An auteur makes few compromises in bringing his distinctive visions to the screen, but he also makes no bones about borrowing from the auteurs who came before. This is especially true in the case of an auteur named Quentin Tarantino, who for nearly thirty years has repeatedly pulled off the neat trick of directing large-scale, highly individualistic movies that also draw deeply from the well of existing cinema — deeply enough to pull up both the grind-house “low” and art-house “high.” Tarantino’s first big impact on the zeitgeist came in the form of 1994’s Pulp Fiction, which put the kind of common, sensationalistic material suggested by its title into cinematic forms picked up from the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini.
Few clips of Tarantino’s work could distill this inspirational polarity as well as Pulp Fiction’s twist contest at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. In a film almost wholly composed of memorable scenes, as I wrote when last we featured it here on Open Culture, this one is quite possibly the most memorable.
Tarantino has explained his intent to pay tribute to dancing as it occurs in films like Godard’s Bande à part, the namesake of Tarantino’s production company. “My favorite musical sequences have always been in Godard because they just come out of nowhere,” he once said. “It’s so infectious, so friendly. And the fact that it’s not a musical but he’s stopping the movie to have a musical sequence makes it all the more sweet.”
But as these comparison videos reveal, Godard isn’t the only midcentury European auteur to whom Pulp Fiction’s dance scene owes its effectiveness. “This scene is a direct steal from Fellini’s 8½ and there’s no real effort to hide it,” writes No Film School’s Jason Hellerman. “Aside from the location change, the moves and camera angles are almost the same.” In 8½ the dancers are Marcello Mastroianni’s besieged filmmaker Guido and his estranged wife Luisa, played by Anouk Aimée. This occurs in another of the precious few pictures in cinema history comprising memorable scenes and memorable scenes only; the others include vivid spectacles outlining the middle-aged Guido’s artistic struggle and voyages of memory back into his prelapsarian childhood.
Childhood, writes poet James Fenton, was “a time of pure inventiveness” when “everything we did was hailed as superb.” (In this sense, a young filmmaker who makes his first Hollywood hit enjoys a second childhood, albeit usually a brief one.) In Fenton’s words, Washington Post art critic Sebastian Smee finds a key to the elaborate and enrapturing but at times bewildering 8½. With growth, alas, comes “the primal erasure, when we forget all those early experiences, and it is rather as if there is some mercy in this, since if we could remember the intensity of such pleasure it might spoil us for anything else. We forget what happened exactly, but we know that there was something, something to do with music and praise and everyone talking, something to do with flying through the air, something to do with dance.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.