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Monday, December 17, 2012

Untimely Movie Review: "Pulp Fiction"

There are two events in my cinematic life where I walked out of a movie feeling transformed; as if my brain and spirit had been stretched into shapes they had never been in before, and never quite snapped back to being the same afterward.

The first was when I saw George Lucas's Star Wars when I was eight years old, and the second was when I saw Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.

I saw Pulp Fiction for the second time on the big screen recently, presented as a one-night engagement as a run-up to Tarantino's highly anticipated (by me, at least) spaghetti "Southern" Django Unchained, to be released on Christmas Day.

Why is Pulp Fiction such a great movie to me? I love movies, but I don't spend much time studying the art of film, so for discussion on camera angles, intricate tracking shots, mise en scene, bold color choices, non-linear storytelling, and other such artsy analysis, look elsewhere. And while Pulp Fiction' s  influence on the movies that followed can be favorably compared, I think, to that of Citizen Kane , such an analysis has been done (and overdone) by others.

In the 18 years since I first saw it in the theater (and the approximately 20 times I have watched it beginning to end since, and the countless times I was stopped in my tracks by catching it on cable and having to watch it until the end) I have come to realize that what draws me to a movie and impacts me are not the flash and technique, but the traditional, if not ancient and perhaps timeless elements of story and character. For all of my intellectual pretentions, my love of movies is a visceral, emotional one.

Conversations - Listening to the  conversations in this movie --- funny, profane, and philosophical ---I want to step into the screen and join them. So much movie dialog is nothing but exposition to explain the plot ( e.g.  "Well, don't get snippy with me. You're the one who decided to quit being a high powered patent attorney to adopt a Vietnamese orphan and open your own organic-paleo bakery"). Instead, we are dropped into conversations and relationships already in progress. As in real life, the audience is expected to sort it out by how the characters speak to each other. We learn everything about the comrades-in-arms relationship and affection between Vincent Vega and Jules Winfield just by joining their conversation about foot massages and the nature of intimacy, as well as through Vincent's acceptance of Jules' spiritual awakening and decision to give up the criminal life at the movie's "end".

Silence - For all of the well deserved praise for Tarantino's skill with dialogue ( he has an unsung second career as a Hollywood script doctor typically hired to improve dialogue scenes) his use of silence is ofter overlooked. During the movie's centerpiece, the "date" between Vincent and Mia Wallace at the surreal "wax museum with a pulse" Jack Rabbit Slim's, a full minute (I timed it) of silence passes between the heroin-addled hitman and his boss's pampered but bored and despondent trophy wife. Just with their eyes and body language, the pair entertain the natural and possibly fatal sexual tension bubbling between them. The audience is again asked to bring their own life into the scene, and feel the same uncomfortable silence, so jarring after the movie's previous electrifying dialogue. This silence is filled later in the scene not by more chatter, but the now classic dance contest. To the tune of Fats Domino's  "You Never Can Tell", Vincent and Mia use a "safe" ritual (public dancing) to grow even closer.

Honor- Within Pulp Fiction's  amoral subculture of crime, murder, and drug dealing, the characters act with loyalty and honor toward each other. Vincent remains loyal to his boss and does not sleep with Mia. Although Butch betrays Marcellus by not throwing the fight, he cuts short his own escape to rescue Marcellus. Note also that the characters who are killed are those who, in this world, violated honor or otherwise had it coming - Thieving preppy Brad and his callow friends;  Vincent, but only in pre-emptive self defense by Butch, the vile rapist Zed and his sweaty hillbilly accomplice,; even tragic palooka Floyd, killed off screen in the ring by Butch,  "knew the risks." Among this picaresque crew, honor is preserved and exalted.

So for me, Pulp Fiction, like all great movies, is great because it treats the audience as real human being, capable of empathy and imagination, and allows the audience to participate as the story unfolds.

I'll be following this up with other Untimely Reviews. Let me know what you think!

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