Pulp Fiction is a profanity-laden crime drama with drugs, sodomy, and exploding brains, but when it hit theaters in mid-October 1994, it was technically a Disney movie. After Disney acquired the independent film studio Miramax in 1993, Pulp Fiction was the first project to receive a greenlight. The 2010s would commence with Disney shuttering Miramax, then selling it as it shifted focus to more lucrative in-house brands with theme park and merchandise potential, like Pixar and Marvel. Now, we’re reaching the end of the decade and the end of a peak-geek year when, among other things, Disney has set a new studio box office record, with five of its tentpole features grossing over a billion dollars worldwide.

Meanwhile, at a ‘50s-themed restaurant in L.A. called Jack Rabbit Slim’s, two people dominate the dance floor. It’s a human moment, no special effects involved, just twisting legs, scissored fingers, and movie magic. When Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace (John Travolta and Uma Thurman) accept their dance trophy for the night, there’s a part of them that might stand in for the whole ‘90s film scene, with its upswell of great indie dramas from new and exciting young filmmakers. Amid the current flood of remakes, reboots, sequels, and spin-offs, even the brain of an avowed comic book movie fan like yours truly might go hurtling back to the time when writer-director Quentin Tarantino and his contemporaries emerged on the scene in Hollywood. Back then, mid-budget dramas targeting adult theatergoers still seemed like the norm, as opposed to the exception.

Quotable dialogue and memorable characters come in all forms, including quippy, world-saving superheroes (which, again, I like more than Martin Scorsese); but with its down-to-earth lowlives and street-based plot turns, Pulp Fiction is a reminder of an all but bygone cinema era. Indelible music, cineliterate stylings, and a novelistic format help round out the perfection that is Tarantino’s sophomore feature. A quarter-century ago, Pulp Fiction shook up what critic Gene Siskel called “the ossification of American movies.” For its sheer innovation and cultural impact, this remains the most important American film of the last twenty-five years.

The Other Great Redemption Movie of 1994

Given its initial box office failure and slow build to popularity on TV and home media, not everyone will remember the first time they watched The Shawshank Redemption. But do you remember the first time you saw the other great redemption movie of 1994: Pulp Fiction?

The first time I caught a snippet of it was when a friend and I snuck into it after buying tickets to A Goofy Movie. We had no interest in watching a G-rated Disney animated feature that day but we were 13-year-old middle schoolers and it seemed like the best way to smuggle ourselves into a violent R-rated flick. I remember seeing the definition of the word “pulp” come up onscreen, followed by the opening shot of the two loquacious lovebirds, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer), as they chilled in the booth at the diner they were about to rob. Two ushers promptly caught us and kicked us out the back door of the theater.

The repeated mentions of Disney here go toward illustrating a larger point about Tarantino and his place in the grand scheme of American pop culture. In 1994, the highest-grossing film was the The Lion King. In 2019, the second highest-grossing film is … The Lion King. Back in July of this year, Tarantino invoked Walt Disney’s name in his latest feature, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In that movie, there is a scene where a precocious little girl, an actress, is reading a biography of Disney, talking about how he was a once-in-a-generation visionary. With its Leone-esque title, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood puts an improbable storybook spin on the Manson murders. It continues a wishful, history-correcting trend in Tarantino’s work that began ten years ago in Inglourious Basterds. Over the last decade, his films have become progressively more fantasy-like in their endings, which has led to some talk of his unpredictability becoming predictable.

Whatever you think of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (I’ve come to like it more as I’ve sat with it in my head since summer), it’s clear that Tarantino is, on some level, grappling with his own cinematic legacy in 2019 via that film. In 1994, Pulp Fiction showed him to be a visionary, if not necessarily one on the same empire-building, once-in-a-generation level as Walt Disney. Tarantino’s critics sometimes dismiss him as a mere pastiche artist who pilfers elements from other obscure movies, repackaging them as superficial homages in his own flashy flicks. By way of an example, in Pulp Fiction, the supposed Bible passage that Jules recites — Ezekiel 25:17 — is actually a longer speech that Tarantino lifted almost verbatim from the opening crawl of the ‘70s martial-arts film The Bodyguard, starring Sonny Chiba. Chiba would later go on to appear as the Man from Okinawa in Kill Bill, Vol. 1. You may know him as the sword-making sushi chef, Hattori Hanzo.

Much has been written about Pulp Fiction’s discursive, nonlinear narrative, how its stories intersect and snake back around on each other. The film offers up a trilogy of tales — or ouroboros tails, if you will — where the theme of redemption plays out in various ways. Over the summer, Sergeant Subtext, soldier of movie themes (which is how I like to think of myself) went back and rewatched all of Tarantino’s films in preparation for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I was particularly struck by how well Pulp Fiction held up in relation to his other films. When I felt like I finally, fully understood the movie these twenty-five years later, it caused me to reorder my Tarantino ranking (prior to this, my favorite ‘90s film of his had been Reservoir Dogs). Newsflash: Pulp Fiction is still an unqualified masterpiece.

This time around with Pulp Fiction, I found myself focusing on the redemption theme along with a specific aspect of the film’s structure that had always struck me as somewhat random before. It has to do with the gheri-curled Jules — played by Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson — and his doughy partner, the aforementioned Vincent. Beyond the obvious answer that it sends them and us looping back into the movie, why does Pulp Fiction end the way it does, with Jules and Vincent walking out of the diner in clothes that make them look like “dorks?”

Jules sees divine intervention, “the touch of God,” written in his fate. His reform comes about after he and Vincent miraculously survive gunshots at point-blank range in an apartment with a glowing 666 briefcase (which may or may not hold their boss’s soul, if you believe that vintage movie MacGuffin theory). Ready to retire now, Jules confesses that he never gave much thought to his quasi-religious, Chiba-inspired speech, the one he’s been saying for years as a warm-up for whacking his hitman targets. He tells Pumpkin, a.k.a. Ringo, “I just thought it was a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this mornin’ made me think twice.”

Before his brush with death, Jules was a parrot of pop culture. He kept mindlessly repeating that Chiba-inspired speech, never knowing what it meant. His only reason for doing this was to entertain himself. Now, however, he’s able to offer up three different interpretations of what the speech might mean in the context of the diner robbery. Tarantino once said, “Movies are my religion and God is my patron.”  Jules finds God and that entails walking away from the life of an unthinking peon in the pop culture farm.

New Adventures in Pop Culture Discernment

Non-fans of Tarantino might see Pulp Fiction as a film devoid of meaning, all style, no substance, with no deeper authorial intent beyond that of a riffing raconteur named Quentin. In this view, the film becomes the ultimate blank slate for cockamamie theorists and erudite pundits to project themselves onto—as the spirit of Tarantino, who’s got the gift of gab, if nothing else, rouses their pseudo-intellectual selves from the stupor of passive entertainment. Yet if you look closer, as American Beauty once told us to, the redemption theme is there in Pulp Fiction and it’s very much there by design. “It’s explicit throughout the piece,” Tarantino told Vanity Fair in a 2013 retrospective. As Jackson put it, “The people who are worth saving get saved.”

Jules lives to walk the earth and get into adventures, while Vincent — the hitman and heroin junkie who refuses to recognize providence when it’s staring him right in the face — dies coming out of the bathroom. There’s a whole section on Wikipedia detailing how Vincent spends entirely too much time in the bathroom. He’s in there on the toilet reading escapist spy novels and when he comes back out to the real world, something bad always happens. That’s life.

Chronologically, the first of his return trips from the movie bathroom lands him in the middle of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny’s diner robbery, where he joins them, gun drawn, to complete the obligatory Mexican standoff. The second lands him in the middle of Mia’s drug overdose, after she’s mistaken his heroin for cocaine and snorted it. The third results in his surprising death at the hands of the fugitive boxer, Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), who shoots him with his own casually abandoned MAC-10.

Vincent had three chances to change his ways. Three strikes, you’re out. The moment that always stays with me is when one of his eyes sticks shut and he slurs his words in the restaurant booth after tasting Mia’s five-dollar milkshake. They’re parrying back and forth, having this mildly antagonistic conversation, and then we’re reminded that he’s on drugs. Both of them are lost souls, with Mia’s glassy eyes barely containing her disappointment in life. She didn’t make it as an actress and now her ennui only lifts when people deviate from the predictability of yakking about bullshit.

Unlike Vincent, the jerky, amoral Butch heeds the call to change. He drives off into the sunset on his Easy Rider motorcycle, having redeemed himself by going back to save his enemy from the Deliverance den where men are raped and gimps sleep in black bondage suits. The ball-gagged victim there is Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), the boss Butch betrayed. Marsellus put down good money so that Butch would take a dive in his boxing match but then Butch took the money, bet more on himself, didn’t take a dive, killed the other fighter, and ran. And didn’t feel the least bit bad about it.

Butch, too, faces the choice of which kind of movie hero to be. He can be the bad guy and go about fighting the hillbilly pawnshop rapists with a chainsaw or baseball bat, like Leatherface or Al Capone. Or he can choose a more honorable weapon: the samurai sword. Who knows, the one in the pawn shop might even be a Hattori Hanzo sword.

For Quentin Tarantino, redemption comes through discernment of pop culture. I imagine that’s why we’re all here, on sites like /Film: because we like pop culture and because our most meaningful experiences with it do enrich our lives, redeeming them, first, from boredom, and later, maybe (if we have the eyes to see it, like Jules) from the worthlessness of unexamined lives.

Jules awakens to the unreality of postmodernity. He escapes the trap of hollow consumption. He’s already undergone a baptism of sorts in the backyard of his friend, Jimmy, played by Tarantino himself. Jimmy and the Wolf, played by Harvey Keitel (Tarantino’s first movie-god patron on Reservoir Dogs), stand by as Jules and Vincent strip off their bloody hitmen clothes in the backyard. The Wolf then sprays them off with a garden hose. It’s a subtler invocation of baptism than Shawshank’s outstretched prison-escapee arms in the rain, but it gets the job done.

Jules leaves the diner a newly enlightened person who can go out into the world in his dorky casual clothes and get into new adventures in pop culture discernment. He now walks the true path of the righteous man. Tarantino’s torch-bearing ‘90s opus lights his way through the Zeroville door, back into this movie and others.

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