35mm – Cubby Broccoli Theatre – Widescreen Weekend – National Science & Media Museum, Bradford, UK – 12th October 2019
Thank you again, Bex, for your gracious introductions. Welcome back, if you were here in the Cubby Broccoli just now for that fantastic print of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and if you’ve just joined us a simple “welcome.” Whenever you joined us please join me for a moment in thanking the projection team across the three booths for whom this is always a complicated day. How about we give it up for the projection team?
As a curator known for her work on American directors of the 70s, 80s and 90s I suppose it was pre-determined that at some point I would find myself introducing Pulp Fiction, a turning point in American cinema and the spawner of a thousand imitators, considered by many to be the defining film of the 1990s. And that’s okay by me. I’m just like a little Fonzie. And what’s Fonzie?
Back in 1994 I was a theatre arts student at the University of Kent in Canterbury, where I undertook a four year Bachelors degree that encompassed part academic study, Aeschylus, Chekov, bit of John Osborne and such, but largely practical experience ranging from playwriting, to stage management to lighting design to production management culminating in a full year of specialisation which, for me, was directing. I had a run on American drama, as one might imagine from my film programming. In a vintage TV special available on the Pulp Fiction blu-ray Gene Siskel compares the dialogue of Tarantino to that of David Mamet; a language so acute it appears to be naturalistic but is highly stylised with very specific mannerisms. This is an important observation. By 1991 audiences were tired of late ‘80s Hollywood product, which had become increasingly formulaic and outdated in a lot of its values. Snappy, intelligent dialogue was currency in Tinseltown. Mamet’s masterpiece Homicide was nominated for the Palme D’Or that year, losing to Barton Fink. Three years later Pulp Fiction won the treasured golden palm, and the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay was among its other accolades.
In October ‘94 I was lighting a production of Glengarry Glen Ross, as was essential for any drama student. As productions now might spring up of Ridley Scott’s Alien, back then a university in Ireland staged a theatrical adaption of Tarantino’s Sundance calling card Reservoir Dogs. His dialogue and efficiency of mise-en-scene fit theatre like a glove and informed a new perception of the rhythms of the American language. Many of Pulp Fiction’s cast, including Samuel L. Jackson and Tim Roth compare working on Pulp Fiction to their best experiences on the stage.
Tarantino was, according to Siskel and Ebert, the world’s first rock star director and they cautioned him to concentrate on writing and directing, rather than talk show appearances and attempts to be a character actor. But the world was Tarantino crazy. I’m not going to lie, while Reservoir Dogs posters adorned many student bedrooms, I personally had True Romance and Natural Born Killers right next to each other. NBK was being held back seemingly indefinitely by Warner Bros and the British Board of Film Classification due to controversy over its violence but it also had a killer soundtrack already on release. True Romance was at the same time having its video certificate delayed, as did Dogs, and had already suffered huge cuts by the Motion Picture Association of America. 25 years later that same True Romance poster is hanging on my living room wall.
After a decade attempting to crack the industry the film geek to end all film geeks had broken up some of his stories from the unfinished script Open Road, written with Roger Avery in 1987, that forms the centre of the Tarantino universe. True Romance director Tony Scott had met Tarantino via his girlfriend’s acting class and was one of several mentors through the selling of True Romance and NBK to Warner Bros for whom Scott directed one, rearranging it into a linear narrative that Tarantino ultimately accepted, and Oliver Stone turning the other into a surrealist frenzy of corporation hating agit-prop that Tarantino disowned. After meeting producer Lawrence Bender at a party around the turn of the decade, an event engineered by mutual friends, Tarantino made a deal and wrote Reservoir Dogs by hand in three weeks. Following in the footsteps of the Godfather of ‘90s indie, Richard Linklater, Tarantino’s bold new cinematic world was unleashed at Sundance. Also taking Linklater’s lead, Kevin Smith would soon make a movie on his credit card and add a parallel ViewAskewniverse to the increasingly powerful Miramax stable.
Despite the festival accolades, as an independent film Pulp Fiction still had to pay its dues in the UK. With it unavailable in Canterbury for several weeks I seized the first weekend I wasn’t on a show to pilgrim up to Nottingham where I enjoyed a packed screening in the decidedly not huge Odeon 4. I went with my best friend, who I had taken to see True Romance the year before when he wasn’t old enough, as I don’t think he was for this. They were formative experiences for him, and we bonded over our knowledge that it’s better to have a best friend and not need one than to need a best friend and not have one. As with Reservoir Dogs, True Romance and NBK before it, the Pulp Fiction soundtrack went on repeat across student accommodation and beyond until Trainspotting came out, the hippest ‘90s flick from this side of the Atlantic. Pretty soon El Mariachi director Robert Rodriguez got involved and the rest, as they say, is a tasty burger.
Full disclosure time. If any of you were here in April 2018 you’ll remember that I stood on this very spot in this very cinema introducing a 35mm print of True Romance claiming loudly that the finest film of widescreen master Tony Scott (Rest In Peace) was the best movie with the name Quentin Tarantino attached to it. That may be fighting talk, but it got a big round of applause. True Romance is one of the few films you can guarantee an audience for, but then so is Pulp Fiction. And when I say what I said I kinda mean it and I kinda don’t. What, after all, is there in recent film history that compares to Tarantino’s hijacking of popular culture? His technique remains deceptive. He takes genre films and shows you the conversations you don’t hear. The hitmen talking about Big Macs in France on their way to work. Christopher Walken’s career notably benefitted from two lengthy Tarantino monologues, and both are classic scenes. His entire modus operandi is to delay action as long as possible and carry out a dialogue driven heist on your attention, a device so evident in his recent magnum opus Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.
Pulp Fiction is credited, slightly falsely, with resurrecting the career of John Travolta. As Tim Roth says, Travolta was doing fine with the Look Who’s Talking franchise but what Tarantino did was give him a role that really required him to act. Is it by chance that Pulp Fiction is to the 1990s, in terms of cultural impact, what Saturday Night Fever was to the 1970s? The director of Fever, John Badham, still directs TV but teaches at the respected Dodge Film School in Southern California. His book I’ll Be In My Trailer focuses on communicating with actors and what it means to be an “actors’ director.” But Badham also writes on how best to make the most of your time on set, which he stresses is rehearsal. Would the striking Googie-style set designs, the elaborate shots and meticulous performances in the Jack Rabbit Slim’s sequence be as well executed and captured had director of photography Andrzej Sekula not been present throughout the rare 10-day rehearsal period, blocking the shots and working through problems ahead of time. Could Pulp Fiction, which became the first “indie” film to take over 100 million dollars, have been made on $8 million without ensuring not a moment was wasted during the shoot? Arguably not. Tony Scott was from another school, one that shoots thousands and thousands of feet of film and works it out in the edit, and in some of his films that shows. Pulp Fiction, like True Romance, remains lean and mean in every department.
We’re screening Pulp Fiction as part of the Women in Widescreen strand and critics still observe that Tarantino writes strong female roles. Uma Thurman’s performance as Mia Wallace is part of the film’s iconography. I defy anyone not to laugh at Amanda Plummer’s devastating diner line. I must also acknowledge Rosanna Arquette, Maria de Madeiros and The Commitments’ Bronagh Gallagher. But I want to end with a shout out to a friend of mine in Hollywood, Angela Jones, who plays taxi driver Esmerelda Villa Lobos. After leaving drama school Angela appeared as a similar character in a short student film. Tarantino saw the short and asked if he could appropriate and rework her character for Pulp Fiction. I talked with Angela back in April over my kitchen table just off Laurel Canyon and Sunset Boulevard about her experience on the film. Her scene was shot in one day, and I’m advised that Bruce was a gentleman and a professional throughout. Asked what direction she was given by QT she replied that he’d pretty much just told her to “do her thing”, he was that confident of her character. The feature version of the short film, Curdled, was executive produced by Tarantino and released in 1996. Very much part of the universe there’s lots for fans in it, including sight of Tarantino with Brother Clooney in their roles from the Rodriguez directed From Dusk Til Dawn.
Well, Pulp Fiction lovers, we got all kinds of Tarantino here. Gangsters, dealers, rednecks, boxers, cab drivers, gimps and feet! When I asked Angela what she thought attracted QT to her Curdled character she gave me the answer pretty matter of fact: “My feet sliding around in blood”. And on that perfect note, Widescreen Weekenders, we draw this Celluloid Saturday to a close. I’ve been the Celluloid Sorceress, and this is the one and only Pulp Fiction.