Friday, January 16, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003)

Here's the crucial thing to comprehend about director Quentin Tarantino. Whether you love or hate his films, you can't deny that the artist has mastered perhaps the single most important element of good (even great...) filmmaking.

And that is, simply this: the storyteller is as important as the story itself.

The storyteller's voice -- in cinema meaning the selection of shots, the manner of the editing, the choreography, and even the soundtrack -- dynamically and irrevocably overshadows everything else.

And that's precisely as it should be, given the old canard about there being only seven original plots.

If a storyteller cannot entertain an audience in the fashion he conveys a story -- can't hold it rapt with his mastery of language (whether it be poetry, prose or film grammar), he has no business recounting stories; no business writing at all; and absolutely no business making movies.

Kill Bill (Volume 1) is a virtuoso testament to this oft-forgotten fact. Vetted by another, less innovative director, the film's fractured central narrative-- of a female assassin meting out bloody revenge against her former associates -- would hardly merit a running time of 90 minutes; let alone 111. There are likely about three important scenes in this entire plot, and you could dispatch the whole narrative in probably thirty minutes without trouble.

Tarantino, however, appears blessed with a genius for storytelling. He seems to instinctively understand how to imbue his often over-familiar narratives (including this one) with a sense of grand importance, majestic kineticism and subversive humor that is simultaneously high brow and low brow.

As a conveyor of narratives, you can't deny Tarantino downright revels in matters traditionally associated with the "low" (rape and revenge; blood and guts, gutter language and body-function humor.) Yet the artist approaches these subjects as though he is the highest, most zealous and rigorous intellectual, a veritable PhD with multiple degrees in music, manga, movies, martial arts or whatever the concept at hand.

The result of Tarantino's distinctive approach is an often a strange cinematic synthesis: old tropes are rendered fresh; dumb conventions are rendered smart; morally dubious material is rendered, if not honorable, at least highly-entertaining. Watching his films, you may realize you are being debauched. However, it's such an enjoyable debauchery, such an intelligent depravity, you don't often mind the trip. In fact, the reptile part of your brain loves it.

How does Tarantino do it? That's the significant question. The short answer is one that renders me an unrepentant admirer of his work. Tarantino takes what many (desperately misinformed...) people mistake as an inherently lazy and passive experience (the act of watching a film...) and catalyzes it into an irresistibly active pursuit.

And that, my friends, is the very thing I live for.

That's the reason I watch films in the first place. It's why many of my generation (and succeeding generations) watch films as well. Not merely to be entertained; not to be simply diverted or soothed; and certainly not just to pass the time. On the contrary, we watch films for stimulation.

And, well, Tarantino's films stimulate, don't they?

So let's look now at the specific ways that Kill Bill Volume 1 serves as a heroic poem, a saga that juxtaposes the low and high brow. And how -- in that dynamic crucible -- Tarantino encourages active viewer attention, viewer thought, and stimulation.

In The Beginning. Not.

The first element to consider here is the fractured, non-linear narrative, written by Tarantino himself. Kill Bill Volume 1 commences in media res -- "in the middle of things" -- in attention-drawing black-and-white. We open with the brutal, apparent murder of our heroine, the Bride (Uma Thurman) in a church in El Paso, Texas.

From this prologue we jump almost immediately to "Chapter One," in which a recovered Bride (how did she survive? where has she been for four years? why is she here?) tracks down one of her five would-be assassins, Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox); Copperhead of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. As the Bride prepares to wreak bloody vengeance, we see that she has written herself an unusual "to do" list -- a kill list -- and that she has already offed one enemy, an opponent named Oren Ishii (Lucy Liu). Importantly, we haven't even met Oren Ishii yet. Chronologically it has already occurred, but we don't see it now . It's saved for the film's climax.

In the transition from prologue to "Chapter One," clever Tarantino has jumped nearly half-a-decade then, bounded over important events in both the life of his protagonist and his villains, and landed us at a seemingly normal middle-class suburban home. Again, he's triggering questions, encouraging active thinking. Why are we here? What's going on? Tarantino could have easily unfolded his tale in linear, chronological fashion had he chosen, but he wants his audience to ask questions; wants to involve us. And also - importantly - Tarantino is deliberately referencing a long tradition of famous literary epics. Opening stories in the middle (and then explaining the background as you go...) is not just a convention of oral storytelling, but one that goes back in history as far as Homer.

If, for example, it was Tarantino's desire to create in the Bride a sort of modern mythic hero, this is the vernacular in which he should logically speak, no? Those of us who know literature (or, hell, movie history...) recognize instantly what he is up to.

So Kill Bill Volume I keeps us on our toes by segmenting the narrative (into chapters -- another literary feint); by totally fracturing the narrative (by leaping backwards and forward chronologically) and ultimately by stopping the narrative without a satisfactory resolution (in other words, with a cliffhanger). Again, this isn't about story; it's about how Tarantino tells us his particular story, fomenting suspense, generating frustration (what comes next?) and even connecting his work to heroic poems of the past..

Conventions Are To Be Flouted

After the Bride's arrival at Copperhead's house, the two athletic women launch into a bloody, extreme, brilliantly choreographed knife-fight. After a few moments of brutal combat, Tarantino's camera innocuously takes up a wide-shot that gazes out the living room bay window (even while keeping the fighters in frame). We therefore notice before the two combatants that a school bus has stopped out front and deposited Copperhead's child, a cute-as-a-button little girl named Nicki, at the curb.

Again, consider Tarantino as accomplished storyteller, selecting this particular shot, Making the audience aware of the school bus (and Nicki's presence) a second or so before The Bride and her would-be victim. This is a way of generating suspense (will the Bride kill a woman in front of her kindergarten-aged daughter?) but also sort of a smack in the face to tried-and-true action-film convention. The action scene is interrupted as the combatants abruptly stand-down (knives behind backs, ladies...) and we are encouraged to recognize humor in the situation; as The Bride and Nicki's mother adorn the sleeping face of "normalcy" in front of the clearly-suspicious little girl. Again, Tarantino knows precisely how to stage action scenes, so he's playing with our expectations here. It's not so much what happens, as how it happens. And how it happens make us laugh. It also tells us something about "the honor" of the Bride, and is therefore a character-based moment.

It's a post-modern approach, no-doubt and you'll also take note that before the fight resumes, as The Bride and Vernita ostensibly share a cup of coffee in the kitchen,the dialogue takes a weird and almost subconsciously familiar turn. "I beseech you," Vernita begins sincerely, asking the Bride not to murder her in front of her daughter.

"It was not my intention to do this in front of your little girl,"
replies The Bride stolidly.

Your first instinct upon hearing this stilted dialogue is perhaps to ask "what the hell?" and wonder if award-winning writer Tarantino has lost his marbles (and his talent for conversational dialogue).

And then you realize...both the Bride and the Vernita are talking in a lingo you might call "Japanese Movie English." They are talking in precisely the style of Japanese martial arts films that have been dubbed into the English language. There's a strange formality to this distinctive "movie tongue" and Tarantino cues us into his "game" by having his two American characters speak in this bizarre, but clearly recognizable fashion. Again, Tarantino is making our synapses fire with recognition; making our minds forge a connection. Between the martial arts movies we've seen (which often focus on revenge and violence) and the very film we are watching now.

A Master's Thesis on Revenge

Kill Bill
is a meditation on revenge and its pitfalls. "Revenge is never a straight line," declares sword-maker Hattori Hanzo. Rather "it's a forest," he establishes, and one in which the traveler can easily lose one's way. That is Kill Bill's leitmotif and Tarantino reminds us of it in several ways, making the film a testament to revenge (and more specifically, to revenge movies).

The very first frame of the film, for instance, is a title card which notes an "Old Klingon Proverb" that goes "revenge is a dish best served cold." If you're a Star Trek fan, you may remember this famous line as spoken by Khan (Ricardo Montalban), after commandeering the Reliant, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

The motif of revenge seeps in again and again, and suffuses the film's imagery, language and even soundtrack. The Bride is motivated primarily by revenge. Oren-Ishii's origin and ascent to criminal mastermind is also spawned by revenge (over the death of her parents). So what does Tarantino do? He pulls in virtually every pop-culture revenge allusion imaginable. Ishii's tale is a variation on a Hong Kong revenge picture called Lady Snowblood (1973), which concerned a girl who devoted her life to avenging the murder of her parents. Importantly, Ishii's bloody story is scored to sound not like Lady Snowblood, however, but rather as a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western...another sub-genre dominated by vengeance as a motivating factor.

These pop-culture references accomplish two things. First, they remind us of cinema history (again, an intellectual high-brow pursuit). Secondly, they elevate the story of Bride to the level of the mythic. Tarantino is landing his story, his modern "myth" on the same plateau as these other famous stories.

Death is Beautiful; Death is Red.

In the chapter entitled "Shadow at House of Blue Leaves," The Bride goes up against Oren-Ishii's entourage and an army of nearly 100 body-guards known as "The Crazy 88s." Here occurs a pitched, sustained battle that shatters all expectations and is so over-the-top gory that it too, spurs our intellectual process.

In particular, I reference what film scholar Margaret Bruder trenchantly describes as "the aestheticization of violence." She writes of "stylistically-excessive" violence occurring in a "significant and sustained way." That's precisely what you'll find here. Every wound generated by the slicing Japanese steel of the Bride's sword generates a Sam Raimi-esque geyser of blood.

There's so much blood on screen, in fact, that very quickly, the viewer grows numb to the arterial spray and starts to view the very wet, very red sequence not as revolting or disgusting, but rather as a beautiful dance, a violent ballet. We are looking at bodies move; gravity defied; revenge symbolically personified as motion and speed.

Kubrick also accomplished this sort of thing, to an extent, in Clockwork Orange (with the Singing in the Rain piece), and another prime example is George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1979). There, the final bloody set-piece degenerated into a pie-throwing fight, thus commenting on screen violence rather than merely depicting it. Or RoboCop (1987), in which the Ed-209's accidental murder of a corporate goon became so bloody and gory that it was actually funny.

In this Kill Bill set-piece, as in those other notable examples, this isn't merely violence for violence's sake. At some point during the scene, your gag-reflex parts like rain clouds and you ascend to a higher plane of consciousness. You begin to view the action in terms of the abstract. You notice the beauty of the shots, like Tarantino's wonderful use of blue light and silhouettes for one portion of the fight. You begin to wonder if The Bride's mission of revenge isn't approved of by the Divine, as there is something of the Gods in her movements; in her survival; in her commitment. Again, highly appropriate thoughts for a modern heroic poem.

The final battle between Oren Ishii and The Bride also seems oddly gorgeous and lyrical, not merely bloody and disgusting. Snowflakes fall lightly against the backdrop of deep-blue night sky, and the sword fight is set inside a pastoral garden. In the foreground, Tarantino frames a bamboo water fountain (one that periodically empties before our eyes), making that image of nature the primary one; his combatants secondary. Tarantino may have a gangsta's mouth, but he's undeniably got a painter's eye.

Use Your Allusion

From a certain perspective Kill Bill is a tapestry of quirky film homages stitched together. Tarantino very deliberately references all his favorite films and productions here. A close viewing will find two references to Star Trek, a direct quotation from Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive (1976) in the Buck character and his trademark line ("My name is Buck and I'm here to...") references to Joseph Campbell and perhaps the Star Wars cycle (in the depiction of the retired wise-man as mentor to young hero on his journey), and much more. The Green Hornet TV theme song gets some good play too (in a scene that expertly deploys cross-cutting), and there's also a reference to Kato masks.

From Spaghetti Westerns and Italian giallo to Far East forms like Wuxia and Jidaigeki; from the Mexican standoff to 1970s grind house, Kill Bill serves as a collection of Quentin Tarantino obsessions integrated into a cinematic symphony. It's a concert with one overriding motif: revenge. And by utilizing a non-linear story structure, by flouting expectations in action sequences, by rendering violence beautiful, and by alluding to a multi-cultural canon on the subject, Tarantino engages our minds in his quest to present a new legend: the legend of the Bride.

What we can ultimately discern, then, in Tarantino's film canon, and especially in Kill Bill Volume 1 is a dedicated battle against movie entropy; against the pervasive belief that movies must be homogenized and appeal to the lowest common denominator. Tarantinos subject matter may be raw and low, but his voice -- his storyteller's voice --- is sharp, subversive and ingenious. Some might say that Kill Bill represents Tarantino's voice at its most "sadistic" or even "masochistic" but I would argue to the contrary. That his, er, instrument "is quite impressive."

And heaven knows what Tarantino would make of that comment.


  1. joey_bishop_jr.6:10 PM

    I can't remember where, but I read that the theory has been presented that basically The Bride is fighting her way down the legendary 42nd street grindhouses- the badass female and blaxploitation genre in the first battle with Vernita, the kungfu genre with the Crazy 88 and O-Ren, the giallo/suspense genre with Elle Driver, and the Spaghetti Westerns with Budd, although I can't really remember how the ultimate showdown was pigeon-holed...

    Genius tho, any way you slice it!!!

  2. another analysis of tarantino's technique that is most apparent in this film posits him as a pioneering filmmaker as dj, with kill bill vol. 1 functioning very much like an effective mix, bringing in segments and snippets from pre-existing sources, rearranging and juxtaposing them in a way that becomes its own unique work capable of pulling the viewer/listener to very different places very effectively within the narrative/mix. its pretty significant that he worked very closely with his composer and head of the wu-tang clan, the rza, not just on the original score, but also the countless pop culture music cues that blanket the movie's sound.

  3. It took a while but I'm glad to see QT slowly start to prove himself a master storyteller. There will always be some that don't care for his style. And that's fine, such it life. But after his one two punch of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, I think a he became viewed as all style and no substance. Just a guy with quick cuts and constant pop culture references spewed at 1000 miles a minute. It's a shame too because I always thought Jackie Brown was underrated. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on Inglourious Basterds. There is a lot to say about that flick (good or bad).