PULP FICTION, or, OBLIGATORY “HOW I LEARNED TO LOVE FILM ESSAY” WITH STANDARD TARANTINO-APOLOGIST SENTIMENTS
by Jeff Stiles
ENG 282: International Film Studies
Like lots of annoying children, my brother and I used to pilfer our dad's giant, clunky camera (recording directly to a massive VHS tape) to film idiotic movies on the fly, occasionally remaking our childhood favorites (I got to be the Joker, he Batman; once we tried to do Terminator 2 but one of us got in trouble with our parents for some unrelated crime, and it was left unfinished). I don't know how, but he eventually found out that "independent" movies were what cool people watched. In 1994, maybe in Entertainment Weekly or some now-extinct publication, he saw that a movie called Pulp Fiction got an "A", read all the praise, grew fascinated with this film that no one could really seem to describe, that seemed to piss some people off and delight others. With his twelve-year-old savvy he convinced Mom (she being the parent most likely to use the F-word and turn the other way when we watched violent action films) to take him to see this R-rated movie. Somehow, he had talked her into bringing his ten year old brother along as well. Later, my Mom tells me the guy selling us tickets asked her if she knew what kind of movie it was while eying the two children skeptically. She told him to mind his own fucking business and on we went.
The picture did a lot for a lot of people at the time. While it produced a legendary amount of imitators for the remainder of the 90s-- painfully awful films like Blood Guts Bullets and Octane and Boondock Saints-- it also managed to shed some light on the unrealized commercial viability of unconventional, cheaply-but-expertly-made films. For me, I managed to understand the majority of it, despite having to close my eyes while Marcellus Wallace was being raped (what I pieced together in my head hearing the sounds was probably worse'). Afterwards, my brother and I became devotees of independent film, scouring film magazines for "buzz" on new films, finding films and researching the director's back catalogs. We found Reservoir Dogs, then read somewhere that Tarantino was inspired by Brian De Palma, so in a weekend we rented and devoured Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, and Body Double (being very careful to pick out the most praised films and watch them in chronological order). Discovering that Hitchcock was De Palma's biggest influence, we got our hands on a box set starting with The 39 Steps and ending with The Birds. That pulled the cork out of something, and suddenly art was flowing around us. We wouldn't settle for less than classic films, or highly-praised festival darlings. Make no mistake, I was still a child, and certainly no prodigy; I was still into Batman and shit, and I would still be baffled by much of the more difficult cinema I attempted (eg, Lars Von Trier, Ingmar Bergman) despite my best efforts. Due to all of this, however, I was starting to accept that art didn't need to have answers written explicitly all over it. An ambiguous ending to a film seemed more satisfying to me now, as I could spend hours or days thinking about it, whereas I used to be done with the flickering images in front of my eyes as soon as they stopped.
Within the year or two following its release, I recall a glut of overly-complimentary Tarantino books being released; titles like Cinema of Cool and Shooting from the Hip that essentially fellated the director for his otherworldly talents. In the years since, the praise has cooled, and some would say he's been exposed for the charlatan he is. One of the producers of Natural Born Killers (a film originally written by Tarantino, though the finished product bears almost no resemblance to the original script) wrote a fairly scathing and gossipy book (Killer Instinct) that trashed the man as some sort of womanizing imbecile, while making hints at the traditional Tarantino complaint-- that the man simply steals his ideas from others and passes them off as his own. Ever since Pulp Fiction, this has been a familiar position.
The complaint definitely isn't without merit. It doesn't take a film historian to trace Tarantino's talents to his idols-- samurai, blaxploitation, spaghetti western, and of course his beloved grindhouse films. The real task, then, is to question the necessity of innovation in art, and then maybe to define innovation. The fact that Tarantino so plainly and proudly wears his influences on his sleeve seems to enrage a good deal of people, but I'm not convinced that a for piece of art to succeed, the artist needs to mask his inspirations in subtlety. Many would consider Bob Dylan's “The Times They Are A-Changin'” an important piece of American art, despite the fact that it is clearly derivative of his idol, Woody Guthrie.
Pulp Fiction was a significant moment in many a film-lover's life, particularly for me due to its presence at a very young age. Though the film's universal praise and hype inspired a momentous backlash (that has continued for over fifteen years), there's no denying that it shifted the cinema industry permanently, paving the way for films like Trainspotting and, for many viewers, rekindling interest in the art films from which it was molded. Tarantino may have hastily been crowned a genius by an overexcited media, but I find his giddiness for film refreshing and contagious. Having said all that, I will certainly concede to the anti-Tarantino crowd that the director does seem to be a pompous little shit.