Monday, December 27, 2010

Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction is a very well received movie. Not only do many people think very highly of it, but so do a lot of people whose opinion I respect on such matters. Not just fans, and not just critics, but also people who make movies, and who make good movies. This makes it hard for me to say much about it because I don't have much good to say.

And I don't just mean in the sense of "it's a well-made movie that just doesn't interest me" -- I don't even see where it's a well-made movie. But I don't mean to be disagreeing with all those people in the way that one would expect, where I think I'm right and they're wrong. I fully, honestly, sincerely imagine maybe there's something I'm not picking up. Trouble is, when people say that, so often they mean they really do think they're right and everyone else is wrong, but they don't want to say so, because it sounds arrogant. Everyone knows that, though, so when people demur from that claim, everyone reads in the subtext.

So anything I say about the movie inevitably has to come off confrontational, like I'm claiming it's not nearly that good a movie as people think, and I'm the only one who sees that (which I actually did, to some extent, with The Matrix). So I say things about the movie as an act of taking a risk: maybe I'll get some more insight into the movie, but more likely, I'll just offend people who like it and think I'm dissing it.

First, what was good? Certainly some of the tense moments had a tension I appreciate. I was intrigued by the unexpected use of non-linear storytelling -- we get about halfway through the movie before we even realize that things aren't entirely chronological. While a lot of the acting felt too distant for me to know if it was good, what I saw was solid, convincing, engaging. Harvey Keitel's character was amusing to watch, and the oddly-themed restaurant was interesting. Several scenes had some incidental-seeming conversation that was amusing, in the sense that if you deleted a few dozen F-words from it and retooled it a bit, a stand-up comedian could have made some material out of it.

What didn't work for me, though, is two main things: the plot and the characters. My problem with the plot is that it doesn't seem so much like it had one, as it had a bunch of parts of one that never entirely got to go anywhere. Maybe half of the things that happened probably wouldn't've changed much if they hadn't happened. Most of the things that started never finished; in fact, the whole movie doesn't actually end so much as come to the conclusion of a scene and then fail to have another one after it. Don't get me wrong: I am not the kind of person who only likes movies where everything is tied up in a neat bow at the end, far from it. But I am conventional enough to want a story to go somewhere, and I don't feel like this one really ever did.

I was trying to think about what about the characters bugged me and I suspect people might think it's because I find them unlikeable or alien. I think that's missing the point. To me, as I go through the characters, I think every one of them can be summed up in precisely two sentences, and short ones at that. The first sentence says what the character obviously appears to be: a hedonistic, shallow trophy wife; a hard-ass gangster; an opportunistic, washed-up boxer. The second sentence describes what is revealed in some single scene to also be true of the character, which isn't obvious from the first sentence, or may even appear to contradict it. The boxer also has a conscience; the gangster wonders what it's all about. And that, so far as I can see, is it. That's all the complexity, all the development, all the humanity any of them have.

Admittedly, that's more than characters sometimes have in action movies. How much more could you say about Dallas from Alien, or Sarah Connor? But those movies aren't counting on there being a lot more depth or layers, usually. There's other things you're going to those movies for. Pulp Fiction acts like it's primarily a character study, a vehicle for a bunch of characters to interact with one another, change, or reveal things about themselves.

So is it not really primarily a character study; is there something else and the characters are just there to move through it? Or if it is, what am I missing about the characters?

If I got answers to these things that satisfied me, it would probably change my reaction to "okay, so it's well done, and Tarantino's style is just not to my tastes," which is why I'm not looking forward to the other of his movies on the must-see list, and tempted to set them aside and watch something enjoyable for a bit before going back to the chore. But as of this writing I've seen most of Inglorious Basterds (the copy I had on my Archos was cut off, so I have to watch the rest at home), and a bit of Reservoir Dogs, and I'll at least see those through before I take a break.

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