Celebrating Pulp Fiction

Title screen from "Pulp Fiction" (A Band Apart/Miramax)

Title screen from “Pulp Fiction” (A Band Apart/Miramax)

As a glorified cinephile—basically a hardcore movie buff—I enjoy, appreciate and, in many ways, love more films than I care to count. My favorite movie of all time, though, is Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 masterpiece Pulp Fiction.

It’s not even close, actually. And given how many great movies are out there, that’s saying something.

Explaining what I love most about Pulp Fiction is tough because this film has it all: violence, dark humor, a great cast—including John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Ving Rhames, Harvey Keitel and Christopher Walken, to name a few—snappy dialogue, a nonlinear storyline, sex, drugs, rock & roll and my personal favorite, pop culture references “out the yin yang.”

"Pulp" as pulp (A Band Apart/Miramax)

“Pulp” as pulp (A Band Apart/Miramax)

Tarantino won an Oscar for the film (Best Original Screenplay) and even took home the Palme d’Or award at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival—the highest honor bestowed upon the director of the competition’s best cinematic feature. And I will never forget the first—and second—time I saw the movie that would soon take its place atop my favorites list—a position it will undoubtedly hold forever.

Pulp Fiction was due to be released in October of 1994—I was between my undergraduate and graduate degrees at that time, and loving every minute of it—but I stumbled across what I thought was a pirated version of the film a few months earlier. I was at the state fairgrounds for some kind of show—most likely guns, comic books, sporting equipment… who the hell knows. It was a big crowded place with horrible traffic and smelly people, to be sure.

In one of the main buildings were all the vendors—rows of booths loaded with any product imaginable, several of which were devoted to movies. And I’m not talking about DVDs, which themselves are being phased out today. I’m talking about VHS videotapes—“old school” flicks, you might call them.

As I was sifting through a stack of tapes at one of the booths—whose owner seemed trustworthy enough (as if I could judge from such a chance encounter)—I discovered one with a plain, white cover and only two words written on it in black magic marker: PULP FICTION.

“What the hell is this?” I immediately asked the vendor, expecting to hear some kind of bullshit story about how a “friend of a friend” knew the producer and managed to sneak out an advanced cut of the soon-to-be hit. Instead, something unexpected happened.

“That isn’t supposed to be in there,” he mumbled to his son, a lanky and presumably mute character lurking in the shadows—I swear the kid never said a word. “I’m sorry, sir. That tape isn’t for sale,” he said as he reached for it.

Amanda and Tim - Miramax - A Band Apart

Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth (A Band Apart/Miramax)

I know, I know. This was all part of the scam, and I fell for it “hook, line and sinker.” That much is clear to me now, but back then I was blinded by the excitement of Pulp Fiction. And I had waited long enough.

“If this really is a copy of Pulp Fiction, then how much would you take for it if it were for sale?” I asked, all the while leaning back and staying just out of range of the vendor’s extended hand. He supposedly wanted it back, after all. And his act was very believable, trust me.

I won’t recount the whole conversation—mostly because I don’t remember it all—but the final result was that I purchased the film for roughly $50 and rushed home to check it out a short time later.

What the vendor told me was true—it was Pulp Fiction and seemed to be filmed in a small cinema or screening room. Unfortunately, it’s what he didn’t tell me that completed the scam… and made me a sucker.

John and Bruce on set - Miramax - A Band Apart

Travolta and Willis joke around on set (A Band Apart/Miramax)

The movie was apparently filmed by someone with a video camera seated in the back of the room. And since HD and high-quality digital images didn’t exist back then—at least not for commoners like me—the picture quality was horrible. At times I could make out facial features or set details, but most of the movie was grainy and dark. Amorphous blobs replaced the actors in most of the scenes. And although I could make out most of the dialogue and music, the truth is that I didn’t really see Pulp Fiction; I just got a sense of it.

To use a rather disgusting analogy, the experience was like smelling a fart and recognizing exactly what the gassy perpetrator had for dinner. Instead of enjoying a delicious meal, I only caught a whiff. And man, was I disappointed.

Fortunately, October finally arrived and Pulp Fiction hit theaters, so I immediately made plans to see it. My real first time seeing the film was in a small, artsy theater that still served beer in paper cups. I went with a few friends, entered a room filled almost exclusively with other movie buffs and actually got to hear every word of dialogue that was spoken on the screen.

One of the reasons I avoid the theater now is that people never shut their mouths—or shut off their cell phones—and I end up missing half the movie. I just wait for films to appear on iTunes or Netflix—or pick up the DVD if it’s something I want to keep. Sorry, movie theaters, but your days are definitely numbered.

Since its release, I have seen Pulp Fiction hundreds of times and could probably come close to reproducing the screenplay from memory. I even developed an interest in that for which the movie is named: pulp magazines.

For those of you unfamiliar with the genre, pulp magazines were popular during the early to mid-20th century and often involved sharp dialogue, graphic violence and adult situations. The name was derived from the cheap wood pulp paper on which they were printed. And since they were cheaper than magazines printed on high-quality paper—the so-called glossies and slicks—pulp magazines quickly grew in popularity.

Jack Rabbit Slims - Miramax - A Band Apart

Uma Thurman and John Travolta (A Band Apart/Miramax)

With titles like Weird Tales, Adventure and Amazing Stories, “pulp fiction” magazines stretched the imagination of their readers and introduced them to different—often darker—worlds. They also hired writers who would eventually become famous and respected in the literary world—and their names are very recognizable: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Rudyard Kipling, Louis L’Amour, Elmore Leonard, H.P. Lovecraft, Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Agatha Christie, Arthur C. Clarke, Joseph Conrad, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zane Grey, Upton Sinclair, H.G. Wells and even Mark Twain!

In other words, pulp magazines were cool, man. And their covers were pretty kick ass, too. Here’s a little visual tribute to the genre—the perfect end to today’s post. Enjoy!

Posted on November 2, 2013, in Perspectives, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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