We gave it an A
Quentin Tarantino’s spectacular PULP FICTION (1994, Miramax, R, priced for rental) is something like the Jurassic Park of independent films: a titanically engrossing and profitable piece of movie making that excited so much commentary — in print, on TV, and all over cyberspace — that its video release doesn’t leave a whole lot of uncharted terrain for a video critic to cover. Granted, I could buck fashion and take the heretical route — unlike a lot of critics, I think the movie has its flaws, both minor (when Uma Thurman instructs John Travolta to not be a square, she traces a rectangle in the air) and not so minor (Maria de Medeiros, as an annoyingly passive-aggressive girlfriend). But the fact is, I’ll probably end up owning a copy — of the letterboxed version. The movie is being released in a pan-and-scan transfer, which fills your TV screen while disrupting key scenes, as well as in a letterboxed edition that remains true to Tarantino’s original wide-screen compositions. On the non-letterboxed tape, some of the exchanges between two people sitting across from each other have been chopped up into a series of back-and-forth medium closeups, which isn’t the way these scenes are supposed to play.
Nevertheless, in either version the movie remains recommended. But allow me to suggest some additional viewing — a selective Pulp Fiction Antecedents Film Festival. For while each of the three interlinked stories that make up Pulp Fiction — revolving around the business and personal concerns of superbad gangster Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), his hitmen Vincent and Jules (Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson), and boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) — has its own attributes, each also alludes to other movies. And I’m not just talking plotlines; some of the smallest details hark back to great moments in movie history. Take Thurman’s black page boy wig, an homage to Louise Brooks’ tonsorial stylings in G.W. Pabst’s classic 1928 melodrama Pandora’s Box. Variations on that ‘do have blared ”instant vixen” in scores of movies that followed, from Jean-Luc Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman to Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, and it’s no coincidence that all of these movies influenced Pulp Fiction‘s overall tone.
As for what influences the movie’s action, the episode in which hapless Vincent is tempted by Marcellus’ wife, Mia (Thurman), whom he’s been asked to ”look after,” echoes the vintage noir Out of the Past, in which Robert Mitchum falls for a bad guy’s girl. When Pulp Fiction‘s Butch takes a payoff to throw a fight and then doesn’t, Tarantino nods to director Robert Wise’s engrossing The Set-Up, in which the apostate pugilist (Robert Ryan) tries to flee from mobsters after failing to take a dive. The queasy trouble Butch ends up in, however, crosses Deliverance with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and features characters that would have been inconceivable in Wise’s heyday.
Some of Pulp Fiction‘s influences are a bit more contemporary: Harvey Keitel’s Winston Wolf, who helps Vincent and Jules dispose of a messy corpse, is a benign take on Victor ”the Cleaner,” the role Keitel played in Point of No Return. Still, Tarantino’s range of references proves he’s smarter than the average hipster. Gen-Xers like to cite Repo Man‘s glowing car trunk as the source of the unearthly light emanating from the briefcase Vincent and Jules are delivering to Marcellus, but said glow doubtless originated from a sealed box in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly.
The whole joke behind Jack Rabbit Slim’s, the restaurant where Travolta and Thurman win the twist contest, is that everything about it is a movie — or a pop-culture — reference. This scene’s constant name-dropping suggests many titles for bonus viewing. The mention of a Douglas Sirk steak, for instance, made me hungry for that director’s lush drama Imitation of Life.
But Tarantino is a lot more than a walking film encyclopedia. Pulp Fiction is full of audacious, original dialogue; his ability to take what seem like minor conversational themes and dovetail them onto later exchanges for maximum comic effect is close to genius. And the action can be literally heart-stopping. Still, one of the coolest things about Pulp Fiction is its many links to other pleasures. When you return your copy, you’ll have plenty of ideas about what to rent next. A-