Friday, October 10, 2003

Kill Bill: Jon Last, over at the Weekly Standard, gives "Kill Bill" a good going over. He seems more repulsed by the hollowness of Tarantino's work than anything else:
Most of the wit and intelligence in pop entertainments these days comes from spotting the homages, catching the references. It's true in movies and television. It's true of music, where songs with long strings of cultural references . . . often become hits. And it is becoming true in writing. What started with Brett Easton Ellis's "Glamorama" has spread to the best-seller list and is now especially evident in online writing. Reference and homage is the sly way to be funny and signal to readers that they're part of the in group while at the same time flattering them by suggesting the joke is probably flying over other people's heads. Instead of writing something funny, writers drop in a "Simpsons" reference or make a knowing wink about Star Trek. Homage is the new humor, the new sophistication.
I think he's got a point, but I'd take that point elsewhere. Homage, almost always forthrightly ironic today, is as much about emptiness as it is about inspiration. It's the cultural equivalent of speaking in cliche; it's easier to press stock phrases into your service than it is to create a original and communicative phrase. This isn't so much the sign of a lack of creativity, as some would suggest; Tarantino is nothing if not creative. Rather, it has to do, I think, with the immediacy that cultural pointing offers. Tarantino's films are quick, snappy affairs: the action is continuous, and the dialogue has the machine-gun feel of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in "His Girl Friday" -- were they possessed of a sailor's perversely phatic use of profanity. (Herman Wouk, in The Caine Mutiny, writes that his story of life in the Navy reflects his experience -- except for the language. He took out the profanity, he says, because a man at sea becomes used to speaking it habitually, without meaning. Tarantino leaves it in -- for exactly the same reason.) Because of that pace, it's more suited to Tarantino's purpose to pause and, briefly, point, rather than get bogged down in the kind of dialogue that advances the plot.

It's odd that Last says

The plot and exposition in "Kill Bill" is sketched in such short, hurried strokes that audiences who haven't seen the trailer might not entirely understand what they're seeing. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is different.
But isn't that true of "Pulp Fiction," too? We're never given the whole story; action picks up in the middle of things, ends abruptly, leaps back and forth in time. It's almost by accident that the same characters reappear; it could be others, you think, without being detrimental to the film. But it's the same ones for a reason, and a reason we are not given explicitly.

I agree with Last that these movies will not live as classics; they're too conscious of their own context, too stylized. They'll probably fade into the kind of cultyness that Tarantino's inspirations have. And some kid, thirty years from now, is going to discover "Reservoir Dogs" or "Pulp Fiction" the way Tarantino found kung fu flicks and spaghetti westerns, and that kid will go on to make some very interesting movies.

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