Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Film Appreciation - The Path of the Righteous Man

Cody Hamman still has Film Appreciation for Pulp Fiction after more than twenty years.

A mysterious suitcase that emanates a golden glow. Samuel L. Jackson intensely reciting a Bible passage (which isn't actually a Bible passage) about great vengeance and furious anger. Jackson and John Travolta, who was plucked out of the mothballs his career had been in for a while by director Quentin Tarantino, dressed in black suits and toting guns. Travolta dancing on a stage in 1950s-themed restaurant with a brunette Uma Thurman; a homage to the earlier days of his career that didn't come off as cheesy. Christopher Walken giving a monologue about a watch's journey through wars, generations, and rectums. Bruce Willis and Ving Rhames being tormented by a pair of rapists who have a pet human they call The Gimp and keep dressed in bondage gear.

Tarantino had gotten a lot of attention for his directorial debut Reservoir Dogs, so there was a great deal of anticipation for his follow-up - and when Pulp Fiction hit in October of 1995 it instantly became a pop culture sensation, forever burning images and moments like those listed above into the minds of cinephiles and casual movie fans alike.

I wasn't quite eleven years old when Pulp Fiction was released, but I wanted to see the movie. Even though I was already going to see violent, R-rated films in the theatre by October of '94, for whatever reason I didn't make it out to see Pulp Fiction on the big screen. I had to witness its popularity form from a distance, reading and watching reviews, catching glimpses of TV parodies that I didn't fully understand because I hadn't seen the scenes they were parodying, hearing references to dialogue snippets that were included on the soundtrack that a cousin owned (her father was named Zed, so they were quite amused by the snippet in which Willis says "Zed's dead, baby. Zed's dead."). I desperately wanted to see this movie, and I had to wait longer than usual to see it after it left the local theatres - at Tarantino's urging, Miramax held off on releasing Pulp Fiction on home video for eleven months, feeling that waiting would help build its cult following and allow people more time to catch it in the theatre. Not in my area.

It was a wait I remember enduring. I finally got to see Pulp Fiction in September of 1995, rented on VHS. And during that first viewing of it, it immediately became one of my favorite movies. I wasn't yet twelve, but I enjoyed it just as much as any adult who saw it at that time. I was just as entertained and blown away by Tarantino's dialogue, and listening to his characters banter over and over (while also studying the dialogue in other films of the time, like the works of Kevin Smith) helped me improve the dialogue in the stories I was writing.

I don't even tend to enjoy movies about organized crime, but Tarantino told his story populated with gangsters and hitmen in a very unique way, it doesn't feel like the average mob movie. It's a lot more fun - and a lot funnier. In fact, there's a sequence in Pulp Fiction that I consider to be one of the funniest sequences in film history. I'm a big fan of the comedy that comes out of people becoming hysterical while enduring intense situations, and there is a shining example of that in this film.

Tarantino's dialogue can feel excessive at times, and maybe it could have been trimmed down here and there, but most of it absolutely serves a purpose, so excellently and subtly setting up characters and pay-offs that it takes multiple viewings to realize just how well it all works. For example, early on you have Travolta and Jackson's characters Vincent Vega and Jules Winfield having a lengthy conversation about the time their criminal kingpin boss Marcellus Wallace (Rhames) had a man tossed off a fourth floor balcony - and through a greenhouse roof - for giving his wife Mia (Thurman) a foot massage. At the time, you may question why we're listening to these guys talk about footage massages for so long, but the conversation is actually stirring a fear of Marcellus inside Vincent. His boss is going out of town and has asked Vincent to take Mia out on the town and show her a good time while he's away. Vincent and Mia have a good night, going to the aforementioned '50s-themed restaurant and winning a dance contest, but then the coke-snorting Mia discovers some heroin in Vincent's coat pocket while he's out of the room, snorts some, and overdoses... So while Vincent desperately tries to save Mia's life, you know that foot massage story is weighing heavily on his mind and increasing his panic - if Marcellus would throw someone off a building for touching his wife's feet, what will he do to someone who allowed his wife to overdose?

The overdose sequence is the one that makes me laugh more than any sequence in any other movie. Freaking out, Vincent takes Mia to the home of his drug dealer Lance (Eric Stoltz), who also freaks out over the situation, and proceeds to argue with his wife (Rosanna Arquette) while trying to get things ready so Vincent can inject adrenaline straight into Mia's heart. The way these characters talk each other while dealing with the situation is hilarious to me.

Much like an anthology movie, Pulp Fiction is told in chapters, but these chapters aren't straightforward or linear. The film begins with a scene between two characters (played by Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) who we won't see again until the final scenes; it's essentially a wraparound segment. Then it goes into a conversation between Vincent and Jules that sets up the first chapter but is actually a prelude to the third.

Chapter one is called "Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace's Wife"... but the first scene after that chapter title appears has nothing to do with Vincent taking Mia out, it's a scene between Marcellus and boxer Butch Coolidge (Willis) that sets up the second chapter.

It's that second chapter, "The Gold Watch", that earned Tarantino's longtime friend Roger Avary a story credit on the film, as the story of Butch, a boxer who agrees to throw a fight and then brings the wrath of Marcellus down upon him when he wins the fight (and kills his opponent with a punch) came from a script Avary wrote called Pandemonium Reigns. Butch and Marcellus eventually patch things up when they have worse things to deal with than each other - the rapists and their "gimp" friend.

One section of the film I could really do without is Butch's interactions with his highly annoying girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros). He doesn't come out of these moments looking good either, leaving Fabienne cowering in a corner in fear when he has a temper tantrum over the fact that she left an important family heirloom behind at his apartment, which is surely being watched and searched by Marcellus's goons.

The final chapter, "The Bonnie Situation", is the least eventful, but it has plenty of funny lines while Vincent and Jules clean up an accidental killing with the help of characters played by Harvey Keitel and Tarantino. The conclusion of the opening scene that follows takes things out on a great note.

Pulp Fiction is a movie I saw a year later than I wanted to, but it's one that I've enjoyed for over twenty years now - and a few years ago, I did finally get a chance to see it on the big screen. It had a major impact on pop culture at the time, and it still holds up to this day. It's just as good and just as cool all these years later.

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