PROJECT: THE TRAVOLTOGRAPHY

by Michael Wayne

John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino, 1975

John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back, Kotter, 1975

Much has been written about Pulp Fiction in the 20 years since it came out: it’s Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece. It’s his worst film. It’s his edgiest. It’s his most mainstream. It’s the greatest American film made in the last 30 years. It’s the epitome of all that’s wrong with cinema. It’s blindingly original. It’s shamelessly pieced together from other films. Revolutionary. Regressive. It’s everything and it’s nothing, the best and the worst. There seems to be no middle ground on the film, but to be honest I can’t really remember the last time I gave it this much thought.

It was meant to usher in a new wave of American cinema, doing away with the kind of contrived, by-committee, Syd Field screenwriting course approved junk that Hollywood studios had been churning out since the Heaven’s Gate fiasco of 1980. This last weekend saw Disney/Marvel’s Captain America – The Winter Soldier break box office records worldwide, suggesting that things didn’t really come to pass the way 1994’s hyperbole insisted (but hey, Samuel L. Jackson hardly looks a day older!). 20 years later, what really is the legacy of Pulp Fiction?

By all accounts, the most apparent lasting impact the film made (aside from the current ubiquity of Jackson) was the resurrection of the career of John Travolta. No assessment of the film seems complete without addressing Travolta’s resurgence, and Tarantino’s subsequent filmography is peppered with attempts to do the same for other faded stars of yesteryear, with varying results.

In reading about the film, I came across a quote from film critic Jerome Charyn’s 2006 profile of Tarantino that echoed in my mind for days afterwards. Charyn believes that the power of Travolta’s performance – and even his mere appearance – in the film comes from the actor’s to-date career itself:

Travolta’s entire career becomes “backstory“, the myth of a movie star who has fallen out of favor, but still resides in our memory as the king of disco. We keep waiting for him to shed his paunch, put on a white polyester suit, and enter the 2001 Odyssey club in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where he will dance for us and never, never stop.

For perhaps the first time ever, I took the time to stop and really think about John Travolta. How accurate was Charyn’s statement? Was this kind of…holistic casting possible, let alone effective? Was it intentional on Tarantino’s part, or was it just another overly pretentious critic finding meaning where there was none?

I’d seen a fair few of Travolta’s films, including Pulp Fiction. Welcome Back, Kotter had gotten a thrashing from Channel 9 back when I was in high school, and I’d watched a tonne of that. I was familiar with him, but not to the extent necessary to put Charyn’s theory to the test. It was certainly hard to imagine a pre-Pulp Fiction Travolta, that disco guy condemned to D-grade comedies and family fare, a far cry from his heyday of the late 1970s. One other quote from my research stuck with me, this one by Erika Hernandez of AboutFilm.com:

The late Seventies triumphs of Saturday Night Fever and Grease made Travolta an icon. But it did not take him long to become an embarrassment in the Eighties. … After [Perfect]’s release [in 1985], we pretty much did not want to look at this man anymore. He had become a relic of an era we were trying to forget.

But for someone born in 1985, it was an era I couldn’t remember. I looked over Travolta’s filmography on IMDb. Phew…would these films really bear the weight imposed on them by Charyn’s idea? Was it even feasible to watch all of the films he’d made prior to Pulp Fiction? Hmm…I could do this. It’d take time, and I’d have to watch Staying Alive…but I could do it.

So here we are. I’ll periodically watch the following films and publish my thoughts on them as I go. I’ll end with Pulp Fiction, after which I’ll assess just how integral Travolta’s history was to his effectiveness in the film.

I’ll have to watch exactly 20 films.

They were made over a 20 year period.

Pulp Fiction just turned 20.

I just noticed this list includes Look Who’s Talking Too.

Stop me now.

The Devil’s Rain (1975)

Carrie (1976)

The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976)

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Grease (1978)

Moment by Moment (1978)

Urban Cowboy (1980)

Blow Out (1981)

Staying Alive (1983)

Two of a Kind (1983)

Perfect (1985)

The Experts (1989)

Look Who’s Talking (1989)

Look Who’s Talking Too (1990)

Eyes of an Angel (1991)

Chains of Gold (1991)

Shout (1991)

Boris and Natasha (1992)

Look Who’s Talking Now (1993)

Pulp Fiction (1994)

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