Maybe Digression’s the Problem

The Rake points to this very long, very detailed Paul Auster analysis that I too will have to read later. I haven’t been much of an Auster fan, for reasons similar to B.R. Myers’ “A Reader’s Manifesto.” But I’m always willing to give any well-regarded author another shot (even if The New York Trilogy left me very annoyed). Will someone explain why Auster’s the shit? Will someone tell me why this Peter Stillman nonsense is so important? (I should also note that I’m crazy about William Gaddis, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, David Foster Wallace, and Robert Coover. Hell, I’m even partial towards the manic detailer Nicholson Baker. So why not Auster? It’s not pomo per se that’s the problem here.)

Meditation on Debauchery

Static, and therefore miserable condition of a man emerging from a Sunday morning hangover! One minute, joyful pitter-patter, the next minute, ache and perdition. I wish I could express surprise, or impute the same bemused wonder as my retinue of aching twentysomething acolytes, but, alas, there have been multiple notches on my belt, too many empty bottles, and not nearly enough experiences to get me to stop. Why do men drink so? We study the narcotic effects of these infernal beverages, deliberating upon how the malt and the shaker and the smooth texture of Kahlua enters our corpi and causes us intoxication, occasional fumblings, followed by distress. O miserable condition of drink! which was not imparted onto Adam when Our Lord granted him Paradise. If Adam had wrapped his fingers around the goblet, perhaps we would not have suffered Eve’s celebrated mistake, or perhaps the Serpent would not have distracted Eve so. For Adam and Eve, naked in Paradise, engaging in carnal play that, after their explusion, translated into shame and stigma extending into the current age, now a hue and cry pertaining to Janet’s Nipple! be still!

Before this topiary business, and presumably before drink, no doubt men and women were engaged in the Act which led to their shapes being contorted, and led further to interesting shadows caused by the flickering flames of their lust. Adjustments, multiple positions, one saying “Oooh!” and another saying “Yeah there!” Disgraceful banter that a proper lady or a distinguished gentleman would not utter while perambulating down a nave, or wolfing on wafers, save through unpredictable conditions of surprise, such as a Merry Prankster (not a PL or a DG) emerging from the pew’s mews, only to offer a Weegee in lieu of a Handshake. Is the Merry Prankster’s deportment related to the addled and aching head of our Sunday morning man or the originators of this carnal activity? Obvious rhetoric, tip-top conclusions, and Janet’s Nipple, alas, draped in some devilish adornment.

It is a question of what is profane and what is natural. Ancestors doing an enjoyable mamba (what non-PLs and non-DGs call “fucking” or “a romp” or “making love”), only to have desires besmirched by the iron fist of authority and reverence, further obviating the flames and the dilemma, in situ. And yet no reference to drink or cause or Paradise! This is the shame which hangs upon exorbitant fees and unnecessary protection from tiny pitchers having big ears, who will learn this anyway!

To which one can only reply, “Pass the bottle!”

Sony Launches PDA Clone

This Saturday, Sony launches the ebook reader. (And if you can read Japanese, here’s the Sony page.) The reader resembles a PDA and allows a memory stick will allow 500 books to be indexed at one time. There’s no way to download books directly to the Librie. Honestly, if this is the best Sony can do, then they need to go back to the drawing board. Personally, until digital paper with flippable pages offering the same resolution as printed material comes along, I’m disinclined to stare at an LCD for several hours, even if it’s at 170 pixels per inch. (A printer, by contrast, is 300 ppi.)

Espionage & Patriot

From America in the Twenties by Geoffrey Perrett:

Following the declaration of war in April 1917, Congress had promptly passed the Espionage Act. Hastily drawn, it was a legal blunderbuss. In 1918, after a year’s pause for reflection, the act was amended and made worse. Virtually anything that could be construed as interfering with the war effort or offering a crumb of comfort to the Germans was a criminal offense. Words, naked, unsupported by action, sufficed for conviction. Anyone so foolhardy as to make an unflattering observation on American military uniforms, for example, risked going to jail.

Mrs. Rose Peter Stokes, a noted feminist and Socialist, wrote in the Kansas City Star, “I am for the people and the government is for the profiteers.” For this dangerous utterance she received a ten-year sentence. Mrs. Kate Richards O’Hare also received a ten-year sentence for advising women not to bear sons, because the government would noe day consider them cannon fodder. Victor Berger, a noted right-wing Socialist, was under indictment when the war ended for his Milwaukee Leader editorials, which suggested that combat drove some men mad, that there were young men who did not want to be drafted, that the Bible sanctioned pacifism, and that the United States had entered the war to protect its investment in Allied loans.

Under indictment, Berger ran for election to Congress from Wisconson’s Fifth District and won. The next month he won a twenty-year prison sentence from Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He appealed his conviction. When the Sixty-sixth Congress convened in March 1919, Berger proposed to take his seat. The House proposed to take it away from him.

It was not socialism that the members objected to. Three Socialists had already served in the House. An espionage conviction, no matter how footling the cited offense, was considered tantamount to proof of treason (except in the Fifth District of Wisconsin). A new election was called for December 1919. Berger won again, by a larger margin. And although the war was over, Espionage Act prosecutions ground steadily on.

It was against this background that in 1919-20, thirty-two states passed criminal syndicalism laws. Four states that had abolished the death penalty (Arizona, Missouri, Oregon, and Washington) restored it. The loyalty of schoolteachers was screened by local vigilance committees. Hundreds of teachers appear to have lost their jobs for reading the wrong books, having the wrong friends, holding the wrong opinions, or joining the wrong groups.

A committee of the New York State legislature, chaired by Clayton R. Lusk, an upstate Republican, led the grass roots attack on radicals. His committee raided the unaccredited Soviet embassy, the IWW headquarters in New York City, and the Rand School of Social Research. These raids were illegal from start to finish. That made no difference. In 1920, over governor Smith’s veto, the legislature passed a clutch of statutes known as the Lusk Laws. These imposed a loyalty oath on teachers, made the Socialist party illegal and set up a bureau of investigation. This last measure proved Lusk’s undoing. The hero was a crook. He hired investigators only after they agreed to split their salaries with him. The hero went to jail.

The New York legislature had meanwhile held hearings on five Socialist members, decided that they were “plotting to overthrow our system of government by force,” and expelled them.

State criminal syndicalism statutes were more than empty gestures. In Chicago, 1920 saw the prosecution of a score of defendants in a single trial on charges of Bolshevism. An undercover agent from the Justice Department claimed that there was a special Communist party yell for important occasions that went, “Bolshevik, Bolshevik, Bolshevik, bang!’ He appeared on the stand wrapped in a red banner. He swore that one of the defendants had an American flag covering his toilet floor. All the accused were convicted.

In Connecticut a clothing salesman named Joseph Yenowsky attempted to discourage a persistent bond salesman by making crucial remarks about capitalism and John D. Rockefeller. To Yenowsky’s astonishment, the bond salesman went for a policeman. Connecticut had what amounted to the shortest sedition law ever, and probably the broadest. In its entirety it read: “No person shall in public, or before any assemblance of 10 or more persons, advocate in any language any measure or doctrine, proposal or propaganda intended to affect injuriously the Government of the United States or the State of Connecticut. ” Yenowsky received a six-month jail sentence.

An aroused citizenry was inclined to take matters into its own hands. In Hammond, Indiana, in February, 1919, Frank Petroni, a naturalized citizen, was tried for murdering Frank Petrich, an alien. The defense was that Petrich had said, “To hell with the United States.” The jury, after solemn deliberations that lasted two minutes, set Petroni free.

On May Day that same year Socialist red-flag parades were broken up in a dozen cities by outraged mobs. Three people were killed, more than a hundred injured. In New York the offices of the Socialist Daily Call were ransacked by uninformed servicemen to ecstatic applause from a crowd in the street. In all these riots the people arrested, and later tried, were Socialists. Their attackers were left alone.

It was also in May that a spectator refused to rise for the national anthem at a Victory Loan rally in Washington. As the strains of “The Star Spangled Banner” faded, a uniformed sailor ended his salute, drew a revolver, and fired three shots into the back of the lone seated figure. The man fell over, critically wounded. The stadium crowd broke into ecstatic applause.

This spontaneous identification with wanton violence occurred because many Americans believed the country was under violent attack.

Toby Young

As noted by Maud and others, Toby Young is guesting at Slate this week. But apparently, some folks are pissed. I wasn’t aware that a seedy memoir had this much staying power. In 2002, I took a look at the book for Central Booking (now defunct) and I reproduce the review here:

There was a time when memoirs involved deliberation. Whether it was Frank McCourt recalling his impoverished childhood or Caroline Knapp probing a conquered alcoholic wraith, memoirs hit the stacks without the obligatory run-in with a celebrity or boastful chapters of self-affirmation. But when Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius became the dog-eared darling on every slacker’s bookshelf, the rules changed. Everyone from Dave Pelzer to Rick Moody published memoirs well before experiencing a midlife crisis, much less the beginnings of a hoary head. Remarkably, these thirtysomething memoirists never offered a single excuse for why their tomes were so premature. They didn’t need to. They were more than happy to receive lucrative advances, even if it wasn’t intended to pay for any terminal illness.

Enter Toby Young, the bad-boy British journalist who has no problem trashing himself and former employer, Condé Nast in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (Da Capo Press, 368 pp., $24.00). Young’s tell-all book carries the moniker “A Memoir,” but it has about as much in common with Eggers’ much-loved book as guano has with chocolate mousse. Same color, different texture.

Young, “a short, balding, Philip Seymour Hoffman look-a-like,” didn’t coax Judd Winick into a Might Magazine photo shoot. He interviewed Nathan Lane, first asking if he was Jewish and then asking if he was gay, before being led away by jittery publicists. Young didn’t watch his mother and father die within 32 days or have a younger brother to care for. But he did let a girl freeze outside of his apartment. He was supposed to pick up her cab fare. She didn’t have the cash. Why? He was too busy sleeping off a nose candy binge. Young didn’t audition for The Real World. He dated supermodels with little success and hired a company for $750 to have a focus group rate him on his dating “marketability.”

Young’s shit stinks, but, unlike other memoirs that hide behind self-important WASP flummery, his memoir pulls no punches. The book became an unexpected bestseller in Britain partly because of its pugnacious approach. And it translates well here. One of the book’s virtues is its determination to relay the first-person account of a scoundrel. The memoir mixes assessments on America (Tocqueville is unfurled as a repeated, but surprisingly unsuccessful qualifier) with Young’s problematic life. While coming up short in the insight department, it does make for some funny observations.

Young jetted out to Manhattan on the dime of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, portrayed here as an avuncular snob. Young was a hotshot Oxford man and Fulbright scholar who had made a name in the Fleet Street skids with The Modern Review, a highbrow look at lowbrow culture that featured early work from such contributors as Will Self and Nick Hornby. On his first day of work at Vanity Fair, Carter’s secretary told the Brit that staff dressed “real causal.” He showed up in vintage Levis and a Keanu Reeves T-shirt with the tagline “Young, Dumb and Full of Come.” Months into the gig, Young hired a stripper to bare all on Take Your Daughters to Work Day.

Before the reader can condemn Young as an exhibitionistic blowhard, Young manages to explain his motivations early enough to qualify some of his apocryphal tales. He has a passionate view of the Algonquin American journalist, “somewhere between a whore and a bartender,” lovingly lifted from the plays and films written by Ben Hecht. He bemoans political correctness and “clipboard Nazis.” He finds Condé Nast’s treatment of messengers and freelancers deplorable. And he remains awestruck over how easy it is for Brits like Tina Brown to embrace Manhattan superficiality.

But Young’s sentiments don’t empower him to find a bit of self-abnegation himself. Ultimately fired by Vanity Fair, Young turns to drink and cocaine. Young can proselytize John Belushi-antics all he wants, but his sentiments are undermined by the despicable treatment he ekes out to loved ones and peers. And there’s something troubling about a book so astute about American journalism’s inability to take chances while hypocritical in its generalizations of Americans.

Young’s book doesn’t add too much promise for the self-absorbed memoir, but it does steer the genre down an appropriately balls-out path. It’s refreshing to read a life story that is both unapologetic and frequently funny. But it’s too bad that Young’s tome is cut from the same attention-seeking cloth as its brethren.


Dear American Public (Or, More Specifically, That Very Scientific, Completely Unbiased Cross-Section Recently Polled by the Washington Post and ABC News):

49% for Bush? Are you nuts? If the President were to be photographed in Iraq standing on the bloody chest of an American soldier, would you still vote for him? If the President declared that all people who earned less than $50K would have to submit 82% of their income to the government, would you still vote for him? If the President lined up every world leader in a line and systematically punched each of them in the gut in the name of unilateral diplomacy, would you still vote for him? If the President revealed that the $87 billion Iraq aid package actually involved hookers, vintage claret and overpriced fillet mignons served on the naked backs of women hoping to get partial birth abortions, would you still believe this man was equipped to deal with this nation’s most pressing concerns?

Really, folks, I need to know what it takes. Because frankly you’re scaring the shit out of me.

I’d say more, but if I continue in this vein, I’ll reveal more wanton cliches, more ignnoble and vitriolic wonkage. And who wants more of that? But then since 6% of you are determined to waste your vote on that muddafugga Ralph, whose blustery ego seems incapable of comprehending that a second Bush term will undo much of the public service he’s spent a lifetime fighting for, perhaps what you secretly desire are these overbearing platitudes, no better than the pretzel logic placards you see at rallies. Perhaps the crooked status quo is what you’ve been pining for all along. Perhaps you’re all like that fulminating idiot I encountered on the N Judah the other day who demanded that the world listen to his vociferous protests, dammit, but who ostracized everyone in the streetcar because he couldn’t understand that a reluctant yet practical vote for Kerry doesn’t obviate a desire for greenjeans idealism, a cognizance of globalization, or a concern for social justice.

American Public, if you allow this chickenhead to win again, if you fail to evince the same pragmatism and solicitude that you expressed in the immediate days following September 11, when our President was Un-Presidential and it took an Unlikely Times Square-Destroying Mayor to Express Equanimity and Stature and steer this nation forward, then I will turn my back on you. You will, as Jefferson noted, deserve the government you get. Do you have any memory?

Begrudgingly yours,

Edward Champion

The Unexpected Subtext of Barth

Yesterday, I picked up John Barth’s Ten Nights and a Night and began reading it. And I couldn’t stop laughing my ass off over the subtext. Not only are the book’s assorted inner voices reluctant to use the word “postmodern,” but they try to settle on the politically correct term of “post-invocation.” All this while recognizing that pre-9/11 tomfoolery (i.e., Autumnal Tales written before) may be more of a premium now than before.

If ever a case could be made for the return of postmodern subtext, Barth, one of its beloved grandfathers, is it. While other authors have tried to wrestle with how consciousness has changed since “Black Tuesday,” Barth gets at the dilemma quicker than anyone:

Their quandary (Graybard’s and Wysiwig’s) is that for him to re-render now, in these so radically altered circumstances, Author’s eleven mostly Autumnal and impossibly innocent stories, strikes him as bizarre, to put it mildly indeed — as if Nine Eleven O One hadn’t changed the neighborhood (including connotations of the number eleven), if not forever, at least for what remains of Teller’s lifetime. And yet not to go on with the stories, so to speak, would be in effect to give the mass-murderous fanatics what they’re after: a world in which what they’ve done already and might do next dominates our every thought and deed.

While there’s little doubt that these words were written closer to what Barth styles TEOTWAW(A)KI — The End of the World As We (Americans) Knew It, it still suggests that American fiction is playing it safe. The situation is compounded by how previous creative efforts have now forever had their meaning altered since that moment. To demonstrate this, Barth includes his famous “Help!” chart early on, a musical notation which displays an audio track split into Left, Right and Center, with assorted helps and variations of distress. Looking at the chart, I couldn’t stop thinking about how this could be interpreted to represent the cries of the victims, or the cries of civil liberties being stripped away, or the general sense of helplessness a lot of Americans feel about the actions of Our Current Government. Certainly the chart was funny, but it was more disturbing this time around.

It’s also worth noting that the chart originally appeared in a 1969 issue of Esquire, and I wondered how much the poltiically charged events of that time influenced its making.

What’s further amazing to me is that The Floating Opera is now nearly fifty years old. Yet this new collection of stories, with the uncompromising tying thread of “Greybard” and WYSIWYG, demonstrates that Barth, now close to eighty, is as much of a giddy deviant as he was in 1956, perhaps more important than we ever expected.

(Further note: If you’re new to Barth, I recommend Dave Edelman’s John Barth Information Center, which lives up to its name and is a grand diversion for any literary person with a dreary day job.)

I’ll See Your Cuddle, And Raise You A Tender Romp

It’s silly enough that this blog has a possessive before it’s name. But you’d never catch me claiming authorship for something this anachronistic. REiD Mihalko’s Cuddle Party is Susie Bright cross-pollinated with the Quirkyalone movement. In other words, it’s self-defeating nomenclature, a downright oxymoron, from the get-go. For one thing, there’s the problem of the modifier. Cuddling is nice, sure. But “cuddle” implies 8-year-old girls getting intimate with an oversized stuffed giraffe. It is not, shall we say, a place to bust out the bottle of Cuervo, start dancing like it’s 1999, and blast Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam.” So why party? Perhaps “cuddle gathering” or “feel-up frolic” or “casual groping” would have been more apposite.

Who the hell is REiD Mihalko? Apparently a bi-coastal Sex and Romance Coach who was (I’m not making this up) given the gift by his mother “of seeing and treating woman [sic] as sacred.” In other words, he’s one of those unemployed, guitar-playing guys you meet at a coffeehouse who claim that they’re as sensitive and gooey as a jelly donut, but have the closet desire to feel you up.

At least that’s the impression I’ll draw.

I’m all for cuddling. But this whole thing sounds like it’s one step removed from bukkake. I mean, what’s the difference between being groped by some stranger on a subway and allowing some dude you don’t know to grope you, with the queasy bonus of some guy moderating who doesn’t know how to use capital letters?

(via Gawker)

Teachout Has Wings

I hope Messr. Teachout pardons my late notice. He is, after all, a man with an inveterate Red Bull addiction (now confirmed through the three investigators I have tailing him).

Average Number of Bloggers TT Has Lunch With Per Day: 2.1
Average Number of Words TT Writes Per Day: 7,500
Number of Books TT Will Publish in 2005: 5
Odds That Commentary Will Be Renamed The Teachout Times: 2 to 1.

And if that wasn’t enough, Mr. Teachout was on Kurt Andersen’s Studio 360 over the weekend. I listened to the show last night. Good stuff. Check it out.

You Gotta Love Canadian Hospitality

If you’re an American army deserter heading for Canada, Heather Mallick has some helpful (and detailed) tips on how to settle down. Her advice even stems into the cultural: “Recycle like you mean it. Read Fire and Ice by pollster Michael Adams about how Canadians are growing ever more different from Americans. Then read Margaret Atwood and Doug Coupland, shop at Roots, stop in at Tim Hortons for a pile of Timbits on your way to your plumbing class. Arrive in a Prius or a Smart Car, which shouts, ‘I care about the environment,’ and you, short Buddhist, are a shoo-in for citizenship.”

Well Then, Call Me an Aesthete Too

Dan Green has weighed in on the political art argument continued over at Scribbling Woman. I’d like to clarify just what being an aesthete (since the conversation has now shifted towards these nutty dichotomies) really means. An aesthete, whether an artist, a scholar or a dilletante, recognizes certain sensibilities that speak to her. It could be plotting or prose in literature, symbolism or contours in art, mise-en-scene or editing in film, or tempo and timbre in music. Ultimately it’s about trying to understand the immediate visceral impulse, trying to dissect response through theory, or using specific examples to explain why a piece of art works. But it doesn’t preclude political awareness, nor does it suggest that consciousness cannot operate outside the boundaries of artistic understanding.

The purported “disdain” has more to do with being subjected to a plodding novel that isn’t working, that isn’t stirring the juices, and that, frankly, falls flat on its ass — all because the author needs to convey some didactic point or otherwise interfere with the extant mechanisms that allow art to flourish. The immediate example that was tossed around the blogosphere last month was Tim Robbins’ play Embedded, the excerpt of which speaks for itself. Robbins, as I noted, has made some compelling films. But when he adopts a heavy-handed poise with such dialogue as “The message of the new Hitler’s evil has been unrelenting and omnipresent,” it does nothing but preach to the converted. Where’s the nuance in that? It limits the spectrum of communication, and any inveterate aesthete can see that the dialogue’s lack of nuance destroys the intent. Now if Robbins had considered the text in relation to subtext, as he did when turning the 1960s lefty folk singer into an arch conservative in Bob Roberts, it might have worked. If he had predicated his work with additional meaning, such as irony or metaphor (Dr. Strangelove‘s “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room.” or my previously cited Cat’s Eye example come to mind), then not only would his play be more aesthetically sound, but it could operate as a conduit that allowed each individual to ascertain their own private meaning.

I would suggest that the reader/audience member is guided in some part by her subconsciousness and experience, and that politics is one of many things that influence their response. But it is not entirely contingent upon it. For example, since I grew up poor, I developed a bias against the rich, particularly the avaricious and complacent rich. This in turn shaped my politics and has in turn prevented me from sympathizing with art that explores privilege. Lost in Translation was a good film, but its portrayal of rich WASPs kvetching about their La Dolce Vita existences simply did not speak to me. I’m reading Julia Glass’ Three Junes right now and, while I admire the plotting and the structure, the characters vacationing in Greece and “suffering” in Scotland leave me lukewarm. I’ve tried to respond to this by deliberately reading books or experiencing art outside my paradigm.

To go back to Dan, he suggests that the aesthetic stance is a pragmatic one. And speaking for myself, I would agree, if only because my desire to understand art has left me groping beyond emotional response and into cause-effect, specific examples, sometimes placing a work within the purview of current theory. It is the natural progression for anyone to take. And if moving beyond a febrile formalist trying to find every known political quality within a piece of work, a pursuit that strikes me as a dull, tedious and incomplete way of understanding, well then you can throw my ass into the aesthete ghetto too.

Nebula Award Winners

The Nebula Award winners are up, complete with a photo in which everyone’s looking remarkably glum and a porky Harlan Ellison is talking with Robert Silverberg. (My goodness. Was the moment really that bad?)

NOVEL: The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
NOVELLA: Coraline by Neil Gaiman
NOVELETTE: “The Empire of Ice Cream” by Jeffrey Ford
SHORT STORY: “What I Didn’t See” by Karen Jay Fowler
GRAND MASTER: Robert Silverberg

Next Up: the Hugos.

Thoughts on Kill Bill Volume 2

The second volume of Kill Bill is a marked improvement upon its predecessor, in that the viewer, rather than being bombarded with the first volume’s THC-inspired stylistic excess, is invited to pick the finest toy from a Cracker Jack box. Alas, a toy is still a toy. Like the first film, Tarantino tries to have it both ways. He wants you to sympathize with his paper-thin characters, here serviced by repeated moments of Uma Thurman sobbing in anguish. But he also wants you to buy into the comic book absurdity of Gordon Liu balancing his entire weight on the edge of a sword. Sure, the latter image is fun (though not as enjoyable as a later swordfight in a trailer mobile home). But with Liu repeatedly fingering his wispy, spirit gummed beard and throwing it off to one side, I had to wonder if I was supposed to enjoy this juvenile joke, or the whole film was an inside joke, or I’ve simply grown tired of movies that aren’t cemented in anything even remotely real. Do the repeated shots of Thurman’s feet represent Tarantino’s camera as fetish? And what’s with all the flabby ass jokes? Awareness of physical deterioration?

Kill Bill Volume 2 is a mess. It’s an enjoyable mess. But it’s also the mark of a filmmaker throwing in the towel, perhaps to fight again another day with his promised World War II movie. The usual Tarantinoisms are here. We have a Mexican standoff. We have a lecture on Superman. We have an eyeball kicked around on the floor. And if you close your eyes while David Carradine is speaking and change the modulation, you can just see Tarantino delivering his own dialogue with the same intonations. None of it is real.

There is one great seedy moment at an unpopulated bar where Michael Madsen is trying to explain to his employer why he’s twenty minutes late, and the bar owner, doing lines of coke and ordering some scantily clad cosnort to sit, begins crossing off days of the week that Madsen is supposed to work. The moment doesn’t add anything at all to the story, except perhaps to explain some of the circumstances which have turned Madsen into a margarita-swilling, rocksalt shotgun-firing, sad sack ex-assassin. But didn’t the scene before this with David Carradine already establish this? Is Tarantino cognizant of the maturity he displayed in Jackie Brown and does he miss it?

The disorganization here, which caused Tarantino to split Kill Bill into two movies, left me wondering if Tarantino was trying a grindhouse take on Leone, if only through length alone. But as goofy as Once Upon a Time in the West is, the film was still about something. Henry Fonda may have been the American West’s cinematic face inverted into a ruthless villain, but the film’s story was strong enough to transcend homage. There were dreams and plans and characters learning to live with loss (whether through Charles Bronson’s vengeance or Claudia Cardinale carrying out her late husband’s plans for a railroad post). By contrast, “real life” in the Kill Bill universe involves snuggling up with your daughter and “popping in a video,” almost indistinguishable from a Lifetime TV movie. Hardly the place where grand plans are forged. In fact, the film comes across as black and white as its wedding rehearsal prologue.

Tarantino, at 41, is too old for these adolescent hijinks. In fact, it’s rather interesting to me that the Kill Bill films have come while another major Miramax king, Kevin Smith, was recently derided for his segue into “adult” territory with Jersey Girl. But at least Smith tried something different. Is it possible that Tarantino is too frightened to evolve? Women are presented as one-dimensional objects and repeatedly misunderstood by Tarantino (to the point where women cannot understand easy-to-comprehend pregnancy test instructions) — all this while Tarantino remains too prudish to expose his candid and potentially creepy feelings for them on screen, much like his hero Brian De Palma. (And is Thurman’s inability to understand Cantonese a slam on former Tarantino girlfriend Mira Sorvino, who is fluent in the language?)

Perhaps I should be relieved that Kill Bill Volume 2 offers a return to long takes, dialogue-centered scenes and snappy repartee. But it’s doubtful that Tarantino can spend an entire career riffing on the same theme and be regarded with any staying power. Then again, when the bar’s as low as it is in Hollywood and accounts are regularly fattened, ingenuity is the first commodity to go. In Tarantino’s case, it’s a grand shame.

[UPDATE: It would appear that Tarantino’s content to keep the formula. In a Newsweek interview last year, Tarantino noted, “If I were to just keep expanding on that ‘Jackie Brown’ thing, you know, in 15 years’ time I would be making some really geriatric movies. The thing is, I don’t need to prove that I can do that with each new movie—because I’ve already proven I can do that. This time I wanted to grow as a filmmaker by what I consider exciting filmmaking.” What’s worse? “Geriatric” movies or infantile ones?]

Behind the Curve?

Laura Miller rails against the first person plural. Of course, I did too back in January, which may make the NYTBR officially three months behind blogs. Then again, if they’re going to refer to cyberpunk as “the bratty offspring of science fiction,” while failing to mention The Diamond Age‘s influence (particularly with its thoughts on nanotechnology, storytelling and advertising) or give credence to fruitloop Richard Pipes, then perhaps they’re not as sui generis as they think. Then again, they do have Choire again this week.