Time to address the elephant in the room. It’s been quietly sitting in the corner for the last seven months, but today it is begging me for attention.
Say the words “Pulp Fiction” to most adults in America and they won’t think about Robert Howard, Tarzan, the Cthulhu Mythos, or The Maltese Falcon. For a large portion of the American consumer public “Pulp Fiction” means one thing – the 1994 film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Hell, when you Google the phrase, the first three pages of results are about the film. It’s not until about halfway down the fourth page that something else pops into the mix.
Pulp Fiction is not Tarantino’s entry into film, but it is the work that pushed him out into the public eye. The title begs the question: Is Pulp Fiction pulp fiction? Yes, most definitely. And why not? It’s an interlaced film of overlapping narratives that tell the stories of low-level hitmen, uncomfortable hunks of metal, down-and-out boxers, drug overdoses, and dead body storage and disposal. Tarantino has embraced the cheap paper stories of broken-down degenerate societies, murderers and conmen, gun molls and tawdry sex, and turned out a work that still has viewers asking “What’s in the suitcase?”
The inability to definitively answer that question, it seems, bugs viewers as much as, or more than, the end of The Sopranos. But the MacGuffin isn’t the point, any more than the Maltese Falcon is the point of its titular story. The point is that we get two complete narratives scattered among a smorgasbord of vignettes. In one a hitman decides to give up a life of murder-for-hire after miraculously surviving a shooting unscathed. In the other an old boxer fed up with throwing fights gets out of the fixed boxing game with a treasured heirloom and a girlfriend. All the rest of the film–the drug overdoses, the accidental shooting, the botched restaurant robbery, the weird sexual depravity–all serve as supporting notes to the two straight storylines. Broken out like that, the narratives are stories of redemption for unsavory characters, but since their tales are shown out of sequence, the overall effect doesn’t match that simplistic reading.
Tarantino has said that the film was his attempt to do a modern day version of an issue of Black Mask, the old detective serial magazine. He also wanted to pay homage to his numerous personal heroes and influences, people like Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone, Elmore Leonard, Jean-Luc Godard, and Roger Corman. Some of those influences are more obvious, such as in the snappy dialogue (Leonard), over-the-top action (Corman), action-tinged humor (Leone), and use of in-world music (Godard). He has continued to expand those homages over the years with follow-on films like Kill Bill, Grindhouse (Death Proof), and The Hateful Eight.
Pulp Fiction is rightly held up as a critical darling, including an Academy Award for screenplay and the Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival. It’s not my favorite film of his (that would be Reservoir Dogs), but I can see why it still stands out for most people, even after Tarantino went on to produce the even higher grossing films Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. The richly complex, but strikingly simple, narrative mixed with uproariously funny bits of dialogue and some truly fantastic acting all gel together to make for an extraordinary film.
I’m sure I’m pretty much preaching to the choir in recommending Pulp Fiction to readers of pulp fiction, but if you somehow managed to skip past this film, you need to remedy that.
 For the record, I think Tony Soprano dies, and I don’t care at all what’s in the briefcase.