Cannes: Todd McCarthy on 'Pulp Fiction' at 20, Secret Screening and Drinks with Tarantino

The Hollywood Reporter's chief film critic recalls being "suitably amazed by the explosive power, daring structure, outrageous humor and all-round audaciousness" of the "unique, exciting" movie.

Although it’s hard to believe that Quentin Tarantino’s pop culture landmark is now two decades old, the 20th anniversary of Pulp Fiction is being celebrated tonight with a special on-the-beach screening on what promises to be a gloriously balmy evening in Cannes.

The winner of the 1994 Palme d’Or from a jury presided over by Clint Eastwood, Pulp Fiction had its official world premiere at the Grand Theatre Lumiere on May 19 of that year. However, although the film had been kept tightly under wraps and was screened for no one in the United States before its Cannes debut, a number of critics did get a secret sneak peek at it the night before.

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None of us knew what to expect, of course, and we were suitably amazed by the explosive power, daring structure, outrageous humor and all-round audaciousness of a film that went far beyond simply fulfilling the promise indicated by Tarantino's first film. I remember coming out in something of a daze, elated by having seen something so unique and exciting.

Sometime during the day on May 18, several American critics and a number of other journalists were quietly told that there would be a private, strictly invitation-only screening that evening of Tarantino’s follow-up to Reservoir Dogs at the Olympia Cinemas off the Rue d’Antibes. I don’t know if everyone who received an invitation cleared their schedule on short notice, but I certainly did, as did Roger Ebert, Richard Corliss and a few others I saw scattered around the biggest of the venues in the complex, which customarily serves for market screenings during the festival.

It was fairly late when the screening ended, and everyone had scattered afterward. I wasn’t quite sure where I wanted to go but I was very revved up, anxious to share my enthusiasm about what I’d just seen but uncertain about how to do so without spoiling any surprises for anyone else.

Just as I hit the Croisette at the eastern corner of the Carlton Hotel, I literally bumped into someone. I said, "Sorry," looked up and saw that it was -- Tarantino. I had briefly met him a couple of times before, and we immediately recognized each other. As my head was still in sensory overdrive from the film, I can only admit that my usual barrier of journalistic ethics was momentarily demolished; bad critical form it may have been, but I simply couldn’t prevent myself from blurting out that I had just seen Pulp Fiction and was blown away.

“Tell me, tell me, what did you think?” Tarantino implored me. “You’re the first person I’ve met who’s seen the film who didn’t work on it -- you gotta tell me!”

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And so I did, on the street corner, for 10 or 15 minutes, with Tarantino asking me about this scene, that shot, what surprised me, if anything confused me, what did I think of Travolta, the music, and on and on. By this time, I rationalized that he was going to read what I thought of it the next day anyway, and nothing was going to change my opinion, so I just fired away.

Finally, he said, "Let’s go get a drink," so we headed down the Croisette to the Majestic Hotel and into the bar, where we took a small table at the far end of the room. Through the wee hours, accompanied and fueled by an uncounted number of beverages, we moved on from Pulp Fiction to enter film-buff nirvana, which is where most conversations with this man end up, in my experience. It was my first exposure to Tarantino’s intense, hilarious, impassioned and madly knowledgeable self. And it was about 5 a.m. when we staggered out of there.

About 14 hours later, Tarantino walked the red carpet with his phenomenal cast, and over the next hours, some now-legendary Cannes history was made. But the night before was a night to remember as well.