The Cinema Stupido: Kill Bill, Sin City New Dumb Avant-Garde

Remember the moment in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 when Uma Thurman plucks out Daryl Hannah’s last remaining eyeball and crushes-really squishes it-between her bare toes, to the evident delectation of Quentin Tarantino’s camera? (Vol. 2, you’ll recall, we were told by critics was the “more humanistic” of the two parts.)

What’s that-don’t tell me you missed it? Why? Did you fall asleep during the endless tedious swordfights, the juvenile blabbering about the super, super special, extra-neato “Hanzo” sword? (Kill Bill is perhaps best seen as an epic Ron Popeil–like infomercial for this extra-groovy people chopper).

Or maybe you were too busy laughing yourself silly over the single most ridiculous beard in the history of cinema, the one on “Master Pai Mei,” who we’re supposed to believe is the ultimate extra-special, wise-beyond-Yoda spiritual warrior. You know, the laughable Orientalist caricature who teaches Uma Thurman the super-secret, way-forbidden “Exploding Heart” punch with which she finally kills Bill?

Or had your eyes been so glazed with boredom by then with all the strained and lame attempts to elevate prepubescent comic-book material into mythic status?

As Virginia Heffernan memorably put it in The Times, discussing the overrated superhero graphic-novel sensibility suddenly so popular in fiction, film and TV: “Zzzz.”

Or did you really buy into the pseudo-mythic reverence for “The Bride” and the clichéd pregnant-mother worship that Kill Bill seems to have copped from Alien? (I know: That’s not a theft, it’s an homage.) Take my word for it, it’s heavy, in the sense that all that pseudo-mytho mumbo-jumbo stuff makes your eyelids feel soooo heavy that ….

I don’t blame you if any or all of these made it impossible for you to stay awake for the eyeball-squishing, that moment of cinematic mastery, the true climax of the two-part, four-hour Tarantino “masterpiece.”

Still, it’s too bad if you missed it, because it was the perfect epitome of and metaphor for what I would like to call “The Cinema of Pretentious Stupidity.” The eyeball-squishing represented the crushing of vision by lead-footed pretension, the blinding of creativity by referentiality. The idea that ceaseless tedious references to obscure martial-arts movies known mainly by video-store geeks adds up to art.

I’ve heard so many defenses of Kill Bill that depend on the apparently marvelous and unheard-of-before wonder of its referentiality. Dude, just because you make a reference-or many references-doesn’t make it meaningful or worth four hours of our time.

Repeat after me, Kill Bill fans: Referentiality itself is not an intrinsic aesthetic value. Empty referentiality, going through the motions, doesn’t make a motion picture, give cinema the gift of sight-or insight.

Anyway, if the eye-squishing is the emblematic moment of the Cinema of Stupidity, then the most recent flowering of the Cinema of Stupidity is the widely acclaimed Sin City, a film which shows all the hallmarks of Late Tarantino (including the fact that he’s billed as “guest director” along with longtime collaborator Robert Rodriguez).

Sin City: One certain tip-off that a movie is too dumb to defend is the praise that’s lavished on its “look,” on its stylishly fab “art direction.” Same with the moronic Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Many film critics, usually more verbal than visual, tend to be suckers for heavily art-directed films, because it’s a way they can show they deeply understand “the visual aspect of the medium.” Remember how the profoundly worthless Madonna–Warren Beatty Dick Tracy was wildly overpraised because of, um, well, his bright yellow raincoat was really, really bright? And, like, the colors were really, really “super-saturated” (sounds cinematically knowledgeable). As if that alone made it art.

And yet Sin City was widely hailed as “brilliant.” For a pathetically simple-minded attempt to appropriate the rich complexities of film noir-mainly by dumbing them down and adding a lot of art direction (the blood is really, really yellow! Total genius, dude.) And trading on the fact that it’s derived from a graphic novel. Because, like, graphic novels are so, um, avant-garde.

Avant-garde: Every time I hear the phrase used to overpraise, I think of the late, great downtown playwright Charles Ludlam and his modernized version of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, which he retitled Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde. It features a rich art collector who always asks his gallery owner about a prospective purchase: “But is it … [grandly] avant-garde?”

Let’s face it: The graphic novel (with the exception of R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman and a few others), superhero mythology and the Cinema of Stupidity with which it’s often linked, have become our era’s bourgeois avant-garde.


It is precisely this bourgeois avant-garde pretension that is the difference between the Cinema of Stupidity and plain old stupid movies. I enjoy many plain old stupid movies-Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, The Big Bounce, Zoolander-enjoy them even though I know they’re stupid. No, the Cinema of Stupidity is stupidity with Pretensions. Stupidity with Attitude. Stupidity as an Aesthetic Statement. Stupidity posing as a virtue. Sometimes even stupidity posing as spirituality: the martial-arts elements that give Kill Bill’s stupidity the false patina of Eastern Wisdom. (Mr. Miyagi: Live Like Him!)

I think one can trace the origin of the Cinema of Stupidity to the wrong turn Quentin Tarantino took after Pulp Fiction.

I’m a major fan of Pulp Fiction. I found it so smart, such a breath of fresh air, ingenuity, unconventionality and pure cinematic delight. I loved the effortless, unstrained way it played off pop-culture imagery (the “Royale with cheese” and the Big Kahuna Burger) with philosophical and theological subtexts. (I’m sure you all recall my exegesis of the idea of evil in Pulp Fiction in The New York Times Magazine of June 4, 1995.) And I once compared Mr. Tarantino’s close reading of ethical dilemmas to Jane Austen’s (in an essay reprinted in my collection, The Secret Parts of Fortune). Jules and Vincent’s discussion of the ethical complexities of giving a foot massage to the boss’ wife (while they’re waiting to blow away the drug dealers), for instance: like Austen, there’s a similar preoccupation with the correct way to behave, a microscopic focus on the fine distinctions and fraught decisions that social relationships call for.

There was something so energizing about Pulp Fiction’s inventiveness-and something so deeply deadening, so aesthetically brain-damaged about the Kill Bill, Sin City sensibility that replaced it.

Instead of going forward from Pulp Fiction when he could have done just about anything he wanted to do, he gave us a slightly-better-than-average genre picture (Jackie Brown) and then returned to the sensibility of his video-store-geek days, where it’s all about the referentiality.

It’s fascinating how worshipfully referentiality is treated by partisans of the bourgeois avant-garde. Because something in Kill Bill-get this-also appeared is some Hong Kong martial-arts film, or an Italian Western, or (be still my heart!) both, such precious referentiality-only obvious to those with the secret decoder rings-proves that we are witnessing great art. Zzzz.

I’ve been reading with some pleasure Kill Bill: The Unofficial Casebook by D.K. Holm. An insanely detailed annotation of virtually every second, every sight, every sound of the film. And every reference that every sight and every sound is said to make. I’ve been actually enjoying the Kinbotean annotations of every second of the script more than I enjoyed any second of the film. Mr. Holm is not a total fanboy; he is often witty and self-deprecating about the Kill Bill obsessional subculture and its many schisms (mostly over disputed matters of referentiality). The Casebook is the black hole of referentiality, referentiality taken to the max, and then taken one step more.

Here’s an entry:

“Time Code: 00:29:30

“Information: Music Cue, “Seven Notes in Black.”

“This is the theme from Lucio Fulci’s The Psychic (Seven Notes in Black), a giallo or Italian slasher film from 1977, composed by Franco Blixio.”

All in good fun-although maybe not. Not when you’re reminded, shortly before this, by the “annotation” on the “filthy tub of petroleum jelly,” as the Casebook calls it, that the scene in Kill Bill in which that great Lucio Fulci reference is made invokes the serial rape of a comatose woman, who’s been unconscious but sold for sexual abuse for four years by an orderly at her hospital.

This is the way the Casebook describes the situation: “The filthy tub of petroleum jelly that Buck [the orderly/pimp] offers his clients is another amusing sight gag …. Tarantino doesn’t like product placements. Vasalube is a variation on Vaseline …. “

Well, thanks for that info-glad there’s no evil product-placement in that scene. But you have to wonder at the way the Casebook is able to dismiss the situation as “a comic sight gag.”

“Gag” is the operative word, just as with the eyeball squishing. But really, the only question here is … “Is it avant-garde,” right?

While the brain-numbing stupidity of Sin City is self-evident, somehow I don’t think the manifold stupidities of Kill Bill have gotten the attention they deserve.

Mr. Tarantino was once quoted saying that for him, violence in movies is no different from “dance.” Think of the worst possible bad Broadway musical dance number you’ve ever seen, and then imagine having to watch four hours of it.

It’s not like I’m against violence in films: The Godfather, Raging Bull, Platoon, even Reservoir Dogs: bring it on. I’m just bored by stupid cartoon violence.

Then there’s the pubescent porno fantasy: the bodyguard for O-Ren Ishii, the super, super bad master of the Japanese underworld, is a 17-year-old girl who dresses in a Catholic school-girl uniform complete with plaid mini skirt. Sorta funny if you think that it’s sending up the porno cliché, but somehow you have the feeling that it’s enacting it as well.

Then that whole stupid “Hanzo sword” business. I mean, aren’t the guys who made this movie a little embarrassed by their prepubescent worship of swords, for God’s sake? What do they think might be going on, slightly beneath the shallow surface of their sword fetish?

And I really like Uma Thurman and Daryl Hannah, but all the talk about “Isn’t it great that they get to play strong women in Kill Bill?” is a little meretricious. They get to play strong cartoon characters who are made to say stupid things by men (the screenwriters) who don’t have respect enough for them not to make them silly caricatures. They’re made to sound not like women, but like male Tarantino thugs.

Speaking of women: I was thinking about how sad it is that the success of Sin City and the coming hegemony of the Cinema of Stupidity could blot out any remaining originality in American cinema. I was wondering if there was any hopeful countertrend in American film, and I think there is. It hasn’t gotten as much attention, but I think it will turn out to be more memorable.

I’m talking about what I’d call the L.A. Collage School, or the Cinema of L.A. Self-Examination.

I’ve found that Robert Altman’s Short Cuts grows in stature with every re-viewing. It may have been the progenitor. And I just loved Laurel Canyon, the latest avatar. I have mixed feelings about Magnolia, but I really like 2 Days in the Valley more and more. And, of course, there’s Sugar Town, which prefigured the “ladies of the canyon” collage a few years before Laurel Canyon.

I’d include Time Code and The Limey but maybe not The Player-less L.A. than Hollywood, much as I liked it. But I’d add one of my favorite L.A. films, Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture, way ahead of its time and daringly, profoundly irreverent.

Maybe it’s refreshing because the best of the L.A. Collage School films are about women. Not women as superhero caricatures, but women in a complex way. Not the “strong women” the Cinema of Stupidity is constantly patting itself on the back for creating. (As if it’s the eighth wonder of the world to find a strong woman.) But the L.A. Collage School is about women who are both weak and strong-sometimes at the same time and sometimes not.

Great complex characters: I’ve heard angry arguments over Frances McDormand’s character in Laurel Canyon. Interesting arguments. Arguments that make you appreciate the complexity of the films as well as the women.

The Cinema of Stupidity is, alas-albeit predictably-mainly about men. Men creating fantasy comic-book women. Men who spend all their time thinking about “Hanzo swords.” How stupid can you get? I think we’re going to find out. The Cinema Stupido: Kill Bill, Sin City New Dumb Avant-Garde