It must be said: excepting The Matrix, no single film has done more harm to the modern cinema industry than Pulp Fiction. The old “every filmmaker who saw it made their own movie” card is the great equalizer, uniting genuine talents and hacks alike. But in the case of Tarantino, the results were far from equal. A few genuine craftspeople followed in his wake, but they were diamonds in the rough compared to the far more significant cohort of filmmakers who whipped Tarantino into a frat boy’s wet dream and perverted his vision of cinema from the ground up. Largely, this has to do with Tarantino’s supposed “cool factor”, the superficial blanket hanging over all his films that has beckoned first-timers the world over to ape his penchant for slick, sick violence, whirlwind camera jerks, and self-consciously fantastical style. This style has always been a noose around Tarantino’s neck, and it has strangled the world of cinema for years to come.
But what is alarming about Pulp Fiction all these years later is how self-implicating and perplexed Tarantino is by his own self-confident cool and gloss. While other filmmakers wield his cool like a weapon, he hammers it down like a cudgel, dictating and decreeing fates small and large and codifying and explaining the rules and limits of the world around him through a language all his own. Well, it’s not all his own, for the big Tarantino “thing” is that he doesn’t know much for originality and invention. Rather, he’s a masterclass compositor, tying together cues and signatures and wallpaper from every which way the film world takes him into a cohesive singularity the world had never seen before, and has never really seen since. “Cool” is a mighty weapon, but it has mean and uncontainable splash-damage. It can accomplish anything, but it implodes on itself easily. Tarantino’s great trick is making us think he’s being swallowed by it, when in fact he’s in full command all along.
This is because Tarantino, in all of his films, but especially in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, is primarily interested in this dialectic surrounding the idea of cool, depicting it as an untamed beast that strikes its master down. Even in his love of old-school Melville gangster pics essayed in Reservoir Dogs, he had the titular characters in chains from the get-go. He knew that their inability to move beyond the cool and actually speak to one another as human beings was their ultimate downfall. Pulp Fiction is a meditation on and opening-up of the same idea, and it manages to be even more confident. It is nothing less than a tour through cinema small and wide, and it is a tour that celebrates everything cool about “going to the movies” more than any film released in the ensuing twenty years. But it understands the darkness lying in wait. Even more so, it is cripplingly, pulsingly aware of the danger, of the way this image of cool is a performance of society that strangles our lives and replaces genuine emotion with something more constricting and superficial.
This tension is most apparent when Tarantino uses the cool to place up a facade, a wall he then peers behind to expose the more naturalistic and empathetic aspects of his screenwriting and directing. It has always been one of Tarantino’s great strengths as a writer that, for however smart his characters are, they aren’t inhuman, nor are they smug about it. Tarantino can breathlessly throw them scraps of full-bodied lines and they can devour them wholesale, but there’s always room for confusion. He knows how to stop and let characters pause and think and create and come to terms with what he has wrought for them. In turn, his films attain a sense of always being made, and always existing in a state of discovery. Even when they wheel through complication and douse us in a fire-and-brimstone variant on preordained dialogue, they never feel rigid or overly composed. There’s a freedom to the way his camera moves and stops to catch up with itself. The way it casually sympathizes with his characters without letting them off the hook. The way it finds them in moments of despair and contemplation and doesn’t insist that it knows what they are saying until they realize it themselves.
And all of this without even discussing the tripartite storyline, weaving effortlessly between Jules (Samuel Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) as hit men recovering from a blunder, Vincent escorting his employer’s wife Mia (Uma Thurman) on a date while his employer is out of town, and boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) surviving at the barrel of a gun held by his employer Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames, also employer to Jules and Vincent and husband to Mia). The individual stories hit with might and fury and seductive, noirish wit, but it’s the serpentine improvisation of the way Tarantino explores their intersections and contradictions, many of which are much less obvious than initially expected, that really sells these tales as a reflection of the Los Angeles lifestyle. In particular, they allow Tarantino to perform a jazzier riff on Robert Altman’s Short Cuts where-in people interconnect in cosmic ways but remain detached and disinterested. The intersections double, all the same, as an expansion of Tarantino’s “word as cinema” aesthetic by incorporating cinema’s cousin television into the flurry, switching and swapping on a moment’s notice to explore the ways in which television and cinema represent moments or slivers of different lives but never tell the whole story. More than any of his films, Pulp Fiction nails the Hitchcock inspired sense of voyeurism latent in Reservoir Dogs.
Not quite gangster pic and not really a noir, Pulp Fiction is instead its namesake: pulp. Sure, there were pulp noirs, and most viewers are quick to wield the term “neo-noir” like a clothesline upon which to anchor respectful endearments to Tarantino’s vision. But little of Pulp Fiction is really full-on expressionist noir; from the sun-soaked California cinematography to the wonderfully soft hues of the film stock (the clearest way in which it recalls classic television), to the chipper dialogue, the “macabre” is far too fluffy in Tarantino’s vision to really nail the hard chiaroscuro hell that was “noir”. Tarantino isn’t aiming for classic “noir” though, but the dollar-style variant known more to teens than adults. He’s looking to make a guilty pleasure, in other words, but to make it with such class and skill it reveals the ways in which those old dime-novel pulps were really moral parables for their era.
And moral parable Pulp Fiction is, surprisingly so at times, and in a way that more explicitly discloses Tarantino’s fascinatingly contradictory, exciting view of revenge and violence that has yet to be fully explored by most reviewers. Pulp Fiction is a noir in the serpentine way Tarantino’s camera lingers and exposes his characters, but it is not the “noir” of The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca. It is pop noir, most closely approximated in the B-thriller television shows of the 1950s and 1960s that Tarantino loves so (and which pop up in just about all of his films either explicitly in dialogue or implicitly in casting choices). It’s “pop” noir, or noir light, and it elevates this form to the loftiest human parable imaginable.
For many, Pulp Fiction is the sweet spot, and it will probably always remain Tarantino’s most complete motion picture. Reservoir Dogs and his earlier screenplays are great little barn-burners, but they never overstay their welcome or approach a reach they can’t attain. His latter films are either slightly too composed (Jackie Brown) or too mired in their respective genres and playing around within those genres to ever feel out their own peculiar niches. Great though many of his films are, Pulp Fiction is the liveliest underdog in the bunch. It feels like its own monster more than any of his films, with its own take on narrative form and how films relate to the modern world. Best of all, no Tarantino film manages the grounded, matter-of-fact realism and casual qualities of Pulp Fiction that indulge us in the way he knew right from the get go that the world was and is a stage. No film sees him peer beyond its walls as fully and as kinetically. There are plenty of better films, sure, but “there are better films” is not a significant knock against Pulp Fiction being a great one.