The best thing about being a pre-teen in the mid-90s was also the worst. 85 percent of your pop cultural knowledge was based on guesswork. You lived in imagined worlds. You were constantly aware of the emerging tip of all things thrillingly adult, but, pre-internet, there was no easy way of getting past the BBFC and discovering for yourself that nothing was so frightening, sexual, subversive or dirty as you hoped and imagined it to be.
So you constructed home movies in your head, based on mysterious jokes told at Sunday lunch, weird quips caught as you leaned over the banisters holding your breath, a four-second flicker of an advert that blared, black and red and rude, until a parent picked up the remote control and said, "Well, I think that’s quite enough of that."
You’d go to the cinema to watch The Lion King, see posters advertising other features on other screens and wonder what Kalifornia could possibly be about, and how it could contain anything so dreadful that you had to be 18 – a grown-up – to spend an hour-and-a-half looking at it. I remember being horrified by a report I’d seen on the early evening news, about a gang in a seaside town that had tortured a girl and removed her teeth with pliers because they’d watched Child’s Play 3. I knew that movies could make you do things.
For me, film was always an immersive experience. Having wept through every trip to the cinema since I saw The Little Mermaid, I never doubted that those journeys had the power to change our very nature – for better or worse and, sometimes, for sexier or cooler.
So I was too young – far too young – to watch Pulp Fiction when it came out in 1994. I was nine years old. But I couldn’t escape the bootleg posters at the market, where I became entranced by Vince and Jules’ synchronised gun work, and Mia Wallace cooing, “Girls like me don’t make offers like this to just anyone.” Because I was a precocious child, I’d read op-eds and style guides about it in the Sunday supplements, looking up "auteur", and later "gimp", in my parents’ cracked, red, finger-crushing Chambers Concise.
Pulp Fiction was cool. If I could glean that as a friendless child who lived in middle-of-nowhere-Dorset – a child whose parents were so anxious about me being corrupted by sex and swears that they refused to let me watch Neighbours – surely you could feel that cool from space. I was also dimly aware that it was for boys. It had drugs, guns, cool music and sexy girls. (There was no way that it was made for women, because no one mentioned marriage, or a makeover scene.)
I’d already managed to talk to a boy on the strength of a manufactured fondness for Point Horror. But if I was ever going to be a cool, sexy grown-up, dazzling adult men, Pulp Fiction was my only hope. If I focused on that, maybe one day everyone would forget my vocal and passionate advocacy of the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
When I finally managed to see it, I was 13, and spied it in a video cabinet belonging to the parents of my sleepover host. I’d decided to be enthralled before anyone pressed play on the VCR. I knew what was coming, but revelled in it all the same. The five-dollar shake, the tap dance, Esmeralda, Zed’s chopper, the ludicrous studiedness of it all.
"Heroins’s coming back in a big way!" I quote blithely, looking around to check my edginess had been noticed, and hoping that no one would mention the time I’d been sick after drinking a mug of warm vodka with Pepsi. When I first watched Mia Wallace take a syringe full of adrenaline to the heart, I bit my lip hard enough to draw blood, then looked at my screaming companions scornfully. "This is tame! What’s wrong with you?"
The 1994 trailer for Pulp Fiction
Some of the girls I knew struggled with it, but came around when it turned out that I was right about the boys. Pulp Fiction was an exotic, acquired taste, like olives or red wine or semen. We could learn to love it if we kept swallowing, and the people we wanted to impress would find us fascinating and precocious. (At the time, we didn’t know that the people we wanted to impress – 17-year-old boys – were not a difficult market to crack.)
I knew that I could never be the prettiest, or the sexiest, girl in the room, so I decided I could be the most Terrifyingly Hip by purporting to enjoy and endure dirty, dismal things.
Pulp Fiction allowed me to cultivate a bored blood lust, which eventually led me to Bret Easton Ellis, blaxploitation, Russ Meyer, Misty comics and the Vipco Vaults. These are all cherished parts of my sentimental education, but it took me a long time to learn to value them, instead of desperately flinging them at every middle-aged man who walked into the video store I worked in during my mid-teens.
It’s only now that I realise if you’re 16 and you work in a shop, and a load of men keep coming in, they probably want to look at your bum in jeans. And really, that you should chase them out with a broom rather than being frightened that they won’t be pleased with your interpretation of Reservoir Dogs.
It’s no secret that parts of Pulp Fiction have not aged brilliantly. But the film – or rather, my idea of it – burrowed its way into me during my formative years in a way that means I can only feel affection for it, as if it’s a birthmark shaped like a slice of pizza, or a friend I’ve known since nursery who always wets herself in my bed when she’s pissed. To me, it will always be the visual rendering of pure cool – even though I now know it’s a child’s drawing of cool.
As I entered adolescence it was my shorthand for all that was shocking and adult, but it’s a film for teenagers. It’s splashy and slick, graphic and grainy, and about a quarter as clever as it thinks it is. (I’ve just had a horrible flashback to being 15, sucking a really weak and badly rolled joint, screwing my eyes up against the smoke and saying, “Ultimately, it’s an ultraviolent triumph of redemption over retribution,” and my face is now taut with shame.)
I think 13-year-old me would be horribly sad about what I’ve become. All she wanted was to be cool, and I couldn’t manage that for her. These days, there are hardly any drugs or dance contests in my life. I don’t impress strange men by necking warm tequila in car parks and then starting debates about I Spit On Your Grave. I stay in, drinking Baileys, as I cheer my way through Pitch Perfect and Whip It. But being edgy was exhausting. Staying blank faced and bored in the face of on-screen masked sodomy made me feel strained. I got tired of ennui, and if it wasn’t for Pulp Fiction, there might be some left lurking in my system.
I no longer like anything just because I feel I ought to like it, and it reflects the sort of person I should be. If you construct a personality out of material designed to be seen from the outside and not felt from within, it’s going to crack. I’m made out of softer stuff now, and it yields better. I’ll never stop loving Pulp Fiction, but I’m happy to leave it in my past. I’ve seen enough fake blood to keep me going for another 20 years.