[box cover]

Pulp Fiction: Collector's Edition

Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Starring John Travolta, Sam Jackson, Uma Thurman
Bruce Willis, Maria De Medeiros, Ving Rhames,
and Christopher Walken

Written by Roger Avery and Quentin Tarantino
Directed by Quentin Tarantino


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Review by Damon Houx                    


Preface: The Baggage of Pulp Fiction

David Letterman hosted the 1995 Academy Awards, where the Best Picture prize was hotly contested between Robert Zemeckis's conservative ode to the second half of the 20th century Forrest Gump and Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. It seemed ironic that both Letterman and Fiction would face the same defeat, as both were seen as bucking against the system and were roundly rejected for it, with little consolation — though admittedly Tarantino and co-writer Roger Avery did walk away with the Best Original Screenplay statuette. They were just a little too hip for the general public.

However, not winning Best Picture may have been the best thing to ever happen to Pulp Fiction: Had it won, it could be identified with the normally maudlin and pedestrian tastes of the Academy. Next to pictures like Driving Miss Daisy, Chariots of Fire, and Oliver!, it would stick out like a sore thumb and look that much more like something for everyone, which the film obviously isn't. Besides, by that point the film didn't need any more approval.

Though its stateside release was in the fall of 1994, Pulp Fiction arrived in America having already won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and hyped to no end after QT's 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs. With it — and the subsequent scripts for both Natural Born Killers and True Romance — Tarantino was on his way to becoming an indie-film brand name. And with seven Oscar nominations, Fiction slowly but surely crossed the $100 million mark at the box office (finishing out at about $108 million, and back when crossing the century mark meant something), and was in the top ten lists of the year of most major critics (although there were more than a few detractors). Even without the Oscar for Best Picture, its presence was felt on the big screen. But, more importantly, the movie made a substantial impression on American pop culture.

First and foremost would be that Pulp Fiction gave birth (or rebirth) to some careers: It resurrected John Travolta's lagging persona, turning him into the $20-million-per-picture player he was by 1998. It surely made Sam Jackson a star; his performance paved the way for his Hollywood leading-man roles, as in Shaft. It showed that Bruce Willis was more than just an action stud or that Moonlighting guy, clearing a path for him out of Die Hard clones like Striking Distance and towards credibly starring in more "arty" pictures such as Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys. And though some performers didn't benefit as much (Maria De Mederios for starters), most — like Ving Rhames, and to some extent Christopher Walken — were able to trade on their hip cache from appearing in the film.

As for Tarantino, he virtually was given the keys to the kingdom (as he joked on the From Dusk 'til Dawn DVD audio commentary, if he wanted to remake Cannibal Holocaust they'd give him $20 million to do it). And to a certain extent he did do what he wanted by making and starring in Roberto Rodriguez's Dawn, appearing in a handful of films (including Girl 6 and Destiny Turn on the Radio), and following up Pulp Fiction with 1997's Jackie Brown. (Four Rooms is probably best not mentioned.) It is also not for nothing that the brothers Weinstein say that Miramax is the house that Tarantino built. Shortly after Fiction, Miramax was no longer just shepherding projects like Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy, but chasing serious Oscar gold with projects like 1997's Good Will Hunting and 1999's Shakespeare in Love.

But, even more than all of the above, Pulp Fiction became as cinematically influential as any film ever made.

Some of its results were good: It's hard to imagine filmmakers like Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket), Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight), Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), Jon Favreau and Doug Liman (Swingers), Kevin Smith (Clerks), or even John Woo having as many doors opened for them because of the road Tarantino paved. Pulp Fiction opened cultural doors as well — and not just through Tarantino's Rolling Thunder label. Through both Fiction and his earlier Reservoir Dogs, Hong Kong films and filmmakers got extra support stateside, and titles ranging from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Rush Hour owe QT at least a little debt of gratitude.

Tarantino's distinct cinematic voice inspired imitators, but few of the films that followed in his footsteps managed to capture half of what he did. Fiction should feel lucky that it doesn't have to answer for the cinematic atrocities inspired, committed in "homage," or seen as viable because of its success. Ranging from bad spoofs in films like Spy Hard and Space Jam, inspiring films like Truth or Consequences N.M. and Go; much of what came after seemed to revel in pop culture and gunplay in ways that Fiction didn't. Bottom line: It's hard to forgive any film that is (indirectly) responsible for Battlefield Earth getting a green light.

But influential in cinema is one thing; Pulp Fiction not only changed the way movies were made, but also symbolized the birth of the video-store generation's first true God. For Tarantino gave hope to all of the kids who worked at Blockbuster and swore they were working on a script; QT was one of their own, and the film had their movie-mad geek passion about it. Pulp Fiction represents for one generation what The Sun Also Rises or The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye did for another; if they are the great American novels, then Pulp Fiction is the great American film. And the influence of the film can be seen just by visiting any college campus in America. Eight years later, dorm room walls are still adorned with Tarantino posters. It's easy to see why, too: Liking Tarantino is akin to "getting it." Or as Hemingway would say, it makes you "one of us."

A Brief Author's Note

I was one of those people hotly anticipating Pulp Fiction. Starting college at the University of Oregon in 1994, I returned to my hometown of Portland to see Pulp Fiction the day it opened (fearing it wouldn't open in Eugene). And it was everything I hoped it would be and more. I saw it two more times in the theater, bought the screenplay and the soundtrack, and had the poster (found in the pages of the British film magazine Empire) proudly displayed on my dorm room wall. I had a copy of the Japanese Laserdisc for a while (which came out months before the domestic release), and rented (though balked at purchasing) the Criterion Laserdisc the day it came out. But after a while it was no longer "the giggle it used to be," as by 1997 (basically the time Jackie Brown came out) the film could be absorbed by osmosis. Tarantino's pop-culture presence had hit saturation level and backlash was kicking in. Like Tarantino himself — who has remained cinematically inactive until recently — I avoided his films for the last couple of years. Watching Pulp Fiction again on the "Collector's Edition" DVD made me a bit nervous, for I had grown tired of the picture, and of Tarantino.

The Story

Broken into three sections, Pulp Fiction opens with a tone-setting prologue featuring two robbers (played by Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) who discuss a plan to change from robbing liquor stores to diners, just before the film shock-cuts to the opening credits. Fiction then shows two well-dressed hit-men, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), preparing for their day as they have to retrieve a briefcase with an unidentified valuable inside from what looks like a bunch of college kids, led by Bret (Frank Whaley). After killing the kids, we cut forward to Vincent and Jules arriving at their employer's bar wearing T-shirts and shorts, where their employer Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) is pressuring boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) to throw a fight.

From there the three main stories begin: The first follows Vincent as he takes Marsellus's pretty wife Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) out for a platonic date — which includes a discussion about a five-dollar milkshake, an impromptu dance number, and a drug overdose. The second act follows Butch sometime after that night, where he has not only reneged on throwing the fight but bet on himself and accidentally killed his opponent. His plan is to take his money and his girlfriend (Maria De Mederios) and run away from Marsellus's wrath, only to have to return to his apartment to get his family heirloom: a watch. The third segment cuts back in time to show how Jules and Vincent — with the help of Jules' pal Jimmy (Tarantino) and the suave Winston Wolf (Harvey Kietel) — find time to clean their car and dispose of a fresh body without upsetting Jimmy's wife Bonnie. We also learn why Jules has decided to abandon the gangster life.

So Does it Hold Up?

Yes. Though anyone who was around at the time may be able to quote large sections of the film verbatim ("Bacon tastes good. Pork chops taste good") without thinking about it, Pulp Fiction thoroughly commands attentions, even when we know what's coming next. Because of the way the story is structured, everything puts itself in place by the end, so nagging questions (like why wasn't Jules with Vincent at Butch's apartment, or what did the first prologue have to do with anything) are explained. And now that Steven Soderbergh has become the auteurist's poster boy, the heat is off Tarantino (at least until Kill Bill comes out, as it is scheduled to be released in 2003). QT isn't the face of indie cinema — or the face of anything. He's just a writer/director/actor, and he's damn good at the first two.

But such doesn't explain why Pulp Fiction became a phenomenon, or why it's so great. Watching it again I found four elements that make the picture so memorable — even if the first one is a bit of a dilettante thing to do.

The first — and perhaps the most bold — is Tarantino's approach to the material. Put bluntly, he shows us the scenes that usually are left out of movies like this. From showing two killers on the ride to a hit to the particular way Jules shakes down Bret, Tarantino revels in the things we've never seen before but must invariably happen (hit-men have to get to work somehow). He also evokes emotions through using elements that are normally not used for such (who'd ever think to make drinking Sprite so ominous?) Sure, we've seen a hit or an overdose before, but because Tarantino shows all the things leading up to the overdose, and the consequences of these actions, everything feels fresh.

He also follows through his writing instincts with his directorial tone, often using long takes and odd angles (like back of people's heads for a conversation, or introducing a character by showing her feet) to keep the viewer unsure of what comes next. And though the film shows the fingerprints of Tarantino's cinematic heroes (a shortlist of references would have to include Jean-Luc Godard, Brian De Palma, Don Siegel, Howard Hawks, Robert Aldrich [perhaps by way of Alex Cox], Hanna-Barbera, Francois Truffaut, John Boorman, Roman Polanski, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, John Carpenter, Jean Pierre Melville, John Woo, Ringo Lam, Jack Hill, Tobe Hooper, George Stevens, and Akira Kurosawa), the movie is able to process and refit many of his heroes' ideas into his own voice. Even if we recognize the source, it's usually more than just an homage (which is — more often than not — the problem with QT's imitators).

The second and probably most important thing that separates Pulp Fiction from all of its imitators is Tarantino's love of, and ear for, conversation. From the staccato rhythms of Mia and Vincent's dinner together, to the tonal shifts in Vincent and Jules' conversations, the script is a wonder. And though the diner scene between Jules and Vincent is oft-quoted, what makes the discussion of bacon and filthy animals so amazing is how it progresses: At first Vincent asks Jules if he wants some of his bacon, and Jules declines, but because Jules doesn't eat filthy animals Vincent probes Jules' definition of filthy animals. It's obvious the two are talking to talk, but how their conversation progresses (or stalls) is something completely removed from the near-totally plot-driven dialogue of most crime dramas. Even the most plot-driven dialogue (say Jules' decision to quit the business) is peppered with commentary that exists solely to be probing.

Another great example is how Butch, after returning to his girlfriend, has to ask her about her pancakes before she will get on the motorcycle; even if the two have to go, she needs consoling. And that acknowledgment of the occasionally irrational nature of conversation is what makes the script so memorable, especially for what would otherwise be considered a genre exercise.

Pulp Fiction never tells you anything about Jules and Vincent's home life (we know Jules has a vegetarian girlfriend, but that's about it), nor does it deliver typical character-building moments. But by not including such, Tarantino points out that we really don't have to have them if the characters are interesting. This may be due to his allegiance to the Hawksian dictum that action shows character, but it creates a looseness (a sort of French New Wave feel) and anticipation. There are no pet kittens to create sympathy, or the normal touchstones of character. Such frees the film — and the audience — from the clutter.

The third major element of Pulp Fiction (which also came to pass in Reservoir Dogs) is Tarantino's lack of scoring. This fits in with the first element of working against expectations, but instead of hiring a composer QT uses eclectic bits of pop music as a score (mostly source, but sometime not). From the Spaghetti Western feel of Dick Dale and his Del Tone's "Misirlou" (and the use of surf music in general) to Urge Overkill's cover of "Girl, You'll be a Woman Soon," everything feels right. And though Scorsese had done it before, the decade-bending music (which is a texture of the film itself) helps create a timeless zone that is both real and cinematic. The lack of score also helps keep the viewer on edge, as (much like the lack of "character building") it removes familiarity: One can imagine that, in any other director's hands, Butch's walk to his apartment would be ominously scored. Yet it's the lack of score that makes the sequence feel so tense. We keep wondering if we'll hear something to cue trouble.

The final thing is the thematic use of redemption, as well as unspoken bonds. Each episode ends with characters being given a second chance (For Mia, for Butch, and for Honey Bunny, Ringo, and Jules) and forming a bond with someone they wouldn't have thought they would (Mia and Vincent, Marsellus and Butch, Jules and Ringo). Because Pulp Fiction offers a moral exegesis, we find sympathies within the amorality; we see what happens when characters accept the chances of redemption, and when they don't. There is a sense of hope and life in the picture. Rather than being a mere showcase of antihero cinema cool, Pulp Fiction is concerned with our faith in God and in other people. This too is something of a Hawksian ideal — but Tarantino makes it his own.

What's in the Briefcase?

There are a couple of theories floating around the Internet. One is that it's Marsellus's soul (which explains the Band-Aid on the back of his neck, as that's where the devil supposedly removes one's soul). Another is that its gold. Another is that it's the diamonds from Reservoir Dogs. This reviewer has always believed that it is solely a MacGuffin — a device that is of mystery solely to be of mystery.

(For what it's worth, Sam Jackson's glib answer has been "three flashlights and six big-ass batteries.")

How's the transfer?

Though Pulp Fiction was previously released as a movie-only DVD in 1998, Buena Vista thankfully has gone back and remastered and properly supplemented the picture. Those familiar with the old Criterion Laserdisc will find much of what's on here isn't all that new, but it's a good DVD set just the same (and $95 cheaper to boot). It also improves on the Canadian Alliance Atlantis DVD release, which includes four deleted scenes and theatrical trailers, but nothing else.

Disc One features a brand new anamorphic transfer (2.35:1), and it's gorgeous. The picture looks better than it ever has, as previous releases suffered from color noise during the occasional use of red light. Such is not apparent here. Audio is available in both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1, and it's impressive, with more surround use than one would expect (mostly coming from the musical selections). It also should be noted that the packaging is attractive, and the DVD set comes with a booklet including an essay, reviews, and the "Jack Rabbit Slim's" menu.

What Goodies You Got?

While most of the supplements are saved for Disc Two, the first coaster has a promo for the Jackie Brown DVD and an ad for the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. The only other extras are chapters for the songs in the film (though not presented on isolated tracks), and a Trivia Track that plays as subtitles throughout the film. There is no audio commentary by QT or anyone else associated with the film. Though Tarantino is an admitted Laserdisc junkie, he's yet to do a commentary for a film he's directed, and perhaps he never will — though he did turn up on the special edition commentaries for both From Dusk 'til Dawn and Switchblade Sisters. The Trivia Track is as good as we get until Tarantino decides he wants to do a commentary himself.

Did you learn anything from the Trivia Track?

Anyone well-versed in Tarantinodom probably will find little new information, but it does do a good job of presenting some interesting tidbits. It points out cameos (by Lawrence Bender), ties together some relationships from the Tarantino universe, and points out small details (like Vincent walking to the bathroom in the prologue) and "discrepancies" (like why Honey Bunny says a different line in the beginning and towards the end). The one thing that was a surprise to this writer was that originally there was a shot of Jules and Vincent pulling up at Marsellus's in Vincent's car and parking right next to Butch's car (in an empty parking lot). The idea then was that it was Butch who keyed Vincent's car.

The Second Disc

The newest, hippest, latest addition is a documentary entitled Pulp Facts (30:29), which culls some new — but mostly old — interviews from the cast and crew on the making and construction of Pulp Fiction and its popularity. Sure, it's mostly filler, but it's got some nuggets.

Next up are the five Deleted and Alternate Scenes (24:15), introduced by Tarantino (and which includes four scenes from the Criterion Laserdisc and the Special Edition VHS). Those looking for the fabled footage of Marvin getting shot in the neck first, or Jimmy taking pictures of Winston with Jules and Vincent, won't find them here, but otherwise it's a good collection. It starts with an Intro (1:40) where QT talks about how other directors include cut scenes from films on their Laserdiscs (way to update it, folks!) Then comes Drug Deal Monologue (1:54), which has a Tarantino intro (:39) and features Lance (Eric Stoltz) rambling on. Next up is Mia Interviews Vincent (2:45), which puts into context the later line "An Elvis man like you should like it" and has a long (2:39) QT introduction where he talks about blowing video up to film. Next up is The Esmeralda Cab Scene (4:57), in which Butch's cab ride plays as a stand-alone scene with a bit more dialogue, as introduced by Tarantino (:57). In the intro (1:44) Tarantino explains that one of the major reasons he cut Monster Joe's Truck and Tow (1:57) is that he cast Dick Miller, and he was just too recognizable. The last cut scene, an extended version of the Jack Rabbit Slim's scene (5:10), adds more dialogue about Mia's friends in Amsterdam and is the only "new" cut scene (which is probably why it doesn't have an introduction).

Next up are two behind-the-scenes spots, one of Jack Rabbit Slim's (4:44) and the second called Butch Hits Marsellus (6:02), where we can see Tarantino directing and dancing along with John and Uma. Production Design (6:21) features an interview with David Wasco and his wife/set decorator Sandy Reynolds-Wasco. They talk about the look of the film, and how Jack Rabbit Slim's was designed to be a "Theme restaurant on acid."

Because Pulp Fiction made such a cinematic impression, Siskel and Ebert dedicated a show to QT, and it's presented here as Siskel and Ebert at the Movies: The Tarantino Generation, where the critics discuss how they weren't fond of his first film, but here compare him to David Mamet and Orson Welles. Also in the "smoke being blown up QT's ass" section would be the next two spots, Independent Spirit Awards (11:27) and Cannes Film Festival Acceptance Speech (5:19). The first features Michael Moore interviewing Tarantino, Roger Avery, Samuel Jackson, and producer Lawrence Bender in an uncut form, and the second shows Tarantino hoisting his middle finger at a pissed-off Frenchwoman who was displeased with his victory.

Those looking for a little more depth should consult the Charlie Rose interview (55:24), which has Tarantino and Rose covering several topics and his plans for the future (from 1994). It's a solid interview, also included on the Criterion Laserdisc.

Next up would be a collection of Trailers (11:04) for the United States, the UK, France, Germany and Japan, and 14 TV spots (5:14). A large Still Gallery is also included, with sections on "Pulp Fiction Posters," "Behind the Scenes," "Special Photo Shoot," "Production Stills," "Academy Award Campaign and Trade Ads," "Location Scouting and Set Construction," "Production Design and Logos," and "Props and Memorabilia." Finally there's a collection of eight reviews and 12 articles about the film. And frankly, I don't think they could have included much more.

Is it a classic?

No film under 30 years old should probably be called a classic, but Pulp Fiction is not only a milestone of cinema, but a damn good film at that. Yes it holds up, and yes it remains a well-written, well-paced noir comedy that has few rivals. Maybe in 20 years it would be fair to call it such. Today, Pulp Fiction remains a jubilant celebration of filmgoing and the joys of conversation.

— Damon Houx



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