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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Recommended!: Pulp Fiction (1994)

Well, come on. It's not like you need any additional incentive to see this thing; indeed, during a recent bout of hashtagging of top-ten-movies-per-decade the number of people who put Pulp Fiction on their lists for the 1990s was almost dispiriting. The triptych of crime stories by Quentin Tarantino (with a great deal of input let's not forget, from co-writer Roger Avary, especially on the segment being considered here) won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and became both an arthouse and mainstream hit that cemented Tarantino's reputation. And for better or worse it enabled thousands of imitators, chasing the vogue established by Pulp Fiction for tales about glib hitmen or movies about movies.

But on this day, the 60th birthday of actor Bruce Willis, this movie's on my mind. Even at the time the movie came out Willis' Butch Coolidge - a washed-up boxer paid by gangsters to throw a crucial bout - felt like the best thing in it. As familiar as the basic set-up of Butch's story was (from other boxing noirs, including, well, The Set-Up), he seemed more like a flesh-and-blood person than any of the movie's other nominal leads. Butch remains unique among Tarantino heroes (possibly due to the hand of Avary). He's not defined by his pop cultural preferences, though his singing along to an Oak Ridge Boys track on the car radio is a whimsical interlude. He is as present and focused in his dialogue scenes (chiefly with Maria de Medeiros as his girlfriend Fabienne and Angela Davis in a fine one-scene turn as a smoky, mysterious cab driver) and handles the dense Tarantino dialogue as strongly as anyone else in the movie.

But Butch is largely a silent character, often seen alone. We're introduced to him in a silent, painful closeup, being dictated the terms of the fight he's supposed to throw, placed in philosophical terms by gangster Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). He's the first character in Tarantino's talky oeuvre to whom we are introduced in such silent terms, and his stoicism lingers with us. Even when he's assailed, in-frame, by strutting hitman Vincent Vega (John Travolta) he's not given to snappy comebacks. Nursing, we suspect, some seriously wounded pride, Butch/Willis slides quietly out of frame...

...and snaps back into it, awakened from a dream to enter the fight that will change his life and destiny. After that we're reintroduced to him jumping from a window into a dumpster, thwarting our previous conceptions of him. We're fully re-engaged with Butch as this explosive re-re-entrance kicks off a tense and dangerous twelve hours. Butch will remain the only character in the movie with whom we spend much time alone, from his quiet return to his apartment to retrieve a precious heirloom to his pause on the threshold of an absolute hellhole where he makes the movie's most honorable, humane, and moving decision. In silence.

Reeling from a number of box office disasters, Willis was fighting hard to regain artistic credibility. He had campaigned at some length for Travolta's role in Pulp Fiction; critics at the time noted Willis' wisdom in accepting the smaller role of Butch Coolidge. It is difficult to imagine anyone else nailing the role as gracefully as Willis does. And as charmingly as Willis (himself well-established as a strong verbal presence on screen and stage) executes the dialogue Tarantino hands him, it is, again, in his silences where he registers so strongly, where Tarantino finds some of the movie's most powerful suspense, and where we find some of the most keenly felt humanity in any of his films. The movie's eminently rewatchable (as most of Tarantino's movies are), not just to piece together the parallel stories and revisit the densely packed dialogue, but to gaze again into Butch's silences, and rediscover the depths Willis plumbs within them.

Happy Birthday, Chief.

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