Friday, December 25, 2015

PULP FICTION and the Path of the Righteous

Sometimes a film comes along that becomes more than merely popular, that stamps its imprint so distinctly on the collective cultural consciousness as to become part and parcel of the lingua franca, an almost subconscious connective bond in the social tapestry. The advent of the mass media hurried along this process. Once a film could be viewed again and again on television and video, it became easier for it to achieve such a totemic status. It’s why The Godfather remains so ubiquitous in the mass parlance, even amongst those who have never actually sat down and watched Michael Corleone’s descent into darkness (granted, its wry commentary on the American Dream also helps, but hey…) It’s why the Will Ferrell empire of laughs has managed to colonize minds of all ages: Anchorman is a great party film, but it also works as a loosely connected series of clips that can be shared virally.

In 1994, Pulp Fiction became this type of film. And Quentin Tarantino became this type of director. “And nothing was ever the same” is one of the hoariest clichés imaginable. But truly, post-Pulp Fiction, nothing was ever the same.

As I mentioned in my essay on Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s ascent occurred at a precipitous time for the indie and art film world. Throughout the ‘80s, the influence of the Jarmusches and the Hayneses and the Wenderses of the art house realm had been bubbling under the surface of a mainstream film scene increasingly dominated by empty action epics and slick, sanitized dramas and comedies, a reflection of the go-go Reaganomics bubble. Spike Lee was arguably one of the first directors to transcend the indie milieu with Do the Right Thing, a righteous, morally complex, smart bomb of a film that confronted a fairly wide audience with its own deeply held prejudices. It took an ace provocateur and cinephile like Lee to blaze such a path. Five years later, an equally passionate cinephile and provocateur (and future sparring partner in the press) would torch that path, breaking it wide open for better and for worse. Time may have bestowed more enduring respectability on Lee’s film, but Quentin Tarantino’s raucous, ribald coming out party is, in many ways, just as a deep of a morality tale. It just came dressed up as the ultimate explosion of the culture junkie instinct.

For as transcendent as Pulp Fiction has become over the ensuing two decades, for as easy as “Royale with Cheese” can still effortlessly spill from so many lips, for as archetypical as wise-cracking criminals whose conversations are peppered with cultural ephemera have become, it has to be difficult for a first time viewer in 2015 (especially a viewer who wasn’t a teenager or older when the film was released) to fully appreciate how strange and radical it felt like in 1994. A huge part of that galvanizing sense was borne of a ‘70s revival that was reaching its peak, right at the time when post-modernism and irony were becoming forever entwined in the cultural DNA. Seeing Pulp for the first time today, its arch-ironic ‘70s references can seem a little goofy and dated, but at the time such winking humor felt fresh and vital (if you were a teen, as I was at the time, it felt like you were the first generation to experience such an ironic embrace of the past.) In the ensuing years since 1994, the acceleration of the mass media has mainstreamed irony and sarcasm to such a degree that their effect is almost anodyne. But back then, such markers were reaching a crest with Nirvana’s repackaging of ‘70s metal and punk as rebuke of the ‘80s pop excesses and the rise of a pseudo-alternative counterculture that aped that same sense of appropriation, a pop-psychology ideal for a generation still trapped in the shadow of Woodstock and the ‘60s. (It’s no coincidence that even though the 1994 Woodstock revival tried to emulate the peace and love ethos of 1969, the breakout stars of the weekend were Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails, sonic collage terrorists whose newest album was recorded in Sharon Tate’s Hollywood Hills home, the site of the true landmark counterculture event of ’69.)

To those who grew up in the ‘70s, or were at least touched by its influence, Quentin Tarantino felt like an avatar of a mass experience, a conjuring of all the weird, seemingly mundane obsessions that populated their subconscious. He simultaneously provided a dream scenario in which a movie obsessive could become a self-taught superstar (even though he went out of his way to dispel that myth) and offered safe haven for the most unkempt aspects of the burgeoning geek culture that would overtake pop culture in the 21st century. Today, QT is almost an old master, but in 1994 his hyper-nerdy demeanor stood in stark contrast to a pop culture universe that still venerated the jock-geek dichotomy.

And what he brought forth from the ‘70s was also refreshing and radical. His references to the cultural junk of his youth, his veneration of character actors from that decade…they seemed not like attempts at hipsterdom, but as loving evangelism for lost artifacts. The most notable of his achievements in this milieu, of course, was the resurrection of John Travolta’s career. At the time, it was generally accepted than an actor of Travolta’s caliber was doomed to never again reach the height of his faded Danny Zuko/Tony Manero fame. His descent into relative mediocrity was just how things went. But Brian De Palma fanatic QT knew better; the easy narrative around Travolta in Pulp is that he’s part of the wax museum with a pulse that Vincent Vega refers to, but Tarantino knew his legit dramatic chops from films like Blow Out, knew that at his best he was an actor who could be suave, funny, and moving all in the same breath. Travolta’s renaissance proved to be relatively short-lived, but in the moment it was quite the big deal.

Of course, bringing a ‘70s icon back from the grave isn’t the only reason that what Tarantino achieved in Pulp Fiction seemed so fresh. It’s fairly standard practice now, but an A-list actor like Bruce Willis taking a massive pay cut to work on an indie film like this was a much rarer concept in 1994. Modern fans accustomed to a relatively humorless Willis might forget, but his breakout role as Moonlighting’s David Addison drew its power from the breezy humor and rakishness that he brought to the proceedings. His subsequent ‘80s action star career tapped into this humor, but in increasingly brutish ways. QT saw the Ralph Meeker of Kiss Me Deadly in Willis’s tough guy posturing/bullying, and the way that his script and direction channel the actor’s prickly tendencies while also infusing them with a weight and gravitas is still moving to this day. Butch Coolidge stands aside 12 Monkeys’ James Cole as Willis’s best roles, and it should be no surprise that two filmic alchemists like Tarantino and Terry Gilliam helmed these high water marks for the actor.

But even beyond the Travolta/Willis reinventions, Pulp Fiction marks the film in which Tarantino found the two actors who would serve as his muses and prime channelers of his aesthetic. Uma Thurman’s pre-Pulp career was a scattershot series of turns in a mish mash of genres, but none of those roles managed to capture the inherent vitality that she displays in this film. Every time I watch it, I’m immediately floored by just how electric she is as Mia Wallace, her portrayal a keenly observed send-up of the femme fatale archetype as coked-up seductress delivering rat-a-tat dialogue. Her spontaneous dance to Urge Overkill’s cover of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” is still one of the high points of the film. On second viewing, a viewer knows that she’s dancing on the edge of the disaster of her accidental OD, but the way that Tarantino stays with the totality of her wild abandon to the song is still exhilarating. It’s a testament to the power of Thurman’s performance that she’s only a significant presence in 20 minutes of the run time, and yet the energy she brings to the proceedings can be felt long after she’s been reduced to a cameo in Bruce Willis’s segment.

And then there’s Samuel L. Jackson. This was the film that turned a struggling actor and recovering addict who had shown flashes of brilliance throughout his career as a supporting player (including a memorable turn as Mister Senor Love Daddy in Do the Right Thing!) into SAMUEL L. JACKSON the larger than life charisma machine. In an era in which the star system of old appears to be dead, Jackson still makes great hay out of portraying embellishments on his own gregarious personality, and at his best he manages to fuse that star quality with genuine dramatic power. And is there a better combination of writer and actor in this era than Jackson and Tarantino? Even with the ablest of interpreters, the subtle nuances of QT’s motormouth dialogue (Mamet on trucker speed as I put it in my Reservoir Dogs essay) can be hard to fully capture. But Jackson understands the natural, giddy delight in language that his scripts, the arch bravado they require, and the almost mythological power that they tap into.

It’s that mythological aspect that forms the spine of Jackson’s Jules Winnfield, and that informs so much of the aforementioned morality tale at the heart of Pulp Fiction. Loyalty has always been a major theme in Tarantino’s oeuvre, and Pulp plays that focus to the hilt. Vincent Vega explicitly questions his own loyalty to Marsellus Wallace when tempted to romance Mia after their date, and the way that his story plays with the noir conventions of the monolithic heavy, the moll’s wife/femme fatale, and the good soldier gives things the feeling of an age old cycle being played out once again. Butch’s struggle to escape his downtrodden life requires his betrayal of Marsellus (after being tempted to betray the ethics of his ancestry), and it’s during his struggle to finish that escape that he essentially becomes a Theseus figure, drawn deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of his deceit until he must face the Minotaur in Maynard’s torture dungeon. Now whether said Minotaur is Marsellus, Zed, Maynard, or The Gimp is up for debate. But it’s only through that deepest of physical and ethical descents that Butch can overcome his predicament.

In some ways, Jules’s journey is the most mythological, or at least the most religious-oriented, a revelatory rededication to something much greater than himself. Jackson’s initial reading of the Ezekiel 25:17 speech remains one of the most lauded passages of the film, but often the focus of viewers is on the comedic aspects of the scene. But here again lies the complex brilliance of Tarantino on display. Go back and rewatch this pivotal scene between Jackson and Frank Whaley…with the sound off. What plays as thrilling and highly theatrical with sound is uncomfortable and terrifying without it, Andrzej Sekula’s framing all tight close-ups and low angles, Whaley’s face a mask of sheer terror, and Jackson’s eyes gleaming with the malicious intent of a man possessed by either total purpose or total commitment to a role…or both. As Jules notes to Vincent before they enter Brett’s apartment, “Let’s get into character.” Playing the part of the thugs is integral to these men’s existence, from their icy demeanors to their spartan tough guy suits.

It’s only at the film’s conclusion that this performative drive comes full circle, and it’s here that the power Jackson can bring to a role comes out in full force. As he repeats the Ezekiel 25:17 quote to a captive Tim Roth, Jules is finally forced to come to terms with the real meaning of the verse, and with his true role as the tyranny of evil men. As the years pass, this scene gains more and more weight for me. Pulp Fiction is such a wild, profane, breezy ride, but in the end its concerns are focused on the possibility of redemption. Most of the characters either escape with a modicum of redemption in their lives or end up dead, but Jules is the one person who must come to terms with the horror with which he has been complicit. As Jackson runs himself down to Roth in a measured, even patter, the total effect is both devastating and galvanizing, a refutation of the sexiness of evil that is too often the only takeaway that some have from Tarantino’s films.

Even moreso than the moments of high drama and bombast that make up Pulp Fiction, it’s the quieter and more subdued passages that really define the film and establish its foundation. Because once again, as in Reservoir Dogs, this is a film about people who love to talk. For all its reputation as a violent gangland comedy, it’s striking to watch Pulp today and remember how much of its running time is composed of extended conversations. Vincent and Mia’s famed dinner at Jack Rabbit Slim’s is a measured study in the seductive allure of opening oneself up to the improvisational vulnerability of a one on one confab. Jules and Vincent talk so much about the politics of the foot rub that they almost cost themselves their lives (what would’ve happened if they hadn’t dawdled in the hallway for a few minutes?) In what amounts to her only scene, the lovely Maria de Medeiros (Thurman’s co-star in Henry and June) lends tenderness to her relationship with Wills via a goofy conversation about the pleasures of the potbelly. In Tarantino’s world, language is a vital part of existence, as essential as the coffee these characters mainline and the plots they hatch to preserve their livelihoods.  

Indeed, Tarantino continues to establish a key thread from his first feature, that of the power of the character as storyteller. Amidst all of Dogs’s tough guy banter, it’s Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange who works the magic of deception through his skill with the extended tale of his alter ego. The power of the storyteller runs rampant through the eccentric assemblage of lovers, buggers, and thieves in Pulp Fiction. In the famous opening diner scene, Roth convinces the sublime Amanda Plummer (another livewire performer in this excellent ensemble, albeit one who never got her full due in Hollywood) to rob the join by spinning an extended tale of the inefficiencies of robbing liquor stores. Willis’s character trajectory is propelled by memories of Christopher Walken laying out the tale of his family watch’s legacy, an almost mythological line of duty and loyalty encapsulated in a gold pocket piece. Harvey Keitel’s Winston Wolf delivers Jules and Vincent from doom by spinning what amounts to an extended tale/plan of the right way to do things. And Jackson’s show stopping climactic moment of revelation is filtered through the Road to Damascus story that he tells Roth at gunpoint. Tarantino would bring the storyteller’s power to even greater realization later in his career….but more on that eventually.

The smash success of Pulp Fiction, which at the time became the most successful independent film of all time, transformed Miramax Films (recently acquired by Disney) into a major new power in mainstream Hollywood. Harvey and Bob Weinstein were now the studio moguls they always dreamed of being, and Harvey’s aggressive, bullying promotional moxie came to dominate awards season for years to come. But this newly gained renown came with quite the price. I worked at a local art house during Miramax’s purple patch, so I witnessed the formerly plucky indie become slightly bloated, manufacturing instant prestige pix that too often came across as almost cartoonish in their pre-fab sincerity and manufactured gravitas (a great irony, considering that Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were such iconoclastic raspberries to some of the more po-faced tendencies of the ‘80s art film world.) In similar fashion to the Seattle music scene of the early ‘90s, once Miramax broke through, every major studio wanted a piece of the suddenly hot indie film scene. And much like the decline of the so-called ‘90s Alternative Rock era, once the studios got their hands on smaller film distributors their output began to suffer, and the creative wiggle room they had as independent entities disappeared. Today, most of those studios have either been completely subsumed into the major studio maw, or are altogether dead. To a certain extent, the internet has democratized great swaths of indie film distribution, but without a strong network of smaller film companies and indie theaters, it’s much harder for a little film to build word of mouth, or to gain traction in the rapid pace of the modern cultural conversation.

Quentin Tarantino broke such new ground for the possibilities of indie authorship, yet he also paved the way for a slew of imitators who threatened to turn much of the non-prestige art film scene into a ghetto for second-rate gangland pictures. With a Best Original Screenplay Oscar under his belt, he plowed through 1995 as a certifiable celebrity, a pre-figuration of the demythification of fame that reality television would soon usher forth in full force. But as with any artist who produces a work that hits so big in so many ways, the inevitable question about his career became how he could follow up this landmark film. In the short term, he realized his youthful dreams by having several of his old screenplays produced by other directors (From Dusk ‘Til Dawn is a notable example, and one in which Tarantino got to indulge his acting jones again.) And he became that guy, a near-ubiquitous public figure in the style of an old Tonight Show regular…sometimes to his own detriment (his segment of the much-derided anthology film Four Rooms comes across simultaneously as self-satire and excessive self-parody.) But eventually, he would turn in a completely different direction for his next project, a near-complete retreat into the quiet conversational moments that had come to populate large swaths of Pulp Fiction. For the first and only time in his career, he would consciously adapt the work of another author. The result remains a fascinating sidebar in his career, a film that says as much about its time as Pulp Fiction does about the mid-‘90s. But Jackie Brown warrants an essay all its own.

No comments: