Probably the most iconic film from the 1990s, it was Pulp Fiction that solidified Quentin Tarantino’s status as one of the most promising filmmakers of his generation. Two years prior to that, his debut feature Reservoir Dogs had already initiated Tarantino’s cinematic discourse on violence and life. However, Pulp Fiction remains the glorious apotheosis of the director’s philosophical explorations.
Inspired by Mario Bava’s 1963 film Black Sabbath, screenwriter Roger Avary and Tarantino started working on the skeletal framework of Pulp Fiction as early as 1990 but a part of it went into the script for Reservoir Dogs and the process of making Pulp Fiction was pushed back. For a long time, Tarantino has been accused of generously borrowing from the styles of other auteurs. In a 1994 interview, Tarantino himself said: “I steal from every single movie ever made.”
For Tarantino, cinema is a medium for conversing with his gifted predecessors as well as the newer generations of directors who love his work. Right from the start, it is evident that Pulp Fiction is a non-linear and referential labyrinth of postmodern sensibilities. When Pumpkin and Honey Bunny stick up a diner, one can’t help but see it as Tarantino’s nostalgic remembrance of one of the progenitors of the American New Wave – Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. Throughout Pulp Fiction, the filmmaker pays tribute to a myriad of cinematic geniuses ranging from Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa to Federico Fellini and Stanley Kubrick.
The reason why it is wrong Tarantino’s treatment as a reductive pastiche is because of its intrinsic duality – filled with a sacrosanct respect as well as a volatile irreverence. It is this fascinating dichotomy that fuels Pulp Fiction’s irresistible energy, presenting a world where logic and chaos are cynically synonymous. Over the years, a major chunk of the mythology of Tarantino’s magnum opus consists of its reputation as a “difficult” film due to the non-linear narrative. We are confronted by intersecting lives which go off on wild tangents, death followed by retrospective resurrections, sudden bursts of carnage and an overwhelming sense of irony.
When asked about it, Tarantino explained: “One thing that’s cool is that by breaking up the linear structure, when I watch the film with an audience, it does break [the audience’s] alpha state. It’s like, all of a sudden, ‘I gotta watch this … I gotta pay attention.’ You can almost feel everybody moving in their seats. It’s actually fun to watch an audience in some ways chase after a movie.” Despite all of this, thinking of Pulp Fiction as an elaborate puzzle is an exercise in futility because the idea of a “complete” picture is just a myth. The only answer that we are offered is the cruel sensation of liberation while witnessing an accidental explosion of a man’s brain.
Another brilliant element of Pulp Fiction is its acclaimed screenplay, featuring many tried and tested narrative styles that Tarantino and Avary had already experimented with in Reservoir Dogs. Largely conversational in nature, the film uses gangsters engaging in debates about the banal as well as the spiritual in order to arrive at an undeniable conclusion – the chaotic absence of meaning that orders our universe. This is not new; Hemingway used similar techniques in his works but Tarantino efficiently translates it to the cinematic medium. The film has been criticised for its depictions of racism, sexual depravity, rape, gore, drug abuse and many other problematic themes but it does not endorse any of it. Like most great works of cinema, it only holds a mirror to our blinding ugliness.
Even after all these years, Pulp Fiction resonates with audiences because of its brand of nihilism which is both unique and universal. Of course, fans will always cherish the memorable casting of Uma Thurman as the overdosing and deconstructed femme fatale, John Travolta as the constipated Vincent Vega, Samuel L. Jackson as the Biblical badass or even Bruce Willis as the fading boxer chasing after a gold watch which his ancestors had pulled out of their asses for generations. The particulars of their hilarious, quirky and dark stories are irrelevant. What makes Pulp Fiction so great is Tarantino’s insistence that the real deus ex machina is death and his hyper-stylised way of framing it with a self-conscious camera.