Archive for May, 2004

Ghostface, The Pretty Toney Album

Friday, May 28th, 2004

Though I’ve never been a big devotee of the Wu, I’ve fallen in love with Ghostface‘s latest, The Pretty Toney Album.
Judging from what I’ve read on fan websites and bulletin boards, the true Ghostface Killah fans don’t like this one as much as his earlier solo work, Ironman and Supreme Clientele. This seems to be because, in dropping the “Killah” from his name, Ghostface has changed the ratio between hard-headed thug narratives and squishy love songs, having less of the former and more of the latter. But for my part, this is precisely why I like Pretty Toney more than anything else Ghostface has ever done.
There are some great gangsta narratives on the album, particularly “Run” (produced by Wu mastermind RZA) with its urgency, speed and off-the-beat rhymes. But they are outweighed by songs like “It’s Over” (a eulogy for the thug life, which Ghostface has now outgrown) and “Save Me Dear” (redemption through a good woman’s love — corny and a bit patriarchal, but moving all the same) and the Missy Elliott collaboration “Tush” (a spunky, upbeat sex song, that many of the fans have denounced as lightweight and commercial, but whose beat I really like, not to mention Missy’s “if you ain’t slurpin’, then you better off jerkin’ “).
And, though I usually hate the “skits” that populate recent hip hop albums for some reason, the ones here work for me, in a slice-of-life meets comedic-exaggeration way).
What really makes the album work are the soul music samples that dominate most of its tracks. They aren’t sped up and chopped up as is often the case (in Ghostface’s earlier stuff and elsewhere) with soul samples in hip hop. Instead, we get them relatively intact. In at least one case — “Holla” — we get the sampling (if it can still be called that) of a complete song, the Delfonics’ “La La Means I Love You” ; Ghostface raps over the verses, and joins in on the chorus, with “la la means I love you” etc changed to “holla holla holla if you want to, I love you.”
Ghostface has done soulful songs, backed by soul samples, in the past, of course: think of “All That I Got Is You” (on Ironman) or “Never Be The Same Again” (on Bulletproof Wallets). But on Pretty Toney he moves it to a whole new level.
Let me explain. Using an old song for emotional impact is an old trick in hip hop (and in other genres of music as well, of course). The most egregious example I can think of is Puff Daddy’s eulogy for Biggie, “I’ll Be Missing You,” which basically just added a few new lyrics to Sting’s “Every Breath You Take.” The emotion seems unearned, gotten through a knee-jerk reaction to the original song, and therefore phony. I’m always saying that sampling is creativity: that imagination works by taking a prior work, and reworking and recontextualizing it, and hybridizing it with other prior works. But “I’ll Be Missing You” is the lame degree zero of that.
But on The Pretty Toney Album, a very different dynamic is at work. Ghostface isn’t just using soul music to get an emotional reaction. Rather, he is working with the fact that soul music signifies or connotes emotionality. It stands for passion: for longing, desperation, and blocked desire, on the one hand, and warmth, fulfillment, drawn-out erotic bliss on the other. In this way it stands at an opposite pole from the ethos of the Shaolin warrior (the big theme in Wu Tang mythology), or from the pimp/thug/gangsta/Iceberg Slim/Donald Goines lineage of so much rap in the last decade or so. Soul is about emotional outpouring, while hardcore rap is about maintaining a reserve of cool, never letting yourself go (withholding is the best way to manipulate others, while letting go imperils your survival).
These can be seen as the two sides of black music, and can further be seen (stereotypically) as “feminine” and “masculine” modes. Soul includes men singing to women as well as women singing for women; hardcore rap is addressed by men to other men, and is filled with masculine bravado. Of course, these are both extreme reductions — what’s really going on in black music is far more multifarious — but they express the dichotomy that Ghostface is working with.
So, Ghostface doesn’t just use his soul music samples for cheap emotional impact: he plays off his vocals against the music. His voice adapts itself to the rhythm and flow of the samples, while at the same time his tone — sometimes desperate, more often dry and deadpan, at times comedically mock-hysterical — cuts against it. The result is complex and conflicted. Sometimes the disjunction is played out narratively, as the song tells a story that moves from anger, nihilism, or boasting to acceptance and opening up. This is the case in “Holla”, for instance: Ghostface’s lines seem initially to totally contradict the Delfonics’ lovey-dovey mood, but by the end he has moved on from “pimp talk” to almost-preaching about education and keeping the peace. Other times, tension is maintained throughout the song. “It’s Over” expresses regret for the thug life he’s left behind, at the same time that it reminds us that “what goes around comes around”: soul nostalgia and hard-edged aggression interpenetrate and almost seem to change places.
My favorite song on the album is “Tooken Back”, a duet with the raunchy Jacki-O. It’s a battle of the sexes that turns into the hope of reconciliation. In the first verse, Ghostface is telling his woman that he was right to dump her, and that even though she’s taken him onto Jerry Springer to beg for forgiveness she won’t get it. The second verse is Jacki-O’s rejoinder, cajoling and pleading with him, but also subtly keeping her distance from desperation (“your sex wasn’t wild… but I dealt with it”). The third verse flips the situation, with Ghostface begging the woman to come back. Throughout, a soul sample pleading “take me back” — from a song of that name by The Emotions — loops in the background, and swells up to the foreground during the chorus. The intonations of both rappers pass through a number of affective states, from derision to desperation to love. The soul sample makes the emotion over the top and larger than life, while the voices’ nuances introduce subtlety and qualification, and eventually a kind of warmth. Both speakers are calculating in everything they say, yet the soul sample drags them into a warmth, and an erotic pull, that are beyond calculation. The sample loops and loops with the stirrings of desire, while the raps rationalize and then give way, giving a narrative shape to that underlying pulse. The song manages to be heartfelt rather than ironic, even as it shows a fully ironic, self-conscious awareness of what’s going on.


Thursday, May 27th, 2004

Takeshi Kitano’s latest film, Zatoichi, is a delightful neo/post/self-reflexive/whatever samurai epic. The character of Zatoichi has appeared in well over twenty films, none of which I have seen. He’s a blind swordsman with superhuman powers (apparently he can locate his opponents, and cut them with precision, by hearing alone). Kitano doesn’t spoof or ironize the series, though he has a great deal of fun with it. (He plays the main character, as well as writing and directing the film). Like all of Kitano’s films, Zatoichi is deadpan, dry, and understated. There is relatively little dialogue. There’s no gross-out dwelling on the violence, though Kitano does display a fondness for ridiculous spurts of blood. Also, as in all of Kitano’s films, there are lots of sight gags (and also, if I can use the phrase, sound gags) based on the manipulation of the formal properties of film (cunning tricks of framing, camera movement, and sound/image synchronization, and the like).
There’s little to say about the film, really, since Kitano’s touch is so light; he remakes the samurai/sword genre in his own image, but doesn’t undermine it or put a revisionist spin on it, or pretend that it’s something more profound than it is. The blind swordsman comes to town disguised as a wandering masseur, wins money at gambling (he can tell by the sound of the falling dice whether the total is odd or even), and almost casually helps to right wrongs, cleanse the town of all its rival gangs, and give justice (or exact revenge) on behalf of a brother and sister who are looking for the killers of their family. (Oh, I almost forgot — the brother is a cross-dresser, and the two siblings disguise themselves as geisha as they search for revenge — but, as with everything else in the film, this is all done casually and without pretension or special emphasis).
Kitano can be compared to Quentin Tarantino; they are both brilliant filmmakers who evidently love and unironically resuscitate/update old trash/violent genres. But Kitano is less grandiose than Tarantino; that is to say, Kitano never gives you that Tarantinoesque sense that he is sitting you down and insistently showing you his entire video collection of cool oldies and rarities.

Enemies of Promise

Wednesday, May 26th, 2004

Lindsay Waters is the humanities editor at Harvard University Press, and his new book Enemies of Promise is a jeremiad about troubles in the world of academia and academic publishing. Waters says that too many academic books are being published, books that sell poorly for the most part, and that this situation is not sustainable either economically or intellectually.
Waters’ polemic is rather scattershot, and sometimes over-the-top rhetorically, but he makes a number of important points.
A lot of academic books get written, and then published, because they are necessary for tenure. If tenure weren’t so closely tied to publication, then this situation wouldn’t exist. This makes a great deal of sense to me; it’s often a waste of time and effort for a newly minted PhD to turn her/his dissertation into a first book, instead of moving on to a new project. (I was lucky that I had the time — partly because I was in limbo several years between finishing my PhD and getting my first job, and partly because I got generous time off as a junior professor — to write something new as my tenure book, and let my dissertation slip into deserved oblivion).
The requirement of a book for tenure is something of a bottleneck. It leads people to inflate good articles into lots-of-wasted-space books, which sell almost no copies. And in any case this way of doing things is not likely to remain sustainable, as university presses get underfunded and forced to cut back.
Waters recommends that faculties and tenure committees exercise more critical judgment when deliberating on tenure, instead of (in effect) offloading the work onto the university presses’ review processes. While this is admirable in principle, I am dubious as to whether it could actually be made to work. Less reliance on publication records would most likely mean, not more critical judgment, but more arbitrariness and more personal spite on the part of departments and tenure committees. Having an “objective” requirement for tenure, lame as it often is, protects professors from getting denied tenure simply because they are offbeat in their sensibilities, or insufficiently “collegial.”
So this is still a problem for which there is no good solution.
In the second half of his book, Waters makes some crucial points about the current hyper-professionalization of humanities departments and humanities publications. Junior scholars face “increasingly rigid norms for publication” (82). “The modern university takes the present organization of knowledge into separate disciplines, all those gated communities, as inevitable and as natural as the categories of niche-marketing. The blinkered professional who has become the norm is not an intellectual who reads promiscuously in the hope he or she might come upon a book that will change his or her life” (72). Instead, scholars are encouraged to master a very narrow field of study in depth, to embed him/herself in minutiae of the field, and above all, not to stray to other realms or make outside connections. The result is a “crisis of the monograph” (78), the waste of energy upon trivialities in specialist books that rehearse, but do not dare to step beyond, the prevailing focus of the author’s sub-discipline. Waters rightly excoriates Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty, among others, as senior scholars who are responsible for this closing down of any broader intellectual discourse.
Though the media often mock academic writing in the humanities for being abstruse to the point of utter incommunicability, they generally blame “theory” or “cultural studies” or an abandonment of close reading and the traditional canon as the culprit. Waters rightly points out that, contrary to this picture, over-professionalized academic writing today is anything but theoretical and anything but anti-canonical. It may use theory words, but it refuses to think theoretically. (Fish and Rorty condemn theoretical thinking tout court). And it may discuss horror films or romance novels instead of Shakespeare or Dickens, but it narrows its focus in the same way that the worst old-fashioned scholarship of the canon did. Academic norms today make it hard to say anything new or interesting about either Shakespeare or Herschell Gordon Lewis.
There are all sorts of policing mechanisms that promote this hyperprofessionalization: tenure committees, to be sure, but also — quite notably — outside reviewers for academic presses. I can’t tell you how many stories I have heard of people whose writing was rejected by presses or journals because outside reviewers didn’t find it disciplinarily normative enough. (I have never published with Harvard University Press, but from what I can tell, it is far less guilty of this under Waters than are most other presses I know about).
Most importantly, the way we train graduate students is the main culprit in creating this situation.
Waters hits the nail on the head as regards the problem with academic discourse today, but I am not sure he provides any sort of solution. (Which is not really a criticism; obviously I don’t have any solutions either). At the end of the book, Waters praises silence; “it is possible to be a great thinker and not publish anything” (78), he writes, citing the obvious example of Socrates. Water urges scholars and critics to hold back, to publish less, to give their ideas more breathing space to develop.
This is a beautiful idealization, but I am not sure it is anything more than that. We don’t have anything like the Athenian agora today — unless it is the Internet, a possibility that Waters rejects.
I’d make a counter-suggestion: that rather than valuing silence, today’s critics learn to value writing. Most academic writing today is execrably written: something that goes along with being hyperprofessionalized. I don’t mean, of course, that academic writing should become as “transparent” as, say, articles in Newsweek or The New York Times. Great style means Proust or Faulkner or Pynchon, as well as late Beckett or Dashiell Hammett or Hunter Thompson. But the convoluted sentences of most academic discourse, filled with hyperspecialized qualifications and subordinate clauses, bespeak a mentality that sees written language as merely instrumental, merely a tool for getting certain pre-existing facts or ideas across. It ignores the importance of style, voice, mode of expression, affect, etc, in all of culture, popular as well as “high.” It’s particularly ironic, of course, that literature professors would view writing this way. But until academics think about writing style as well as content, we will never break through the wall of hyperprofessionalization.


Tuesday, May 25th, 2004

I’m trying something new. I don’t know yet whether it will work, or how long I will be able to sustain it. Only two chapters now. More to come, if I can manage it.

This Is Pop

Sunday, May 23rd, 2004

I’ve enjoyed the three Pop Music Conferences sponsored by the Experience Music Project more than nearly any other conferences I’ve ever been to. I think this is because of the way the Pop Conference isn’t exclusively academic, but puts academics together with journalists and other music writers. The atmosphere is more relaxed, and much less narrow, than at your typical academic conference. Also, being a popular music conference, the connection between intellectualizing and passion for the material being discussed was much more evident than is ever the case at “proper” academic conferences.
Harvard University Press has just released This is Pop, edited by Eric Weisbard, which collects papers from the first yearly Pop Conference. It’s a good read, giving a variety of takes on a wide range of music and a wide number of topics.
My main complaint is that there’s far too little coverage of black music; “rock ‘n’ roll” remains the volume’s overly narrow focus. (There are excellent articles by Gayle Wald, on Sister Rosetta Tharpe; Daphne Brooks, on “post-soul satire”; Kelefa Sanneh on hip hop; and Robert Walser on Earth, Wind, and Fire; but that’s only four essays out of 25).
While there’s no way I can comment on everything in the volume, there was one issue that came up in a number of essays that gave me pause. This has to do with “populism” in musical taste. Ann Powers, for instance, argues for the virtue of boringness and unoriginality in popular music. She says it provides reassurance, which is what many people use music for. And she pretty much says that “we” (meaning critics, I think) should appreciate the virtue of any music that appeals to any group of fans; to do otherwise is elitist and condescending. She goes so far as to reproach herself for having originally despised the White Stripes because their basic appeal is to smug, self-congratulatory hipsters who in fact know nothing about music of the past, or anything beyond their own little circle of mutual admirers. She gives a lengthy mea culpa, saying it was wrong of her to “unthinkingly limit the range of fans we really bother to try and understand.”
Powers’ theme is echoed in a number of other articles. Joshua Clover pretty much equates all value judgments about pop music with Adornoesque elitism; Robert Walser says it’s a good thing that Earth, Wind, and Fire is smarmy and cliched, because what they are really about is the “affirmation of community”; John Darnielle praises “hair metal” for creating a utopian sense of equality between band members and fans.
Now, I’ll admit I am summarizing these arguments a bit caricaturistically, in order to set up my own polemic. And I’ll note before I go any further that all four of these critics, and especially Powers and Clover, are among my favorite music writers overall, because of their passion and intelligence and ability to make unexpected connections.
But still… I’m unwilling to go so far as to say that an understanding of the social dimensions of popular music — and obviously, one cannot understand pop music at all if one abstracts away the social dimension of reception, fandom, etc — necessarily means suspending one’s own judgments, and approving of whatever any group of people do.
White supremacist rock bands and their audiences are one obvious (because extreme) example; but I would argue that the fact that the White Stripes’ music and image are calculated to appeal to smug, self-congratulatory hipsters is a valid reason to despise the band; and for me, the same goes for music that is designed to appeal to Texas Republicans, or to fundamentalist Christians, or to frat boys (the latter because they are the torment of every class I teach). (Come to think of it, President Bush fits all three of those categories).
(And I know I’m being unfair to Christian music; 99% of it is dreck, but there are beautiful exceptions like Aretha singing gospel, or the Louvin Brothers’ Satan Is Real).
Another way to put this is to say that the “populism” which is so important to so many pop music critics right now is a vacuous category, because it is merely the negation of the elitism that these critics mostly fear. I have no interest in taking an elitist position, like Adorno, or like the indie rock and alternative hip hop purists who reject anything that departs a hair’s breadth from their rigid strictures. But I don’t think elitism vs populism is the right issue to be discussing anyway. Like the closely related high vs low culture argument, it has a history, but in our present media-, celebrity-, and commodity-drenched culture it is completely irrelevant and meaningless. There is no high or low culture any longer, except in the minds of reviewers for such inane repositories of witless blather as The New Criterion — and ironically, in the minds of certain pop music critics as well.
Another way to put this is to say that I don’t think the desire for originality and innovation is somehow an elitist modernist prejudice which ought to be purged from our souls. That’s way too puritanical an approach to take. (What we need to get rid of, instead, is the prejudice that “innovative” and “popular” are mutually exclusive. Where the modernists were elitist was in their assuming that innovation only took place in abstruse, difficult contexts. But today we all know, or we should, that, for the last fifty years, low-budget horror movies have been way more innovative than high-prestige art films; and that Timbaland is much more of an innovator than Sonic Youth or cLOUDDEAD or Autechre, much as I like and admire all of the latter).
Nor am I saying that we ought not to approve of anything that’s immoral or “politically incorrect.” I will continue to defend — as I have in this blog — music like that of, for instance, the Ying Yang Twinz, who are vile misogynistic assholes, and poseurs who pretend to be “ghetto” because they know that will make more suburban white kids buy their albums… but who have brilliant beats and great maximalist production.
It’s just that, with so much music out there, and with it reproducing so promiscuously, thanks to file sharing and mash-ups and remixes and iPod playlists and iPod “shuffle” settings and so on, it seems self-defeating to disavow singularity (by which I mean the serendipity of recombination) in favor of a “populism” that is as moribund as the elitism it opposes.

Guy Maddin

Sunday, May 23rd, 2004

The first two films I’ve seen at the Seattle International Film Festival are Guy Maddin’s two most recent films, Cowards Bend the Knee and The Saddest Music in the World. They were both of a piece with Maddin’s earlier work: murky, scratchy mostly black-and-white cinematography, emulating silent film (or rather the decayed state of 75-year-old silent film reels), and kitschy, beyond absurd, hyper-melodramatic plots, with over-the-top oedipal and incestuous fantasies and an obsession with amputation and bodily disfigurement, all played in ridiculously over-effusive camp style, and yet ultimately hyper-emotional, as if the camp were not so much a deflation of the emotion as its protective coloration.
The Saddest Music in the World stars Isabella Rossellini as a Canadian beer baron with no legs (though at one point she is given glass, beer-filled legs as a substitute). She holds a contest to find the saddest music in the world, since she firmly believes that sad people buy the most beer. There are two brothers in conflict (a frequent configuration in Maddin films) who also represent crass American optimism and go-getterism on the one hand, and old European melancholia on the other. (Their father, the mediator between them, stands in for Canadian dourness). Everything ultimately issues in catastrophe, needless to say. The film has rightly been touted as Maddin’s most accessible, which is not necessarily a bad thing, though it doesn’t have the density of some of his other works.
On the other hand, I’m inclined to think that Cowards Bend the Knee is the best thing that Maddin has ever done: which is saying a lot. It’s a silent film (with music), which manages to crowd in ice hockey, hairdressing, prostitution, abortions back in the day when they were illegal, revenge melodrama, amour fou, miscegenation, amputated hands, homoerotic humiliation, patriarchal humiliation, ghosts, Communism, and spermatazoa under a microscope, all in a span of only 60 minutes.
Visually, Cowards is amazing: blurry, slightly out of focus expressive montage, with obsessively repeated images, the fragmentation and multiplication of crucial events via closeups, rapid jump cuts, and zooms, and an extraordinary tonal luminosity in the black-and-white; as well as other things I won’t be able to describe until I see the film a few more times. Maddin gives the effect of shooting an MTV video on primitive equipment; he shows how contemporary digital effects are grounded in the cinematic language and techniques of the 1920s (not just Soviet montage, but Griffith melodramas as well). The result is to suggest, at one and the same time, archaism and the invention of an entirely new cinematic language.
Maddin often uses camp in order to disavow, or provide a cover for, the strongly affective elements of his work. But in Cowards, the camp elements barely work for disavowal; they just add to the general atmosphere of delirium. The more retro and conservative the film’s postures (with its array of Victorian-via-silent-film postures and acting techniques), the more it delves into territory that makes Bunuel seem prudish in comparison.
Cowards, like all of Maddin’s films only more so, is about cognitive dissonance (fusing elements that cannot possibly fit together), morbid nostalgia (a dwelling on the past, precisely in its irrevocable pastness, its fatal unchangeableness which is also, ironically, its constant changedness due to memory loss and physical decay), and the psychology of abjection (in which every impulsion of desire, no matter how slight, is paid for in excruciating rituals of humiliation). It’s something that has to be seen again and again.

Bruce Sterling

Saturday, May 22nd, 2004

I had the pleasure of hearing Bruce Sterling give a reading the other day. He was touring on behalf of his new novel, The Zenith Angle, which he explained was a “techno-thriller,” rather than science fiction. The excerpt he read was funny and charming, in its affectionate portrayal of the book’s uber-geek protagonist. (I suspect tech people will get off on it much more than the general reading public). But what was really great about the reading was Sterling’s off-the-cuff riffs, during his introduction and then again during the Q&A, on subjects ranging from security holes in Windows, to the origins of Western capitalism in the building of medieval cathedrals, to advice on how to become a writer, to the limitations the English language when it comes to talking about the future. I’ve liked some of Sterling’s books better than others, but as a commentator/performer/futurist/theorist, the man is a national treasure.

Movies and Piracy

Friday, May 21st, 2004

The Seattle International Film Festival got underway last night. It’s an enormous event, with something like 250 feature films shown in the space of 3 1/2 weeks. There are lots of things I’m dying to see, from Guy Maddin’s two most recent films to a restored 70mm print of Jacques Tati’s Playtime and the director’s cut (with much restored footage) of Donnie Darko to new films, about which I’ve heard great things, by Pen-ek Rantanaruang, Tsai Ming-liang, and Wang Xiaoshuai.
Every year, I buy a Full Series Pass to the Festival. I used to see 40 or 45 films in the course of the Festival. But now, with a small child at home and being busy with preparations for moving across the continent, I won’t be able to manage anywhere near that number.
What especially caught my attention, though, was the following alert sent out by the Festival to all full series pass holders:

Due to piracy prevention efforts mandated by the motion picture industry and our film suppliers, recording devices of any kind (including camera phones) will not be allowed into festival venues. This policy will be strictly enforced. At certain screenings film studio representatives may require a physical search of your person or personal property upon entrance to festival venues.   These searches are in no way intended for any materials other than possible recording devices–this includes cellular telephones equipped with cameras.  We apologize for the inconvenience and will take every step to make these searches as quick, efficient and unintrusive as possible. We do not have facilities to hold or secure these items during film screenings. We strongly suggest that you leave any cameras and cell phones with cameras at home or in your car.

This says a lot about the insane levels of paranoia in Hollywood today, and the sickness of their crusade against piracy. Obviously SIFF can only show local premieres of all those hot new indie soon-to-be-releases by allowing the industry to send its goons to conduct “physical searches.” I’m assuming this is less likely to happen at screenings of the obscure Asian art films I’m most inclined to go to, than at screenings of American films that will be opening soon in the theaters anyway.
But I wonder how far they will carry this. Will they make filmgoers strip, just in case they are hiding illicit recording devices inside their underwear? Will they give refunds to banned filmgoers? Will they compensate us for the trouble they cause us?
I’ve said it many times, the current copyright code is so restrictive and so destructive of any possibility of free speech or creativity, that I believe that violating said code, by disseminating copies of music, movies, etc, for free, is a virtuous act of civil disobedience.
But cameraphones? The picture quality is so poor, and the amount of storage is so low, that I wouldn’t be able to capture images & sounds worth pirating even if I tried.
This draconian regulation puts me in a dilemma. My mobile phone is a cameraphone. It can take pictures, sort of. But it is basically a phone. If I leave it behind when I go to the movies in the evening, then when the movie’s over I won’t be able to call for a taxi, in order to get home. This is a problem, since I can’t drive. Buses in Seattle are fine during the day, but the schedule is much restricted at night, and the bus that goes near my house simply stops running after about 7pm. I don’t relish the thought of waiting half an hour for a bus, then taking a forty-minute ride, then having to walk almost half an hour in the dark in the middle of the night.
So I’m bringing my phone with me to every SIFF screening. What will happen? Will I be asked to submit to a physical search? Will I be ejected from films I very much want to see, and that I have paid for, because I refuse to surrender my device? Will I start frothing at the mouth and shouting obscenities, be blacklisted from SIFF forever, and show up on the nightly news?
Stay tuned.

The Impossibly

Wednesday, May 19th, 2004

Laird Hunt’s The Impossibly is sort of like a Dashiel Hammett noir novel as written by mid-period Samuel Beckett. But maybe that description is unfair, since it sells short the novel’s originality. The unreliable narrator seems to work for some sort of spy or criminal organization. He kills people under its orders, sometimes fails in his missions and is punished, falls in love and then wonders if his beloved has betrayed him on behalf of the organization, gets old, tries to investigate his own death at the hands of the organization. Nothing is conclusive, of course. Hunt manages to perfectly weld the epistemological concerns of the detective/spy novel with those of experimental prose and post-Wittgensteinian philosophy. The gap between perception and conceptualization, or between gathering evidence and solving the mystery, is the same as that between rhetoric and meaning, or performative and constative, or affect and signification. The Impossibly produces the emotion (rather than the philosophical resolution) of all these gaps, as trains of thought are derailed and lead nowhere, aside from the experience of carrying them out, and as the tough-guy persona of American detective and spy fiction quietly implodes. A beautiful book.

Kill Bill 2

Tuesday, May 18th, 2004

Tarantino continues to surprise. Despite everything I had read, I was still unprepared for how different Kill Bill 2 was from its predecessor. For one thing, there’s the return of dialogue: slower and less character-revelatory than in Tarantino’s earlier films, but still quite florid compared to Volume 1. For another, the visual sense of Volume 2 is subtler, if less spectacular, than that of Volume 1. Instead of over-the-top bloodbaths orchestrated like musical production numbers, we get a lot of images of emptiness and waiting between the bits of action. Partly its the desert of the Southwest and Mexico, and the way Tarantino adjusts his visual codes accordingly: the vast empty spaces of Sergio Leone, instead of the baroque mise en scene of Vincente Minnelli. These visual differences have to do with a difference in rhythm: the relative slowness of Volume 2 gives it an affective weight that the ice-cold Volume 1 did not have. (I note that Leone’s films also do a lot with temporality). (There’s also the shift from Japanese samurai films that inspired Volume 1, to the Shaw Brothers and other Hong Kong martial arts films that inspired Volume 2: but I don’t know the genres well enough to comment on the effect of this).
We still don’t have characters like those of Tarantino’s earlier films; though David Carradine’s Bill is rather fascinating, and Michael Madsen’s Budd and Darryl Hannah’s Elle are both quite entertaining. Uma Thurman’s protagonist remains something of a cipher; but I think that this is precisely the point of the film. For what Volume 2 is ultimately about — so powerfully that Volume 1 turns out in retrospect to be about this as well — is the transfiguration and utter exaltation of Uma Thurman. She emerges from death, passing through the grave to be resplendently reborn, not once, but twice (well, figuratively, from a coma, in Volume 1; and literally from the grave in Volume 2). She becomes the center of every value, and every affirmation, in Tarantino’s cinematic universe. She’s both the Warrior and the Nurturer; or better, the Shiva-like Destroyer, the Brahma-like Creator, and the Vishnu-like Preserver, all in one. (I await the film in which Tarantino goes Bollywood). Tarantino manages to get away with an ending that situates Thurman as loving Mom, without that negating her capacity for violence.
Tarantino’s exaltation of Uma Thurman is as extreme and loony, in its way, as Josef von Sternberg’s exaltation of Marlene Dietrich. Of course there are differences. Dietrich is the center of visual fascination, the focus of every shot, the one bright figure emerging out of otherwise ubiquitous chiaroscuro; she makes things happen in the films, less by explicit action, than by the sheer magnetism of the spectacle she produces. The dynamics of Kill Bill are quite different. Thurman is to Dietrich, you might say, as Clint Eastwood is to Humphrey Bogart. Thurman shares much of Eastwood’s eerie affectlessness; the spectacle is not herself, her face and body and clothing, but the action — the mayhem — she creates. And Thurman’s affectlessness results in vicarious identification; in contrast to the delirious, spectacular objectification of Dietrich. But Thurman is being exalted here, as much as Dietrich ever was; it’s as if Tarantino were kissing the very ground she walks on (and sometimes through).
All this means that Tarantino scrambles the gender codes of cinematic spectatorship, in a way that hot-action-babes films like Charlie’s Angels emphatically do not.
Now, I don’t want to claim that this is necessarily progressive or feminist; nor do I want to psychoanalyze it (enough people have already written about Tarantino’s having been raised, like Bill Clinton, by a single mother, and how this relates to the Oedipal configuration of the film: kill Daddy, so that mother and daughter can reconstitute their blissful dyad). (For all of this, see B Ruby Rich on the film — link found via Green Cine).
Much as I enjoy the fundamental kinkiness of Kill Bill 2, I don’t want to mistake kinkiness for a political gesture.
Kill Bill is evidently still a heterosexual-male fetishist film (as so much cinema always has been, in Hollywood and elsewhere); but it does perform its rites in a genuinely new, and wonderfully crazy, way. And it may well be symptomatic of how hetero masculinity is currently being reinvented — in terms of how it relates to hetero femininity — after films like Fight Club have pushed traditional hypermasculinity to its ultimate reductio ad absurdum.
Tarantino has always been a hyper-aesthete (which is the reason his films have struck many viewers as morally deficient, whether in their reveling in violence or their casual and all too self-congratulatory play with gender, and especially racial/racist, stereotypes). But in Kill Bill 2 we finally get the affect behind this hyper-aestheticism. It’s an affect that can only be expressed through affectlessness, and a hetero masculinity that can only be expressed through a powerful female protagonist. But in its twisted way, it humanizes Tarantino as much as his previous films (and especially Kill Bill 1) had apparently dehumanized him.