Pulp Fiction Review

"The real test of time," says Quentin Tarantino in the interview footage included on this DVD, "isn't the Friday that it opens, it's how the film is thought of thirty years from now." A fifth of that time has now passed, and the huge Tarantino wave that peaked with the release of Pulp Fiction has subsided. Jackie Brown followed in 1997 and disappointed many of his fans. That film is certainly flawed by overlength, but it's a more mature film, especially in its characterisation, and Tarantino is to be commended for not simply rehashing a winning formula. However, since then he has been silent with no sign of a follow-up as I write this (December 2000).

But back to Pulp Fiction. Whatever history's verdict on its quality, its place as one of the most influential films of the last decade must surely be without doubt. It won the Palme d'Or at the 1994 Cannes Festival (beating Kieslowski's Three Colours: Red). With its casting, its endlessly quotable dialogue, its mix of comedy with bursts of violence and its non-linear structure, it has spawned countless inferior imitations. As Tarantino himself would admit, nothing in Pulp Fiction is at all new, it's all in the mixing – but at the time it seemed like something very special, and sensationally entertaining as well. For the most part it still is, though time, hindsight and repeated viewings do show up its weaknesses.

Pulp Fiction has two prologues. In the first, two small-time armed robbers, Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) stick up a diner. After the credits, two hitmen, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) collect a briefcase for their boss, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). The rest of the film comprises three episodes. In "Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace's Wife", Vincent has to escort Wallace's wife Mia (Uma Thurman) for an evening, with disastrous consequences. In "The Gold Watch", boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) is ordered to throw a match. When he fails to do so, his life is in danger. Finally, "The Bonnie Situation" follows straight on from the Vincent/Jules prologue, and finishes in the diner that Pumpkin and Honey Bunny hold up.

If you arranged Pulp Fiction in chronological order it would go something like this: 1) the flashback at the beginning of "The Gold Watch" to Butch's childhood where Captain Koons (Christopher Walken) gives Butch the watch; 2) the Vincent and Jules prologue; 3) "The Bonnie Situation", incorporating 3a) the Pumpkin/Honey Bunny prologue; 4) "Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace's Wife"; 5) the remainder of "The Gold Watch". As you can see from the plot summary above, Pulp Fiction begins in the middle, goes backwards and forwards further and further in time, before returning and ending in the middle. (And there are a few surprises on the way, which you will have to see for yourself.) The influence of such non-linear storytelling, more complex than the multiple flashbacks of Reservoir Dogs, can be felt in the three interlinking storylines of Doug Liman's Go, to name one example. Another device Pulp Fiction has in common with Reservoir Dogs is the omission of a seemingly key event: we don't see the robbery in the earlier film, nor do we Butch's boxing match in this one.

Tarantino's great strength is as a writer. He's certainly a very capable director, but not as flashy as is often thought. Pulp Fiction had been written over a number of years – in part with Roger Avary, who went on to make the terrible Killing Zoe, a film which deserves the accusation of gratuitous violence often levelled at Tarantino. Made when its director was thirty-one, Pulp Fiction is very much a young man's film, and adolescent in sensibility. Tarantino seems awfully fascinated by big needles, ultra-un-PC and often racist language, body piercing, male rape and so forth. Yes, all these elements have their place in this film, but they do give the sense of someone trying to be hip and transgressive. His comment about the rape scene – that he was trying to outdo similar ones in Deliverance and American Me – rather betrays this. It's also painfully obvious that he can't, at this stage of his career, write a relationship: that between Butch and his French girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Madeiros) is the only one in his first two films, and it's easily the weakest part of them. It's the only place in a long film where it definitely drags. Elsewhere, Tarantino the director indulges Tarantino the writer, but for the most part his writing is up to the task. His characters here are all flat rather than round, but as E.M. Forster said of Dickens, due to the script and the actors' performances they are flat characters who vibrate considerably. (Jackie Brown, made only three years later, is no less than a moving love story between two fully rounded characters. It marks a considerable advance in Tarantino's writing, though Elmore Leonard's original novel Rum Punch should be given credit too.)

Pulp Fiction was shot in Scope, and this DVD has an anamorphic transfer in the correct 2.35:1 ratio. That is an advance over most other available DVD versions (see below), but unfortunately the transfer is disappointing. The film was shot using particularly slow film stock; the combination of this and anamorphic lenses required a lot of lighting but the result was a strong colour scheme, particularly in the use of reds. However, the picture on this disc seems washed out and contrasty, and nowhere near as sharp or bold as it should be. Darker scenes, notably the one in Zed's lair, are lacking in shadow detail, . There are also a lot of shimmering artefacts.

No complaints about the sound. The mix is dominated by dialogue from the centre speaker, with left, right and surrounds used for music and some directional effects. The subwoofer gives gunshots and a car crash considerable impact. You have a choice between Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround or an isolated music/sound effects track. Not listed on the sound menu or the packaging, but found when cycling through options with the AUDIO button, is a MPEG track, though despite my altering settings on my player, this track produced nothing but silence. The film begins with the Dolby Digital train logo. For such a dialogue-heavy film, it's very regrettable that this DVD has no subtitles. There are twenty-six chapter stops, which might seem stingy for a two-and-a-half-hour film until you realise how long some of Tarantino's sequences are.

The man himself introduces the supplementary section: "a cavalcade, a cornucopia, a literal horn o' plenty of Pulp Fiction memorabilia". There are four deleted scenes, which are interesting to watch, though you can see why they were removed, primarily to cut to the chase. Tarantino's linking material here is visually a little soft, probably shot on video. The deleted scenes are: a monologue by Lance (Eric Stoltz) in the heroin-buying scene, Mia "interviewing" Vincent with the aid of a video camera, an extended version of the Esmerelda cab scene, and a brief scene with Monster Joe and Raquel featuring a cameo by Dick Miller as Monster Joe. The scenes are in 2.35:1 and the linking material in 16:9, all anamorphic. This section runs 19:44 and is divided into ten chapters.

All the other extras are 16:9 anamorphic. The trailer (which runs 2:35) features some obviously redubbed dialogue from Harvey Keitel. The remaining extras are insubstantial. The featurette (5:15, three chapters) is an obvious prepared-for-TV job with redubbed dialogue again: it's effectively the trailer, padded out with behind-the-scenes footage and interview soundbites. "Interviews" is a separate item on the extras menu, but with one exception (Tarantino comments further on his use of Fifties theme restaurants) they are exactly as they were in the featurette. Each interviewee gets a separate menu but some of the comments are so brief this seems hardly worth the bother. For the record, the interviewees are: Tarantino (2:24, four chapters), Travolta (0:30, two chapters), Willis (0:39, three chapters), Thurman (0:31, two chapters), Jackson (0:43, three chapters). As those running times will indicate, these are hardly in-depth comments we have here. Thurman gets a prize for her reasons why Tarantino's characters are different: "they breathe in a different way". She also gets to talk about "the creative of the film", a noticeable mangling of the English language by the caption writer. The interview footage was shot on video with evidently full-frame TV in mind; in 16:9 some shots are awkwardly cropped.

There are text biographies of Travolta, Willis, Thurman and Jackson, each a brief paragraph followed by a filmography. There are some errors here: Carrie was not Travolta's debut, and Willis's filmography separates Look Who's Talking Too from the main list on the grounds that it's voice-only work, without doing likewise for that film's predecessor and sequel. Finally, a link from the extras menu leads us to "More Tarantino". These are trailers for True Romance and Jackie Brown and three text pages of "Pulp Trivia". Much of this will be familiar to fans, indeed most people who will have hung around Usenet film newsgroups over the last few years. For example, what's in the briefcase? Answer: a McGuffin.

Pulp Fiction was edited by the MPAA to receive a R rating, and this Australian-certificated DVD is identical to that version. The UK version has had three seconds reframed at the behest of the BBFC to remove the sight of heroin injection. There's also a French Region 2 release from Polygram: this has an anamorphic 2.35:1 and full-frame transfers, an English 5.1 and a French Dolby Surround track with French subtitles, plus two deleted scenes and filmographies. However, this version is also cut: the shooting-up scene was taken out to drop the French rating from a 16 to a 12.

Roadshow's Region 4 DVD is widely considered the best available version of this film. All things considered, that's true, though it's an overrated DVD: the picture quality is not what it should be, and many of the extras are insubstantial.

9 out of 10
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9 out of 10
6 out of 10


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Last updated: 22/06/2018 01:03:42

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