A Wax Museum With a Pulse

Indy Datta revisits Pulp Fiction

1.

In a clever postmodern/wanky touch, this post will be presented out of chronological order.

2.

Recently, I attended a screening of Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 breakthrough movie at the Soho Square offices of the British Board of Film Classification. Before the film, Craig Lapper, senior examiner at the board, told us a little bit about the classification history of the film at the BBFC. In 1994, with the murder of James Bulger a recent memory, that old BBFC standby, “imitable behaviour” was a contentious issue in film censorship in Britain, due in large part to fabricated tabloid reports that Bulger’s killers had had their minds murderously warped by repeat viewings of Child’s Play 3 (as quaint and faintly hilarious as that sounds now). Although the film had been passed uncut for theatrical exhibition, when it came to home video, one particular shot particularly disturbed James Ferman, who was then the board’s director: the shot of a hypodermic needle piercing the skin of John Travolta’s smackhead hitman Vincent Vega. Ferman’s belief was that there were certain trigger images that had a quasi-hypnotic effect on drug users, causing them to lose control to their addiction, and that this was one of them. Accordingly, the shot was optically reframed so that home video viewers couldn’t see needle break skin.

3.

You may suspect that the structure of this post is an attempt to cover up a lack of substance, and you’d be right, because I don’t know if there’s much new to say about Pulp Fiction at this point. And it’s a criticism often levelled at Tarantino that the conspicuous technique of his films is there to disguise a hollowness at their core. I personally don’t have a lot of sympathy with this argument: for me, his most stimulating and most fiercely emotional film, Kill Bill, is also his most formally ambitious. But to my mind there were ways, this time around, that Pulp Fiction didn’t measure up to Tarantino’s later films – and it’s largely because that emotion isn’t there, and is dissipated for me by the anthology format, and by the jumbled time line. Latter-day Tarantino would have found a way to let Vincent Vega’s death be banal and empty, but also to ring through the remainder of the film in a way it doesn’t here.

4.

Jack Rabbit Slim’s plays completely differently for me than it did in 1994. Back then, I just thought, yeah, novelty restaurant of the kind I expect they have on every other block in That Los Angeles. Now, it’s obvious how much it’s a microcosm of Tarantino’s method. The moment when Vincent gets lost in a little reverie of nostalgia, and has to be called back to “reality” by Mia is as close as Pulp Fiction gets to being moving. I could feel myself slipping down that rabbit hole into that dreamworld with him, and when he (defensively?) dismisses the place as a “wax museum with a pulse”, it feels like a slap in the face. The film turns that back on him when his yearning to slide down a different kind of rabbit hole with Mia is ripped away from him by the one thing they really have in common.

5.

An echo of Vincent in Jack Rabbit Slim’s, and a foreshadowing of the formal playfulness of Kill Bill: Maria de Medeiros’ Fabienne reflected in the television screen in the motel room, becoming part of whatever lurid Z-movie it’s playing.

6.

“Here’s a thing I learned from Tarantino. It’s called ‘copying’.”

7.

My favourite bit of copying in Pulp Fiction is not, you know, the light in the briefcase nicked from Kiss Me Deadly, or MostlyFilm favourite Repo Man, or the bit where Tarantino told John Travolta and Uma Thurman to dance like they were in Bande à Part. It’s Harvey Keitel, playing pretty much the same character as he had a year previously in The Assassin, the forgotten Hollywood remake of Luc Besson’s Nikita. I am now working on a theory that all of Tarantino’s films contain a reference to The Assassin. When this gets out, it’ll blow everything apart.

8.

Like, Bridget Fonda is totally in Jackie Brown. For a start.

9.

Oh, look. This is where we came in. The reason for that screening at the BBFC was that Pulp Fiction is finally coming out in BluRay on the 17th of this month, along with Jackie Brown and From Dusk Till Dawn. The disc looks pretty good, and loaded with decent extras. Worth an upgrade, but as it’s now uncut, probably worth locking your heroin away safely before you watch it, just in case.

7 thoughts on “A Wax Museum With a Pulse

  1. With all the talk of the BluRay coming out, I decided to rewatch Pulp Fiction this past weekend (also with the shocking realisation that it had been nearly 10 years since my last viewing), on (uncut, R1) DVD. It remains, to me, a great film, and still one of my Top 3.

    I think that if Tarantino had managed to show enough restraint to make Kill Bill the single, lean film he had originally planned, rather than two great-but-incomplete films, it could have been his absolute masterpiece, and would have topped Pulp Fiction and possibly therefore been my clear and undisputed favourite film. But as it is, I still find Pulp Fiction the best of Tarantino’s films. It is still exhilarating to watch.

    1. If he’d ended Kill Bill at vol I, it would have been a masterpiece, but vol II was so dull I’ve never made it all the way through in one sitting.

      Pulp Fiction remains a film close to my heart – I saw it on my 18th birthday and it was so ridiculously thrilling that, even with its flaws, it is still hanging on in my all-time top ten.

      And it always makes me want a burger. Samuel L Jackson really SELLS that Big Kahuna.

      1. See, I think Volume II is great but quite different in feel, and I can see how the pacing could be a little slow, especially when compared to Kill Bill. But, see them both together, in one sitting, and it makes more sense. And the whole piece needs what is in both films to be complete (albeit each stand alone fairly well). So I still feel that if Tarantino had managed to find a way to hone the material from the two films into one 2-and-a-half-hour-or-so film, then we’d have had something astonishing.

  2. I watched Pulp Fiction at the newish Clapham Picture House on New Year’s Day 1995, somewhat the worse for wear, and it blew me away. It was, as said above, ridiculously thrilling. It felt like something completely new and revolutionary had happened and that film would never be the same again. Sensibly, I’ve never rewatched it.

  3. I didn’t like Reservoir Dogs and I really wasn’t looking forward to Pulp Fiction, expecting more of the same, but it’s just so much better than Reservoir Dogs and about as close to perfect as I think tarrantino will ever get. Narrative, style, acting and substance (hollow or not) fit together perfectly.

    As noted above, at the time I was quite blown away and what’s surprising is how fresh it still feels when you watch it now. I expected it to seem tired, a victim of being over referenced and reverenced, but it doesn’t. It’s a classic and that “shallow core” is quite fitting for a cast of characters that include hit-men, crime-lords, rapists, drug addicts and a slightly battered good at heart everyman Joe but hard as nails Bruce Willis.

  4. I wonder if the point is that there’s nothing left to say about Pulp Fiction, or that there’s nothing left for the generation for whom it was one of those touchstone moments – Brighton Odeon the day it came out, I seem to remember.

    I’d like to see what someone 20 years older or younger thinks about it.

    Great piece, though. And I think you catch the still moments that resonate in the film better than most writing on it. The thing Tarantino does better than anyone else is creating a slightly queasy hollow-stomached adrenaline rush. He’s always described as empty and distant, but he’s an incredibly visceral filmmaker. Bit of a tosser, though.

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