Published on July 22nd, 2020 | by Kim Kurtenbach0
Because You’ve Watched Pulp Fiction So Many Times
Another edition of ‘Because You Watched.” This time, Kim wonders what qualities truly capture the essence of Pulp Fiction. Messy chronology…? Low budget…?
At the beginning of June, I started this series to guide people from timeless favourites we’ve watched repeatedly to some lesser known options that have been forgotten or missed. People have commented to me that they enjoy the articles and, last week, a friend asked me about two movies: Pulp Fiction (1994) and Memento (2000)–what can I watch if I’ve seen those too many times? I said I had no idea, but really spent a few days thinking about it and muttering to other friends, trying to get suggestions. The most useful one was a friend who recommended that if I had seen Ghostbusters (1984), I might really like Ghostbusters II (1989). He was not incorrect, and I laughed.
The laughter didn’t last long, because I was still tasked with the Pulp Fiction dilemma. I was intrigued by the challenge, but didn’t like the idea of saying, ‘Oh, you’re a Pulp Fiction fan? Try this. It’s almost as good.’ Because PF is so unique, it’s only true peers are other Tarantino movies or (occasionally) one in the deluge of imitators that it spawned in the mid-to-late 90s.
There are many possible roads to go down here, so my consideration of how to chart a course to a sensible recommendation included dialogue, the rearrangement of chronology, division of scenes and elements of crime. I felt these were the “Quentin-ssential” characteristics…you know what I mean? I think you get what I mean, and I hope they don’t even publish that last sentence. Point is, this is only going to work if you’re ready to take a giant leap with me. But don’t worry, this isn’t as batshit crazy as half the things you’ve heard this year.
Pulp Fiction slapped audiences with a lot of style, in a lot of forms, but none a greater surprise influence than Tarantino’s editing of the stories’ chronological events. The late Sally Menke was nominated for her first Oscar in editing after surgically rearranging PF into the non-linear masterpiece it is. The audience loved the surprises that shocked them, unsure if each new scene was happening tomorrow or yesterday, let alone able to guess what would happen next. Studios loved it too, and green-lit a lot of similar ideas they saw as bad investments before Pulp Fiction made back—literally–2,800% of its budget. Yeah. No shit. Some of the movies that came after PF were great, like 2 Day in the Valley (1996) or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), and some were a poor waste of time, like Truth or Consequences, N.M. (1997) and Very Bad Things (1998).
But let’s back up a moment: I first began this article by searching for something that would match Memento (my friend’s second request), thinking that would be an easier task. After all, it’s basically just a story told backwards with a smart jolt at the end. Right?
My search ended with a short (86min) Netflix produced movie called Shimmer Lake (2017). A small town sheriff, tired of being the only clean guy in a dirty town, vows to solve a murder linked to missing money that might just involve people very close to him. The mystery is presented as a series of daily events, moving backwards from Friday to Tuesday. Sounds a lot like Memento to me.
It takes a minute to figure out the tone of Shimmer Lake. Low-budget, good script, small cast. No A-listers, but they all look like the-guy-from-that-thing-we-like. The humour is somewhere between dark and silly, the dialogue is often waggish without becoming tedious. Then the serious problems emerge, and violence erupts. Once Shimmer Lake finds its stride, it gallops confidently to conclusion while the viewer simply holds on, fixated on the outcome.
The final minutes of Shimmer Lake reminded me of Memento, yes, but it also reminded me of The Usual Suspects (1995), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Sixth Sense (1999), Fight Club (1999) and even Psycho (1960). Each of these movies has the commonality that they are a two-watch punch. The first viewing blows a hole in your mind. The second viewing is to make sure everything made sense and lined up as neatly as the first go around (it does). The downside? You are never struck quite the same after two viewings; the surprise ending is no longer a surprise.
I soon found Shimmer Lake more similar to Pulp Fiction. Memento is frantic and paranoid. Time reverses in flashes, like photo bulbs in the shadows. Leonard and the people he associates with are profoundly disturbed and overtly abusive. SL has four distinct chapters, PF has three, and the pacing is similar. SL has shades of Marvin’s demise, amusing but less eloquent rants à la Jules, plus characters are neatly connected in ways that effect fate (ie. Butch shooting Vincent).
Continuing to thin-slice the similarities of the two movies would equate to spoilers, so if you’ll pardon my lack of details, you will be able to enjoy discovery on your own terms. I’m only attempting to influence your decision to press play, not necessarily your entire agreement.
Of all the movies I could have chosen to fit the Pulp Fiction blueprint, two final factors came to mind. One: Pulp Fiction didn’t cost a lot to make ($8M – $5M of which was actor fees). That same year, James Cameron’s True Lies (1994) had a budget of $100M. When recommending an alt-choice to Pulp Fiction, avoid high budget movies. Low budget has rawness and forces the story to stand on its own, without the lavishly financed studio sheen and Shimmer Lake does this well. The last deciding factor was to find something most people haven’t seen and, coincidentally, an untapped resource is most likely found amongst the movies made on a shoestring budget.
Maybe there’s no good answer for what to watch instead of Pulp Fiction for the millionth time. Or, maybe there are dozens of good choices. That movie has been imitated like Beatles tunes, where someone takes a tiny piece of something they love and turns it into a whole new thing. In the case of the Beatles, some people hear it in Oasis, some people hear it in The Flaming Lips, some people say there’s nothing else like them. Take a giant leap, click on Shimmer Lake, and decide for yourself if it satisfies that Pulp Fiction craving.