-Rich Handley, Timeline of the Planet of the Apes: The Definitive Unauthorized Chronology (Hasslein Books; 2008), page xiv: "Changing Lanes and Curving Time."
Review coming soon...
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.