“When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them ‘No, I went to films.'” – Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus, Pulp Fiction, requires no introduction. Considered by many as an iconic moment in the history of cinema, Tarantino’s 1994 masterpiece is probably the most influential film of the 1990s. The Oscar-winning script by Tarantino and Roger Avary is an intersection of multiple narratives, featuring Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, in the role that reignited his career, as hitmen who have philosophical conversations on mundane topics like French names for American fast food products. Through outrageous violence, witty exchanges and a self-indulgent exploration of language, Pulp Fiction has managed to establish its own myth in popular culture.
In an interview with Roger Ebert, Tarantino said, “When I’m writing a movie, I hear the laughter. People talk about the violence. What about the comedy? Pulp Fiction has such an obviously comic spirit, even with all the weird things that are happening. To me, the most torturous thing in the world, and this counts for Dogs just as much as Pulp, is to watch it with an audience who doesn’t know they’re supposed to laugh. Because that’s a death. Because I’m hearing the laughs in my mind, and there’s this dead silence of crickets sounding in the audience, you know?”
Over the years, Tarantino has been accused of liberally borrowing ideas from other filmmakers, and similar charges have been levied against the iconic dance scene from Pulp Fiction. Critics have noticed the undeniable similarities between a scene from Federico Fellini’s seminal 1963 masterpiece 8 ½, featuring Barbara Steele dancing with Mario Pisu, and the delightful routine performed by Uma Thurman and John Travolta at Jack Rabbit Slims. However, Tarantino has maintained that the scene was actually inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s masterful 1964 crime drama Bande à part (starring Anna Karina) which had an iconic dance scene of its own.
John Travolta later clarified that a significant portion of the routine was improvised, in an attempt to debunk the claims of cinematic plagiarism. “That was improvised quite a bit,” Travolta told The Daily Beast. “I’d actually told Quentin about the dances I grew up with. The Twist is what he wanted, but I said, ‘There were other fun dances from that era! The Spin, The Batman, The Hitchhiker.
“You can expand this, and don’t have to include just The Twist.’ And he said, ‘Okay.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t you film it, and you call it out? We’ll start with The Twist, and then when you get bored with The Twist, throw out something else.’ So he was behind the camera going, ‘The Swim! The Batman!’ He’d mix-and-match. We shot it during the section of the day, and there weren’t that many takes.”
For the discerning viewer, we have linked the two scenes below for you to take a look and decide whether Pulp Fiction’s dance scene was borrowed from Fellini’s masterpiece or not.