For better or worse, the entirety of our mass culture has taken one of the most iconic images from Citizen Kane—in which the aging, hollowed-out proto-Hearst walks between two mirrors, his multiple likenesses receding infinitely into the distance—as its paradigm. Everything we hear, read, play, and see is an echo, reaction, or ricochet of something else, which has been shoplifted in turn. Each time you seriously consider art of any caliber, you end up looking down a tunnel of scavenged legacies. When’s the last time you saw a certifiably original American movie? Is there such a thing?
Take it as a kind of cultural bankruptcy if you like—an aesthetic debt that deepens for decades before causing an insurgent coup, like the French New Wave in the late 1950s. Our revolution may take a very long time in coming, but in the meantime we have Quentin Tarantino. For all of his flaws and monstrously pervasive influence, Tarantino transformed our cinema-scape’s rampaging Xerox-mania by taking it to bed and screwing it blind. In only three films (four, if you count True Romance as a QT work struggling to burst from Tony Scott’s impacted colon), Our Man Quentin re-created the Remake-Revamp habitude as an eloquent and witty conversation between the respectfully invoked movie past, the unvarnished reality of bloodletters and bad men, and our own filmgoing desires. Just as Reservoir Dogs was the best movie Don Siegel never made, Pulp Fiction fashioned its own hyper-ironic subgenre from post-war fallout—Middle American and French—and Jackie Brown reconstituted blaxploitation as menopausal tragedy. Each step of the way, a Godardian élan has reveled in flexible movieness for its own glorious sake.
We haven’t yet seen Kill Bill, Tarantino’s long-awaited, two-part, chapter-structured kung fu gore super-soak about an ex-assassinatrix (Uma Thurman) embarking on a revenge rampage after being shot by her husband during their wedding. But, since the filmmaker has a way of making his pulpy obsessions ours, too, it’s already the most hope-inspiring offering slated for the fall. Sure, Clint Eastwood’s sublime Mystic River may make an Unforgiven splash, Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico might bust through the live-action cartoon ceiling, the Coens’ Intolerable Cruelty might return the brothers to the manic dog-days of Raising Arizona, and Gus Van Sant’s Elephant might be the decade’s definitive American teen angst Journey to the End of the Night. The prospects of both Bertolucci taking on the May ’68 Paris riots (The Dreamers) and Val Kilmer playing porn star John Holmes (Wonderland) are also tempting. And Olivier Assayas’s demonlover will finally find stateside screens.
Hardly justifying its own storming publicity even in terms of receipts, the 2003 movie year has been so lame you can’t be blamed for sodden expectations. Sequels revisiting last year’s semi-fun trash are as tiresome to the eye as the wallpaper across from your toilet. Digital foofaraw removes even the sense of real gravity, oxygen, and sunlight from them. Stars act three seconds at a time, if they bother to at all.
An insurgence seems immanent, doesn’t it? The opposing charge will be led by filmmakers who prize celluloid above paychecks and marketing reports. Whatever else you can say about him, Tarantino falls into that category, and he doesn’t have much company. Perhaps, with Kill Bill, QT will pull a Guns N’ Roses, unleashing his own diptych Use Your Illusion on a moribund industry, and revivifying the very idea of cine-literate fervor and ticket-buying enthusiasm. It’s our task, as ticket-buyers, as well—we could ask ourselves what kind of visual culture we want surrounding us, entertaining us, enriching us. Think capitalism: If we don’t go, the bad flicks will die off like mastodons. If Tarantino can ruminate on the ironic, lovely, doubling nature of living in cinema culture as well as simply going to movies, why can’t we at least insist that the new films be worth watching?
Kill Bill opens on October 10.