Hollywood roller coasters gave us some kicks, but 'Pulp Fiction's adrenaline shot saved us

By Owen Gleiberman
Updated February 24, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

The day I landed the job of movie critic for ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, I managed to be thrilled and wary at the same time. After Top Gun and Die Hard, Arnold and Eddie (remember him?), Police Academy and Batman: The Marketing Seminar — after all the slick, unreal, hard-edged entertainments of the ’80s, I was starting to feel a little exhausted by movies. And the movies seemed exhausted. Hollywood had become a kind of pop steamroller, a zap factory churning out action/comedy/sci-fi machines. (Even the tradition of Oscar-winning High Moral Dramas had grown zappy: It had been Oliver Stoned.)

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. The past five years have brought us dozens of superb pictures, from The Silence of the Lambs to Ghost, from Reversal of Fortune to Dazed and Confused, from The Fugitive to Schindler’s List. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that as a culture we’ve become slave to the Art of the Ride, to movies that rock and jolt you, that offer one high point after another, that bamboozle your sympathies without achieving (or even trying for) the organic emotional current of honest storytelling. My God, the rides we’ve been on! Total Recall and Cliffhanger and Batman Returns and Basic Instinct and The Mask. This is entertainment for the age of channel surfing, and it has turned America into a nation of overstimulated fantasy addicts.

Yet a change has been in the works. It began quietly, with the 1989 release of sex, lies, and videotape, the dark, canny, stirring little psychodrama that grossed $23.8 million in America and ignited the proud new era of independent filmmaking. There had been other first-rate indie features, of course, but this one had lust and intrigue and the lure of the forbidden. While Hollywood’s executives were off building bigger and better rides, the independent-film movement (shepherded by Miramax and its fearless head honcho, Harvey Weinstein) did something no one might have predicted. It began to offer movies with mystery and romance and soul (The Crying Game, The Piano), movies that won over people’s imaginations — and won Oscars, too. Suddenly, it was making Hollywood pictures better than Hollywood makes them.

The trend’s watershed event was Pulp Fiction. In its wildly overstuffed way, this was a ride, too — yet one in which the elaborate twists turned out to be anything but arbitrary. It was fashioned by a radical bad-boy outsider — yet it starred people like John Travolta and Bruce Willis (giving them second lives as actors), and its rebel aesthetic was cobbled together from a thousand trashy Hollywood melodramas. What Pulp Fiction represents is nothing less than the reinvention of mainstream American cinema from without. This is a turn of events comparable, I think, to the insurrection in pop music that began during the late ’70s, when punk and new wave ended up turning commercial aesthetics on their head.

So does that make Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Carrey the REO Speedwagon and Journey of the ’90s, mega-stars doomed to extinction? Probably not. The Ride is here to stay. Yet the next five years promise the continuation of a jubilant revolution: the spirit of independent filmmaking — not just true lies, but true stories — recolonizing Hollywood and restoring the magic that first drew us to its light.

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