Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Paradox of 'Pulp Fiction'

Vincent (John Travolta): And you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?

Jules (Samuel L. Jackson): They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?

Vincent: No, man, they got the metric system. They wouldn't know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.

Jules: Then what do they call it?

Vincent: They call it a Royale with Cheese.

Jules: A Royale with Cheese. What do they call a Big Mac?

Vincent: Well, a Big Mac's a Big Mac, but they call it le Big Mac.

Jules: Le Big Mac. Ha ha ha ha. What do they call a Whopper?

Vincent: I dunno, I didn't go into Burger King.

I don't know precisely when I got wise to the fact that, if I was going to watch a Quentin Tarantino movie, I had to be prepared for the likelihood that the story would not be told chronologically.

And sometimes he throws in stuff that has no real meaning to the story. Just to make sure you're paying attention, I suppose.

Roger Ebert really liked the dialogue in "Pulp Fiction," which premiered 20 years ago today. So did I — and for pretty much the same reason. Ebert just expressed it better than I could.

"Dialogue drives Quentin Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction,'" he wrote, "dialogue of such high quality it deserves comparison with other masters of spare, hard–boiled prose, from Raymond Chandler to Elmore Leonard. Like them, QT finds a way to make the words humorous without ever seeming to ask for a laugh. Like them, he combines utilitarian prose with flights of rough poetry and wicked fancy."

That is the intriguing paradox of "Pulp Fiction," isn't it? A movie that is, ostensibly, about action is, as Ebert put it, driven by dialogue.

The conversation between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson about Quarter Pounders and what they are called in France is my favorite example. Ebert cites his own, which is just as valid. There are many examples in "Pulp Fiction." The dialogue really is what makes the movie work.

It could have clashed with Tarantino's non–linear style of story telling, but it didn't because, as Ebert wrote, his was a utilitarian prose. There was purpose in each thing that was said, even if it wasn't readily apparent. And when the movie was over, the viewer felt as if he/she had been told the whole story and understood it as if it had been told in a more traditionally linear fashion.

The story began and ended with the same holdup in the same restaurant pulled off by Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer. By the time the robbery was seen for a second time, everything had fallen into place.

It was the dialogue that made the movie the black comedy that it was. I guess that is always the case, but the subject matter in this movie was really pretty brutal. If the words prompted laughter "without ever seeming to ask for a laugh" — and they often did — that is why it is remembered as a great black comedy.

Of course, there was more of a purpose to the dialogue, as Ebert observed. "[T]here is a chronology in the dialogue," Ebert wrote, "in the sense that what is said before invariably sets up or enriches what comes after." In other words, the dialogue provided a context.

It was the movie that resurrected Travolta's career. He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor (but lost to Tom Hanks for "Forrest Gump") and was in some pretty good movies in the years that immediately followed "Pulp Fiction," but his career seems to have slipped from the radar again.

Seems to me I could almost say the same thing about Uma Thurman, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress (but lost to Dianne Wiest in "Bullets Over Broadway"). She's made some noteworthy movies in the last 20 years — the "Kill Bill" movies come to mind — but she has mostly dropped out of sight lately, too.

In all, "Pulp Fiction" received seven Oscar nominations and won for Best Original Screenplay.

"It's all in the dialogue," Ebert wrote, and I really have to agree. Tarantino richly deserved the Oscar he shared with Roger Avary for the original screenplay — and he also deserved his nomination for Best Director.