For many in Generation X, there is the time before Pulp Fiction (1994) and there is the time after Pulp Fiction. The shift in consciousness – personal, cultural, cinematic – was seismic. As the story goes, Gen X was the first self-consciously postmodern generation, hyper-aware of its place in history and obsessed with popular culture: the movies, television, music, fads and ads ever-proliferating in the age of mechanical and, increasingly, digital reproduction. As such, we were primed for a movie like Pulp Fiction. Its narrative and visual and aural pastiche, spitting pop cultural allusions like sparks from a grinding wheel, spoke a language we instinctively understood. Pulp Fiction didn’t define us so much as it revealed us, by dramatizing our sensibilities to the world.
The media had already deemed Gen X cynical and ironic, which was true enough, though we were never only that. Nor were we just subversive, obsessed with retro-cool, foul-mouthed, quasi-philosophical, directionless or relentlessly self-conscious, although, like the characters in the movie, we were all those things too. Perhaps we could best be described as wryly knowing. The aggregation of knowledge by that point in history had made us hyper-aware of – as well as cynically complacent about –the crappy socio-economic/historical/cultural hand we had been dealt, at least compared to our Boomer parents. But we weren’t earnest about it. We were nonchalant and never sentimental. Our generation was not the type to freak out. We were as cool and as untroubled by the world around us as Pulp Fiction’s Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) calling for the Wolf (Harvey Keitel) to clean up poor Marvin’s brains after they’d been accidentally blown all over the back seat of the getaway car.
Secretly, we were panicked that the best opportunities had passed us by. As the first post-Cold War generation, Xers lacked the clearly defined ideological enemy/purpose that had sustained previous generations – as well as Hollywood in the 1980s. We had no Soviet Empire to fear/hate, Vietnam War to protest, or Civil Rights movement to engage. Our inheritance was George H.W. Bush’s vague “New World Order,” as well as an economic recession – the fallout of the ‘80s grotesquerie of greed and consumerism. Given all this, we no longer had any use for the square, slick and earnest cinema of the 1980s on which we had grown up. Obviously, the conservative action pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger failed to speak to us, but so did the upper-middle-class teen movies of John Hughes, and even the liberal demagoguery of Oliver Stone, who was way too serious. And needless to say, non-whites, women and GLBTG folk were beyond fed up with Hollywood representations that consistently marginalized, stereotyped and vilified them.
In this context, Gen Xers were hungry to both produce and consume an alternative cinema, which they began to do in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Pulp Fiction came along at the height of this indie film renaissance – one that Quentin Tarantino himself had helped define and perpetuate with his 1992 no-budget crime flick Reservoir Dogs (1992)– and it become the apotheosis of the movement. While the movie was not the first expression of our generational personality – for white kids at least, Seattle Grunge had articulated it, as had Daria and Beavis and Butthead on MTV, to name just a few examples – it could be argued that it was the most complete expression. (As I discuss below, African-American Xers, had a different world to worry about in the early 90s, and different cultural expressions.)
Of course, you can also find many of Pulp’s Gen X qualities in Reservoir Dogs, or in other badass subversive films of the movement, such as The Player (1992), The Crying Game (1992), The Living End (1992), The Bad Lieutenant (1992), and Deep Cover (1992), to name a few. But Reservoir Dogs is a nihilistic cinematic exercise. It is sadistic and nasty and childish. Its characters are literally paint-by-number: Mr. Pink, Mr. White, Mr. Brown and so on. Even back then, you could admire it, think it was cool, and get off on the violence, the way Tarantino had, watching so many exploitation flicks growing up. But you could never love it.
We loved Pulp Fiction. Not just because it’s uproarious or filled with classic dialogue or outrageous situations, but because it is sympathetic to its characters and cares about their fates. Because Tarantino had worked out compelling themes about sin and redemption. Seeing it for the first time, the biggest shock of the movie was not Marvin’s head exploding (“You’re the motherfucker who should be on brain detail!”) or Vincent Vega (John Travolta) plunging a giant syringe into the chest of Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) to revive her from a heroine overdose. The biggest shock was that the story had been building toward such a moving, thoughtful climax without us ever realizing it.
When Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) departs the diner to walk the earth like Caine in “Kung Fu,” fully intending to leave behind a life of crime to help people and get into adventures, it was more than just a satisfying conclusion – it was wish fulfillment. Certainly a 21-year-old in 1994 with a nebulous idea of his future, coming of age during a recession, could appreciate it. Like A bout de soufflé (Breathless, 1959) or Bonnie and Clyde (1967) before it, Pulp Fiction was a movie about cool losers and it appealed to an audience both branded and self-identified as such. But unlike those earlier films with their hard undercurrent of nihilism, Pulp Fiction delivered the possibility of a way out of the malaise – through spiritual awakening, of all things. Some of us walked out of the theatre thinking there might be hope for the world’s outcasts and misfits after all.
Prelude to The Changing of the Guard
After premiering at Cannes in May of 1994, where it won the Palm d’Or, Pulp Fiction opened in the US in October of that year. The buzz had been building all summer but the shock of it was still visceral and immediate and the movie became a polarizing sensation. Along with the mostly stellar reviews – Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers called it “indisputably great,” while Roger Ebert compared its narrative to Citizen Kane (1941) – and fabulous box office (108 million dollars on a budget of about eight million) (1), the movie also provoked controversy about its depictions of drug use and violence, scenes of anal rape, and flagrant use of the ‘N-word.’ Perhaps the truest measure of its success was that, like The Godfather (1972) or Ghostbusters (1984), it was instantly quotable – a rarified status achieved by only a few films per generation.
The early ‘90s produced a number of good to great crime films: Goodfellas (1990), Bugsy (1991), New Jack City (1991), The Grifters (1990), One False Move (1992) and Carlitos’ Way (1993), among others. One could even argue that the era was a high point for the genre. But those movies had played it straight. When Pulp Fiction hit, it exploded the genre. Tarantino and co-writer Roger Avery lampoon crime movies by creating characters whose identities as gangsters are derived largely from movies and television they had watched. On their way to shake down some kids who had ripped off their boss, for example, Jules and Vincent talk about “getting into character.” Once there, Jules makes intimidating speeches while Vincent stands around glowering. This was standard stuff, but Tarantino’s brilliant joke was to make the dialogue between the crimes play like something out of Seinfeld – then at its popular peak – as if George and Jerry were gangsters in their day jobs, then retired to the coffee shop to discuss such minutiae as the etiquette of giving a woman a foot massage and the of pros and cons of eating bacon.
Perhaps, in terms of the capturing the cultural zeitgeist – and in terms of transforming both the genre and the industry – the crime film with which Pulp Fiction has the most in common is Bonnie and Clyde, which had had a similar impact during another moment of generational transition 27 years earlier. Both movies took a fresh approach to the genre, appealed to young moviegoers, were cool, sexy, subversive, outrageous and graphically violent (which in 1967, at the sputtering end of the Motion Picture Production Code, was unheard of). And both movies changed the paradigm of American cinema. As has been often chronicled, perhaps most famously in Peter Biskind’s tell-all tome, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the success of Bonnie and Clyde with the counterculture helped usher in the so-called “New Hollywood” of younger, risk-taking filmmakers who had come of age on European and Japanese post-war cinema and who were fed up with behind-the-times Hollywood.
Similarly, a perfect storm of cultural, economic and industry elements coalesced to produce an independent golden age in the early 1990s. The ground was laid in the mid to late 1980s, when a handful of independent filmmakers, such as John Sayles, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee and Gus Van Sant made independent films that began to garner high profiles, largely as a result of home video, by then a fixture of many U.S. households. Recognizing the new audience for them, the Sundance Film Festival and savvy new distributors began launching independent films to national attention, providing audiences with a more easily accessible alternative to the mainstream. Filmmakers from the era include Steven Soderberg, Richard Linklater, Allison Anders, Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki, The Hughes Brothers, Kevin Smith, David O’ Russell, Bryan Singer, Robert Rodriquez, James Mangold, Nicole Holofcener and Wes Anderson.
As with the New Hollywood directors, these young filmmakers were primed to rebel against the status quo and the tired assembly line product of the studios. Their films’ low budgets, general lack of movie stars, formal experimentation, self-conscious homage to cinema and popular culture, and subversive content, made them attractive to Xers. True to their era, many of these films (including Clerks (1994), Kids (1995), Slacker (1991), My Own Private Idaho (1991) and The Doom Generation (1995), among many others) feature non-linear or non-existent narratives, are character rather than plot-driven, and revel in ironic, sarcastic, glib or nihilistic tones.
One crucial difference between Bonnie and Clyde and Pulp Fiction – and perhaps in some ways the two eras – was that the former was determinedly political, a reaction to the churning events and injustices of the 1960s (director Arthur Penn has talked about how the Depression-era desperation was meant to act as a call for action and resistance). Pulp Fiction, on the other hand, was happily apolitical. Tarantino took his passions and influences not from real life but from movies he had seen. In this way, the two films also mirrored the two generations – one that was passionately clamoring for change, another that was ambivalent toward it.
Like Bonnie and Clyde, which earned 10 nominations, Pulp Fiction’s mainstream legitimation blossomed at the Academy Awards. It was nominated for seven Oscars and Tarantino and Avery shared the award for Original Screenplay. Best Picture that year came down to a horserace between Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump (1994). (2)Not surprisingly, Forrest Gump won. Like Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump was also a cultural phenomenon and a pastiche, but unlike Pulp Fiction it is a gentle and sentimental liberal fantasy that whitewashes difficult history: honey to Oscar voters. Again there were parallels to the earlier era, when Bonnie and Clyde lost Best Picture to In the Heat of the Night (1967), another whitewashing of history (the even more egregiously faux-liberal dreck Guess Whose Coming to Dinner (1967) was also nominated). In both cases, the counterculture had elbowed into the mainstream, but it remained the counterculture.
The Race(ism) Situation
Many remember Pulp Fiction as a massive comeback for John Travolta, and it was, launching him into huge commercial stardom in the second half of the 1990s in films that included the indelible Get Shorty (1995) (and the less delible Phenomenon (1996) and Michael ). Travolta also became an action star of sorts (as did virtually all male leads in the 1990s) in such fare as John Woo’s Broken Arrow (1996) and Face/Off (1997). Travolta’s subtle performance anchors the movie, and he got much of the press. There was a great deal of excitement surrounding the fact that Tarantino showcased his dancing, which had immortalized the actor in Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978)a generation earlier. His slow twist with Uma Thurman to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” certainly doesn’t blaze up the screen the way his disco dancing as Tony Manero had in Saturday Night Fever, but it makes sense both for the older, doughier actor, as well as the character, who was perpetually high on heroin. Tarantino, ever a student of the movies, had the good sense to display the dancers’ entire bodies for at least part of the number, showing that Travolta was still charmingly light on his feet despite the added pounds.
Fewer remember that the movie was also a comeback for Bruce Willis, who had run his post-Die Hard (1988) career into the ground with a number of high profile bombs, including The Last Boy Scout (1991), The Colour of Night (1994), and the infamous Hudson Hawk (1991). Tarantino gave Willis a can’t miss cool part as a boxer, Butch, who rode a Harley (or, as he insists, a “chopper”) and had a cute as a button Portuguese girlfriend, although some would argue that the extended scene between the two set in a shabby motel – “the blueberry pancakes” scene – is the movie’s one weakness. On the other hand, the sequence in which hillbilly bikers torture Butch and Marcellus, who then gruesomely dispatch them, remains among cinemas most memorable.
The actor who skyrocketed into popularity and has more or less stayed there ever since is Samuel L. Jackson, who has now appeared (or been heard) in almost all of Tarantino’s movies, as well as some 75 other post-Pulp Fiction feature films, plus numerous shorts, television programs and video games. By the time of Pulp Fiction, Jackson’s stock had been on the rise for several years. He had small but pivotal roles in high-profile films leading up to his break out role as Jules, including in Do the Right Thing (1989), GoodFellas and even Jurassic Park (1993). He had also played Wesley Snipe’s crack-addicted brother in Jungle Fever (1991), a role that many felt should have brought him a supporting Oscar nomination in 1992. Jackson would have to wait a few years for Pulp Fiction to bring him that nomination, although there was some grumbling that he had been marginalized in the supporting category and that he should have been nominated for Best Actor, as his co-star Travolta had been.
But Oscar glory is fleeting while Jules is a part for the ages: Jackson got many of the best lines in the movie and he got the character arc of moral growth and redemption. With his giant hand cannon, his dripping jerry curl wig, his existential philosophizing and black suit with skinny tie, he was a hybrid of Blaxploitation hero and Godard anti-hero. This made sense, given that Blaxploitation and Godard were two of Tarantino’s greatest influences. He had named his production company after Godard’s Bande à part (1964) and his next movie after Pulp Fiction would be Jackie Brown (1997), which cast Blaxploitation heroine Pam Grier (Foxy Brown ) in the title role.
Of course, one can’t discuss Tarantino cinema without discussing the representation of race, and especially blackness. Tarantino’s movies, most recently Django Unchained (2012), celebrate and fetishize black people and black culture in ways that many find uncomfortable and offensive. For example, Spike Lee said of Django Unchained that slavery was “not a Spaghetti Western” and he wouldn’t “disrespect his ancestors” by seeing the film; Denzel Washington had a long feud with Tarantino over what he also felt were the director’s racists sensibilities. Whether Django Unchained and earlier Tarantino films including Jackie Brown, Kill Bill (2003)and Inglorious Basterds (2009) are racist has engendered much cultural debate. At the heart of the issue for many, going back to Pulp Fiction, is Tarantino’s incessant use of the word “nigger”.
Over the years Tarantino has defended his use of the word, as well as the way in which he has rendered black characters. Regarding Django Unchained, he told Henry Louis Gates Jr. that using the word was “just part and parcel of dealing truthfully with this story, with this environment, with this land.” In a 1997 interview about Jackie Brown, he told Charlie Rose, “As a writer, I demand the right to write any character in the world that I want to write. I demand the right to be them, I demand the right to think them and I demand the right to tell the truth as I see they are, all right? And to say that I can’t do that because I’m white, but the Hughes brothers can do that because they’re black, that is racist.”
Indeed, the unremitting use of the ‘N’ word in Pulp Fiction seems designed to taunt those who would object to it, as though Tarantino is saying, ‘How can I be racist when I so clearly love Black people? I’ve written this movie with great parts for them, that contains not one but two interracial marriages, and if you take objection to my use of the word, you don’t get that my movie is meant to be subversive and anti-P.C. and post-racist.’ Yet, even for those willing to grant the director some latitude, the scene in which Tarantino himself – playing a white suburbanite, Jimmie – uses the word relentlessly while delivering an angry speech to Jules and Vincent, remains hard to watch. “When you came pulling in here, did you notice a sign out in front of my house that said ‘Dead Nigger Storage?’” he chides. The word from his mouth again and again is like nails on a chalkboard. No white man would speak to a black man in this manner; it’s just Tarantino’s colourblind fantasy. It’s not an accident that he is playing the character (who also has a black wife, Bonnie). As many have suggested, he clearly wants to ‘cross over’ into blackness, to be considered what he and many American men think of as the ultimate cool. But while the characters may be able to divorce the word from its history, the viewer cannot, and the sour taste these scenes evoke undermine the good will that one has developed for the movie up to that point.
Despite his protestations, it is Tarantino’s inability to understand the subtle and insidious nature of institutionalized racism that is at the crux of things. When he “demands the right” to write characters who say ‘nigger,’ he doesn’t realize that he does have the right, as a powerful white man working in American movies, to control all the content in the way that traditionally marginalized people do not. The Hughes brothers may have the ‘right’ to use the word ‘nigger’ in their films, but, unlike white male directors, black directors have been historically restricted to certain kinds of stories, genres and points of view – that is, when white owned and controlled systems of production, distribution and exhibition have allowed them to make movies at all. The fealty that Jules shows to Jimmie as he rants (wouldn’t Jules put a cap in somebody’s ass for less?) reveals this power subtext. Similar dynamics in Django Unchained show that racial hierarchies in Hollywood haven’t changed that much in twenty years.
There is another historical context to consider as well. Yes, the Pulp Fiction of Los Angeles is semi-fictionalized, featuring invented locations and brand names such as ‘Red Apple’ cigarettes and ‘Big Kahuna Burger.’ But the real L.A. in the early 1990s was the epicenter of a race war that had sprawled across the country. The national media had perpetuated racism against African Americans by playing up the danger of gangs and black crime to middle class white parents who were already worried about the consumption of gangsta rap records by their teenage children. What went largely unreported of course was that the rise of gangs, drug dealing and violence in the inner cities was the consequence of decades of post-war economic disenfranchisement in the form of “White Flight” to the suburbs and inner-city apartheid of blacks and others, all aggravated by cruel tax policies. These realities, along with the demoralizing realization that the Civil Rights movement and the hopes of the 1960s hadn’t increased socio-economic opportunity for blacks, led to despair and crime.
This was powerfully dramatized in movies of the era such as Boyz in the Hood (1991) and Menace II Society (1993), and even the controversial Falling Down (1993). However, none of this, or the national firestorm over the Rodney King beating and subsequent L.A. riots, found even allegorical treatment in Pulp Fiction. At its heart, the movie is an ahistorical interracial buddy fantasy in the mold of the template established 37 years earlier by The Defiant Ones (1958). In that movie, Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis play escaped convicts chained together who learn mutual respect and compassion as a result of shared travails. In the movie’s liberal fantasy ending, Poitier gives up on a chance for freedom so that he can remain at the wounded side of his white buddy while the authorities come to haul them both back to prison.
One aim of the black and white buddy movie is to tame the black man under the white man’s ideological tutelage so that he no longer poses a threat and white audiences can enjoy his cultural blackness without feeling guilt or fear. Therefore the stereotypically threatening black elements embodied by Jules – his “furious anger,” his violence, his profanity, his gigantic gun, and so on – can be safely consumed by the white audience who knows that Jules is in on “their side.” And yet it would be unfair to lump Jules in entirely with his cinematic ancestors when he does, in fact, subvert many stereotypes of black men: he is thoughtful, articulate, even chivalrous. He is also the moral heart of the film and his steadying presence during the movie’s climax saves lives. Finally, unlike in The Defiant Ones, Jules – rather than staying metaphorically chained to the doomed white man – walks to freedom and, presumably, redemption.
Ultimately, Jules is kind of a perfect hybrid for white audiences – tamed but still a hugely charismatic badass and fount of ‘cool’ blackness. This combination has made Jackson a favorite among young males and led him to being cast in blockbusters aimed primarily at teens (the Star Wars prequels and Marvel’s Avenger movies, among others) and even families (The Incredibles ), something that certainly never would have happened if, instead of Jules, Jackson had played a few more frightening crack-heads like the one in Jungle Fever. Although Jackson has submitted serious performances over the years (he is brilliant and fearless playing a house slave in Django Unchained), one could argue he has often just played a version of Jules, or what has become the Jackson/Jules persona. Much of the delight for audiences is the in-joke of seeing the actor riff on his beloved character again and again.
It’s possible that Jules was such an unforgettable character that we just can’t see past him, even when Jackson is trying to play somebody else. Either way, continued obsession with Jackson/Jules can be confirmed on the Internet, which features innumerable memes and video mash-ups of Jules supplanted into many of Jackson’s other movies (the Star Wars prequels are a favourite). There are also short films featuring the character (Jules coaching youth hockey, for example), and he appears in endless lists ranking great characters and great dialogue. He even has his own entry in the Urban Dictionary. Jackson/Jules’ massive influence and popularity is one of Pulp Fiction’s most lasting legacies.
The Changing of the Guard
Save for a segment of the anthology Four Rooms (1995) and an episode of ER, Tarantino didn’t direct for three years after the release of Pulp Fiction. Instead, he became a celebrity presence, clearly relishing his new status as pop culture icon. Internet Movie Database lists the director as having made 175 (!) post-Pulp Fiction appearances as “himself” (mostly talk shows, awards shows and documentaries). He has also acted in a number of movies and television shows, including his own films. He became so ubiquitous in the mid-90s – including on the nascent ‘World Wide Web’ – that Siskel and Ebert broadcast a special called the “The Tarantino Generation,” in which they asked if the director was a “one man new wave or just a flavour of the month?” Ultimately, the critics praised Tarantino’s talent and urged him to make more movies and fewer public appearances.
Meanwhile, Pulp Fiction had the same effect of all novel hits: it spawned a number of imitators. Low-budget crime films featuring eclectic male-heavy casts, eccentric characters, ornate dialogue, macabre violence, and non-linear narratives became all the rage through the rest of the decade. Among many others were Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995), CopLand (1997), Go (1999), 2 Days in the Valley (1996), Very Bad Things (1998), The Usual Suspects (1995) and the early films of Guy Ritchie, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000).
Interestingly, Tarantino himself departed from his own template when he did finally bring out his next feature, Jackie Brown, in late 1997. He could have gone back to the profitable well of influences that spawned Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, but instead he produced a more conventional film: a literary adaptation (of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch) with a relatively slow-paced linear narrative and even a love story of sorts (between Robert Forster’s bail bondsman Max Cherry and Jackie, played by Pam Grier). Though critically well received, the movie was not a popular success. For fans still rabid for Pulp Fiction, perhaps it was not Tarantino-esque enough.
And yet, the director’s aesthetic and interests have survived mostly intact in his subsequent films – Kill Bill, Death Proof (2007), Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained – which is more than one can say of many of his peers in the movement (as well as one of the traditional definitions of the auteur). By the late ‘90s, many of the indie film directors began to infiltrate Hollywood (or perhaps, as the Marxists might have it, Hollywood appropriated them, thereby acquiring their labour while neutralizing their subversive instincts). Tarantino is one of the few (along with Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson and Nicole Holofcener) still making movies that are recognizably related to their early work. Meanwhile, one would be hard pressed to find the germ of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises or Inception in his Memento. Likewise, Steven Soderberg (The Oceans movies), Bryan Singer (the X-Men movies, Superman Returns ), James Mangold (Knight and Day (2010), The Wolverine ), The Hughes Brothers (From Hell (2001), The Book of Eli ), Robert Rodriquez (Sin City ), Jon Faverau (Cowboys and Aliens (2011), Iron Man ), Doug Liman (Mr. and. Mrs. Smith (2005), Edge of Tomorrow ) and many others have long abandoned their indie roots for studio and even blockbuster filmmaking.
Meanwhile, Tarantino, despite his much larger budgets, has remained Tarantino, partly because his narrative and formal style and influences were recognizable after only two movies, and partly because he has obsessively returned to themes (most notably, revenge) and, like many auteurs, featured reoccurring actors (Jackson, Thurman, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, Michael Parks, Christoph Waltz, Zoë Bell, Julie Dreyfus, et.al). Most of his movies since Pulp Fiction have received more or less positive reviews (as well as Oscar nominations – both Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds were nominated for Best Picture) though with considerable grousing. Common complaints are that they are overlong, undisciplined, too talky, unevenly paced, racist, in need of more judicious editing, ludicrously violent, pointlessly provocative, disturbingly fetishistic, overly allusive, shallow, immature and morally compromised.
The positive reviews, then, have been on the strength of the director’s undeniable filmmaking prowess. As always he gets a lot out of actors and his dialogue is as quirky and entertaining as ever. Many still consider him a better writer than director (he won an Oscar for writing Django Unchained but wasn’t even nominated as director), but there is no doubt he’s come a long way from swirling a camera around some dudes gabbing in a diner, as he did in Reservoir Dogs. He has undeniably worked on his craft and his fluidity and facility within the medium has become striking. At his best, he can build suspense as well as Alfred Hitchcock or Brian De Palma – Uma Thurman buried alive in Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004); the opening sequence of Inglorious Basterds. Lyricism may not be his strong suit, but he can stage a fight scene as well as George Lucas, and within shouting distance of John Woo and Akira Kurosawa. Along with Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, he is one of American cinema’s few superstar auteurs. Twenty years after Pulp Fiction, few new movies are more eagerly awaited or discussed than Tarantino’s.
Pulp Fiction was the apex of the indie film renaissance of the 1990s. It was also, in a sense, the movie that killed it – and not just because all the shallow rip-offs and self-conscious homages diluted its freshness. Pulp Fiction helped indie film go big business, with studios pumping more money into specialty divisions and marketing and everybody trying to ape the profitable aesthetics. By the late 90s, the box office slump was over and Hollywood – no longer needing to lean on the movement to generate revenues – went back to making the kinds of films it had always made. By the end of the decade, popular culture was bright and shiny and childish again (boy bands, Brittney Spears, Adam Sandler, Titanic (1997), The Phantom Menace ) and the transformational moment of just a few years earlier, so fertile and subversive, seemed as far away as the ‘60s. Meanwhile, drowning in studio swill, we await the next movement.
And yet, it’s hard to envision a movie today seizing the zeitgeist the way that Pulp Fiction did twenty years ago – not just commanding cultural attention, but changing the way a generation talks, thinks, and what it considers cool (maybe The Matrix for a few years, but its reputation has since lost much of it’s sheen). Although Pulp’s jagged pastiche certainly anticipated the globalized world of converging media that was almost upon us, the movie premièred just before the Internet changed human consciousness; before the media conglomerates began to lose their grip and their influence as tastemakers; before Napster and iTunes and sharing and streaming; before the splintering of tastes and the fracturing of cultures into subcultures and subcultures into micro-cultures. Pulp Fiction entered the world before the insta-news of social media, when word of mouth was slower to percolate and when it was still possible to hear first reports of a great movie from breathless friends fresh from a screening. Whatever else our generation felt like it missed out on, at least we still had that.
1. About 170 million in 2014 dollars.
2. The other three nominations went to Quiz Show, Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Shawshank Redemption.