Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ten Little Things in "Pulp Fiction"

I remember when Pulp Fiction came out. I was watching Siskel and Ebert one night, and one of the movies they reviewed was this drama set in and around the LA underworld, and they gushed over its quirky twists of story and its crackling dialog. Even though at first glance the movie didn't seem like the kind of thing that would interest me, the one scene they showed really caught my attention: Sam Jackson, holding a gun to Tim Roth's face, and shouting at his girlfriend offscreen: "We're gonna be like three Fonzies here. And what's Fonzie like? Come on, Yolanda, what's Fonzie like?"


"Correctimundo. And that's what we're gonna be. We're gonna be cool."

For some reason I heard that exchange and thought, "Wow, I gotta see this movie." Apparently it had won whatever the big prize is at the Cannes Film Festival (the Palme d'Or, obviously), and it was now in wide release. I think I went to see it by myself the next day, at the multiplex in Olean, NY. It was an afternoon matinee. I was the only one there. I've seen movies before when I was one of less than ten people in the audience, but as far as I can recall, to this day Pulp Fiction is the only time I have literally been the only person in the theater. And that movie, over the next two-and-a-half hours, rocked me something fierce. I'd never seen anything like it at all: the non-linear way the story unfolds (or, I should say, the way the stories unfold), the way the dialog just whips about with each character having his or her own voice. The camera work that almost imperceptibly heightens the tension at various places. The way the movie went for laughs in horrible ways: I've never seen, before or since, successful comedic sequences that arise out of drug overdoses or accidental shootings in the face.

The next time I saw Pulp Fiction in the theater, a couple of months later, it was a late night showing at a multiplex in Buffalo, near the University. The theater was packed for that one; by this point Pulp Fiction was a pop culture sensation, and it was only weeks away from losing Best Picture honors to Forrest Gump. Weird. I don't know if I was actually one of the first people on the Pulp Fiction bandwagon, or if it just felt that way because I saw it by myself in a backwater town early in its release. But wow, what a movie.

I watched it again a few weeks ago, for the first time in several years. I have a friend at work with whom I'm always quoting the movie (we like to express frustration by either claiming to be "mushroom-cloud layin' m*****f*****'s", or "tryin' real hard to be the Shepherd"), but as far as actually watching it, I hadn't done that in a really long time. So when I finally got to see it again, a lot of stuff in it seemed new to me again.

As with any really good movie, what makes it work are, in large part, the tiny details one can find in it: the little visual or aural tics that maybe weren't even planned, but by being there, just make it all the more real. Here are ten tiny details from Pulp Fiction that I love, in no particular order.

1. Vincent's "church usher" pose. The early scene where Jules and Vincent are retrieving the briefcase from the hoods who are trying to steal it from Marcellus Wallace reaches its famous climax when Jules begins to recite his gonzo version of Ezekiel 25:17. The camera cuts from Jules to Brett (the hood in the chair who's about to die), and when you see Brett, in the background you see Vincent, gearing up for the execution. The way he does it, though, is pretty nifty. He takes out his gun, cocks it, and then holds it pointing down with his hands clasped in front of him, in a way that always reminds me of the pose the ushers strike in any church service just before they're supposed to come forth and do something (pass the collection plates, direct worshippers to Communion, whatever). It's a terrific pose.

2. Rear-projection when driving at night. There are two sequences in the movie that depict people in cars at night that are done in stylized fashion, like they used to do such sequences when making movies in the 1940s. It's obvious that John Travolta isn't really driving when Vincent is stoned on his way to pick up Mia Wallace; likewise, it's obvious that Bruce Willis and the woman playing the cab driver aren't really driving a cab during their conversation about what it felt like for Butch to pummel the other boxer to death in the ring. The rear projection in both cases is grainy, jerky, and black-and-white. But in the film's other driving sequences, when the tension is up (Vincent speeding an OD'ing Mia to the drug dealer's house for the andrenaline shot, Butch driving back to his apartment to get his watch when he knows such a move could get him killed, the unfortunate moment when Vincent's gun discharges while pointed at Marvin's face), or when there purposely isn't supposed to be any tension at all because we don't know anyone yet (the "Royale with Cheese" discussion) those sequences are shot for real.

3. When Mr. Wolf sips Jimmie's coffee, he, too, notes its high quality with a single facial expression.

4. In the film's last scene, we get to see the robbery that Pumpkin and HoneyBunny had cooked up way back in the movie's first scene. What's great about this is the way that Quentin Tarantino stages that robbery; the two thieves are wildly nervous and over-do everything, making clear that this is the first time they've ever executed a crime of this nature. And what really drives that point home? The fact that these two, who have made robbing liquor stores their previous bread-and-butter, never think to do what anyone who's robbed a restaurant before would know: to check the bathrooms.

5. Back in the "recovering the briefcase" scene, when Jules asks for a sip of Brett's Sprite, he drains it instead, right down to the slurping sound that a straw makes when the pop is all gone; and all the while he's giving Brett this stare that isn't a cold stare, but a relaxed stare that makes utterly clear that Jules is in total command of this situation.

6. But are Jules and Vincent out of practice or something? Or is their chemistry off because Vincent is just back from three years in Amsterdam and thus hasn't worked for a while? Because they walk into a situation where they admit beforehand they don't know how many guys are up there, and they too don't check the bathroom.

7. It's not in the script, but when Lance (Eric Stoltz's drug dealer) is describing to Vincent how to deliver the adrenaline shot to Mia's heart, he says something like, "But she has a breast plate in front of her heart so you gotta pierce through that." That is in the script. But in the movie, to emphasize the point, Lance mimes the stabbing motion three times, and Vincent asks: "Do I gotta stab her three times?"

8. At the end, after dispensing his wisdom to Pumpkin and HoneyBunny, when he's sitting in the middle of a crime scene, Jules is so relaxed that he thoughtfully takes another bite of his muffin.

9. Stopping to eat in the middle of a dangerous situation doesn't just happen there. I've always loved how Butch, in returning to his apartment and recovering his watch, while he has to know he needs to get out of there ASAP, stops to heat up a Pop-Tart. If he'd just left, none of the other stuff afterward would have happened, and he'd still have Marcellus's price on his head.

10. Sounds in the film: Fabian's excessive teeth-brushing. The way the first song during the opening credits is interrupted as the old-school manual knob car stereo is changed. Mia Wallace's music, on a reel-to-reel tape player. When Mia's OD'ing, we hear Vincent offscreen talking to her, and then we fade in on her drugged-out face, and we only know that Vincent's found her when we hear his reaction.

I could go on a while, but I'll leave it there. Generally, I tend to not like stories that glorify organized crime or criminal lifestyles the way Pulp Fiction does, but this film is different in its theme of redemption; the only character who gets to escape the life is the one who is given the epiphany that this isn't the life he should be pursuing. (Although, to be fair, we don't know that Jules successfully leaves the life; maybe Marcellus gets angry at his resignation and kills him? We never know.)

I suppose that one of these years I should watch Jackie Brown and Kill Bill....


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the post, thanks. I'm a Pulp Fiction fan myself. In fact, to add, Vincent's and Mia's conversation in the restaurant are reminiscent of some conversations in North to Northwest and Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the post, thanks. I'm a Pulp Fiction fan myself. In fact, to add, Vincent's and Mia's conversation in the restaurant are reminiscent of some conversations in North to Northwest and Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Becky said...

I love Tarantino's take on the world and film making. It's like he crawled inside my head and pulled out all the stuff I like, organized it and filmed it. Kill Bill (1 & 2) - I have no idea what the critics said, but I loved em. I am a big fan of old time kung fu and karate action flicks like classic Bruce Lee and, once again, it's all there...just no bad dubbing jobs.