Film Views: Re-watching “Pulp Fiction” Twenty Years Later

Travolta Pulp Fiction

Until last night, I’ve only seen “Pulp Fiction” once. It’s was Friday October 14, 1994 and Julie and I were trying to get used to being transplants to Philadelphia. It’s not the easiest city to make friends in — despite its slogan of being the city of brotherly love. Our weekdays were filled with work and school. Julie worked and I was holed up either in the library reading for my graduate studies, or I was in class. We didn’t have a lot of free time. But we did try and get out once a week to take in a movie or go to dinner. That night we dined at a restaurant in Philadelphia that was a known hangout for Italian gangster types who were right out of central casting. We didn’t know it was a gangster hangout, but after eating there, we heard from more than a few people about its reputation. It wasn’t a pleasant experience eating there, but it was certainly memorable. Being amongst Philadelphia’s mid-level mobsters was kind of scary, because so many of them were incredibly abusive to the wait staff, shouted out orders like “Don’t flour the fish” or “We don’t need to hear about any specials, just bring out the friggin’ food.” Some also kind of stared us down with that kind of “What are YOU looking at” gaze. Once we got the bill and hightailed it out there, we were off to the movies to see fictionalized gangsters in “Pulp Fiction.”

To say it was jarring and kind of unpleasant to see this film after our dinner experience is an understatement. Most of us tend to like our violence in controlled forums where we as an audience aren’t going to be harmed, but can enjoy the spectacle that’s unfolding on the screen. But when you’re sitting in a restaurant next to people who might not think twice about bumping you off if you cross them, and then see a movie where a variation of these same people are on the screen doing violent things for giggles and shock effect…well, it was pretty weird. It took me a long time to actually enjoy the film, but once I did, I forgot about our dinner and could settle in for the laughs.

I came away from the first viewing with mixed feelings about what I saw on the screen. I knew of Quentin Tarantino’s work through “Reservoir Dogs” and while I thought that film was just okay (I know it has its fans), I was amused by the lengthy dialogue between the violence in the film. So, I kind of knew what I was getting into with “Pulp Fiction” — as far as violence and dialogue were concerned, that is.

Flash-forward twenty years and the experience was quite different. Probably because we’re so saturated with violent films, the violence in “Pulp Fiction” doesn’t seem as harsh as it was back in 1994. Yes, there are multiple incidents of people getting shot, there’s one anal rape scene that was still disturbing, but overall, the violence was not as gratuitous as I remember it being in 1994. What I did like were the things that made “Pulp Fiction” a critic’s darling: an non-linear story structure (a major character dies toward the end of the second act, only to be featured in the third act and the end of the film) and the kind of conversations the characters have with each other. Some of it is mundane, but other times it shows that despite the fact these are low-level mobsters who basically threaten and kill people for a living, they have interests that go beyond their station in life. Plus, the movie is structured like three short stories where the lives of the major characters intersect at various points. All these elements elevate “Pulp Fiction” above a violence for violence’s sake movie. Tarantino is a gifted filmmaker whose attention to detail and nods to outdated filmmaking (i.e., check out the fake background in the Taxi scene with Bruce Willis) make the film enjoyable on many levels. Tarantino is a guy who, as the story goes, was a video store clerk who binged on the movies at the store he worked at. It was his film school; a place where he learned from the great filmmakers and the not-so-great. But even in B-movies and outright garbage films, he found something that he thought conveyed a certain something that could be configured into a higher form of art. And that’s what makes him an interesting filmmaker. He’s well schooled in the history of high-minded films and crappy films. But what he does with that knowledge is akin to a DJ mixing different styles of music to create its own genre. I’m not the first person to make the comparison of what Tarantino does to that of a DJ (many writers have), but it’s clear from what one sees on the screen that Tarantino loves fusing styles into a postmodern mish-mash. Even though the film seems like it takes place in 1994, the ’50s and even the ’70s are very much infused into the fabric of the movie.

So what’s the takeaway from my re-watching of “Pulp Fiction.” Well, it’s clearly a film that’s stood the test of time. While some movies are time bound to a particular era, “Pulp Fiction” has a certain timelessness to it probably because Tarantino was careful not to lock too much of his film into a time capsule of references that decay over time. I’m not sure if someone of my daughter’s age (she’s 18) would understand when Samuel L. Jackson’s character says he’s going to walk the earth like Caine in “Kung Fu,” or even the “Green Acres” reference, but many of those are few and far between. Overall, it’s a solid film that examines a certain seedy subculture of Los Angeles that few filmmakers bother with. These are people I wouldn’t choose to dine with, but they are certainly colorful enough to watch on the screen for a couple of hours.

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