By Aisha Sembhi
I have often found that there are two extremes within cinema audiences. First, the self-proclaimed film expert, who claims the ability to pull hidden meanings or thematic analyses out of anything and everything, often unprovoked and to the dismay of others. Second, the indolent viewer, who engages in simpler cinema and tends to determine the quality of a movie based on the number of explosions and special effects used.
Over a quarter of a century later, it remains one of the most influential and controversial cultural phenomena to ever dominate the industry. Viewers tend to either claim it as the greatest film ever made, or entirely disapprove of its mainstream success. One must beg the question: what makes it so special to the extent audiences are still picking it apart today?
Directed by Quentin Tarantino and released in 1994, Pulp Fiction follows several characters through Los Angeles as they cross paths by virtue of their involvement in a series of linked criminal activities. Principle characters include hit men Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega, their crime boss Marsellus Wallace, and prize-fighter Butch. The plot follows three distinct scenarios, occurring out of chronology: first, “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife”, followed by “The Gold Watch”, and finally ending with “The Bonnie Situation”.
Without even considering the plot or themes, it is entirely appropriate to assume modern audiences wholly accept the magnitude of Pulp Fiction’s legacy based on its archetypal features alone. It has become something of an artistic sensation – the most obvious illustration of this is found in the acclaim and instant pop culture gratification Uma Thurman received for her role as Mia Wallace following the film’s release. Put simply, Pulp Fiction finds its greatness its modern perception as a ‘cool’ movie, with an already established popular following and unlimited opportunity for dissection.
What is not immune to revision is the analyses of the plot and dialogue itself. Admittedly, the first time I watched Pulp Fiction, I was uninspired. My short attention span did not engage well with the alternating timeline, and the lack of the increasingly common finale spectacular scene we see in modern action movies left me uninspired – it is safe to suggest I personally adhere to the indolent viewer model. In a film in which no day was saved and no major revelation was made, I could not help but conclude that therefore, nothing of significance had occurred.
After a second viewing (this time forcing myself to pay some attention to the hefty dialogue ridden scenes I otherwise would struggle to comprehend), I have not only become a fan of the film but have also immersed myself in the seemingly immeasurable thematic discourse within its following. Whilst I welcome this reversal of opinion, it exposes the films fatal flaw; to reap the full reward of such a film, the viewer must put in some effort. For casual viewers, it is difficult to decipher the intent behind creating such a movie – it seems to be about nothing.
I find that the film’s most valuable asset is its discretion in loaded dialogue by utilising everyday conversation, through which it explores the significance of relationships, religion, betrayal and loyalty. Colloquialism between otherwise anonymised characters normalises each situation for a brief moment, before being followed by graphic scenes of assassination, overdose and assault, therefore bringing viewers back to the bleak reality of a life of crime.
This is perhaps the primary reason Pulp Fiction can claim a place on the highest pedestals in modern cinematic history. Essentially, it is a masterclass in storytelling. But its legacy extends beyond these verbal devices, finding immortalised cultural significance as a result of its obscure nature. Regardless of whether or not audiences agree with the notion that Pulp Fiction is an objectively ‘good’ viewing experience, there is no denying the gravity it holds as the blueprint of independent cinema. Nothing made since has been as influential or held to the same regard.
Illustration: Anna Kuptsova