Can I tell you something? I get tired of talking about Flannery O’Connor. I get tired of talking about Walker Percy, J.F. Powers and even Evelyn Waugh. I get tired of talking about that remarkable mid-century stretch when books with explicitly religious (sometimes explicitly Catholic) characters and themes were garnering national attention. Take an easy barometer: The National Book Award. Powers—nominated in ’57, won in ’63 for Morte D’Urban. (Edwin O’Connor won the Pulitzer the year before for another book about priestly life, The Edge of Sadness.) Percy—won in ’62 for The Moviegoer, nominated again in ‘73. O’Connor—nominated in ’56, won in ’72 for The Complete Stories. After that? Not so much. Over at the Pulitzer, you got A Confederacy of Dunces in ’81 and Ironweed in ’84, but even in those, both favorites of mine, religion had slipped to the edges.
What happened? Why did the critics make such a fuss over Marianne Robinson’s ability to present, in her novel Gilead, a Christian character as interesting and complicated and yet still serious about being good? I don’t need (or want) my fiction to be peopled exclusively with priests and people who can affirm the Nicene Creed. But I do think that being a Christian (let alone a Catholic) adds at least a wrinkle to a character’s life. (O’Connor wrote about Southern Protestants, which allowed her to treat characters whose view of man still bore a theological stamp.) And I do wonder at the almost complete disappearance of such people from the modern fictional world. I loved Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy, but he set it at the turn of the twentieth century. Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake took place in ’97, but even that concerned life in a convent—largely apart from the travails of the weeping world.
One thing that happened was the second Vatican Council, and the great upheaval in American Catholic life that followed it. The ground shifted, and I sometimes wonder if it didn’t make the novelist’s job more difficult. Take J.F. Powers, whose fiction treated the everyday life of the Catholic priest. In the early short stories and the masterful Morte D’Urban, you can tell that Powers knows the ecclesial world inside and out—its language and custom, its codes and hierarchies, its foibles and sins. That knowledge is reflected in the hero, Father Urban—in every situation, he can determine exactly what may be done to improve matters. The primary example: Banished to a rural Minnesota retreat house, he transforms it into a Catholic golf resort—someplace even the Bishop wants to visit.
It took Powers twenty-five years to publish a second novel, Wheat That Springeth Green. And while I don’t want to identify protagonist and author overmuch, it’s hard not to notice that our new hero, Father Joe Hackett, is deeply unsure—about how to handle his archbishop, how to handle the new breed of priests, how to manage his parish. Morte D’Urban was a tragedy—the story of a man ground under the wheels of his own machinations. Wheat That Springeth Green is a redemption story—a priest’s renewal, beginning with his advising a young man to avoid the draft. It’s as if Hackett is struggling to find his footing on this new ecclesial landscape, and manages it only by taking a political stand.
I liked the novel, admired it, even. But I wanted to love it as I had loved Morte D’Urban, and I couldn’t. Not that I’m any kind of expert judge of a novel’s worth, but I started wondering if art required a coherent culture, something solid enough to at least provide satire with a stationary target. As the Church in America roiled and writhed, did a depiction of that Church and its adherents in fiction become all but impossible? Probably not, but I’m still left wondering when my own generation is going to produce its Percy, its Powers, its O’Connor.
Maybe there’s no direct route in for that kind of explicit religiosity, regardless of religion’s prevalence in the nonfictional world. A novelist I know, who also works as a copyeditor for a New York publishing house, told me that even Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer would never get published today—not with all his devils running about. But maybe there’s another way. Maybe someone can make like Quentin Tarantino when he made Kill Bill Vol. 2…
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A bit of background. In June of 2005, I attended the fifth annual Catholic Writer’s Conference at Thomas Aquinas College, my alma mater. Because I wrote about movies in Swimming with Scapulars, and because I do a brief back-and-forth movie comment for The San Diego News Notes, I was invited to speak on a panel on Cinema from a Catholic View. My fellow panelists were Jim Bemis, film critic for Latin Mass magazine and author of Through the Eyes of the Church, and Robert Brennan, a veteran TV and movie writer. Bemis was going to speak on foreign films, Brennan would get American movies pre-1960, and I could comment on everything after. So that narrowed things down.
The cinema panel was slated for 1 p.m., right after the luncheon address from our keynote speaker—film producer Steve McEveety. McEveety had produced all sorts of movies, from the spoof Hot Shots! to the epic Braveheart. Oh, and a religious picture: The Passion of the Christ. His speech recounted some of the difficulties in both the making and the marketing of the film—notably, his frustrations with a lack of Catholic support. For me, the best part came toward the end of the Q&A, when McEveety asked the audience, “Do you know what film you guys should see? A film about a mother who puts family first, who will do anything for her child? Kill Bill.” I grinned like a fool. Kill Bill—particularly Kill Bill Vol. 2—was one of the films I had decided to talk about, though I had no idea how it would go over with my audience. Now McEveety had given me his blessing.
Jim Bemis opened the panel by reading from his book-in-progress on film seen “through the eyes of the Church.” “In truth,” he read, “cinema is simply a modern means of storytelling, the art form underlying western civilization… Indeed, storytelling received a divine imprimatur when Christ used parables to convey His holy message to His disciples. Our Lord knew stories were the most effective way to reach the human heart. As St. Mark says, ‘With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it…’”
“Man has never existed, and cannot exist,” he continued, “without creating art—as a method of communication, an expression of his heart’s longing, a lens for seeing the world. A world without art would be one without soul, without grace, without beauty.”
Bemis also contrasted two competing representations of man in art: Enlightenment man—“without God, the creator of his own universe, living by his own rules”—and Heroic man—“fallen, yet struggling to overcome evil.”
I couldn’t have asked for a better setup, especially after Mr. Brennan, the second speaker, took time to sing the praises of film noir. “I’m a little jealous of Mr. Brennan,” I began, “because he got to talk about an era that includes several of my very favorite movies—screwball comedies like The Palm Beach Story, The Awful Truth, and His Girl Friday.” (What follows is a slightly expanded version of my comments, launched from the safety of my office in the garage.)
I fell in love with those movies first because of the wit: the joke-on-top-of-joke, the instant comeback, the effortless barb as the weapon of choice. Second, because of the sophistication, especially that of Cary Grant. (Was I more saddened or relieved to hear of his sexual proclivities? At least it took some of the weight off for the great gulf between us. As he said, ‘Not even Cary Grant can be Cary Grant all of the time.’) Third, and most importantly, because of the formula, a formula that also produced such films as The Philadelphia Story and The Women. In every case, the story takes place within a moral universe, one independent of the morality of the players. In every case, the film opens with a blow to the created moral order—a marriage has come undone. What God has joined, man has put asunder. There has been a Fall.
In every case, there is a reason for the breakup, sometimes a good reason. But the breakup is still problematic; it is still repugnant to the moral universe of the film. The union must be restored. Dramatic tension comes because one of the spouses is threatening to remarry another. For the purposes of the film, this would amount to despair—order slipping into chaos. Somehow, it must be averted, and that’s what drives the story. Cary Grant has got to win back Katherine Hepburn; he’s just got to.
Yes, this is screwball; yes, this is lightweight. Even so, without that moral ultimatum, the movie is hollow and aimless. Think, for example, of the Coen brothers’ first cinematic stumble (in my exceedingly humble view): Intolerable Cruelty. It was funny enough, but a screwball comedy in which the marital bond has nothing more than a prenup to make it inviolable cannot help but flounder. A screwball comedy starring an unrepentant divorce lawyer? Where is the love? And what is the point? I likes me some irony, but not when it robs a film of its raison d’être.
In great screwball comedies, dogma is not hostile to drama; dogma makes the drama. Circumstances—usually a lousy husband—bang up against the immutable—the sanctity of marriage—and something’s gotta give. The fun is in how exactly that happens: How is Cary Grant going to get Ralph Bellamy on the train and Rosalind Russell back in the newsroom and into his arms? No wonder I’m happy. They’re perfect entertainments for the cradle Catholic, the soul that has grown up conscious of a created order, an order that was damaged by sin and must be restored if there is to be harmony between God and humanity. And it’s all done with such delicious wit.
But if it is not a bad thing to be a native of the moral universe, it is also not a bad thing to discover it and make it your adopted world. Living always in a created order has its dangers—the temptation to regard morality as extrinsic, the tendency to form a merely sentimental attachment to goodness, accompanied by a certain brittle absolutism. Again, I find myself envying the converts, people who have found the pearl of great price. Has the moral universe been subverted? Does Enlightenment man rule the silver screen? Then the conversion story will be reverse subversion—undermining the underminers.
Kill Bill is such a conversion story. The conversion takes place before the picture begins, but we don’t get to see it until near the end of Vol. 2. Professional assassin Beatrix Kiddo, aka Black Mamba, aka The Bride, takes a pregnancy test. Before she can read the results, she is attacked by a rival assassin. They end up in a standoff, guns drawn. The pregnancy indicator winds up near Kiddo’s would-be killer; Kiddo begs her to check it. “I’m the deadliest woman in the world,” she says, “but right now, I’m just a mother worried about her baby.”
Just like that, she’s gone from dealer in death to supremely concerned with life. The test is positive; Kiddo’s enemy relents. Without a word to the baby’s father (who is also her boss), Kiddo flees her old life and hides out in darkest Texas.
Now granted, professional killer is a uniquely unfamilial career track, but still, Mom is giving up her job for her kid’s well-being. And nobody complains. Reverse subversion.
She doesn’t get away with it. At the opening of Vol. 2, Dad—the Bill of the title—shoots Kiddo for deserting him. This after the rest of her former partners beat her all but senseless. But even there, the grace of the conversion breaks through. Just before Bill pulls the trigger, Kiddo gasps, “Bill. It’s your baby.” The gun explodes, but the gunner flinches, and the bullet doesn’t kill Kiddo. Instead, she ends up in a coma, and after four years, she wakes up, finds her baby gone, and sets out to take her revenge.
Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. Yes, Kill Bill is a revenge flick. Kiddo is still bloody-minded; the conversion has not been a complete transformation. But the subversion continues even here. Kiddo’s first target in Vol. 2 is Copperhead, another assassin who has since taken up the role of wife and mother. Their brutal living-room-to-kitchen fight distracts you with its humor and bravura—hot coffee and frying pans become assassin’s tools, and the two women pause mid-battle when Copperhead’s daughter returns from school. Weapons behind backs, pleasant grownup tones, nothing to see here—until daughter heads to her room. Then it’s back to the mayhem.
Kiddo finally dispatches Copperhead, and you’re still enjoying the odd combination of absurd humor and slaked bloodthirst when BAM, Kiddo turns around and there’s the little girl, the one whose Mom is dead on the floor. Violence doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Sin reverberates. In her failure to forgive, Kiddo has perpetrated the same violence that was wrought upon her—the separation of mother and child. Tarantino has even made noises about making a sequel, in which the little girl grows up and goes after Kiddo. A glimpse of the moral universe.
I could go on, but I’ll make just one more note—this one about Bud, Bill’s brother and another assassin. When we first meet Bud, he is telling Bill, “she deserves her revenge, and we deserve to die.” He doesn’t intend just to lay down, but he seems to know he’s done wrong. Bud is living in a trailer in the desert, drinking cheap margaritas, and working as a bouncer in a seedy, low-rent strip club. The owner, a perfect lowlife, heaps abuse on him and cuts his hours; Bud just swallows it. I kept wondering, When is this guy going to snap? When is he going to pull out that loser’s throat? Why does he keep making that pained smile as he just takes it and takes it? Then it hit me: He’s doing penance. This abject self-abasement is his way of atoning. Wow. Bud dies a horrible death, but only after he tries to escape his self-imposed sentence.
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None of this means that anyone should necessarily run out and see Kill Bill Vol. 2. The film is very violent. But for me, it works. It gets its vision across sub rosa, under cover of bloodshed. Maybe that kind of sidelong approach is the way in. I don’t know for certain; I haven’t found it yet. What I have done is written my take on the J.F. Powers priestly short story—not so much irreligious material treated religiously as religious material treated in the most ordinary way possible. Not people leading Christian lives; Christians leading human lives. Powers may have lost his footing after Vatican II, but however slippery, it’s the only ground I’ve ever known. And I think it could stand a little fictional grit.
Matthew Lickona is a staff writer for the San Diego Reader, a weekly newspaper. He is also the author of the memoir Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic, published by Loyola Press. The book won second place in the First-Time Author category at the 2005 Catholic Press Association Book Awards. “Storytelling, Kill Bill, and the Kingdom of God” is an excerpt from his as-yet-unpublished second manuscript. Matthew lives in La Mesa, California, with his wife Deirdre and their five children.