During the course of this blog, I plan on covering over 100 examples of 1990s retro touchpoints. Some of these are well known, and some are relatively obscure. Out of all of them, none will hold a stronger claim to being the retro shot heard round the world than Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 masterpiece Pulp Fiction. While other movies became relatively successful despite their mid-century frame, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction literally established retro chic as the dominant paradigm for the rest of the decade. Pulp Fiction was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The film quickly influenced all other forms of media, and even Roger Ebert deemed it the most influential film of the decade.
If you’ve never seen Pulp Fiction, get the hell off my blog and don’t come back until you have. OK, I’ll throw a bone to the unfamiliar. Pulp Fiction was a crime film with a nonlinear sequence of events that incorporated the humor, graphic violence and the intriguing dialog of pulp magazines and hardboiled detective fiction that were popular in the middle of the 20th century. Additionally, the picture was highly stylized, reminiscent of film noir, and extensively utilized homage. This much everyone agreed upon, and little else. The critical reaction to this film spanned the gamut from accusations of shallow nihilism, racism, homophobia, and glorified violence to claims of transcendentalism, celebrations of multiculturalism, and redemption through honor. Despite the discordant cacophony of critical theorist circle-jerkery, one thing was certain; Pulp Fiction allowed the critics to engage in psychological projection on a grander and deeper scale than any film that came before or has come since.
I remember seeing this film at the local multiplex with a group of friends in October of 1994. For the first twenty minutes or so, we were all confused as to whether Pulp Fiction was set in the 1950s, 1960s, early 1970s or the present. It wasn’t until Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules character referenced A Flock of Seagulls that we concluded it was either the present, or some version of the present in an alternate universe that was much, much cooler than ours. This is an observation I’ve heard repeatedly over the years. If I recall correctly, many people experienced the same conundrum with Reservoir Dogs (1992) until realizing that the characters were discussing Madonna. There were several primary reasons, all of them retro, for the seemingly ambiguous time periods in which Tarantino’s films of the 1990s took place.
One of the things to register immediately with first time viewers of Pulp Fiction is that it doesn’t look like a 1990s movie. Even when compared to other films that came out in 1994, such as Speed, True Lies or even the “present day” shots in Forest Gump, there is something fundamentally very different about Pulp Fiction. It all starts with the film stock.
According to Quentin Tarantino, Pulp Fiction was shot “on 50 ASA film stock, which is the slowest stock they make. The reason we use it is that it creates an almost no-grain image, it’s lustrous. It’s the closest thing we have to 50s Technicolor.”
While this point was lost amidst the all existential and sociopolitical posturing of the literati, the fact remains that the director explicitly stated that Pulp Fiction was intentionally shot to look like a film from the 1950s.
Secondly, Tarantino made good use of the many remaining buildings in Los Angeles which were designed in the architectural style of mid-century modern. Also referred to as “Populuxe”, “Space Age”, “Coffee Shop Modern”, or “Googie”, this type of architecture brought modernism to America’s post-WWII suburbs and incorporated elements such as upswept roofs, large sheet glass windows, boomerang shapes and starbursts. Pulp Fiction opens with Pumpkin and Honey Bunny having breakfast in a coffee shop clearly displaying the hallmarks of classic mid-century design, such as rock walls, open spaces made possible by post-and-beam construction, and of course large sheet glass windows. The diner scenes were filmed in the now-demolished Hawthorne Grill, which was originally built in 1956. Unless one lived in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, it was rare to see still-functional examples of mid-century modern architecture by the1990s, outside of the occasional church or stray ranch house. Moreover, to those of us from the heartland/flyover, these buildings were what the 1950s looked like.
The majority of story line deals with Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta’s characters, Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega. From the moment we were introduced to the two of them driving around while discussing the names of various hamburgers in Europe, they looked strangely anachronistic. Sure, Vincent Vega had a very 90s haircut. Lots of guys had long hair in the mid-1990s, but it HAD to be all one length as alternative culture had declared all-out war against the mullet and other forces of darkness. Jules’ Jheri-curled ‘fro and mustache combo, on the other hand, was straight out of the late 1970s. This brings us to Jules and Vincent’s iconic black and white suits, reminiscent of the Rat Pack or a tuxedo-clad James Bond. Nobody dressed like that in 1994. While their suits were well-tailored, the style at the time was derived from baggy Italian designs. Additionally, men’s suits were often very colorful in the early 1990s, with harvest orange, avocado green and Joker purple readily available off the rack. Even dress shirts seemed to come in myriad multicolored paisley prints. (Watch an old episode of Beverly Hills 90210, Married With Children, or Martin for context.) Not being one to pull punches whilst beating a dead horse, I’ll continue to belabor the point. The early to middle 1990s were the golden age of well-made wacky ties. If I recall correctly, by 1995 I’d effortlessly acquired several expensive-looking silk Spider-Man ties, but I had to go to several stores before I could find a plain black tie. Regardless, Tarantino stated that the black and white suits were homage to French film-noir director Jean-Pierre Melville. Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace character was the perfect feminine reflection of Jules and Vincent with her throwback white blouse and black Cleopatra haircut. So much of Pulp Fiction could have been filmed in black and white without losing a shred of ambience. Whether this was intentional or not, it adds to the retro feel of the film.
Next, we have the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, which was so influential in and of itself, that I debated covering it in an entirely separate post. Soundtracks were a very big deal in the 1990s, as they filled the pop-cultural void between K-Tel and Now That’s What I Call Music! Most of these featured currently popular songs from currently popular artists such as the soundtracks for Singles (1992), The Bodyguard (1992), and even So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993). Others were more conceptual featuring popular artists of one genre covering formerly popular artists of another genre such as The Crow (1994) soundtrack which hit number one on the Billboard charts, or the Judgment Night (1993) soundtrack which forced collaboration between alternative/grunge/metal artists and rappers, often with striking results. The Pulp Fiction soundtrack, however, was a retro smorgasbord of American surf music, soul and pop, which ended up going double platinum. The music was very carefully selected, and each track fit the mood of each scene perfectly. There was only one song by a new band, power-pop/alt-rockers Urge Overkill covering Neil Diamond’s 1967 hit “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon”. For those of you keeping score at home, that still counts as retro. Upon further reflection, the official soundtrack lists “If Love is a Red Dress (Hang Me in Rags)” by alt-country singer Mia McKee, but I’ll be damned if I can remember the song appearing in the movie.
From a pop-cultural standpoint in 1994, instrumental music had been dead and gone for decades. Even for those with some conceptual knowledge of surf music, it was mostly limited to highly vocal bands like The Beach Boys or Jan and Dean. It is impossible to overstate the impact that Dick Dale’s “Misirlou”, played during the opening credits, had on audience members too young to remember instrumental surf rock, yet old enough to appreciate the shock and awe of his loud, fast, intense and technically proficient style. It often started with amazement, “This is incredible?” Followed by curiosity, “Who is this? I have to find this song!” Eventually, one felt cheated, “Why have I never heard this before? Why the hell doesn’t the local oldies station play songs like this?!?” The exact same reaction happened all over again approximately thirty minutes later when the strains of Link Wray & The Wraymen’s “Rumble” and “Ace of Spades” would set the mood for Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace’s dinner at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. Needless to say, both Dale and Wray experienced a huge resurgence in their careers and record sales as a direct result of Pulp Fiction.
In addition to Dick Dale and His Del-Tones, Tarantino introduced an entire generation to;
Furthermore, everyone was familiar with Chuck Berry, Kool & the Gang, Al Green and Dusty Springfield, but only from the same one or two hits that had long since grown stale. Upon hearing this “new” material, it was as if Tarantino reached out from the screen, slapped the audience across the face and said, “Forget that Celebration and Johnny B. Goode shit! These guys have HUGE catalogs of fabulous material, and you HAVE to hear them.” The preceding sentence is much funnier if read with Tarantino’s trademark rapid, high-pitched, slightly lisping voice in mind.
Perhaps the most interesting legacy of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack was the effect it had on local music scenes nationwide. Back in the 1980s, I remember hearing a music industry insider of some sort discuss The Ramones. He said that in cities where no Punk Rock or New Wave scene existed, one would suddenly emerge overnight once The Ramones played a show in that town. The same can be said of surf and rockabilly scenes immediately after Pulp Fiction was released. (Note: I plan on dedicating many future posts to the 1990s surf music revival, the bands and labels involved.)
And finally we come to the retro pièce de résistance of Pulp Fiction; Jack Rabbit Slim’s. This is quite simply the most perfect expression of all retro desires ever committed to film, from the Ed Sullivan impersonating maître d’ and the 1950s celebrity wait staff, to the vintage movie posters adorning the walls over the classic automobile tables. You just felt it from the second Vincent and Mia pulled up in a convertible 1964 Chevy Malibu to the moment the scene faded during the twist contest. Vincent Vega said it was “a wax museum with a pulse”, but I say this was retro-Valhalla.
If Tarantino toyed with the aforementioned retro themes in the rest of the film, at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, he pretty much beat the audience over the head with them. Mid-century modern architecture, early 1960s attire, hotrods, rockabilly music, and antiquated dance moves were to be had in spades. Although not without humor, the sequence was entirely devoid of snark, sarcasm and detached irony, which allowed the audience to enjoy the date and the environment just as much as Vincent and Mia. Tarantino was clearly an enthusiast, rather than a satirist, as the Jack Rabbit Slim’s sequence played out like an unapologetic celebration of the apex of American civilization. If such a place actually existed, I and many like-minded individuals surely would have eaten breakfast, lunch and dinner there daily.
The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be
A common complaint or observation from critics was that Pulp Fiction was apolitical, but if one spent enough time contemplating the film, that assertion seemed lazy. While not an overt political statement, there was definitely something different about Quentin Tarantino’s America. Oddly enough, the only person to even acknowledge this was feminist cultural critic Estella Tincknell. (Emphasis mine)
She contrasts the soundtrack with that of Forrest Gump, the highest-grossing film of 1994, which also relies on period pop recordings: “The version of ‘the sixties’ offered by Pulp Fiction…is certainly not that of the publicly recognized counter-culture featured in Forrest Gump, but is, rather, a more genuinely marginal form of sub-culture based around a lifestyle—surfing, ‘hanging’—that is resolutely apolitical.”
If I find myself in agreement with a feminist cultural critic about anything, then it must be true. Regardless, while Pulp Fiction incorporated many cultural elements of the recent past, the film did not acknowledge the dominant counter-cultural paradigms of the late 1960s. In Tarantino’s alternate universe, the hippies, feminists and pinkos implicitly lost the culture war, and failed to complete their long march through the institutions, which resulted in a much cooler present. The important point to keep in mind is that every single character in Pulp Fiction is either a career criminal or an enabler. It made one wonder, if these intelligent, interesting, strong men with their archaic, yet rugged codes of honor are the scum of the earth, what must the good men be like? If in this world, Vincent, Jules, Butch and Marcellus are the losers, how magnificent must the winners be, ergo those with the will to power who are responsible for maintaining our advanced civilization? Would such men have allowed political correctness to apply a terminal stranglehold to intellectual discourse? Would such men tolerate a system where the likes of James Watson, Larry Summers and Jason Richwine lose their jobs for noticing repeating patterns? Would such men have acquiesced to subsidizing a massive welfare state when we could be planting our flag on Mars? Would such men be so submissively eager to legalize roughly twelve million third world illegal aliens because their enemies called them names? If such men ran the media, would they think the single most important issue of our day is endorsing state-sanctioned same-sex marriage? The answer to each of these questions is a resounding hell no.
One of the most appealing things about retro media is the ability to tap into the more optimistic and hopeful zeitgeist of a superior culture. The future envisioned through The Jetsons (1962) was a lot more pleasant than the future envisioned so horrifically and realistically through Idiocracy (2006). Much like that feeling of being cheated by withheld Dick Dale songs, many of us have a much more intense feeling of being cheated out of a shining future filled with jetpacks and space travel for a dystopian implosion filled with the many-splintered ticking time bombs of fiat currency, crushing debt and unsustainable equalitarian pipedreams. It’s enough to make a righteous man want to strike down upon the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men with great vengeance and furious anger. Or at least pour another drink.