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Posts Tagged ‘Pulp Fiction’

(Part 38 of an ongoing series)

tom hanks green mile

We’re not your classic heroes… we’re the other guys.

The Shoveller (William H. Macy), Mystery Men

Having spent the past year revisiting the movies of 1999, my heavily-biased belief that 1999 was cinema’s most exciting year to date has only grown stronger.  Alas, not all the movies I’ve watched for this series possessed enough Sick Desperation in Their Laughs to crack my Top 40. But some of those also-rans still deserve a quick mention, honorable or otherwise:

But I’m A Cheerleader (directed by Jamie Babbit)

The main goal of But I’m A Cheerleader is to ridicule those “ex-gay” ministries that foolishly try to turn gay people straight. The film also has a pretty sweet love story between Megan (Natasha Lyonne), a high school cheerleader coming to terms with her sexuality, and Graham (Clea Duvall), an out-and-proud rebel. These parts of the movie are awesome, and totally 1999. Problem is, this movie should cut like a chainsaw, and instead it merely bops like a wiffle-bat. It kept making me fantasize about how much harder this premise would’ve hit had it been handled by John Waters. But perhaps even more troubling is its depiction of gay men. While lesbians Megan and Graham feel like living, breathing people, pretty much all the guys in this movie are reduced to prancing, cock-hungry sissies. It’s cool to play with stereotypes, yet when it comes to gay men, But I’m A Cheerleader seems to content to simply reinforce certain stereotypes– which essentially cancels out most of its mind-opening, tolerance-preaching intentions.

Sleepy Hollow (directed by Tim Burton)

Sleepy Hollow is frequently creepy, occasionally funny, and always gorgeous as heavenly hell. It may also contain the precise turning point in Tim Burton’s career, the point where he went from gothy maverick to tired hack. Sleepy Hollow starts promisingly yet ends in somewhat uninspired fashion– much like a career that began with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands, but since Sleepy Hollow, has offered forgettable remakes like Planet Of The Apes, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, Alice In Wonderland, Dark Shadows

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (directed by Jay Roach)

1999 also saw a turning point in Mike Myers’ career. In his earlier, funnier movies (Wayne’s World, So I Married An Axe Murderer, Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery), he definitely utilized catchphrases, call-backs, and gag-milking even more than the average SNL player. Yet there was usually a great humility in his humor. Then the first Austin Powers became a sleeper hit that demanded a sequel, and suddenly it seemed as if Myers’ humility vanished, replaced with a conviction that audiences really wanted to see every single silly idea that popped into his head. No doubt The Spy Who Shagged Me has some hefty belly-laughs. But it also has an unhealthy number of sequences that go on so long they’d make Seth MacFarlane check his watch, and they foreshadow the caravan of lackluster vehicles Myers would unleash in the ’00s (Goldmember, The Cat In The Hat, The Love Guru).

Catherine Zeta-Jones dips beneath the lasers in Entrapment

I haven’t seen Entrapment since 1999, and all I remember about it is Catherine Zeta-Jones’ butt. Adam from Workaholics knows what I’m talkin about; dude wrote a song about it:

American Pie (directed by Paul & Chris Weitz)

American Pie gave us so much: John Cho popularizing the word ‘MILF,’ Jason Biggs boning an apple pie, Shannon Elizabeth going topless, Alyson Hannigan getting freaky. But I’m not sure American Pie gave us enough of that Sick Desperation in Our Laughter. Maybe it would have if it had raised the raunchy-comedy bar set one year earlier by There’s Something About Mary. Only American Pie didn’t exactly raise that bar, it just kind of limboed underneath the bar and nudged it with its boner.

Tumbleweeds (directed by Gavin O’Connor)

It’s a moving story of the relationship between a flighty, freewheeling, single mother (Janet McTeer) and her coming-of-age daughter (Kimberly J. Brown), it’s just not very 1999. Though there are flashes of Sick Desperation in McTeer’s outstanding performance.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (directed by George Lucas)

Without a doubt the most disappointing movie I’ll ever see three times in a theater. I kept going back, assuming my initial disappointment stemmed from setting my fanboy standards impossibly high, and that eventually I’d grow to love Episode I as much I loved Episodes IV, V, & VI.  Alas, just like everyone else not named George Lucas, I have only grown to dislike this movie more over the years– except for the pod race and the Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan/Darth Maul lightsaber battle, which still kick ass.

Mystery Men (directed by Kinka Usher)

It seems so 1999 in theory: a subversive superhero riff starring Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Hank Azaria, Paul Reubens, Janeane Garofalo, Geoffrey Rush, Eddie Izzard, Greg Kinnear, and Tom Waits, to name a few. Unfortunately, the script could’ve used a punch-up or two; the jokes’ hit-to-miss ratio is far lower than this premise and cast deserved. Macy’s line at the end of this scene was one of the few that made me laugh out loud:

Go (directed by Doug Liman)

“OK, I know ripping off Pulp Fiction got old like two years ago, but what if we did, like, a Pulp Fiction thing but with, like, ecstasy, and Vegas, and Amway?”

“YES! But we also need a scene in a diner where a drug dealer has one of those Tarantino monologues about that comic strip Family Circus, ’cause I was in a diner this morning and I’d just done a couple bumps and I was reading the paper and I saw Family Circus and I thought to myself, ‘Why hasn’t Tarantino written a monologue about Family Circus yet?”

And the nominees for Most Oscar-Hungry Picture of 1999 are…

Leaving the theater after seeing Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock, I was convinced it would get like 12 Oscar nominations. Not because I thought it was that great a movie, but because this star-studded, lefty-friendly, semi-musical, Depression-era historical drama seemed like it was shovel-feeding the Academy exactly the kind of stuff they love to heap awards upon. I was way off on that prediction, but the rest of the 1999 Oscar-darlings weren’t that hard to foresee– like Lasse Hallström’s adaptation of John Irving’s novel The Cider House Rulesa weighty-but-not-too-dark period drama with a lefty-friendly capital-M Message about the necessity of abortion.  And while I’ve got mad respect for Michael Mann’s The InsiderI have to admit that this ripped-from-the-headlines docudrama with a lefty-friendly David-vs.-Corporate-Goliath agenda was fishing hardcore for Oscar gold.

I wouldn’t say I have mad respect for Sam Mendes’ American Beauty; it’s more like reserved respect. Its Oscar-hunger is shameless (especially in Annette Bening’s performance), and it leans awfully hard on its lefty-friendly suburban ennui. Still, it’s funnier and sweeter and more haunting than most of its detractors give it credit for. There are at least 25 movies from 1999 that I would’ve voted for “Best Picture” above American Beauty, but its victory doesn’t offend me nearly as much as, say, Crash‘s victory did.

Yet the award for Most Oscar-Hungry Picture of 1999 has to go to Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile. It was as if Darabont was so sore about The Shawshank Redemption losing to Forrest Gump five years earlier that he tried to make the most snub-proof Oscar-bait he could imagine. So he did another prison drama based on a Stephen King story, only this time it would star Oscar-magnet TOM FREAKING HANKS. And it would be anti-racism AND anti-death penalty. And there’d be magic, but with religious overtones, yet not so Jesusy as to alienate non-Christians. And finally, it would be three EPIC hours long.  Of course, all this calculation came to naught, and The Green Mile couldn’t generate enough buzz to outfox American Beauty. But for what it’s worth, Mr. Darabont, your film is the winner of The Sick Desperation In Your Laugh Award for Most Oscar-Hungry Picture of 1999 in a goddamn landslide.

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travis

I’m no techno-geek, but I’m pretty sure YouTube’s “Automatic Captions” feature is made possible by farsighted lip-readers and voice-recognition software developed by capuchin helper monkeys. See if you can guess the following movie quotes as translated by this hysterically imperfect program:

1. “The pet of the right to communicate with their on backed by the inequities, the Philippines, and upheaval.”

2. “Hi style, Steve Hess.”

3. “Benedetto without government: Radon!”

4. “Economies? Economies?”

5. “Over the religion is amazing organized for good last year.”

6. “Pilots public public aborting!”

7. “Dividend. David Mattingly.”

8. “Possibilities, braces.”

9. “A bubble is best for Mrs. Moon.”

10. “Believe dot here, failure get milkshake.”

Answers:

1. “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.” Pulp Fiction

2. “Why so serious?” The Dark Knight

3. “They can take our lives, but they will never take our freedom!” Braveheart

4. “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?” Taxi Driver

5. “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side.” Star Wars

6. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” Apocalypse Now

7. “Leave the gun…take the cannoli.” The Godfather

8. “Hasta la vista, baby.” Terminator 2: Judgment Day

9. “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” Psycho

10. “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” Cool Hand Luke

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large_inglorious_basterds_blu-ray12

“…Tarantino is [a] film-maker who has nothing to say,” says Dangerous Minds’ Niall O’Conghaile. “Nothing to say except for having seen more movies than you.” Now maybe that’s not quite dangerous thinking, but it sure is lazy thinking, and O’Conghaile’s not alone.  Lots of people seem to have half-watched Tarantino’s movies and expressed similar idle criticisms.

Yes, much of what Tarantino “has to say” involves movies, but that’s not nothing.  Movies, like myths, affect us and reflect us.  If words are loaded pistols (as Sartre quoted Brice Parain), couldn’t cinema be a burning theater packed with explosives (as Tarantino said in Inglourious Basterds)?

Couldn’t a “slasher” movie villain wield a car instead of a knife or chainsaw?  Couldn’t a “heist” movie skip right past the heist?  Couldn’t the person who seems to be the main character die halfway through, like in Psycho– but then be resurrected for a flashback that lasts the entire third act?

All well and good, you may be thinking, but those are all still questions that dwell deep inside movie critic territory.  What could Tarantino possibly “say” about more profound matters, the human condition and such, like Bergman did?  And aren’t all those so-called  “statements” actually questions?  Well to answer that last part first, I find it a lot more interesting when storytellers “say” things by asking questions rather than just “saying” them.  As for the first part, here’s some other questions you may find more “profound”:

If history is written by the winners, couldn’t we use cinema to write an alternate history where the losers can at least get a well-crafted catharsis?  And if we did do that, isn’t it possible that such a catharsis might feel a little icky, no matter how justified said catharsis is?  Would the ickiness be worth it?  Might we be better off living in a world where we can achieve catharses with the help of fake movie violence, even if it means a select few maniacs might use that violence to inspire real violence (which those maniacs probably would’ve committed anyway)?  Because, if we didn’t exorcise our bloodlust at the movies (or on TV, or in video games), might that bloodlust find numerous other, more terrible means of escape?  Sure, Goebbels may have fueled Nazi hatred with movies, but didn’t that whole mess start with Hitler’s book? What violent movies did American slave owners watch to feed their vileness?  Oh, they didn’t watch movies back then?  Well, if desperate times call for desperate measures, and if stronger illnesses call for stronger medicines, don’t more violent times call for more violent cinema?

(Full disclosure: Shockingly, I haven’t seen Django Unchained yet.  But isn’t that the cool thing to do these days, blindly commenting on Django?  Regardless, I’m pretty sure this’ll all hold up after I do finally see it.)

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In the final scene of last night’s season finale of Breaking Bad, Hank Schrader apparently experienced an epiphany on the toilet after opening a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass.  Of course, this was far from the only historic moment involving toilets and literature:

October 31, 1517:

Martin Luther nails his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints Church. Scholars attest that Luther’s acute constipation caused him to spend many hours on the toilet, where he researched and wrote the text that started the Protestant Reformation.

December 11, 1747

In a letter to his son, Lord Chesterfield discusses the virtues of reading in the necessary-house:

I knew a gentleman who was so good a manager of his time that he would not even lose that small portion of it which the calls of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary-house; but gradually went through all the Latin poets in those moments. He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina: this was so much time fairly gained, and I recommend you to follow his example…. Books of science and of a grave sort must be read with continuity; but there are very many, and even very useful ones, which may be read with advantage by snatches and unconnectedly: such are all the good Latin poets, except Virgil in his Æneid, and such are most of the modern poets, in which you will find many pieces worth reading that will not take up above seven or eight minutes.

March 8, 1857:

Joseph Gayetty is the first to market toilet paper, sold for 50 cents per 500 sheets. In a press release, the product is dubbed “Gayetty’s Medicated Paper for the Water-Closet,” and is said to be purer and safer than more commonly used printing papers, which contain “fearful poisons” like Oil of Vitriol and Oxalic Acid. Newspapers and other printed materials, however, continue to be the t.p. of choice in America because they’re cheaper, more readily available, and more fun to read than Gayetty’s papers, which only feature the inventor’s name.

September 30, 1890:

Sears publishes its first catalog, which soon becomes rural America’s preferred toilet reading material/toilet paper.

September 23, 1930:

Sears publishes its catalog on less-absorbent glossy paper, and receives a number of complaint letters from rural America.  The Old Farmer’s Almanac, with its more absorbent texture and hole punched in the corner for easy outhouse hanging, remains a popular alternative.

circa 1936:

In Black Spring, Henry Miller extols the glory of toilet reading:

O the wonderful recesses of the toilet! To them I owe my knowledge of Boccaccio, of Rabelais, of Petronius, of The Golden Ass.  All my good reading, you might say, was done on the toilet.  At the worst, Ulysses, or a detective story.  There are passages in Ulysses which can be read only in the toilet- if one wants to extract the full flavor of their content.  And this is not to denigrate the talent of the author.  This is simply to move him a little closer to the good company of Abelard, Petrarch, Rabelais, Villon, Boccaccio- all the fine, lusty genuine spirits who recognized dung for dung and angels for angels.

February 23, 1940:

Celebrated Argentine author/reviewer of non-existent books Jorge Luis Borges imagines reading Pierre Menard’s Quixote while pretending to poop.

August 16, 1977:

Elvis Presley falls off his toilet and dies in Memphis. Rumor has it that at the time of his death, he was reading a copy of Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction, smeared with fried banana-and-peanut butter fingerprints.

circa 1994:

Pulp Fiction‘s Vincent Vega (John Travolta) reads Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise while on a coffee shop toilet, and fails to hear Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) loudly committing an armed robbery. Later, in the last moments of Vince’s life (but earlier, in the middle of the movie), Vince is so captivated by Modesty Blaise while using Butch Coolidge’s toilet that he apparently fails to hear Butch (Bruce Willis) enter the apartment, retrieve the gold watch from the bedroom, prepare a Pop Tart and pick up the assault rifle that was left on the counter. (Though the theory that Vince may have been expecting Marsellus Wallace [Ving Rhames] and therefore thought nothing of Butch’s noisemaking is a widely accepted hypothesis among internet geeks.)

April 16, 1998:

George Costanza (Jason Alexander) is forced to buy a book on French Impressionist art which he brought into a bookstore bathroom.  Subsequent attempts to sell the tainted book prove futile.

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I’ve seen Pulp Fiction at least a dozen times, but never in chronological order.  So I’m grateful that Dangerous Minds has made me aware that this chronological edit exists, and maybe one day soon I’ll get around to watching it.

For now though, I’ll just say that while it’s really cool of Marc Campbell to share that video despite not being much of a Pulp Fiction fan, his criticism of the movie’s non-linear structure seems overly dismissive to me.  He calls the structure “a mind game, not a mind expander,” though in all my viewings, I never got the sense that Pulp Fiction was trying to be a mind expander, at least not in the way that, say, Memento or Rashomon were.

But just because Pulp Fiction may not have a bold statement to make about time or memory or perception like those other movies do, that doesn’t mean the structure is, as Campbell calls it, “hollow.”  To me, the kinky timeline works perfectly on at least two levels: rhythmically and emotionally.  Let’s look at the opening scene, where we drop in on fast-talking criminal couple Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer discussing business strategies.  First of all, it simply feels like the most ideal introduction into the movie’s funny, zippy and dangerous universe.  The first scene chronologically- Christopher Walken’s monologue about how he hid a gold watch from the Viet Cong- is a great scene, but it’s more of an interlude.  It’s funny, but only after a couple minutes, after Walken tells us where he hid the watch.  And Walken’s relaxed delivery contrasts with most of other characters’ quicker cadences, so it wouldn’t be a great idea to open a movie with a scene that contrasts much of what will follow.  Starting Pulp Fiction with this scene would throw everything out of whack, like if Led Zeppelin opened their fourth album with “Stairway To Heaven” instead of putting it as the centerpiece.

Seeing the movie the first time, you’ve probably forgotten about Roth & Plummer by the time they show up in the same diner where legit bad-asses Samuel L. Jackson & John Travolta are eating their muffins and bacon, so their reappearance has a pretty strong impact.  Maybe Tarantino could have introduced Roth & Plummer at the same time Jackson & Travolta sit down to breakfast, maybe intercut between their booths, but I get the feeling that choice would have severely bogged down the momentum of both conversations.  At this point we’ve just watched Jackson clean up the exploded skull and brain of a guy Travolta accidentally shot, and now Jackson’s having serious thoughts about leaving the criminal life for something more righteous.  Then boom– Tim Roth calls the waitress “garcon” and instantly, we now know that Jackson’s new resolution is about to be tested right away by the motor-mouthed Bonnie & Clyde wannabes at the other end of the diner.  Without Tarantino’s chronological tomfoolery, that boom isn’t there.

At its core- below the self-awareness, the pop culture references, the flashy style- Pulp Fiction is a touching story of how a shadowy, sometimes alluring underworld changes its characters.  The non-linear editing enhances that angle, as well.  After we might start feeling somewhat attached to Travolta’s charming hit-man, he’s gunned down on a toilet by Bruce Willis.  When he reappears alive and well in the flashing-back third chapter, we’re reminded of how much we miss the guy, even if he did murder people for a living.

Back at the diner, we now get the idea that Samuel L. Jackson could die just as easily as Travolta did.  And ideally, we’re rooting for Jackson (unless you think someone who’s sinned that much is beyond redemption).  We want Jackson to escape the world that will soon claim his partner, that will soon traumatize his boss Ving Rhames, and will quite possibly change Bruce Willis forever, if not outright traumatize him too.  As we wonder whether Jackson will walk out of that diner with his soul and his life intact, the tension would be far duller if we didn’t already see the consequences Travolta, Rhames and Willis suffer earlier in the movie.

So yeah, there seems to be a lot of meat inside that so-called “hollow” structure.

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bridensaltnpepa

1. Who, me? A tease? Brother, please.

2. You can take my word for it, your mother had it comin’.

3. Well damn if you ain’t so sweet you make sugar taste just like salt.

4. Yo, baby pop. Yeah, you, come here. Gimme a kiss. Better make it fast or else I’m gonna get pissed.

5. You call that begging? You can beg better than that.

6. I wanna dance, I wanna win, I want that trophy, so dance good.

7. Now wait a minute y’all, this dance ain’t for everybody, only the sexy people.  So all you fly mothers, get on out there and dance.  Dance, I said!

8. I’m a negro with an ego.

9. Now, what we got here is a little game of show and tell. You don’t wanna show me nothing but you’re telling me everything.

10. You got two jobs; kiss good, and make sure my hair don’t get wet.

11. You can’t play me, boy, I’m no game.

12. My ass may be dumb, but I ain’t no dumbass.

13. I’m gonna go jump in the tub and get all slippery and soapy and then hop in that waterbed and watch X-rated movies til you get your ass back in my lovin’ arms.

14. The difference between a hooker and a ho ain’t nothin’ but a fee.

15. If looks could kill, you would be an uzi.

16. Grandma carries a can of mace, and she’ll stick a 45 in your face.

17. I don’t know what futuristic utopia you live in, but the world I live in, a bitch need a gun.

18. I’m gonna give you a little somethin’ you can’t take off.

19. Ask too many questions and my Smith & Wesson will answer

20. You put up with my butt when I wouldn’t give it up.  Yeah I know that really sucks, but if you wait a while, I’ll make it up.

21. Facts can be so misleading, where rumors, true or false, are often revealing.

(answers below)

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Tarantino: 2 (Kill Bill Vol. 1), 3 (Death Proof) 5 (Kill Bill Vol. 1), 6 (Pulp Fiction), 9 (True Romance), 10 (Death Proof), 12 (Jackie Brown), 13 (True Romance), 17 (Death Proof), 18 (Inglourious Basterds), 21 (Inglourious Basterds)
Salt-N-Pepa: 1 (“Do You Want Me?”), 4 (“Push It”), 7 (“Push It”), 8 (“Negro Wit An Ego”), 11 (“A Salt With A Deadly Pepa”), 14 (“None Of Your Business”), 15 (“Shoop”), 16 (“Heaven ‘n Hell”),  19 (“Heaven ‘n Hell”) 20 (“Do You Want Me?”)

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