Few film critics have the sense of voice and unswerving passion for their subject as Jason Bailey. He’s contributed to the Atlantic, Slate, Salon and is regular at Flavorwire, but this examination of Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 classic Pulp Fiction is the New York City-based writer’s first book. Across the roughly 200 pages that comprise this handsome volume, Bailey leaves virtually no stone unturned as he traces Tarantino’s path from being a fellow movie lover to one of the world’s leading directors and the co-creator of one of the last century’s most influential films. A different writer could tell this story, but not as well as Bailey does in these pages.
We have to remember that in 1994, as Pulp Fiction began rolling out into theaters, Tarantino was an impressive name but not one that everyone knew. His 1992 debut, Reservoir Dogs had garnered him some critical praise and grown a cult following but it was an extreme film and one that a number of moviegoers (or video renters) categorized as being set in the ‘70s (perhaps because of the retro soundtrack and the retro look and feel of the film).
A brilliant debut does not a career make. (Ask John Singleton.) So, Tarantino’s second feature, released (as Bailey reminds us) by Miramax (home of The Piano, The Crying Game and other fare that did not involve severed ears or pawn shop owners with a penchant for buggery) was hardly a sure bet. So when it arrived, as Bailey recalls, at Cannes in May of 1994, it “landed like a dirty bomb”, being as it was “big, grand, loud, rude, and altogether thrilling”.
For a film loaded with racial epithets, violence, and a whole bunch of other impolite stuff, it quickly found an audience. Despite Tarantino’s claim that he made films that “split people apart”, Bailey notes that Pulp Fiction “sure felt like a film that brought people together. Young audiences, intellectuals, cinephiles, and popcorn chewers alike were gripped by Pulp fever,” the Kansas native writes, adding that all of the above were “buoyed by the film’s cleverness, rocked by its bursts of violence, endlessly quoting its punch dialogue.” For them, and for Bailey himself, the director “had captured the early-nineties zeitgeist in his triptych of throwback crimes stores and audiences ate it up like a Royale with Cheese”.
In the years after Pulp Fiction arrived it was easy to find films that toyed with non-linear plots. Some brilliantly (see Memento) and others less so (the VHS shelves were lined with ‘em). College professors talked about the film’s debt to Jacobean tragedy and budding filmmakers like Bailey himself wanted to make something that would send film through its next revolution.
Because Tarantino is such a vocal fan of film—and not just the stuff you’d expect a topflight director to be: his tastes run from the refined to the base and you know which he’s most vocal in his enthusiasm for––it’s appropriate that Bailey traces QT’s roots and provides a chart listing the director’s favorite flicks, including Blow Out (starring John Travolta), Switchblade Sisters, and Badlands. (There’s even a column that demonstrates each film’s direct influence on Tarantino and his work.) We also learn about his apprenticeship in filmmaking and writing and the road to what Bailey refers to as “The Script That Changed Everything”.
There’s a detailed analysis of the archetypes evident in the film and their archetypal predecessors (kudos to Bailey for having watched Sharkey’s Machine so we don’t have to, again), stills from the picture itself, and a chart that graphs the story in linear fashion. We learn about the actual shooting of the film, the products that populate Tarantino’s world (Red Apple cigarettes, for one) and, that most holy of holies, the film’s soundtrack. We follow the film to its release and its subsequent issue on video and its legacy to this point and not a word is wasted or misplaced. (The author’s tendency to refer toTarantino by first name which seems here, as it does in other places, overly chummy, aside.)
A series of well-written guest essays also pop up in this volume, including ones from Mark Peters, Aisha Harris, and Gary Graff, each adding special dimension and awesomeness to a volume that is over all too quickly. This is an impressive book—debut or otherwise—and many readers will no doubt become as enamored of Bailey’s writing as they are of the film about which he writes.