Thursday, December 16, 2010

What Tarantino Dreams of

Film: Kill Bill: Vol. 1
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

Quentin Tarantino tends to provoke two reactions: unbridled adulation or equally unbridled disdain. Strangely, I fall somewhere in the middle. I appreciate some of his films. When Pulp Fiction was shiny and new, I loved it, although I love it less now. Reservoir Dogs is still one of the best films of its decade. But I soured on Mr. Tarantino, in no small part because it seemed like he made a huge name for himself and then did nothing as a director for years. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is his fourth complete film, made 11 years after his first full-length feature.

In short, while I think the man had and possibly still has some real chops (I’ve yet to see Inglourious Basterds, his fourth film on the list along with the other three mentioned), it seems to me that he believes his own press. One of the reasons I like his first two films as much as I do is because he’s obviously a smart guy who can make reference to film culture both well-known and obscure. I appreciate that. However, it seems also that he can’t not make reference to such things and enjoys showing his audience exactly how much he knows all the time. Characters in his films are hyper-aware of pieces of pop culture—a band, a film, a whatever—and this seems to be to make us as audience aware that Tarantino knows all about those bits of pop culture. He’s often in love with his dialogue to the detriment of his films. That’s my opinion, of course.

Until tonight, I’ve avoided Kill Bill: Vol. 1 for the simple reason that I didn’t want to spend two hours watching what looked to be Quentin Tarantino’s masturbation fantasies. Again, my opinion. And really, what do I know? After all, he’s the one making movies and I’m the one teaching English.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is a revenge picture, pure and simple. We open with a fight between a character known only as The Bride (Uma Thurman…and the character’s real name is evidently revealed in the second film as Beatrix Kiddo. If you look quickly and carefully, though, you can see it on her plane tickets a couple of times) and a woman named Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox). They destroy the hell out of Vernita’s house until her daughter comes home, and then the two talk civilly, planning a fight for later that evening. When Vernita goes for the double-cross and tries to take out the Bride with a gun, she ends up dead. The Bride leaves, crossing a name off the list, and we can see that she’s already scratched off the name O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu).

The rest of the film to the very end is told in flashback. We start with where the revenge starts—the Bride is known by this name because she was attacked by a collection of assassins on her wedding day. The entire wedding party, as well as her unborn child, were killed. It’s also made evident that the Bride was once a member of this group, led by the Bill (David Carradine, who does not appear in the flesh aside from his hands in this film) of the title.

The Bride is comatose for four years, during which she is evidently repeatedly raped by a sadistic hospital worker, who also sells out her services. We discover this when she comes to just before another rape and annihilates the rapist as well as the hospital worker. While she’s working on getting her legs to function again, she relates the story of O-Ren’s rise to power in the Tokyo underworld. And then we get the story of her getting a kick-ass sword from a retired swordmaker (Sonny Chiba) and the giant battle scene against O-Ren and her minions including schoolgirl assassin Gogo Yubari. And the rest of the story presumably happens in the second film, which I did not watch.

Kill Bill is all about spurting blood, violent death, and 1970’s-style wire work. It’s as much a modern action/revenge movie as it is an homage to the Shaw Brothers films and the martial arts classics of that era. This is undoubtedly intentional on Tarantino’s part. Averaged out, there’s a dead body for almost every minute of the film here. Blood sprays in geysers from severed limbs and heads, fountaining as if arteries were high-pressure hoses. The giant battle takes place mainly in black and white, apparently in homage to the old martial arts flicks that did it to avoid television censorship. That which isn’t in black and white is in monochromatic blue and shown in shadow pantomime.

It’s extreme. I’ve never let a bit of gore or a good bloodletting stop me from liking a film, but this was simply too damn much. I fully understand why people like this movie, why people look at this as a continuation of Tarantino’s promise. I demur. It’s too much, too extreme.

Again, in a Tarantino film, there are no innocents. The Bride can’t wake up from her coma and escape the hospital—it has to happen as a part of a rape scene that we as viewers are led to believe has happened over and over in the four years she has been comatose. That’s the sort of thing that makes me wonder where Tarantino’s head is at. Why the hell was that necessary? To show that the Bride can kick ass? We already know that from the opening sequence. To up the revenge? Also not really necessary. To add another layer of depravity in the film and show us again that Tarantino has a thing for female characters who can kick his ass? Yep.

I know I’m in the minority here, but so much of the violence here seems to be nothing but violence for its own sake. It does nothing for me. Will I watch the sequel? Probably not.

Thanks to some excellent comments and a little more thought, I've finally come up with the way to describe this film: it's like a video game. "Soulless" is a great description (thanks, fellow 1001 blogger Edward Boe for that observation). The film reads like nothing so much as a stream of combats in an effort to get to the boss fight. This may be the reason the film is so popular and highly regarded.

I worked in the video game industry for about 12 years, first as a journalist and then as a hint book author. I haven't played a video game in seven years because I burned out and burned out hard. This may well be the reason this film holds no magic for me.

Why to watch Kill Bill Vol. 1: Ass-kicking on the grandest scale.
Why not to watch: Violence for the sake of violence on the grandest scale.


  1. You haven't seen the sequel? It's a totally different movie: more internal, more dialogue-heavy, more slowly paced, and dare I say, more about the acting and less about the stunts. Kudos in particular to Michael Parks: he plays the sheriff who, along with Number One Son, inspects The Bride at the beginning of Volume 1 and gets spat on for his trouble; he plays a completely different, almost unrecognizably different, character in Volume 2-- and most of the unrecognizability is due to his acting, not the makeup or costume design. (Credit as well to Gordon Liu, who plays one role in Volume 1 and a very different, not to mention prominent, role in Volume 2.)

  2. No, I haven't seen the sequel. Hadn't seen the first one until tonight. My reaction to this film is similar to my reaction to Sin City: looks great, but is so repugnant in content that I end up feeling unclean.

    Sorry, man. I know that's a minority opinion.

  3. Not at all, not at all. I was in the minority in Korea for liking Volume 2 better. Young Koreans have such short attention spans, and they wanted Volume 2 to be as action-y and gory as Volume 1. It wasn't (though one person's eyeball does get squished in the second film).

    By my students' standards, 2 was slow, and way too talky. I was happy, though: Carradine gets plenty of screen time in 2, and gives the now-classic "Superman discourse" near the end of the film. The violence in 2, when it happens, is more focused and personal, and not about the indiscriminate spew and spray. It's got some Grand Guignol elements, but it's nothing compared to the bloodbath of 1.

    By the way, did you have a "Hey-- why's the top of her brain still in her skull?" moment while O-ren was sighing her final words?

  4. How apropos, by the way, that the previous comment's "captcha" security word was "Tatino" in a Tarantino-related comment thread. "Tatino" sounds like a two-year-old trying to say the director's name.

  5. I completely understand your reaction to this film. I saw it back when it was in the theater, and as I recall I was the most excited of our group to see it. At that time I was in love with Hong Kong action flicks, I was a huge fan of Pulp Fiction, and I was ready to buy into the promise of greatness that was Quentin Tarantino.

    Strangely enough, when we were leaving the theater, I was the only one not filled with jubilation about what we'd just seen. It seemed hollow, and soul-less. The characters were more charactures than they were real people. The actors were doing the right things, the action was hard and heavy, but there was no real feeling of stakes. It was (and I suppose, still is) pure exploitation, pure hedonism. Quentin had lost me.

    I tried watching it again on DVD, but ultimately it never worked...that is, until I saw part 2. It was in part 2 that, Tarantino put all the soul, all the emotional heft, all the quality dialogue. The Bride, Bill, and all the rest of them, shed their plastic ideals, and phoney motivations, and each gained something they were lacking completely from the first film...hunger.

    The Bride sought answers, not only revenge, but a real reason why Bill and the others, had done this to her.

    The first part of the film (vol. 1) would have been so very much better if it had been released, as planned, as one film, but the downside would have been that the second part (vol. 2) would have been affected equally in the opposite direction.

    I have come to appreciate Vol. 1, but only as a means to get to Vol. 2, other than that it is simply a mediocre movie.

    I'm usually in the minority when talking about Kill Bill, so I'm glad there are a few like minded people out there. Keep up the great reviews!

  6. Ah! Mr. Boe, I feel vindicated! You've nailed my feeling exactly--"soulless" is the word I was looking for and couldn't come up with last night. Where were you when I was slamming my head against the keyboard?

    Based on your and Kevin's comments, perhaps I will venture into Vol. 2. Right now, though, in the afterglow of the first movie, I didn't see anything that makes me want to see the next film.

    Kevin--I figured that motivations and the reasons for the intial hit would appear in the second movie. However, nothing here makes me want to discover those motivations. Still, with more recommendations, I'll get there eventually.

    And yes, I did have a "that's a magical sword that can cut to the contour of her brain" moment.

  7. While the violence was the first thing that stood out for me, the one thing that gave me the desire to follow up with a second viewing was the final battle. When the bride opens the door on the serenity of the Japanese Garden with the snow falling which leads the sound of rapid clapping. At this point in the theater, I believed myself to be the only person that recognized the Latin Disco version of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" by Santa Esmerelda. This really endeared me to Tarantino's style more so then his signature use of "Miserlou" in "Pulp Fiction". His ability to take the most obscure, mostly forgotten song, and raising it to near classic status really speaks volumes.

    While I am not really impressed by the hyper-violent tone of today's over-the-top action movies, I can't help but appreciate the choreography that makes the last decades martial arts cinema as artistic as night at the ballet.

  8. I understand that point of view, but I still look at the scene in the garden and think, "Boss Fight!"

    I don't disagree on the choreography, though.