Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece bears the off-kilter zeal of a crazed saucier–the kind of Creole kitchen-dweller who uses two teaspoons of Marsala for the recipe, then drinks the rest straight from the bottle. From Akira Kurosawa to Arthur Penn, from Buddy Holly’s rock nerdery to James Dean’s leather-jacket cool—just about any pertinent pop culture reference gets thrown into the pan. Strangely, the end result resembles none of those things; in fact, the movie’s defiant indefinability contributes to its enduring charm. Pulp Fiction functions brilliantly as homage, send-up, and finally as a total filmic rebellion. Its run-on dialogue and wonky structure play like a raised middle finger to the stale screenwriting conventions that have long accursed typical Hollywood fare with rice cake blandness.
One sidelong look at Tarantino’s idols reveals where he gained this affinity for jacking with the rules: They’re the European mavericks who fused the avant-garde with immediate accessibility. Goddard and Truffaut—and probably Fellini, too. He clearly worships the kind of artists who make the kind of art from which there’s no going back. Indeed, it’s not surprising that Tarantino bows most fervently at the shrine of Sergio Leone, the Italian genius who dynamited the traditional Monument Valley Western with Clint Eastwood’s panchoed badass in A Fistful of Dollars (1964). The Man with No Name movies (and Once Upon a Time in the West after) imprinted so completely onto Tarantino that it’s difficult to imagine any of his movies without their stylistic influence.
Consider Leone’s fascination with the architecture of the human face. His languid shots (especially those that were action-related) would so often close on the lines and creases, the curled lips and terrified eyes of his eccentric character actors. Now, look at Bruce Willis’ introduction in Pulp Fiction. His aging boxer is commanded to throw a fight. Tarantino settles the camera on Willis and leaves it there, while a hulking mob-boss delivers a withering monologue. (“Boxers don’t have an old-timers day, Butch.”) The gangster (Ving Rhames, whose baritone voice should’ve won an Oscar by itself) is never shown from the front, because his face isn’t the focus of this scene. The humiliation, the resignation of the washed-up pugilist take center-stage, and they glean new depth from Willis—an actor previously known for cheap one-liners and squishing Euro-trash villains. The script supplies further humbling for the fighter by having Travolta’s turd hitman insult him on his way out. (“You ain’t my friend, palooka.”) In one long take, the camera orbits around a pissed-off Willis—portending his character’s later plot twist—while Al Green’s baby-makin’ anthem “Let’s Stay Together” pulsates on the jukebox.
That patchwork soundtrack serves the film so crucially—matching its overall mood of detached hipness—that the music essentially constitutes a supporting character in itself. Songs careen wildly from one genre to the next, prompting the knee-slapping hootenanny of “Flowers on the Wall” (by the Statler Brothers, of all people) to sit next to the funk fury of Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” without apology. Tarantino’s two musical masterstrokes occur inside the 50s nostalgia restaurant, as Travolta’s gangster and Uma Thurman’s moll bond over burgers and cigarettes: Ricky Nelson’s spare, moody “Lonesome Town” ambles along like a tears-and-beer saloon anthem. It once signaled that the hunky sitcom star had more talent than anyone imagined, and blending it into a scene with Travolta (who himself started as a teen cover boy and would ride this role back to glory) makes for an absolutely fascinating combination. Then everything blows open when an Ed Sullivan impersonator pulls the pseudo-couple onstage for a twist contest. Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” a campy B-side replete with quacking saxes and a whorehouse piano, makes for an inspired, off-the-path accompaniment to perhaps the movie’s most iconic scene.
It’s worth noting two things: Most of the oddball tracks are deployed incidentally, whether it’s via jukebox, car stereo, or (in the case of the two hawk shop perverts) a ghetto blaster. And, despite his affection for the catacombs of popular music, Tarantino displays a master’s touch by knowing when to pull back. The movie’s most arresting sequences (Thurman’s speedball overdose; Samuel L. Jackson’s pseudo-Scripture shooting spree) are presented without musical accouterment, thus allowing the white-knuckle tension to speak for itself. To inject aural gimmickry into these visceral scenes would be to diffuse their considerable impact.
In key moments, Tarantino doesn’t so much restrain his personality tics and indulgences as hide them in plain sight. He peppers Jackson’s violent diatribe with his signature off-the-wall humor (“My girlfriend’s a vegetarian which pretty much makes me a vegetarian.”), and punctuates the awkward silence of Travolta and Thurman’s post OD farewell with vaudevillian cornball. (“Ketchup.” Probably my favorite punch line in a movie brimming with comedic payoffs.) Such precious cleverness could’ve foundered the movie were it not for a cast with uniformly perfect pitch. Like Leone, Tarantino achieves a rare symbiosis with his collective of actors and rewards their rich performances by elevating their careers and altering the way we will ultimately evaluate them as artists.
Proof of how miraculous an accomplishment Pulp Fiction really is lies in the sheer number of filmmakers who attempted to replicate its recipe and failed. Many of them could intuit the ingredients and yet botch the ratios. And ironically, in riffing on the techniques of his forebears, Tarantino ended up with something contemporary and timeless, a defining cultural moment–the kind of art from which there’s no going back. He would continue to tinker wildly with this overall design, veering toward revenge flick/chop-socky (Kill Bill) to all-out schlock (Death Proof), but this stands as his own Citizen Kane—a work he may never again equal.