I rewatched Pulp Fiction tonight for the first time since it's initial release 15 years ago, wondering how well it had aged. Would it retain the vitality and pulsing energy I remembered? So much has been written about this film in the intervening years that I feel I've seen it more than once but to my recollection this is only my second time through.
Precious few stones remain unturned relating to Pulp Fiction's plot, dialogue and unusual timeline. It's been analysed, dissected, reviewed and summarized to death. That being said, I've not read much about how it fits into the tapestry of film history - specifically with the benefit of some hindsight now - so I thought I'd take a stab at assessing its longer term influence, how it relates and compares to other films that enjoyed huge success on their initial release and what, if anything, is Pulp Fiction's legacy.
Film making moves in cycles. Styles change, plot devices evolve, scope and scale expand and contract moving in and out of popular film making convention. Big films can nudge the film industry in a different direction, giant films can change that direction on a dime. Some films find huge audiences at the end of a cycle and become representative of that period winding down. Gone With The Wind comes to mind. Others are the catalyst for a new direction and represent the start of a new chapter in the movies. Star Wars. Some gigantic films don't fall in either camp and seem to exist outside of the Hollywood dream factory assembly line becoming brilliant creative cul-de-sacs. Apocalypse Now.
I'm not sure where Pulp Fiction fits in these terms. It certainly influenced a great number of subsequent films but it hasn't been expanded on in that way Blade Runner and Alien built on the Star Wars phenomena. I'm tempted to put Pulp Fiction in the same category as a Bonnie and Clyde. Both films were shockingly violent to their respective audiences and changed how graphically violence could be presented. In retrospect, both seem tame in relative terms by today's standards. Which brings me to a couple of observations about Pulp Fiction from my second pass last night. Firstly, it is far less visually violent than I remembered. The gruesome Uma Thurman adrenalin money shot to the heart is actually played off-screen. I could have sworn that we saw the needle going in, but Tarantino uses the reactions of the others, plus the earlier shot of Vincent shooting up (where we do) and a touch of Rosanna Arquette's prior piercing discussion to make us think we've seen the needle driven deep into Uma's heart. We haven't. I had the same sense that we were exposed to far more gore when Vincent accidently shoots the guy in the back seat. There's almost nothing of that on screen. It's strange how we rework scenes in our reflections on film to suit what we think we saw rather than what we did see.
To be honest, I was a little surprised how well Pulp Fiction has stood the test of time. Dialogue remains central to the film, so much so that I'm not sure exactly what its genre is. It isn't really a crime film, although crime and gangsters are central to the plot line. It isn't really a black comedy, a thriller or a drama either. It sort of defies categorization. We enter (and exit) the story in the middle of the plot, although the dialogue and story arc are contiguous. The actors are nearly flawless throughout including the insufferable Tarantino himself, who uses his extended cameo as a vehicle to project how much he loves actors. He fawns over Harvey Kietel's cleanup man, The Wolf. Travolta briefly has his magic back. Ving Rhames and Bruce Willis have never been better. The film, however, belongs to Sam Jackson, who delivers in the role of a lifetime as Jules.
I'd argue that Pulp Fiction remains the film that has changed cinema the most in the last two decades. It is probably the masterpiece of our time and I'd be interested to hear any suggestions on other recent films that challenge this contention. I think it's interesting that it was released in 1995 too. It might be said that Casino, also from 1995, marked the end of a 20+ year cycle that started with The Godfather and Pulp Fiction ushered in the next gangster cycle. As I write this I'm tempted to expand upon the idea of films starting and ending cycles in a separate piece. There seems something to that.
If you haven't seen Pulp Fiction in a while, do yourself a favour and revisit it. You might be surprised just how well made it is. It might be a little early to define its final legacy, but Pulp Fiction is distilling into our generation's Citizen Kane, and with good reason.