281 – Pulp Fiction (1994) 20 Years Later

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Remember October 1994? The leaves we’re falling from the trees; children prepared their costumes for trick-or-treating fun; and a 4-year-old Steven Cohen was brought along to Pulp Fiction by his incredibly progressive parents. Nope. Just kidding. My parents are pretty liberal, but that would be a huge stretch. In fact they were pretty strict when it came to the media my sister and I ingested. I wasn’t even allowed to watch The Simpsons (though I snuck one in every once in a while). I missed some touchstones, but I don’t blame them for sheltering me in that way – parenting is an evolving process for everyone (he said as if he knew first-hand). But now, almost exactly twenty years later I can correct one injustice by finally seeing Pulp Fiction on the big screen.

Calm down, calm down. I’ve seen Pulp Fiction before (I’ve even seen the script read live by a bunch of celebrities), but I realized today that I have never seen it unedited. When I was 12 or so, Pulp Fiction was playing on AMC or something, so I recorded it on some random VHS (possibly containing cherished home movies). I don’t know if you know, but the movie is a little inappropriate, especially for basic cable, so many classic lines and scenes were excised from that version. But that was the cut of the film that I watched for years. I learned about the rest of the movie through the cultural zeitgeist, but tonight was my opportunity to see it in its intended form. In glorious 35 mm, because Quentin Tarantino wouldn’t have it any other way.

Much like Amores Perros – a movie that owes a huge debt to this one – Pulp Fiction is a hyperlinked film connecting enforcers Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson); their boss, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames); Marsellus’s wife, Mia (Uma Thurman); and past-his-prime boxer Butch (Bruce Willis). These characters are interwoven with a supporting cast including excellent performances from Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Eric Stoltz, and Christopher Walken in an epic of tapestry of crime and debauchery in 90’s Los Angeles.

My original idea for tonight was that I would write about the ways in which the movie reflects the mid 90’s, but it really doesn’t. I mean, there are the big cellphones and the nonchalant use of slurs, but for the most part Pulp Fiction feels kind of timeless, and it is mostly because of how important it has become in our culture.

Tarantino’s sophomore feature is considered a masterpiece, and it is obvious why. Outside of its structure, the film moves in a very unique, almost stream-of-consciousness fashion. I envy people who may have been seeing it for the first time tonight at the New Beverly (if any such people exist), because it is so unpredictable. And the performances – my goodness. It takes real chops to pull off the type of dialogue Tarantino writes, and Travolta and Willis and (particularly) Jackson pull it off so well.

So of course Pulp Fiction became integral to American cinema. Not just as a reference point, but also as an inspiration to the generations of filmmakers that have come along since. Tarantino’s dialogue style and narrative structure have been aped continuously in the intervening twenty years. In that way it is hard to criticize. But really, I don’t want to criticize it. Pulp Fiction has long been one of my favorite movies, and seeing it in a theater with the gimp intact- well, that just makes it even better.

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