Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pulp Fiction (April 1 at 7 and 10 p.m. at the CWRU Film Society, Strosacker Auditorium)

[PULP FICTION screens Friday April 1 at 7 and 10 p.m. at the CWRU Film Society, Strosacker Auditorium.]

Review by Charles Cassady Jr.

If I'm ever found dead, arrest my wife at once. She did it. We're incompatible by any definition. The real proof is that we violently disagreed on two movies that came out in 1994. She preferred FORREST GUMP, which I still haven't forced myself to sit through all the way. I liked PULP FICTION instead.

Anyone need an introduction to PULP FICTION? Listen kids, when this thing came out the critics were writing whole book-length homages to Quentin Tarantino - even though he had only two movies to his name. It's still kind of a high point in his career, and his career has hardly turned out to be a disappointment. The multi-layered, funny and hyperviolent 1994 magical-realist hitman saga spawned numerous imitations, revived John Travolta's career, and proved a near-impossible act to follow. Hard even to summarize, and I remember the infant internet of the mid-1990s (all text, online at 1200 baud, 2400 baud if you were rich) filled with user discussions and FAQs of PULP FICTION's symbolism. Only the BLADE RUNNER FAQ made better reading.

The plot - which throws you off with an unreliable-narrative time-warp trick near the end - revolves around a number of eccentric lowlifes in the LA underworld, chiefly the chatty hit-men Vinnie Vega (John Travolta) and Bible-quoting Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), who have a dual assignment from crime kingpin Marsellus (Ving Rhames): First, recover a mysterious briefcase containing a strange, glowing substance – which the viewer never clearly sees and is never identified – and second, baby-sit Marsellus’ heroin-whore wife Mia (Uma Thurman), an ex-actress best known for a Charlie’s Angels ripoff called “Fox Force Five.” Mia and Vinnie nurture a potentially dangerous attraction for each other, until a drugged-up night brings on a cautionary crisis. Meanwhile, in a parallel plotline, boxer Butch (Bruce Willis), fleeing from Marsellus, finds himself in jeopardy with some psycho goons in a pawn shop. The beautifully timed scene in which Butch surveys the potential weapons he can use against his enemies, before settling on a samurai sword, must be seen in a packed auditorium of howling fans to be appreciated.

And indeed, PULP FICTION played to rapt audiences (despite a two-hour-plus running time) in such auditoriums for months and months in 1994 – it was practically a fixture at the now-demolished second-run neighborhood theater in Fairview Park. The pitch-perfect, poetic, profane and highly quotable flick had people talking for hours, about the inside jokes and movie references (more subtle than those Tarantino was to download in mass quantities in KILL BILL), the curiously twisted ethics and the possible “reform” of killer Jules, and numerous other topics (is that item in the briefcase Marsellus’ soul?).

I’d call PULP FICTION a defining pop-icon artwork of a generation – except along came FORREST GUMP, with its portrayal of a dogged simpleton whose good heart and optimism gets him safely through the Vietnam War, 1960s protests and other travails in which smarter folks than he wind up roadkill. Rightly or wrongly, FG got interpreted as a (Republican) hymn to anti-intellectualism and passive acceptance of life’s evils, while Tarantino’s PF, with its rampant criminality, amorality, cathartic violence and dark humor, got cast as the diabolical opposite in the culture wars. That’s the way it was back then, you were a GUMP follower or a PULP disciple (“Which side are you on, boy/Which side are you on?”), and I was more of the latter, oh yes. At the kitschy canonization that is the Oscars, FORREST GUMP prevailed as Best Picture. Don’t know about you, but a little bit of my hope for the 1990s died that night. The rest would die later on. (4 out of 4 stars)

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