They wouldn’t make a film like that now. It’s a sentiment as old as the movies themselves, with folks ever eager to note how the next generation of storytellers is not telling stories in the same way that the last one(s) did. Sometimes there is a kernel of truth at the root of this argument. After all, does anyone doubt Mel Brooks when he says he couldn’t make Blazing Saddles now as he did nearly half a century ago?
But by and large, these arguments appear to be couched in nostalgia—a wistfulness which naturally occurs when comparing the icons of your past to the ones that seem ready to displace them in the present. Perhaps for this reason it’s easy to fall into the especially deceptive trap of contrasting “then” versus “now,” and assuming the differences occurred in a vacuum. Take the current “debate” occurring on Twitter: would a young Quentin Tarantino make (and find the same level of success) today with a movie like his seminal 1994 cultural touchstone, Pulp Fiction?
In this case though, the very touchstone quality of Pulp Fiction belies the futility of such a thought exercise.
This current discourse was sparked over the weekend when Tom Nichols, an author and writer of the Peacefield newsletter at The Atlantic, took to Twitter and ignited film nerds with the following prompt: “I’m watching pulp fiction right now and wondering, 28 years later, if you could make this movie today.” The usual reactionary deluge of social media hand-wringing followed. Certainly this movie would be “canceled,” some say, because a white character, played by none other than the writer-director, uses the N-word. Others insist nothing’s changed as indicated by the fact that Tarantino’s own most recent effort, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, was a box office hit in 2019 despite coming under criticism for its depiction of Bruce Lee.
The irony of this debate is that a movie as singularly a product of the 1990s as Pulp Fiction could only have ever been made in the ‘90s.
As has become the stuff of cinephile legend, Tarantino was the movie geek who made good; a one-time video store clerk who spent the first half of the 1980s recommending folks movies at the checkout counter before going on to shatter all the rules as one of the first breakout talents of the Sundance Film Festival. It was there he debuted his first (finished) film, Reservoir Dogs (1992). The movie became an early indie wonder for the new decade and marked its pop culture-obsessed mastermind as one of the most intriguing voices of his then young generation.
In truth though, Tarantino had already been able to sell several screenplays to Hollywood by that point, and most would go on to spawn their own cult followings. And it was Pulp Fiction which made the filmmaker one of the defining “indie” talents of his lifetime—even though Pulp Fiction only technically began as an indie project when Tarantino and his co-story writer, Roger Avary, were able to find early financing after producer Lawrence Bender took the project to Jersey Films for development. The finished Pulp Fiction was ultimately produced and distributed by Miramax Pictures, the one-time indie studio which had recently been bought by Disney. Pulp Fiction would even mark Miramax’s first major release post-acquisition… under the watchful gaze of executive producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein.
The Weinstein connection clearly signals what a dramatically different world the film industry was in the 1990s, but then so does the fact that a transgressive film with roots in the indie film world could go on to become one of the big Hollywood hits of its decade. Pulp Fiction debuted at the Cannes Film Festival where it won the coveted Palme d’Or and went on to be one of the 20 highest grossing movies of its year. More than box office clout, the movie itself was a paradigm-shifting phenomenon popularizing nonlinear and novelistic storytelling in mainstream America cinema. It influenced both the indie filmmaking scene and Hollywood for at least a decade as producers and directors alike chased that ephemeral, post-modern, and deconstructionist quality which made Pulp Fiction (and Reservoir Dogs) just so damn cool.
Or in the modern parlance, it was at the epicenter of a proto “meme culture” where everyone from Sundance to Space Jam riffed on its iconography. It was both the tastemaker for its moment, and defined by the tastes of what was then happening in the first generation to grow up with access to all the pop culture eras of the past. Tarantino literally worked in a video store and had a special affinity for the counterculture that was popular in his youth: 1970s grindhouse movies; latter day French New Wave pictures from the 1960s; Blaxploitation and kung fu flicks. As one of the leading voices of a sensibility reared on the relics of the recent past, he was among the first to repurpose, revive, and comment on these tropes and influences for a broader, savvier, and more commercial modern audience.
He didn’t just tap into the zeitgeist; he helped shape it for that era in a way that distinctly spoke to young folks who remembered 1970s Bruce Lee movies on cable TV, if not necessarily when they were first released.
To attempt to imagine that kind of effort being released for the first time in 2022 is a fool’s errand because Pulp Fiction is so entrenched in where the culture was, and was about to go, in 1994. It’s one of the landmark films which influenced so much of what came afterward. So, no, a studio likely wouldn’t greenlight a movie with the same sensibility of Pulp Fiction right now, as that vein has been so thoroughly tapped, embraced, scrutinized, and recontextualized for more than 20 years. In fact, if one wanted to really imagine the type of obstacles and barriers that would prevent such a similar paradigm-shifting slice of originality from occurring, they would likely be more commercial than cultural in nature.
When Pulp Fiction came out, the American independent film scene was on the precipice of exploding into mainstream popularity, and the home media market was about to make even conservative Hollywood studios bullish about the type of niche and outside-the-box films they’d greenlit, often in the hope of finding the “next” Pulp Fiction or Tarantino. Or at least being able to replicate it in a more conventional package.
Conversely, in the age of streaming, COVID, and endless superhero movies, it’s nigh impossible to imagine a challenging, nonlinear two and a half hour epic finding a massive audience in theaters at a time when moviegoers generally don’t care unless the subject matter is made by Marvel Studios or the like. Challenging films are still made of course. The last Palme d’Or winner featured a woman who is both a serial killer and is impregnated by a car: Titane. It was a French film which grossed less than $5 million worldwide.
Ironically, one of the most notable recent exceptions to the modern rule somewhat proves the point: Tarantino’s own Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Here is an adult-skewing, three-hour blockbuster with a happily shaggy and elegiac quality. It’s also a movie in which white men are allowed to flex while beating stars of Asian cinema in feats of strength and women who in real life committed depraved atrocities at the behest of Charles Manson. However, that movie only got to be made as a three-hour Hollywood blockbuster, complete with built-in (aging) audience interest, because it was from the director of Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and Inglourious Basterds.
Such a budget and concept being given a studio greenlight to a young filmmaker today is incomprehensible. Perhaps so too is any white screenwriter being able to so liberally include the N-word while shrugging off the criticisms of Black filmmakers, as Tarantino did in 1997 when Spike Lee first commented on the word’s heavy use in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown.
At a glance, it seems any cultural barriers that would theoretically contain Pulp Fiction have barely moved, even as the industry around has seen titanic shifts. But the internet has a habit of making mountains out of molehills.