Tuesday, May 11, 2004


silly American movie critic

One question I frequently get asked by young writers is whether or not you have to be an expert in the subjects you write about. In other words, if you want to write reviews of hip-hop albums, should you be an expert in all things hip-hop from the days of "King Time III" up to the latest Sage Francis MP3? Or, if you're going to write about food, do you need to have a culinary degree or memorize the collected works of MFK Fisher? The not-so-simple answer is: no, you don't always need to be an expert. So much of our engagement with art is meaingful not because we know everything there is about the object, the artist, the movement it belongs to, what it was influenced by and what it influenced, etc. Sometimes, all you need to be able to articulate is how does it make you feel which forces you to write outside of the purely intellectual and describe that which evades easy description.

On the other hand, knowledge is a useful asset as a writer. At the very least, do your homework on your topic so that you don't make insipid factual errors or state opinions that can be easily dismissed for lack of rigor. Case in point:

I was reading David Denby's review of Kill Bill 2 in The New Yorker from two weeks back. Denby did not like the movie and I don't have a problem with that opinion though we don't share the same criticisms. I did take exception to one particular barb that Denby throws out there:
    "The training sequences with Pei Mei a haughty taskmaster living in a mountainto temple, are brutal fun, but, again, as in th presentation-of-the-sword business, Tarantino seems caught between piety and mockery Gordon Liu, a longtime star in Hong Kong martial-arts movies, wears a voluminous, wav beard and enormous eyebrows, all snow white, which make him look like an animated Chinatown doll, and when he whips his hand through his beard, in mandarin dismissal of the Bride’s abilities, he seems not powerful but ridiculous, a prancing little snit. Tarantino’s intentions in such dorky scenes are unknowable, maybe even to him, and all a critic can say is that the scenes don’t work, that the director’s judgment has gone south—that he’s become an incoherent maker of pop collage, not of cinema."

This may seem like a minor point but while Denby partially covers himself by saying that "all a critic can say is that the scenes don't work," he oversteps himself by saying that Taaintino's intentions are "unknowable." After all, if anyone follows classic kung fu cinema even half as closely as Tarantino does, they'd know that Pai Mei is not some cinematic creation from Q's imagination but he's one of the most infamous villains from both kung fu movies as well as Chinese martial arts lore. The fact that Q gets Gordon Liu to play Pai Mei is part of an inside joke: Gordon Liu once played a hero who had to battle Pai Mei in the film Fist of the White Lotus. More importantly, in the films that Pei Mei has been a character in, he is always portrayed the same way: long, bushy eyebrows and beard and he is constantly stroking said beard and smirking. Not only that, but Q then does a quick zoom in on Pai Mei's mocking face - another staple convention that he borrows from the Shaw Bros. films of the 1970s. Anyone watching Kill Bill 2 who's ever seen Pai Mei's previous cinematic representations will recognize this gesture: it's as iconic as the Sergio Leone references strewn in the film, as The Bride stalks across an open desert. Denby picks up on that reference, which reflects his own knowledge of that "pop collage" he derides but while it's forgivable that he may not have grown up watching Executioners of Shaolin, it's astounding that he would simply dismiss the scenes with Pai Mei as "unknowable" without stopping to ask, "well, if this seems so incongruous, maybe there's a point that Tarantino was trying to make." If Denby didn't feel like following up on that, he should not have made the point to begin with.

In other words, it's fine if, in his ignorance, the scene doesn't work for him. I'm sure there were many scenes in Kill Bill 2 that were elaborate homages to cinematic esoterica that I don't know and I may have yawned my way through it. BUT, I wouldn't be so glib as to ridicule these scenes when I know that Tarantino, inconsistent as he is, almost NEVER does anything randomly and that he specifically makes films that depend on viewers being hip to his easter eggs. In other words, the comment is lazy and it's a laziness that is instantly revealable to everyone around Denby. That's not doing your homework.

Then again, maybe I'm just annoyed at Denby (whose work I actually usually like) for not having watched enough kung fu flicks. And you call yourself a film critic? Hurumph...

(By the way, why I love the internet: here's a board debate about Bruce Lee vs. Pai Mei. No contest: Bruce, fools! Don't front on the Dragon, ever.)

  • Quarterwit is sponsoring a No Idea's Original Contest for the worst Nas lyrics. Lickin' mockin' shots at the QB MC? I'm with that though honestly, I instantly forget wack Nas rhymes and just focus on the hot shit: the smooth criminal on breakbeats/never play me in your box if the shit eats tapes. BLOWE!

  • Everyone just loooooooves the new documentary, Supersize Me right? Well, not everybody.
    (credit: Byron Crawford)

  • We all know Quentin Tarantino likes to reference other films in his own movies but this is just ridiculous.
    (credit: Catchdubs)

  • And I thought I really liked Jay-Z's "99 Problems" video. Not as much as much as Armand White. Here's one passage that stood out to me:
      "In 99 Problems, images and words become a wrecking ball against the familiar edifice of ghetto-fabulous determinism. 99 Problems breaks through the NYC truisms of poverty and deprivation that hiphop culture has romanticized. Romanek sees the place clearer, tougher and poetically. The cliches will no longer stand."
    Let's hope so.

    I also have to say that this, to me, is a very compelling piece of criticism. You may or may not agree with White's perspective - and he does lay on the lavish praise rather thickly, to the point where he's almost overstating the case (though I'd love to know what he thinks of the "Two Words" video), BUT his points are scalpel sharp, to the point and clearly articualte just why he thinks this is such an important moment. An admirable example of quality cultural criticism. (Note: Slumberlord disagrees and offers some salient points as well).
    (credit: Zentronix)