As Deems Taylor puts it during his final speech in Fantasia, “[The pinnacle of my all-time favorite movies list] is a combination of two [films] so utterly different in construction and mood that they set each other off perfectly…[Stylistically] and dramatically, we have here a picture of the struggle between the profane and the sacred.” I’m paraphrasing a little. Disney’s juxtaposition of two very different musical pieces certainly came to mind as I finished my list, though. Now, Pulp Fiction (henceforth PF) ain’t exactly Walpurgis Night. The parallels between The Tree of Life (henceforth TTOL) and Schubert’s “Ave Maria” are much more striking. But I love the thought of comparing and contrasting these, the two movies I love more than any others I’ve seen. They are both triumphs of the human imagination, and it is entirely unthinkable that the man who directed one could ever possibly direct something like the other.
How did TTOL dethrone PF on my list after six years of dominance by the latter? What I like to say about PF is that there’s a deleted scene for that movie, with Mia Wallace giving Vincent Vega an impromptu pop culture survey for a camera, that I enjoy more than probably most scenes that actually got into the final cut of other films. A lot of movies would be lucky to have even one scene that’s as engaging and funny as that one, but for PF it wasn’t considered good enough. When we turn to TTOL, however, we see that there is a vast amount of footage that didn’t make the final 139-minute cut: enough that I suspect there may be an entire feature-length film of deleted scenes lying around, waiting to be edited together, that I would love more than most movies. That’s pure speculation at this point, but it makes for a glib explanation of my ranking of these two films.
One’s first impression of these two movies might lead one to conclude that it’s a matter of substance, my choosing TTOL. The stereotypical PF fan is a young hotshot cinephile who worships at the altar of “coolness” and adores kineticism for its own sake. I’ve sometimes wondered if my unabashed love for each of Quentin Tarantino’s films is something that I’ll need to grow out of at some point, moving on to more mature fare. Even so, there most certainly is truth to hang onto in PF. As Christian critic Jeffrey Overstreet wrote:
[Tarantino’s] stories have a strong moral backbone. While he’s stuck in a world populated by bad guys, once in a while his bad guys get a taste of grace, and once in a while, they respond — drawn toward better behavior, toward redemption. Pulp Fiction gave us three characters, each guilty of terrible crimes. Each one was given a second chance. One (played by John Travolta) remained committed to his sins, and suffered the consequences. One (Bruce Willis) turned a corner and ended up rescuing his worst enemy from torment. And another (Samuel L. Jackson) answered a higher call from God and gave up the life of crime.
Jackson, interviewed by Vanity Fair, echoes the theme of redemption. “The people who are worth saving get saved. The two robbers, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, get saved. They get another chance — that’s their redemption. Uma has the chance to die. She didn’t die. Butch gets another chance. Marsellus Wallace even gets another chance.” It’s all there if you’re looking for it — not incredibly deep, perhaps, and definitely far from a sermon, but it’s truth.
Yes, the truth in TTOL is deeper and more personal to me, and that fact contributed to its ascendance. I’ve already written at length about the movie, so the only thing I’ll add is that TTOL is plugged into the transcendence of things, the holiness of life, whereas PF is down in the dirt of the commonplace, reveling in humor and kinetic thrills. Both perspectives are commendable, but I think the second ought to be a stepping stone leading to the first.
The differences between these movies are too many to mention, so let’s just list what they actually have in common. They both make absolutely fantastic, goosebump-inducing use of music, whether it’s Smetana in TTOL or Chuck Berry in PF. Surf rock and requiems — if you think you don’t like these types of music, watch how Tarantino and Malick use them and you might just change your mind. Both movies quote from the Bible, although it should be noted that the Ezekiel 25:17 of PF doesn’t technically exist. Both are over two hours long, making them a bit of a commitment, but a completely worthwhile one. Probably the most notable similarity is that both happen to have won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in their respective years. So we’re back to the “pretentious” thing I mentioned in my last post. I’ve seen only twelve Palme d’Or winners at the time I write this (three of which shared the prize with other films) and three are in my top 100, the third being Barton Fink. This is neither a point of pride nor of shame. Okay, maybe a little of both.
Each of my two favorite movies evokes the wonder of this world we call home and contains sharp insight into how people interact with each other. They are emotionally rich and packed with things to study. Like the Joker said in Tim Burton’s Batman, “It’s as though [these two movies] were made for each other. Beauty and the Beast. Of course, if anyone else calls [The Tree of Life] ‘Beast,’ I’ll rip their lungs out.” Again, paraphrasing.