Oscars Past Part 4: 1994, and Pulp Fiction

1994 Best Picture Nominees: The Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump (winner), Quiz Show, Pulp Fiction, Four Weddings and a Funeral

 I am constantly amazed by how many people tell me The Shawshank Redemption is their favorite movie. Not because the movie is bad—I remember enjoying it thoroughly. But the odds of that many people specifically naming that one movie are slim. Unless it actually is, in a manner which approaches as much objectivity as an art form allows, the best movie ever, something else is going on here. (Possibly my generation saw this movie at an age when we were young enough to always take things at face value, but old enough to believe we could recognize greatness.)

Shawshank is ostensibly a movie about hope. Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is a mild-mannered banker who is sentenced to life in prison for murdering his wife in 1947 (we know from the outset that he is innocent). The film is deliberately, even solemnly paced. Each episode nudges Dufresne, who is initially colorless, towards a self-mastery which defies the brutality of his captivity. This mastery is also directed towards others—he uses his accounting skills to become invaluable to the prison’s warden, allowing him privileges, among them that of not being raped and murdered. When, after two decades, it is finally time to escape, the moment is powerfully cathartic. But you have to ask where exactly the redemption comes in. What happens to the monsters lined up to deny Andy his humanity is actually just revenge. Shawshank asks us to look for spiritual awakening in the midst of despair, but its concept of the spirit is too vague and expansive. It relies on our susceptibility for accepting triumphs of the soul which may only be justified by the fact it took so long to get to them.

Quiz Show is kind of delightful. It has fun with American notions of achievement, class, celebrity, and self-regard without ever feeling heavy-handed or smug. Ralph Fiennes, playing Charles Van Doren, the real-life scion of an aristocratic and intellectual East Coast family who becomes involved in a TV quiz-show scam in the 1950s, masterfully projects his character’s outward charm and inward weakness. The cameras inside NBC studios capture the former; the latter is noted but kept latent, until it begins to bleed through the lens as the story heads towards scandal. Director Robert Redford implants the unsettling idea that a culture of bestowed fame and unmerited accomplishment, magnified a thousand-fold by the power of the media, may have decimated the flower of a generation without a single shot being fired.

Four Weddings and a Funeral, and most of Richard Curtis’ work in general, is definitive evidence that the British are better at silly romantic high jinks than we are. Maudlin plot developments, physical and mental disabilities exploited for laughs or sentiment, maddeningly dumb characters who realize they’re in love two hours after we do—out of these old junk parts they create bittersweet, affectionate drawing-room comedies like Four Weddings, while Adam Sandler churns out Just Go With It.

I’ve covered Forrest Gump in an earlier post.

Movie of the ‘90s Candidate #4: Pulp Fiction

Tarentino is given a lot of blame and occasional praise for game-changing the film industry by making, back-to-back, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction between 1992 and 94. His admirers credit him for luxuriating in the moviemaking craft, regardless of the merits of the subject matter or bankruptcy of the message. His detractors say he’s inspired imitators to adopt a vapid, shamelessly self-conscious, and pointlessly violent style, which makes the assumption of being cool for us.

We’re probably blowing him out of proportion, either way. Tarentino’s primary focus is dialogue—all of the blood-spraying and limb-hacking in Kill Bill plays as an accompaniment to the verbal jousting the assassins find themselves doing, and which they seem to enjoy so much more. Tarentino’s long, meandering conversations often come perilously close to pedantry, before being saved by a snap decision—one either to commit sudden violence, or deliver a joke. He points the gun at us (and just as often, pulls the trigger) exactly when we might otherwise get bored, or, Heaven forbid, start to wonder what exactly is going on. The cartoonish violence and stylistic flourishes only set the stage—words get star billing.

Quentin Tarentino has throughout his career proclaimed a love for B-movies of all stripes. Many of his own films, like Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds, are B-movies themselves, improved upon by the loving regard of their now-A-list maker.

Pulp Fiction, despite its title, is not a B-movie. It belongs in the noir genre, if any at all. The strangest thing about the movie is how you end up feeling about the characters, and what happens to them. They are not real people, in any sense. They’re not even caricatures or stereotypes. They talk a whole lot, but the words are displaced from their speakers. They don’t seem to relate in any way to who they actually are. Because they’re not anybody. Vincent Vega (John Travolta), Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), Butch (Bruce Willis), Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames)—they’re all built of celluloid. The two quarrelsome hit men played by Jackson and Travolta are walking, talking haircuts armed with guns. Both of them seem to understand that they only have a certain function to perform which makes the movie work, and whatever arguments or personal revelations each may have (Jackson’s character has a religious experience and renounces his criminal life at the end of the film) serve only the purposes of the movie. It’s perfect that the Bible passage Jackson quotes to explain his change of heart doesn’t actually exist. Tarentino made it up. He makes up everything.

And yet, when Travolta’s character is gunned down out of the blue, seconds after relieving himself in the bathroom, the moment is sad. It was a very nice haircut.

Tarentino has the audacity to think his movie is cool and all of us will instantly believe it, and we do. The outlandish episodes all work, often smashingly. (You remember—punching a needle through Ulma Thurman’s heart; two or three seconds of witnessing Ving Rhames getting anally raped by a redneck.) The fractured, jumpy time narrative feels as organic in Fiction as I’ve ever witnessed. It is a trick, like many things Tarentino does, but we never have to try to wrap our minds around the exact timeline, because the time scheme as presented seems to be exactly the way it should be.

Empty style? Violence treated as a punch line? A bagful of sleight-of-hand tricks which achieve a perception of depth when there really is none at all? Guilty on all charges. But does it really matter? All of these things can be great, as Fiction demonstrates, when delivered with an appropriate amount of cunning and luck. When people complain about Tarentino copy-cats they are complaining about the quality of the copies. (And to be honest, most of the copy-cats never make it to the big screen: the biggest admirers of Tarentino have often turned out to be bad filmmakers themselves, producing thousands of hours of cheap, unwatchable digital film).

Tarentino seeks to produce movies entirely out of movie parts, without reference to the real world. This makes him singular, I suppose, in comparison to other directors, who only try to make their movies out of 95% movie parts. Pulp Fiction is the standard-bearer for success in Tarentino’s chosen method. But there hasn’t been that much of a future in it, for anybody else.

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About hubzbubz

Currently residing in Brooklyn.
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