Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Tarantino Watch: Pulp Fiction (1994)

By Fall of 1994, I was in my second year at the University of Texas.  Back in the 80's and 90's, Austin was a much smaller town, but the avid film scene for both film production and film fans, which would become fertile territory for the Alamo Drafthouse to take hold and grow.  You're welcome, America.  Our 90's love of beer and movies is now our gift to you.

For reasons upon which I am unclear, Quentin Tarantino was well aware he had a particularly vocal fanbase in Austin.  I suspect screenings of Reservoir Dogs at either The Dobie (a small "art house" theater on the edge of campus) or the Village (a larger, equally dumpy art house theater a few miles north of downtown) might have gone well for the director, but I was living in North Houston from 90-93, and missed that window.  

Anyway, Tarantino booked a screening of his new film, Pulp Fiction (1994), on campus at UT Austin about two months before the film's broad release.  I've written before about the experience*, but it was pretty amazing.  Hogg Auditorium, an old-style movie and performance house, was filled to capacity.  The place was rowdy as hell.  People were dressed in black suits and ties.  In sports parlance, this was a hometown crowd.

So, it should come as no surprise that when Amanda Plummer's character took the screen, shouted spittle our direction and then the credits appeared, the crowd went monkey-shit.  Standing en masse, cheering, clapping, roaring really.  And not for the last time.  The adrenaline shot didn't just get the crowd on its feet, if there'd been a police cruiser to turn over and set ablaze, it would have happened.  We were up and down in our seats throughout the screening, and I guess at that point Mr. Tarantino had a good idea there was an audience for his movie.  

The Q&A afterward was the typically disappointing and awkward Q&A you get from any university crowd, and was even mocked in the student paper the next week.  Still fun, but, man...  not every thought that passes through your head needs to be directed at the guest of honor.  I was seated next to the microphone, and I just wanted to tap people on the knee when they were asking stupid questions, let them know "hey, you should really just stop now".

Afterward, there was a reception at the now twice-defunct Austin Music Hall (a terrible venue and I do not mourn its passing), and, as a semi-awkward 19-year-old considering a career in film, I took my shot at talking to our host, writer-director-producer Richard Linklater, to see if I couldn't ask how one landed an internship with his team.  But, two seconds after pumping his hand, I turned around and Tarantino was standing there smiling at me.  

I panicked, offered him a buffalo wing from my plate, said something like "y'all must have lots to talk about", and then wandered off.  Because I am an idiot.  

When you have two celebrated directors standing there with you, do not panic.  You hang out and pretend like you're supposed to be there.

Like everyone else, I catch bits of Pulp Fiction on cable, and I'll watch a scene or two, but rarely the whole movie.  Last night I wandered in just after Vincent Vega picked up Ms. Mia Wallace, and watched through to the end.  

Man, that is still one hell of a movie.  Yeah, we all got sick of people quoting the movie back to us, and we all overplayed the soundtrack in our used cars.  We all watched it until we were sick of it and the movie held no surprises anymore.  

The movie both rekindled (Travolta) and launched careers (just try to get by a day without seeing Samuel L. Jackson's mug somewhere.  Hell, the man's face is now in my Captain America comics as Nick Fury).  It launched a thousand imitators, good, mediocre and stupid (I saw a lot of them, and 2 Days in the Valley was terrible).  But no one ever really managed to recapture the weird alchemy of the movie.  Brilliant dialog, brilliantly realized characters, a setting so ingrained in reality that it feels like some alien pulp world - especially when the characters detour through Jack Rabbit Slim's.  

Not just actors got launches out of the movie.  Tarantino helped out other filmmakers, brought Asian cinema to the states, and that referencing actually got a lot of movies attention that might have stayed popular overseas and in the cult circuit, but not gotten as much of a wide release or popular attention.

At the time of the film's release, I can't say I was overly familiar with actual "pulp fiction" outside of a knowledge that it existed.  Nor was I overly prepared for the ways in which the idea was subverted, mangled, made both more fantastic and mundane (Eric Stoltz should have been launched into the stratosphere for his role as Lance. I think he was so buyable, it almost failed to register).  But seeing hitmen actually having conversations about the dumb shit they must have to fill the time between more bad-ass scenes in their movies actually doing - that blank space was mined for gold.  Throw in a boxer-noir with a spin into weirdo redneck BDSM-land, and you've got something new.  It really felt like the "auteur" idea of filmmaking they throw at you in film school and which has lost most of its shine in the modern era.

After the screening, I tried to convey to people what they could expect when they saw Pulp Fiction, and that they should plan to see it, but folks just sort of rolled their eyes at me.  Same thing happened with Babe (yeah, the pig movie), so who's the crazy one NOW, mid-90's?!  

I'm glad I've given it time between viewings.  

Yeah, Tarantino is a "problematic" film maker, which the internet likes to occasionally turn into a small brush fire.  He's not the smoothest guy in interviews, and of course he takes homage to the point of plagiarism on the regular.  And, I expect today's college kids probably shrug their shoulders at the movie, filmed before they were born, stolen from, copied, referenced and repeated.    

Like I said, it was such a thing that I honestly got sick of the movie.  It got into the zeitgeist.  And like Hootie & The Blowfish and Nirvana on MTV in the 90's, when there was no such thing as "too much of a thin, good or not".  You couldn't avoid it.  Tarantino even did an episode of popular medical drama/ soap, ER.  

But, you know, you give something like that some room, it's pretty good to come back to.  Maybe not Hootie & The Blowfish.  You don't need to go back to that.  But the movie, that you can go back to.

It's funny how a movie like this can feel so utterly 1990's, as it's really a pastiche to so many other things, a catalog of 20th Century crime fiction and pop references (and some international cinema for good measure).  Certainly the 90's didn't invent this sort of co-opting of the past for the modern (see: the 70's relationship with the 50's).  So, yeah, when the college kids are having their 90's parties, I can't really get my head around what they think the 90's was (mostly Power Rangers and various kids toys, so far as I can tell), I'd just point them at this and the Monica Lewinsky scandal and say "there.  That was the 90's.  Also, the internet was nothing but porn and Star Trek and it took 15 minutes to get a hi-res picture of Gillian Anderson.  And so much Sting.  You couldn't go anywhere and not hear Sting." 

*I'm sure, I just can't find the post where I did


JAL said...

I was reminiscing about Hogg just the other day. So very very much Hong Kong cinema.

The League said...

Yeah! I was thinking recently about how long it had been since I'd watched some John Woo, Jackie Chan or, you know, a personal favorite from the Hogg movies: