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By Louis Black

DECEMBER 29, 1997:  It is not uncommon to hear Pulp Fiction dismissed, even by some who like it, as being a film filled with cinematic flash and intense pop culture style but one that is ultimately about nothing. Equally, the charge is made that it is a mindless, pro-violence celebration, both cynical and amoral. Pulp Fiction seems to me to be a profoundly religious film, albeit not in any specific denominational sense. It is a film about belief and redemption, eloquently showing that without belief there is no redemption. Even with belief, of course, redemption is by no means certain, but the incredible thing is that, in our sinful world, it is possible. I know some charge that it is a soulless celebration of killers and a shallow ripoff of mass culture. If the great French moralist director Robert Bresson had worked for Roger Corman's New World he could have made the films of Quentin Tarantino. One of Bresson's greatest films is Au Hasard Balthazar, where, as though filming a volume from the lives of the Saints, Bresson paints the world of a donkey. If memory serves, he argues for a kind of beatific redemption through pain, in a life beyond hope.

In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino examines the world of bottom-feeders -- killers, used-up fighters, and drug dealers -- who, similar to a Bresson film, are either doomed or redeemed. Tarantino's flash and style are all tools to the end, not the end itself. So if the minimalist stylist Bresson had been hired by Roger Corman and told to make any film he wanted as long as it has some plot, violence, action, and a little frontal nudity, he might have made Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown (The biggest difference between the directors is that Bresson believed in predestination while Tarantino believes in secular redemption). What I'm arguing is that what we have come to see as Tarantinoisms are simply cinematic affectations (though often spectacular ones), when at the heart and soul of his work is a strong moral vision conveyed through character and dialogue.

This was brought home at the recent Austin Film Society benefit screening of Jackie Brown hosted by Tarantino (one of three premieres he attended -- L.A., N.Y., and Austin) with Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, and Mike Judge presenting (with the renowned Harry Knowles in the audience). The film -- only Tarantino's third directoral outing, as he reminded us -- is a leisurely blaxploitation film based on Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch.

Jackie Brown also looks at belief and redemption. A surprisingly contemplative film, it displays the characterization for which Tarantino has been famous without the spectacular cinematic set pieces of which there are so many in Pulp Fiction. The story is astonishing -- imagine a mature and sophisticated look at the characters from a generic blaxploitation film 20 years later. This is a film about who people think they are now in their lives, in the context of who they once thought they were going to be (who they are now in light of who they once thought they would be when they reached this point in their lives). It is about acceptance but not resignation, about dreams, but with ambitions dramatically lowered.

The criticism of the film will focus on its length and on it not being Pulp Fiction 2. The length is a problem; it is long, it drags in places, but this is leisurely storytelling that depends on varying speeds and tones for its success. The "too muchness" is part of the charm of Jackie Brown -- I would have it longer rather than shorter.

It isn't Pulp Fiction 2. Tarantino warned us of that before the film but I didn't realize completely what he meant until the stunning final shot of Pam Grier's face (and this is a movie told in faces). The whole film leads to that one face, Grier's face, and to the world that face has seen.

Shorn of Pulp Fiction's extravagances, what is surprising is how similar the films are, not in narrative or tone, but in moral vision. During the great Sam Peckinpah's heyday, he would be trashed by critics for his excessively violent movies. Yet between 1965 and 1971, he made the violent ballet The Wild Bunch (critically controversial with a lot written about it) and the more elegiac The Ballad of Cable Hogue (which was ignored. Admittedly this movie, which is often wonderful, features the excruciating song "Butterfly Mornings" ["...and wildflower afternoons"]), he made the brutal Straw Dogs (critically controversial with much written about it) and the equally elegiac Junior Bonner (again ignored). While decrying "Bloody Sam," the only times Peckinpah was written about were when his films were ultra-violent.

Tarantino has made another great movie, exploring the same themes as Pulp Fiction but in an entirely different way with an entirely different tone. This isn't really a review; I'm friendly with Tarantino and have given up film reviewing. But, damn, his work is exciting -- intellectually and cinematically. In Jackie Brown, the performances are amazing, the dialogue brilliant (nobody writes dialogue like Tarantino), Pam Grier's lead drives the film in a way women are rarely allowed to. I can't wait to see Jackie Brown again. In the meantime, I've watched Pulp Fiction twice.


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