Showing posts with label Quentin Tarantino. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Quentin Tarantino. Show all posts

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds (2009)



Director Quentin Tarantino may have intentionally mangled the English language with the misspelled title of his cinematic effort Inglourious Basterds (2009), but this prodigious talent speaks the language of film with a perfect accent. 

Although Tarantino's production shares a title (sort of...) with 1978's The Inglorious Bastards (from director Enzo G. Castellari) there's not actually much similarity between the two efforts. Both films are set during World War II, and both films concern an important mission behind enemy lines.

After that, leave your expectations at the door. The 1978 film is a low-budget exploitation actioner (with Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson), but Inglorious Basterds is Tarantino's trademark specialty: art-house exploitation.

In other words, Tarantino doesn't craft anything remotely like an action yarn here. Instead, Inglourious Basterds is an almost sedentary, deliberately-paced film about personal warfare, not the international, global variety we've come to expect from the WWII film. 


This isn't Saving Private Ryan (1998). No beaches are stormed. No wartime platitudes are reinforced.



"Looks like the shoe's on the other foot," The Powerful and the Powerless in Inglourious Basterds


The backdrop for this 2009 drama is indeed the war effort in general, and a group of American soldiers behind enemy lines, but the guts of the narrative involve feelings of personal disquiet: the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness engendered by the Nazi Regime, and the Basterds' dedicated attempts to give the Nazis a taste of their own medicine.

Some scholars and pundits have suggested that the film is morally facile, a simple revenge picture that makes the American Basterds (Jewish-American soldiers...) as reprehensible as the Nazis they fight in Europe; but that doesn't seem legitimately the case.

Tarantino's focus isn't necessarily on brutal, bloody violence, but on power, and how it feels to be the party without it. 

The Basterds in the film, as well as a Jewish cinema owner named Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), exact violent retribution against the Nazis, it is true. But, oddly -- in almost every situation -- it feels not like eye-for-an-eye Draconian violence, but rather an assertion or re-assertion of self, or self-actualization, if that's possible.

This is why, I suspect, the film's fiery final sequence quotes extensively from De Palma's Carrie (1976) and the famous sequence at the high school prom. Both movies concern the victimized pushed too far, taking back the power for themselves in an apocalyptic showdown.

I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, however. Inglourious Basterds is a film consisting of five separate or episodic chapters. The first chapter "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France" goes a long way towards establishing the feelings of personal powerlessness the Nazis so ruthlessly exploit.

A dairy farmer who is hiding Jewish refugees in his house is visited on his remote farm by Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), who is nicknamed "The Jew Hunter." Landa gains entry to the house, enjoys a glass of milk, switches the conversation from French to English, and then -- without even verbally leveling much of a threat -- makes the weeping farmer, LaPadite, surrender his hidden wards. The refugees are then brutally shot down, and only 18-year old Shoshanna escapes the massacre.


The conversation between Landa and LaPadite is lengthy. It goes on and on, and Tarantino holds the scene for a duration approaching twenty minutes. 

The aspect of this scene that makes it work so splendidly and which makes it increasingly suspenseful as it continues is the very thing that remains determinedly unspoken: Landa's total and complete domination of the poor farmer. LaPadite has no options; no recourse; nowhere even to lodge a complaint. He can't fight, or he will sacrifice his family. He can't bargain, either. There's absolutely nothing to be done. Landa comes into his home, is unfailingly polite and courteous...and is completely in control. The Nazi has no need to flex his muscles (or twirl his metaphorical mustache), to assert his authority. His authority simply...goes without saying.

This powerful and frightening idea recurs in Chapter Three, "German Night in Paris." Shoshanna -- now a cinema owner in France hiding under the name Emmanuelle Mimieux (think Yvette Mimieux) -- unexpectedly meets Nazi sniper and war hero Zoller (Daniel Bruhl). He is starring in Goebbel's latest propaganda film, Nation's Pride, and he quickly devises the notion that Shoshanna's cinema should host the film's premiere.

Again: she is not asked about this. Her counsel is not sought. Shoshanna is not given an out so she can politely demure. Instead, she is escorted to a nearby restaurant and introduced to Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), who immediately and unquestioningly assumes her total and complete cooperation. 

Like Landa in Chapter One, the Nazis here are not over-the-top schemers or brutal torturers for us to sneer at. Instead, they are so confident in their total authority that there's no need for showy demonstrations, as we would no doubt see in lesser films.

In the most dramatic example of Shoshanna's utter powerlessness in the face of the Nazi domination, Hans Landa even gets to dictate to the cinema owner when she should eat her strudel. She is about to take a bite, but he has forgotten to order whip cream. 

"Wait for the cream," he utters with a wolfish smile.

It isn't a request. It's an order.

Thus -- in albeit strange and unconventional fashion -- the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds are more frightening than almost any you've seen depicted in a movie before. They appear courteous and civil, but that's only because their domination is unchallenged; unquestioned. These men walk the Earth as Gods: every demand met, every order followed, every desire sated.

From the predicaments of the farmer and Shosanna in their respective chapters, the audience quickly detects how the basic human freedom of choice (even the choice when to eat your dessert) has been removed from those living in territory occupied by the Germans.

Tarantino's selections (in actors; in tone; in holding on a particular scene) all play this idea out adroitly. The scene set in the Tavern is not much different: an S.S. officer strides onto the scene and expects to have his demands for attention met, without question.

The eminently just punchline comes in the film's valedictory scene and composition. The leader of the Basterds, Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt) has been forced to cede authority to Landa. Landa thinks that -- as usual -- he is totally in command. 


He has become used to his unlimited, unspoken power. And with one powerful, if small act, Raines questions that assumption....with a knife. It's not just revenge for the sake of revenge; it's not bloody for the sake of gore. It's a lesson, actually, in what freedom represents; and the fear that people feel when that freedom is stolen from them. 

When Aldo carves swastikas on the foreheads of his enemies, he is questioning what the Nazis believe is unquestionable; their total authority and superiority. Aldo does not kill, but he makes the Nazis experience fear -- and powerlessness -- for the first time.


"We're going to make a film. Just for the Nazis." Homage and Tribute in Tarantino's Film

Inglourious Basterds also proves intriguing in much the same the fashion as Tarantino's other films do. In other words, the movie functions as a dedicated homage to other war films, and as a tribute to the culture of movies itself.  We see this in Death Proof (2007) as well: the notion of a universe built from other movies, and allusions to other movies.

In ways simple (Aldo Raines = Aldo Ray) and ways complex, Tarantino gets in some edgy commentary here about the power of images; about the power of the medium itself.

Even casting is vitally important. For instance, horror director Eli Roth plays the "golem" nicknamed "The Bear Jew," the Basterd who brandishes a baseball bat against recalcitrant Nazis.

We already associate Roth with scenes of extreme violence and gore thanks to his role directing (the masterpiece...) Hostel (2005), and so the actor's participation in what promises to be the film's most violent scene works commendably to the movie's advantage. 



Here comes Eli Roth doing what Eli Roth does best...or so we think.

But Inglourious Basterds is a movie about movies in deeper, more meaningful ways too. 


A propaganda film, like Goebbel's "Nation's Pride,could conceivably galvanize a demoralized nation, we are meant to understand. It could literally turn around the war, and that's something that can't be allowed to happen. How Shoshanna subverts Zoller's film is one of the film's highlights; especially since her "phantom edit" plays to what is literally a captive audience.

Likewise, a movie critic like Hicox (Michael Fassbender) could conceivably boast the knowledge to make for an effective undercover agent in France, although a hand signal (not entirely unlike "thumbs up" or "thumbs down") could also doom him.

And finally, as Inglourious Basterds trenchantly reminds us, a film can be an instrument of propaganda or an instrument of justice. Film might even be, literally, a weapon. Film reels  literally double as the bomb that kills Hitler in the film's denouement.


And there's another thing about movies that Tarantino tells us here.

Movies  have no overriding responsibility to be true to the historical record. I mean...we all know how World War II ended, but Tarantino provides us a more satisfying, fairy tale, movie ending: one in which the powerful are given a lesson in powerlessness, and those without freedom find -- even for an instant -- liberty's power.

Inglorious Basterds
 is not the place to seek historical accuracy; it's a place to ponder the ways that movies -- as propaganda or vehicles of justice/vengeance -- can satisfy and offer emotional closure regarding a whole variety of issues. 


Isn't it better than history, really, that a Jewish woman victimized by the Third Reich should bring it down?

If we could write our own endings, isn't this the dramatic, poetic one we would desire? The underdog has her day, and the scales of justice are righted. 

Since this isn't real life, why not?






"I think this just might be my masterpiece." Or "That's a Bingo."

Given the importance of movie history and film in Inglorious Basterds, I find it fascinating that the last act in the film quotes so heavily from the work of my all-time favorite director: Brian De Palma.

I mentioned Carrie at the Prom vs. Shoshanna at the Premiere, but it's much more than that too.

Notice, for instance, that the interior of Shoshanna's cinema is colored and designed to resemble the palatial interior of Tony Montana's Miami home in Scarface. There are staircases bracketing both sides of the central hall, with a ledge above -- on the second floor -- and, finally, a room (in the center of the frame...) leading back to a private domain (office or auditorium).


In Scarface, this grand hall is where Tony goes out in a blaze of glory ("Say Hello to My Little Friend..."). In a very real way, that's also Shoshanna's fate.

Both characters also share something else in common: they went from being powerless, to possessing all the power. 


Only in Tony's case, he misused and abused that power (through a drug haze). By contrast, our sympathies remain with Shoshanna throughout Inglourious Basterds. She is setting things right (and ending the war...), not committing a cocaine-addled suicide.

Why quote De Palma so extensively here? 


Well, we know that Carrie is in Tarantino's top five favorite film list (at least last time I checked). But the images and compositions that recall De Palma are well picked for reasons of theme and recognition too. 

Both Carrie at the Prom -- the victim taking out the victimizers -- and Tony's last stand -- a staccato suicide by machine gun -- embody an important part of our contemporary pop culture lexicon. 

Carrie is about the effect that cruelty has on a person, even a good person. And Scarface is about power corrupting, absolutely. So Shoshanna may be Carrie; and Hitler may be Tony Montana, in some sense..

One of the qualities that I admire most about Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's manner of making the intimate seem epic. This movie is about a big topic indeed (World War II) but it features almost no scenes of battle or any traditional war scenes, for that matter. 


The film consists mostly of a scene in a farm, in a tavern basement, and, finally, in a cinema. We see no tanks, no infantries on the move, and no impending air strikes.


Instead, Tarantino hammers home his theme of the powerful versus the powerless, and does so with just a handful of very intriguing, very human characters. The drama is entirely intimate though, in typical Tarantino fashion, the human behavior is also a bit exaggerated in some cases. In the case of Aldo Raines, I would argue it's almost cartoonish. But even he reflects something vitally important.

Sometimes you need bravado in the face of a powerful enemy. Inglourious Basterds reveals that Raines has that bravado in spades, but even more so, that the film's director does.  

Cult-Movie Trailer: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Death Proof (2007)



Not long ago, director Quentin Tarantino called Death Proof (2007) -- originally on a Grindhouse double bill with Planet Terror -- his weakest film. 

This surprising claim drove me to watch the movie again for the first time in over five years.  I had rather liked Death Proof on original viewing, and felt, at least, that it was far superior to Planet Terror. 

But after a re-watch in 2014, I can detect more clearly why Tarantino himself seems so ambivalent about the picture.

There are actually two-ways to approach this film, I suppose, and each one yields different -- and even contradictory -- results.

If you go into Death Proof cold or unprepared it emerges as wildly self-indulgent. At nearly two-hours in duration, the film is bloated, repetitive, and ultimately somewhat baffling as a work of art. 

Furthermore, if the overriding idea here was simply to create a 70s-style exploitation film for the twenty first century, Death Proof is a bust.

And really, how many shots of female bare feet does a single movie need?


On the other hand, if you contextualize Death Proof as the master work of a talent who “lives and breathes” the movies and sets his films in a kind of movie-centric alternate “universe,” the film works much more successfully. 

In other words, Death Proof doesn’t seek to be realistic -- or set in the real world -- for even a second. It doesn’t even wish, honestly, to be judged as a coherent amalgamation of grindhouse style. 

Instead, Death Proof depicts a story set in a world wherein movie history and movie “laws” determine absolutely everything.  Thus it’s a movie about movie physics, not real-life physics.  Similarly, it’s a movie about movie villains, not realistic ones, and on and on.

Is this a far-fetched reading?

I would argue not, given the precedent we now have with Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), a fantasy film which offered an alternate --and movie-centric -- ending for World War II that doesn’t conform to the historical record.

So if we approach the film with an understanding that it occurs in an alternate “movie”-centric universe, Death Proof is much more fun to reckon with, and much more coherent in terms of its artistry.

I’ve always admired and appreciated the intellectual gamesmanship of Tarantino’s films, and there’s definitely that cerebral aspect to his work here too, even if it seems more difficult to parse in Death Proof than is usually the case.




“Looking good, Cannonball Run…”

In Austin, Texas, a psychotic stuntman named Mike (Kurt Russell) stalks a group of young woman late one night. 

He befriends them at a local bar, even though he creeps them out. 

Later that night, Mike uses his tricked-out movie stunt car -- “death proofed” for his continued survival -- to murder them all on a dark road.

Fourteen months later, Mike is up to his old and murderous tricks, and he stalks another car full of lovely young women, including Zoe (Zoe Bell), and Abernathy (Rosario Dawson).  This time, however, Mike has selected the wrong targets. 

Two of the women in the car are experienced movie stunt-women, and can go toe-to-toe with his death car, as well as any vehicular damage Mike seeks to mete out.



“To get the benefit of it, honey, you really need to be sitting in my seat.”

If the game is to go after Death Proof for self-indulgence and artistic contradictions, one can indeed have a field day.  That’s not my game because I admire the film, but let me present that particular case first.

The Grindhouse experiment was designed to visually recreate an era in exploitation (and movie-going experiences), and so Death Proof features scratched and grainy prints, black-and-white and color reels jumbled together, and a number of shot-to-shot discontinuities, like characters holding drinking cups in one composition but not in the reverse angle shot. 

Even the title card is a mess, with Death Proof awkwardly replacing “Thunderbolt” as the title after a split second.

The problem here is that, given film technology as it exists today, movies -- even bad ones -- don’t look like this. And because the characters drive twenty-first century vehicles in some cases, and use cell-phones to send text/e-mail messages to one another, it is clear that Death Proof is set now

Why not actually set it in the 1970s, without these modern affectations, so the movie could seem like a legitimate “found” film from the disco era? 

Because taken together -- 1970s-style screen affectations with a 2000s world -- the movie just doesn’t come together in a way that it should.  Instead, the visual jokes about bad-filmmaking and damaged prints seem half-assed. 

This feeling is augmented by the fact that the last portions of the film -- an amazing car chase – are brilliantly choreographed, executed and edited. A low-budget regional filmmaker (like, say, the great William Girdler…) could not have pulled off something like that with his budgets.

So -- to its apparent detriment -- Death Proof doesn’t even stick with its opening “meme” about bad-filmmaking.  The “badness” of the print and of the editing recedes dramatically by the film’s climax, essentially abandoned as a leitmotif.

Structurally, Death Proof has a problem to consider as well.

The first hour, which features character such as Arlene and Julia, is really, really good.  Their smart dialogue -- while ultimately meaningless in terms of the narrative -- portrays them as fun, unique individuals. 

But then every character in this interlude dies horribly, and we get a second, less-interesting group of female characters who also talk at length about matters that ultimately don’t move the plot forward. 

In other words, the story repeats itself, and much of the energy coming out of the diabolical “vehicular homicide” scene just bleeds out of the picture.  Instead of ramping up, we cycle down.

Finally, Death Proof -- as a distillation of the Tarantino aesthetic -- seems to showcase his arrested development. 

We get women performing seductive lap-dances, women showcasing their bare feet (ad infinitum), and women in tight, revealing clothing.  Ultimately, such attractive-- nay, hot! -- women triumph over the evil man, Stuntman Mike, but they do so by being as brutal and monstrous as he has been. 

If you’re looking for a straight on message here, that’s it: revenge. 

Women are ogle-worthy, have great and gorgeous feet, and are just as violent and murderous as men are. 

This has been interpreted as a feminist message, and yet if so, it is a deeply juvenile one. 

More accurately, you can distill Death Proof to the idea that Tarantino loves hot women who can be just as bad ass as men. And by being bad ass, I mean as murderous.

So there’s that.

Now, I would like to argue about the merits of Death Proof from a different and more appreciative standpoint all together.

I admire Death Proof as the work of a man who inhales movies like they are oxygen.

Seen from this perspective, the inconsistent use of film scratches, grain, color, and editing discontinuities alongside modern technology like cell phones isn’t bothersome at all.  If this film is set in an “exploitation” universe, then all the budgetary, creative, and distribution problems of grindhouse movies could, conceivably have continued right up until now. 

In other words, Death Proof is an alternate universe story in the same way that Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) is.  It takes place in a realm where the universe -- not just movies -- is grindhouse.

And in this universe, every moment is a virtual replay or extension of other movie moments. 

For instance, Butterfly, or Arlene, spends the day leading up to her death seeing Stuntman Mike’s black car parked nearby.  It keeps re-appearing at different scenes, and so she experiences the sense that something is wrong, and that she is being stalked.  These moments very clearly reflect a slasher film ethos, but more than that, reflect, in particular, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). 

There, a final girl, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) kept seeing Michael Myers’ car during the course of a day, and so she too began to sense danger.

But this idea -- or cliché -- of the insightful final girl is overturned because Butterfly does not survive her encounter with her Boogeyman (who is also named Mike, by the way).

And furthermore, Butterfly’s death may come about because of her highly sexualized lap dance for him at the bar. To wit: Tarantino know his film history, and he knows his horror films.  The girls who act in a “sexualized” fashion in old fashioned horror movies typically don’t survive. 


So Arlene, or Butterly, in a sense, forsakes her final girl status with that lap dance (which Julia advises her not to proceed with…) and dies before the night is through.

Another scene, involving elaborate and extensive exposition delivered by two colorful Texas law-men similarly evokes the oeuvre of Brian De Palma, namely a scene in Raising Cain (1992), wherein two characters, a detective and a therapist, confer at length about the psychological nature of Carter Nix (John Lithgow). 

Here, the police discuss Stuntman Mike and the fact that he is getting away with murder, but that he better not do it again, at least not in Texas. 

The scene looks the way it does because there is no other “movie” way to do it, in a sense.  Death Proof takes place in the same world as a De Palma thriller would, and so the long, expository dialogue (told through long tracking shots) is a veritable necessity.  The meaning of this scene is pinpointed in its staging, and in its visual allusions.

The idea of Death Proof occurring in an alternate universe of “movie-ness,” essentially, also subtracts the criticism about the film’s repetitive structure.  We meet a group of loquacious women, spend some time with them, and then they meet Mike...who kills the women.

Then the film repeats, we spend time with some loquacious other women, and they too meet Mike. 

But, of course, what we have here isn’t so much a repeat as a remake. 

Abernathy, Zoe and Kim (the second group of protagonists) hail from the movie business -- like Stuntman Mike himself -- and are therefore able to defeat him and beat him at his own psychotic game. 

The second half of Death Proof is thus not a repeat of the first half, but a rewrite, a remake, but with characters capable of beating the film’s villain.  The old trope about sexually-active women dying because of their trespasses is re-written for a girl-power anthem.  Indeed, that is the note of triumph the movie ends on.


I’ve often written that people enjoy movies so much because movies can get right what life simply can’t.  We can get the happy or just ending in a movie that real life just can’t provide.  Set in the “movie-verse,” Death Proof sets up a scenario by which Stuntman Mike can be beat.

Generically, this is known as “poetic justice” because we expect to find such justice only in literature or drama, but not in reality.  In this case, Mike is conquered by fellow stunt-people, and superior ones at that.  

In real life, we would never expect him to meet up, by accident no less, with other stunt people on the road. This is a movie conceit, and intentionally so.

If you go down the line, almost every significant character in Death Proof is involved in the entertainment industry, whether as a dancer, a DJ, a stunt-person, or on some meta, post-modern level (with directors Tarantino and Eli Roth both appearing in cameos…).  This fact too is our key to unlocking the film’s true nature.  Death Proof is set not in the real world, but in the fake world of movies and movie tradition.

What Death Proof accomplishes, then, is the creation of a movie universe where every character is a type you know and recognize, where every scene is a scene that’s already been played in other films, and every new minute is but a variation on older stories, or even a deliberate rewrite of them. 

As I noted above, Tarantino even rewrites the first act of his film in his second act, down to the inconsequential expository talk.  This gamesmanship is quite an intellectual accomplishment, and it really goes beyond the Grindhousememe,” which is simply to make a bad but entertaining movie in the style of 1970s exploitation cinema. 

Death Proof doesn’t really accomplish that, because the dialogue is smart (and the dialogue in a lot of grindhouse movies usually isn’t…), the action is superb and expensively mounted (and grindhouse movies had no budgetary resources). 

Instead, Tarantino offers us something crazy and inspired: a veritable universe of grindhouse, grown-up thirty-to-forty years smarter, funnier, and more accomplished and savvy.

Stuntman Mike, at one point in the film, notes that to get the benefit of the death proof car, you need to be sitting where he sits. 

One could extend this metaphor to Tarantino and Death Proof itself.

To really get it, and really enjoy it, you need to sit where Tarantino sit:  at the head of a wonky film class, essentially.

Get inside Tarantino’s head -- or in his director’s chair if you will -- and Death Proof is an unrivaled cinematic experience, an experience both self-indulgent and brilliant at the same time.

Movie Trailer: Death Proof (2007)

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.