****/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A+
starring John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis
written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
****/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras A
starring Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Robert De Niro
screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, based on the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard
directed by Quentin Tarantino
by Walter Chaw Seventeen years on, Pulp Fiction still works like a motherfucker. It might, indeed, benefit from the shock of its gleeful use of "nigger," the surprise of its sodomy and ultra-violence, and the sheer pleasure of hearing Sam Jackson say those lines and John Travolta dance again in a movie having faded. What's left is this appreciation of a film that is delighted with cinema and experimental without being a jerk about it (very much like Lars Von Trier's Zentropa, specifically in a black-and-white rear-process cab ride with none of that feeling that Tarantino's trying to make a point as opposed to recognizing something that looks cool and feels right)--a film that is Tarantino in all his gawky, hyperactive, movie-geeking, idioglossic splendour, fully-formed and trying only a bit too hard. Beginning life as a proposed portmanteau to be helmed by a trio of directors (à la Tarantino's later, disastrously-received foray into the anthology format, Four Rooms), the picture retains elements of its three-headed inception by intertwining a trilogy of hard-boiled crime stories in a way superior, it's clear now, to Frank Miller's career-long attempts at the same. Tarantino's purer. The stakes for him are simpler. Pulp Fiction is evidence not of someone with something to prove but of an artist entirely, and genuinely, in love with his medium. He loves film enough to push it to be everything. And Pulp Fiction almost gets there.
Vincent (Travolta) and Jules (Jackson) are hitmen in the employ of kingpin Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), the former tasked with bumping off palooka Butch (Bruce Willis), who, lately, has declined to throw his big fight, though he's accepted payment from Wallace to do just that. Butch, meanwhile, plans his escape with girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros), while Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) plan to rob the late, lamented Santa Monica fixture Holly's Hawthorne Grill. As Pulp Fiction unfolds, we spend a lot of time with Vincent and Jules as they talk about hamburgers, David Carradine's "Kung Fu" (in one of a few eschatological predictors of Kill Bill), and foot massages, presaging an evening where Vincent is tasked with escorting Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), Marcellus's wife, out to dinner. This leads to a cameo by Steve Bucsemi as Buddy Holly, a five-dollar shake, a dance sequence that cemented for many--myself included--that we were rare witness to canon erecting before our eyes, and a big damn needle. Pulp Fiction is a crime film, a distillation of the ugliest of the genotype from the 1940s and '50s--the kind that Jules Dassin was making before HUAC ran him out of the country. It's Tarantino in his element before moving on to blaxploitation next, kung fu imports with Kill Bill, the drive-in movie with Death Proof, the ensemble war film with Inglourious Basterds, and the Leone western with the upcoming Django Unchained. (Though Leone and the spaghettis are a strongly-felt thread in almost all his work.) When the dust settles, just as the Coens will ultimately be seen as the canniest literary critics of their generation, Tarantino will be seen as the most perceptive, most instinctive film critic of his.
The funny thing is that Pulp Fiction didn't start out as a cult movie, yet that's arguably where it's ended up after garnering critical kudos, big box-office, and an Oscar win for Tarantino and Roger Avary's screenplay, which is remembered in large part for Avary's misinterpreted acceptance-speech joke about needing to pee. If memory serves, no one expected Pulp Fiction to triumph over the two-headed populist monster of Forrest Gump and The Shawshank Redemption (which actually sounds like a single title that's at once not a bad description of either film and also a movie I'd sooner watch than those two again), and Avary, in his awkward way, kinda sorta (speaking of eschatology) predicted the eventual winner. Of course, he was hedging his bets: Each of the other films nominated that year had someone excusing themselves to pee, meaning he may have just been expressing that Pulp Fiction didn't have a chance. It's a king movie-geek moment, understood as such but for the wrong reasons. It was a declaration that the Oscars are bullshit 90% of the time, the years they get it right (like with No Country for Old Men) the glaring exceptions that prove the rule. A statement of amazing naivety that such statements will change a thing, the bigger surprise, ultimately, is that it wasn't Tarantino making the boner.
The film requires an active viewership to follow its fractured timeline, but it doesn't matter if you piece its puzzle together right away because Pulp Fiction isn't a gimmick. What matters is the feeling of it, its rhythms, its sureness about itself. Take the dialogue, ridiculous and sublime, ruminations on what the French call a "Big Mac" not pop-cultural nothings--as they would be in the hands of QT's many imitators--but rather the lovely, melancholy character development of a doomed hitman who makes a wrong choice, reads Modesty Blaise on the can, and is delighted by every little detail of his trip to Europe once upon a time. Easy to dismiss as a one-trick pony, the truth is that while the medium, the genre and its noise, are colours for Tarantino to paint in, no question, the product of his labours is thoroughly original, subtle, even delicate. Consider the cohesion of following the "hamburger conversation" with a scene in an apartment featuring three frightened guys, a Big Kahuna Burger, and the first time Jules quotes scripture (Ezekiel 25:17...sort of), gun in hand. Better, chart the delicious sequence where Butch chooses a weapon with which to dispatch a pair of inexplicable hillbilly pawn-shop rapists, and how the backwards stab of his samurai sword speaks not to Butch's sudden mastery of the Bushido Code and Kendo, but to the catalogue of cultural referents that Butch calls upon to wring every last soupçon of satisfaction from his act of vengeance, as any of us who ever thrilled to a movie like Yojimbo or Lone Wolf and Cub would.
Find here, too, explication of Tarantino's casting choices, from Willis for his spiritual resemblance to Ralph Meeker's asshole hero of Kiss Me Deadly to Travolta for his quality of winsomeness, largely unseen since at least Blow Out if not Saturday Night Fever. They're career resurrections, certainly, not because Tarantino shoves them in front of a camera, but because he understands what it is, specifically, that made them stars in the first place. It's not stunt casting, it's perfect casting. Pulp Fiction, again, see, isn't a gimmick, although it's most often portrayed as such. The only time it stumbles is when Tarantino can't resist giving himself a cameo in his own film as a schlubby suburbanite acquaintance whose garage is requisitioned by Vincent and Jules after a gun goes off and a black kid named Marvin's head is notoriously exploded. It's self-indulgent in a way the rest of the film is not, the isolated moment in the picture where Tarantino's delight turns dorky. The instinct shouldn't be to want to share a frame with Harvey Keitel, Jackson, and Travolta, but he doesn't seem to figure that out until he follows up Pulp Fiction with what might be his best film: Jackie Brown.
I love that in an interview on the Blu-ray release of Jackie Brown, Pam Grier declares that she never knew she was a movie star before Tarantino called her up and told her all about it. I love it because I believe her. The first awesome thing about Jackie Brown is that it treats Grier not like a cult figure but like a bona fide, A-list legend--an actor with an appearance so distinctive and elegant that she could carry a picture in which every actress in Hollywood probably would have killed to star. And she's emboldened by the faith. Again not stunt-casting, Tarantino demonstrates a genuine understanding of the qualities of wounded intelligence and nobility that Grier exudes as birthright. Jackie Brown believes her, too. The next awesome thing about Jackie Brown is Tarantino casting B-movie legend Robert Forster opposite Grier, creating an ineluctable fascination in just the way they look together. Their crags and folds are complementary, and how the camera stares for long, long stretches as the Delfonics spools out on the soundtrack only feels better as I get older and smarter. What's more amazing is that the two are matched not simply physically, but also in harder measurements of weariness and unbearable, unknowable draughts of sadness.
Grier is the title character, a woman with a record and a hard backstory who's lucky to have a slave-wage job working for the worst airline in the country. Of course she pads a little on the side as a mule for amateur gun-runner Ordell (Jackson again, styled like the Crypt Keeper). It's a good set-up and faithful, to a certain point, to the Elmore Leonard novel (Rum Punch) upon which Tarantino's screenplay is based, with Jackie getting picked up by ATF guys Dargus (Michael Bowen) and Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and asked to be the focal point of a sting to nail Ordell. Dragged into the middle is bondsman Max Cherry (Forster), drafted by Ordell to bail Jackie out of lockup so that Ordell can kill her for knowing too much. Although Cherry and Jackie take an instant liking to each other, one of the best things about Jackie Brown is that Jackie absolutely does not need Max's help getting out of this mess. Ordell's confederates are fresh-from-prison Louis (Robert De Niro) and perpetually-bikini-clad Melanie (Bridget Fonda), and the whole film is only somewhat interested in the crime elements of its story. Jackie Brown is more concerned with the relationship between two middle-aged people as they slide into the inevitability of the rest of their lives; with how Louis doesn't quite connect anymore to life outside of prison; with the utter sadness of the throwaway discovery that Ordell's "other" girlfriend (Lisa Gay Hamilton, late of "Men of a Certain Age") is skeletal, terrified, ruined by her association with Ordell, and probably not going to live long enough to become as lonesome and hopeless as Jackie or Max.
The thing that's easy to overlook is that Jackie Brown is about choices made in youth and again once youth has fled--about, more specifically, how you can never truly outrun anything. It reminds me of the best moment of Robin Williams's career, the one line he has in a meat locker in Kenneth Branagh's Dead Again in which he describes the karmic payment plan: "Buy now, pay forever." Jackie hatches a plan to play both sides against the middle. When Max uncovers it, he chooses not to stop her--chooses, in fact, to assist her, to the extent that he can in good conscience. And then, when all the dust has settled, and with us bred to anticipate a specific ending, Tarantino makes the mature choice and gives us the correct one instead. Wildly unpopular and seen as a major disappointment on release, Jackie Brown is notice that Tarantino has more on his mind than pyrotechnics. If the language is still salty, the violence is almost exclusively off-screen (albeit that much more disturbing in its implications). What remains is Tarantino's total respect for the medium, the surety of decisions in character and plotting and presentation. Tarantino's third movie is the product of an artist in complete command of his voice. It's too much to say that he's making an uncommercial choice by telling a bittersweet love story about middle-aged losers. I suspect that Tarantino is only ever making what he's able to make.
Jackie Brown is one of the best films of the Nineties because it predicts all the nostalgia and regret at the end of that decade. In Grier and Forster are unspoken wisdom, hard-won in the trenches of movies made for nothing over the course of a few days. They're veterans of an undeclared war, finding themselves in what feels like one last turn on the stage--a curtain call--to show what it is they've learned. Tarantino pairs them with a wild-eyed Keaton, a guy doomed to be remembered for a couple of collaborations with Tim Burton when it's his two turns as Ray Nicolette (he'll reprise this role in Soderbergh's Leonard adaptation Out of Sight) that use his energy and subtle hint of bemused disappointment to their best advantage. The picture is tight as a drum and paced like an extended, languid jazz noodle--like an introduction to a Delfonics tune, come to think of it--and Keaton is the jittery, percussive counterpoint. More or less linearly told, Jackie Brown is the first hint that Tarantino would be capable of the extraordinarily powerful coda to Kill Bill and the sublime prologue to and surprising shift in suture at the end of Inglourious Basterds. There's substance beneath all that affectation; Tarantino's a complicated cat and it's an honour to listen to him riff.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
Distributed by new landlord Lionsgate, Pulp Fiction hits the next-gen market in a 2.35:1, 1080p transfer supervised by Tarantino himself, meaning the overall impression is one of fidelity. When we speak of a transfer personally overseen by its creator, mind, it doesn't necessarily bespeak of good decisions (see: the Blu-ray release of The French Connection), but it always does speak of some manipulation, so purists may quibble with the odd colour or contrast tweak. For my money, it looks pretty fucking sweet--and no framegrabs I've seen on the 'net have done the image justice. Detail is organically glassy, saturation is intense but controlled; things like that tiny crease of concern between Travolta's eyes when he emerges from the potty register like they haven't since the theatre. The accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD MA track meanwhile suggests that should QT ever hang up the jodhpurs and bullhorn, he would make an excellent sound designer. Ambient noise is consistent and dimensional, the music comes alive, and the part where Jules and Vincent almost get shot but don't, six times, startled me, despite my having seen this movie, no kidding, maybe thirty times. Even relatively quiet moments, like the opening sequence, are demo material for the way that murmured conversation seeps in from the corners of the soundstage. I'm sorry, did I break your concentration?
The disc includes a new documentary, "Not the Usual Mindless Boring Getting to Know You Chit Chat" (43 mins., HD), that I want to talk a bit about. Travolta is the first interviewee here, recalling his initial encounter with Tarantino and how Tarantino explained to him that Travolta was his favourite actor as a child because of "Welcome Back Kotter" and films like Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Blow Out. As Travolta goes on listing QT's infatuation, in fact, there's eventually a real epiphany about Tarantino and his work. It comes through in how Travolta remembers the way he assimilated Tarantino's disappointment with Travolta's subsequent career choices--"It's not criticism…, it's critique"--and arrived at the understanding that Tarantino was possibly the first person since Pauline Kael to understand him. There's so much candid information in this retrospective, in fact, not just from Travolta but from Jackson, Roth, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, and Plummer, too, that it seems they've all been, what's the word, "flattered," in some way, by Tarantino's interest in them. He's catalyzed something that's near-impossible: he's made actors introspective and auto-critical of their essences. Travolta calls Tarantino "altruistic." I think he's onto something there. As special features go, it's probably the best of its kind that I've seen.
"Here Are Some Facts on the Fiction" (21 mins., HD), a critics roundtable composed of Scott Foundas, Stephanie Zacharek, Andy Klein, and our beloved Tim Lucas and moderated by Elvis Mitchell, generally reinforces the idea that critics are never really talking about the film. Zacharek calls Pulp Fiction self-indulgent and generally misses the point entirely; I like to believe that Lucas's perceived distaste for her giggly demurs and feints is not merely a Kuleshovian by-product. I wasn't a big fan of the repeated reaction-shot cutaways (particularly to Foundas's charming grin), but understanding how difficult and subjective roundtables like this can be, especially in HD, especially as we critics as a group aren't always the most comfortable in front of the camera, I have a lot of sympathy for the awkward moments. That said, I do think it's a shame that Mitchell moderated. "Pulp Fiction: The Facts" (31 mins., SD) is a doc from a decade ago that provides a more standard overview, complete with archival interviews and press-conference stuff that traces Tarantino's first, difficult days in the industry with some neat stuff from Evil Dead II co-scribe Sam Spiegel. It's another great piece, frankly.
A 25-minute block of fine-cut deleted scenes (SD/4:3 letterbox) dating back to the Criterion LaserDisc begins with QT expounding on the nature of trimming his film and the fallacy of director's cuts; he goes on for a minute too long in the fashion of Tarantino when he's on a roll. These elisions are, for the most part, monologues from a screenplay Stoltz reports was at least 230 pages long but that Tarantino, referencing Preston Sturges, insisted on shooting in its entirety. Needless to say, Tarantino's instincts were dead-on--though a reference to Suzanne Vega is priceless. Two short "Behind the Scenes" montages are what they sound like, as is a 6-minute "Production Design Featurette" that has David and Sandy Wasco, part of QT's posse, discussing the film's sets. A vintage "Siskel & Ebert At the Movies" segment called "The Tarantino Generation" (16 mins., SD) is, I'm afraid, not very interesting, given that time has exposed many of the films up for debate for exactly the hollow shells we always suspected they were. What's not mentioned enough is the negative impact that imitators have had on appreciating the genuine article. No matter. The "Independent Spirit Awards" (12 mins., SD) is an interview with QT by Michael Moore that is, no shit, almost impossible to sit through because of Tarantino's native jitteriness and Moore's native douchebaggery. A lot more palatable are Tarantino's "Cannes Film Festival - Palme d'Or Acceptance Speech" (5 mins., SD), which strikes a proper note of humility, surprise, and passion, and Tarantino's appearance on the "Charlie Rose Show" (55 mins., SD), in which the laconic interviewer gives QT just the right spur and platform circa 1994. He uses this pulpit to champion De Palma and reflect on his learning curve, for starters. "Soundtrack Chapters" allows one to browse scenes in the movie according to the songs heard therein while an extended "Marketing Gallery" (tons of TV spots, trailers, posters, campaign ads, and on and on--all standard-def, alas) melts into a long "Still Gallery" and a "Trivia Track" that I could only fitfully activate. Time for a firmware upgrade.
Jackie Brown, too, receives a filmmaker-approved, 1080p transfer (1.85:1--it's the only movie other than Four Rooms that Tarantino didn't compose for 'scope exhibition) that is similarly alive with colour without revising a palette that is arguably more subdued and earth-toned than that of Pulp Fiction. In the famous opening shot of our heroine on the people-mover, her uniform, the aquamarine background mosaic, and even the yellow font of the title pop in a way that instantly distinguishes this presentation from the standard-def alternatives. Detail is crisp but not artificially so; that Ordell's shirt on his first visit with Max matches, in its vertical striping, the '70s-fabulous couch behind him is an amazing "get" made possible by the Blu-ray format. And the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is another immersive experience, gorgeous in its reserve and consistently warm in its delivery of smooth soul. In "Breaking Down Jackie Brown" (44 mins., HD), the roster of critics from the previous platter returns with less actual insight. We do get more of a feel for the personalities of the group, however, with me thinking that Lucas, perhaps the least "visible" of the critics assembled, proves the idea of the inverse nature of aptitude in this profession based on readership. 2001's "Jackie Brown: How It Went Down" (39 mins., SD) is home to Grier's recollections of first meeting Tarantino, and like Travolta in the Pulp Fiction doc, she betrays something like wonder that this late in the game, someone has been following, and understanding, all along. No wonder this movie plays the way it does. Forster (lovely), Jackson, De Niro, Fonda, Keaton, and Leonard are also on hand to reminisce.
"A Look Back at Jackie Brown" (55 mins., SD) is an extended talk with Tarantino from the 2001 DVD wherein he reveals key inspirations for the film, his worries about altering Leonard's source material, and his abiding love of Grier and Forster (not to mention their formative effect on his sensibilities). "'Chicks With Guns' Video" (5 mins., SD) is the awesome sexploitation-and-firearms thing shown in the film with QT introducing it, while the "Siskel & Ebert At the Movies" review of Jackie Brown (5 mins., SD) reminded me of when I used to watch the show religiously...and why. "Jackie Brown on MTV" is 15 minutes of promotional material shown on the titular station, which melds into an 11-spot "Marketing Gallery," an extended "Still Gallery," a "Trivia Track," and "Deleted Scenes" (15 mins., SD) that, though good generally speaking, were definitely best left on the cutting-room floor. (It's obvious from the good judgment these peeks into Tarantino's trim bin demonstrate that the death of editor Sally Menke is an extraordinary loss not only for QT, of course, but for filmdom as well.) Very cool if you want to start off movie night with a few kick-ass, seldom-seen previews, "Robert Forster Trailers" (28 mins., SD) and "Pam Grier Trailers" (36 mins., SD) offer retrospectives on the actors' careers in schlock. Last but not least, the "Soundtrack Chapters" feature and some Jackie Brown "Radio Spots" round out the disc. In short, both BDs have everything you could want from them; if you like movies, you should buy them. Originally published: November 10, 2011.