Tuesday, May 3, 2005

The Anti-White Bias of Kill Bill's Critics?

I was mildly puzzled by Sean Collins’s response to Ron Rosenbaum’s anti-Kill Bill and Sin City essay from the New York Observer (via Tom Spurgeon). Rosenbaum’s main point is that having loads of pop culture references does not necessarily make for a good movie:

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.

Although, I’m not sure that “empty displays of filmmaking technique” or “empty indie movie posturing” or “empty anything else” are really any better than “empty referentiality”, in the context of disarming Kill Bill’s defenders it makes sense.

But Sean makes the truly bizarre claim that Rosenbaum isn’t making this argument because he thinks Kill Bill is a bad movie, but rather because he’s prejudiced against white guys:

The ultimate crime of Kill Bill and Sin City, Rosenbaum half-states/half-implies, is that they were made by middle-class heterosexual white American men who were immersed in nerd culture as teenagers.

Sean’s evidence for this? Well, he doesn’t really have any but he just can’t “imagine [Rosenbaum] deploying this same line of criticism against, say, the just as referential--and in regards to the same sources!--work of the Wu-Tang Clan?” And why can’t Sean imagine this? Because the Wu Tang Clan’s work “is so self-evidently brilliant, and its referentiality is part and parcel of that brilliance.” Now, I really don’t mean to sound patronizing, but in a world where the merits of Jackson Pollock’s paintings are still argued over the Wu Tang Clan does not get a free pass. Personally, I have no trouble imagining Rosenbaum dismissing both Kill Bill and the Wu Tang’s music, because I don’t like Kill Bill or the Wu Tang’s music.

The weirdest thing is that while Sean has no real basis for accusing Rosenbaum of anti-white bias—Sean is at best reading between the lines and at worst just making shit up—he claims that Rosenbaum’s (invented) anti-white bias isn’t even deployed accurately against Sin City and Kill Bill because Robert Rodriguez, Sin City’s, director is Hispanic and a lot of Chinese people worked on Kill Bill. So first Sean attacks Rosenbaum for having a fictional prejudice and then he attacks him for not being consistent with his fictional prejudice. Huh? It's not at all surprising that Rosenbaum does not consistently show the signs of a prejudice he does not actually seem to have.

Overall, though, I wasn’t wild about Rosenbaum’s essay either. I liked parts of it. For example, I was glad to see that not everyone buys into the movie’s “strong women characters” line of B.S.:

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.

This reminded me of Steve Sailer’s comments on The Powerpuff Girl movie’s place in the recent babes-kicking-butt genre:

"The Powerpuff Girls" is another example of a broad trend in current culture: pseudo-feminist male fantasies about violent females, as in "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," "Charlie's Angels," and Jennifer Lopez's recent "Enough." The nerdier the fellow, the bigger the charge he seems to get from watching girls whomp guys.

Deep down, male chauvinism stems from a fear not that females will act like males, but that they won't. Orthodox feminists and schoolboy sexists share two convictions: both want all females (with the exception of their own personal Moms) socialized to be aggressive, while fearing that most girls would really prefer to be gentle and loving. In fact, an appreciation for "stereotypical" femininity would appear to be a sign of relative maturity in the male sex.

But Rosenbaum’s piece has two big problems:

First, Sin City is similar to Kill Bill in many ways—its violence, its stylization, its over-the-top pulpiness—but its really not at all “referential” in the same way. Each scene of Kill Bill is chock full of specific references to other pieces of junk culture, but Sin City is a pretty standard noir pastiche, with fewer references than a lot of other examples of neo-noir—Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole novels or the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, for example.

Second, the way these kinds of essays usually work, the writer will heap scorn on a handful of popular movies and then switch gears and praise some lesser known movies that do the same thing that the popular ones but do it better. For example, if I were to write an essay like this I’d probably blast Kung Fu Hustle for being not nearly as much as advertised and then point my readers to the absurd Andy Lau comedy Running on Karma. But Rosenbaum tries to bury Kill Bill and Sin City in order to praise a group of films he describes as being part of the “L.A. Collage School”. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with him doing this except that (a) it seems pretty arbitrary, as these films have nothing whatsoever to do with anything else in the essay, and (b) he seems to have just invented the idea of the “L.A. Collage School”. (I have always referred to the movies that Rosenbaum places in the category as “Movies Set in L.A.” but I suppose that doesn’t sound French enough). I guess Rosenbaum just likes these movies, and wanted to write about them, but they really don't fit in with the rest of what he’s writing about. It would have made more sense if he had offered up some examples of movies that make use of meaningful referentiality—like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement, which contains many references to the classics of French cinema in every scene, or the aforementioned The Big Lebowski and its predecessor The Long Goodbye.


Johnny B said...

Great, reasoned response. I tended to agree with Sean and felt like Rosenbaum was being a stick...but Sean jumped to a few conclusions as well.

I believe sometimes things get over-thought...

Sean said...

Hey J.W.--For the record, I totally knew I was breakdancing on the fine line between inference and invention with regards to the racial subtext of Rosenbaum's piece, especially when I wrote the bit about Rodriguez, Avilan, Wo-Ping, Chiba, and Liu. But the real meat of my argument had nothing to do with race--more a question of gender and class, specifically that subset of both known as fanboydom. I lumped the racial stuff in there for good measure more because fanboydom is so overwhelmingly white rather than anything specific that Rosenbaum said. (Except for the Orientalism bit, which was just silly, since the Pai Mei character appeared almost exactly as-is in several Asian-made flicks. From this I deduced that it Rosenbaum thought it was okay for them (assuming he knew they existed, which, if he had that Annotated Kill Bill book, he would) but not for Tarantino.) He does come right and say that the maleness of the filmmakers behind KB and SC, and also of their fans, is a drawback, so I think it's safe to say he's not above deploying that kind of argumentation.

Sean said...

What I'm trying to say is that the main thing really is the anti-male, anti-fanboy bias, which I hope you address at some point because I'm curious to hear your take on it. The white stuff is just the vanilla icing on the cake.

As for the brilliance of Wu Tang being self-evident, well, on MY blog it is. :)