1. Let’s Talk About Hair — Oh, and Women’s Shoes. Don’t Forget Women’s Shoes.
Premiering 20 years ago this month, Pulp Fiction was the movie that turned Quentin Tarantino into, you know, Quentin Tarantino. That’s enough all by itself to make landmark status a lock, right? Right. By now, though, the average professor of Tarantino studies at good old STFU must despair over whether trainee film buffs can untangle what was so original about his Rubik’s Cubist assemblage of talking jags, nonchalant mayhem, confetti chronology, and cartoon-cutout characters. They’ve been scarfing up variations on it since they were kindergartners, after all, and nobody goes to college to find out who invented pepperoni.
Like Dr. Strangelove or The Wild Bunch — the breakthroughs that turned Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah into Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah, respectively — PF’s signature audacities have been thoroughly kneaded into the big pop-culture pizza we eat every day. Turning back the clock to peg the ingredients that made the movie so fresh can feel like excavating Troy, especially if you get to excavate Troy Donahue in the bargain. If the onetime star of A Summer Place hasn’t contributed an M&M tidbit or two to Tarantino’s mulchmeister mind — and who among us knows for sure? — then he’s one of the few in Hollywood who hasn’t.
As most fans know, QT’s predilection for constructing his own screen language out of cinematic pedigrees that have gone the way of the dodo would make the bibliography for any of his screenplays longer than the screenplay itself — and his shallower imitators just crib from him without giving two hoots about the lonesome video-store hours the young Quentin spent vacuuming up 20th-century movie esoterica with those beady Kalamata-olive eyes of his. His presumed inability to get laid back then is something we should all feel grateful for.
Take, just for instance, Uma Thurman’s charcoal-black bob haircut as Mia, Pulp Fiction’s presiding vamp. It’s no minor touch in a movie whose characters are defined by their hairstyles, from ruminative hit man John Travolta’s unlikely Tarzan mane and his Scripture-spouting partner Samuel L. Jackson’s Jheri curls to Ving Rhames’s menacing Mr. Big bald pate and Bruce Willis’s touchingly quasi-military1 buzz cut. So far as Tarantino’s priorities go, you could say Thurman’s haircut’s backstory matters more than her character’s does, and you’d be right.
Remember, Butch the up-against-it boxer’s dad was a ’Nam POW.
Because half of Tarantino criticism amounts to playing “Where’s Waldo?” at Madame Tussauds — and/or Jack Rabbit Slim’s, the Pulp Fiction burger joint ostentatiously upgraded to an all-American pop Valhalla by the mock Tinseltown icons whose reincarnation as waitstaff reminds Vincent of, please quote along with me, “a wax museum with a pulse” — some 1994 reviewers were quick to note that QT had swiped Thurman’s coif from Anna Karina’s do as the hooker in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 My Life to Live. But hardcore cinephiles — including, needless to say, QT himself — could have informed them that Godard was paying tribute to Louise Brooks’s hairdo in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box way back in 1929. Even as we speak, some crazed STFU cubicle rat is probably trying to nail down where Pabst got it. And to think that James Joyce used to brag about Ulysses keeping PhD departments busy for a century: Little did he know he’d be bumping ivory-tower elbows decades before then with a snotty dork from Knoxville, Tennessee, as saturated in cheesy kung fu flicks as he was fired by artistic ambition.
You may wonder how important being on top of all this chicken-and-Easter-egg minutiae is to an appreciation of Pulp Fiction. The paradoxical answer is that it’s crucial to Tarantino’s M.O. — fusing the secondhand and the personalized, his imagination depends on constellations of referents — but damn near irrelevant to the movie’s vitality. That’s the most important difference between him and Godard, a genius whose most groundbreaking movies may well not outlive the shelf life of the 20th-century cultural debris he was quoting from.
In other words, the casual 22-year-old PF fan who just thought Uma’s haircut was badass and wanted one like it wasn’t clueless. If anything, she was ahead of the game, and probably the viewer who gladdened QT’s heart most — well, except for the gal two rows back who kept ogling the faboo shoes on display in Lance the smack dealer’s pad. If Eric Stoltz’s Lance is the movie’s beatific mock Jesus — flowing robes, flowing hair, presides over Thurman’s resurrection after her OD, etc. — those shoes, whose presence is never explained, must be Tarantino the foot fetishist’s idea of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. But never mind.
2. Do You Want Pommes Frites With That?
Pulp Fiction’s inspired shotgun marriage of the iconic and the loopily idiosyncratic begins with the Royale With Cheese. It’s easy to forget that the movie itself doesn’t, mainly because petty crooks Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer vanish from the screen for a good two hours once they’ve renewed their vows, so to speak, by spontaneously planning the diner heist that sets up the wraparound story. But the jump to Travolta’s Vincent Vega telling Jackson’s Jules Winnfield what a Quarter Pounder is called in France — “because of the metric system” — puts us in Tarantinoville for real. It’s the movie’s first murder, in a way, because all sorts of Hollywood rules about characterization and exposition have just taken a blast in the face.
In fact, that ostensibly off-topic conversational riff prefigures the whole movie in a nutshell. First off, it actually tells us plenty about Vincent: not just that he’s newly back from Europe, but also that he’s the kind of guy who eats at McDonald’s even when he’s in Paris. (We don’t yet know that heroin, not food, is his preferred fuel.) When you watch Travolta’s performance, never forget that Tarantino is a guy who knows his vampire flicks. Vincent’s huddled shoulders, pasty face, and faint disconnect from all things ordinary certify that he’s a creature of eternal night even when he’s walking on sunshine. On top of that, Vincent’s introductory palaver anticipates his wary but intrigued reaction to Thurman’s Mia, who pretty much operates on her own metric system. It tells us that a kind of screen entertainment we’ve always thought of as cinematic fast food has just become a Royale With Cheese.
And because Pulp Fiction, like all QT films, is really all about the movies — the movies as a brutal but creative industry, the movies as America’s universal and paramount folklore, the movies and L.A. as steeplechase reflections of each other — the speech also tells us that Vincent is, in some dimension, Quentin Tarantino himself, a magpie collector of cultural information from all over that he can put to unexpected uses. Most likely, though, Jules is the one he’d rather be: QT’s race fantasies are the closest he comes to putting his sexual ones on the screen — and talk about using one can of worms to mask another. Jules’s concluding speech once we’re back in the diner has so much emotional force not because it relates to what we’ve seen up to then — it doesn’t — but because it’s Tarantino’s announcement that he’ll never go back to playing by anyone else’s rules again.
Part of the movie’s perversity is that Vincent the junkie is the one you might innocently suppose could use some redemption, while Jules’s change of heart comes out of the blue. Tarantino has pulled us so deep into the movie’s world that we don’t particularly see why life as a hired killer would dissatisfy Jules. Yet Vincent doesn’t forswear heroin, and to whatever extent Pulp Fiction can be read as a hall-of-mirrors version of Tarantino’s reactions to becoming a player in the Hollywood game,2 the two characters most identifiable as his fantasy stand-ins split his future between them. He’s not working for the Man anymore, but the addiction — to movies, what else? — will go on.
3. Papa’s Ghost, and Other Stories
Which it pretty obviously can, since it’s all about deal-making as a test of identity and how each of the characters can drag the others into playing supporting parts in their movie.
Tarantino is often thought of as proudly postliterate — a creature of pure cinema unaffected by any other art form’s appeal or history. So it’s a bit of a mystery that, among its other dimensions, Pulp Fiction is the greatest — and kookiest — exegesis of the works of Ernest Hemingway on film.
Specifically, the Hemingway of “The Killers” (Vincent and Jules are those wisecracking 1927 gunmen’s direct descendants) and the boxing story “Fifty Grand” (ditto for Bruce Willis’s Butch, the mulishly resourceful prizefighter under orders from Ving Rhames’s Marsellus to take a fall). Just for fun, you can even toss The Sun Also Rises into the mix to underline the movie’s never-to-be-underestimated glamorous side. Not only is Vincent and Mia doing the twist to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” at Jack Rabbit Slim’s a po-mo update on Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley at the bal musette, but their pas de deux also had the same effect in redefining our notions of the counterculture.
Far-fetched, you think? Just more “Where’s Waldo?” for English majors? Not really, partly because not much qualifies as far-fetched in relation to Pulp Fiction. For whatever it’s worth, Tarantino is old enough that Papa’s ghost could’ve still been part of the baggage of his adolescence — and he has cited J.D. Salinger, of all people, as an influence on PF’s peekaboo-panel narrative jugglery. But whether he was even conscious of Hemingway as one of the progenitors of the worldview he’s taking for a joyride doesn’t really matter, because Hemingway’s influence on movies was so pervasive. He was the most widely imitated writer in the world when film’s classic genres were being invented, and the whole masculine code of conduct in an unforgiving world that was tough-guy Hollywood’s approximation of a philosophical stance — fusing Kipling for grown-ups (sometimes) with Joseph Conrad gone pop — originates with him. Movie audiences spent decades seduced by bleakly virile heroes who just couldn’t shut up about how tight-lipped they were.
Half a century after Papa’s prime, his screen progeny pop up again in Pulp Fiction, at once debased — not only does Tarantino know they can exist only in fantasy environments, but also that everything they do is intrinsically funny — and magnified by the director’s jones for transforming the preposterous into the mythic and vice versa. They’ve become junkies and blowhards, and their cult of integrity is farcical in this sordid context. Yet that’s just Tarantino’s convoluted way of making them sexy all over again, the reason their screen progeny have enjoyed a goofball and meta new lease on life thanks to him.
At least so far, the nature of 21st-century culture is to self-consciously cast itself as a cabinet of wonders. We don’t look for life lessons there. That’s not entirely Tarantino’s doing — of course not — but he’s certainly movieland’s ultimate poster boy for the impulse. He’s the end of the line for macho as a plausible ideal of behavior. On one level, Peter Greene’s role as Zed — the depraved, blond-beastie security guard who rapes Marsellus in the pawnshop basement — is the most retro thing in the movie; no one weeps at the Sinister Homosexual’s demise as a stock villain. Yet the scene is also a hyperbolic caricature of buggery as the macho man’s ultimate fear (see: Mailer, Norman, collected works of), even if the big cheat is that turning Rhames into an unwilling bottom leaves Willis, who’s not only a white guy but also a much bigger audience draw, unsullied. Even in Tarantinoville, there are limits.
That’s just by the way, though. Uma Thurman’s haircut, Royales With Cheese, Ernest Hemingway’s cultural legacy — does any of that grab bag tempt you to think this is a movie we’ll be talking about forever? Heck, I barely even got to all the racial nightmares Tarantino exposes by insolently dramatizing/sending up his own, to far more provocative effect in Pulp Fiction than in Django Unchained. Pulp Fiction can’t be beat as a po-mo encyclopedia of 20th-century attitudes and tropes — regurgitated, travestied, undermined, valorized, and above all, identified — and we’ll never know for sure whether it was the last rhapsody of a bygone age or the movie that cleared the decks for a fresh start. But my hunch is it couldn’t be either if it weren’t both.
Tom Carson (@TomCarsonWriter) is GQ’s movie reviewer and the author of Gilligan’s Wake and Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter.
This story has been updated to correct an error: James Joyce’s joke about keeping professors busy referred to Ulysses, not to Finnegans Wake.