BFI Classics: Pulp Fiction

Author: Dana Polan

On its release in 1994 Pulp Fiction was something of a phenomenon. Dana Polan’s addition to the BFI Modern Classics series analyses why it was such a success that garnered so much attention and to a lesser degree still does. It starts by exploring that phenomenon and goes into, and continues to do so throughout the book as to how many websites and books are dedicated to Quentin Tarantino, about how repetitive most of them can be (less his own study of course) and filled with typos. He also at some point makes comparisons with Orson Welles and the attention that he received following the early successes of such films as Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Like all things connected with Tarantino, the wunderkind filmmaker and writer this may be contentious to many. The success of Tarantino of course followed on the back of Reservoir Dogs (1991) which as a violent action film broke the mould with Pulp Fiction coming hot on the tails of that film.


But it is its continual references to popular culture as well as the complex plot that were the keys to its success; whole websites were dedicated to deciphering the plot and the characters places within that plot; as Polan says “you either get those references or you don’t”. One particular case in point is when hit man Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) calls one of the youngster’s who’ve stolen their boss’s briefcase “Flock of Seagulls” – again, you either get the joke or you don’t. Throughout the film Tarantino daringly takes liberties with cinematic convention and Polan continually refers back to popular culture and how it is used within that context. To anyone who has liked this film and watched it on many occasions as I have we don’t learn much that is new with much of the dialogue and action having entered popular lore. But sometimes details do pop up – particularly those nerdy with the pause button on their DVD player such as when Vince (John Travolta) arrives in a panic stricken state with his boss’s overdosing wife Mia (Uma Thurman) at his drug dealer’s (played by Eric Stoltz) suburban house where there little in-jokes scattered around the living room littered with ordinary things such as the board games Operation and Game of Life. In this sense it is a geeks movie – Tarantino himself is a self confessed geek who loves to watch all sorts of films, from the classics to the obscure and seems to have fun and runs with it. Again Polan is not shy to point these out. He also delves into the racial controversies of the film, something that Jackson also felt at times a little uncomfortable with, particularly with Tarantino’s character’s uses of the word “nigger” when he ends up with the dead body of a black kid that Vince and Jules have accidentally shot and have landed on suburbanite Tarantino (re: “dead nigga storage”).

Yet it is unarguably correct that Pulp Fiction should find itself in this series of BFI Modern Classics and deserves the recognition that Polan gives Tarantino’s film, placing him as one of the undeniable denizens of Postmodern cinema – a label he may or may not embrace but never the less is appropriate. The characters in this film, as with his other films seem to live in a parallel universe with their own law of the jungle and their own rules as does Tarantino himself.

Chris Hick

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