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Shooting Up

November 14, 1994


By now everybody knows that Quentin Tarantino is the happiest man in the world. Not so many years ago he was a clerk in a California video store, devouring film film film. Then he tried to break into filmmaking himself, first by writing scripts. It took years to get in. But those video days and the buff-dom of his boyhood sustained him, and now he is where he dreamed of being. He is making the films that will stock those video stores. Some younger aspirant will sell Tarantino tapes.

About his grit and passion, no question. About his achievements so far, some doubts. His first film was Reservoir Dogs, which drew particular attention because of its tidy frame and its offhand violence, but which seemed to me shrewdly opportunistic—a subject and style carefully chosen by a man who wanted to get into filmmaking, who had tried various keys in the lock and had at last picked the right one. Then, along with other work, he wrote a story that Oliver Stone used as the basis for Natural Born Killers. (Composers often write virtuosic variations on simple tunes.) Now comes his much-trumpeted second film.

Pulp Fiction (Miramax) is Reservoir Dogs rewarded. Because of the first film's success, the second had a larger budget, thus has greater length, more stars, more lavish production, more violence—and certainly more room for the blackish humor that was visible in Tarantino's first. But, like the first film, Pulp Fiction revels in an underworld of menace and violence, of crime as cosmos, of sleaze. Tarantino of course wrote his own screenplay, and he tries to license his moral locale with an opening title that quotes two dictionary definitions of pulp. The first one is literal; the second is the figurative usage, derived from magazines of the past that were published on cheap pulp paper and specialized in lurid fiction of several genres.

He interweaves three stories. The film opens in a diner. A pair of petty crooks, played by Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth, after some dejected conversation decide to change their luck by robbing the very diner in which they are sitting. Just as they pull their pistols, we shift to the second story. John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson are hit men for a drug czar, on their way to a hit. They converse casually, like telephone repairmen on their way to a routine job. They arrive where they're headed and do their killing.

That evening Travolta, under orders from his boss, escorts the boss's wife for the evening—dinner and dancing. The wife is Uma Thurman in a black wig. (A reference to Louise Brooks? Jeanne Moreau in The Bride Wore Black?) Thurman's greed for drugs complicates Travolta's evening with her.

The third story concerns a boxer, Bruce Willis. That same drug czar, Ving Rhames, apparently a heavy bettor, orders Willis to take a dive in the fifth round of an upcoming fight. Willis double-crosses him. This leads to his pursuit by the czar, more killing and the capture of both the boxer and the czar in a homosexual S&M den. (By now—no, before this—we are ticking off the film sources that Tarantino has been remembering.)

A further episode involves several of the above people—and Tarantino himself, passable in a small role—with Harvey Keitel, who repeats his performance in an earlier film as an efficient clean-up man for hit men in trouble. The picture closes at the diner where it began. Travolta and Jackson arrive just as Plummer and Roth stick it up. (There's a time bend here—one of the picture's better gimmicks. We already know the fate that awaits Travolta elsewhere.)

At the center of most of the action—actually, it's just off-center—is a black attaché case, highly valuable for some unrevealed reason. Whenever it's opened, it lights the face of the person looking in. (Derived, perhaps, from the mysterious box in Bunuel's Belle de Jour.)

In one tangential way, Tarantino resembles recent Woody Allen: almost every one of his characters is a (presumably deliberate) cliché. The exception is in a flashback, a Marine officer just returned from Vietnam—and he's not really a character, just one long deadpan comic speech, laid in like a mosaic by Christopher Walken. All the others are familiar: the portentous gang chief, the workaday hit men (one of whom quotes the Bible), the pug with a streak of sentiment and so on.

Some of the action strains belief in a picture that dwells mostly in the naturalistic realm. On her night out, Thurman takes a life-threatening overdose of heroin, is revived at someone's house with a jolt of adrenalin straight to the heart, then is taken home by Travolta and dropped off as if it had been an ordinary date. I suppose there's meant to be some burlesque edge to this sequence, but even so, it's pretty far-fetched. More matter-of-fact glitches: guns are fired in residential areas, and no neighbors seem to hear them. Willis kills a man, wipes the gun free of his fingerprints and then puts his prints on a doorknob. During the diner holdup, a couple of dozen people are ordered to lie on the floor. Not one of them makes a sound or a move—they become cardboard cut-outs—during long conversations among the principals.

Travolta, only seventeen years after Saturday Night Fever, has lost his looks but not his appeal: he is still quietly, modestly engaging. Jackson grows as he goes, a solid actor. Willis proves again that, when he has something other than an action-film dummy to play, he can act. Thurman is better as this tough cookie than as her usual Miss Winsome; still, it's hard to believe that she's an object of desire. Rhames, her husband, has taciturn depth. Plummer and Roth are beneath comment.

The designer, David Wasco, gave the settings the right gloppy postcard look, which Andrzej Sekula's camera exploits. Karyn Rachtman's music track buzzes the picture along very helpfully. And there's no doubt that director Tarantino's long film immersion has given him the eye and ear to do what he wants to do here—not only to pack the punch of the good Hollywood crime directors but to tease out the backhand sting that some of them had. Perhaps in the future he'll emulate other kinds of directors and films.

Meanwhile, however, what's most bothersome about Pulp Fiction is its success. This is not to be mean-spirited about Tarantino himself; may he harvest all the available millions. But the way that this picture has been so widely ravened up and drooled over verges on the disgusting. Pulp Fiction nourishes, abets, cultural slumming.

So much of what inundates us these days—in film, in various kinds of pop music—is calculated grunginess, of climate and temper. So much of what goes on in (what I hear of) rock music revels in the lower end of every kind of spectrum, grungy ideas and diction delivered by grungy people. So much of modern film seems to compete in grunginess. Very little of this stuff seems to have anything to do with the lives actually lived by its avid public. Most of it seems designed as guided tours of an underworld for people otherwise placed—career-oriented students, job-holding others. Escapism always has been one function of theater and film, and for ages it was cloyingly pretty-pretty. Boy, has the pendulum swung.