Watching Pulp Fiction on Blu-ray is a mildly bittersweet experience. The movie was a true phenomenon upon its release in 1994. From its fracture narrative structure, to the unpredictable dialogue, to the treasure chest of brilliant performances, there was nothing else like it in theaters at the time. Though its freshness and originality have been dulled somewhat by the scores of imitators that followed, the movie remains bracingly entertaining. That’s the sweet part of the experience. The bitter aftertaste is realizing that writer-director Quentin Tarantino hasn’t come close to touching it in the seventeen years that followed.
After Pulp Fiction made him a household name, Tarantino squandered his talents on disposable garbage like Four Rooms (an atrocious four-part anthology that he was, to be fair, only one-quarter responsible for) and From Dusk Till Dawn (which he wrote and unfortunately co-starred in). Though not without virtues, his true Pulp follow-up, 1997’s Jackie Brown, was in some ways a tepid attempt to recapture past glories. Clocking in at an identical 154 minutes, Jackie Brown lacks the compulsive rewatchability of Pulp. Six years would pass before his next feature, the empty-headed two-part revenge epic Kill Bill. Death Proof, Tarantino’s dismal half of 2007’s Grindhouse, would’ve been lucky to find distribution had it been directed by an unknown.
A comeback for Tarantino occured in 2009 with Inglourious Basterds, but despite an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, the revisionist war flick had little to offer outside of some excellent performances. Sure, it was apparent from the movie’s best moments that Tarantino still knew how to stage a compelling scene. But as a whole, it never gelled into anything truly memorable. Looking at Tarantino’s oeuvre, from his outstanding 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs to Basterds, it has become clear that his work suffers from a pronounced case of arrested development. With the upcoming Django Unchained slated for a 2012 release, Tarantino’s sparse directorial filmography amounts to eight features over twenty years. This level of productivity would be fine if every film was uniquely interesting and worthwhile. But as it is, he’s been running on fumes since Jackie Brown.
None of this, however, erases the pleasures of revisiting Pulp Fiction for the umpteenth time. Or perhaps for the very first time, as the movie has a seemingly bottomless capacity for attracting new fans. Anyone too young to witness it the first time around might have difficulty putting into perspective just how revolutionary the writing really was. So much has been said about Tarantino’s dialogue that it’s become almost a cliché to carry on about it. But the truth is, Pulp Fiction, and Reservoir Dogs before it, were so startlingly unpredictable in the way its characters’ conversations meandered, it really did change the way screenwriters approached dialogue.
That’s not to say that literally every movie prior to Pulp featured strictly expository dialogue. But never before had the simple sights and sounds of two people talking to each been so utterly thrilling. Be it Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) talking about robbing a diner, Butch (Bruce Willis) and his wife Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) contemplating the virtues of a woman’s pot belly, or any scene involving partners-in-crime Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta), Pulp Fiction simply doesn’t require special effects or over-the-top action scenes. The words emitting from the characters’ mouths are spectacle enough.
All the great dialogue in the world wouldn’t mean much without the right actors to speak it. The actors (perfectly cast, save for one notable exception) treat the script as equal parts playground and gymnasium. They exercise their craft while having such obvious fun digging into these roles that the whole 154 minute movie never wears out its welcome. The notable exception is Tarantino himself, self-indulgently cast as Jimmie, a friend of Jules who is called upon to help dispose of a dead body. It’s a shame that Tarantino couldn’t have suppressed his ego and given this minor role to an actual actor. After all, this is a movie with so many great actors that Steve Buscemi gets stuck in a thankless cameo as a Buddy Holly lookalike.
The storytelling is masterful as well, with three distinct stories coming together in unusual ways to complete the scrambled narrative. By no means did Pulp Fiction invent the idea of telling a story in non-chronological order. But it ended up being one of the more widely seen examples of such an unconventional form. And each individual story takes such wild turns, upending clichés in every instance possible, that the end result is a movie that compels the viewer to return for additional viewings.