My parents are cinephiles, so I’m a cinephile. That’s the main gene I got, along with a whole other slew of minor blessings and curses. I got the overlong, musical-ish classics from my father (The Sound Of Music, Amadeus) and the genre flicks from my mother (Alien, The Warriors). We’d watch these movies together—sometimes with my younger brother, though typically without, his cinephilia being less established than my own, though I have received the odd text from him reminding me, apropos of little, that “Interstellar is one of the best movies of all time”—observing, chatting, and yelling in unison.
My dad’s picks were easier sells for me. I was a musical kid with an unholy amount of patience. You could plop me down in front of a two and a half hour epic, and I’d sit through it barely blinking. (These days, however…) My mom’s tastes were tougher to stomach, quite literally. A penchant for grossness, her taste was maybe too hardcore for me. I passed on Shaun Of The Dead. I passed on RoboCop. I passed on The Terminator. My senior year of high school, she sat me down to watch The Silence Of The Lambs, which I endured through half-covered eyes. How did she get like this, I wondered. Was she some kind of hardcore sicko? I mean, possibly. We know so little about our parents before they are our parents. Maybe they’re all sickos for a time. She’s described some of her most beloved films as “so disgusting, I loved it.”
I’ve been squeamish my whole life. Growing up, I could only stomach a PG-13 level of violence, if that. If anything was too violent, too gruesome, even the odd PG-13 (even in my mid-20s, Jurassic World is far to gleeful in its violence for me), I’d switch it off. I spent much of my youth spoiling movies for myself on IMDB, reading the parents’ guide to know what I’d have to endure in a film’s most brutal parts. This is no way to live, no way to engage with art. I built up a tolerance over time—somewhat shamefully, watching Game Of Thrones did a lot of that work for me—and though I’m still often repulsed, I can now get through a violent movie with only a couple of long blinks or glances into my popcorn bag. It’s behavior like this that got me labeled as a big baby for much of my life. Even now, I opt out of the more violent fare my friends engage with, playing what I like to call the “baby card.”
And for as long as I can remember, my mom referred to Pulp Fiction as the most violent film she had ever seen in her life. As I got older, this seemed less and less true. Hadn’t she seen Saving Private Ryan, screened in my junior year American history class? I had watched the D-Day sequence through my hands, only realizing midway through that hearing it was just as traumatizing. Or what about Drive? To have been in college when Drive came out was to suffer through long conversations about that movie’s violence, and if it was artful, and if it meant anything, and if Ryan Gosling was really, really hot. (Hard for me to answer any of these questions but the last one, as I’ve still never worked up the courage to watch it.) But no, for my mom, the sicko, it was Pulp Fiction. So as far as I knew, because I’m a child who listens to their mother, it was the most violent movie I knew of, and with all of my sensitivities, I avoided it. Still. Even into my late 20s. “Does a guy’s head explode in that movie?” I’d ask people when they’d want to know why I hadn’t seen it. “I don’t think it’s for me.” There it was again: the baby card.
I wanted to write about Pulp Fiction so I could finally see the movie, but once I saw the movie, I knew there was literally nothing in the world to write about it that hasn’t already been said by smarter, older, more thoughtful people. Me? I’m an idiot. Me? Upon seeing The Godfather Part I and II this summer, I told my friend I loved when Michael told Fredo he had broken his heart, and she paused for a long time and said, “Yeah, well, that’s like the big scene, so congrats on loving it.” So what was I going to write about Pulp Fiction? “I love when they dance”—no, of course not, even though I do. Because everyone does! Because it’s incredible! But that’s not how it works, that’s no essay, no consideration, really, at all, to say you like a thing because it’s made to be liked.
The main thing I thought—the smartest thing I could even think about saying aloud as I watched Pulp Fiction—was, “this isn’t so bad.” That’s not to say it’s not bad. It’s full of blood and guts and needles and brutality and sexual violence. And yet, it was both worse and easier to stomach than I’d expected. And then I thought about my mom who, after years of waxing and warning about Pulp Fiction and all its violence, could finally have a conversation with me about the movie.
What I knew about the mythology of Pulp Fiction in my mother’s personal history was twofold: 1) it was the most violent movie she had ever seen—we’ve established this, yes, Fran, get to the point, and I hear you, trust me, but it’s the theme of the essay—and 2) it was the only movie she saw in theaters in 1994. “I had two children under the age of 4 and no full-time childcare. No babysitter, no backup, really. Dad and I took turns seeing movies back then. Young family, no time,” she reminded me on the phone. It’s easy at times, in my own self-education of film, to forget this about my parents. That they’re my parents! That part of (all of!) their lives were co-opted by me and my brother after a certain point in the early 1990s.
Being raised in a household in which movies were valuable, I maintain a childlike assumption that my parents have seen every single movie. Earlier this year, after watching Heat for the first time, I frantically texted my mom to see if she had something to say about it. “Haven’t seen it, don’t know about it,” she replied. I felt the way people often do when I admit to not having seen something like, say, Pulp Fiction: “What are you talking about? What do you mean you don’t know about it?” (This has happened before. It’ll keep happening. We’re doomed to repeat the past, etc.) I look at the date Heat came out: 1995. My brother and I were 1 and 4 respectively. Of course my parents never saw Heat.
So picture this, if you will: my mother, 34 years old, bespectacled with dark hair, alone in a movie theater on a rare afternoon by herself while my dad stayed at home with my brother and me, watching Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction for the first time. She laughs when she tells me she was alone for it, as if to warn me against the idea even though I, too, watched it by myself, mid-afternoon. I asked her, almost annoyed, “Why was this the movie you wanted to see?”
She paused, then: “Travolta, number one. Bruce Willis, number two.”
I pressed her further. Did she care about Quentin? His reputation? Reservoir Dogs? Nothing.
What about Samuel L. Jackson? Tim Roth? Ving Rhames? None of the boys.
The women, however, were another story. “I knew Rosanna Arquette from TV,” she rattled off, “I knew Julia Sweeney from Saturday Night Live. I knew Amanda Plummer, from The World According To Garp! So I knew a lot of the women in these little roles.”
They were little roles, I found. As someone who came of age with Quentin’s more female-forward narratives—the Kill Bills, Inglourious Basterds—it was frustrating to sit through Pulp Fiction and to see how fully side-lined his female characters were (outside of Uma Thurman’s iconic portrayal of mob wife, Mia Wallace). But my mom wasn’t there in 1994, sitting by herself, for these women. She was there, let me remind you, for John Travolta and Bruce Willis. One and two. She loved them from TV—Welcome Back, Kotter and Moonlighting, respectively. Travolta’s number one, sure, but nobody gets my mother more excited than Bruce Willis. “He’s another one who went from a weekly TV series as a non-traditional romantic lead, as a smart-ass,” she explained to me, “Bruce Willis was very smart and not traditionally good looking. So Moonlighting, then Die Hard. He had morphed from a TV guy into an action hero. It was like, I have to pay for Bruce Willis now? So those guys. One and two.”
I asked my mom a hundred thousand questions about what she knew before seeing the movie. There’s so much context we ask for now, but this is the age of context. The age of Google and Wikipedia and IMDB. My mom had no parental warnings to read online in 1994. She had Roger Ebert’s review—we’re Chicagoans, mind you—which promised it was either “one of the year’s best films or one of the worst.” Personally, I’m obsessed with knowing the early reviews, who’s doing press, who isn’t, the festival energy, what have you. But my mom (a legend) didn’t care at all about Cannes. “I remember the buzz on it was like, ‘Travolta’s gonna dance and you’re all gonna be happy.’”
And then immediately, it shifted. “I was terrified,” she told me. “Violence from the jump. The threat of violence in the opening scene. [Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer] stand up in the booth, they’ve got these huge guns, and then it just gets worse and worse.”
Is this the part where I run through the plot of Pulp Fiction? No! Grow up.
I’m trying to press my mother on the violence. Again, my viewing didn’t affect me so strongly. It was tense, sure, but mostly I thought it was funny. Inane. Foolish. You might think it deranged that I had no point of reference for its infamous “Royale with cheese” conversation, but we all live in our own little caves and this was mine. As I watched, I realized in real time the extent to which Pulp Fiction is a movie about trying to do your job and get through the damn day. As someone who semi-recently quit their job and is almost always trying to get through the damn day, I could relate. The breeziness of the dialogue, the jokes, the laissez-faire attitude of all these kooky creatures…all of it was a coping mechanism for the violence they dealt with day in and day out.
I recently read Anthony Lane’s 1994 review from The New Yorker. He talks a lot about the violence in the film, at one point saying: “At the risk of being a killjoy, I have to say that Tarantino is not quite the Pied Piper of mayhem—the joykill, so to speak—that he wants to be. Like Reservoir Dogs, the new picture feels more violent than it actually is….Tarantino functions in a moral vacuum where the brutality is mostly verbal, where sticks and stones can break my bones but words can really hurt me.”
But my mom doubled down. Stubbornness, too, is genetic. “I perceived it as one of the most violent movies I had ever seen. The tension of what violence was going to happen next, even as it started. It may be talky, but they’re talking while holding guns the whole time. It can’t end well. The whole thing, you might be laughing at it, and then something shocking happens.”
When she walked out of the theater, she felt shaken. Unnerved. She almost walked out sooner, she told me, in the middle of the Bruce Willis-led section in the middle. This was the most unsettling section for me, too. It wore me down—it’s supposed to, I think—with its relentless violence. I was getting so annoyed, I texted “Where the FUCK is Harvey Keitel?” to a friend who knew I was watching it.
“During the rape scene, I debated getting up and leaving the theater,” my mother told me. It floored me to hear her say that. I’ve watched her turn off movies that are too boring, too slow. She’s shut off movies because there was too much going on (she famously hated Moulin Rouge!). But rarely because it was too violent. Nothing perturbs her, but still: “I really thought, maybe I should go home. Maybe Ebert was right about it being the worst movie. It doesn’t relish in it too much, but…like you, I wanted to be out of it. That whole section—it’s too much for so long. I was also afraid Bruce was going to die, and you know how I feel about Bruce.”
What I really thought about, as the Bruce Willis section dragged me through the dirt, was the bar scene in Inglourious Basterds. That was my first Quentin Tarantino movie. My Pulp Fiction (sorry). It came out during the summer of 2009, and I was in the Canadian woods on a pre-college retreat my parents forced (just kidding, “encouraged”) me to go on. I returned three weeks later, totally out of sync with the world (I missed Kanye interrupt Taylor at the VMAs—REMEMBER THAT?), to a stack of mail from my family. I had suffered from relentless, tiring homesickness for the entirety of the trip, barely adjusting to the swing of college, let alone pre-college. In my dorm room, I read through their letters to me, and most of those letters, to my surprise, were about Inglourious Basterds.
They loved it; they were obsessed with it. Both my parents, and later my brother, but mostly my mom. She applauded at the end. All of them urged me to see it, though by the time I was out of the woods it was gone from theaters. Too bad, I figured. Baby card.
Time passed; fall cooled. The school brought movies to campus for the students, and the very last movie of the semester was Inglourious Basterds. I had to go, didn’t I? “You really will be fine,” my father lied to me, as my mother shouted over the phone, “Just watch it! Don’t look up your IMDB facts!” So I went and I went in blind. I sat next to a college friend who had seen the movie over the summer, and she spent the entirety of the film tapping me lightly on the shoulder right before something violent happened. But memory is tricky, and hers was not perfect, and more than a few times she forgot to tap me. I watched, bug-eyed, for nearly three hours in horror. It disgusted me, repelled me. I couldn’t laugh though I could recognize it was funny. In the bar scene, the film’s fourth chapter, I wanted to tear off my own skin. It was unbearably tense, the Basterds sitting across from the Nazis, waiting to find out. At this point in time, my Bruce Willis was Michael Fassbender, and I was not yet willing to watch him die.
I couldn’t even find the final beat of the film funny, as best I tried. Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and one of his Basterds (B.J. Novak) carve a swastika into Colonel Hans Landa’s forehead (Christoph Waltz—also really good in Alita: Battle Angel). Students around me tittered and chuckled. It was supposed to be ironic? Or audacious? Or both, to some extent? I couldn’t laugh. I was too upset, too overwhelmed. I walked out of our student center into a misty and cold November night and texted my mom that it was the most violent movie I had ever seen.
Mom and I talked for most of the morning, jumping around from topic to topic, never centering on but always returning to the violence. I asked her about Pulp Fiction’s non-sequential storytelling. “I have no idea why [Tarantino] does it. To make me go see the movie a second time. So he gets more money,” she tells me. (My mother went to business school and I’ve never been allowed to forget it.) I asked her about the experience of rewatching the film as well, something she did when I told her I wanted to talk to her about it. She paused, then explained that, to her, it was an entirely different movie-going experience now. Not funnier, not necessarily, but slightly less terrifying with the foresight of what was to come.
“I couldn’t take my eyes off of Samuel L. Jackson. And just listening to him. He’s amazing,” she told me. Indeed, on this rewatch she concluded that Jackson is actually the lead, which I totally agree with. Travolta, Bruce…they’re window dressings. Flashy. But Jackson gets the meat of the material. Every line out of his mouth is lyrical. His decision to walk away from his job in the third act is the lone piece of emotional catharsis in the entire film. “He was saved,” my mom explained. “The spirit, it was a miracle, ‘I’m not gonna do this anymore.’ He wants to get out. He listens to God and to voices and to Scripture—he’ll find what he’s looking for.”
“Does it matter if he finds it?” I asked her. A redundant question, and not one I’m sure I needed the answer to. Pulp Fiction is deeply, darkly cynical—frustratingly so. A movie about how nice it feels to quit your job, maybe, and how not nice everything else is. In a workshop late last year, my professor reminded me, “The world is so much more brutal and strange than you are giving it credit for.”
My mother told me, with defiant optimism, “Yeah, I think it does [matter]. He needs this purpose.”
Still, like a true adult sicko, blowing past the baby card and demanding answers, I wanted to know how Pulp Fiction was possibly the most violent movie she had ever seen. And I wanted to know this because I felt like something was wrong with me, mostly. How was it that I, the baby, had gotten through it fairly unscathed after years of flinching, while it’s haunted her for 25 years?
“I missed a lot of those pivotal violent movies from the 1970s,” she said, “because I wasn’t old enough to see them. I avoided violent movies in my 20s, like you. So Pulp Fiction was probably one of the most violent movies I had seen just based on how I was curating what I saw. I mean, the size of that fucking needle! The tension created by the threat of violence. It was unbearable seeing that in a theater for two and a half hours. Alone. You never knew what direction it was going to come from. The whole movie feels like the Bruce Willis section—how will this get weirder and worse? It’s so random, and so terrifying.”
This was the answer I sought. The link. The gene. I avoided violent movies in my 20s, like you. So the baby card had been inherited, too. Both sensitive. Both nervous. (She’s a Pisces sun and I’m a Pisces moon.) If the world is truly much more brutal and strange than we give it credit for, we’re not sure we want to see it.
My mom had come to all of her squishy favorite movies over time, had acclimated much like I had. First through covered eyes, then long blinks, and then eventually, bravely, watching everything, all of it. It’s not to say we like it or relish it; we accept it, we don’t seek it out. It’s there when we want it, and sometimes, we do. How will this get weirder and worse? I have no idea; I just know it always does. In the meantime, I’ll have my mom on the other end of the line, and we’ll ramble through our inanities—like, there’s no reason why she wouldn’t have seen Dangerous Liaisons, that one came out in the ‘80s—until the violence of the every day kicks in.