November 11th, 1999

Pulp Fiction

It’s not that it’s excessively violent. The bodycount of the average blockbuster far exceeds Pulp Fiction’s. It’s not the gratuitous use of of the “N” word, odious as the relish is with which Tarantino delivers the “Dead nigger in the garage” speech. If Samuel L Jackson says it’s okay, then it’s okay. He is, after all, as Quentin would say, a nigger. It’s not even that it’s a bad movie. If it were an incompetently made movie there’d be no problem, much as if Brian May were an incompetent guitarist, he’d be no problem – ie we’d never have heard a note from him, he’d be lecturing in obscurity in engineering at Loughborough University, ironing his chords on Sundays.

The problem with Pulp Fiction is that it’s Cool, in the pernicious, Johnny Vaughn-ish ‘How cool is that? sense of cool. Once, Cool was to do with countercultural leanings, questioning the culture and conventions of your parents and campaigning against war, forging a newer and better identity that dispensed with the habitual fust of yesteryear. Pulp Fiction signifies how all that’s turned around. It’s about the over-the-counter culture of burgers and fries to go, about doing what you’re told to do (so when Eric Stolz’s dealer says “Coke is dead . . . heroin is back,” life obediently imitated art and heroin came back). It’s about listening to the music of your parents (from Neil Diamond to Kool & The Gang, both on the soundtrack here) and fetishising guns. Cool.

Cool – that’s what’s at stake in Pulp Fiction. The words “Are we cool?” are a refrain throughout the movie. It’s also the question that preys on its Nineties audience, for whom Cool has become a pitiful ultimate, a thing in itself, beyond good and evil. We should all want to carry ourselves with the insouciant, self-absorbed, self-contained swagger of Keitel’s Wolf, Travolta’s Vega or Thurman’s Mia. The way the camera trains on and trails after them certainly urges us that we should. We’d all like to possess the sangfroid of Samuel L Jackson’s Jules, able to bandy thoughts on the Old Testament and fast food prior to blasting some gibbering, less Cool wretches of the demi monde to death. Cool is the grail in Pulp Fiction. When Willis’s Butch extricates himself from the rape basement, having taken his time to select the Coolest weapon of revenge, he’s rewarded with a super Cool motorbike. Strangely, Vincent Vega seems to be “punished” more when, like Jules, he’s made to dress in an uncool t-shirt than when he’s blown away by Butch, an event so placed in the time sequence it’s as if he comes back to life in the second half anyway.

Pulp Fiction doesn’t engage you but bars you from its world like a purple rope outside a nightclub. We couldn’t possibly enter this world of retro-chic and amoral don’t-give-a-shit wit because it only exists in Tarantino’s mind. Ironic, really, that Tarantino is so uncool himself, a geek with a near-autistic obsession with cinema – also, that when you snap out of the hype-nosis, you realise that the two main protagonists, Travolta, fat and overgreased and Jackson, a silly-haired parody of Tarantino’s archaic superfly notions of blackness, don’t actually look that Cool at all.

Pulp Fiction isn’t renegade cinema but a post-modern, post-moral neon shrine to all of the hip non-values of Planet Hollywood. It’s as bereft of a “centre” as the LA in which it’s set. Its circular structure is cute but indicative of the fact that we haven’t been on a dramatic journey here, merely a carousel ride that brings us back to where we began. The only acts of honour are among thieves – Butch rescues Marsellus so that they can be “cool”, Jules lets Tim Roth’s Pumpkin take his wallet out of respect to a fellow, albeit less Cool criminal. At its heart, the move consists of nothing, the nothing Butch feels when he finds out he’s killed Floyd.

Contrast with Goodfellas, similar but vastly superior to Pulp Fiction. With Scorsese, there is always a genuine sense of souls in torment, a centre of reckoning all the characters swirl in towards. Goodfellas is the real meat, bloody as hell – Pulp Fiction is a mere Royale with cheese. Cool indeed. But no warmth, no fire.

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