PRINT December 1994



High Travoltage
Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was a perfect little movie. It aspired to nothing that it didn’t do, brilliantly. Tarantino knew how to keep the camera moving while the actors tossed their lines like they were grenades: he fast-forwarded the gangster genre way past the previous innovations of Brian DePalma and Martin Scorsese. Reservoir Dogs was wildly funny, unremittingly brutal, and heroically human. It also knew how to stay small while trying out some big ideas.

Pulp Fiction is an imperfect big movie. But imperfection has seldom felt so liberatingly giddy. The elliptical storytelling is cinematic in a way that hasn’t been much in evidence since Orson Welles left Hollywood in 1958 after completing his perfect little movie Touch of Evil. I don’t mean Tarantino is another Welles; Welles made movies like nobody before him and Tarantino makes movies like everybody before him. Barely a frame of Pulp Fiction whizzes by without a kiss or a hug for some preexisting celluloid something-or-other. Yet Tarantino’s delirious references and cockeyed quotations go beyond pastiche into a territory of hip damnation and salvation that is brand new.

Tarantino’s casting is revelatory, particularly as regards John Travolta and Bruce Willis, whose preexisting flat-lined personas he makes seem karmic rehearsals for Pulp Fiction. There are also sensational performances by Samuel L. Jackson, Harvey Keitel, and Ving Rhames. I am personally indebted to Tarantino for finally doing something interesting with Uma Thurman, who is right up there with Charlotte Rampling and Dominique Sanda in the movie pantheon of slightly off gorgeousness. Typically, while Tarantino gives Thurman a career-defining role, he turns her into one more homage, this time to Jean-Luc Godard’s most glamorous muse, Anna Karina.

The nagging doubt about Pulp Fiction’s greatness comes from its self-aware contextualization within film history. I have no doubt that Tarantino is concerned with issues of despair and redemption. but sometimes it’s hard to separate the text from the footnotes.

Horse Platitudes
Mazeppa, which won the Prix Technique at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, is a fabulous mess. Reviewing it in the Times when it played for a nanosecond in New York, Stephen Holden referenced such excessives as Federico Fellini, Peter Greenaway, and Ken Russell. He could have thrown in Georges Franju, Alexandro Jodorowsky, and Erich von Stroheim, all of whom are to blame and to applaud for this crazed wank of a film. The director, Bartabas, has clearly been dying to make a movie for a long time. The result is a torrent of incredible images scurrying around in search of a raison d’être. The funny thing is that it almost doesn’t matter whether or not they do.

Very loosely, the film imagines that the painter Géricault apprentices himself to the impresario of an equestrian troupe. (Bartabas himself cofounded an equestrian circus.) Painter and horseman then engage in a sadomasochistic struggle that destroys them both. And then there are the horses—rivers and garlands and constellations of horses. The images of the animals are ecstatic and liberating. The human story is an annoying formal construct.

What I love about Mazeppa is that it got made, and that the best of Bartabas’ vision is now a part of me. I wish the director had made a film that felt more necessary. Nonetheless, a failure like Mazeppa is an act of extreme grace, and I remain dazzled by the height from which it fell.

Richard Flood is a writer and the chief curator of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.


Don’t you just hate it when everyone agrees with you about a film? A sure sign something’s wrong, it means the country is ahead of the curve, or you’re behind it. Either way, things are not good. Especially if you make your living writing about the movies.

So I was shocked to find myself extolling the merits of Pulp Fiction. Quentin Tarantino’s exhilarating story of misfits and madmen, which I was sure was too grizzly for mass consumption. While it does contain a splendid performance by John Travolta (forget that white suit—when Travolta gets up to dance with Uma Thurman, he’s sexier and more natural than he’s ever been, which ain’t easy when you’re twenty pounds overweight and have long greasy hair hanging down your back). I couldn’t imagine the multiplexes loaded with fans on a Saturday night.

But there they were, laughing at the right places, hiding their eyes only once or twice (which is de rigueur in any film by Tarantino), talking endlessly about which scene was out of sequence and which character out of luck.

It was enough to make me go see Forrest Gump, which I had studiously avoided all summer because everyone—my mother, my friends, one of my cynical editors—was raving. They were Gumped, and sure I would be too. Words like “sweet” and “life-affirming” were bandied about. It was enough to make a girl retch.

But Tom Hanks is irresistible, even though he did such a lousy job in Bonfire of the Vanities and hadn’t redeemed himself in Philadelphia. (Don’t be so politically correct: if Philadelphia were the story of an average AIDS patient, the guy would have died alone, without health insurance, and no smiling Joanne Woodward to cheer him up. But I digress.) So I went.

They say if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there. Which is totally untrue: you just remember it with better colors. So while Hanks as a retarded guy (Don’t you mean mentally impaired? Intellectually challenged? No, I mean retarded) was reeling from one situation to the next, acting cute and oblivious, changing the outcome of elections, wars, and his girlfriend’s life, I was horrified. If they want to screw around with the images of Kennedy, LBJ, and Nixon, who am I to quibble? But when they portray John Lennon as an empty vessel who gets the words to “Imagine” from this dolt, then someone has to stand up and say “Enough.”

Life is like a box of chocolates? Whose life? For that matter, whose chocolates? Nah, life is really more like a Quentin Tarantino movie: you’ll certainly die in the end, but maybe you’ll get in a few belly laughs along the way.

Martha Frankel is a contributing editor of Movieline.


Speed Up
“It doesn’t have any soul,” a friend complained about Natural Born Killers, but if it did it’d be unwatchable—in fact the one killing that hurts, the first, Mickey gunning down the terrified, pleading waitress for no reason on earth, almost upends the movie, almost poisons the pleasure you might take from it after the fact. Still, nothing really gets in the way of the torrent of amazements that drives the picture, most notably the horrible little sitcom where Rodney Dangerfield makes a perfect family monster without changing an eyelash of his stand-up act. Still, that doesn’t make Natural Born Killers the year’s best anymore than the lifeless Quiz Show was the worst.

There’s something enormously appealing about watching Keanu Reeves be competent: as in Point Break, in Speed there’s nothing natural about his movements, no grace. He seems to earn the right to get from one place to another, and for most of the film his cop is trying to keep up less with Dennis Hopper’s fiend than with Sandra Bullock’s citizen bus-driver. Sure, it’s Die Hard on a bus, but the Die Hard movies were wonderful (with the villain in Die Harder based hard and fast on Oliver North—where are the movies when we really need them?), even if Bruce Willis was the only good guy who ever got to kill anybody (except for the blond avenger shot by the black cop at the end of number one). In Speed there’s an economy of violence that’s also a democracy of heroism. Plus, a surprise ending: how many people even knew there was a subway in Los Angeles? (There isn’t, yet: this fall, construction on the L.A. Metroline was stopped when it caused the partial collapse of nine blocks of the Walk of Fame.)

Lies Down
I can’t decide what was worse about the arrogance of True Lies: the idea that there might be something titillating about watching Jamie Lee Curtis gyrate in a thong, or the notion that a gun falling down steps would wipe out a platoon of bad guys without any need of direct human agency (sufficient that, having last been touched by a good guy, it was therefore blessed)—a notion that might forever discredit all interestingly unbelievable stunts, even in retrospect (Richard Burton diving from one airborne cable car to another in Where Eagles Dare). Having given Arnold Schwarzenegger his comeuppance for The Last Action Hero, critics felt the need to rehabilitate him this time around, as if they’d proved their power and would now do it again, like the congressional Democrats who rushed to prop up Ronald Reagan after Iran-Contra broke. But they won’t have to pay to see True Lies Too.

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor and monthly columnist for Artforum. He recently completed The Dustbin of History, a collection of essays to be published in 1995 by Harvard University Press.


Wood Works
A friend of mine describes Pulp Fiction as Jean-Luc Godard’s first commercial hit, an appraisal I can only second, the question then becoming: why this movie, why Quentin Tarantino, why now? Though all its component parts seem to have been hijacked from somewhere else (to the point where Tarantino has to be considered not just the Godard du jour but the Philip Johnson of Hollywood), Pulp Fiction has broken the mold that all Hollywood product has been cast in since Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, and the other key narratives of neonoir. You can love Tarantino or despise him or just have serious problems with the gaping hole in the middle of his work where the humanity should be, but films will look different and feel different after Pulp Fiction. And where movies are concerned, the nothing you don’t know is always more interesting than the nothing you do.

Ed Wood is a drastic enlargement of Tim Burton’s range. Superficially sweet, it’s actually as harsh and sardonic as Douglas Sirk or Werner Rainer Fassbinder. It’s certainly the first Disney blockbuster that deals—unrelentingly—with mediocrity, delusion, and failure. Because Burton refuses to despise his characters, or kill them off in explosions, some people think it’s less significant than Pulp Fiction. I disagree

Michael Tolkin’s New Age is an ambitious film that occasionally seems to get oversaturated by its digressions, but what is remarkable about Tolkin’s work is a restless and even tortured attention to the divagations of the soul in a spiritual desert. Tolkin is the only American director working near the level of Paolo Pasolini and of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue, and the problem he sets himself is how to bring these concerns to a narrative that will both deliver the goods and sell enough tickets to let him keep working. New Age should have done that for him, and for reasons I can’t account for, it didn’t, at least not as much as it should have. The acting’s great. the film looks wonderful, and it really is funny.

Stone Cold
Of Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers): the less said the better. He epitomizes everything he despises. Period.

Hal Hartley (Amateur) is masturbation on stale toast.

The Last Seduction is the ugliest portrait of a female since Picasso’s classical period. Your basic HBO after-school special. Some perky dialogue, though.

That French thing by the bisexual guy who died of AIDS.

Gary Indiana’s third novel, Rent Boy, was published recently by Serpent’s Tail/High Risk Books of New York and London.


Movie Material
Given that it’s an undistributable 71/2 hours long, you can thank your local film festival (or not) for an opportunity to see Satantango, Bela Tarr’s bleakly comic allegory of social disintegration on the muddy Hungarian puszta. Simplest put, Satantango is a characteristically East European tale of hapless peasants and charismatic swindlers who choreograph nature (rain, mist, wind) as a presence. The movie is a double tour de force—for the actors, as the camera circles them in lengthy continuous takes, and for Tarr, who constructs his narrative out of these morose blocks of real time. The final shot, in which one character boards up his window, provides a superbly materialist fade-out.

Satantango has fewer shots than the average 90-minute feature, and two hour-long chunks of it would be remarkable movies in their own right. In one, a fat, drunken doctor spies on his neighbors and takes notes like a character in an Alain Robbe-Grillet novel, runs out of booze, and makes an epic trek through torrential rain to get another bottle; in another, a ten-year-old girl poisons a cat and then herself. The dance that gives the movie its title is a remarkable composition in repetitive ranting, drunken strutting, and befuddled dancing to the same mind-breaking musical loop. After everyone collapses, the accordionist finishes all their drinks and pukes (offscreen). Despair has never been more voluptuously precise. Not until halfway through the movie is it apparent that much of the action is unfolding simultaneously.

Sound Bite Nation
Where Satantango opens a chasm in your life, Forrest Gump drills a hole in your head. There’s an undeniable kick to the idea of the Boomerography as a tale told by an idiot, but it pales long before this interminable, mawkish saga ever reaches Vietnam. It’s fitting that Forrest Gump would explain its hero’s lineage by quoting The Birth of a Nation, our first and most amazing attempt sentimentally to reconfigure in celluloid a traumatic national past. When not reduced to sound bite or bumper sticker slogan, history is understood here mainly as old movies (livened with old music).

A mixture of insistent innocence, unremitting solipsism, and allegiance to the eternal verities has elevated Forrest Gump from marketing triumph to the fifth-highest-grossing film ever released in the U.S. (and quickly closing in on number four). Hailed by Pat Buchanan as “a morality play, where decency, honor and fidelity triumph over the values of Hollywood,” the movie—which ends more or less at the moment that Ronald Reagan becomes president—demonstrates that you would need an IQ of 75 to obliterate the lessons of the past forty years.

J. Hoberman writes on film for The Village Voice. His column “American Myths” appears regularly in Artforum.