Pulp Fiction Is 20 Years Old

The popular cinematic climate of 1993/1994 was laden with storm clouds and ready to burst. 1993 was quite often about Jurassic Park and Sleepless in Seattle,  so Thunderclap Quentin fired down rain and lightning, Pulp Fiction, on moviegoers in late 1994. Reservoir Dogs, his bolt from the blue in ’92, was startling in a pop-cultural climate which was looking for something else. Facing front towards my nascent teenage years, there seemed to be something like a sexy expectancy in the air; these cues were partly observational, hormonal and intuitive, but mainly gathered from my collection of music and film magazines. Britain welcomed Nirvana after a staid musical interlude, comedy was the new rock n’ roll, the toddler internet was taking its first steps, and there seemed a pop-cultural readiness for something new. These magazines I read showcased the adult world, for me, as an endless round of flatshares, sex, booze, and live music; I looked forward to a time when I shared a flat with the lead singer of Tiny Monroe and went to early screenings of the latest film by this Quentin character, without parents around to derail things.

Select, the sexiest of all these magazines, included bands and movie posters (Definitely Maybe was above my bed; I’d walked to the relatively far away Safeway to buy a copy because it had Liam Gallagher on the cover). I dared myself to stick the druggy, handgun-ny Pulp Fiction poster up beside the Oasis one, but I didn’t accept the self-bet – it was far too sexy and trashy, and my knowledge of what my Dad could be like at the dinner table and the striking fact of Uma Thurman’s obvious sexiness on the poster dovetailed, and I foresaw a lengthy parental piss-take about me being a lesbian which would have imploded on contact with my teenage embarrassment (“I’m not gay, look, I like Liam Gallagher!” “Yeah, right. My daughter the lesbian! Ha ha ha ha.”) Anyway, I saw the film a few years later, on video.

It was the talk of the lunch hour in the back concourse of high school. “The guy from Look Who’s Talking 2 is wearing a weird wig! And there’s this new guy called Samuel L. Jackson!” Self-dare failed again, and I didn’t go with the cooler kids to see it at La Scala. It knocked me out when I saw it later, though. The high rising black humour and the heavenly dialogue; the relentless hard core to it, the hellish iconic-as-soon-as-they-were-thought-of hundred and one scenes (dance, drug, dick-dread, drive). It’s a freezing cold shock of brilliance; realistic dialogue for its own sake, when Jules and Vincent are talking about what hamburgers are called in other countries; the cinematic device of tying up several stories which Tarantino streamlines, makes his own, and carries the main story with; the brilliant mistake of the props buyer who didn’t know what an Afro wig looked like and still landed in the good graces of Samuel L. Jackson; a perfect cast, including Christopher Walken’s cameo and Maria de Medeiros’ pouting girlfriend to Bruce Willis’s explosive boxer Butch. The film’s influence rippled out in the direction of fashion and, obviously, coolness; Uma Thurman’s Rouge Noir Chanel nail varnish sold out, and every bugger went as Mia, Jules or Vincent to fancy dress parties circa 1995.

I remember the word “irony” being thrown around quite a lot around that time, its resurgence, its role in everyone’s lives, its place in clothing (logo-spoofing t-shirts, retro blouses, plastic jewellery), then everyone ODing, and getting sick. Perhaps it was an mode of psychic renewal, as we emerged from the fairly earnest 1980’s. Ironic is too clunky a tag for the film, though it was bandied around in Pulp Fiction’s direction. There is irony, but it is uneasily separated from the plot, the joy Tarantino obviously took in writing the dialogue, the darkness, and the violence. To help cause despair in squeamish people who couldn’t be bothered watching the film, the violence is not easily separated from the humour – Elmore Leonard, writer noir and obvious influence on Tarantino, said that in America, violence could be humorous. Piercing stuff.

Watching Pulp Fiction twenty years after its release, it makes light work of the cliche of an older cultural artefact being newly fresh on second, third, fourth contact. Released tomorrow, it would shed any 90’s-specific coating and probably be the most striking and pleasing thing at the cinema this side of finding David Cronenberg sitting next to you in the Odeon. It is still as cold, luscious and more-ish as sub-zero ice-cream. Another time would be better to talk about later on in Tarantino’s career, when his cinematic influences were swallowed whole in the all mouth and no trousers stylings of Death Proof, Uma Thurman reappearing as a troublesome “feminist icon” in Kill Bill 1 and 2, and the too-long Django Unchained (Jackie Brown was brilliant, though). It’s been a pleasure to, in a strange way, come of age alongside a fanboy in a sweetshop film director, and I did stay fairly true to the Select image of adulthood – I would still love to share a flat with the lead singer from Tiny Monroe.

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