There are very few movies which can unite critics, fan boys, and general movie-lovers alike. Now, on the week of its 20th anniversary, we can only wonder once again how Pulp Fiction managed to do this and more.
Besides being nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay (which it won), Pulp Fiction took home what is perhaps the most prestigious award in all of cinema, the Palme d’Or, top honor at the legendary Cannes Film Festival. In 2007, Entertainment Weekly named it the greatest film of the last 25 years. In 2013, it was added to the National Film Registry. It is a perennial favorite on the notorious IMDb Top 250 and has shown up on countless lists of the best movies ever made
But out of all Pulp Fiction’s many accomplishments, its greatest is that it feels as relevant now as it does the day it was released. Though the Internet fosters nostalgia, the staying power of Pulp Fiction goes beyond that. For 20 years, it has refused to be ignored, surviving an increasingly crowded marketplace, and an industry that has been completely reshaped by the web, to become perhaps the most enduring film of its generation.
First of all, Pulp Fiction changed the landscape of indie film forever. There had been indie movies which had been noticed by the Oscars before and that had been decent financial successes, too. But Pulp Fiction was the first piece of indie filmmaking to become a legitimate phenomenon in American culture.
By the time it was released in 1994, writer/director Quentin Tarantino had already been a hot talent on the indie film scene. His debut effort, Reservoir Dogs, took home the grand prize at the Sundance film festival two years before. But Pulp Fiction’s journey from Cannes to grossing $200 million worldwide took Tarantino from upstart to superstar and made the film an instant classic. Moments like “royal with cheese,” Sam Jackson’s Bible speech, John Travolta and Uma Thurman’s iconic dance scene, and countless others instantly entered the pop culture consciousness and haven’t left since.
“Calling Pulp Fiction an independent film feels like a joke—a cruel jab meant to make all other indie films feel bad about what they’ll never achieve,” writes Jordan Crucchiola at Wired. “It’s like your friend posting “You have the same number of hours in a day as Beyoncé.” It’s supposed to sound motivational but sounds dickish instead. After all, Pulp Fiction isn’t just an independent movie, it’s the independent movie. It forever changed Hollywood, and we’ll never see a cultural moment like it again. Ever.”
Crucchiola then goes on to examine what made Pulp Fiction such a seminal piece of indie filming.
How did Quentin Tarantino’s ode to cinema and violence and pop culture go from an $8 million picture to a $100 million box office success when it hit theaters 20 years ago?
Perhaps it was the magic of the ’90s. Bob and Harvey Weinstein were running an indie filmmaker wonder emporium at Miramax. Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Heavenly Creatures, and Clerks came to screens under their stewardship. They had the touch for finding young auteurs and transforming their festival-circuit flicks into multiplex masterpieces. In the pre-Netflix ’90s, that meant something, because it was one of the few ways truly indie films could get a wide audience.
The appeal also had a lot to do with the cast, which was the most eclectic assemblage since The Towering Inferno. Bruce Willis was the hottest—hell, the only—name on the bill. Pulp basically created Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson, while resuscitating John Travolta. And Eric Stoltz? Seriously? But it worked. Oh, how it worked. Can you picture anyone but Ving Rhames as Marsellus Wallace? Nowadays stars are only too happy to appear in an indie.
Another reason Pulp Fiction left such an impactful mark is its self-conscious, referential style. Tarantino embodies the “good artists borrow, great artists steal” mantra and has made it an indelible part of his career. However, Pulp Fiction was unique for American audiences, in that it stole from things many had never even heard of. A guide to his films’ cinematic influences at What Culture clocks the total number at over 170.
But that’s also the brilliance of Pulp Fiction: you don’t need to understand every little nod Tarantino is making to enjoy the story. What is evident is that there is something bigger going on here, a context which gives a sense of largess, and that surely inspired many film-lovers to go and seek out movies they had never seen or thought to see before. Indeed, Pulp Fiction could almost be looked at as a primer for a film history course.
In theory, that it is so aware of itself, and of the films its referencing, could make watching it an arduous task. Yet Pulp Fiction somehow remains viscerally exciting from start to finish, despite being firmly rooted in cinema’s long history. “It still stands, I think, as his masterpiece because in it he used all of his fascination with movies to fashion an entirely new tale, one weighted with morality and insight,” writes the Telegraph’s Sarah Crompton.
This is the other detail that makes Pulp Fiction such a masterwork. Astonishingly, despite all its many references, Pulp Fiction also felt wholly original upon its release. And since then, though Tarantino has had many impersonators, there is no one who can do quite what he does, as well as he does, and who’s been doing it for so long.
“It was the film’s form—its non-linear structure—that really startled audiences,” asserts Tom Brook of the BBC. “Wheeler Winston Dixon, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says, ‘It changed the whole model of what people would sit through, because it was so long, the complexity of it, the intelligence of it, the vitality of it, the originality of it and the fact that it never really did what you expected and it constantly kept audiences guessing.’”
Cataloging the various imitators that sprung up in Pulp Fiction’s wake, Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Labrecque stated, “Unfortunately, simply making something Tarantino-esque wasn’t the same because it lacked that certain thing: Tarantino. And more often than not, trying to imitate the new master’s superficial tics—without the elaborate and sturdy scripts that were also his trademark—just exposed a film and its director’s fatal flaws. But that didn’t stop studios from trying. Pulp Fiction sent ripples across Hollywood, and in the five years that followed, there were dozens of wannabes and knockoffs.” Among these films, he names the excellent (Run Lola Run), the enjoyable (Grosse Pointe Blank), and the ugly (8 Heads in a Duffel Bag).
But none of those, however good or bad, did what Pulp Fiction did. I once had a screenwriting professor tell me that Tarantino “ruined Hollywood,” because everyone from the ‘90s on tried to sound like him or Wes Anderson (so I suppose Anderson shares some of the blame, too). If Reservoir Dogs was the first inkling of Tarantino’s genius, Pulp Fiction solidified it.
The only problem is that he may never reach the perfect heights he achieved with his sophomore feature. To this day, few movies from him, or anyone else, are as feverishly beloved. It’s funny, because Pulp Fiction went up against two other ‘90s classics at the Academy Awards in 1995, those being Forrest Gump and The Shawshank Redemption, for Best Picture. Gump ended up winning, and remains a cherished favorite for many. Shawshank, on the other hand, has gone on to become what some consider to be the best film of all time.
But despite how impressive both these films are, it’s hard to deny that Pulp Fiction is the most influential, impactful, and unique of the three. From a business perspective and a creative one, Pulp Fiction redefined cinema as we know it.
Through countless copies and reinterpretations, Tarantino’s original magnum opus stands as a work of art unlike anything else. It’s a funny, violent, talky mix of high and lowbrow sensibilities. Though some have called the film out on the grounds of morality, others have praised its philosophical take on humankind. But regardless of how you feel about Pulp Fiction, the point is that we’re still talking about it two decades years later. And chances are, we’ll still be talking about it 20 years from now, too.
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