Film & TV Muse

Pulp Fiction vs. Forrest Gump: 25 Years Later

Malu Rocha examines the controversies surrounding these timeless masterpieces and what they represent

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Image Credit: Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Pulp Fiction (directed by Quentin Tarantino) and Forrest Gump (directed by Robert Zemeckis) were both released days apart around this time a quarter of a century ago. One went on to become an indie cult classic, generate dozens of quotable references, define acting careers, and become a cultural landmark; the other won an Academy Award. That’s where the controversies begin.

Both films were nominated for Best Picture at the 67th Academy Awards, but Pulp Fiction was by far the public’s favourite, so when Spielberg announced that Forrest Gump was the one taking the prestigious statuette home that night, fans and critics alike were a bit taken aback, to say the least.

You’ll find that dubious Academy choices and collective outrage over Best Picture winners are surprisingly not that uncommon, and you don’t even have to look very far back. Some people still don’t understand how The Favourite and Roma lost to Green Book earlier this year. Or how Saving Private Ryan (a landmark film that shares an authentic look at the brutal realities of war) lost to Shakespeare in Love in 1997; or how Fargo (a noir black comedy that launched the Coen brothers’ careers) lost to The English Patient in 1997, or even how one of Kubrick’s masterpieces, A Clockwork Orange, lost to The French Connection back in 1972.

And although winning an Academy Award is obviously not the only form of measuring a film’s success, it still remains as a highly regarded pinnacle of validation and recognition in a filmmaker’s career. As the night of the Oscars rolled on, Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman remained quietly in their seats while winners for best supporting roles were announced, Zemeckis takes home Best Director and Tom Hanks beat John Travolta for Best Actor. When Tarantino went up on that stage to accept his only award of the night for Best Screenplay, he had accepted his demise; “I think this is probably the only award I’m going to win here tonight. So, I was trying to think maybe I should just say a whole lot of stuff right here, right now. Just to get it all out of my system.”

What started as a simple battle between two Oscar nominees soon became a bigger dispute over what films in general should be and what they should stand for. Although Tarantino’s and Zemeckis’s films are both permanently at the top of the podium as cultural landmarks, Pulp Fiction was an independent production featuring over-the-top stylised violence and flawed characters while Forrest Gump was surrounded by loveable characters and traditional storytelling.

Although Pulp Fiction only collected about one third of Forrest Gump’s box office of $678 million, it was deemed a greater commercial success because of its low budget of just $8 million. It also had just won the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, proving that avant-garde films are perhaps better appreciated overseas.

But why was it so highly regarded? How could a film that featured the longest and most uncomfortable conversation ever about a foot massage and a seemingly endless description of the taste of a $5 milkshake win over the jury at Cannes? Pulp Fiction broke all the rules. But it did so well that we all embraced it immediately.

Quentin Tarantino didn’t really become Quentin Tarantino until Pulp Fiction came along. Reservoir Dogs was a great debut that put him on everyone’s radar but as soon as Pulp Fiction was release, it was as if Tarantino was screaming from rooftops saying, “look at me, look at me, I’ll be one of the greatest directors of this era.” I dare you to tell me he was wrong; I double dare you.

Every detail and subtle nuance of this film seems so carefully planned out yet so seamlessly executed that it makes the 2-hour and 58-minute-long runtime worth every second. The film follows two hitmen as they attempt to accomplish one of their jobs assigned by their demanding boss while babysitting his drug-addict wife, a plotline which becomes intertwined with two amateur robbers attempting to rob a diner and a boxer who goes crazy looking for his grandfather’s watch.

Although these characters are undoubtedly faulty, without them we would never know that a Quarter Pound Cheese is called a Royale With Cheese in France because of the metric system. Tarantino was showing the world, in his own subversive and intricate way, that ordinary everyday conversations also carried deep meaning.

Granted, certain scenes in Pulp Fiction are nothing short of brilliant, but is it really that good of a story? Lots of people have Pulp Fiction high up in their favourite films list, but very people can say exactly what is it about the film that they love so much. Did the cult classic featuring anal rape, curse words every couple of seconds, and explicit drug consumption age well? Would it still be critically acclaimed if it was released today? After you watch Pulp Fiction you need a few hours to decompress and take it all in, as you naturally do with many Tarantino films, but maybe that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Surprisingly, Forrest Gump also generated some controversial opinions. Twenty-five years after its release, Zemeckis’s film remains surprisingly polarising; some see it as an innovative look into watershed moments in classic American history from the perspective of a loveable chocolate-sweet character, while others see it as a stitched-up and poorly written film about a lucky guy who runs a lot for no apparent reason. You either love it or you hate it, but the fact that it has six Academy Awards under its belt should serve as a form of indication of its mass appeal.

*Forrest Gump *was Robert Zemeckis’s most ambitious film coming after Back to the Future and Who
Framed Roger Rabbit, so much so that it became a pioneer in visual effects at the time. The digital manipulation of inserting Tom Hanks into historical archival footage was nothing short of revolutionary. Seeing Forrest have conversations with Richard Nixon, interact with Lyndon B. Johnson and tell John F. Kennedy that he desperately needed to pee must have been quite something for youngsters and adults alike back in the 90’s. Robert Zemeckis turned what would have otherwise been a fairly traditional (and frankly somewhat boring) story of boy-meets-girl into an epic Hollywood tale.

The film takes you through 30 years of watershed moments in the late 20th century in America, spanning from Elvis Presley’s first appearance on television, to the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal, up until the creation of the smiley face. Some critics even said that Forrest Gump was arguably the most American film ever made because it had an incredible sense of patriotism dealing with serious issues in an honourable way. To put it simply, it made America look cool, even if it wasn’t.

However, after winning an Oscar or two (or six) a film undergoes a level of scrutiny and criticism that Forrest Gump just wasn’t ready to handle. People argue that the film dashes through historical moments trying to squeeze in as many as possible in an already too long 2 hours and 22 minutes runtime without giving them their due importance. The film is often seen as an overly simplistic and melodramatic tale of an incredibly lucky man who just happens to be at the right place at the right time, every time.

It’s no wonder that some people see this film as clear Oscar bait. Yes, Forrest Gump is a sweet little film, but it’s a safe and conservative sweet little film. Perfect for the Oscars. The Academy would never risk their credibility by honouring a movie that flaunts the n-word 110 times and explicitly shows a heroin overdose, would they?

Over the years, quite a few Best Picture winners and runner-up’s have been side-lined and almost forgotten, but Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump remain classics, however opposites. They stand for completely diverse views on filmmaking: Hollywood vs. independent cinema, root-for-good-guy vs. flawed criminals, mainstream vs. niche, sentimental vs. sarcastic, and a box of chocolates vs. a glowing briefcase.

Pulp Fiction may not have won the Oscar that year, but twenty-five years later it’s still regarded by critics as one of the most influential films of its era. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what it means to lose the battle but win the war. And that’s all I have to say about that.

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