Royale Treatment: A 20th Anniversary Look at Pulp Fiction

A 20th Anniversary Look at Pulp FictionThe other day, the film websites on the Internet exploded with news that Quentin Tarantino was ready to scrap his new film—a western called The Hateful Eight—because the script was leaked after he showed it to only a handful of people.

Mr. T came across as angry because of the breach of friendship, and even went as far as to single out who’d he had given the script to. The timing was weird, because the Sundance Film Festival was going strong at the time, and Harvey Weinstein, his producer/ally throughout his career, came out publicly to denounce violence in films, and said he and Meryl Streep were working on a project that was going to blow away the National rifle Association. And not in a good way.

Which leads us to Quentin’s film Pulp Fiction, a classic to many, and now celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Could it really be 20 years since we were introduced to the Gimp, Mia, Honey Bunny, a resurrected John Travolta, a Royale with Cheese and Jackrabbit Slim’s?

To many it marked the coming of Quentin Tarantino, auteur, with its time-shifting structure, colorful criminal characters, explosively violent altercations, profoundly over-the-top monologues, Biblical allegories, pop culture reference-filled dialogue, and all the rest.

Others, however, didn’t need any more evidence for Quentin’s coming out party than what they witnessed a few years earlier when Reservoir Dogs hit the street.

Who was this geeky movie nerd who worked at a video store, played an Elvis impersonator on The Golden Girls, and talked like he was on speed but needed Adderall so he could focus on what he was talking about from one minute to the other?

Quentin was everywhere—talk shows, film festivals, press junkets, newspapers, magazines—spinning his legend of “The Geek Who Made It.” While Reservoir Dogs was greeted with favorable reviews, it was still an indie film (financed primarily by a video company) that saw limited theatrical exposure.  Quentin’s legend grew through the media, aided later by people watching his film on VHS and cable.

The seeds were planted, but how  could he—or would he?– follow Reservoir Dogs, a hip but nasty crime saga set to a retro rock score that borrowed (detractors would say “stole”) elements from The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, the Hong Kong film City on Fire and other movies?

 20th Anniversary Look at Pulp FictionThe interim two-years-almost-to-the-day between the releases of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction had fans—and detractors—on high alert. There was much hubbub about that casting of John Travolta in the lead. Thought to be a has-been, Travolta’s recent credits had included such successive duds as Chains of Gold, Eyes of an Angel and Shout.  The rest of the cast seemed like a mish-mash of Hollywood stars, indie stalwarts and, well, whomever. Early word was not good. A magazine ran a blind item that obviously pertained to the film, claiming “the director’s ego was out-of-control” during production, and marketing executives couldn’t make heads or tails out of the film because of its unusual, almost avant-garde storytelling and continuity style. Then there was the fact that Tri-Star dropped out early on the film, leaving it to the Weinsteins’ Miramax to help finance and distribute it.  Then there was a problematical 154-minute running time, surely a sign of the filmmaker’s ego getting in the way!

The media and doubters were waiting, knives in hand, until the film was released across the country on October 15, 1994, a few weeks after a showing at the New York Film Festival and months after it copped the highly touted Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

The reaction was mostly ecstatic, from critics and audiences alike. Roger Ebert compared elements of it to Citizen Kane. Rolling Stone called it “the King Kong of crime movies.” Richard Corliss at Time Magazine observed: “It towers over the year’s other movies as majestically and menacingly as a gang lord at pre-school.” Variety, the industry’s trade paper, labeled it “the American Graffiti of violent crime pictures.”
A lightning bolt had hit, and audiences were in line-literally and figuratively. The film became a worldwide sensation, bringing in sophisticates, film dweebs, and working class action aficionados alike. People quoted lines. Books were written. Several movies were made and released, molded after Pulp Fiction’s structure. And on and on.

Of course, there were the naysayers, who thought the structure confusing, believed the film was actually set in the 1950s, and couldn’t handle the bloodshed. Dissenting opinions from film critics included Rita Kempley in the Washington Post (“the experience overall is like laughing down a gun barrel, a little bit tiring, a lot sick and maybe far too perverse for less jaded moviegoers”) and Stanley Kauffman in The New Republic (“… the way that this picture has been so widely ravened up and drooled over verges on the disgusting.”)

So it’s been 20 years since Travolta’s Vincent Vega and Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield went on their big, unpredictable crime-filled adventure.

They were guided by the incredibly talented, manic goofball with a penchant for “B” pictures, junk food, carnage and foot massage .

But not necessarily in that order.