Apr 182004

On most days I believe the world is essentially rational. Not that God’s in his Heaven or whatever is is right, but for the most part well-directed effort is rewarded, virtue triumphs and talent will out. Then there are other days, like when a new Quentin Tarantino movie opens.

“In a world of impossible things that could not happen,” says David Carradine to Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Vol. 2, “who would have imagined that I would cap your crown?” Yes, he really says “cap your crown.” In a world of impossible things that could not happen, who would have imagined that Quentin Tarantino would acquire a reputation for being able to write dialogue? I blush to admit that I once toyed with the thought myself.

On NPR this morning Terry Teachout counseled critics to devote their best efforts to plot summaries, and I’d like to, I really would. Let’s see…Uma Thurman joins a crack team of freelance assassins, for no reason, who botch every job you see them do. Impregnated by David Carradine, the team’s mastermind, she succumbs to the maternal instinct and quits, moving to El Paso, for no reason, to get married. Carradine hunts her down and has his team kill the entire wedding party, for no reason. Despite having it in for Uma in particular, for no reason, they somehow manage not to snuff her, putting her in a coma for four years instead. Uma awakens, journeys to Japan where she is provided, for no reason, with a magic samurai sword, with which she proceeds to annihilate her former employer and colleagues. KB2, to its credit, does answer the most pressing question posed by the prequel, which is what happened to Daryl Hannah’s right eye.

KB2 fails to distinguish itself even in awfulness. Unspeakable, metaphysical badness, at the level of, say, My Own Private Idaho, requires pretention, to which Tarantino, being innocent of civilization, cannot rise. To be nauseating is the most that he can muster. Sometimes he induces it unintentionally, as in the scene in which Thurman insists that a female assasin sent to kill her first inspect the results of her pregnancy test.

Review the famous Tarantino set-pieces, the ones he didn’t steal: the ear-severing in Reservoir Dogs, the homosexual rape in Pulp Fiction. KB2 adds Uma Thurman plucking out Daryl Hannah’s remaining eye and stepping on it, at which last night’s audience squealed deliriously. What do you remember? Not the characters, all crooks and scumbags. People, in a Tarantino movie, can scarcely be said to exist at all. He cares only for the act; he dwells on it tenderly, in every grisly detail. The violence is always for its own sake.

Tarantino is no nihilist in the sense in which Turgenev’s Bazarov, for instance, is a nihilist. For Tarantino himself, and for his legions of male adolescent fans, his movies are mere pornographic revenge fantasies, wide-screen versions of the journal of a high-school spree killer. Nihilism presupposes a certain familiarity with the beliefs and ideas you’re rejecting. Tarantino’s lint-trap mind fastens entirely on movies and TV, and his nihilism is no nihilism at all. In fact KB2 evinces his belief in motherhood, of all things, like the jailbirds with the “MOM” tattoos.

His intellectual admirers have more to answer for. The 20th was the century of violence, violence as an end in itself. It opened with a ghastly war about nothing in particular, closed with a group of religious fanatics flying planes into office buildings, and remade, in between, the complete Top Ten List of the bloodiest regimes in world history. And 20th century intellectuals worshipped violence, apotheosized it. They served as lickspittles to Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Castro, and Arafat. They made cults of thug writers like Jim Thompson and William Burroughs. And now degenerate intellectuals, newspaper movie critics, praise a thug director like Tarantino in terms that turn out, upon inspection, to be suspiciously elliptical. After all the “deliciously perverse” and “voluptuous,” “uniquely twisted,” “sumptuous” and “operatic,” the question remains: what is it about Tarantino that these people really like?

(Update: Nate Bruinooge agrees with me, pretty much. What’s up with that? Rick Coencas is holding out, but weakening. David Fiore and J.W. Hastings comment. Marc Singer comments.)

  9 Responses to “The Accidental Nihilist”

  1. My wife is a Tarantino fan and dragged me to see KBI. Nothing could drag me to see the sequel. What were you thinking?

  2. Grist for the mill. What do you think I was thinking?

  3. Hell, I think the hamburger switching scene with the hexed medallion, in ‘Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy’ just trashes any scene Tarantino has
    ever done. Not only did it have better acting, direction, music, and feel than anything in, say, ‘Pulp Fiction’ but it actually meant something. I’m real partial to
    the Abbott and Costello movies because I do believe we wouldn’t have been given the ‘Seinfeld’ series without them. Besides that, Marie Windsor could
    have kicked Uma Thurman’s ass any day of the week in a street fight – magic sword or not.
    Wyndham Lewis called Gertrude Stein: ‘picturesque dementia’ and Teutonic music, jazzed – leering at itself in a mirror, and sticking out at itself a
    stuttering welt of a swollen tongue. Sounds like a description of Tarantino to me. Thug works, though.

  4. Grist for the mill? To quote the boy entrepreneur who was on one of those Apprentice episodes, why keep selling what has already been sold? Of course, this raises the question of why I was watching the Apprentice, but I hope you will be polite enough not to ask.

  5. what a conservative rant you have become aaron. this sit used to be good, about thinking. what has become of it? what a lot of moralistic drivel.

  6. Sorry Bill, maybe Tarantino brings out the worst in me. But I’m not alone in pointing out how much he obviously enjoys violence for its own sake; you might check Nate Bruinooge, linked above. Nate’s a Tarantino fan and nobody’s moralist.

  7. And what do you think of David Lynch?

  8. Aaron,

    No, Tarantino brings out your best. I did not notice you calling for censorship on behalf of the kiddies, only your pointing out an esthetic crime on film. Since when is that "conservative"? Unless, of course, any attack on anyone beloved of the Left is somehow "conservative," but how silly and establishmentarian is that? Moral judgments as such are "conservative" now? Are our "liberal" friends conceding the whole realm of ethics now?

  9. Hey Aaron,

    Just wondering if you’d like to revisit this topic 12 years later. Interested to read your thoughts.


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