The story is told of a crusty Midwestern newspaper editor who returned to work after a vacation and threw a fit. His prize headline type, enormous letters he’d been holding back for years for a truly big event, were used in his absence on a story detailing serious tornado damage. “You young fool,” he snapped at the offending party, “I was saving that type for the Second Coming.”
From the moment it hit the screen at Cannes, even before it was awarded that festival’s celebrated Palme d’Or, “Pulp Fiction” and its writer-director Quentin Tarantino have been given the big-type, Second Coming treatment, drenching them in the kind of media awe and appreciation reserved for paradigms of cinematic accomplishment.
Of course, like that tornado, Tarantino is quite an event, a gifted writer and a man of filmmaking talent whose work both here and elsewhere can be impressive. But despite all the attention, this is not the resurrection of anything. “Pulp Fiction’s” anthology of stories about gangster fun and games in Los Angeles doesn’t merit sustained veneration.
Because “Pulp Fiction” is sporadically effective, the temptation to embrace the entire two hours and 29 minutes of Tarantiniana is strong. But in truth this is a noticeably uneven film, both too inward-looking and self-centered in its concerns and too outward-bound in the way it strains to outrage an audience, to be successful across the board.
The best thing about “Pulp Fiction,” as with Tarantino’s debut film, “Reservoir Dogs,” are its words. They flow in hip torrents that are both idiosyncratic and familiar from lowlife characters who love to talk and can erupt in entertaining riffs on any subject on no notice at all.
The film’s opening scene, for instance, shot in a simple two-shot that ensures the audience concentrate on the dialogue, has a pair of amateur heisters, Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer), talking with engaging bravado about the vagaries of small-time robbery.
In fact, “Pulp’s” roster of criminals rarely talk shop; philosophical and even theological questions about loyalty, morality and the nature of miracles are their metier. This is more fun than it may sound because actors invariably spark to Tarantino’s words, finding in them the kind of wicked twists that makes them a kick to speak.
This is especially true of the two actors who appear most in “Pulp’s” series of independent but interrelated stories, John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. They play Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, respectively, hired muscle for Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), local crime lord, who make small talk about the erotic nature of foot massage before “getting into character” and ruining several people’s day.
Though Jackson gives a strong performance, Travolta ends up being more memorable only because his work is more of a surprise. His Vincent Vega is all sleepy boyishness and drug-mellowed bemusement, and seeing him so charming in the unexpected guise of a minor league thug is to remember why audiences fell in love with him in the first place.
But since Vincent and Jules are hit men, albeit romanticized ones, “Pulp Fiction’s” stories have violence at their core (running the gamut from the threat of gunplay to assaultive, occasionally racist language and cascades of blood and brain matter), and this is where the film’s problems begin.
Because Tarantino likes to tease audiences into somnolence before sneaking in an explosive jolt, the carnage is not as nonstop as in “Natural Born Killers,” but there nevertheless is something wearing and repetitive about the film’s reliance on shock value and bad-boy posturing to maintain our attention.
And while one of the attractions of “Reservoir Dogs” was that its disturbing scenes seemed to flow out of Tarantino’s natural exuberance, in “Pulp Fiction” the writer-director appears to be straining for his effects. Some sequences, especially one involving bondage harnesses and homosexual rape, have the uncomfortable feeling of creative desperation, of someone who is afraid of losing his reputation scrambling for any way to offend sensibilities.
What makes this rather poignant is that what is felt most in “Pulp Fiction” is the hand of a filmmaker who loves movies past. Names like Douglas Sirk pop up in unlikely places, and the visual references or homages to a wide variety of films are too numerous to catalogue, even if one has seen enough celluloid to be sure of catching them all.
But while “Pulp Fiction’s” best scenes, including Travolta and Uma Thurman as the boss’s wife doing a languid twist, and a deadpan monologue from Christopher Walken about a prized gold watch, are informed with the director’s personal sense of movie history, the personal has a tendency to turn uncomfortably solipsistic.
The result, especially in the scenes involving Bruce Willis as a nervy boxer, can be long patches of dialogue that must have tickled Tarantino but will not necessarily resonate for anyone else. The word tedious has not been much used in describing “Pulp Fiction,” but there are extended moments when it fits rather too well.
So while seeing where “Pulp Fiction” is coming from is easy, guessing where Quentin Tarantino is headed is more difficult. A gifted mimic who knows how to make lively collages out of movie history, he seems unconcerned that his films feel more like heartless dead-ends than an opening to something new and involving.
And though in a rare plaintive moment in a recent interview Tarantino talked of his future and said, “I don’t want to just be the gun guy,” the evidence that he can live without the rush that violence or its threat brings is not convincing. If the kind of work Tarantino does best is where American filmmaking is heading, it will have to get there without me.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong graphic violence and drug use, pervasive strong language and some sexuality. Times guidelines: The violence, including a scene of homosexual rape, is more of a shock because of its sporadic appearance.
John Travolta: Vincent Vega Samuel L. Jackson: Jules Winnfield Uma Thurman: Mia Harvey Keitel: The Wolf Tim Roth: Pumpkin Amanda Plummer: Honey Bunny Bruce Willis: Butch Released by Miramax Films. Director Quentin Tarantino. Producer Lawrence Bender. Executive producers Danny De Vito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher. Screenplay Quentin Tarantino. Cinematographer Andrzej Sekula. Editor Sally Menke. Costumes Betsy Heimann. Production design David Wasco. Running time: 2 hours, 29 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.