Kill Contemporary Film Criticism: Vol. 1.
Tarantino's films are considered through the many filters of "Tarantino" -- the media personality, the myth, the cultural force, the symbolic and perceived meanings associated with the name. Reviews are rarely related to the celluloid but instead crafted to show that the writers are free from his influence and distanced from the popular culture so haunted by his ghosts. When all is said, the movies themselves are beside the point.
The first time I saw Citizen Kane, I expected the screen to explode, fireworks to go off, and the mighty voice of God to fill my ear with hymn. Instead, it was just a movie, and thus I was left terribly disappointed. The second time I saw Kane I had gone to see Fritz Lang's M, but because the print hadn't arrived they showed Citizen Kane instead. Without expectations, I entered. I ran home, blood pumping and mind racing. I was reminded of this years later, when in 1994 Marjorie Baumgarten came in from a press screening of Pulp Fiction radiating energy, literally drenched in excitement. It had been a long time since I had felt her so electric. I had to see this film. The explosively joyous intensity of my first viewing of Pulp Fiction ripped off the top of my head and has done so on every subsequent screening. I hadn't seen Reservoir Dogs, but soon did, then Jackie Brown, and now Kill Bill: Vol. 1, each one a visceral and intellectual pleasure, each one the work of a confident filmmaker.
The metacriticism of Tarantino falls into many categories; let's consider some of the most prominent: He only makes movies about movies; he is not original because he steals from other movies; and they all might be fun to watch, but they aren't about anything -- especially Kill Bill.
One of my favorite film moments is an overly didactic, frozen-camera lecture in Godard's La Chinoise. A student faces the camera and expounds. "It has always been accepted that the Lumière brothers invented documentary films ..." -- those French film pioneers' first minute-long films simply captured what happened in front of the camera, mundane nonfiction records of such things as workers leaving the factory -- "... Méliès the narrative" -- a magician telling often elaborate stories, Méliès was the first to manipulate what the camera recorded, as well as utilize special effects that he had developed for his stage shows.
The student then claims that it should be reversed. The argument is that documentary film is not only an artificial construct -- it isn't real, but rather recorded, edited, and representative of the filmmaker's choices -- but is inherently a lie in that it pretends to be truth.
The narrative film, in the information contained within -- dress, relationships, actions, vehicles, furnishing, etc. -- tells us much about the world in which it was made. More important, as a carefully constructed entertainment, it is a mother lode of information about the sensibility of the audience for whom it was made, revealing conscious and unconscious ideologies, class status, sex, economic roles, and so on. Movies are about life, all movies: Often those most simply designed as entertainment are the richest in cultural information. A film filled with film references is not limited to artifice, but its social, cultural, and political resonance is expanded. Few, for instance, would criticize Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, or James Joyce for the richness of literary references in their work. Similarly, given the fully realized characters, vivid mimetic details, and beautifully nuanced natural dialogue at the center, the expansive cinematic references deepen rather than cheapen Tarantino's work.
A freshman friend's film teacher urged the class not to be influenced by Tarantino, as he simply steals from other films. This called to mind Pauline Kael's essay "Raising Kane," in which she attacks the myth of the 25-year-old genius Orson Welles having conquered stage and radio, revolutionizing film as the sole creator of Citizen Kane. She carefully catalogs the people with whom he worked, as well as the many influences on him. She eloquently disproves her own point. In culture, it doesn't matter who did something first; what matters is the achievements of the work. The antecedents she cites offer the cinematic affectations of Kane, but none match its richness. She passionately defends the contributions of co-writer Herman Mankiewicz, while acknowledging that nothing else in his filmography comes close to Kane. Dispensing with the straw man of "sole creator," but instead acknowledging film as a collaborative art, Kane was driven by Welles' vision. Empowering others to deliver some of their best work and incorporating libraries of ideas, Welles created a masterpiece that has stood the test of time. The litmus test is not celebrity, biography, or precedent, but rather simply: How do the other works measure up? Mad Love is great fun, but it isn't Kane.
When I came of age, film criticism was exciting not only because it was a time of great filmmaking, but because French film criticism was permeating the American sphere. There, post-WWII critics pioneered the idea that the director was the author of a film, and that certain "auteurs" were such great artists that the worst films they made were more interesting than the best films of more personality-less directors. The latter assumption represents lazy biography and reductive criticism but, polemically, it excited serious consideration of film. When this generation of French film writers initiated the New Wave and became the most influential filmmakers in the world, they also raised the status of critics and criticism. A crucial auteurist assumption was that commercial Hollywood studio releases, including long derided genre films, were as great (if not greater) and deserving of critical consideration as more "serious" films. Intent and pretense were tossed aside for accomplishment and artistry. The Informer had long been regarded as John Ford's greatest film, while his Westerns were largely dismissed. Their greatness acknowledged Ford's stunning achievements. Pauline Kael was among the most prominent adversaries of the auteur theory, but her brilliant aesthetic embraced great films regardless of their economic origins or market intentions.
The recent second anniversary of September 11 was emotionally overwhelming. That those 19 men -- bent on such evil, feeling so righteous -- succeeded was more than depressing. Realizing that the mightiest nation in the world was not just vulnerable but couldn't retaliate was suffocating. Intuitively, George W. Bush was in sync with the American people here. This is his genius, if you'll forgive that word. Other members of the administration boasted much broader agendas, but this synchronicity was led by Bush, absent even of the manipulative Rove, Cheney, or Rumsfeld. The president has demonstrated -- without much empathy, appreciation of context, or concern for long-term consequences -- a breathtaking emotional harmony with the American people. In the wake of September 11, we had to retaliate. Letting that outrageous event happen without response, without action, would have been psychologically devastating. Americans needed revenge. The reason that between 50% and 70% of the American people believe Iraq was involved is not because of the administration's shameless distortion of information and beyond-poetic skill at inference without definition. It is because they need to believe there is an enemy that we have punished, a tangible evil that we have faced and defeated. The anti-war communities in decrying the wars also created familiar meaning, the ideological dialectic giving at least some shape to the forever changed.
Two of the best films about Vietnam are Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Robert Aldrich's Ulzana's Raid. (Vietnam vets have a much different list, often beginning with The Boys in Company C, but that is about their experiences.) Though Apocalypse is set in Vietnam, it is about the American emotional hurricane caused by the madness of war. Raid is about the moral ambiguity of war in which there is no innocence, righteousness, or heroes, and where none are untouched. In modern America, in the aftermath of two wars of vengeance, we are a morally confused, dramatically divided nation where, despite one's feelings on the wars, there is an undercurrent of fear, a strong sense of displacement, and a nervous uncertainty about the future. In this context, blithely stating (as review after review has) that Kill Bill: Vol. I is about nothing is excessively stupid. Whether Tarantino considered our military actions is beside the point. (I hope he didn't ... artists are usually more eloquent when they're trying not to be.) As we awaken to the ugly hangover of those invasions (regardless of one's sense of justification) Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is a muddled poem of revenge, perhaps a celebration of justice achieved, perhaps a lament over insane overreaction. Even if justified, the carnage might be too much, even capricious. Is it not evil that is vanquished? Regardless, it's a hell of a great movie.
The once great film critic David Denby's passionate spirit has evaporated during the past decade. In his New Yorker review of Kill Bill he concludes by writing that the film left him feeling nothing. Sadly, as with too much of current criticism, this tells us nothing about the film and everything about the critic.
(As hard as it might be to believe, there is more to come on this topic.)