Discussing An Artistic Tradition [6:35 pm]
ROBERT RODRIGUEZ’S “Sin City” and Stephen Chow’s “Kung Fu Hustle” are, without question, two of the most inventive screen entertainments released so far this year, but nobody is likely to accuse either one of being terribly original. Indeed, both movies base their appeal on a combination of visual novelty and generic familiarity. Looking quite unlike anything you have ever seen before, they are also knowingly and ostentatiously derivative, packed with quotations, allusions, spoofs and outright thefts from older movies.
By now, of course, such thievery is itself more than a little secondhand. Most obviously, these two films are the latest - though surely not the last - symptoms of the global influence of Quentin Tarantino, whose genius as a director lies in his ability to recover, reanimate and recombine moribund and semi-obscure genres. [...]
[...] But the two films share another ancestor, one that their R ratings and proudly displayed film-geek credentials may render a bit obscure. Watching these movies, you think inevitably of other movies - Bruce Lee and early Jackie Chan vehicles in one case, classic film noirs in the other - but the movie I found myself most frequently reminded of was “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Robert Zemeckis’s prophetic hybrid of private-eye pulp and cartoon anarchy was released in 1988, six years before “Pulp Fiction,” and it is still worth revisiting on home video for its antic energy and visual flair. But to watch it now is also to see the extent to which it was, less benignly, a harbinger of things to come.
[...] But even if the technology is neither inherently dangerous nor inherently wonderful, its applications can be worrisome. It is curious that the new techniques are so often used in the service of parody and nostalgia, as they are in both “Sin City” and “Kung Fu Hustle.” And the result is often that the old forms, as they are spiffed up and retrofitted, are also emptied out. Mr. Rodriguez, for example, has rendered a gorgeous world of silvery shadows that updates the expressionist cinematography of postwar noir without expressing very much at all. His city, with its tough guys and femmes fatales, feels uninhabited, and the social anxiety and psychological unease of the old film noirs has been digitally broomed away. Instead, “Sin City” offers sensation without feeling, death without grief, sin without guilt and, ultimately, novelty without surprise. Something is missing - something human. Don’t let the movies fool you: Roger Rabbit was guilty.