Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Pulp Fiction.

At the Robert Burns Centre Film Theatre Film Club an extremely privileged audience spent two and half hours in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘cool universe’. A place that is hard and fast, funny, stylish and filled deliberately with some clever references to other cinematic works. We were watching a film that veers back and forth between humour and violence, a film where your never sure if you should be laughing or cringing. Monday night’s big screen showing of one of my own personal top three films of all time:  Pulp Fiction (1994) is a film that defined American cinema in the 90’s. A piece of cinematic work that is central to its age, influencing many films that followed including our own British Film industry. Would films like Trainspotting (1996) or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) had been made without QT’s inspiration and would our own British postmodern film noir been so proficient. But far more importantly it influenced the financing of the America independent movie because up until that point it was almost impossible to get finance for anything outside of the Hollywood controlled film industry. It was because of this cross over from what could have remained an independent cult classic to a mainstream hit that really opened the door’s. Only one other filmmaker had received so much acclaim so early on in his career and that was another boy wonder Orson Wells. ‘Not since Citizen Kane has one man appeared from relative obscurity to redefine the art of filmmaking[1]

How did this 1994 American film noir directed by the young and brash Knoxville Tennessee born Quentin Tarantino, a movie known for it extensive and diverting dialogue, ironic mix of humour and violence, nonlinear storyline and a host of cinematic and pop culture references, originally come to fruition?

Honey Bunny and Pumpkin enjoy a quite cup of coffee.
In 1992, after the breakthrough success of his debut film, Reservoir Dogs (1992), Tarantino went to Amsterdam to write a script for his next film. Originally Reservoir Dogs seems to have been part of the script idea for Pulp Fiction but it had become a full story in its own right. Some of the ideas that went into the script came from friend Roger Avary (who had been a co-worker at the famous Video Archives store where Tarantino had worked and allegedly honed his love of the movies). Avary had written the segment that became Butch’s gold watch story, and he had expanded it into a feature film script called Pandemonium Reigns, but Tarantino brought back the script and it became a section of Pulp Fiction.

Once the script for the film was completed, Tarantino and his producer friend, Lawrence Bender, took it to Jersey Films, which had offered Tarantino close to a million dollars for a script. Tarantino and Benders Company, A Band Apart, (named after a Jean-Luc Godard film Bande a part 1964) had negotiated a deal with Jersey Films that involved an offer of initial financing plus office facilities in exchange for partnership in the film and permission to shop the script to a studio. Jersey took it to Columbia TriStar Films who decided not to produce it: the rumour is that the studio heads were bothered by the violence and scenes in which John Travolta character shoots up heroin. But according to the Los Angeles Times, TriStar apparently got cold feet and decided not to go forward with production because they feared it could be hard to market. The studio’s rejection of Pulp Fiction, an under $10 million movie, was explained away by a source at the studio who explained that TriStar was currently looking to make and release more higher profile, bigger-budgeted mainstream movies with ‘stars’ and at this point had little interest in more offbeat fare, even if the financial risks were lower.[2]

Mia Wallace and ....

........her husband Marsellus Wallace.

Fortunately, another company Miramax, which had bought the US distribution rights for Reservoir Dogs and made lots of money from that experience, agreed to finance the new film. In fact, it was the first movie that Miramax (which had recently become a Disney subsidiary) financed in its entirety. Tarantino was given the same scriptwriting fee that he had been promised at TriStar, and the film went in to an eight-week shoot with a budget of $8.5 million. The largest part of which went to building the Jack Rabbit Slim’s set (but some savings were made by having the production offices at the same site so as to cut down on transportation costs). Something else that also helped keep costs down was a plan that Lawrence Bender devised in which all the main actors were paid the same amount of money, rather than according to hierarchy of celebrity and importance, which is normally the case.

Butch Coolide doing what Butch Coolidge does best!

Incidentally some of the casting history is quite intriguing. For example, there was evidently some thought of giving the role of Vincent Vega (Travolta) to Michael Madsen, who played Vic Vega in Reservoir Dogs. There was also talk of Daniel Day-Lewis playing the part. Similarly, there was some competition for the character of co-hitman Jules Winnfield (Samuel L Jackson), with Laurence Fishburne testing for the role. A number of actresses were also suggested for the Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) character including Meg Ryan, Holly Hunter, Brigitte Nielsen and Rosanna Arquette who became Lances wife in the film (Vincent’s drug dealer). And a recurrent story has Pam Grier originally being considered for the role of Lances wife. (Who would go on to appear in Tarantino’s next feature film Jackie Brown 1997)

Jack Rabbit Slim's famous twist competition.

Production began on the 20th September 1993. In May 1994, Pulp Fiction had its premier at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Palme d’Ore, the Festivals top prize, from a jury presided over by Clint Eastwood. This success encouraged Miramax to give the film a big publicity push. Thereafter it was nominated for seven Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Travolta), Supporting Actor (Jackson) Supporting Actress (Thurman) Best Original Screenplay and Editing, it won Best Original Screenplay. Eventually taking over $213 million at the box office, that did not include DVD’s, published scripts and of course we must not forget the soundtrack which plays an integral part of the narrative, with QT we don’t get a composed film score instead we get an assortment of surf music, rock and roll, soul and pop songs.

Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield looking cool.

There was ambiguities over credits: at the Golden Globe Awards, for example, only Tarantino was named as best screenwriter, but at the Academy Awards, Tarantino and Avary shared the Oscar. The actual credits on the film state ‘Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Story by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary.”

To a certain extent the film is in fact politically correct. There is no nudity and no violence directed against women. There’s interracial friendship and cultural diversity, there are strong women and strong black men with QT swimming against class stereotypes,[3] although some critics took exception to the word nigger, which is something that’s also coursing problems with his latest movie Django Unchained (2012).

Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield looking decidedly uncool covered in Marvin's brains!

Following the screening of this intoxicating film a short discussion took place, subjects included how Tarantino revitalised the career of its leading man John Travolta, who went on to appear in many other award winning films, the narrative structure which is presented out of sequence forming, what some have referred to as a circular narrative and the films success and its legacy to the cinema.  I got the feeling that this discussion could have gone on all night, with perhaps a second screening late into the early hours, those were the days?

I would like to thank the RBC for programming this film. It gave some of the younger members of the audience a chance to see this movie for the first time and fans like myself, who have seen it many times, another opportunity to see it as it should be shown: on a big screen with a decent sound system.[4]

[1] Dawson 1995
[2] Los Angeles Times June 1993.
[3] Alan Stone. Boston Review 1995.
[4] I would like to thank Dana Polan whose reference work BFI Modern Classic was a great help in the research for my film introduction.

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