If you were a cinephile or an aspiring filmmaker in 1994, the influence of Pulp Fiction was impossible to ignore—especially if you were a 13-year-old boy. Throughout that year, Tarantino’s sophomore effort became more or less gospel in the worlds of independent film and popular culture, which were fast becoming synonymous in the mid-’90s. This endlessly discussed, highly quotable film catalyzed that process significantly.
It was a hot topic not just in dorm rooms, but in critical circles, talk shows, newspapers, and on playgrounds as well, to the point where I had heard and read repeatedly about the film by the time I saw it.
Pulp Fiction’s plot stays true to its title: John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson play a pair of unlucky hit men (it was a huge comeback for the has-been Travolta, and a star-making turn for the once-versatile Jackson, who has essentially been playing the same part ever since); Bruce Willis is a boxer on the run from the mob, and a wig-wearing Uma Thurman is their employer’s flirtatious wife.
It’s not only rude, shocking, and funny, it’s also wildly unpredictable, a film which dictates its own unusual narrative structure from moment to moment, taking weird left turns, unpredictable digressions, and often letting itself relax and stretch out for many minutes at a time before a shocking bit of happenstance sends it off on a new tangent.
The film also, somewhat famously, contained long, uninterrupted stretches of dialogue, which, unfortunately, became the director’s calling card, and an often imitated trait (his scripts easily get dragged down by pretentious tough-guy rhetoric, and could be trimmed by half). The rest of the decade was littered with imitators like Kevin Williamson and Christopher McQuarrie, who juxtaposed careless violence with vacuous, off-hand pop-culture references. Even today, the vast majority of action, crime, and horror films produced in the Western Hemisphere contain stylistic touches that can be traced back either to this film, or to David Fincher’s Seven from the following year.
Revisiting it now, it reminds me of nothing so much as a slavish imitation of one of the more thoughtful and slow-moving films by Godard or Fassbinder minus any hint of politics, sex, or interpersonal tension, which were often the things that made those films worth watching in the first place. With the benefit of hindsight, Pulp Fiction now seems hokey and affected; it would almost be charming now, were it not for the films’ persistent presence as a film jock/frat go-to cultural reference.
Tarantino took a long time to follow it up, instead pursuing collaborations and side projects that kept him in the public eye, but only directing one film in its entirety over the next decade—the understated, underrated Jackie Brown.
He’s since abandoned much of what made Pulp Fiction a smash. Five of his last six films have featured female protagonists, he’s largely jettisoned his famous non-
chronological plot structures, and his cinematic style veers closer to the Italian “spaghetti” Westerns or the Japanese Yakuza-themed noirs of the 1960s and ’70s, styles he’s been much more capable at approximating (and whose soundtracks he has more or less stolen outright).
In retrospect, Pulp Fiction is clearly Tarantino’s weakest film. Nevertheless, it is certainly, in the words of the Library of Congress, “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Michael Moore’s Roger & Me (1989) made a comparatively smaller splash, but in the long run it may prove to be more influential than Pulp Fiction. Before Moore was a household name, a muckraking liberal hero, and scapegoat for conservative pundits everywhere, he was an anonymous schlub from the Midwest whose sense of humor was as keen as his sense of outrage.
Roger & Me takes as its subject the closing of the GM plants in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan, and while the topics of outsourcing, evictions, and corporate greed remain as relevant as ever, the true staying power of the film is due to its sly, irreverent tone.
Moore, in his trademark vest and trucker hat, interviewed ordinary working people, aloof millionaires, and has-been celebrities, mixing it in with vintage stock footage, television clips, and self-deprecating narration, all of which is perfectly juxtaposed with his knack for capturing bizarre moments that are too strange to be fictional.
Moore’s style is not without precedent; Errol Morris, Ross McElwee, and David Letterman are obvious influences, but it was his ability to cement everything together, finding his own cinematic voice through perfectly balanced sarcasm and outrage, that made Moore a working-class hero.
At the time, Roger & Me was the most successful documentary film in history (a record he’s broken himself several times over the years), and while his style was once unprecedented, his resourceful, ironic, personalized brand of everyman filmmaking has become the default for filmmakers of his ilk, and his influence can be felt everywhere from mainstream news broadcasts to the furthest reaches of the internet.
Roger & Me is not only an entertaining film, it’s a valuable snapshot of the cultural tone at the tail end of the Reagan era, and a crucial document for understanding how our media got to be the way it is now.
Both Pulp Fiction and Roger & Me will be shown this weekend at the Packard Campus Theatre in Culpeper.
Roger & Me screens on January 23 at 7:30pm and Pulp Fiction screens on January 25 at 7:30pm. Admission is free and open to the public. Both films have an R rating. More information can be found at www.loc.gov.
What other recent films have greatly influenced pop culture? Tell us in the comments section below.