It’s time to wrap up this four-part series on 1994. In the last three weeks, I showed that in 1994, three separate guns to heads – those of Kurt Cobain, O.J. Simpson, and the Health Security Act – moved America from the relatively populist, solution-driven early 1990s to the more repressed, superficial late 1990s. Of course, these are in many ways over-simplifications of history, but there’s still something striking about pivotal events and the centrality of skull-directed firearms. Perhaps in some strange way, the increased rhetoric of gun violence helped wavering U.S. Congressmen find the courage to stand up to the National Rifle Association and pass the Federal Assault Weapons Ban on September 13, 1994. (Bill Clinton signed it into law the next week.)
If that’s true, the return of the repressed began in force almost exactly one month later, on October 14, 1994, a few weeks before the November elections would provide more stunning and irrefutable evidence of something similar. October 14 saw the release of a movie that was more than a movie, or at least as much as any movie can ever be: a cultural watershed, a generational statement, near-official scripture for anyone who wanted to show they had an ounce of creativity, coolness, or attitude. And yes, it featured a gun to a head. Which went off. And blew away both the head in question and the early 90s.
What was the early 90s in TV and movies? In TV, it was basically Roseanne, The Simpsons and Seinfeld. (Yes, there were other shows, but who admitted to watching them?) It’s easy to forget just how popular Roseanne was – before 1994, it never failed to finish the year as the top-rated sitcom. (It’s easy to forget because the networks never tried to imitate Roseanne; the all-male writing staffs on every other show had no idea how to replicate that.) It’s now almost shocking to rewatch Roseanne or the first five years of The Simpsons and marvel at the centrality of poor people. Roseanne and Dan, and Homer and Marge, couldn’t get very ordinary things because they didn’t have enough money. These were shows for an early-90s America that gave a crap about the poor. As explained, however, the guns went to the heads, the tide of concern surged and receded, and Roseanne was cancelled and The Simpsons changed (even its animation style, which became less organic and more computer-controlled). In the late 90s, Bart asked Homer, “Do you even have a job anymore?” to which Homer replied, “I think it’s obvious I don’t,” not because the episode is showing what it’s like to be poor, but instead to be ironic about the fact that Homer can now pull out of his wallet as many $100s as it takes to solve whatever that week’s problem is.
Something similar happened on Seinfeld, where the perennially under-employed George Costanza (remember when he had to move back in with his parents because he had less than $1000 in his bank account?) landed a sweet regular job with the New York Yankees – who went on to win late-90s championships in real life (coincidence?). The very idea, endlessly referenced in the 1992-93 episodes about the show-within-the-show Jerry, of a “show about nothing” – even if that’s not exactly what Seinfeld was – was very pleasantly anti-80s, anti-artifice, deconstructive (and thus, constructive). The show’s mantra of “No hugging, no learning” was at least as important as the Clinton campaign’s “it’s the economy, stupid” for expunging the lameness of the 1980s. (In this, it had a lot in common with David Letterman’s sensibility, something early-90s America loved; we screamed when Jay Leno bumped him to replace Carson, and made Dave #1 when his Late Night began in 1993. In 1995, though, the new late-90s America made Leno #1, and Leno never looked back.)
In summer 1994, the man who’d directed every Seinfeld episode, Tom Cherones, quit, and was replaced by Andy Ackerman, who gave the show more polish, tighter editing, and a little less bite. But to be fair, Seinfeld didn’t change so much as lose its cultural thunder to a rip-off show that, in September 1994, took up co-residence on Thursdays on NBC. Friends was snarky Seinfeld without the deconstruction, without the Jewishness (Ross notwithstanding); it was younger, cuddlier, and there was very certainly hugging and learning. How did they afford that apartment in New York? It’s the late 90s, people, no need to worry like Roseanne and Homer and George used to. Friends was also an instant sensation – now every new show tried to copy it, not Seinfeld – that made mega-celebrities out of its theretofore unknown cast members; Rachel’s hair was a cultural supernova (along with the Caesar hair of the then-also-unknown George Clooney, on ER, which also began on NBC Thursday in September 1994). Friends took whatever the heck Richard Linklater and Ben Stiller were saying about Generation X in Slacker and Reality Bites and turned it into well-scrubbed adorable sitcomness, and if Gen X had ever threatened America, that threat went the way of Public Enemy albums and Kurt Cobain’s flannel shirts, getting turned into Chandler’s punchlines.
Slacker and Reality Bites were only two movies in a remarkable independent-film movement that saw its peak – by now you can see this coming – from 1989 to 1994. Why then? Best explained by John Pierson’s Spikes, Mikes, Slackers and Dykes and Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, the artists kicking around the 80s basically broke down the door in 1989, with Roger and Me, Do the Right Thing, and especially sex, lies, and videotape, which put both the Sundance Film Festival and Miramax Films on everyone’s map, permitting all kinds of innovative visions to emerge from the arthouse ghetto and onto America’s multiplexes (I could list them, but I’d get depressed). Back then, the Cannes Film Festival did something extraordinary it hasn’t done before or since: award its top prize, the Palme d’Or, to American-directed or American-led films five times in a six-year period. (They’ve basically ignored us since.) Two decades later, their choices of directors hold up better than ever as the elite club of groundbreaking filmmaking, probably the first filmmakers you should teach undergrads who want to know the alternative to Spielberg and Lucas. Consider: the 1989 Palme was sex, lies, and videotape, directed by Steven Soderbergh; 1990 was Wild at Heart, directed by David Lynch; 1991 was Barton Fink, directed by the Coen Brothers (1992 wasn’t American); 1993 was The Piano, directed by New Zealander Jane Campion but starring two Americans; and, 20 years ago this week, the 1994 Palme – let’s finally get to the subject of this blog post – went to Pulp Fiction, directed by Quentin Tarantino, and subsequently released into American theaters on October 14, 1994.
There’s so, so much about this outstanding film, in many books, in many more websites…anything I say about it will be over-reductive. But I think Peter Biskind was wise to call Tarantino’s work “anti-art art,” meaning it’s both fodder for cineastes and also pleasurable for those who don’t want anything to do with John Sayles films or The Crying Game (1992). He also wrote that Pulp Fiction was “the Star Wars of independents,” because it was the first nonstudio movie to gross over $100,000,000 domestically. It raised Miramax to the pinnacle of Indiewood, and made Sundance (where Tarantino had trained) into Indiewood’s official showcase. Disney took hold of Miramax, and after Pulp Fiction, everyone needed a Miramax, so Fox made Fox Searchlight, Paramount started Paramount Classics, Sony began Sony Classics, etc. But ultimately, Pulp Fiction had the same effect on Indiewood that a Time review has on your favorite restaurant or band: with everyone at the party, the party isn’t the same party. Sure, the late 90s produced some indie gems, and some great directors, but Sundance was now officially crawling with cell-phone-blathering deal-makers all looking for the next Tarantino, and a veneer of slickness descended that wasn’t there in those weird, wild early 1990s. And by 2000, probably partly as a consequence, all that went away. (Read Biskind for the fuller story.)
Unlike any other “independent” film, Pulp Fiction’s influence went way beyond alternative filmmaking; it was, as Gene Siskel noted in 1995, a whole attitude adjustment for almost all Hollywood films. Cinema incorporated more John Travolta-cool-like characters, more noirish tropes, more (much more) non-chronological filmmaking, and more actors shuttling between “indie” films and mainstream ones (in 2001, Variety claimed that Bruce Willis’ decision to appear in Pulp Fiction for near-nothing was the seminal event, though Woody Allen’s actors had been doing that for years). If Indiewood got worse, Hollywood probably got better. And the film holds up: it’s currently #5 (#5!) on the imdb Top 250, voted on by you.
But what was Pulp Fiction? When you see all the 20-year anniversary stuff on it later this year, you may ask: what did the film mean? Wikipedia has more than a few theories. But let me offer one they don’t: the film offers a type of existential forgiveness to its audience, for being addicted to bad TV, to shoot-em-up movies, to certain kinds of music. Instead of guilting its “anti-art” crowd for not knowing Godard and Hong Kong films, it chews up Godard and Hong Kong films and spits them out as something close to pure pleasure, this being the very essence of postmodernism. Dana Polan, as much an academic film authority as there is, concludes his book on Pulp Fiction by saying that the final moment, where Jules and Vincent, in unison, tuck their guns under those bad T-shirts, confirms the film’s meaning: style over substance, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. This is what Pulp Fiction has in common with Friends.
Pulp Fiction even had a pivotal event within its own out-of-sequence narrative. You couldn’t have had Vince accidentally blow away that young black kid’s head in the first or even fifth scene of the movie. Only after two hours of knowing Vince and Jules, knowing their postmodern style and their nihilist world, could Tarantino present that scene and have most audiences laugh maniacally (if uncomfortably) with him. We already knew Vince was dead, so this was just his requiem (and a way of saying that anything else could still happen in the final diner scene). Tarantino presented guns and said what’s the worst that could happen? One goes off. A guy dies. You drive to your friend who yells about “dead nigger storage.” You call Winston Wolf. You wear some bad T-shirts, get breakfast, think about a change in life. What you don’t do is stop being cool. You’re like Fonzie. And what’s Fonzie?
In the same year that Kurt Cobain’s death ended 90s punk and began 90s pop-grunge, that O.J.’s chase chased the media away from seriousness and into tabloid fever, that Hillary’s Health Care Bill moved America away from populism and back toward reactionary politics, Pulp Fiction brought both the rebirth of hipness and the return of the repressed. No need to focus anymore on America’s real problems when even the best of indie filmmakers would rather make jokes. 1994 also proved you could cancel a World Series and get – get this – an email address. Maybe we didn’t need to worry so much about traditions and problems, and maybe we could just settle in and try out this new thing they call the Internet. Of course, problems flared up, but we found that a little bit of snarky attitude and a few emoticons could put out most fires (well, until 9/11). Twenty years ago, we saw four guns to four heads and went, woooooooo-kay. Let’s step back. Let’s honor what we have. Let’s not go nuts. Let’s allow the media to make a circus of politics, as long as we’re basically safe. 20 years later, and we never gave the early 90s the proper, respectful goodbye it deserved. Bye-bye, thoughtful, edgy early 90s. Let’s hope someday some author gives you the book-length due you deserve.