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‘Forrest Gump’ Won the Battle, but ‘Pulp Fiction’ Won the War

The 1994 Oscars awarded Robert Zemeckis’s American fable Best Picture. But it was Quentin Tarantino’s zeitgeist sensation that changed the future of film. Twenty-five years later, what did that mean for movies?

Efi Chalikopoulou

This week marks the release of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, director Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature film. To celebrate, we’re looking back at the best of QT—the best scenes, the best stunts, the best dialogue. We’ll drill down on his extraordinary rise from video store clerk to filmmaking legend and talk to the man himself about his long career.


It was simple happenstance that Steven Spielberg handed Robert Zemeckis the Academy Award for Best Director in 1995 for Forrest Gump. Spielberg had won in the category the year before, for Schindler’s List, and the evident delight he took in announcing the name of his longtime friend and protégé (“Alex, your father just won the Academy Award”) was spontaneous rather than premeditated—a happy coincidence nevertheless bristling with subtext.

After directly sending up his mentor in the early ’80s with Romancing the Stone—a wry parody of Raiders of the Lost Ark swapping out square-jawed Harrison Ford for a louche, self-mocking Michael Douglas—Zemeckis had mounted a convincing campaign to inherit his role as Hollywood’s grand entertainer, conjuring up a series of witty, irresistible hits whose integration of old-fashioned tropes with state-of-the-art special effects could only be described as “Spielbergian”; with Forrest Gump, he’d harnessed the jokey nostalgia of Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit to a newfound sense of historical sweep. Forrest Gump was his most ambitious movie ever, a galloping American picaresque that visualized the decisive social and cultural upheavals of the mid-to-late 20th century through the eyes of an innocent—a metaphor, perhaps, for its target audience of discombobulated baby boomers trying to make sense of their country on the eve of the millennium.

Forrest Gump ended up sweeping the Academy Awards—sucking up six wins in total, for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Visual Effects in addition to Zemeckis’s statuette—a fait accompli. The film’s mix of critical consensus and commercial success (its worldwide box office gross of $678 million placed it behind only Star Wars, Jurassic Park, E.T., and The Lion King at the time on the all-time list) was the stuff of Oscars dominance. Even the co-architect of Forrest Gump’s main awards-season rival showed deference. Accepting the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Pulp Fiction—which lost in every category Gump won except for Visual Effects—Roger Avary paraphrased Forrest’s famous gag about his lack of bladder control in the spotlight: “I really have to take a pee right now, so I’m going to go.”

As for Quentin Tarantino, he took the opportunity to backhandedly acknowledge his underdog status: “I think this is probably the only award I’m going to win here tonight,” he grinned. “So I was trying to think maybe I should just say a whole lot of stuff right here, right now. Just get it all out of my system.”

Not that QT had lacked for opportunities to bask in applause. A few months earlier, Pulp Fiction had been the surprise toast of the Cannes Film Festival and winner of the Palme d’Or, a triumphant choice with its own form of the Spielberg-Zemeckis passing-of-the-torch moment via the presence of jury president Clint Eastwood. Even if there wasn’t a direct stylistic link between Eastwood’s earnest classicism and Tarantino’s restlessly self-reflexive black comedy, both filmmakers, in their way, embodied the elevation of bloody genre fare into the realm of high art, as well as the corresponding idea that the greatest American filmmakers were often more appropriately appreciated overseas. The prestige factor of taking a prize in France—the birthplace not only of the Nouvelle Vague masterpieces cited explicitly in Pulp Fiction’s metacinematic collage but also the heroic auteurist tradition Tarantino sought so obviously to insert himself within—more than offset any future disappointment at not being equally honored by the Academy. Besides, by grossing more than $200 million on a budget of just over $8 million—without a CGI feather, firefight, or Tom Hanks in sight—Pulp Fiction was, pound for pound, a bigger hit than Forrest Gump. Pulp was a lean, vicious middleweight killer in the Jake LaMotta mold, while Zemeckis’s film was more like Hulk Hogan—a phonily pumped-up avatar of showbiz excess.

In 1994, the contest between Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction was already richly and broadly symbolic of a larger schism in American cinema, with all kinds of tasty baked-in contrasts: not only studio versus indie, but also mainstream versus niche, sentimentality versus sarcasm, cute versus cult, Spielbergian spectacle versus something more stripped-down and hard-edged. If Forrest Gump suggested a tale told by an idiot, with sound and fury—“stupid is as stupid does”—Pulp Fiction proudly displayed its smarts. It didn’t matter that the two movies were as alike as they were different, epically scaled (or maybe hopelessly bloated) experiments in postmodernism, each repurposing a collection of recognizable pop cultural reference points to create something like an original vision. Nor was it important that Tarantino’s movie was, in its way, as much of a crowd-pleaser as Zemeckis’s, except aimed at an in-crowd with a hipper frame of reference.

There is a deleted scene in Pulp Fiction in which Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace queries Vincent Vega (John Travolta) before their excursion to Jackrabbit Slim’s about whether he’s an Elvis fan or a Beatles fan, and the all-or-nothing aspect of her ultimatum corresponded to real-world attitudes about her film and its putative rival. You could like Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction (Roger Ebert put both on his 1994 top 10 list), but you couldn’t possibly like them both equally. “Somewhere you have to make a choice,” the gangster’s moll tells her date. “And that choice tells you who you are.”

Tarantino, it’s fair to say, is an Elvis guy: the Southern background; the flamboyance; the showmanship; the ego; the incessant, Samuel L. Jackson–sanctioned and yet perennially problematic appropriation of African American culture. (Although arguably nothing as offensive in the latter category as Forrest Gump’s hint that the King’s fame came from copying the dance moves of a white kid from Alabama, itself a continuation of the dubious joke in Back to the Future wherein Michael J. Fox gifted rock ’n’ roll to Chuck Berry instead of the other way around.) QT even played an Elvis impersonator on The Golden Girls, a cameo imbued with true meaning only retroactively, after the success of Pulp Fiction made Tarantino the reigning celebrity auteur of the ’90s—heir less to the benevolent Spielberg than a master of self-promotion like Alfred Hitchcock. But where Elvis and the Beatles are both ultimately case studies in the accelerated half-life of truly thermonuclear stardom, Tarantino has—by every plausible metric of visibility, notoriety, profitability, and artistic quality—endured.

This is what it looks like to lose the battle but win the war. In 2019, you’re not going to find too many Forrest Gump people. Whether or not you think it holds up, it was a placeholder rather than a template. Pulp Fiction, meanwhile, looks more and more like the most influential movie of its era—the Star Wars of the ’90s, for better and for worse, spawning not only rip-offs and imitators but changing expectations of what a truly popular movie could look and sound and feel like.

When I was 13, I tried to sneak into several Toronto screenings of Pulp Fiction only to be hauled out by overzealous teenaged ushers who I assumed were just angry that they didn’t get to see it either. In Canada, an R rating meant that nobody under the age of 18 could see a movie, unlike in the U.S. where you could get in with a parent. Forrest Gump had been easy to see: I went with my dad, and so did everybody else that I knew. So what? For adolescent boys trying to style themselves as cinephiles, Tarantino was, like Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch before him, the equivalent of a gateway drug—a heady pharmacological concoction mixing the deliciously toxic fumes of violence and profanity with potent second-hand whiffs of even harder (or more delicately perfumed) stuff waiting to be sampled on the other side. In the summer of 1994, nothing meant more—felt more urgent, more charged, or more significant in terms of both self-esteem and social status—than getting into a screening of Pulp Fiction.

It wasn’t so much about wanting to be shocked or surprised as confirming the affection I already had for the movie based on reading reviews, memorizing the published screenplay, and listening endlessly to the soundtrack. The latter was an especially important accessory and in its way, an extension and distillation of the dichotomy between Tarantino’s film and Zemeckis’s. Where Forrest Gump traced an impossibly glossy victory lap through three decades of iconic American Top 40 hits—from Elvis through Dylan and the Beach Boys, Aretha and the Supremes, Skynyrd and Seger, eschewing the Beatles by dint of their Britishness—Pulp Fiction was, status-wise, a collection of B-sides: the Allman Brothers, Dusty Springfield, Al Green. They weren’t things I’d heard a thousand times—or even really once. It was the difference between raiding your parents’ record collection and your friend’s cooler older brother’s.

The key to this analogy, and to Pulp Fiction’s resonance two and a half decades after the fact, lies in its essentially adolescent appeal. In the 1980s, American studio movies regressed in large part into childish fantasies (whether directed at actual kids or awakening the proverbial “child within”) or else representations of teenagers (i.e., John Hughes and his imitators), with E.T. and Home Alone standing at either end of the decade as evocative portraits of underage anxieties and wish fulfillment. Even an ostensibly “adult” hit like Terminator 2: Judgment Day had Spielbergian residue, replacing E.T. with Arnold Schwarzenegger in place of an animatronic alien. The thumbs up as the Terminator sinks into the molten magma is nothing if not a mirror of E.T.’s glowing finger as he touches Elliott’s heart.

Deconstructing what Tarantino was actually, consciously doing when he emerged with Reservoir Dogs—his deliberate privileging of dialogue over action; his kowtowing to Kubrick’s The Killing and homages to Hong Kong; his mix of showy camera moves with a sturdy, stage-bound sense of dramaturgy—is one thing, but putting a bead on how it made people feel is another. Reservoir Dogs is terrifically entertaining because of its raw exuberance. It’s like watching a brilliant, cynical, ambitious kid playing cops and robbers. The brash, foul-mouthed posturing of its characters is the truest source of its charm.

That doesn’t mean that Reservoir Dogs was made for teenagers, or primarily appreciated by them: It was professional—which is to say, grown-up—film critics who anointed it as the sleeper hit of 1992, a warm-up for the epochal admiration they showered on Pulp Fiction two years later. Pulp Fiction is also a movie entirely without teenagers, but again, in its mix of playful parody and endless, circular philosophizing—so many more monologues than in its predecessor, some very much in the half-profound, half-baked key of smoky dorm-room oratory—it penetrates and rides some kind of adolescent wavelength.

Knowing how excited I was to see Pulp Fiction, my mother—who, to her credit, had ensured I was the only kid in my elementary school class to have seen The Terminator and encouraged us to liberally quote The Silence of the Lambs on family car rides—went to see it and came back disappointed and disgusted. “There’s no moral center,” she told me, which of course at the time only inflamed my desire to see it more on the long-standing principle—as per Will Smith, but really as old as Elvis and the Beatles—that parents just don’t understand. When I finally managed to make it through a screening without getting caught, the illicit thrill existed in sync with what was on the screen—a filmmaker and his viewer, united in the feeling of getting away with something.

He’s still doing it. In 2019, Quentin Tarantino stands alone as the most liberated commercial filmmaker in America, beholden to no franchises or preexisting intellectual properties, the center of his own sprawling cinematic universe. As it turns out, Robert Zemeckis, for all his sporadic brilliance—and even Forrest Gump is sort of brilliant, in an evil way—wasn’t actually Spielberg’s inheritor. It was, in fact, Tarantino, who took the “movie brat” persona established by Spielberg and the rest of the New Hollywood gang and ran with it. He cultivated a persona as a virtuoso of intertextual allusions and divided viewers into two camps: those who “got” it, and those who didn’t.

The question then—and, I’d say, now—is what there was to get beyond the process of getting it; whether Tarantino’s brash borrowings and glorious bastardizations of cinema both high (Godard, Kubrick) and low (any old ’70s exploitation flick you can name) were in the service of true meaning-making or else pure, undisciplined indulgence. An argument could be made, perhaps, that the indulgence was the meaning, in which case the fact that said indulgences nearly always tended toward extreme cruelty probably said something about both the artist and his army of acolytes. Whatever you think of A Clockwork Orange, the way Kubrick used “Singin’ in the Rain” to punctuate an unbearable scene of torture had an intellectual integrity—it was a mirror of how, within the story, Beethoven’s music became hideously weaponized against the protagonist. But when Tarantino nodded to Kubrick in Reservoir Dogs by having Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde rock out to “Stuck in the Middle With You” while slicing up an undercover cop, the contrapuntal concept, while still brilliantly effective, didn’t add up to much more than gory shock value, although maybe the idea that easy-listening music like Stealers Wheel is bad for your ears counts as a substantial punch line. Or, to cite Lynch instead—and Madsen’s sadistic vamp owes more than a little to Dean Stockwell lip-synching Roy Orbison to a captive audience in Blue Velvet—Tarantino’s nasty ironies were comparatively on the nose. If there’s a better film-critical observation than the one made by David Foster Wallace in 1996 that the difference between Tarantino and Lynch is that the former is interested in showing an ear being sliced off while the latter is more interested in the ear, I haven’t read it.

The thing about Kubrick and Lynch (and also the Coen brothers, who may be better comparisons to Tarantino than either) is that even at the peaks of their respective powers, they were outsiders to some degree—geographically or industrially marginalized, acquired tastes that confounded blander palates. They didn’t make “normal” movies and that was the source of their excitement and notoriety. Tarantino started as a shit-disturber and then looked like a prophet as his peers tried to play catch-up. While technically remaining outside the studio system, he was still able to generate blockbuster projects like the Kill Bill diptych, partially because of a consensus respect for his talent and partially because (except for Grindhouse) his movies typically end up being very profitable—a fact worth noting because of how surpassingly weird they really are.

In 1994, Pulp Fiction was seen as the bleeding edge of American independent filmmaking, but its idiosyncrasies were minor compared with the overscaled craziness of Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight—movies whose massive commercial success seems to have occurred in spite of a lot of what’s in them. They’re slow, talky, and at times dizzyingly obscure; their violence borders on the genuinely abject. I remember watching Inglourious Basterds in 2009 and wondering what the $300 million worth of viewers who bought tickets thought about the bit where Michael Fassbender’s suave British spy talked about the films of the German auteur G.W. Pabst for three minutes. Are there that many film majors with disposable income in the world? Or has Tarantino shifted the goalposts of what constitutes quasi-mainstream entertainment that far?

In a way, what Tarantino has done in his past four films—including Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood—is collapse the difference between Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. No longer a voracious termite artist (pulp being an excellent source of nutrition for termites), he’s in the counterfactual myth business, taking on the Holocaust, the Civil War, and slavery as subjects. This desire to “grow up” is riven with contradictions, as applying a wry postmodern gloss to authentic trauma doesn’t necessarily constitute an intellectual intervention so much as pinkish opportunism.

In spirit, though, it’s still reminiscent of Spielberg’s mid-’80s midlife crisis, which saw him take on The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, stories that required him to use a different set of aesthetic muscles, culminating in the unqualified triumph of Schindler’s List. While there’s no question that Spielberg is always himself when he’s behind the camera—that he has a set of visual and thematic preoccupations that manifest whatever the nature of the movie he’s making—he is also uniquely capable of compartmentalization: not so much the “one for me, one for them” attitude adopted by more situationally contingent filmmakers like Gus Van Sant and Steven Soderbergh, but modulating his virtuosity depending on the material. Consider that in 1993, he made Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List—the former an exercise in joyous showmanship, the latter a more judicious show of technique.

This is where Tarantino the eternal teenager stands apart. He’s incapable of reining himself in. The key moment in his entire filmography may be the bit near the end of Django Unchained where Christoph Waltz’s elegant bounty hunter has the opportunity to leave a tense situation unscathed but opts to go down guns blazing, proffering as his last words a confession that sounds like a statement of artistic principle: “I’m sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.” (Think again of Tarantino’s 1995 Oscar speech: “I thought all year long, everything building up and everything, just blow it all, just tonight, just say everything!”) Doc Schultz’s choice to shoot Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie is steeped in moralistic anguish—he wants to punish the slave owner for his transgressions—but more generally, this has always been Tarantino’s calculus since Pulp Fiction’s middle section, with Bruce Willis returning to the scene of the crime brandishing a samurai sword: a leveling catharsis through violence.

The only one of Tarantino’s post–Pulp Fiction films that isn’t drunk on the liberating potential of vengeance is Jackie Brown, a movie that is, uncoincidentally, also about adulthood. Not only because its characters are older and more rueful and the narrative stakes are lower—even more small-scale than Reservoir Dogs, and with a comparatively minuscule body count—but because the sorts of existential dilemmas confronting Pam Grier’s eponymous heroine (and Robert Forster’s gallant bail bondsman Max Cherry) can’t be solved by a well-placed bullet. They’re too far along for that and Tarantino, whether out of reverence for Elmore Leonard or some stirring of maturity, pulls off the wistful, provisional tone quite beautifully.

A case could be made that Kill Bill’s jumbo-sized revenge narrative is, at its core, a reckoning with the compromises and consequences of grown-up responsibility—that David Carradine’s speech to Uma Thurman about Clark Kent being Superman’s strained secret identity is a metaphor for the impossibility, for people of a certain temperament, of ever truly straightening up and flying right. But Kill Bill is so intoxicated by its own exploitation-movie textures—and by the array of self-reflexive distancing devices Tarantino uses to tell the story—that it feels less like an empathetic meditation on maternity than a steroidal auteur’s biggest flex to date. The self-critique of Death Proof, with its sadistic Tarantino-stand-in villain, showed more self-awareness, even if in the end, the director once again reduced everything—plot, character, style, morality—to the spectacle of somebody (a serial killer, a slave owner, Adolf Hitler) getting the shit kicked out of him.

As it turns out, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is Tarantino’s second movie to convincingly address the question of maturity: The characters played by DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are close to (or past) their professional expiration date, and Los Angeles circa the Summer of Love is no country for old men. How the film filters these melancholy feelings through its very specific set of historical circumstances—the formation of the Manson family and the killing of Sharon Tate—demonstrates Tarantino’s gifts as well as his limitations. (And maybe also that some of his more grotesque obsessions have gotten the best of him once and for all.) Once again, though, as with Basterds, Django, and Hateful Eight, what’s more interesting than the movie’s relative quality or the exact valence of its politics is the mere fact of its existence: a 160-minute epic produced and released by a major studio, featuring some of the biggest stars around, built largely around references to obscure late-’60s network television dramas. For a movie of this size to turn a profit, teenagers are going to have to buy tickets; my mind goes to Nick Kroll near the end of Netflix’s filmed version of Oh, Hello on Broadway, querying a 14-year-old in the audience: “Did you enjoy any of this?”

Tarantino may be as free as he is because he doesn’t have to appeal primarily to teenagers in the present tense. He hooked his target demographic in 1994, and for a lot of reasons, we’ve never really gotten away from him. Growing older in the aftermath of Pulp Fiction has meant endlessly revising my opinion about what Tarantino’s cinema means and how much it matters—to me, to audiences, to movie history. For his part, he has steadfastly refused to change, and in the process he’s become not only a part of the establishment, but an institution in and of himself. Tarantino wasn’t passed the torch—he grabbed it. And even when he lets it go—if he truly retires after his 10th movie—it’s hard to imagine another director picking it up. At the end of Forrest Gump, its namesake is content to simply be a witness to history, letting others shape it around him. His story ends. Pulp Fiction’s time-shifting structure renders its final scene as a figure-eight, suggesting that its scuzzy thrills could conceivably spin on into infinity. Twenty-five years later, both endings feel absolutely correct.

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