Tarantino may have moved on, but his Pulp Fiction – recently feted at Cannes – remains a stone-cold classic.
Pulp Fiction is currently rated #5 on IMDb, a website that’s a good indicator for which films the general public love and hate. Although films tend to go up and down on the site, Pulp Fiction is a constant mainstay of the top ten, and what marks it out from the others in the top ten, with the exception of 12 Angry Men, is how relatively inexpensive it was to make. Tarantino had already made Reservoir Dogs on the cheap, conceding one of the reasons they didn’t film the film’s heist is because they couldn’t afford to. Pulp Fiction was made on a budget of around $8,000,000, yet its cultural impact has undoubtedly been eight zillion times bigger than, say, Michael Bay’s Transformers, for which the budget reached the stratosphere.
Pulp Fiction was to American cinema what Jack Kerouac’s On The Road was to American literature. It set a new blueprint
Today, Pulp Fiction is still revered as one of the coolest films ever made. It’s like a Jack Kerouac novel that only gets cooler with age. It struts, it pouts, it swaggers. Despite its violence, and its often black tone, it entertains. The dialogue, which manages to make even small talk seem more compelling than the climax of most movies, captivates; the increasingly ridiculous circumstances of the lowlife characters amuse us, and the subtly handled character arc of Jules, a psychotic, fast-talking, mania-filled, swine-hating assassin, who gets his head turned by God after bullets miraculously miss him, stands as Tarantino’s only real homage to traditional American screenplay structure.
Tarantino, instead, brought a new approach to American mainstream cinema. Pulp Fiction was to American cinema what Kerouac’s On The Road was to American literature. It showed there are other ways to do things, and yet still be cool at the same time. It shook American cinema from its action movie blockbuster malaise. It set a new blueprint. Pulp Fiction, like a lot of things, was time and place bound. It had context. If it was made today, its impact would probably be much more diminished. Though Tarantino would probably admit to being inspired by numerous movies and directors, Pulp Fiction as an American mainstream film was something different from anything that had gone before.
There is an argument that Tarantino was indebted to the French New Wave director, Jean-Luc Godard. But by bringing Godard’s filmmaking swagger to the American mainstream, he opened many eyes to a different kind of filmmaking. And he set his own precedents. Before Pulp Fiction, did anyone really believe that a conversation about a Royale with cheese would become so legendary? What other American director would have dared to write in a 15-minute scene set in a food joint that does little to enhance the plot? With Pulp Fiction, Tarantino brought plotless antics to the American mainstream.
Tarantino’s movies now lack spontaneous dance scenes and irreverent conversations about Royales with cheese. He moved on
Tarantino’s ethos was that not everything had to push the story forward. Textbooks on American screenplay structure advise the writer to enter a scene late and leave early. They say a scene should try to be brief and straight to the point. Tarantino is always the first to arrive and the last to leave. But what about Tarantino now? Is he still relevant, or does Pulp Fiction sustain him like Brown Sugar sustains the Rolling Stones? He’s getting older, and the general rule seems to be that the older a director gets, the less we talk about their new movies. Can you even name Francis Ford Coppola’s last film?
Likewise, Scorsese will never top the raw energy of Raging Bull that comes from being a young, angry filmmaker. On Tarantino’s side is the fact that he’s looked upon as a rock star director. At 51, he’s so far retained his own personal coolness and swagger. He still has lots to say. In more recent years, he has moved away from an exploration, and reinvention, of contemporary America, thereby leaving behind the sunny setting of California, instead opting to indulge in period pieces. His movies now contain only mild residue of what made Pulp Fiction what it was. His movies now lack spontaneous dance scenes and irreverent conversations about Royales with cheese. He has moved on.
More on Pulp Fiction: Nine things you didn’t know about the film
A lot of people might bay for more films like Pulp Fiction. The truth is that Tarantino probably exhausted a lot of possibilities with that film. He set precedents and ended them in one fell swoop. To stay relevant, he tweaked his methods. He relocated his settings. His filmmaking swagger is still there, even if it ended up in Nazi Germany. Inglourious Basterds may lack the cool posture of Pulp Fiction, but the linguistic pyrotechnics of characters like Jules live on through others. This is a creative director who writes his own movies, and who must literally dream scintillating dialogue exchanges whilst other filmmakers are catching up on much-needed rest.
To stay relevant, Tarantino tweaked his methods. His film-making swagger is still there, even if it ended up in Nazi Germany
Tarantino doesn’t want to stay rooted in 90s LA all his career; he doesn’t want to be typecast as the guy who makes movies about lowlife vagrants in sunny California all the time. Tarantino is the guy who keeps us guessing, who always entertains us, and who writes the snappiest dialogue this side of Groucho Marx. This is a filmmaker whose movies will always explode onto our screens, no matter his age. It’s hard to imagine he will ever make a measured movie, in the same way Scorsese moved from Goodfellas to The Aviator. Tom Wolfe once said there are only two adjectives writers care about – brilliant and outrageous. Many will argue this also applies to Tarantino and his movies.
All images: Miramax