Pulp Fiction (1994)

The honeymoon is over. I watched Pulp Fiction a few years back and like many a cinephilia, I loved it. A couple of rewatched confirmed it and I knew it was one of my favorite films of all time. But this time when I watched it, something odd happened. The movie magic was gone and I couldn’t for the life of me remembered why I loved this film. Sure, I admire the great craft at work here, and some of the sequences are still amazing, but there are so many moment that don’t work for me anymore.

Case in point: we’re introduced to the iconic hit men duo Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) on an average, everyday car ride as they talk about Vincent’s recent trip to Amsterdam. Part of what made Pulp Fiction so revolutionary at the time is how it undercut expectations and placed us in the simple everyday existence of these two hit me. And yet, it struck me that in some ways, the film is making us endure more of their uncool moments than their cool ones.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be a problem if I felt Jules and Vincent were compelling characters. But they aren’t. They’re sleek, cool cardboard cutouts; characters espousing the gospel of Quentin Tarantino as the debate the ethical quandaries of foot massages. And when they come to their destination after a long tracking shot, they step aside for a moment, take a breather and “get into character” because up to that point they haven’t had any.

And for some reason, the rhythm and momentum of the film is consistently off to me, little moment which pervade the film which derail the momentum of scenes. They stay longer after their welcome and perhaps it wouldn’t be a problem if I still liked these characters, but I don’t anymore. It’s not so much that they’ve become too familiar, but now that I’ve seen that there isn’t much there to be interested in to begin with.

The violence, which was once sleek, exciting and sexy, now just comes off as brash, distasteful and ironic in the worst possible way. The Marvin scene went from being a humorous joke, to something I now look at crass and tasteless. The needle sequence is almost unbearable, perhaps more because of my phobia of needles than the actual sequence, but it’s handled with such blunt, visceral trauma that it turns me off to the film.

But even more than that, the violence never has a weight or gravitas to it. Yes, there’s an entire sequence of the film built around dealing with the ramifications of a killing, but it’s the physical ramifications, not the ethical dilemma of the loss of a human life. It’s something I’ve become particularly sensitive to in recent years and part of the reason why I found it so grueling to watch certain stints of the film.

The dialogue, which I use to find witty, fun and engaging, now smacks of the kind of self-indulgent prose of a writer too in love with his own words to speak economically. A good writer can write fantastic lines, a great writer knows that sometimes you’ve got to cut out the fantastic lines to keep the pace flowing. There are still some great lines in the film but most of them are brief payoffs of actions and not ponderings on a five dollar milkshake or the cleanliness of the pigs.

I still love some of the exchanges in the film. The Jules monologue at the end is fantastic and practically everything that comes from the voice of Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) is pure gold. When Quentin Tarantino is on his A-game, there are few who can write dialogue as engaging as some of the prose found in here, it’s too bad it’s buried amid so much jabbering.

And while we’re on the subject of dialogue, I’m not one to nitpick excessive profanity in film, but I think Quentin Tarantino takes his vulgarities a bit too far, especially in respect to the use of the n-word. In most contexts, its used like any other swear word, but there’s one scene in particular when it goes beyond the bounds of simple profanity and becomes blatantly racist. Tarantino tries to make it a joke, but when a white male says that word to a black male with such a clear sound of malice behind it, it becomes an instant of racism.

The film certainly cranks up the repulsion factors in other ways as well. I still feel that Tarantino lingers on the Gimp sequence longer than he needs to, even though the entire sequence built around that incident is perhaps the most powerful part of the movie when you stop to think about it. It pushes the film to the bound of amorality and yet finds a way to retain a moral center amidst it all.

I still find that facet of the film the most fascinating, that even amid a world seeped in drugs and violence, a world where so much depravity exists, there are these characters who find a way to embrace a standard of morality a world in which good does not even seem to exist. That element makes me want to overlook the numerous flaws of the film.

I’m not sure when I became a person who no longer loved Pulp Fiction, but alas, I’m no longer that eager moviegoer who can enjoy the merits of headshot based humor and the languid conversations on the nature of food and entertainment. I still see what makes this film so revolutionary and fun, I just can’t enjoy it anymore. I guess it’s time to watch Jackie Brown again.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing