After seeing Kill Bill Vol. 1, I thought that it would be a good idea to see Quentin Tarantino’s other major film, Pulp Fiction, so that I could get a feel for what came before in Tarantino’s oeuvre. As mentioned in that previous review, I had avoided Pulp Fiction thus far because of the hype surrounding it. I feared that the movie would not live up to the hyperbole and the movie would turn out just as I had initially suspected: a postmodern movie about nothing, devoid of plot and more concerned with form than anything else.
That’s exactly what the movie turned out to be. It is presented as a series of vignettes that seem separate and independent but are loosely tied together in the final scene. Each chapter does not build on the previous one; in other words, there is no plot to speak of and the theme—here I’m being charitable in ascribing one to it—is fairly minimal: bad things happen to bad people. I thought that the movie might be about the redemption of the hit man Jules, but that’s neither well-developed or fully explicit.
In speaking with people about the movie, the constant refrain was that the movie was great because it jumped around the different vignettes in no particular order and then tied it all together nicely in the end. This is the elevation of form above substance. I question how innovative it really is since it goes against the fundamental characteristic of narrative: chronology. Sure, other films and fiction have gone back and forth between the present and the past through flashbacks. But these interludes are brief and serve to drive the main story line forward. Pulp Fiction presents these chapters willy nilly, without any real reason for their order. Memento used chronology in an interesting way, but it served the story well. Pulp Fiction chops up the story line (whatever it may be), throws it in the air, and where it lands is how it’s shot.
If this had been done in a book, would we hear praise for its innovativeness? (Bad analogy, if you’re familiar with the current state of literature and literary criticism.) No, we would call the product amateurish, disjointed, and incomprehensible. Why would such a farce become acclaimed and vaunted if transferred to film? No matter how well written the individual chapters (or individual sentences), the sum is less than its parts.
Tarantino is clearly skilled as a director, for the shots and scenes are extremely well crafted. The tension in the overdose scene with Uma Thurman, John Travolta, and Eric Stoltz is palpable and chilling. The actors and actresses are generally well played, though their characters aren’t developed beyond the generic range of mobsters.
As a final note, the scenes with the drug use and the anal rape were completely unnecessary. The only reason that they were included was for their shock value, which was considerable. They detracted from the story for no purpose and that is a major strike in my mind. There are a limited number of scenes and minutes in any film and so each scene should advance the drama or story along. To spend so much time on these subjects and events is a travesty. In a perfect film, they would represent a major flaw. In this film, they suggest a relativistic disdain for both the audience and man’s cognitive needs. That’s the most damning criticism I could level towards a film.