Party Like It's 1999: Tarantino Vernacular Edition
In 1999, Tarantino was Just Part of the Vernacular, For Better and Worse
Watching Pulp Fiction tells me a lot about being Quentin Tarantino-- what movies he liked in 1994, what actors he wanted to work with, what slurs he felt entitled saying. Watching Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels tells me a lot about being a person who has seen Pulp Fiction.
To this day, screenwriters steal from Tarantino's second movie as shamelessly as he stole the Reservoir Dogs code name scheme from The Taking of Pelham 123. Sometimes it's abstract, an "I know it when I see it" feeling that the producers had originally pictured Samuel-L.-Jackson-in-Jules-Winfield-mode for the lead role. Sometimes it's as specific as the way extreme violence is played for laughs, or the way a killer repeatedly lays out an intricate code. It usually isn't even "This is like the slapstick violence in Kill Bill," but "This has the same beats as the scene in Pulp Fiction where poor Phil LaMarr's head explodes in the back of that car."
And Tarantino, of course, didn't invent that at all. His most esteemed contemporaries, the Coen brothers, had also made bizarre violence a trademark from their debut film (and had been working on set-pieces in that vein since their days of assisting Sam Raimi on his movies).
The hall-of-mirrors conversation that inevitably sprouts from the "movies that ripped off Pulp Fiction" conversation is the "movies that Pulp Fiction ripped off" one. When Guy Ritchie made Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, he was responding to the moment Tarantino's movie had created, and, to be sure, some of the things he's taking from Pulp Fiction are things Tarantino had himself taken from, say, Alex Cox's Repo Man. Maybe Ritchie was aware of that and his influences just happened to align with Tarantino's. Maybe these two directors, in a moment of serendipity, wrote films that drew from the same cosmic consciousness and Tarantino just got his movie made first. It isn't hard to believe two people individually fell in love with Martin Scorsese's tone and Robert Altman's interconnecting short stories.
But everybody was doing this, all of a sudden. Keifer Sutherland and Kevin Spacey used their cultural cache to make their directorial debuts with Pulp Fiction rip-offs, Troy Duffy sold Boondock Saints to Miramax on the unspoken promise he was going to make their next Pulp Fiction and directors like Joe Carnahan and Doug Liman kickstarted long, varied careers by copying the smartest kid in class' test. There are also, of course, a dozen would-be auteurs who made movies like Love and a .45 and then vanished into anonymous TV work.
Young screenwriters and directors gravitated toward Pulp Fiction because it's just so much fun. You watch these meandering stories and huge characters and you think "I could do this." You think "These people look cool in their John Woo suits and wouldn't it also be cool if I put the music in my CD player behind them as they get into car chases?"
A few tropes that Pulp Fiction either started or solidified for Quentin Tarantino: the aforementioned violence played for laughs, aggressively "cool" soundtrack put front and center, a bunch of quirky characters colliding with each other, excessively written-sounding dialogue that touches on pop culture (especially dialogue that touches on theories behind pop culture). There are also Tarantino tropes nobody copied in their Pulp Fiction remakes, i.e. Brett Ratner is maybe the only contemporary white director who shares Tarantino's weird overly-comfortable use of the "n" word, but Ratner's movies usually steal more from Shane Black than anybody.
A few filmmakers like Guy Ritchie turned those tropes into a way of life. Whatever movies he makes to reset his career (Swept Away), he always returns to a bunch of blokes trying to knick a diamond from some geezer, innit (RocknRolla)? Some filmmakers, like Wes Anderson, made Pulp Fiction-adjacent movies and then split, using the popularity of the "kooky crime" genre and then discarding it in favor of more personal work. (I would argue Rushmore is one of the only films of the 90s that can claim to be as influential as Pulp Fiction, next to Toy Story, The Lion King, Sleepless in Seattle and The Matrix.)
That's why Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is the movie I think of when prompted to write about a 1999 release. My Cinema76 colleagues are probably writing about better 1999 movies, but I think I'm writing about the most 1999 movie. The decade ended with the triumvirate of this film, Go and The Boondock Saints, three "What I Learned" reports from young directors in love with the idea of becoming big-time filmmakers as much as they were with film.
I don't think Pulp Fiction is a perfect movie. I don't even think it's the best thing Tarantino has made. I still got a little annoyed a few years ago when he was asked what he thought the most iconic dialogue he had written was and he cited a line he stole from Charley Varrick. But Pulp Fiction is a Thing, and I am deeply interested in looking at what the Thing has wrought on the 25th anniversary of its release. The easiest way to do that is to look at what it wrought on the 5th anniversary of its release.
The first time I saw Lock, Stock, I hadn't yet watched Pulp Fiction. My family had upgraded to a new cable plan and we had IFC, but we didn't yet have a TV that provided any kind of instant viewing guide, and so I saw what I now think of as the film's centerpiece, the stick-up in the weed growers' den, without knowing what I was seeing. I watched half of the scene in my parents' room (the only one with extended cable), had to go downstairs to eat and then by the time I was able to get back to that TV, the movie was over. I spent at least a week trying to figure out what I had watched. Eventually I watched some other movie to completion and in the between-film ads, IFC announced they were playing Lock, Stock again in a week, and I knew the name of the thing I had thought was so cool.
Now I see that scene is ripping off the Alexis Arquette one in Pulp Fiction, creating confrontation between two groups in one room while a person with a huge gun sits in the next one, waiting to escalate things. At the time, when I loved Lord of the Rings and The Royal Tenenbaums, though-- my god, I had never seen anything this gritty. The film stock was so muddy, Guy Ritchie may as well have been shooting on audio cassette, and through the grain I watched a couple stoners with a BB gun try to fend off gangsters with shotguns. And then the Alexis Arquette moment-- a sleeping stoner wakes under a pile of blankets and, still undiscovered, grabs a giant machine gun and fires it in super slow-mo, cutting a couple of the gangsters down. Tension builds and then a character you may have forgotten hulks out and turns a squabble into a Rambo liberation, all while everybody's yelling in thick British slang I couldn't totally translate.
I ended up watching that scene and the big final blow-out, where all the various parties we've been following converge to the theme from Zorba the Greek, dozens of times. I'd watch the whole thing-- there was a time I could hit pause at any point and explain the plot lines to you-- but I was so enamored with DVD Scene Selection menus that, more often than not, I'd skip around. When I wasn't watching scenes on loop, I was listening to little pieces of the film's dialogue on the soundtrack CD. If Tarantino didn't invent the five-second-long clip of film audio interstitials in movie soundtracks, he popularized it, and that's a sentiment you can play madlibs with all day.
By rewatching these scenes, I was treating them like songs on a CD. I was 10 in 1999, but when I discovered Lock, Stock, I was 14 or 15, and I wasn't doing anything with momentum. You watch this movie repeatedly when you feel you don't have a future but aren't depressed about it. "Maybe tomorrow I'll feel motivated to make something," I would have thought multiple times, mid-shootout. "Until then, this is pretty fun."
I got the sense that this was the appeal of The Boondock Saints, as well. Along with Super Troopers and Office Space, it became a massive DVD hit after barely touching theaters. The kid at my high school who recommended Boondock Saints to me was also the kid who was exceedingly proud of himself for having smoked weed (he told me it made him see sound as colors). You recognize you have nothing better to do than watch the same movie five times a month and you buy it on DVD. Some of us are still stuck there. The credits have rolled, the Interpol notice has flashed and the Boondock Saints animated menus are looping until they're given further orders, waiting to see if we've outgrown thinking cool crime dudes with metaphor tattoos shooting bad crime dudes is cool. It's a bad movie. It's a nothing-going-on-behind-the-eyes movie. Like Lock, Stock, it emerged in 1999 and then slowly made its mark over the ensuing years.
Time doesn't move in decades. There was no clean break on 12/31/99 where our sins stayed in the past and, after the ball dropped, we were all instantly enamored with downtown New York aesthetics. People continued to rip off Pulp Fiction, just as they continued to rip off grunge music and The Simpsons. Still, when the timeline is observed from enough of a remove, it feels like 1999 was the definitive end of the Pulp Fiction rip-off craze. These movies weren't Albino Alligator or 2 Days in the Valley, they were critically (Go) or commercially (Boondock Saints, once the DVD format caught on) popular. It doesn't feel like a stretch to say that quirky, talky crime movies were a major 90s trend that didn't didn't carry over into the new millennium.
When you watch Go under the circumstances I did, which is to say "When you are watching it as part of the Pulp Fiction rip-off collage," it is almost as nothing a movie as Boondock Saints. These things run their course. You can appreciate Go for its weird Timothy Olyphant performance, but it's hard to muster any enthusiasm for the whole package. It's just a movie that knows what cool looks like and goes through those motions. And that is why it is a superlative example of a 1999 movie.