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Entertainment Geekly: 'Pulp Fiction,' the video store, and the evolution of movie history

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PulpFiction Travolta
Everett Collection

My new apartment doesn’t have internet or cable, because I don’t know if I want internet or cable. “Not wanting cable” is so hot right now. This week, CBS and HBO announced their intentions to launch streaming-only services. Pause to imagine your retired grandparents who watch NCIS: New Orleans but prefer NCIS: LA. Now pause to imagine your prodigal-son cousin who stars in a hipster off-Broadway nude-rap opera. (He plays a a cross-dressing hooker named Threeyoncé.) Now pause to imagine that they both suddenly agree on everything—because when the most successful TV network and the TV network so cool that it constantly claims it’s not a TV network both agree that the future is streaming, then “television” as a concept really is just becoming a concept. (Lest we needed further proof: It might feel like Friends is always on TV, but now Friends will literally always be on Netflix.)

“Not wanting internet” is, at best, insanity. At worst, it’s an obtuse contrivance—the equivalent of proudly stating that your children don’t watch television, or that your children don’t eat candy, or that your children don’t do any of the things that they secretly do at their friends’ houses.

But I swear I’m not some kind of anti-Digital Era reactionary. I’m lazy; I’m also lucky. I live a few blocks away from a video store called Vidiots—”video store” being the official misnomer for a place where you can rent DVDs. Because the rapid evolution of content delivery ages everyone faster, the fact that I have spent the last couple of months renting DVDs makes me feel helplessly old-fashioned—a gramophone enthusiast in the iPod era. It also means that I have watched 30 movies from various countries in various genres representing various filmmakers’ unique vision. This amounts to roughly 60 hours of viewing time—also roughly how long it would take you to watch The Wire.

It’s impossible to walk into a video store and not think about Pulp Fiction. Quentin Tarantino’s banterbot crimefest turned 20 years old this week. As the internet likes to remind us, lots of things turn 20 years old every week. (Clerks! The Shawshank Redemption! That album you liked! Your youth!)

But Pulp Fiction‘s anniversary feels especially noteworthy. Tarantino loves films in general and he loves film in particular—he once described digital projection as “television in public,” in the process announcing himself as the rare public figure who still uses the word “television” in a derogatory sense. Of course, Pulp Fiction is riddled with TV references. (“Walk the earth…like Caine in Kung Fu.”) But the movie is tied inextricably to the QT origin story: The video store clerk who became a moviemaker.

You can extrapolate that origin story into an operating aesthetic. By which I mean: In the same sense that Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl was adapted from a theme park ride and Transformers was adapted from a toy and Battleship was adapted from Transformers, so Pulp Fiction was adapted from a video store. The film is rich with history, but it’s history built entirely of marginalia: Samurai films not directed by Kurosawa and gangster films not classy enough to justify as “film noir.” Tarantino would go on to make his own version of a blaxploitation movie, a samurai movie, a horror film, and finally a full-fledged western, but part of what makes Pulp Fiction great is how it feels like all those genres–and yet it lets those genres play out in the relatively mundane surroundings of Greater Generic Los Angeles. Even the central tripartite narrative structure feels derived from the video store experience–it’s like Tarantino and co-writer Roger Avary recorded three different movies on the same VHS tape.

Pulp Fiction had a seismic impact on pop culture, through it reverberated in weird ways. Immediately, there was the rush of imitation-Tarantino movies—which, as my colleague Jeff Labrecque pointed out, ran the gamut from good to great to horrific. In the longer and hazier term, Pulp Fiction helped to define a certain way of talking about pop culture: Self-consciously encyclopedic, a tendency to overthink silly things. (Most cultural criticism today exists on an analytic spectrum defined by Pulp Fiction and Clerks.)

But in some ways, Pulp Fiction is now a twenty-year-old classic that still looks like an outlier. And I think it’s because Pulp Fiction is a movie steeped in film history—defined by the video store—except that for an assortment of reasons, “film history” is a thing that no longer exists in the same way. Part of that is the rise of television; part is the TV-ification of Hollywood Cinema, built on neverending franchises; and part is thanks to the across-the-board decline in movie attendance.

A couple weeks ago, I saw A Walk Among the Tombstones, a film I quite enjoyed. Can I recommend that people see A Walk Among the Tombstones? Movie tickets are expensive; there’s no “conversation” around A Walk Among the Tombstones the way there is around even the worst blockbuster movie and even the lamest Oscar bait melodrama. A Walk Among the Tombstones is a pretty decent movie filled with a couple of awesome scenes. That’s exactly the kind of movie that could blow up because of video stores; it’s also the kind of movie that seems to disappear almost immediately in our modern moviegoing culture, destined for an afterlife at the far end of the scroll underneath Netflix’s “Thrillers About Lone Protagonists” subgenre. People still watch movies, but they watch fewer movies. TV shows fill up time in a way movies never did, and no one wants to take a chance on a movie that’s merely pretty good.

What I’m getting at: As a movie built on pop culture, Pulp Fiction was ahead of its time. But as a movie built out of movie culture, it now looks a little quaint. There’s a minor, Drafthouse-y vogue for ’80s-influenced genre films just now—if you haven’t seen The Guest yet, stop everything and go now. And Edgar Wright is probably the chief inheritor of the Tarantino mantle of the film-loving filmmaker. (Hot Fuzz is to Bad Boys II as Reservoir Dogs is to The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.) And a few years ago, there was that episode of Community that was supposed to be an explicit Pulp Fiction homage but turned out to be an explicit My Dinner With Andre homage. I can’t think of a better way to honor the video-store spirit of Pulp Fiction. And I can’t decide whether it’s cool or sad that the future of film history is everywhere besides film.

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