Saturday, January 02, 2016

Instruments of Death: KILL BILL's Whole Bloody Affair

On a recent episode of his always thought-provoking podcast, Bret Easton Ellis sat down with Quentin Tarantino to discuss the politics of aesthetics vs. ideology (a concept that has often been raised in relation to Tarantino’s career, but most recently in relation to a mild social media uproar over Ellis’s New York Times profile of the director), the evolution of his career, and the then-upcoming release of The Hateful Eight. The erudite Ellis is a lifelong cinephile, and while his taste in film often skews highbrow, he’s also a dedicated sensationalist. In a previous podcast with Eli Roth, he lauded that director’s twin 2015 releases (The Green Inferno and Knock Knock) not only for their bold-faced refutation of the politically correct, corporate philosophy that governs so much modern film content, but for their dedication to a richness of style, to a sensibility that demands viewership on a large screen in a theatrical setting. And so it was that while discussing The Hateful Eight with Tarantino, he commended QT for continuing to create films that, in a culture which increasingly views such products as merely (ahem) “content” that can be viewed on any outlet or device, were inherently suited for the big screen, filled with epic vistas, larger than life characters, and subversive thrills that ultimately seem much reduced when taken in on a computer screen or (shudder) a phone.

It can be argued that all of Tarantino’s films have shared this sensibility, but the definition of that sensibility has radically changed over the past few decades. Pulp Fiction plays like gangbusters with a packed house, on a large screen, but in the ‘90s the gap between that intended state and the home alternative was huge. The closest that a general consumer could get to experiencing that same magic was the old laser disc format; most home viewers had to settle for the inherent weakness of VHS. Sure, Pulp sold huge on that dead format, but there was always an underlying sense that the $20 that you plunked down for the cassette bought you only a marginal slice of the full experience. And watching even a tape required a certain ritualization and commitment to place and setting. Today, the relative affordability of high end home theater set-ups, the advent of Blu-Rays and streaming services, the increasing variability of theatrical presentation, and mobile technology’s complete breakdown of place and setting has made the definition of watching Pulp Fiction a bit murkier. It’s all in keeping with that new media landscape that places such a hard emphasis on base consumption, and reduces films, books, and music to digital files that serve more as background noise than as immersive experiences, mental wallpaper to be decorated with texts, tweets, and whatever other supposed multitasking we just can’t stop in the name of an hour or two of concentrated enjoyment.

Looking back some twelve years on from its release, Kill Bill reveals itself as a real turning point in Tarantino’s career. In particular, it marks a period in which his growing clout and budgets made it possible for him to unleash his obsessions in the increasingly epic fashion that has defined his later career. These films define the aesthetics of big screen sensationalism that Bret Easton Ellis praised, and they are definitely a wildly different experience when watched on even the nicest home theater systems. But they also don’t lose the power that he captured with his earlier smaller scale character dramas.

Tarantino has become such a legacy film icon that it can be easy to forget what a precarious state his career was in on the eve of Kill Bill’s release. The mild box office success of Jackie Brown seemed like a step back from the worldwide dominance of Pulp Fiction, and pundits were quick to question the sustained viability of this quasi-mythical boy genius figure after a film that many of them saw as abject navel gazing. His ubiquity in the pop culture burned out some fans, and he seemed to be indulging in the riches his lifestyle could now provide at the expense of creating new work. Press reports sometimes portrayed him as living a stoner’s dream of getting high and watching lots of movies. He spent several years organizing weeklong festivals of his own personal film prints at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. To many, it seemed like the wild mercury energy of Pulp Fiction’s apex had dissipated.

But in that time period, he was also working on a mammoth screenplay that would serve as the ultimate expression of his formative filmic passions. Now, that can seem like an odd thing to say, seeing as how his first three films were canny assemblages/remixes of the crime and exploitation films that spurred his youthful imagination. Kill Bill, however, would extend these influences to the level of myth and legend, expressing them in a dynamic, often bombastic style, Technicolor dreams wholly fitting for a theatrical setting.

This epic revenge drama would, in many ways, serve as his retort to the critical cognoscenti. Yet it also would act as a farewell to the Quentin Tarantino mythology that many ‘90s film aficionados held dear, the one that heralded him as an indie darling, the flag bearer of a thriving art house world. Kill Bill left no doubt that QT had entered the mainstream for good, and it dovetailed with the assimilation of many stalwart indie distributors into the maws of the corporate studio structure. At the time, I remember feeling some trepidation about his movie into the art of mass spectacle. It felt like a regressive move for someone with such wide-ranging tastes. And yet, time has shown this period to be a further evolution of his style. He’s become an even bigger presence on the world film scene by creating love letters to language that are also complex, thrilling, bloody, gorgeous testaments to the power of sensory thrills.

Emphasis on gorgeous. After employing longtime Robert Rodriguez DP Guillermo Navarro to lens Jackie Brown, Tarantino has partnered with the prolific Robert Richardson on all of his subsequent features, and his style has become a hallmark expression of the QT aesthetic. In a mid-‘90s interview with Manohla Darghis, he spoke of using 50 ASA film stock to shoot Pulp Fiction with then-DP Andrej Sekula, mostly in an attempt to replicate the rich, lurid colors of vintage Technicolor. Richardson has always been an arch stylist (he shot many of Oliver Stone’s most impressionist film, including the Tarantino-penned Natural Born Killers), so it’s fascinating to view his work on Kill Bill in relation to Pulp. Indeed, his almost-neon color palette makes the former film look subdued in comparison.

And that’s entirely appropriate for the material at hand, a bloody, free-wheeling excursion into style as substance. Tarantino’s original plan was to release Kill Bill as one film, but its burgeoning length caused Harvey Weinstein to split it in half, unleashing the second part five months after the first (Tarantino occasionally screens his personal print of the four hour version in Los Angeles.) Viewed back to back, essentially as one film, the story of the Bride (and outstanding Uma Thurman) and her extended revenge mission is an almost exhausting exercise in cinematic storytelling. Especially in the first half, Richardson’s cinematography lends a heightened sense of reality to the proceedings, so that the domestic death brawl between The Bride and Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) that opens the film is never too far removed from the giallo/Brian De Palma-inspired hospital hell in which Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) attempts to poison The Bride and hillbilly orderly Buck sells her comatose body to local perverts, or from the climactic House of Blue Leaves sequence that closes out Volume 1. 
Even beyond the lighting and color choices, there’s a general stylistic bravado which Tarantino employs that is downright thrilling. The way in which he moves from The Bride’s brutal hospital revenge to the animated sequence that details the origin story of O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) is still an audacious gambit for a mainstream film, let alone an epic action flick. There’s a relentless drive to the film’s first half that mirrors our leading lady’s revenge-driven passion. Even all these viewings later, I still get chills when The Bride finally confronts O-Ren in the House of Blue Leaves, the Ennio Morricone theme to Death Rides a Horse (another film featuring a character bent on revenge against a gang of bandits) building almost unbearable tension on the soundtrack. And even in its mildly censored, black and white form, the wild brawl between Thurman and the Crazy 88 is the very definition of gore-streaked spectacle. But there’s also a measured sense of mastery on display here. The action sequences unfold in an unhurried style; the viewer is acutely aware of the geography of the characters’ movement and actions, something that can’t always be said of subsequent films of this ilk.

It’s telling, however, that the final standoff between Thurman and Liu takes place in the Lady Snowblood (a major inspiration for Kill Bill)-inspired winter garden outside the House, a samurai sword duel that is also focused on the formality that such fighting demands. Or that the non-linear plotting reveals that the film’s opening slaughter of Vernita actually takes place after The Bride kills O-Ren. The Tokyo-bound revenge massacre may be thrilling, but the domestic murder that follows carries with it the sadness of Vernita’s daughter witnessing the whole thing, a development that foreshadows Tarantino’s real intent for the direction of the story. The end of the film’s first half hammers this point home with Hattori Hanzo’s voiceover, which warns that “Revenge is never a straight line” and is more like a forest in which it can be easy to find oneself lost. Intercut that with Budd (Michael Madsen) opining “That woman deserves her revenge. And we deserve to die” (a clip from Vol. 2 included to provide foreshadowing to the theatrical version of the first half) and the viewer gets the distinct impression that they’re not in for more sub-Death Wish fantasies from here on out.  

Over the years, I’ve met people who find the second half of Kill Bill to be very disappointing. Viewed six months apart from the first half, I can understand some of this disappointment, but watching both halves back to back (closer to Tarantino’s original aim) reveals this back end as the natural comedown after the almost giddy high of the opening salvo, and ultimately as a stern subversion of the thrills associated with revenge in general. It’s here that the focus shifts to Budd and Elle, two aging assassins chasing after the faded glories of their time in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. At first blush, the extended sequence of Budd’s night job at a local strip joint can seem overly digressive, but it provides a necessary shading to his character, a formerly high-priced killer now relegated to taking heat for being late (and for his sartorial choices) from a low rent manager. As evidenced by his live burial of The Bride, Budd is still a dangerous character, but he’s also gone to seed, living in a trailer in the desert, essentially waiting for death to claim his soul. Michael Madsen is a long way from the cool, psychotic charisma of Mr. Blonde here. Eleven years later, his weathered face and vocal stylings lend a mildly tragic weight to this character, especially in contrast to O-Ren’s high class lifestyle. Elle may seem to have retained more stability and respect, but as evidenced in the first half, she’s still jealously chasing after the respect that Bill held for The Bride.

David Carradine’s Bill is the nexus of the second half, and to many the most infuriating part of the film in total. He lies at the center of this revenge maze, a mythical figure like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. And like Kurtz, he’s almost nothing like the viewer expects when The Bride finally encounters him. Part of his mystery is dissolved during the extended flashback to the day of the wedding chapel massacre, in which he’s revealed to be more of a zen, jilted lover/mentor than a maniacal crime boss. Tarantino’s original concept of the character was tailored for Warren Beatty as a Bond-esque mastermind, but when Beatty declined the role it was reworked for the distinct personality and mannerisms that Carradine brought to the table. As more and more of him is revealed throughout this section of the film, you really grow to like this suave charmer. He’s another in the long line of master storytellers in the Tarantino canon, characters whose greatest strength lies in their expert manipulation of language. So by the time that The Bride confronts him, only to find the daughter she thought dead still alive, you almost don’t want to see her kill Bill. Carradine makes the most of this climactic confrontation, exuding a sense of confident control, while injecting just enough menace to remind the viewer of the heinous massacre that he ordered four years previous. Even though his former lover finally attains her revenge and reclaims her child, there’s still a slight hollowness to this victory. As Bill notes in his Jules Feiffer-inspired (or, as Tim Hodler theorizes, is it Thomas Pynchon?) monologue on the Superman/Clark Kent dichotomy, The Bride’s attempt to create a new life for herself would only have masked her true nature as an expert killer. The remnants of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad were proficient in this one area, and aside from O-Ren they have all become somewhat debilitated after the break-up of their glory days. Even as she rides into the sunset, the question remains: can The Bride ever truly just go back to being a normal person, or has her role as an expertly trained instrument of death come to define her?

All credit to Uma Thurman here, in her last Tarantino role to date. As the end titles note, she and QT collaborated on the creation of this character, and the level of depth and emotion that she brings to what could become a one-dimensional action heroine in other hands is often breathtaking. The anguish in her face when she wakes from her coma to discover her empty womb, and the way that Tarantino and Richardson allow that anguish to naturally play out, is powerful. It’s echoed in the moment when she discovers her still-living daughter at Bill’s hacienda; the mix of emotions that crosses Thurman’s face as she tries to hide her surprise is a masterpiece of subtlety and nuance. As with Pam Grier in Jackie Brown, this is a fully formed, fully female character, both maternal and driven, at war with a male-dominated system that seeks to oppress her socially and sexually. Her struggle to define herself as not only a woman, but a human being and not a killing machine forms the emotional backbone of this story. Few actresses could pull off everything that is required to portray The Bride; Thurman does so with aplomb.

Kill Bill would prove to be much more of a financial success than Jackie Brown, thrusting him back into the spotlight as not only a viable commercial filmmaker, but as an artistic force as well. Good will reestablished, he would turn once again to a very female-driven story that paid heavy tribute to his formative filmic influences for his next project. The odd duck that is Death Proof, one half of Grindhouse, his ill-fated collaboration with Robert Rodriguez, still stands as a fascinating and misunderstood sidebar in this storied career.   

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