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Revisiting Pulp Fiction for the AFI Project

What's the AFI Project, you ask? For more information, or if you just enjoy my bemused ramblings, read here:http://pippin2010.filmaster.com/review/revisiting-psycho-for-the-afi-project/?preview

Pulp Fiction is on the following AFI lists:

The Original Top 100 (#95)
100 Most Heart-Pounding Movies (#53)
The Revised Top 100 (#94)
10 Top 10's (#7 Gangster)

Ah, Pulp Fiction. I was looking forward to this entry on the AFI lists because it gave me an excuse to buy this film (the test oh so passes). I first saw this movie the summer before going to college. On first viewing, at the tender age of 18, I didn't know what to make of it. I knew it was something electric and fresh and new, despite it's slightly kitschy premise as homage to earlier genre(s) of film, but it was really hard to watch: violent and bloody, with some very uncomfortable scenes. Yet, it was also imminently quotable, had an awesome soundtrack, and was one of the best written films to get produced in the nineties, and despite my discomfort with some elements of the film, I gave it a second go whilst hosting a viewing for my roommates and some friends a couple of years later. From that point, I understood how culturally significant, superbly cinematic, and, for lack of more articulate verbiage, awesome Pulp Fiction ultimately was, and I became a Quentin Tarantino fan from that time forward, for better (such as this film and the Kill Bill's) or for worse (Four Rooms? That was his, right?).

I'm not sure it's possible to summarize the plot of this film effectively in any way that doesn't spoil it, so, with the help of some other websites (like imdb and Wikipedia), I offer these three overarching plot threads as summary:

1. Vincent Vega (John Travolta, in a career-revitalizing role) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) are smooth [motherfuckers], er, gangsters who work for Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). In the course of their assignment together, they are tasked to retrieve a mysterious suitcase from three young men who were clearly independent contractors for Mr. Wallace at one time until they apparently betrayed their contract(s). Vincent is also tasked with taking Marcellus' wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out on the town while Marcellus is away, and though the sexual tension is palpable, Vincent knows he cannot touch her. Of course, no one said anything about not touching his stash of potent cocaine (sold to him by Eric Stoltz and Rosanna Arquette in a trippy scene), which Mia, amongst other adventures, discovers in Vincent's coat pocket.

2. Vincent and Jules cross paths with prizefighter Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), who Mr. Wallace has asked to throw a fight in exchange for a large payoff. Butch has other plans, however, and actually actively wins his fight but takes the payoff anyway in the hopes of running away with his girl, Fabienne, and escaping Wallace's servitude. Unfortunately, though Butch manages almost to escape without the inevitable violent retribution, Fabienne forgets to pack his father's gold watch, and a series of almost preordained but surreal events occurs involving Butch and his former employer once Butch goes back to get the watch in a panic.

3. While transporting one of the three young men who had the briefcase to Mr. Wallace, Vincent accidentally fires his gun, causing a bloody aftermath and much consternation for his partner Jules (and his car). This results in Jules contacting Mr. Wallace, who contacts the Wolf (Harvey Keitel), a renowned "cleaner" who efficiently and expertly mops up unfortunate messes such as this one. This event coupled with ensuing incidents also causes Jules to reevaluate his life and to make some hard choices, a philosophical crisis wherein he parses out what has been fate and what has been free will for him in his life.

There are other significant chunks of plot that I have not mentioned, but the truth is, Pulp Fiction is told in such a brilliantly non-linear way, too much plot synopsis would spoil the best parts of the film. What I offered above involves the primary characters and principal players, even though their story arcs intersect and interweave all throughout the film.

Pulp Fiction is a cultural touchstone of epic proportions. It is all at once an ambitious homage to films of the seventies of the same vein and a fiercely original exercise in the exploration of irony, satire, and philosophical subtlety. Each character is vibrant, and the story takes a dizzyingly satisfying trip full circle, ending on its starting point with the same sense of tongue firmly planted in cheek or middle finger permanently waving in the air, hinted at ever so slightly as the movie starts. Each ingredient is so uniquely married to this film (and to the director, as he would often recycle some of the same conceits in his future films), it's easy to understand why there have been passable imitators but never convincing duplicators.

Tarantino's efforts worked so well here because his target demographic were quintessentially clones of him. Pulp Fiction, despite the stodgy naysayers' harsher critiques, is smart. Perhaps, it's originality is brewed from chemically altering hackneyed and formulaic conventions of gangster films of yore, and, perhaps, Quentin robbed a few devices from other cinematic feats (according to some analyses, the shot of Marsellus Wallace coincidentally crossing in front of Butch's car is reminiscent of Psycho) but no one can suggest that QT doesn't do it with style. From the circularity of the story depiction to the absurdly dark and ironic sense of humor that anyone over a certain age is not likely to understand, much less appreciate (except for the rare viewer, don't want to stereotype too broadly), the presentation is of the director's (and primary screenwriter's) own mind, and the result is rather ingenious.

First, create characters that may seem like caricatures at the outset but become templates of nuance. Vincent Vega, sublimely played by Travolta, is affable, disaffected, and considerate, even if he has no trouble popping off a few rounds in the name of duty. Jules Winnfield, though a cartoonish slice of an oft-seen aspect of the real Samuel L. Jackson with merely a wig to set it off, wants to be a righteous man, right down to paraphrasing biblical verse, but finds his sense of righteousness at odds with his chosen profession. Butch Coolidge, also well-played by Willis, is an honorable man in essence, even if he makes some dishonorable choices, as is Marsellus Wallace in his own way. The performances by the entire ensemble were great, given the great material with which they had to work.

Therefore, second, give these characters incredibly witty, delicious, and decidedly grounded dialog with which to chew the increasingly more absurd and surreal scenery. The famous "royale with cheese" conversation was so often repeated by schoolmates when this film was first released, yet it's still funny today. The story of the gold watch, featuring a cheeky appearance by Christopher Walken as a friend of Butch's father, is almost silly in a sly, slightly twisted way.

Third, pick a soundtrack that is as quirky and excellent as the hodgepodge of story threads that all seem to be sewn together so perfectly. From the opening sequence featuring "Misirlou" by Dick Dale to the inclusion of "Son of a Preacher Man" and Urge Overkill's remake of "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon," each song is inserted perfectly into the surrounding action, setting the tone for each titled chapter insert.

Mix this wackiness together and spice it up with great sensibilities in art direction, such as in the Wallaces' house or Jack Rabbit Slim's, and lustrous, carefully mapped out cinematography, and the result is truly one of the greatest American films. Forever after, fans and non-fans of this director have been waiting for Quentin's "next Pulp Fiction." I think Kill Bill Volume Two was good, but what do I know?

Unfortunately, while Pulp Fiction might be Tarantino's masterpiece to date, it is not necessarily a masterpiece in general. Casting himself in the film, even if he also did so in his predecessor film, Reservoir Dogs (which I've never seen, though it is in the top five of my upcoming Netflix queue), was not a smooth move. Granted, his character was as awkward and nerdy as QT is in real life, but he seemed vastly out of place amidst the better actors with which he surrounded himself. In general, I'm not a fan of directors inserting themselves into their own films - look what happened to M. Night Shyamalan - unless it's for a game of "Where's Waldo?" type searching, as in the case of Alfred Hitchcock. Pulp Fiction merely proves the point of my discontent: he was by far the worst performer, whether he made the film or not.

Also, the film is extremely violent, right down to an uncomfortable rape scene, an ironic commentary in its own right (no spoilers). The violence is part of the film's identity, so to say it should have been diminished in any way would probably denigrate the film's quality and unfairly criticize and undermine QT's vision. Some of the violence is part of the situational dark humor, after all, such as when Vincent's gun accidentally fires, leading to a literal bloody mess and a few exquisite tirades from Jules and a contretemps or two between Vincent and Jules concerning the finer points of abusing the hospitality of those that would help them. Still, I think it would be fair to say that some of Pulp Fiction is extremely hard to watch, which may be why naysayers exist at all to nay-say as they have.

Pulp Fiction is ultimately truly a great film, completely worthy of repeated viewings (it gets better the more it's seen, actually), and recommendable to anyone who can withstand the in-your-face violence and twisted, black comedy gold spun by Quentin Tarantino and his fellow filmmakers. In ratings land, Pulp Fiction lands squarely at an 8.5, between having minor flaws but being very good and perfectly entertaining, as Quentin's self-insertion alone knocks that half point off. If nothing else, Pulp Fiction is a good time and an incredibly intelligent piece of art that I'm very happy to have for my collection.

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