30 years on: Has 'Pulp Fiction' stood the test of time better than Quentin Tarantino?

The cult classic cum filmbro darling might be more than the ghost of its maker

Manahil Tahira May 28, 2024

It so happens that how one feels about Quentin Tarantino today readily gives away one’s political leanings. In the red-pilled corners of internet to innocuous dudebros sliding in your DMs, Tarantino cuts a striking figure. That the filmmaker declared his next and tenth project to be his final is understandably met with polarising reception in 2024.

Polarising directors of Tarantino’s stature often simmer in a host of implications: radical, innovative auteurs willing to take a principled plunge, braving all odds. This was certainly the case in 1994 when Pulp Fiction debuted in the Cannes before trickling down the foreordained shelves of cult classics. Tarantino, 61, might have moved on but the filmbros are still riding the high of Vincent and Jules’ intrepid charms.

A filmbro darling

In Tarantino’s defence, the figure of the filmbro long precedes his 1994 viewing. An insufferable young man who fashions himself a cinephile of superior taste, the filmbro mistakes his favourites for the best. He scrambles over a ladder of IMDb-endorsed macho-infused titles that, he is convinced, only a man could fully comprehend. His criterion of the best absolves him of his sheer failure to understand other lives, other truths.

Tarantino is only one name in the filmbro's arsenal. In art’s defence, one cannot wholly blame an artist for the fandoms they breed, mainly because fans are not an artist’s progeny. A catalyst is a better analogue to describe the symbiotic tête-à-tête between the creator and the consumer. Of course, there are only decades of film and cultural theory as rejoinder to this alleged romance: the consumer creates, the creator consumes. A blurring of lines that is purely dialectical, or as the red-pilled hotspots of discourse would correct you: downright diabolical.

Is Pulp Fiction, then, wholly Tarantino’s to account for? There is the arguably gratuitous violence, an unbridled use of the n-word, a free licence to indulge homophobia. These allegations are not without merit. Yet, it seems in today’s image-ravaged digital way of life, these provocations are far less offensive. To diagnose Pulp Fiction of prejudice is in many ways akin to calling Dune an orientalist’s wet dream: true but boring. While Dune’s novelty and Timothée Chalamet’s dimpled smile can survive true but boring forms of critique, the same cannot be said for a cult classic that has had decades to marinate in praise and contempt.

So what new ground is there to break now thirty years later? For one, Tarantino is done offending because his audiences are already made. The ones offended, the ones unbothered, the ones indifferent will likely remain so. Tarantino might have become too redundant for new political sensibilities, his catalogue coopted by filmbros, but does Pulp Fiction still hold up today?

'Royale with cheese'

Returning to the scruffy, fan-driven screenplay by Tarantino and Roger Avary is ploughing through tons of cine lore. The world of Pulp Fiction is a jigsaw puzzle of interlocking stories in a world of crime and chaos. Set against a 50s iconography, the film’s time is fractured into fast-paced misadventures interjected with languorous dialogue - and it’s the latter that both makes it a charming watch and plays host to the film’s most incendiary remarks.

John Travolta, whose claim to fame until then was dancing and doing musicals, stars as Vincent Vega, a hitman whose contretemps range from accidental killings to frantic cleanups. Alongside him is Samuel L Jackson's Jules, pondering the mysteries of the universe and European fast food. Travolta’s bumbling yet endearing performance finds him relying on Mr Wolf (Harvey Keitel), the ultimate fixer, and Eric Stoltz’s character, who uses a medical encyclopedia for emergency situations.

Travolta’s chemistry with Uma Thurman, playing the mob boss’s wife, Mia Wallace, is electric, culminating in a night at Jack Rabbit Slim’s that spirals from a dance-off to an overdose, with Stoltz screaming instructions over a syringe of adrenaline. Bruce Willis and Maria de Medeiros add to the chaotic fun as Butch Coolidge and his naive girlfriend, escaping a botched fight and a wristwatch retrieval mission that leads to an unforgettable monologue by Christopher Walken. The film’s sticky situations escalate, leaving characters in ridiculously worsening predicaments, like Butch and the mob boss becoming captives of leather-clad freaks.

A good question to ask here is: What’s left of Pulp Fiction if twice removed from Tarantino and his liberties with violence and racial slurs? But a better question insists: What makes a cultural text worthy of redemption by reinterpretation? At stake here are tarnished legacies that demand to be taken as they come. For every Pulp Fiction, one can find a dozen better flicks with subversive politics that unsettle attempts to canonise Butch and Marsellus’ bloodied squabbles.

Unforgivable, unforgettable

However, the postmodern layout of crime-ridden ultra-violent Los Angeles need not lay over the ghostly landfill of Tarantino’s filmography. If thrice removed from the blemishes of Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction is still a refreshing change from the flat, plot-driven chatter of modern films. But mostly it’s a glorious potpourri of the many afternoons Tarantino spent working at a film store. The result is an assemblage of cheap film lore paradoxically styled as sophisticated exploitation cinema.

The novelty of the film's editing of four intertwined stories spun into a nonlinear flow - the blueprint of 90s postmodernism - has worn off by now. Pulp Fiction packs a multiflavoured punch, giving a little bit of everything to everyone. The film’s saving grace is not an original contribution to cinematic style but an undisguised pleasure drawn out from every single frame.

The camera refuses to move at its will, lenses shift because they can, a character can spend a scene’s duration never facing the audience. Spot a cool shot like an injured Butch seeking momentary respite against a wall while a bloodied Marsellus comes after him - it’s a one-off. A Biblical passage laying out the right and wrong, on the other hand, becomes a recurring motif in a gangster’s tough talk.

In the first vignette, Mia protests uncomfortable silences. “Why do we feel it's necessary to yak about bullsh*t in order to be comfortable?” she holds a cherry to her lips, her cigarette burning away. “That's when you know you've found somebody special. When you can just shut the f*ck up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.”

In the universe of Pulp Fiction, its inhabitants yak away to no end. Strip away the dialogue, and what remains is the film's most uncomfortable silence on the gnawing lack of futurity: unforgivable and unforgettable.

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