‘Pulp Fiction’ 25th Anniversary: What We Take For Granted Now
Pulp Fiction opened 25 years ago today. I still remember the night I saw it. I worked at the movie theater so I would often fit two movies in on the days I had off. I had just seen Shawshank Redemption and thought, “Well, there’s no way the next movie I see is going to be that good.” Then I walked into Pulp Fiction and it changed my life.
Looking back on that night, I realize that a world that has had Pulp Fiction in it for 25 years ago takes a lot of it for granted. I hope in looking back we can remember what cinema was like before Pulp Fiction and always remember what a shock to the industry Quentin Tarantino’s second film was.
We’d never seen anything like ‘Pulp Fiction’ before
I remember when Pulp Fiction began with Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honeybunny (Amanda Plummer) talking about robbing a restaurant, I thought, “That’s actually a good idea. It makes sense.” Then the opening titles music switched in the middle of the credits. I’d never seen that before.
The three main stories of Pulp Fiction were compelling but what stood out was the way the characters talked to each other. Vincent Vega (John Travolta) had to take Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) on a date but he talked to his partner Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) about foot massages and Quarter Pounders.
Butch (Bruce Willis) double crossed Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) but ended up in a bondage dungeon. Then back to Jules and Vincent earlier in the day, they had to clean up a body Vincent accidentally killed. They say there are only seven original stories and everything is a variation on those seven. In 1994 I thought Pulp Fiction was the eighth story.
There may have been French New Wave films that broke standard narrative structure, and obscure crime films with hardcore stories, but a 16-year-old who’d only seen Hollywood movies had never seen anything like this, and I can vouch for the adults who frequented Pulp Fiction the four months it played hadn’t either.
They talked about anything in ‘Pulp Fiction’
Quentin Tarantino started his cinematic dialogue in Reservoir Dogs. His character gives the “Like a Virgin” speech and Steve Buscemi rants against tipping. Reservoir Dogs was acclaimed at Sundance but didn’t play outside the big cities so I didn’t see it until after Pulp Fiction.
Pulp Fiction was my first exposure to movie characters bringing up random subjects like renaming a Quarter Pounder in Europe because of the metric system, or why Vincent doesn’t eat pork. At the time I likened it to Seinfeld, which was my only reference for characters analyzing random things, but Seinfeld never talked about drugs or foot massages. For this, credit should also go to cowriter Roger Avary with whom Tarantino shares the Oscar.
We were certainly treated to lots of bad imitators of Tarantino dialogue in the late ‘90s. There’s still no one who duplicates Tarantino’s voice, but other artists with their own voices like Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater thrived as Pulp Fiction opened moviegoers up to watching people talking.
It was out of order
Pulp Fiction wasn’t the first movie to tell its story out of order. It was the most widely viewed to. It blew my mind when they returned to the morning assassination of the briefcase thieves two hours into the movie. We had more than one customer alert us that we had the reels out of order because Vincent got shot and now he’s back. It took time for people to accept that this was intentional.
Would there be a Memento without Pulp Fiction first? Maybe, but Pulp Fiction threw down a gauntlet to conventional movies. By the ‘90s, Hollywood was firmly entrenched in a formula and Pulp Fiction said we didn’t have to follow the rules.
They would have been great stories even if they weren’t connected
By the end of Pulp Fiction you see how all the stories connect. However, that alone would just be a gimmick. What made Pulp Fiction special was that these were great stories anyway.
Jules and Mia have an interesting date where they talk about interesting things, and Jules never gets an answer about the foot massage. At the time, five dollars was a lot for a milkshake. Now it’s competitive. You think the issue will be that he’s tempted to sleep with the boss’s wife, but it turns into a bigger crisis.
Butch’s story may begin the most conventionally. We had seen criminals double-cross the mob before. When Butch goes back for his father’s watch, you want to say, “Dude, just leave it. No matter how sentimental it is for you, just leave it.” Even then Butch perseveres. The story goes to the next level when Marcellus Wallace crosses the street right in front of him and escalates when they end up meeting Zed and The Gimp.
“The Bonnie Situation” is almost like a sitcom plot but one far too bloody for network and streaming wasn’t an option in 1994. The gravity of the crisis is undercut with funny asides like complimenting Jimmie (Tarantino)’s coffee. It concludes with Jules’ existential crisis intersecting with Pumpkin and Honey Bunny.
‘Pulp Fiction’ had no genre
One of the more unique aspects of Pulp Fiction was how it defied genre. I suppose crime is a genre, but more of a subgenre of drama. Was Pulp Fiction a drama? It’s pretty laugh-a-minute in the dialogue. Is it a comedy? It’s pretty serious when Mia almost dies, when Butch and Marsellus get kidnapped and when Jules takes the spiritual path.
Only the Butch storyline would even qualify as action, and that’s just for the car crash and fight with Marsellus. Tarantino’s whole thing was sort of action movies with more talking than action, so maybe. I wish I could remember what section Blockbuster stocked Pulp Fiction in.
In 1994 we didn’t have Netflix algorithms to qualify super niche genres. Perhaps movies like Pulp Fiction paved the way for films to fit more specific boxes, or explode the boxes completely. All of these avenues are open to movies now and they don’t even have to go to theaters to reach an audience.
Pulp Fiction went to theaters and remained for months. It was a phenomenon that people discovered, talked about, analyzed and saw again to find new aspects in it. It’s been a staple of cinema ever since.