Kill Bill-Volume 1 has brought Quentin Tarantino his usual reviews: the man is a genius, the man is a schlockmeister, the man is a virtuoso of postmodernism, the man is a purveyor of slickly made junk gussied up as art. May I toss in one more opinion? The man is a boy. Which is a way of saying that Tarantino is a sincere artist but a stunted one.

Essentially, Kill Bill is a multimillion-dollar inflation of the cheesy, chop-socky action movies that Sir Run Run Shaw produced by the cartload in Hong Kong three decades ago. Tarantino loves this genre too much to merely reproduce it, so he exalts it. The cliché characters are inflated into archetypes; the kung-fu brawls take on Homeric scale. Tarantino is like a mad-genius sculptor who garners road kill, then casts the little corpses in gold.

Here’s the plot so far (spoilers follow). The Bride (that’s how Uma Thurman’s role is designated in the cast list), pregnant, formerly an assassin, is shot at her wedding, while her bridegroom, minister, all the guests and-as far as she knows-her unborn child are slaughtered. She survives in a coma for four years, revives, and hunts down her attackers, who are her erstwhile colleagues on the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, led by her former lover, Bill. In Volume 1, she kills several of them. In the next installment she will undoubtedly kill more of them, though complications may set in whenever she learns that her child survived and is, perhaps, in Bill’s hands.

And who was the bridegroom? Had the Bride left Bill’s employ and is that why he tried to kill her? Is the fact that she was pregnant by Bill and not her bridegroom a factor in her estrangement from the Squad? When the bride kills her way out of the hospital in which she’s been vegetating, why is the hospital seemingly deserted except for the two men she dispatches? These questions may be answered in Volume 2, but after two hours of nonstop explosions and bloodshed, are we shortly to get two hours of motivation and explanations?

And if these questions seem too serious to ask about a comic-strip action film, then why does Tarantino himself get so finicky about realism at odd moments in the story? For instance, when the Bride comes out of her coma, why does there ensue a fairly long sequence in which she waits for her limbs to function? Since everything else about the situation is ridiculous, why doesn’t our heroine simply leap out of the hospital bed and start fighting? Is the director trying, à la Hitchcock, to pull in the audience with just enough realism to make it buy into the later absurdities? But, since the very first sequence plunges us into a mode of fantasy, why does the director need to resort to realism at all?

The word volume in the title may be a clue to what’s happening to Tarantino’s talent. Why volume rather than part as in The Godfather, Part 1? Volume is a term of art of the video age. The distributors of boxed video or DVD sets, such as The Forsyte Saga or some multicassette documentary about World War II, usually label each cassette or disc a volume. Tarantino, like all young filmmakers, began his career as a movie lover but seems to have evolved, after working as a video-store clerk, into a video nut, which is to say someone who can pop a favorite movie into his video or DVD player and watch only the scenes he loves. This is the way boys behave in front of their home entertainment units: hey, skip that scene with the explanations and let’s see the big fight scene that comes next. That shoot-out was great, play it again! Aw, this next bit has too much talk. Fast-forward! Fast-forward!

Kill Bill is a movie you will never have to fast-forward because its fast-forwarding is built right into the movie itself. It is all highlights and no connective tissue. Still truly great adventure stories and action films are never all highlights, and a really great storyteller (this includes Tarantino himself at his best, as in Pulp Fiction) knows how to make the narrative connective tissue part of the life of the story. By simply cutting it away, Tarantino offers his audience a series of jolts, not mounting excitement. Then again, boys prefer jolts.

Having much commerce with my own inner boy, and being just as much a movie nut as Tarantino, I enjoyed much of this movie. There is a superb anime section that demonstrates that gore is more palatable drawn than staged. Tarantino’s twisted humor is at its zenith in several scenes, especially one in which a child returning home from school interrupts the vicious combat her assassin mom is having with the Bride. The two mad-dog killers freeze-“Oh, hi, honey”-and instantly turn maternal.

I wonder what will happen to Tarantino’s talent if he ever leaves his home screening room to walk out into the open air? Will it expand and turn humanistic or will it vanish like a vampire blasted by the sun?

I happen to be in Quentin Tarantino’s debt. In the October 20 New Yorker profile by Larissa MacFarquhar, he put a label on a genre I now realize I’ve always enjoyed but never considered naming. A “hangout movie” is one you view repeatedly just for the sake of spending time with its characters rather than being gripped by the story or wowed by cinematic technique. Tarantino gave Rio Bravo and his own Jackie Brown as examples, and I would add Lost in Translation, written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Whether or not you want to see it depends on whether you want to spend time in the company of the charming but jaded actor, Bob Harris (Bill Murray), making a TV ad in Japan, and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a former philosophy student Bob encounters in a Tokyo hotel while her photographer husband is at work. Both of them are strung out by jet lag and hollowed out by melancholy and marital disillusion, and the more they opened up to each other (without ever falling into adultery), the more I opened up to the movie. Coppola has managed to make a companionable movie about companionship.

Jet lag can make anybody feel like a Venusian surrounded by Martians. In rendering the slowed-down inner tempo of her two protagonists as they try to cope with the neon-lit, headbangingly noisy world of Tokyo at night, Coppola proves a master of visual detail and hypnotically languorous pacing. She also demonstrates a keen eye for the way show business has gone global. (Her father, Francis Ford, made a famous whis­k­ey ad in Japan starring Akira Kurosawa.) Bob and Charlotte, having no Japanese, are stuck within the milieu of marginal American artistes (lounge singers, actors, photographers) desperately seeking to wring a living out of a foreign culture that prizes their American-ness more than their talents.

Shrewd and poetic though it is, Lost in Translation would feel too slight, too much like a typically plotless New Yorker short story of the 1950s, if it weren’t for Bill Murray. His hipster persona (Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Scrooged, Stripes) is a descendant of W.C. Fields’s con men. Both got laughs out of their contempt for hot-headed or pompous rubes, but Murray always soft-pedaled the scorn as if it was the absurdity of life he was laughing at through the rube rather than at the fool himself. In Lost in Translation, even that mellow sardonicism is aimed mostly at himself. Nocturnal Tokyo accosts him with craziness but, warmed and shamed by the very young Charlotte’s idealism, candor, and affection, Harris laughs only at the encroaching autumn within himself. end

Published in the 2003-12-05 issue: View Contents
Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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