Lavishly Praising Bloodbaths (Without the Ads)

Here’s a reposting  of my essay, Lavishly Praising Bloodbaths,  from Blogcritics.
One Friday a few months ago my office had “movie afternoon” where everyone received free passes to a matinee show at the neighborhood multiplex. It was a kind of a dead time for movies, right after Oscar winners made a second showing at theatres and the summer feel-goods had not yet released.

Last time we had movie afternoon we all saw that swashbuckling “Master and Commander,” but this time we decided to go our separate ways and go to different movies. Some of my work colleagues saw The Alamo; some saw Dawn of the Dead; some saw Hellboy, and I was left choosing between Ella Enchanted, Kill Bill 2, Walking Tall, Scooby Doo 2 and Home and the Range. I chose Kill Bill 2, not because I wanted to see the movie, but because I enjoy Uma Thurman’s presence (I saw her recently in the amazing film, Tape) and because Quentin Tarrentino is an entertaining talk show guest. I hadn’t seen Kill Bill 1, but actually that didn’t prevent me from seeing the sequel. Tarrantino is known for narrative discontinuities, so my state of confusion is unlikely to be any greater than it usually is.

The best part of the film experience was the trailers, which looked entertaining enough. Kill Bill had gotten decent enough writeups in the mainstream press (by critics anxious to tell us the film references they recognized in the film).

Truthfully though, the movie was a bore. Lots of manipulating, silly violence, suspension of disbelief, and basking in kung fu cliches. All throughout the movie, I was wondering how Hollywood financiers and producers would flip over this film and eagerly bankroll this silly project. Here’s how their thought process probably went: A List director and Cast, Asian crossover appeal, teen demographic appeal: great, let’s give this “GENIUS” 50+ million dollars.

Roger Ebert writes,

Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol. 2” is an exuberant celebration of moviemaking, coasting with heedless joy from one audacious chapter to another, working as irony, working as satire, working as drama, working as pure action.

Isn’t the Hollywood blockbuster irrelevant to our culture? It seems to be a celebration of car crashes and Hollywood’s ability to depict gore and mass destruction in more lavish and expensive manners. My movie critic friend assures me that watching Kill Bill 1 first would have made Kill Bill 2 a more satisfying experience. Really? Perhaps when I get around to watching that first part I’ll have a more nuanced appreciation for the bludgeoning pseudo-death of Daryl Hannah’s character. (Hapax Legomenon once remarked in his Pleasure Manifesto, that “our sensibilities have evolved to the point where sadism is just another cinematic style.”) The reader might suppose that my distaste derives from moral squeamishness about onscreen violence. But I am more horrified at the colossal waste of money, marketing resources and talented people to bring to the world another violent adrenalin-pumping film. Tragically, our society faces a shortage of such films, and it’s a good thing we have a few brave filmmakers still willing to take the artistic risks to use fistfights, Kung Fu stunts and gallons of fake blood.

Occasionally I’ve enjoyed and even admired the escapist blockbuster (Jaws, Terminator, Fifth Element). Every filmmaker has a few B-movies to get out of their system, and often these blockbusters can finance worthier projects. And it is sheer hypocrisy to pretend that high culture never stages elaborately constructed bloodbaths (see Kurosawa’s Ran). But can’t we set a budget cap? For a campy film costing under $100,000 (see Rodriguez’s El Mariachi), one can enjoy a luxurious amount of bloodletting to satisfy the Marquis de Sade and still have enough left over to finance a Mechant Ivory miniseries. The filmmaking industry can’t resist throwing infinite sums of money at any director who hits upon a profitable formula. You may remember that American Wedding, (the second sequel to that masterpiece American Pie ), cost 55 million dollars to produce (think–55 million dollars!) and still made a healthy profit for Universal. And when a Hollywood launches a film for over 50 million dollars, everyone hears about it. There’s no escaping. The mediocrity of Kill Bill bothers me not as much as the fact that for a week or so every major media outlet is screaming the same thing: Jay Leno, Time Magazine, Charlie Rose, People Magazine, CNN, hundreds of movie reviews and fawning feature stories. Everybody everywhere is talking about Kill Bill, Tarantino is a god, terrific performance by Uma, just look at those special effects (“Just how long did Uma have to train for that role?”), expected to be a gigantic world hit, popular in Asia, can’t wait for it to come to DVD, how was it like working with David Carradine? How much did it cost to stage that fight scene? How much did it cost? How much money is it earning? Was it really first place that week at the box office? How much money is it earning? Will there be a Kill Bill 3?

In the midst of this inescapable multimillion publicity machine, is it any wonder that the small productions seem more appealing? TV, for example, has done a far better job at presenting smallsize comedies and dramas (even though relatively cheap-to-produce hits like Seinfeld can earn studios and networks more money than a mainstream Hollywood bloodbath). Unfortunately ours may be the last generation of TV audiences to enjoy over-the-airwaves All-in-the-Family-Cheers-Third-Rock-From-The-Sun type of shows. On the other hand, online sites like Atom Films offer enough high quality/small budget films to keep anyone happy (see for example the hilarious In God We Trust). But who has time to search out the hidden gems when everyone (and I mean everyone!) is talking about Kill Bill?

A postscript. I sat through 2/3 of Kill Bill Vol 2, and just walked out and left. I said to myself, do I really need this? How is watching this making my life any easier or more enjoyable? It’s not. I peeked in several other movies on my way out. Hellboy seemed fun escapist comedy trying too hard; Ella Enchanted seemed syrupy, Scooby Doo 2–well, I passed by that quickly, and then I stopped inside a screening of a film I’d never heard of before, “Connie and Carla.” I had no idea what it was about, but laughed my head off. (And the 6-7 other people in the audience were doing the same). It was about 2 would-be singers running away from some gangsters and hiding in a nightclub for drag queens. The attitude towards drag queens and gay culture was a little cliched and condescending, and there was a terrible subplot involving Dave Duchovny, but all in all the movie was great fun; plus, there were some delightful renditions of old Broadway showtunes and great one-liners. (It reminded me a bit of Earth Girls are Easy, that classic campy musical comedy).

Now here’s the rub. This movie was universally panned by the critics. Why? Roger Ebert wrote, “The plot is creaky, the jokes are laborious, and total implausibility is not considered the slightest problem.” (Apparently, the Kill Bill scene where Uma Thurman is shot in the chest and buried alive, and has to claw through the several feet of soil didn’t bother him in the slightest). The movie was called “a retread of Some Like It Hot (says Ebert), and was accused of “steal(ing) an additional gender-bending twist right out of Victor/Victoria” (says Village Voice).

I see. When Quentin Tarantino rips off Sergio Leone and King Hu, that’s ok, but when a movie about drag queens (who, incidentally, are in the very business of ripping off icons of mainstream culture) does it, we are supposed to turn up our noses.

Connie and Carla is no masterpiece. It lacks the edginess of independent films like American Movie or Eating Raoul, and I only watched it after stumbling in by accident (I also enjoy watching the random B Movie comedy on WB’s Sunday afternoons for precisely the same reason). But if I had read a writeup about the film beforehand (“starring Nia Vardalos of My Big Greek Wedding!”), I would have never deigned to see it. De gustibus non est disputandum. Going to the movies can be a crapshoot sometimes, and no matter how many reassuring reviews you read, there are no guarantees when the lights dim and the opening credits start rolling.







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