Today! Because personality goes a long way –
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino (x6)
Starring John Travolta (x3), Samuel L. Jackson (x13), Uma Thurman (x2), Bruce Willis (x6), Christopher Walken (x4), Harvey Keitel (x5), Eric Stoltz, Tim Roth (x2), Amanda Plummer (x2), Ving Rhames (x4), Frank Whaley (x3), Steve Buscemi (x5), Roseanna Arquette, Maria de Medeiros, Phil LaMarr, Angela Jones, Quentin Tarantino (x3), Julia Sweeney (x2), Kathy Griffin (x2), Paul Calderon (x2), Bronagh Gallagher, Peter Greene, Duane Whitaker
As I’ve stated numerous times, I didn’t really discover good movies existed until roughly 1992. Up until that point, what Leonard Maltin said was about the only barometer I had – we didn’t have Twitter reactions or Rotten Tomatoes, Cinemascore or IMDB rankings, Metacritic or the late, great Epinions. It was The Scranton Times movie reviews – culled from other newspapers, largely, as I recall, and Siskel & Ebert at the Movies, when I could remember to catch it. But come 1992, it appears my parents gave up on restricting us from R rated films, and by early 1993 I had subscribed to the magazine love of my life – Entertainment Weekly. No joke! It wasn’t the glossy, People-esque nonsense that appears on newsstands today! Or maybe it was, and I just wasn’t discerning. But these events coupled together quickly advanced movie appreciation for young Joey Joe Joseph. And the pinnacle of this was the glorious 1994 movie calendar – one of the best years in film history, featuring the most transformative film of the generation, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
It had all the inventiveness of contemporary low-budget indies, coupled with a cast full of stars, a grand, discombobulated storyline, a hilarious/riveting screenplay, and borrowed/reimagined film techniques adopted from a lifetime of Z-grade gangster pictures and international pot boilers. Tarantino’s personal story was such that anyone with an iota of creativity all of a sudden saw a path that could take them into filmmaking. This was the era for it – Robert Rodriguez was making El Mariachi on a handful of bucks, Kevin Smith was maxing out credit cards to finance Clerks, and Tarantino came straight from working at a video store to the big time. I grabbed the camcorder and was throwing together bizarre music videos and experimental closet puppet theater films before you could say Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.
(As I recall, we very loosely adapted 12 Angry Men in my sister’s closet, featuring a riveting lead performance from a nearly headless toy we’d nicknamed “The Scuzzer Doll.” It did not find its way into competition at Cannes, unfortunately, but the Scuzzer did get a development deal at New Line. So, we took the good with the bad.)
My abortive film career notwithstanding, Pulp Fiction inspired a generation of filmmakers, for good or bad, while managing to remain an unparalleled original – imitated but not duplicated, to roll out the old saw. The movie is now almost wall-to-wall iconic, from the dazzling characters to the thrilling sequences of chaos and violence. The endlessly quotable dialogue worked its way into daily life for a long time to follow, not the least of which came from Sam Jackson’s Jules.
Like Reservoir Dogs before it, and Jackie Brown after, Pulp Fiction had a dynamite soundtrack I damn near wore out on cassette. From the opening strains of “Miserlou” to the Jack Rabbit Slims Twist Contest set to the tune of “You Never Can Tell” to Butch’s vehicular mayhem with the Statler Brothers’ “Flowers on the Wall,” everything seems to fit fairly perfect now, while feeling wildly unconventional at the time. There’s a general throwback feeling to the entire film, from its cool, ’70s inspired design and clothing and ’60s surf rock jams, even though it was set very definitely in the ’90s present.
It is often referenced how Pulp Fiction managed to revive John Travolta’s career – having been away from stardom for some time at this point, Look Who’s Talking be damned – and he did snag his first Oscar nomination since Saturday Night Fever in the process, but let’s give credit where it’s truly due – PF’s biggest accomplishment was launching Samuel L. Jackson to the stratospheric heights he still enjoys to this day. Up until ’94, sure, he was working steady, and appeared in minor roles in some major films – Goodfellas, Jurassic Park, Patriot Games, Coming to America. He was doing more and better with Spike Lee, but outside of that pairing, he didn’t break into the big time until Pulp, his lone Oscar nomination, as of this writing (I have a personal Mandela Effect issue with this, as I distinctly recall him getting nominated for A Time to Kill, which apparently didn’t happen. Huh!). He has gone on, of course, to become the biggest box office star of all time, but despite appearing as Fury in eleven MCU movies, playing a Jedi in the Star Wars prequels, voicing Frozone in hugely successful Pixar flicks, and reteaming with Bruce Willis in my favorite Die Hard, he will forever be most associated with his work here (and probably to a lesser degree, his other Tarantino collaborations).
But yes, there is literally no way for me to overstate how important Pulp Fiction quickly became in my life in 1994/95. It was such a mind-blowing cinematic experience that even in as great a year as ’94 I was completely outraged by it only managing a Screenplay Oscar (despite seven nominations, including Picture, Director, Film Editing, Travolta, Jackson, and Thurman), and that was in competition with the likes of Forrest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption, Ed Wood, Bullets Over Broadway, and Speed. It changed my (admittedly limited) views of film in general, and seemed so revolutionary and new that the industry might take years to catch up. It was to the ’90s was Citizen Kane was to the ’40s, even if the curve wasn’t quite as steep for everyone else to compete.
And this isn’t to slight the other great, new wave films of the day, of which there were many – but making darling indies just isn’t as impactful to the world at large as a massive hit studio offering like this. Were filmmakers doing loads of innovative stuff in their movies around this time? Yes – the early ’90s was a hotbed of creativity – but did those movies catch on in the public consciousness and embed themselves in the culture the way Pulp Fiction did? It wasn’t just a critical darling – in today’s money, it grossed something like $228 million domestically, and $450ish worldwide, so this movie was everywhere. It never needed to be found and grow a following – Pulp Fiction was a phenomenon.
This is Tarantino’s sixth and final film on the list, following #252 Reservoir Dogs, #96 Django Unchained, #131 Jackie Brown, #72 Inglourious Basterds, and #56 Kill Bill Vol. 1, making him the seventh directing member of the Sixes, while only sliding him into the Threes on the acting side (sorry, Destiny Turns on the Radio fans!). This also brings us to the thirteen and last Samuel L. Jackson performance, leaving him one shy of Bill Murray’s mark overall. Solid effort, SLJ! Thanks for Jackie Brown, #332 Phantom Menace, Django Unchained, #52 Die Hard with a Vengeance, #31 Goodfellas, #175 Patriot Games, #123 Jurassic Park, #224 The Avengers, #38 Iron Man, Inglourious Basterds, #97 The Incredibles, and #172 Out of Sight!