There are probably a million different approaches I could take to writing about Pulp Fiction. I hesitated to even watch it the other day, or write about it, because writing about Pulp Fiction in a blog post feels almost like an Onion Article headline. “Movie Blog Writer Posts Rambling Treatise on Pulp Fiction.” I’ll go so far to say that even watching Pulp Fiction has become somewhat cliche. What other movie in recent memory has entered pop culture with such a force that it altered the way movies were produced and independent talent was scouted (for better or, in my opinion, for worse). Do you remember the years after Pulp Fiction came out? Everything from the art houses to the megaplexes were filled with Tarantino influenced cinema; mostly hollow, empty shells that knew the tunes but not how to dance to them. With all that weight behind one movie, it’s easy to forget that Pulp Fiction is great and was hugely influential for a reason. I can honestly say I pick up a new thing up with each viewing and it’s probably the movie I’ve watched more than any other.
Suffice it to say, I’m a fan of this film. It’s amongst the handful of movies that got me into loving movies as more then just a casual hobble. With that said, I don’t want to go on and on about all the various reasons Pulp Fiction is great, I’d rather focus on one that I intentionally looked for with this last viewing. The reason I watched it again in the first place was because my lovely fiance had never seen it. Her brother Michael was talking about watching it again recently, and the conversation turned to Tarantino in general. And then, Micheal’s girlfriend Lydia reminded me of something really tragic. “I’m really worried about Django Unchained because it’s going to be his first movie without Sally Menke.”
There isn’t a single person; not any of Tarantino’s loyal troupe of repeat actors or director friends like Robert Rodriguez that was as important of a collaborator then his late editor Sally Menke. Watching Pulp Fiction again, the most amazing thing is how Menke and Tarantino seem to be cut (edited?) from the same cloth: they clearly understand each other and have a wonderful shared respect for the others work. Tarantino’s style is deceptively simple; a kind of Elmore Leonard hybrid crossed with a less self conscious Goddard with a MadLibs of homages strung in along the way. He likes long takes of actors talking about whatever-the-hell that eventually crescendos with some kind of climax, whether it’s a simple disagreement, an argument or something more drastic, physical, violent.
For example, watch this classic scene and pay attention to the editing. The first shot with Eric Stoltz pulling the front door blind on Travolta’s crashing car lasts roughly forty seconds and the scene plays out until we cut to Rosanna Arquette in her bed. Mekne brilliantly uses restraint in letting the frantic performances build the tension. She doesn’t cut here again for more then another minute and a half. Pop in any movie or turn on your TV right now and watch how long the average cut takes place. For some directors, going over a minute is an eternity, but Menke knew that the intensity of the performances and the authenticity of their delivery of this situation sells all the tension here. She doesn’t need to force anything. After another half minute shot raising the stakes (with a brilliant low angle shot of Travolta and Stoltz that sets up the violence to come) Menke cuts to a close-up of the infamous needle, and then to another one of it set against Stoltz’s face, giving us a sense of scale and letting us see with great detail just what we’re getting into here. We’re intrigued. Is this really going work? Will this revive Uma Thurman? Won’t it hurt her? Could it do some damage? It’s here where I always lean forward in my seat, every time I watch the movie, and remain there for the duration of the scene. Suddenly the editing gets more frantic. As Stoltz and Travolta argue over who’s going to give the shot, we get a quick birds-eye shot of the needle over Thurman’s chest, again setting us up for the eventual payoff and giving us even more sense of scale. Shortly after that, Menke focuses our attention specifically with a bulls-eye close-up provided by Travolta’s magic market on Thurman’s chest. To emphasize the difficulty, we cut again to an birds-eye shot of Thurman as Stoltz talks about getting through her best place, letting us know that this isn’t going to be an easy thing to do. We then cut to Stoltz doing a mock stabbing motion three times, which builds the tension even more (that combined with Travolta’s brilliant screw-up line: “I have to stab her three times?”—-you start to really fear for Thurman because these two clowns have no idea what they’re doing). Meanwhile, in the background, Arquette has pulled into the frame, suddenly interested in what’s about to go down, and then so does the Trudi character. The foreground action raises tension too; as the peripheral characters grow interested in the scene and pull forward, so do we as viewers. They signal that something is about to happen, that the climax is gushing forward. And then Travolta raises the needle, and we close up on Thurman’s face, and we cut to a remarkable close-up of the needle, and then Stoltz given the countdown. Only one second left. Then Travolta, looking nervous about what he’s about to do. And then a close-up of the bulls-eye again. A close-up of Arquette as audience stand-in; intrigued and entertained; filled with the best kind of anxiety. For her, this is all a show and she can’t wait to see what happens. And then there’s a one-two-three punch of shots of wind-up, pitch and home run that really hammers the tension home (Close-up of Travolta, medium shot of the group as he brings the needle back far, close-up of Thurman, reviving with a giant breath).
The brilliant deception here is that you don’t feel the editing as it intensifies. Menke allows the actors do the work in the beginning of the scene, showing incredible restraint. She allows their impatient, frenzied performances build the suspense and then resorts to quickly cutting as the group focuses on the task at hand. By the time the editing pace intensifies, we barely notice it because at the start of the scene the cuts are practically non-existent. As the characters get more focus, the editing gets more frantic, compensating for the lack of screaming and yelling and pulling us right into the heart (no pun intended) of the scene that’s a classic for a reason. And this is just one example of Menke’s incredible talents.
Tarantino and his cast and crew were in the habit while filming of turning towards the camera and saying Hi, Sally; a little pick-me-up to the editor once she’d get the dallies. I love this little detail because it just confirms his respect for his biggest, brightest collaborator, a talent who was taken from us far too early last September. Editors are usually so removed from the process of making a film and this was obviously Tarantino’s way of making her feel like she was there, on the set, among the cast and crew. My guess is that every movie Tarantino makes until his eventually (supposed) retirement will pay a great debt to his former editor. And I bet he’s gong to have a tough time saying “Bye, Sally.” As a fan, I know I will. She is an irreplaceable talent who will be sorely missed.