To go back to the beginning, Quentin Tarantino’s first movie, Reservoir Dogs, revived an old-chestnut plot: six misfits plan a heist, but their scheme breaks down and fate rushes them to an early violent death. This premise had been worked up a dozen times before in French and American film noirs, like Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. The earlier versions obeyed a ruthlessly tight, naive purity of form, with the actors saying the fewest lines possible, and every gesture blown up to be desperate and grand. Tarantino’s characters, in contrast, drove around Los Angeles, nodding to 1970s songs on the radio and delivering monologues. Tarantino, aware that the old story was fondly remembered but drained of life, told it out of order and sprinkled in shallow ironies—on their way to Hell the characters took time out to talk about whether or not to tip a waitress. Often their ramblings seemed to be about the old themes of brotherhood and loyalty, but really they were showcases for Tarantino’s skill at writing dialogue.
Pulp Fiction, on the other hand, turned out to be full of surprises, and these days a genuine movie surprise is so rare that it feels like a gift. After I saw Tarantino’s movie a second time, I began to understand why his arrival has been such an event—why, six months after Pulp Fiction came out, people are still recalling their favorite scenes, still figuring out allusions, and, in some cases, still arguing about it.
Tarantino has maneuvered himself into a position in Hollywood where he can do pretty much whatever he wants. But unlike most of the star directors we’ve had since the 1970s, he doesn’t see himself, thank God, as any kind of messenger—not for art, or the hopelessness of twenty-five-year-olds, or exposing a cover-up. (Tarantino put his finger on this in an interview, when he called Oliver Stone, whose purple adaptation of Tarantino’s script Natural Born Killers he claims never to have seen, the Stanley Kramer of our time.) More important, he is shrewd. He seems to think the way the audience thinks, and to have grasped how sick we are of seeing through every limp scenario in two minutes. He understands that the studios can’t predict what will strike a nerve right now, which frees him from the crippling worry that he will become a hack. A self-starter with energy and half an idea has a shot at getting things done his way.
And there is an idea in Pulp Fiction—or, actually, something harder to come by than an idea. Much more decisively than in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino has tossed out the baggy, inauthentic exposition that pads the standard Hollywood movie. The typical form of a movie, encouraged by dozens of manuals for aspiring screen-writers, is an insipid, mechanical three-act structure. It begins with a “set-up”: there is office prattle early on, say, to establish the lead…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.