Looking back at Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction

Recently the subject of a lavish Blu-ray reissue, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction remains a key moment in 90s cinema. Glen take a look back at a cult classic…

It’s widely believed that sophomore efforts from directors can prove to be problematic, particularly when their debuts have been critically adored. Indeed, there have been numerous high-profile cases of directors failing to live up to the promise of their debuts throughout the history of cinema.

It was a belief held by some that Quentin Tarantino’s debut, Reservoir Dogs, was little more than a flash in the pan, and the product of someone who merely showcased their influences in a rather effective way. Those who doubted Tarantino’s ability as a filmmaker were expecting him to fail as he attempted to build on the promise shown in that debut. 

By all accounts, those critics were disappointed, as Pulp Fiction proved to be a huge box office success, earning over ten times its shooting budget and marketing costs, as well as earning largely favourable reviews.

The fact that the film was as successful as it was is hugely impressive considering that in the US, in particular, it opened on significantly fewer screens than most of the other films that made up the highest grossing pictures of 1994. Pulp Fiction ended up being the year’s tenth highest grossing film at the US box office.

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The impact of the film is still witnessed today, as Tarantino’s reputation as a director whose work demands to be watched remains strong. And while Reservoir Dogs hinted that this was the case, Pulp Fiction absolutely confirmed it.

Few films of its era paid homage to such a wide variety of cinema while remaining strikingly original. The ability to blend both obscure and recognisable influences into his work is what makes Tarantino such a great director: a love of cinema is present in all of his films, and his knowledge and love of film is never in doubt.

There have been Tarantino copycats in the years following the release of Pulp Fiction, but rather than seeking Tarantino’s sources of inspiration, they merely attempted to copy him, which misses the point somewhat.

Pulp Fiction was largely responsible for the rise of Miramax, and it becoming a powerhouse in Hollywood, elevating a number of independent productions and aggressively seeking recognition for its films at the Academy Awards. Despite its successes, there was a fair amount of negativity directed at Pulp Fiction regarding some of its more controversial elements. The perceived racism in the film, particularly the frequent use of the ‘N’ word, was a particularly contentious area. I suppose the fact that the director himself delivered a number of these derogatory words did little to ease the criticism.

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However, the negativity did little to quell the hype surrounding the film that began at Cannes, where it won the prestigious Palme d’Or, which saw the director booed during his acceptance. It continued through to the Golden Globes, Academy Awards and BAFTAs early the following year. If anything, the negativity ended up fuelling the hype machine, and the film’s success continued apace. 

The inspiration behind the film was Tarantino and his co-screenwriter Roger Avery wanting to make an anthology film similar to Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, with each producing two elements that would provide the basis of the would-be anthology. Tarantino’s ended up being made as Reservoir Dogs, and Avery’s provided the basis for the Gold Watch segment of Pulp Fiction.

I don’t think Pulp Fiction qualifies as a true anthology film. The non-linear narrative may give the illusion that this is the case, but this appears to be there for artistic effect and to add layers of intrigue.

The non-linear approach is a great strength of the film, as you’re frequently placed in the middle of conversations and have to catch up and acclimatise yourself to unfamiliar situations.

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This is brilliantly demonstrated within the first few minutes, where Tim Roth’s Pumpkin and Amanda Plummer’s Honey Bunny discuss the hazards of their profession in a diner, before making the decision to rob the place. For another instance, look at the scene after the opening credits, where Vincent and Jules discuss Europe and the metric system before focusing on the more violent business at hand.

These are fine examples of Tarantino’s way of introducing the audience to his characters in a way that gives a greater impression of what kind of people they are, effectively identifying them through their chosen topics of conversation rather than their professions.

There are little touches throughout the film that I love. During the opening credits, where Misirlou plays throughout the majority of the sequence immediately after the stick up in the restaurant, an effect of a radio dial being changed kicks in to play Jungle Boogie, leading in to the scene immediately after. It creates a greater separation between the scene, giving each their own distinct identity.

Another nice touch also occurs early on in the film, where Jules and Vincent are discussing foot massages. As they approach the door to carry out their task, they decide they’re a bit early, and their conversation hasn’t finished, so they move back down the hall to continue. However, the camera remains at the door, waiting for them to return. Brilliantly, all of this occurs in a single long take.

There are numerous quotes in the film that have become iconic, but none more so than the Bible quotation that Jules recites in more than one scene. The quotation was mostly made up by Tarantino and Jackson, and only the final line of it can be found in the Bible. The rest of it is from the Sonny Chiba’s film, Karate Kiba.

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The first scene in which it features details Vincent and Jules’ retrieval of the briefcase, and its contents are a huge topic of conversation and speculation. Personally, it doesn’t bother me what’s in the case, as not knowing doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film. It’s certainly not a Rosebud situation, where knowing the nature of the item is integral to the film.

The speculation that Marsellus Wallace is the devil and Vincent and Jules are charged with collecting souls (the so-called divine intervention in the apartment is cited as evidence of this) doesn’t sit right with me. I like Tarantino’s stance that it’s whatever the audience wants it to be. This may be seen as a cop out to some, but a little ambiguity never hurt anyone.

The recent Blu-ray release is the best the film has ever looked and sounded. The transfer was supervised by Tarantino himself, and boasts impressive clarity for the most part, which effectively shows off some strong colours, and a number of background details. It’s not a perfect transfer by any means, as edge enhancement is evident on occasion, and objects can occasionally fade into the shadows in the background. But overall, this is a very impressive transfer from a visual perspective that will no doubt please fans.

The audio is the main strength of the transfer, and there are a few scenes that really show off the surround sound, particularly the Jack Rabbit Slim’s scene, where background noise and the soundtrack fills the speakers and immerses the viewer in the atmosphere of the period-set diner. Other little touches throughout make having the surround sound set up when viewing the film absolutely essential. 

Pulp Fiction was incredibly important in my growth as a film fanatic. I have been obsessed with film for as long as I can remember, but when I discovered Pulp Fiction in my early teens, it marked a turning point, where I would seek films out for myself rather than relying on the collections and recommendations of friends and family. The first time I watched it, I rewound the VHS and watched it again immediately, and I can’t think of a film that I have watched more than Pulp Fiction in the sixteen years since my first viewing.

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It’s a film that’s still as bold and impressive today as it was upon its release. Tarantino has handled themes explored in this film better in his later pictures, but this is arguably his most complete piece of work. It blends together seemingly disparate elements in a masterful way, and moves at such a pace that the nearly two-and-a-half hour run time flies by unnoticed. It’s one of the few films where the impact it had on me on first viewing remains on subsequent re-watches, and it remains a classic of 90s cinema.