John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson radiate effortless cool.
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Twenty years on, it’s time to admit that Pulp Fiction is a bad film

It’s time we recognised that Quentin Tarantino’s much-lauded movie is about nothing, says nothing and makes you feel nothing.

Twenty years on and it’s still hard to separate Pulp Fiction the film and “Pulp Fiction” the pop culture phenomenon. 1994 was the year when Pulp Fiction stormed its way to the Palme d’Or at Cannes and sent the American public into raptures. Everybody wanted to see the film that saw John Travolta and Uma Thurman boogie and made a man faint during its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival.

Nobody seemed to have ever seen anything like it. It received extravagant rave reviews unlike anything in immediate memory. No film arrived with more hype and no film lived up to it the way Pulp Fiction did. The critics fawned over Quentin Tarantino, their new favourite auteur, and the masses had been given a European arthouse film they could quote until the end of time.  But 20 years later, just what is Pulp Fiction?

It’s undeniably one of the most popular and influential films of all time. It’s still being shamelessly imitated to this very day, yet Pulp Fiction the film is about nothing, it says nothing and it makes you feel nothing. It has an adolescent aesthetic and some of the dialogue could be from an early draft of Clerks, yet it is just so irresistibly “cool”. Travolta and Samuel L Jackson in matching black suits; Harvey Keitel as Mr Wolf (now ruined thanks to Direct Line); the dance in the diner; Ving Rhames being mean – all so hip, all so enchanting, but none of it adds up to anything. And that is Tarantino’s biggest flaw as a filmmaker. With the exception of the glorious Jackie Brown, all of his movies amount to nothing more than a few good scenes, while the overall narrative gets lost in his indulgence. Pulp Fiction is not a good film, though I may have believed it was in my younger, more impressionable days, when you had to like the film. On each re-watch, it lost a little more of the magic I thought was there the first time I saw it.

Of course, the biggest issue with Pulp Fiction is its racism and homophobia. Tarantino’s flippant and excessive use of the n-word and fetishisation of black people is well-documented. There are nasty jokes and unnecessary prejudices in this film, but Pulp Fiction has never really been taken to task for it, mainly because the racism and homophobia gets laughed off with a joke or obscure pop culture reference. Hiding nastiness behind perverse laughter is a disconcerting trait of Tarantino’s cinema and has only worsened over the 20 years since this film was made.

The critical and commercial success of Pulp Fiction, virtually unprecedented for an independent film at the time, cannot be undersold, particularly in terms of how it changed the movie industry. Tarantino became a household name overnight. He would never have to fight to get a movie made again and he was afforded the most golden of privileges by long-time backer Harvey Weinstein – complete creative control and final cut. For better or worse, it’s a pop culture landmark, ripped off and parodied by everyone from The Simpsons to Community. Its dialogue is known by even the few who haven’t seen it. It has become inescapable. An entire generation of movies wouldn’t have happened without Tarantino and the remarkable success of his second feature. Studios now wanted a piece of the cool indie pie and without Pulp Fiction turning into a phenomenon, maybe we wouldn’t have seen the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze getting a chance. If Pulp Fiction had never happened, American independent cinema wouldn’t be the great, big thing it is now.

At my kindest, I could describe Pulp Fiction as an adrenaline shot, an endlessly exciting sugar rush that combines Jean-Luc Godard with American postmodernism, but after 20 years, I’m just tired of it, and I’m tired of Tarantino and how he still acts, writes and directs like a 15 year-old boy yet to get a girlfriend. Pulp Fiction’s impact on cinema has been good, really it has – so many young American directors found a home on the independent circuit as the big studios veered more and more towards superhero films. Yet it’s exhausting to think you can still walk into HMV and buy a poster of the film or stumble across an episode of Family Guy and see the millionth homage or parody. Pulp Fiction isn’t a victim of its reputation, it’s a victim of being a bad film.

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The cult of clean eating in a fast-food nation

In Britain, it used to be vulgar to comment on one’s food. Now, it’s a bit weird not to.

These are the top food trends that the British media predicted for 2016: seaweed, parsnip puddings and sprouted seeds. And yet what was the most popular recipe on BBC Good Food, the country’s biggest cooking site? Lemon drizzle cake. When it comes to the food that we eat, the gulf between fantasy and fact has never been wider.

A third of British children are overweight, yet from the pictures tagged as “kids’ food” on the photo-sharing platform Instagram you would think they lived on pumpkin muffins and raw breakfast cereal. The same site boasts 290,229 posts on #avocadotoast and a mere 7,219 for #baconbutty, but I would bet my best spiraliser that we eat more of the latter.

Food trends have always been the preserve of those wealthy enough to enjoy the luxury of choice. If social media had been around in the 18th century, the exotic pineapple would have been trending heavily even as the majority of Britons subsisted on bread and gruel. Yet rarely have these fads been so hard to ignore: right now, we are a society obsessed with our stomachs . . . or, at least, our eyes, given that these seem to do much of the consuming.

The average British adult spends five hours a week watching, reading about, browsing and posting about food – and just four cooking it. A record 14.8 million of us tuned in to the final of The Great British Bake Off – almost as many as saw England’s dismal performance against Iceland in last year’s Euros – yet the most commonly eaten meal in the UK is a sandwich. That conjures a depressing image of each one of us sitting in front of a screen, scrolling through endless pictures of kale smoothies and activated quinoa as we tuck in to a floppy BLT.

A nation in which it was once considered vulgar to comment on one’s food has turned into one where it’s a bit weird not to. The current feverish interest in all things culinary feels, I imagine, like the Sixties must have done after Britain discovered sex “Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP”. And as with the sexual revolution and its fantasies of free love and cosmic joy through tantric chanting, perhaps the idea is more popular than the reality: increasingly, this endless parade of recipes cooked and meals eaten seems to be about more than the food itself.

While sex has (largely) thrown off its ancient shackles of judgement and shame, our diets are increasingly becoming their own morality tale. Once upon a time, “bad food” meant adulterated food – cheese dyed using lead, bread bleached with chalk – or perhaps cruel food, such as battery-farmed eggs. Occasionally someone who seemed to take too much pleasure in their meals might feel the weight of the country’s Protestant past, but wholesome food was generally seen as good rather than sinful.

Social media can’t be wholly to blame for the demonising of simple nourishment in the 21st century. Writing in the Observer last year, the philosopher Julian Baggini cited Salman Rushdie’s “naughty but nice” cream-cake advertising slogan from the Seventies as an early example; but “wicked” food was once a largely playful concept. Now, it is hard to find the humour in the modern idea of clean eating or, indeed, in its “dirty” dark side.

Clean eating, if you’ve been lucky enough to have avoided the torrent of smoothie bowls and bone broths pouring forth from screen, billboard and printed page in recent years, is a way of life (most adherents reject the word “diet”) with many rules – the Hemsley sisters’ “simple, mindful and intuitive” approach for “a long-term lifestyle change” takes up six pages of their bestselling recipe book Good + Simple. But there is little consensus among its advocates as to what these rules are.

Although clean eating is often described merely as a movement that champions minimally processed, “natural” foods, one of the few things that unites its various congregations is the need to eliminate what they deem to be unclean alternatives. Gluten is a popular target for dismissal, because it can be “hard to digest”; legumes are sometimes blamed for “bloating”. Cane sugar is definitely out, but consumption of dates and honey is actively encouraged, often served with a generous spoonful of coconut oil or nut butter (but not peanut butter, because that “gives you cancer”).

Given the often spurious scientific grounds for these strictures (tomatoes are said to cause inflammation; dairy steals the calcium from your bones), it’s little wonder that clean eating stands accused of promoting what the food writer Bee Wilson described recently as a “twisted attitude to food”, valuing certain ingredients as pure and cleansing, while others come with an unwanted side order of guilt and anxiety.

The backlash wasn’t long in coming – and on social media, the crucible of the eat-clean craze, nothing is served in moderation. “Dirty” food, which revels in its own naughtiness, is the inevitable flip side of the clean-eating coin, a world where adherents compete to outdo each other in crimes against cookery. Online audiences encourage such extremes; they like their food, to misquote Longfellow, either very, very good or horrid. In short, a simple spag bol is never going to get as much attention on Twitter as an “Italian-style” beefburger, dripping with Bolognese sauce, drenched in Parmesan, and served between two slabs of deep-fried pasta (this does exist).

Such fantastical foods are fine online; as with pornography, the problem comes when they influence the way people eat in real life. Bee Wilson, who was subjected to a barrage of online abuse when she dared to question the thinking behind one clean-eating guru’s “philosophy” at last year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival, cites growing evidence of the dangers of clean eating from those working with people who suffers from eating disorders. One specialist in London told the Sunday Times in May that between 80 and 90 per cent of his patients were following so-called clean diets.

At the other end of the spectrum, an ­Oxford University study published last year in the journal Brain and Cognition explored the possibility that “exposure to images of desirable foods can trigger inhibitory cognitive processes such as self-restraint”. The researchers concluded that our brain has to make a great effort to resist temptation when looking at “food porn”, in order to “maintain a reasonably healthy weight”. And not everyone succeeds.

It remains to be seen whether this appetite for public displays of ingestion endures. I can’t imagine the world needs any more pictures of fried eggs but others disagree: 264 have been added to Instagram in the time it has taken me to write this piece.

Technology will decide – work is already under way on virtual-reality headsets that allow diners to eat one food while looking at an image of another. This is a significant development, as evidence suggests that changing the appearance of food can affect our perception of its taste and flavour.

It is possible to imagine, in the not-too-distant future, chowing down on a plate of steamed fish while gazing lasciviously at a bacon cheeseburger. Or we could just learn the old-fashioned art of moderation. Is there a hashtag for that?

Felicity Cloake writes the New Statesman’s food column

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times