‘Pulp’ or — Cine-literate and Lit-literate About The Ill-literate?
Is it possible for a movie to be too smart-alecky for its own good? I hope so because I eat that kinda stuff up like mad.
I had a single, deliberate reason for watching ‘Pulp’ (1972). I’d re-watched Mike Hodges’ ‘The Terminal Man’ (1974) for the first time in years a few days before and was so fascinated by it, so bewildered by its combination of cold artiness and deeply hidden sharp, knowing humour that I was curious how much of this was Hodge’s personal style or just my imagination. I had the quivering hunch I could be dealing with the former and a filmmaker who couldn’t keep the subversive snub of his pistol from constantly sticking out of his rain-coat in everything he did. I needed to know more; I had to investigate. I put on ‘Pulp’.
‘Pulp’ concerns Mikey King, an ex-funeral director from England turned pulp-fiction writer living in Rome. He writes crime novels with titles such as ‘My Gun is Long’ under pseudonyms such as S. Odomy although like all writers he is lazy, even too lazy to write, so he dictates them into a Dictaphone for secretary pools to type up (for a film about writing and writers nobody ever writes in this movie. It’s almost as though writers hate writing).
King is offered a large sum of money to ghost-write the memoirs of a famous, but secretive, celebrity. King accepts and is sent off in the direction of a remote Mediterranean island where he is told he will be contacted with further instructions on how to reach his destination. Finally arriving he discovers the celebrity to be Preston Gilbert, a retired actor who specialised in portraying gangsters in Hollywood. Mystery solved. The only problem is several dead bodies have accumulated around King along the way already and with Gilbert’s connections to the mob being increasingly more likely to be more than fictional it’s not long before King suspects he might be next at that all this could be a highly elaborate set-up… or just a big joke. Or maybe it’s both?
So if I was looking for evidence of Mike Hodges being a clever, smart, funny, intelligent filmmaker with a sophisticated cinematic eye then ‘Pulp’ is not just a smoking gun it’s a smoking gun surrounded by several dead bodies with Hodges’ hand still on the trigger giggling like crazy at what he’s just committed. From the opening shot of the secretaries transcribing Mikey’s dictation, sound and vision separating then re-merging as what’s said clashes with what’s seen, it’s obvious that ‘Pulp’ is going to get all meta and self-reflexive on our asses from the get-go. And even though Mikey’s a terrible writer who never writes a word his voice-over demonstrates that this is a film that’s going to revel in literary gags as well as cinematic ones.
Although these jokes could be easy to miss because Hodges and cinematographer Ousama Rawi give ‘Pulp’ a counter-intuitive brown hue to this Mediterranean tale giving a sensation of alienation that’s closer to Antonioni’s ‘The Passenger’ (1975) than anything resembling an actual comedy — Caine’s King finds himself in hotel rooms with dead bodies as he continues on a journey that he has no real agency to affect. Sounds hilarious, doesn’t it?
The real surprise is that ‘Pulp’ is very, very funny indeed. The jokes are nearly all meta, intertextual or a combination of both so if that’s not your bag you might be left scratching your head. But if you can click with ‘Pulp’, if you can sync with its wavelength, you’ll notice the absolute delight and glee that Hodges is obviously having here.
The jokes are oblique but the film is packed with them. Like ‘Pulp’s surface level, proceedings might seem dull and brown but there’s a riot of colour functioning below the surface, something which might be a joke in and of itself and when you see the final, almost Technicolor closing card you realise it almost certainly was.
Somewhat more accessible comedy pops up however in the form of Mickey Rooney who gives a brief, but highly energetic performance as former gangster star Preston Gilbert. Whereas Caine is all restraint Rooney lets loose with a suitably ego-centric (and ego-less) performance, his excessive vanity best illustrated by an excellent gag involving his sliding mirrors.
‘Pulp’ could end up infuriating some viewers. It’s stridently clever, it delights in its own pretense and although it might flirt with the notion of simply being an empty shaggy-dog tale about nothing it actually has a political point to make. Having made my way through a few Hodges’ films this week I’m also convinced this could be the purest and most accurate depiction of his style and way of thinking as well as explicitly revealing just how smart and sly Hodges’ work could be. And good god, the guy really knows how to compose and frame a shot — this film looks phenomenal.
Apparently ‘Pulp’ was one of J.G. Ballard’s favourite comedies and that sums the movie up precisely along with what you can expect from it — ‘Pulp’ is exactly the type of comedy, with exactly the type of jokes, you could imagine J.G. Ballard putting on to relax and have a laugh with. If that’s not your thing — laughing along with Ballard — you could be left as baffled as a ghost-writer lost in Malta wondering what the hell’s going on, but personally speaking I found ‘Pulp’ to be one of the most unusual, fascinating and deceptively funny comedies of the 70’s and further evidence that Hodges might’ve been one of most genuinely interesting directors to come out the country at the time.