Pulp Nation

If Quentin Taratino were cool, he wouldv'e gone to Finland

Tarantino, who claims to have listened to "a zillion" surf songs in his research, might argue (and has) that he doesn't think surf music has anything to do with surfing, and that neither connects to his story. He could point out that the Trashmen were from Minnesota (that surfin' bird flew far) as evidence. He'd still be wrong. Surf music is surfing -- the two are inseparable, each reinforcing the attractions of the other.

And "Walk Don't Run" by the Ventures (a pseudosurf band) would've been so perfect for the scene in which Uma Thurman ODs on heroin and has to be rushed to a dealer's house for emergency treatment. Oh, well.

Beyond the bad calls on the surf tip lie the other tunes included on the CD. Now, Pulp Fiction employs a non-sequitur approach to much of its dialogue (characters talk tritely while carrying out executions, for example), so perhaps the songs aren't supposed to have anything to do with what's happening on-screen.

When Thurman and Travolta return from a date, he goes to the restroom (which he does a lot in this movie, a good idea for audience members, as well) and she cues up a reel-to-reel so we can hear Urge Overkill's one-guitar-riff arrangement of Neil Diamond's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon." This smash hit (it seems like some TV network or another has Overkill on nightly to play the song) subtly grows on you, like a fungus. At least it does now -- it's from an old Urge EP that Tarantino happened across. He was thinking about using a k.d. lang song, but felt that would be "too trendy." Nice find, but like Tarantino himself, it's doomed by overkill.

Thurman sways to the meandering cover version and then overdoses on Travolta's heroin. A viable alternative to having to endure hearing that song one more time.

The music for the big dance scene that takes place at Jackrabbit Slim's is provided by Chuck Berry ("You Never Can Tell"). As it plays, Travolta dances -- "Remember Saturday Night Fever!" is Tarantino's silent scream -- and Uma Thurman snorts cocaine voraciously in a restroom crowded with partyin' chicks. Chuck Berry was busted for videotaping customers using the ladies room of his own restaurant in real life. One has to wonder if this sick irony was intentional.

The dance is the twist. Tarantino says he chose the Berry tune because it has French words in it. Setting aside the Isley Brothers, Sam Cooke, Gary U.S. Bonds, Joey Dee, King Curtis, Hank Ballard (who cut the original "The Twist" made famous by Chubby Checker), the Marvelettes, the Dovels, and a thousand other cool acts that recorded cool twist songs, there was a single choice that would've allowed Tarantino to really show off. Dick Dale and his Del-Tones once hopped on the bandwagon with a song called "Misirlou Twist."

Some of the nuggets chosen for inclusion are both debatable and pretty much irrelevant (at least to the movie's plot). Thumbs down to Kool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie" and Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." Those tunes, pleasant though they may be, have little to say. Thumbs up to Ricky Nelson's "Lonesome Town" and Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man." These two artists enjoyed wide popular appeal without trying too hard, and yet their work stands the test of time with aplomb. So what? This is a movie -- and one CD, not a record shop.

Maria McKee checks in with "If Love Is a Red Dress (Hang Me in Rags)." McKee was cool for about one album back when she fronted Lone Justice. She still has a piercingly rangy voice, but Whitney Houston can sing good, too. And Whitney ain't cool.

The nonchalance of the Statler Brothers's "Flowers on the Wall" is way cool, but it's even wayer pointless. It's a solitude song, and movies shouldn't leave you alone.

If it's existential rambling you want, turn to the character of DJ Chris on the television show Northern Exposure. And if it's cool tunes, trust your own instincts. Because that's the real problem with Pulp Fiction -- American pop-culture consumers have bought into Tarantino's lame storytelling and even lamer taste in rock music.

From Tarantino's viewfinder the best thing about Pulp Fiction just might be that its mass popularity will allow him to make an even bigger-budget film with even more artistic leeway next time out. Hey Quentin, keep Laika & the Cosmonauts in mind.

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