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COMMENTARY : Can 200 Critics Be Wrong? (Maybe) : Movies: 'Pulp Fiction' is a dark comedy where viewers gasp, then laugh, then look forward to the next sick joke. Isn't it?

December 26, 1994|JACK MATHEWS | NEWSDAY

In its long and checkered history, Hollywood has been compared to some pretty odious institutions, but it took Quentin Tarantino's violent gangster comedy "Pulp Fiction," and its accompanying tidal wave of rave reviews, to inspire a comparison with the tobacco industry.

"Like contemporary tobacco chiefs who deny any link between cigarettes and cancer, Hollywood executives will be sitting before congressional committees 10 years from now in adamant denial," wrote USA Today columnist Joe Urschel, in a severe rebuke of "Pulp Fiction."

"They will continue to callously brush off the connections between their products and the violence in society--despite an avalanche of scientific studies showing the connection."

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But it is not Hollywood, or even "Pulp Fiction," that has worked Urschel into such a lather. It's the critics who bought into the film's "brazen depravity," and in their four-star enthusiasm sent thousands of innocent lambs to their psychic slaughter.

"Unlike the tobacco industry," Urschel wrote, "Hollywood has a powerful coterie of sycophants and enablers in the press who wrap this craven merchandising in the cloak of artistic expression and try to elevate it to the level of something holy and good."

In a follow-up telephone conversation, Urschel pressed his attack on film critics even further, saying we take no moral responsibility for the antisocial movies we often praise, reviewing them instead as "distinct and isolated pieces of art that have no effect or afterlife outside the theater."

(Last week, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. gave six Golden Globe Award nominations to "Pulp Fiction," including best film drama. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Film Critics voted "Pulp Fiction" best picture of the year, the National Board of Review voted a tie between "Pulp" and "Forrest Gump," and the New York Film Critics Circle honored "Quiz Show.")

As one who stands accused--I have been praising "Pulp Fiction" since its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May--I'd like to be able to dismiss Urschel's indictment for the Religious Right ideological hysteria it resembles. But I can't.

First, I've known Urschel for 16 years (before he became a pundit, he edited my reviews at both the Detroit Free Press and USA Today) and he's a perfectly bright and reasonable fellow. Second, he is far from alone in his outrage. I've received more letters from readers about "Pulp Fiction" than any other film this year, most of them condemning Newsday's sanguine critical coverage of it, and Hollywood insiders say its warped mix of humor and violence has taken it out of the running for the Oscar. Finally, though I believe Urschel badly misreads the appeal and potential harmfulness of "Pulp Fiction," he does raise some valid questions about the nature of reviewing movies in mass audience publications.

Do critics who see 150 or more movies a year go overboard in reviewing the stylistically fresh ones that come along, regardless of their content, morality or accessibility to general viewers?

And are we too inured to the extremes of sex and violence to be able to provide fair warnings to the occasional moviegoer?

"You don't take somebody who hasn't been to a movie in two years and plop them in front of this one," Urschel says.

Based on the nearly 100 "Pulp Fiction" reviews from around the country that I just read, the answer to the first question is "yes." Most of us probably do get a little giddy over the arrival of a new talent like Tarantino, and exaggerate his importance. But did critics fail, as a group, to adequately characterize the violence, profanity and drug use in the film? No.

"It won't just offend some audiences," wrote the Chicago Tribune's Michael Wilmington in a tone echoed by many of his colleagues. "It will offend the living hell out of them."

If you haven't seen the movie or been caught in the cross-fire of water-cooler debate over it, "Pulp Fiction" is a series of cleverly interwoven stories set in a film-noirish Los Angeles underworld. It stars a pair of amiably chatty mob assassins (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson), a double-crossing boxer (Bruce Willis), a pair of Bonnie-and-Clyde wanna-bes (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer), and an array of mob bosses, molls, girlfriends, drug dealers and redneck crazies who fill out its twisted human landscape.

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Along the way, people are riddled with bullets, a victim's brains are splattered like pureed mango all over the inside of a car, a drug-overdosed woman has a six-inch hypodermic needle rammed into her heart, a man is tied up and sodomized. All in good fun, Tarantino-style.

Many critics made a game effort to put a moral spin on its outlandishness--themes of redemption and loyalty do wend their way through the material. But it would be preposterous to suggest "Pulp Fiction" contains any serious social commentary, and few critics claimed it did.

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