April 11, 2010

The Popular Fiction of Pulp Fiction

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Citizen Kane. The Godfather. The Bicycle Thief. Lawrence of Arabia. What do these films have in common? They’re all generally considered cinematic classics of the 20th century. Despite this, many people find the films overlong and boring, lacking the immediacy of Lethal Weapon 2. That’s fine, because there is such a thing called the spectrum of subjectivity in personal cinematic taste. However, what frequently makes a lot of lists of the best films ever is also a little ’90s indie flick called Pulp Fiction. Only, I wouldn’t put it in with the others, or on any personal best-of lists. For one thing, the four films previously mentioned were pioneering, whereas the Quentin Tarantino-helmed Pulp Fiction is a clumsy amalgam of the century’s cinematic hits, classic movie allusions and nonsense-yet-sensationalist moments bolstered with quirky dialogue and problematically comedic violence.Butch’s gloves are on; Walken’s watch is off. It’s time to beat the reputation of Tarantino’s most overrated film to a pulp … Get it?Pulp Fiction boasts the highest population fan base of drooling college kids obsessed with pretentious pop-culture minutiae. Many of movie’s fans shop using sustainability bags and listen to crap like The Decemberists and The Flaming Lips. If these kids are seen by you, dear reader, especially wearing an ironic T-shirt with a Pulp Fiction quote on it, tell them the ’90s are too recent to be ironically retro and then decapitate them with a Frisbee made of ninja stars.Telling anyone that Pulp Fiction was a middle-of-the-road effort seems to be the verbal equivalent of five-starring their mother in the face. The reactions, especially among the 20-something age bracket, are almost universal shock and revulsion. It’s a highbrow art film for dummies. For the sword-and-sandals epic version of the film, see Gladiator.The movie has everything a person could want, from an all-star cast to lots of quotable lines and plenty of profanity. What else? Not much, in fact. And Valentine’s Day also had an all-star cast, mind you. Didn’t save that from being trash, did it? The thing is, people adore movies they can quote endlessly. It’s true that most of the iconic lines in cinema history are from “classic” films, but remember that a narrative is not built on punch-lines alone. For all the F-bombs in the film, how does the narrative hold up?The nonlinear chronology of scenes is clever, if you’ve never even seen a film tell events out of order. Why is Memento backwards? Because the narrator has no short-term memory. Why is Tarantino’s own, and far superior, Reservoir Dogs, out of chronological order? It’s a failed bank heist being told Rashomon-style after the fact, the events jumbled because each robber has their own out-of-breath, frenzied take on what really went awry and why. The only possible reason for Pulp Fiction’s jumbled scene order is for dramatic irony, the relationship between what the audience knows vs. what the characters know, and how this relationship of information builds tension. Except, there’s no building tension, because there’s no single story with any stakes we care about. Somewhere along the line, we hear Samuel L. Jackson’s character Jules have a revelation that causes him to give up life as a hit-man, and potentially avoid a gruesome bathroom death later (or earlier, get it?). The scene order mostly seems like an exercise in confusing the audience. If the audience feels like it has to work to understand what is happening on screen, the audience feels like the movie it is watching has substance. Push the button, get the cheese.Tarantino supposedly has a gift for dialogue, as evidenced by the scenes involving ordering a quarter pounder in Europe, but a lot of the other spoken parts feel very written. This is a hallmark curse of movies. Kevin Smith is guilty of it, and so are supposed “greats” like David Mamet and anyone else who is praised for the realism of their dialogue. On one side, the speeches are wonderfully packed with insight and perhaps even a popular culture reference, but they also manage to sound canned, which draws unnecessary attention to how they’re written. The conversation between Butch and the cab driver about murder, the dumb girlfriend’s monologue about potbellies, the diner conversation about diner conversation and Tarantino’s own N-word flurry over coffee later. All those sound like speeches written in a film class by one voice that magically teleports from character to character. Only the burger argument in the car between Jules and Vincent sounds like something two people would actually talk about in the natural course of a discussion. Their nonchalance makes the subsequent and violent execution of the college kids that much funnier. In Reservoir Dogs, the violence is tragic, built around frustration and betrayal. In Pulp Fiction, it’s for humor. Not one person dies for any reason other than black comedy or to advance the plot. So, the film is loaded with verbal and cartoon-death punchlines. It’s not a story.Try to explain the gimp scene. Try. Sure, people love it for its absurdity. How much sense does it actually make? Oh, right. It’s awesome. Go back to eating your Froot Loops alphabetically. The gimp scene only exists to have Bruce Willis make the comedic leap from hammer to slugger to chainsaw to katana. The samurai blade only exists for Tarantino to knowingly wink at the audience about the films he’s referencing that we’ve never seen. Congratulations, Tarantino. You go back to justifying that the penalty for accessory to homosexual rape is hara-kiri.The sheer overhype of the movie draws light away from the self-proclaimed auteur’s better work like the black hole it is. Jackie Brown is a wonderful film often overlooked because it is an actual linear story with a complex character at its center, with characterization and drama driving the plot instead of sensational gimmicks and flashy editing. People find it boring, but those same people probably don’t read Elmore Leonard novels. It’s not like people don’t die in Jackie Brown, or that the dialogue is any less rich. It serves as nuanced conversations that reveal layers, rather than being catchy. I guess Ke$ha has Prokofiev beat, too.Tarantino also wrote True Romance, even though he didn’t direct it. It’s a road trip love story about two newlyweds who run off with a bunch of the mob’s cocaine. It has memorable lines and an all-star cast. However, it also doesn’t take a Cray supercomputer to unravel the plot and explain it to another human being. “Just see it. You haven’t seen it?” isn’t a reason to see a movie, especially Pulp Fiction. Lower the pedestal. And watch True Romance instead, to see what Tarantino was capable of before he sniffed the Oscar potential in the glorious smug scent of his own farts.

Original Author: Naushad Kabir