A Blast to the Heart

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Onscreen, John Travolta had just raised an Adrenalin-filled hypodermic needle above the comatose body of Uma Thurman and, with desperate force, plunged it straight into her heart. In the audience at New York City’s Lincoln Center, where Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was being shown, a young man watched this scene and passed out. “Is there a doctor in the house?” someone actually asked. The film was stopped for nine anxious minutes before the announcement came: “The victim is just fine.”

A Tarantino movie has this effect on people. There’s an ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs, the 1992 heist movie he wrote and directed, that revolts some folks who have never even seen it. In True Romance and Natural Born Killers, two Tarantino scripts with identical itineraries (Bonnie and Clyde going to hell in a hot rod), knives skate across faces and guns blow fishbowl holes in stomachs. When a tough wants to leave his mark on someone, he does it with a mutilating flourish. Tarantino’s films allow for no idle bystanders; you either get with the pogrom or get out of the way. Thus does he make the viewer a co-conspirator — and sometimes, as at Lincoln Center, a victim.

Here we go again — another gore gourmand acting out fantasies of aggression for the grind-house trade. Well, no. For a start, Tarantino’s films are energized not so much by violence as by its threat; it’s in the air like a balloon ready to explode. More important, Tarantino, 31, sees movie violence as a vivid visual correlative for the internal agitation of urban America, for all those people who believe their lives are a pitched battle for self- preservation. If he romanticizes his gunmen, he also anchors them in vulnerability, stupidity and the blinkered loyalty of men to men. But damn, they’re good company. Tarantino knows them inside out, even if most of his gangland wisdom came from a life of movie watching (he worked for five years in a video store). “I’ve seen what I’ve seen, and I’ve met the people I’ve met,” he says flirtatiously. “I’ve been in weird situations. I’m not a hood, but I’ve seen fringe things here and there.” And what he sees, he translates into sharp words, telling gestures, explosive images.

Tarantino’s movies are smartly intoxicating cocktails of rampage and meditation; they’re in-your-face, with a mac-10 machine pistol and a quote from the Old Testament. They blend U.S. and European styles of filmmaking; they bring novelistic devices to the movie mall. And in Pulp Fiction, a multipart tribute to the hard-boiled books and films of American mid-century, he has devised a sprawling, sturdy canvas that accommodates the high-octane and the highbrow.

Just ask Bruce Willis, one of a half-dozen actors (along with Travolta, Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson, Ving Rhames and Harvey Keitel) who found some of the juiciest roles of their careers here: “You can say the most intellectual thing about Pulp Fiction and be right. But it also works for the trailer-park kids.” It surely ought to work for those viewers lulled these many years by cinema soporifics. For 2 1/2 teeming hours it hits you like a shot of Adrenalin straight to the heart.

Here’s some of what happens:

Vincent (Travolta) and Jules (Jackson), henchmen of Los Angeles crime lord Marsellus Wallace (Rhames), retrieve a briefcase from some cheating kids. Three people die there, and a fourth in a getaway car. A specialist (Keitel) drops by to supervise the cleanup. At a diner, the henchmen’s breakfast is interrupted by a thrill-crazy young couple (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) staging a holdup. He and Vincent go to see Marsellus, who is telling an aging boxer named Butch (Willis) to throw his next fight. Later, Vincent buys some potent heroin, then escorts the boss’ sexy wife Mia (Thurman) for a toxic night on the town. Vincent gets out the needle. Butch double-crosses his boss, wins the fight and plans to skip town, but soon must decide whether to save Marsellus’ life at the sure risk of his own.

That is the story. (Tarantino wrote everything except the Butch episode, which was created by the director’s occasional collaborator, Roger Avary.) But it is presented out of chronology, so as to alternate fierce melodrama with behavioral comedy, and vengeance with revelation. Tarantino pulls the string around one story while setting up the next in the bustling background. He played neat tricks of a similar sort in Reservoir Dogs. “It’s not like I’m on this major crusade against linear narrative,” he says. “What I am against is saying it’s the only game in town.”

And while keeping things tightly wound, he gives his actors plenty of room to breathe the heady air of his dialogue, with all its wit and thoughtfulness punctuated by obscenity. Says producer Lawrence Bender, who for a miserly $8.2 million mounted this glossy production (including a ’50s-style restaurant set so cool that some backers want to franchise it): “It’s the kind of dialogue that’s so organic, you can chew, eat and digest it.”

Tarantino’s and Bender’s company is called A Band Apart, after Bande a Part (Band of Outsiders), the 1964 film about two hoods and a femme fatale that Jean-Luc Godard based on an American paperback novel. But where Godard used pulp fiction as an excuse to discuss the philosophy of the boulevards and the boudoir, Tarantino is true to the genre’s moral muscularity; he’s interested in the philosophy of the abattoir. His tough guys chat about life’s iniquities and inequities, about hamburgers, the Bible, the ethics of foot massage, the perfidy of women.

Sometimes they sound like catty old fishwives. But this is a very male form of gossip — verbal machismo. With their edgy patter, the guys test themselves, their friends, their victims; every conversation is a pop quiz with life on the line. And when they do shut up, it’s often to blow someone away, or do drugs, or sink into edgy pensiveness. In Tarantino’s film there are no comfortable silences.

There’s never silence when Tarantino is in the room. This engaging, nonstop performer — named by his half-Cherokee mother for the hero of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury as well as for the half-breed (Quint) played by Burt Reynolds in Gunsmoke — was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and moved to Southern California when he was two. Since then, it’s been a movie-mad life. His folks took him to all sorts of films, then he went on his own. He seems to have remembered — and understood — everything he’s seen. “He’s probably the best video-store clerk there ever was,” says Avary, who worked with him at Video Archives. “The world of video clerks will sadly miss him.”

And now those films are memorialized in Tarantino’s own. “People ask if my love of movies can be too much,” he says. “What annoys me about the question is the snobbery; it treats movies like a bastard art form. Could a novelist ever read too many books, or a musician listen to too much music? Well, I totally love movies.”

He loves acting too. Tarantino has small roles in his two features (and a hilarious turn in the new comedy Sleep With Me). He knows what actors need and how to keep them percolating. “Quentin is a great collaborator,” says Thurman, a creepy delight in Pulp Fiction as a woman convinced she’s in control of her life and her men. “He is extremely clear about what he wants, but he’s not close minded; he’s no bully.” Travolta says Tarantino trusts actors: “He lets you put all the icing on the cake. For Vincent, I could mock up the hair, the accent, the walk, the talk.” The result is a deft portrait of a guy who moves warily and at his own slo-mo pace, as if he needed all his concentration just to stay alive.

There are plenty of subsidiary characters worth their own movie, like the suburban drug dealer (Eric Stoltz) and his trippy wife (Rosanna Arquette) — a married couple for the strung-out ’90s. Part of Pulp Fiction‘s fun is that memorable weirdos keep popping up in the second and third hour. Part of the movie’s skill is that familiar characters reveal new depths. By the end, Jackson’s Jules — in a “transitional period” from L.A.’s baddest malefactor to Tarantino’s idea of masculine sanctity — has commandeered the film. But even Jackson, brilliant in the role, knows that all good films, like the Scriptures, begin with the Word.”Films are a show-me medium,” says Jackson, “and Quentin makes tell-me movies.”

Pulp Fiction is Tarantino’s show-and-tell extravaganza. It towers over the year’s other movies as majestically and menacingly as a gang lord at a preschool. It dares Hollywood films to be this smart about going this far. If good directors accept Tarantino’s implicit challenge, the movie theater could again be a great place to live in.

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