Late in Pulp Fiction, the brutally witty classic by Quentin Tarantino, two hit men — Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) — find themselves rolling up their expensive shirt sleeves to scrub up a sickening bloody mess. Vincent, you see, had been talking to some small-time flunky in the back seat of Jules’ car, and Vincent’s gun accidentally went off, reducing the kid’s head to a fine red mist. Is this funny? Not especially (though Travolta’s reading of his line “I just shot Marvin in the face” is worth the ticket price by itself), but its aftermath is, if only because movies don’t usually make time for this sort of candor. Vincent and Jules grunt and wince as they scour the gore and brains off the inside of the car. “I will never forgive your ass for this shit,” says Jules to Vincent. “This is some fucked-up repugnant shit.” It’s as if Vincent had done nothing more serious than puking on Jules’ upholstery.
Pulp Fiction, like Tarantino’s previous Reservoir Dogs, is all jokes, all movie. It’s about something serious (the themes are loyalty and the consequences of one’s actions), but its tone is as far from serious as a film can get. The movie turns its own genre on its head and examines what falls out of its pockets. One of the things that fall out is the action genre’s hidden homo-erotic subtext (always there, always denied). Tarantino fills the movie with gags about insertion, violation: a hypodermic, a gold watch, a “dickless piece of shit” “keying” Vincent’s Camaro, even Pop-Tarts (which are shoved into a toaster and then pop up, like an erection, prompting an ejaculation of bullets).
Then, of course, there’s the anal rape. In one of three stories the movie tells, mob bigwig Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) is after washed-up boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) because Butch refused to throw a fight he’d been paid to throw. After a comically prolonged chase, the two antagonists end up in a pawn shop, whose twisted proprietors lock them in their dungeon. The scene involves a character called the Gimp, and … well, let’s just say it’s the best make-guys-squirm sequence since Ned Beatty squealed like a pig. In terms of the action genre — the apotheosis of machismo — the most undignified thing that can happen to a man (taking it up the ass) befalls one of the captives. This, Tarantino seems to be saying, is the bare bones of what action movies are about. The guy with the biggest dick dominates. What’s so fresh about Tarantino is that he giggles at the conventions of pulp, but he giggles appreciatively. The numbing formulae of action flicks amuse rather than offend him, and I prefer an amused artist to an offended, condescending one.
Pulp Fiction, bless its postmodern heart, plays by the rules of the genre. It’s violent, it deals in stereotypes, it’s stuffed plump with machismo. (I love how Vincent backs down from a confrontation with a powerful man he’s never met before: “I respect you an’ all, I just don’t like people barkin’ orders at me.” How can Vincent “respect” someone he’s just met? Here, “respect” is code for “I’m scared of you because you’re tight with my boss,” which Vincent would never admit.) But you have to know the rules in order to break them, and Tarantino does. The movie keeps galloping off into wild, unpredictable areas. It’s an intricate essay on popcorn entertainment, and it’s deeply funny. When Vincent accidentally blows Marvin away (you can hear Tarantino cackling as he sets up the scenario), the movie’s thesis on violence snaps into focus. The mess has to be cleaned up, and the two glamorous bad-asses have to do it. “This is some fucked-up repugnant shit.”
In another story, Vincent, who works for mob boss Marsellus, is assigned to take the boss’s wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out on a date. “It’s not a date,” Vincent insists when everyone reminds him of how violently possessive the boss is of Mia. “I’m gonna chew my food with my mouth closed,” he elaborates, “laugh at her fuckin’ jokes…” On the way, Vincent crests on a heroin high supplied by his dealer friend Lance (Eric Stoltz, whose annoyingness works in his favor for once). Tarantino gives us a dreamy montage of Vincent fixing — it’s like a pro-drug commercial. By the end of the evening with Mia — a magical sequence destined to become a Tarantino classic (Travolta dances again!) — Vincent is reduced to lecturing his reflection in Mia’s bathroom mirror: “You’re gonna finish your drink, go home, jerk off, and that’s all you’re gonna do.” Meanwhile, Mia, rooting through Vincent’s coat, finds what she thinks is coke, and …. Well, Vincent never gets to finish his drink. The action ends up back at Lance’s rat-trap apartment, and involves a hypodermic big enough to sedate an elephant. Tarantino never shows needle entering flesh, but the sequence is excruciating and harrowingly funny, viciously refuting the earlier romantic image of Vincent’s blissful heroin daze. Tarantino may not be a boringly “responsible” director, but he’s not irresponsible, either. Actions have consequences. Pulp Fiction illustrates the point again and again.
Tarantino’s freshman effort, the notorious Reservoir Dogs, came wrapped in controversy about its sadism. Here was a film, a black comedy, in which a cop was tortured to the bouncy tune of “Stuck in the Middle with You.” The humor there was in Tarantino’s naked desire to film the ultimate torture scene, wedded to an incongruous pop ditty. Many people got up and walked at that point; they wondered what sort of sick mind would dream this up and expect us to find it funny. Others, like me, simply found it funny: At the crucial moment, when Michael Madsen is about to slice the cop’s ear off, the camera tilts up and to the left, as if it couldn’t bear to watch. Like Oliver Stone, who used Tarantino’s script as his blueprint for Natural Born Killers, Tarantino anticipates our reaction to his work; but because he’s the most eager audience of all, he also reacts for us — he knew we were going to look away, so the camera looks away. (I think what really upset people about the scene was its aftermath, when the bloodied cop and the gore-drenched Tim Roth have a long, agonized conversation.) Tarantino plays with the very experience of watching a movie. His knowingness, not his alleged sadism, is what gooses a laugh out of you. In short, if you find Tarantino’s work funny, you’re not sick.
In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino even plays with our normal, continuous sense of narrative. He must have read Syd Field’s Screenplay and then decided to break all of Field’s boring commandments. The three stories bounce off one another, comment on each other, and Tarantino shuffles the plots. A major character who dies in the middle story returns, healthy as a horse, for the third story — which turns out to take place, chronologically, before the second story. The effect isn’t continuity but simultaneity. Characters from different storylines are linked in ways they don’t understand. (Tarantino’s script for 1993′s True Romance was also non-chronological, but director Tony Scott put the scenes in order.) Tarantino is clearly the most adroit young screenwriter now working — his directorial style, by contrast, isn’t actually all that showy or original (there’s a heavy dose of Kubrick in those long, static takes) — and he has a fantastic ear for the music of words. The characters babble endlessly about trivia, but the trivia turns out to be a key to understanding these marginal lowlifes. (This gabby method of characterization is what Whit Stillman generally succeeded at in Metropolitan but fumbled in Barcelona.) Jules, the righteous killer who likes to quote from Ezekiel 25:17 before pulling the trigger on someone, comes to a greater apprehension of the Biblical words near the end. Patiently, he explains to some dumb thief (Tim Roth again) why he can no longer be part of “the tyranny of evil men.” It’s a beautiful scene without a scrap of unearned sentiment.
Sometimes Tarantino’s reach exceeds his grasp. It still remains to be seen whether he can write women. (Maria de Medeiros, as Butch’s oversensitive girlfriend, wears out her welcome in about two minutes. It’s not the actress’s fault; Tarantino writes her as a nuisance.) You may ask yourself why Butch, who risks his life going back to his apartment to retrieve his precious gold watch even though Marsellus’ crew is gunning for him, wastes time in the kitchen to pop in those Pop-Tarts — is he that hungry? Even allowing for visual hyperbole, I don’t get the function of the Gimp — and why do his keepers leave him so vulnerable by chaining him to the ceiling? If their captive gets free, what’s the Gimp supposed to do about it? When the hit men have to clean up the mess, they call in a big gun — “The Wolf” (Harvey Keitel), who specializes in “solving problems.” Marsellus calls the Wolf in the morning, and he’s in a tux, with elegantly dressed people milling around his house. What kind of social wingding is this guy throwing at eight in the morning? Must be a really long, really good cocktail party.
But those are minor flaws, unlikely to occur to you as you’re watching. Pulp Fiction is great American entertainment, a stylish and foxy comedy of errors, and Tarantino continues his superb work with actors. As the cold but inquisitive Vincent, John Travolta weighs in with his best adult performance since Blow Out. Vincent’s self-satisfied lightness (he always seems to be in repose, even when aiming a gun) matches perfectly with his partner Jules’ righteous professionalism. Jules is a guy who makes sure he washes all the blood off his hands before he dries them, so that his host’s bathroom towels “don’t look like no fuckin’ maxi-pad.” Samuel L. Jackson has done many small roles in small movies (or small roles in big movies like Jurassic Park), at least one great role in a so-so movie (Jungle Fever), but this is his arrival. He takes Tarantino’s dialogue and gives it both classical weight and street rhythm. Jules is the best character Tarantino has written and possibly ever will write, and Jackson bites into it like a Big Kahuna burger. Terrific as these men are, they didn’t surprise me as much as Bruce Willis — who’s never been a bad actor, just recently a journeyman star stuck in a lot of shit. Here, playing a man who’s not nearly as sly as he thinks he is, Willis looks more comfortable than he ever has. There’s still a little too much action-flick opacity in his demeanor — he must know that Tarantino is using him as much for his blockbuster aura as for his talent — but there’s no denying that he rises to the material and the company he’s in.
And Tarantino fills the screen with first-rate performers casually slipping in for vivid cameos. Rosanna Arquette shows up as a body-piercing devotee (her stoner friend is Bronagh Gallagher, one of the Commitmentettes); her brother Alexis, in another corner of his life a drag queen who appeared in Last Exit to Brooklyn, plays the poor bastard hiding in the bathroom who comes out blazing. Julia Sweeney drops in as Keitel’s girlfriend (this is her real future in movies, not It’s Pat), and Peter Greene, the villain of last summer’s The Mask, is one of the hillbilly rapists. The most talked-about cameo will certainly be Christopher Walken as the Vietnam vet who delivers a solemnly hilarious monologue setting up the gold watch. (Walken, who made similar magic in last year’s True Romance, should only do Tarantino scripts from now on.) Tarantino also gives himself a funny cameo as Jimmy, the nervous guy whose garage is the temporary haven for the bloodied car. Watching Tarantino’s Jimmy conferring with Keitel’s Mr. Fix-It is the best in-joke in the movie if you remember that Keitel was the executive producer as well as the star of Reservoir Dogs, and that without Keitel’s name attached to that script in both capacities, the movie — and Tarantino — might not have happened.
Quentin Tarantino joins the ranks of international filmmakers — Pedro Almodovar, John Waters, Sam Raimi, John Woo, Peter Jackson — whose names guarantee a buffet of disreputable fun. Their work will offend or dismay some people; you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, and you can’t make a hard-driving work of art without bruising some sensibilities. Devouring the movies he loves and spitting the mouthfuls onto his canvas, Tarantino is a mesmerizing talent still in development. His best work, I presume, is yet ahead of him. I’ll be watching, and so should you — at the moment, Tarantino is the movies.