Going Gaga

13 Aug 2014 | 04:15

    Kick-Ass Directed by Matthew Vaughn

    Telephone Directed by Jonas Akerlund

    The children of Tarantino have taken over the asylum in Kick-Ass. It’s the clearest gauge that our culture has sunk to an all-time low since…well, Lady Gaga’s "Telephone" music video. Kick-Ass and "Telephone" equally pay homage to Tarantino’s influence. Both imitate his violence-for-humor. Both feature his over-bright colors that don’t belong to nature but appeal to viewers who can’t perceive the difference between artifice and realism. Both copy Q.T.’s distortion of pop culture pleasure into nonsense. With each of these pieces, established moral values and aesthetics are unsettled: They’ve gone gaga.

    Zeitgeist geek Tarantino embodies the post-boomer generation’s obsession with its own pampered juvenilia—from action movies to comic books, pop music to TV junk. That’s how he misinterpreted the argument of Pauline Kael’s "Trash, Art and the Movies" essay and traduced it into an anarchist’s credo. Kick-Ass continues that traduction with the inevitable cinematic rendering of a comic book (both book and film were developed simultaneously by Mark Millar and John S. Romita, jr.). It proposes the desire to be a superhero as a basic urge acted out by schoolboy Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) who puts on a green and yellow costume to fight street crime. Yet, it’s in "Telephone," where Lady Gaga enters the fantasy world of Kill Bill that the Tarantino effect works most powerfully.

    "Telephone" was more exciting that any feature-length American film released so far this year because its jailbreak-sisterhood story (directed by music video wunderkind Jonas Akerlund who did Madonna’s "Ray of Light" video) goes beyond mere homage into pop-mania. Where Kick-Ass just seems an overlong rehash of Batman, Spider-Man even The Forbidden Kingdom, "Telephone"—because it is shorter and wittier—achieved genuine absurdity. It’s impossible to watch Lady Gaga and Beyoncé—"Telephone" 's MVP—each lip-smacking a honey bun like cunnilingus then mass-murdering numerous diner patrons (including Tyrese Gibson’s greedy Male) without realizing that many mainstream taboos are being deliriously broken. (Even Beyoncé gives a poor line-reading made-up for by virtuoso singing.) We may never return to sanity after these two dead-end amusements.

    Kick-Ass’ plot combines family-movie sentimentality with grindhouse debauchery: Nerdy Dave discovers his masculinity as the self-named Kick-Ass while across town a father-and-daughter crime-fighting duo Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) fight Mob corruption. When teen boy and pre-teen girl team-up as killing machines, it’s not a romantic, utopian idea but a calculation that manipulates the pop audience’s worst appetites. Weird but shrewd, it’s practically the fulfillment of what now can be recognized as the Tarantino tradition. A semi 3-D sequence where director Matthew Vaughn fills-in Big Daddy and Hit Girl’s backstory in the style of comic-book panels roots Kick-Ass in the abstract narrative forms that first taught kids to substitute mechanical enthusiasm for moral response.

    Tarantino inaugurated this trash/art confusion with Pulp Fiction but his Kill Bill movies exploded it into a two-ring circus of kungfu-spaghetti-western-anime-blaxploitation-TV-film-noir anarchy and that’s what both Kick-Ass and Telephone emulate. This includes their ironic pop music sampling (Lady Gaga’s bpm electronica and Elvis Presley’s "Battle Hymn of the Republic") and even cars--a rival superhero’s Red Mist-mobile in Kick-Ass matches Uma Thurman’s famous yellow "Pussy Wagon" Hummer that makes a cameo appearance in "Telephone." But Akerlund’s restless play with various edit-F/X take Telephone in a wilder direction without such emotional pretense as Hit Girl’s grief or her virginity. The narrative transitions in "Telephone" seem to sprout out of Lady Gaga’s irrational mind. She passes her cravenness onto the general culture.

    From dykey-prison wet dream ("I told you she didn’t have a dick") to TV-commercial parody to Thelma & Louise finale, "Telephone" epitomizes the insanity of the contemporary pop mainstream. It pushes beyond Kick-Ass’ pedestrian storytelling that strings together parent-child, law-crime, boy-girl motifs yet never explores those themes. The illusion of coherence is another Tarantino trick; Kick-Ass and "Telephone" prove it is no longer valued or even desired. All that matters is kicking-ass. Just as the berserk feminism of Kill Bill was an excuse for revenge, Kick-Ass glorifies brutality as a measure of human worth. When Big Daddy teaches Hit Girl to take a bullet, or children slaughter adults in logic-defying jamborees, it’s a berserk form of entertainment—candy-colored by kool quotes of everything from The Incredibles to X-Men to the night-vision scene of Silence of the Lambs.

    The title Kick-Ass enshrines a bully’s ethic. Though it is unpopular to say, this proves Tarantino’s contribution to Abu Ghraib mentality. Perhaps unconsciously, our post-9/11 sensibility seeks to justify vengeance while indoctrinating it—which may explain why the nursery school/abbatoir atmosphere of Kick-Ass is meant to be fun. Lady Gaga’s Tarantino tribute is also a sign of cultural decline. Critic John Demetry has observed: "Lady Gaga takes the meaning out of everything," which is certainly true of her "performance art" scam. But the lyrics in "Telephone" are a different matter: "I don’t want to talk anymore/ I left my head and my heart on the dance floor" celebrates a heedless refusal to communicate; to mindlessly, heartlessly indulge pop culture—Tarantino style. Despite gleeful pop-culture surfaces, Kick-Ass and "Telephone" are both cruel and ugly.