Sunday, September 7, 2014

Flick Pick: Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction
(Miramax, 1994)

A personal guilty pleasure, with everything I'd normally skip, and love to hate (rampant violence, criminality, drug use, language that'd make a sailor blush) but done so damned well it's still unbelievable to watch twenty years later. The original monster independent smash hit, this film is Quentin Tarantino's magnum opus. There isn't one scene in the movie that does not, seemingly effortlessly, become iconic. Made for a relative pittance, $8.5M, guaranteed to break even by an offer of $11M for the foreign distribution rights, Tarantino got his cast members cheap, and put every other penny on the screen. And OMFG did he get it right. The cast is to die for: John Travolta was resurrected from film limbo to megastar, and nominated for Best Actor. Uma Thurman was the instant A-list "It" girl, and garnered a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Samuel Jackson was cemented as the coolest guy ever, and nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Bruce Willis took a high chance on a low salary, and scored huge in points on the $200M+ gross, giving himself a second wind in films after some earlier career disappointments, one that still hasn't stopped. Harvey Keitel was magnificent, stealing and owning the entire scene he was in. Ving Rhames became an instant legend. Tim Roth went from Tim Who? to That Guy overnight. And Christopher Walken demonstrated in one flashback scene why he's not an actor as much as a force of nature. There were also Oscar nominations, seven in all, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, and it won Oscars for Tarantino and his writing partner Roger Avary for Best Original Screenplay. Emphasis on Original. Before Pulp Fiction, there had been nothing like it. Afterwards, everybody wanted their movie to tap into its vibe, its look, and anything remotely close. Tarantino's genius was multi-faceted, and not least of which is the movie's non-linear style, which forced everybody in the audience to pay attention to every scene, and spend the mental time to pick up the pieces and straighten the order out in their minds. Which locks every one of those scenes in your head long after the projector fades to black. How rare an example is it in American film making? That I would willingly quote from the NYTimes review from it's opening should give you some idea:
"[Tarantino] has come up with a work of such depth, wit and blazing originality that it places him in the front ranks of American film makers." - Janet Maslin
If anything, that's too modest a description for such a cultural watershed work.

Full disclosure: I got to work once on location on another Tarantino film shortly after this one. So yes, he's helped me pay my rent. Helluva nice and down to earth guy for a someone who had a shiny new Oscar sitting on the mantel at home at the time, but the true mark of his cultural status was that at our lunchtime, 50 kids from ages about 9-16 hung around for autographs from the director (which is about as rare as wanting or getting autographs in baseball from the manager) which he graciously signed all of, and had he not begged off, this little swarm of padawans would have followed him around all day long. I've never seen anything like it before or since in Hollywood for a director; that, my friends, is true cinematic rockstardom, and I got to see it with my own eyes.

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