When it was announced 20 years ago this week that Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, a pop culture Moebius strip of a movie centred on two nattering contract killers (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson), had won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, the air of triumph in the room was punctured by catcalls of “Scandale!” and “Fasciste!”
And so it began: Tarantino and Pulp Fiction were off and running as two of the most polarizing forces in modern movies. On the one hand a cleverly non-linear screwball noir about colliding L.A. lowlifes who name-check hamburgers, oral sex, Happy Days, A Flock of Seagulls and the Old Testament between eruptions of bodily fluids, on another Pulp Fiction was, as scholar Dana Polan wrote in 2000, “not so much a film as a phenomenon.”
By the time the movie opened in North America in October, 1994, both sides were waiting. On the pro-Pulp side, the 31-year-old former L.A. video-store clerk’s second movie was heralded in terms usually reserved for religious miracles and royal births, while on the snarly side the teeth were filed to glistening points. According to The Denver Post, “There is no reason for the existence of this movie other than as a primer in pop culture cool … Tarantino’s films are like hazing rituals for admission in the cult of attitude.”
From Toronto, the late critic Robin Wood dismissed Pulp as an “entirely spurious work, the product of a mind/sensibility that will probably now [thanks to the premature adulation] never transcend its adolescent maturity, seeking at all points to involve the audience in its complacent sense of its own cleverness, its own emptiness and cynicism.” Meanwhile, in the Los Angeles Times, Roger Shattuck warned that gazing upon the movie revealed nothing short of the end of times: “Pulp Fiction has a message: What a lark crime can be! … The consequences of that illusion will be very destructive. … Responsible art deserves to be protected with all our powers from those who would borrow its mantle to protect and ennoble displays of unredeemed depravity and violence.”
If the direst warnings of the movie’s hastening of millennial meltdown tended to be contained within the confines of the established print media, the most effusive praise was found in the still-upstart realm of cyberspace, where burgeoning legions of fans were gathering to anoint Pulp Fiction as one of its first crowd-sourced sensations, a movie seemingly made for a generation of people with scores to settle, strong opinions and fingertips to back them up. The Internet was about to scramble the terms of the pop cultural universe – eventually bringing most old media like print to its tweedy knees – and Pulp Fiction was an especially powerful battering ram in the bringing down of the old ways. For it was a movie about geeks made by a geek and for geeks, and the geek was about to inherit the earth.
In the coming months, neutrality was on the wane: one had to see Pulp Fiction, one had to have an opinion on it, and one had to be prepared to express it. If the insurgent Web and its proliferating chat rooms set the tone for the debate – increasingly extreme, vociferous, profane and bruising – Pulp Fiction itself helped set the tone of the Internet, a realm in which the expression of gratuitous griping, sniping and general anonymous bitchiness was suddenly the benefactor of a vast and infinite bullhorn.
True, there were not only measured considerations of the film’s reflection of, among other things, postmodern malaise, pastiche culture and the dissolution of meaning at the end of the millennium, but mostly it was just scattershot trigger-pulling: the verbal equivalent of all those guns popping off randomly in Tarantino’s movie.
While most of the firing took place over the skirmish lines of the movie’s alleged lack of meaning and moral centre – the latter often hitched to the director’s conspicuous fondness for the florid use of the n-word – nothing stopped its momentum, and today the debates seem less pertinent to Pulp Fiction’s actual legacy than its triumph of structure and tone. If Pulp Fiction contributed to change anything, and it certainly did, it was the way mainstream movies and TV were structured – maze-like non-linearity now being an accepted hallmark of even the most pedestrian entertainments – the way the content of pop culture so often became pop culture and the blending of violence and slapstick. From Pulp Fiction to The Sopranos, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Out of Sight, The Usual Suspects, Shaun of the Dead, Dexter, Breaking Bad, Justified and beyond, Tarantino had left his mark: a messy red splatter.
But more than anything it needs to be remembered as the first movie in which the fans spoke more loudly and more aggressively than anyone else, a din that still rings above everything else.
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