Is the reverence for Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction justified?

At the 1994 Cannes film festival, the controversial young filmmaker at the centre of the violence in movies debate was about to win the film world’s most prestigious prize.

The UK tabloids blamed Child’s Play 3 for the 1993 murder of the infant James Bulger; the country was busy reliving its video-nasties hysteria. Quentin Tarantino’s debut feature, Reservoir Dogs, found itself at the centre of the ongoing controversy. Yes, it was a violent film, but more than that it was a film that showed the consequences of violent action. Anyone who thought it glorified violence clearly had a moral compass that didn’t point north.  Many acclaimed the film as the best debut since Citizen Kane. Nothing in early 90s UK pop-culture came within light years of its cathartic impact.

For many, the promise of Reservoir Dogs made QT, the video store geek, cinema’s saviour. As his second feature was nearing release, fandom held its collective breath. Yet there were rumours.  Second film syndrome rumours. The advanced reports coming from industry insiders said disappointment. One-hit-wonder. Flash-in-the-pan. All that QT-hype had seemingly been for nothing.

Then there were the GATT talks. The French wanted state-imposed limits on the number of American films swamping their domestic releases. In the debate, Spielberg brazenly claimed such release quotas limited his artistic freedom, conveniently forgetting how Jurassic Park had set box office records. Against this backdrop, Pulp Fiction came to Cannes. The smart money was on Three Colours Red for the Palme d’Or.

Much to everyone’s surprise and many people’s horror, the jury awarded the top prize to Pulp Fiction. Many suggested this provocative act was strategic, a palliative to the American industry over GATT and not strictly a commentary on the film’s quality. Whatever the reason, the QT narrative was born again. Pulp Fiction was the first indie film to cross $100 million. It grossed over $200 million on a $8.5 million budget. 

A Pulp Culture Icon

Before you accuse me of trolling, let me say I bought a bundled Pulp Fiction soundtrack CD and screenplay that year. I saw it at the cinema four times. I joined Blockbuster just to rent the VHS.   

Today, I find it an impossible film to watch. Such familiarity exposed its shortcomings. I find its amateurish style a major barrier.

Any objective assessment of the film depends entirely on what you are comparing it to. Take Reservoir Dogs – framed, shot, edited and sound-designed to perfection. Find a single flaw in its construction, I’ll wait. Is it ‘cool’? No, it’s tense, claustrophobic and painful to watch. It’s a tragic honour-amongst-thieves buddy movie based on betrayal. Mr White’s growl of anguish as Orange admits who he really is… you feel his pain.

In comparison, Pulp Fiction is a significant step down in realisation. It might be ‘cool’, but popularity doesn’t hide shoddy filmmaking. Take the production design and the lighting in the apartment scene at the beginning. It screams ‘set’; it looks like a student film where everyone wanted to be a director and nobody attended the lighting class. Yes, the film was low-budget, but there are any number of tricks in a competent filmmaker’s arsenal for overcoming that – compensate by shooting tight, spotlighting an actor against darkness, shooting a high depth of field, or throwing a blue tint on the background. Where was the DP? It’s all so unimaginatively realised.

Don’t start me on the jump-cut in the ‘Zed’s dead’ scene or the bad dialogue edits in the diner finale.

Compare that to the tight framing and the compositions of Dogs. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was made by a different man; better results on a much lower budget. Pulp Fiction is a classic example of ‘just stand somewhere in an exposed-for-daylight frame, it’ll be great!’ lazy filmmaking.

Jackie Brown has the same problem – no visual panache and no emotional punch. His two post-Dogs movies have a real journeyman realisation. What’s more, I think QT knew it too. There has to be a reason why he turned to Robert Richardson, the best DP in the business, for his subsequent movies.

Many Blood Splattered Brides

I hold very few movies in the pantheon in higher regard than Natural Born Killers. Like many, I was suffering Oliver Stone fatigue by the mid-nineties – too much Wall Street, too much Vietnam, and way too much Talk Radio. Then I saw scenes from the NBK prison riot on a late-night review show. The palpable kinetic energy of the film was obvious even on my portable TV. Stone put us in the middle of a glorious nightmare: satire, incest sitcoms, animation, differing film stocks, colour design and Leonard Cohen. Now that’s the triumphalist cinema against which everything else should be measured.

Compare the visual execution of Pulp Fiction to True Romance. Yes, that film had a much higher budget but it also had Tony Scott’s visual flare. Both films share a similar urban setting and a not dissimilar plot, yet note how much more creatively Scott’s film lights, shoots and composes. Much is made of QT’s use of music and his soundtracks – compare the in-your-face use of music in Pulp Fiction to the much subtler use of music to underscore and match the action in True Romance, in either the Chantilly Lace sequence, the Tony Soprano scene or the climatic shootout.  Scott’s film is far superior on every technical level.

Compare Pulp Fiction to the colour design, the genius cinematic ending and the camera movements of Three Colours Red. Compare the screenplays and ask yourself which, on paper, has more obvious cinematic potential? Then examine the final result.

QT’s post-Dogs pre-Richardson movies just feel amateurish. Consider the visual style and the mastery of cinematic language shown by Kieslowski, Stone and Scott. They make Pulp Fiction look like the result of an adult cinema literacy class. Nor is the fault in QT’s writing – compare how other seasoned professionals realised his early scripts. After spending years bad-mouthing NBK, there’s a reason he had Stone’s DP shoot Kill Bill in their frenetic style.   

Nearly 30 Years of Disappointment

Tarantino’s fanbase is divided between people who remember the excitement and the raw power of Reservoir Dogs and those who only signed up after Pulp Fiction, those for whom cinema history begins in 1994.

This shift to popular acclaim is easy to account for – it offered the general audience an entry-level experience into the controversy of its day. It pushed the Friends crowd just a little beyond its comfort zone and made them feel edgy. How cool, ironic and alternative they thought they were by liking this middle of the road mainstream box office hit with its 90s TV show visual aesthetic. They will never know the crushing disappointment that comes with each new film he releases. If the Welles comparison for Reservoir Dogs is justified, then Pulp Fiction is Tarantino’s Annie Hall.

I say all of this as someone who wanted Pulp Fiction to be the greatest film of all time. I had a dodgy VHS of Reservoir Dogs copied from a 12-inch laser disk with a break where the disk changed sides. I watched it until VHS became obsolete. I lived it, I breathed it. I wore a pair of red sunglasses at university that my best friend referred to as ‘the killers’. Tarantino’s wake in 90s pop-culture was formative for my generation.   

QT is perhaps the best example of a successful film career based on brand recognition not inherent quality, Spike Lee being the other obvious example. Each successive movie is marketed as much on the narrative surrounding the man, as the film. Pulp Fiction is a Big Kahuna burger – superficial style and no substance. What does Pulp Fiction offer that matches the emotional impact of Reservoir Dogs, True Romance or Natural Born Killers? I look at Pulp Fiction and see a movie that could have been hacked out by Ron Howard.

The pre-Cannes rumours were right; Pulp Fiction is a classic example of second film syndrome, one that failed to deliver on the talent its predecessor showed. Its popular success is mistaken for quality.

Three Colours Red was a more deserving choice for the Palme d’Or and is objectively a much better film.

Published by Lee Russell Wilkes

Been bouncing around the world for a while taking photos. Like most people, I have gone to ground during the pandemic. Decided it was time to put some of them out in the world.

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