One great feature of filmmaking, and art in general, in the 1990’s was a sense of aimlessness. Very often, the movies are almost void of story, and what story that is there is basically absurd. In “Kicking and Screaming” the plot hinges on whether Grover will call his girlfriend; in “Dazed and Confused,” on having fun at a party. With plot sidelined, atmosphere becomes key.
Pulp Fiction is a supreme example of this. Each of its plots can be found in a thousand other movies, but it feels like nothing else before it. Every detail of the movie goes towards building a completely original world.
In this world everyone is knowingly campy. Uma Thurman is not a normal seductress, but one who is so bored that she stretches her act to its breaking point. Samuel L. Jackson talks about how he says his famous bible verse not for any reason beyond it seeming cool.
Compared to Tarantino’s later work, Pulp Fiction is very much a writer’s movie. The locations are memorable, but the characters are always the focus. Each one is really developed. It is striking that they are all dealing, one way or another, with being close to middle age. Butch, Honey Bunny and Pumpkin all turn to crime in hopes of getting rich enough to never have to work again. Mia seems to be an extremely bored housewife. Marcellus is away, laying around an island. Vincent and Jules both seem dissatisfied with being hitmen. Jules walks away, while Vincent dies because he will not.
Another very writerly touch is the film’s overall structure. The sections follow in a structure that at first seems random, but makes more sense on later viewings. Casual, more comical scenes are followed by more serious ones. Jules and Vincent take back the briefcase and then Mia almost overdoses after dinner. Christopher Walken delivers his great watch speech, and then Butch is kidnapped. With the beginning scene matching the end, there is a feeling that these events could all happen over and over.
The soundtrack shows a nostalgia for the 50s that links Tarantino to David Lynch. They both use the era’s innocence in counterpoint to their characters chaotic lives. Both of them are extremely successful.
Pulp Fiction is a masterpiece in a way that none of Tarantino’s other films are. In it there is a feeling of the entire history of film being synthesized. His other movies are simply very good, creative examples of genre pieces. This does not make them any less re-watchable, but it does leave a feeling that Tarantino could push himself more. Why choose one genre when you are capable of choosing all of them?
Anthony Schwab is a columnist for the Highlighter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org