The Sunday Night Movie: Pulp Fiction (1994)

Regular readers may have noticed that things have been quiet here these last several weeks.  I’ve been busy with other projects (traveling, prepping for fall courses, etc.).  Moreover, this year’s crop of summer movies has been mostly uninspiring.  I do hope to catch Catherine Breillat’s latest, Abuse of Weakness, which plays at the Brattle here in Cambridge in August.  Other than that, my New Releases calendar looks pretty empty until fall and the ramp-up to Oscar season.

I did, however, recently decide to get back in the habit of screening a favorite from my DVD library every Sunday evening.  Last week I began with Pulp Fiction (1994), in part because I needed to re-watch it in preparation for a critical theory course I’m slated to teach in the fall, and also because I hadn’t seen it in some ten or twelve years.  Having come of age as a movie nerd in the mid-’90s right after Pulp Fiction dropped, I watched this film countless times between 1995 and 2000: I owned not only the VHS tape but also the CD soundtrack, the movie poster, and the T-shirt, all of which sported the now-iconic image of Uma Thurman in her black Mia Wallace wig, lying on a bed and smoking a cigarette and looking impossibly cool.  As was the case with so many other movie nerds, Pulp Fiction was one of the movies that made me want to go to film school.  It was the film that launched a thousand inferior rip-offs, not to mention the careers of countless Quentin Tarantino wannabes.  All of this aside, I was thrilled to find that the thing itself holds up beautifully; it’s every bit as funny and surprising, and its surreal touches every bit as original.  My favorite discovery this time was the off-hand way “The Wolf” (Harvey Keitel) pauses ever so briefly in his hurried attempt to clean up a murder scene in order to register his approval of Jimmy’s (Tarantino) coffee, one of the countless moments in which throwaway humor is used to cut as well as ratchet up the film’s nail-biting tension.

If Pulp Fiction may be taken as an example of “postmodern cinema,” where “postmodern” here refers to the privileging of artificiality over realism, replication over originality, irony over sincerity, it exemplifies postmodernism’s exuberance better than just about any other film I know.  As he wanders through Jack Rabbit Slim’s, Tarantino’s paean to all things ’50s-pop-culture, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) remarks that the place resembles “a wax museum with a pulse.”  A more high-falutin’ postmodern critic might cite Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulation here.  But that great scene rather makes me think of John Barth’s 1967 essay “The Literature of Exhaustion,” in which Barth’s nearly manic excitement about the possibilities of a postmodern literature just about flies off the page.  That same mania drives Tarantino’s cinema, which buzzes and whirs at the thrill of finding new things to do with old images.

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