30 Years at the Movies, Part 3

30 Years at the Movies, Part 3

Posted by Sean Stangland on Tue, 01/27/2009 - 18:57

"Pulp Fiction"
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary
Released Oct. 14, 1994

I was 15 when "Pulp Fiction" came out, and I never had good luck with movie theater employees. The first time I tried to see the movie at the old General Cinemas at Randhurst, I was denied entry. I needed to see this. Everything I read or heard about it told me as much. I bought the soundtrack CD before I had even seen the film -- I just wanted the tiniest piece of the experience to hold on to.

Eventually, my mother agreed to drive me to Ridge Cinemas in Arlington Heights and buy me my ticket. That worked. The ticket-taker didn't think twice about letting me in. I sat toward the front, hoping none of the other patrons would see me and think, "What's that little kid doing in this R-rated movie?" My heart was pounding, both from committing the tiniest of crimes (which isn't even a crime at all), and from the anticipation. From what I heard, I was about to witness the most violent, profane, hilarious, unique, challenging movie I had ever seen. I read in Premiere that people were fainting -- actually fainting! -- during a scene involving Uma Thurman and a needle. I heard something about Bruce Willis and a samurai sword, and a leather-clad character named The Gimp. I heard something about a guy's head getting blown off accidentally. And of course I learned from Gene and Roger that it had extremely well-written dialogue.

The movie was downright intoxicating. From that first viewing, I vividly remember the scene of Vincent Vega shooting up and driving to pick up Mia Wallace. The close-ups of the needle were startling, and the Centurions' huge surf guitars sounded godlike in that auditorium. (I swear movie theaters had much better sound systems in the '90s than they do now. These days, all movies sound like explosions at the treble factory.) The scene with The Gimp was horrifying. The "Bonnie Situation" was one of the funniest things I had ever seen. And I felt so smart for figuring out that Bruce Willis' girlfriend was trying to tell him she wanted to have a child.

I came out of that first screening thinking it was the Best. Movie. Ever. (These days, I'd probably call it the sixth-best movie ever. Or something like that. I do remember saying, in the summer of 1996, that "Independence Day" was better. But hey, I was young and stupid.)

I would see "Pulp Fiction" twice more at the theater, once with Mom and once with Dad and my sister Lisa. That second time, we saw "Pulp Fiction" in the afternoon, picked up my grandmother at O'Hare early in the evening, then took in a late show of "The Shawshank Redemption" at the now-defunct Rolling Meadows theater. That's a good day at the movies. My Dad laughed hard and often at the film, which pleased me -- I was right! It really was that good! When the phrase sewn on Jules' wallet was revealed, I thought we were gonna have to carry Dad out on a stretcher.

The following year we had started renting from the Family Video on Rand Road near Camp McDonald Road, and we were pretty friendly with all the people who worked there. So friendly that we dared to ask if they could request a screener copy of "Pulp Fiction" from the studio and let us watch it -- and so they did. I got a lot of mileage out of that screener -- "Hey, wanna see 'Pulp Fiction' even though it doesn't come out on tape for another three months?" Getting studio screeners is one of the best reasons to work at a video store. When I worked at Suncoast Motion Picture Company at Randhurst, I was able to dazzle my friends with copies of "Fight Club" and "Magnolia." But I digress.

I regarded "Pulp Fiction" as the first real film that truly excited me. Until then, I was all about "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" and Indiana Jones and Ferris Bueller and what have you. "Pulp Fiction" was the turning point where I started to pay attention to directors and directing, the point where I became a true film buff.

Today, we take "Pulp Fiction" for granted. It launched a string of imitators -- the trend was no longer to make "Die Hard on a Boat" or "Die Hard on a Bus," but to make Tarantino-esque crime films. It also relaunched the career of John Travolta, who became the hottest ticket in Hollywood in the mid-'90s. (Then he had to ruin everything with "Battlefield Earth.") For Travolta, "Pulp Fiction" led to "Get Shorty," a film I will almost certainly be writing about in this series at some point. For Tarantino, letdown would be inevitable his next time around. "Jackie Brown" was a downright fabulous film, but a lot of people didn't want their crime epic weighed down by a love story between an aging criminal and her bail-bondsman, and it was viewed as a dud by far too many. When QT finally returned six years later, he seemed to be answering "Jackie's" critics with all guns blazing -- is there a mainstream Hollywood movie more violent, profane or adventurous than "Kill Bill"?

There are many people who have only seen "Pulp Fiction" in the horribly edited version that airs on Bravo and network TV. If you've only seen it this way, please rent the DVD -- it's a completely different experience. (Plus, the 2-disc DVD has that most rare of extras: deleted scenes that are actually good.)

Maturing as a filmgoer has taught me Tarantino doesn't have too many original ideas in that giant melon of his -- but no one can match him for sheer technique. All of his work has uncommon urgency and life, from the opening titles to the final credit. His next film is the WWII epic "Inglourious Basterds" (his spelling, not mine), and I can't wait to see what QT can bring to a genre new to him.

But I'm pretty sure it won't top "Pulp Fiction."

• • •

Previous entries in this series:
"The Fifth Element"
"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"

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