U and I, novelist Nicholson Baker's autobiographical essay about his imagined relationship with John Updike. Baker talks about his fascination with the "narrative clogs" of fiction, the passages that give a work its flavor even though they might be extraneous. He writes: "... the trick being to feel your way through each clog by blowing it up until its obstructiveness finally revealed not blank mass but unlooked-for-seepage points of passage."

In the end, that's where Pulp Fiction excels, showing the passage of time and of various criminal lowlifes in a sometimes disturbing but consistently comic way.

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Nice post. I've been meaning to watch this film again, because it's been a very long time. As derivative as Tarantino can be, the dialogue and humor really sparkle and make his films special (though I find Kill Bill lacking in this regard).
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