The first rule they teach you in any creative writing class is “Show, don’t tell.” This is sound advice for any beginning writer, who is liable to scribble down, “Basil was a real cynical guy, and well-educated too” instead of “Basil stood there with his perpetual smirk, holding a volume of Aquinas in one hand.” Neither of these sentences is really great, but at least the second shows us something through imagery rather than narration. Two recent movies, however, seem to have taken the “show, don’t tell” rule a little too far.
Kill Bill (vols. I and II) and Young Adam sit on just either side of the R-line. Kill Bill, but for one more drop of blood, would have landed an NC-17, and Young Adam, but for a few less full-frontal shots of Ewan McGregor, would have received an R-rating. Reflections on the MPAA-ratings system aside, both are films that intend to show everything they possibly can. Young Adam is a movie about sex, and Kill Bill is a movie about violence, so, ostensibly, we might expect these films to be sexy and thrilling, respectively. But they aren’t. Why is that?
In a way, the problem is with the medium of film. In a book, “show” means “describe, ” which is still a step away from actual sight – it allows our imagination to do some work. In a film, showing too much cuts the imagination out of it, and either brings us uncomfortably close to reality, or painfully far from it. Young Adam commits the former sin. Others have said it, but Steven Soderbergh was the most recent to say, “In a movie, as soon as actors take off their clothes, you’re watching a documentary.”
The naked actor is usually just that – an actor – not the character he or she is trying to play. Watch Out of Sight some time for a truly steamy and fairly modest sex scene. Soderbergh’s secret in that film is inter-cutting dialogue with character’s undressing for bed. The effect is to carry our emotional investment in the characters into the bedroom, creating a truly intimate moment – and all without a bit of nudity. Young Adam tries to deliver intimacy at the expense of modesty, but only succeeds in trying too hard. Like the guy at the party who is really trying to be funny, the effect falls flat.
Kill Bill has the opposite problem. With violence, the more we see the more we realize “this is not real.” The effect, of course, is to desensitize us, bringing laughs at decapitations and chuckles at geysers of blood. No doubt this is Tarantino’s intent, but it strays so far from the things for which we have grown to love him.
Both of Tarantino’s two big films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are considered examples of ultra-violence, but upon re-watching we discover that the real intensity of the films lies in what we don’t see. In Reservoir Dogs, the big bloodbath – the botched heist is wholly missing from the film. Even the ear-cutting scene gets its power from what we imagine, the camera moving up to a closed door at the gruesome moment. Pulp Fiction is much the same. The horror of the first ten minutes comes from the juxtaposition of chatty dialogue with the dawning reality that Jules and Vincent are going to kill all these men. Like Soderbergh’s non-sex scene, it is clever storytelling, not explicit visuals that do the trick. The other violence in Pulp Fiction, the killing in the car, the boxing match and the needle in the heart, is all affecting because we are allowed to imagine what we are not shown.
Volume I of Kill Bill uses none of this vicious subtlety. As a Christian viewer I was torn sitting in the audience. On the one hand, I can’t really endorse anything that takes glory in revenge, but on the other hand … it’s Tarantino! I came for the cracking dialogue and the expert use of oldies, not the swordplay. But to be honest, I enjoyed the violence as well. Like the rest of the audience, Tarantino sucked me in, making me identify with The Bride and take pleasure in her “roaring rampage of revenge.” However, after a bit of time thinking and after viewing the less-bloody Volume II, I realized what Kill Bill is lacking: a real sense of danger.
Quentin’s kung-fu pastiche just doesn’t deliver the punch of Pulp Fiction because you know that the heroine (The Bride) is never really in danger. Quarts of blood must try and fill the place of a real sense of peril. Aristotle’s Poetics chip in a bit of advice here, stating that the story should flow from the character’s choices. In this sense, Pulp Fiction is really more of an action movie because the story is driven by the choices and actions of the characters, not a preconceived premise. In Pulp Fiction anyone can die, in Kill Bill you know from the start who will stand and who will fall. The plot of Kill Bill is structured like an X-rated film, each episode ending in its intended climax with no surprises. In Kill Bill, blood substitutes for intensity. In Young Adam, as in pornography, graphic sex must fill the void, substituting for intimacy.
Speaking as a Christian, the problem with sex on-screen is it draws us into ourselves. Nudity does nothing to create a “sexy” environment in the theater. The viewer is not merely “aroused for love,” but specifically aroused to desire the actress or actor in the movie – whom we cannot have. The love story praises the “idea” of love. The sex story does not praise sex; it praises the body of one or two performers.
Speaking as a critic, the real problem with sex on screen is that it draws our attention away from the intended object – the story. In recent memory, Cold Mountain and Love Actually both insert nudity for problematic reasons. In Cold Mountain, an uneven drama, I can only assume the point of the sex is to tell us how true is the love of Jude Law and Nicole Kidman. The only catch is, if we don’t know that after 120 minutes, the film is in trouble. In Love Actually, an uneven comedy of limited worth, nudity serves as a punch line to a mediocre joke about an unusual office romance. But at least in that movie it accomplishes its purpose. The problem is not that it is a bad joke, but that it is an easy one. Like in the gross-out comedy, the shock laugh is easy to get, but quick to fade.
In all of the above, Kill Bill, Young Adam, Cold Mountain and the rest, the Christian need not feel outrage, nor strong disapproval, but we should feel a sense of disappointment. “What a shame,” we may say, “that gifts from God like sex and the talent of Quentin Tarantino are going to waste.” The only reason I can see that movies like Kill Bill, Love Actually and Young Adam garner so much praise these days is (adapting what David Mamet once said): we have come to expect less from our movies because we have come to expect less from ourselves.
[Felix Tallon lives in St Andrews, Scotland]