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'Kill Bill' leaves us hanging -- Vol. 1

(Note to ed.: This piece may exceed assigned length. Working in film-history angle is challenging -- those academics sure can talk! -- plus my word-count software seems virally disabled. No trims please unless OK'd by me.)

Serial-boxed entertainment: genius, hubris, or gimmicky grab for box-office bucks?

That's one tantalizing question raised by the release this week of "Kill Bill Vol. 1," director Quentin Tarantino's blood-soaked homage to Asian grind-house films and kung fu flicks.

Tarantino has audaciously chosen to slice "Kill Bill" -- R-rated for graphic violence and gore -- into a pair of 90-minute movies rather than release it as a single three-hour film. For "Vol. 2," moviegoers will have to wait until February, by which time popcorn prices may hit $9 for a large bucket and "Bill" could be deader on arrival than "Gigli Returns."

Early reviews of "Vol. 1" suggest that the jury's still out on the future of "Bill." Ebert and Roeper give it two thumbs up. A. O. Scott of The New York Times puzzles over the film's out-of-sequence action while praising its "odd, feverish integrity." Writing in The New Yorker, David Denby does his best to kill "Bill." The movie, he writes, "is what's formally known as decadence and commonly known as crap."

One viewer at a Boston theater, Kevin Specter, said yesterday that he liked the film and could have watched more of it, but that he was bothered by the editing decision. "It's annoying that there was no ending to the first one," Specter said. Would he go see "Vol. 2"? "I'll probably get dragged to it," Specter said.

Tarantino and Miramax, the director's studio partners, are venturing into largely unknown territory with their decision to divide and conquer the box office -- even if it's a place we've been before, sort of.

Peter Jackson's film version of "The Lord of the Rings" has also been released on the installment plan, albeit by design and not because the project had grown insanely bloated, as appears to be the case with "Kill Bill."

Shot on a 438-day, $270 million production budget, the "Rings" trilogy -- part three arrives in December -- has marched into theaters in orderly fashion, a year apart. Bilbo's tale is no "Bill," certainly, cleaved in half like a deli sub as it's headed out the front door.

Author Tom Wolfe has gone down a similar path, as he wrote two of his most commercially successful books, "The Right Stuff" and "The Bonfire of the Vanities," on deadline for Rolling Stone.

However, many readers waited for the hard-cover versions. Unlike Tarantino's audience, moreover, magazine buyers also got a couple of album reviews and a (usually two-part) Bob Dylan interview for the admission price.

The toast of Broadway in the 1990s was playwright Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," a two-part exegesis on America during the Reagan years. While both plays were critical and commercial successes -- "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika" each won a Tony Award -- the concept was considered highly risky at the time, according to Nick Paleologos, one of the "Angels" producers.

"We were already committed to staging Part Two in principle," Paleologos says. "But if the first play had been a critical or financial disaster, the second one wouldn't have happened." As it was, he notes, the plays suffered financially because they were yoked together rather than staged independently. "Unfortunately, they were Siamese twins from the get-go," Paleologos says.

What's Tarantino's explanation for taking "Bill" to the chop shop? (Ed. to copy desk: Cut off here. We can run the rest Monday and get another 50 cents out of people.)

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