"Any of you fucking pricks move, and I'll execute every motherfucking last one of you!"
The first time I heard those words I was was riding shotgun in my babysitter Michelle's Saab 900 Turbo. We were listening to Pulp Fiction: Music From The Motion Picture, which also includes classics like "Ezekiel 25:17," "Zed's Dead Baby," and the hilarious-for-reasons-I-couldn't-possibly-understand-at-the-time "Bring Out the Gimp." (Kool & The Gang and Dusty Springfield make appearances too, of course.) I vividly remember Michelle telling me not to repeat anything I'd just heard to my parents. I may have been eight, but I wasn't an idiot.
As you may have heard, today marks the 20-year anniversary of Pulp Fiction. That usually means it's time to listlessly retread well-worn clichés that describe something your parents probably thought was pretty great. But to say that Pulp Fiction has aged well is an understatement. The lackadaisical, ironically-detached dialogued that grabbed me as a kid even out of context still runs through every frame. Literally every line in the movie is imminently quotable, and each viewing reveals new gems. (Mia's "Warm.. warmer... disco"—it still gives me shivers.) Even the parts that do look dated (The Big Kahuna Burger scene is weirdly bloodless, for one), just add to the charm.
Tarantino's recent movies may be known for coming loaded with layered references, left-field casting, and self-referential Easter eggs, but Pulp Fiction was the first time we saw any of that on screen. (Reservoir Dogs, as good as it still is, just isn't as fully realized.) But instead of building on a pre-existing mythology, Tarantino is just laying a foundation. As Janet Maslin wrote for The New York Times, "Nothing is predictable or familiar within this irresistibly bizarre world. You don't merely enter a theater to see Pulp Fiction: you go down a rabbit hole."
And the depth of that hole starts from the first frame. Before the The Diner or the Friz Quadrata credits roll, Tarantino throws up this title card:
The first definition seems like a joke, but it's much smarter than that. For one, it's weirdly biological. It makes you think of brains—both the audiences' and that poor kid's we'll soon see splattered all over Jules' car. (Wikipedia cites a critic saying it reminds him of poop, which, hey, maybe so?) While the slang evokes the 10-cent comics and '70s sexploitation that Tarantino was self-consciously cribbing from, the first is a middle finger to people with "good taste." (Stanley Kauffmann, writing for The New Republic, said that "Pulp Fiction nourishes, abets, cultural slumming"—a statement that Tarantino probably thought was hilarious.) Before the movie starts, Tarantino is already fighting back.
To understand just how drastically Pulp Fiction challenged the notions of high culture, take a look at the environment the film was released into in 1994. This was the year that Forest Gump was an Oscar darling. Pulp Fiction may have been one of the most memorable Cannes premieres of all time and an instant Gen-X rallying point, but Robert Zemeckis' three-hour opus was the movie of the year. Though Pulp Fiction's seven Academy Award nominations (and win for Best Screenplay) were nothing to sneeze at, Forrest Gump took home the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director. Quentin Tarantino was hip, but he wasn't quite mainstream.
Compare that environment to just a few years later. For better or worse, Tarantino is almost single-handedly responsible for the ubiquity of chatty crime films—good, bad, and totally idiotic. For every Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, the studios plopped out dorm-room garbage like The Boondock Saints. Remember the Luke Perry/Jennifer Tilly vehicle American Strays? Me neither. And Pulp Fiction's influence didn't just bleed into Gen-X capers. There were movies mixed-up with chronology before, but Pulp Fiction showed a commercial hit could be structurally audacious without losing its audience. From Memento to Irreversible, we owe time-warped storytelling to Tarantino and Roger Avery's willingness to take narrative chances.
Which brings me back to the time I sat down to actually watch the movie—this time at 14. Cool is like porn—I had known it when I heard it. So when I was finally old enough to see it the anticipation was killing me. By that time, I had watched VH1 talking heads discuss Urge Overkill's "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" ad nauseam, and that "Miserlou" tremolo had become a cliché. But actually watching the pieces fall into place was like assembling a puzzle I had partially completed many times before. Each snippet of dialogue fell into Tarantino's tapestry with a little epiphany: so that's the gimp! The fact that the soundtrack had familiarized me with the scenes before they happened didn't change anything. Like the clichés that Tarantino was playing with in the film, they only made it seem more vital, more realized. Pulp: A soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter. The movie had transcended both its references and its imitators.
Perhaps the best way of describing Pulp Fiction to a person who hasn't seen it yet (or hasn't seen it in years) is that it's exactly as great as everyone says it is. Like Casablanca or Raging Bull, no amount of satire or ubiquity can lessen the impact. Twenty years later, the conversations around the film has changed. Pulp is everywhere. But somewhere, probably right now, a kid is hovering over a Netflix image of a black-haired Mia Wallace about about to have his mind blown.
Nathan Reese is a News Editor at Complex. He tweets here.