YOU WON’T KNOW THE FACTS UNTIL YOU’VE SEEN THE FICTION.
A few weeks before this year’s Cannes festival, where one of the most talked-about events will be Quentin Tarantino’s return with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I took the chance to revisit the film that really made his career. In 2019, there’s only one thing that comes to mind when we hear the name Harvey Weinstein – sexual abuse. But back in 1994, he and his brother Bob proved that independent cinema could be just as lucrative and glamorous as the blockbusters.
Together with Tarantino and the star-studded cast, the Weinsteins invaded Cannes and Pulp Fiction caused a sensation, winning the top prize and earning rave reviews.
The script was based on several stories that Tarantino and Roger Avary thought up over the years; some of the scenes were actually intended for True Romance (1993). What we have here is like a quilt of pulp fiction, divided into stories that are not told in chronological order and whose characters walk in and out of them. The film opens with two hitmen, Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield (John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson) on their way to retrieve a briefcase for their boss, Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). We’re also invited to a date between Vincent and Wallace’s girlfriend Mia (Uma Thurman) that turns south. There’s a couple (Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer) preparing to rob a diner. And there’s a boxer (Bruce Willis) whom Marcellus pays to lose a bout, but he has every intention to deceive the gangster…
Countless references to genre tropes
Several sequences rely heavily on the dialogue. As in the director’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), the characters are often engaged in nonsense discussions about pop culture, one of the most famous being the one between Vincent and Jules about what McDonald’s burgers are called in France. There’s also a perfectly lovely and hilariously absurd flashback to the boxer’s childhood when he was visited by his dead father’s best friend, a fellow Vietnam War veteran, who lived through hell to give him a watch that his father owned; Christopher Walken delivers his monologue with compassion, even though what he’s saying is preposterous.
Since Tarantino loves movies, he’s peppered the film with countless references to genre tropes. It’s not a coincidence that the restaurant where Mia and Vincent go on their date has a 1950s nostalgia theme, complete with staff who look like Marilyn Monroe and Buddy Holly (Steve Buscemi!). The soundtrack, which has become as much of a classic as the one for Reservoir Dogs, is also full of great rock, pop, soul and surf music that Tarantino enjoyed; one of the film’s most famous scenes has Vincent and Mia dancing to Chuck Berry’s ”You Never Can Tell”. Written before Travolta was cast, the scene was made even better by his contribution. Pulp Fiction relaunched his career once again and even if Travolta’s not really playing a villain the performance did pave the way for him to start doing that type of work. The film also boosted Jackson’s career (he has many great scenes in the film, the best one featuring an unforgettable Bible quote); Thurman is magnetic as the gangster moll who likes her cocaine a little too much, and Harvey Keitel is clearly having fun as the dapper ”cleaner”, the kind of guy you call when you have a body you want to see disappear.
Just when you think the movie is losing some of its magic as Willis and his French girlfriend are trying to escape, a final and utterly unpredictable showdown between him and Rhames takes place.
That’s one of the best things about the movie – you have no idea where it’s heading. Let’s just hope Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has something similar to offer.
Pulp Fiction 1994-U.S. 154 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Lawrence Bender. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino, Roger Avary. Cinematography: Andzej Sekula. Editing: Sally Menke. Cast: John Travolta (Vincent Vega), Samuel L. Jackson (Jules Winnfield), Uma Thurman (Mia Wallace), Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer… Ving Rhames, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, Bruce Willis, Quentin Tarantino. Cameo: Steve Buscemi.
Trivia: Co-executive produced by Danny DeVito.
Oscar: Best Original Screenplay. Golden Globe: Best Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Supporting Actor (Jackson), Original Screenplay. Cannes: Palme d’Or.
Last word: “As for [then chairman] Jeffrey Katzenberg, that was the first test of what I call autonomy with Jeffrey. When I signed my contract with Disney selling Miramax, with us still running the company, I wrote the word ‘autonomy’ on every page, because I had heard that Jeffrey was notorious for not giving it. When I read the ‘Pulp Fiction’ script, I went to him and said, ‘Even though I have the right to make this, I want to clear it with you.’ He read it and said, ‘Easy on the heroin scene, if you can, but that is one of the best scripts I have ever read. Even though you don’t need it, I am giving you my blessing.’ ” (Harvey Weinstein, Vanity Fair)