Last month PJ Media’s Washington, D.C., editor, Bridget Johnson, served up another tasty helping of Gen X ’90s nostalgia with “10 Reasons Why Pulp Fiction Is Still Cooler Than a $5 Milkshake.”
Bridget and I may be a decade apart but we still shared most of the same pop culture. Just from different angles.
To make my case I first present three of Pulp’s flaws that should inspire the film’s cultists to question their loyalty to this false god. Then I’ll present 5 reasons why you should instead join my pop culture cult of Jackie Brown worship, as the true divine revelation from the Cinema Prophet Quentin Tarantino.
3. Only A Handful of the Characters Are Likable.
The factor that gets me watching films more than once? I want to visit old friends. Give me characters I’d actually want to spend time with for a few hours.
Of Pulp‘s shining cast of characters (Wikipedia picks 12) there’s only 3 that I’d ever want to have a beer with:
- Samuel L. Jackson as Jules Winnfield
- Harvey Keitel as The Wolf. Bridget nailed it:
The Wolf is like the Yoda of Pulp Fiction — all wise and commanding respect. Plus, we’re in awe of his seemingly magical ability to get through San Fernando Valley traffic as quickly as he does. “It’s 30 minutes away. I’ll be there in 10.”
- Christopher Walken as Captain Koons
Every other character in the film is either too annoying, whiny, immature, or evil to earn our sympathy. Am I the only one who can’t stand the spoiled cokehead Mia Wallace? Uma Thurman is one of her generation’s greatest actresses but she didn’t have a role from QT worthy of her talent until Kill Bill. (And even then, for as much fun as Kill Bill is, it’s still just an action movie. They could do better. I expect them to.)
If one of those three characters isn’t in the scene (and a weapon is not being selected) then at this point I’ve seen Pulp enough times that I’ll just fast forward to my favorite parts. Almost as though the film were a bag of skittles and now the reds are the only ones worth eating.
2. The Film Relies on Its Gimmicky, Jump-Around-In-Time Structure.
Pulp Fiction is more an assembly of cultural products than a seamless whole. Bridget’s list pointing out her favorite pieces of the puzzle reveals its nature as the successful experiment or developing artist, rather than a mature work.
And the glue that holds it all together is Tarantino’s gimmick of the fractured narrative. (Nobody would be talking about Pulp Fiction today if its stories were told chronologically.) The three main stories of Pulp and its framing diner sequence cannot stand on their own. That’s not the case with all films done in this style. QT friend and collaborator Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City works both as a Pulp-structure film and as stand-alone stories. (Perhaps because he started with such strong source material?)
QT got lucky in how well his pieces fit together. But there was one that someone should’ve pushed him to rewrite in his original script…
1. There’s Really No Need for The Film’s Casual Racism. It’s Just Creepy and Adds Nothing.
There could have been some reason relevant to the story for why the character of Jimmy (played by QT himself) had to scream the N-word in a demeaning way at Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winfield. But there isn’t.
In both Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, many of the criminal characters use racist language and say racist things. Why? How is Reservoir Dogs a better film when we discover that most of the main characters are racists?
And, no. I don’t buy QT’s lame excuses.
This particular scene in Pulp Fiction is especially disturbing when seen beyond the confines of the characters in the story. The fact that it’s Tarantino himself and that his character is humiliating Jackson’s character makes one feel uncomfortable. Why is it that seemingly the only scene where Jules gets demasculated, his talk-down comes from the film’s writer/director?
I’m glad that these early attempts at “realism” in Tarantino’s work haven’t manifested since this ugly misfire of a scene.
5. An Homage to Blaxploitation Better Than the Original Genre.
When I was in my film-obsessive phase in high school and college — during my years working at an arthouse theatre — I explored the blaxploitation genre after falling head over heels for Pam Grier in Jackie Brown. Shaft, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Coffy, The Mack, Foxy Brown — I guess you really had to be a teenager discovering this stuff in the ’70s to appreciate it. Jackie Brown takes the style and spirit of the genre but gives it class, depth, and artistry.
4. Everything That’s Good About Pulp — Just More of It!
- More of Samuel L. Jackson as the smooth talking, ultra-cool criminal. Ordell Robbie is just a relaxed, evil, non-spiritual Jules Winnfield who receives much more screen time and has a less irritating sidekick.
- More of the casual, laid-back conversation sequences. The reason people like Pulp Fiction is because of the sequences between the plot points. The “royale with cheese” and “foot massage” discussions and such. They liked seeing what criminals chat about in between kills. The quantity of these in Jackie Brown is much higher.
- Jackie Brown‘s selection of ’70s songs packs as much punch as Pulp. The opening track, Bobby Womack’s “110th Street”? I could have it on repeat all day.
3. It’s A Mature Film that Doesn’t Rely on Shock and Gimmickry.
Jackie Brown is not just a collection of spare parts QT collected while manning the counter at Video Archives. It’s a full narrative that folds out gradually over two and a half hours.
Is anyone surprised that Tarantino’s best work is one based on someone else’s story and characters? He took the plot and characters of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch as his skeleton, applied a Pulp Fiction skin in dialogue and style, and then the actors brought the heart and guts.
2. A Subtle, Elegant Romance Buried in a Crime Thriller.
The understated relationship between Jackie and her quiet co-conspirator, the bail bondsman Max Cherry, is the most satisfying of any Tarantino film. Who else even competes?
1. Pam Grier as Jackie Brown is One of the Best Characters of ’90s Cinema. And Still Tarantino’s Greatest Female Hero — Better than the Larger-Than-Life Bride of Kill Bill.
In my initial grievance against Pulp, I pointed out the film lacked likable characters. Jackie Brown is the opposite. Of the dozen or so speaking roles, almost everyone charms, even the occasionally irritating Bridget Fonda as Melanie.
But Pam Grier as Jackie Brown herself shines as the brightest star of them all. Unlike the cartoon character warrior goddess of Kill Bill, Jackie rises from the bottom to the top by her wits, not a magic sword. She hatches the plan, she charms and schemes to execute it, and then she triumphs.
Perhaps soon we’ll have another hero at this level from Tarantino?
His next film, Django Unchained, opens December 25 and stars Jamie Foxx:
Django Unchained is set in the Deep South, and follows Django (Foxx), a freed slave who treks across America with Dr. King Schultz (Waltz), a German dentist turned bounty hunter. Together, they try to retrieve Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the charming but sadistic Francophile plantation owner Calvin Candie (DiCaprio) and his band of ruthless slavers.