Tarantino: Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)
Like Jackie Brown, Kill Bill: Volume 1 draws inspiration from “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife,” which was itself one of the most inspired parts of Quentin Tarantino’s earlier career. Yet whereas Jackie Brown took its cues from the early part of that subplot, and the scene in which Mia Wallace watches Vincent Vega on her home surveillance equipment, Kill Bill draws its inspiration from Jack Rabbit Slims, the postmodern restaurant where Mia takes Vincent for dinner. This marks the second phase of Tarantino’s career, and a move away from the grungy indie vibe of his first three features towards an even more plastic and artificial style. While Kill Bill is modelled on martial arts films, it opens with a Klingon proverb, and references virtually every style in Tarantino’s playbook. The score by RZA also indicates that Tarantino is inspired as much by the reception of martial arts films in the United States – where they have always been particularly popular amongst African-American communities – as he is in the films themselves. More generally, Kill Bill is fascinated by the way genre films are received, revised and appropriated among fan communities, and often feels like an act of fandom as much as a sustained or coherent film.
This makes Kill Bill very different from Tarantino’s earlier films in two key ways. First, it embraces silliness, and the silliness of Tarantino’s style, in quite a fresh way, completely jettisoning much of the self-serious auteurism that hung over Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction in particular. Ironically, this makes for a new level of auteurist play and command in Tarantino’s body of work, as well as a radical expansion of his style and approach. Second, it almost entirely divests itself of the monologues that effectively constituted the screenplays of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, as well as much of Jackie Brown. Since the film is so action-driven, and the narrative is so cursory, there is no time or space for characters to discourse at length about their favourite pop culture minutiae. As if to remove even the slightest possibility of this kind of pontificicating, Tarantino clinically establishes the story in the first couple of minutes. After the Bride, played by Uma Thurman, is almost murdered at her wedding, she seeks revenge on the assassin collective that tried to kill her, and that did kill her fiancée and the other members of the wedding. This collective is headed by Bill, played by David Carradine and is comprised of Vivica A. Fox (Vermita Green) and O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), who are disposed of in the first film, and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) and Budd (Michael Madsen), who are dealt with in the second volume, which was put out a year later.
This absence of monologues is very striking in comparison to Tarantino’s other films, which all start with an extended monologue – about Madonna, Royales with Cheese, and gun trading – to get things going. By contrast, Kill Bill deflects this tendency towards monologue into the two characters who are most set on enjoying the spectacle of the Bride at her most desperate and debilitated. The first of these is Bill himself, whose face never appears in this first film. Instead, he is a sadistic, disembodied voice, relaying instructions or purveying wisdom, while his hand caresses one phallic weapon after another, or else rests, proprietorially, on one of his female agents. The second monologue comes from Buck, the nurse who has been instructed to keep watch on the Bride’s body after she enters a coma that lasts four years. When she finally wakes up, the Bride has a flashback to Buck “introducing” himself to her with a monologue, before having sex with her unconscious body, thereby starting a long process of selling her body out to other men to have sex with in turn. As if this wasn’t horrific enough, she wakes up right when Buck is explaining the “rules” for enjoying her – “no punching her, no monkey bites, no hickeys – after that, it’s all good” – not unlike the way Tarantino’s earlier men often monologically mansplain the rules for negotiating a particular cultural or criminal situation. This is the final indignity – being turned into a prostrate spectacle by Bill – and makes it feel as if Bill may have unconsciously wanted her to remain alive, just so he could enjoy this spectacle of her death in perpetuity.
It’s not long, however, before the Bride commences her revenge, which makes for a third key difference from Tarantino’s earlier features. Since this revenge is so monomaniacal, the story is much more linear than in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, with only a few flashbacks to texture the propulsive forward momentum. The narrative gymnastics of these earlier films are deflected into the ingenious action sequences, but also into a much more sprawling palette, both stylistically and geographically. On the one hand, Tarantino leaves Los Angeles for the first time, taking the action to Japan while also including a much wider variety of places within the United States. On the other hand, this is a much richer genre tapestry than his earlier films, drawing on every conceivable influence in Tarantino’s cinephilia to date. While martial arts may be front and centre, the widescreen sprawl, and lush sense of space, means that Kill Bill is a western in spirit, forming a bridge between Tarantino’s earlier urban style and the western sensibility of Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. Conversely, it feels closer to the postmodern western of From Dusk Til Dawn than any of Tarantino’s first three films, so it’s not hard to see how this approach would lead him to reunite again with Robert Rodriguez for the Grindhouse double.
Paired with this overarching western outlook is a fixation on the rape-and-revenge genre, especially during an animation sequence, which takes up about twenty minutes in the middle of the film. This animation sequence plays as a nested version of the Bride’s narrative, explaining how O-Ren, her nemesis, also watched her family die as a child, before becoming an assassin herself. During this sequence, Tarantino outlines the primal encounter of the film, which is perhaps too primal to be shot by real actors – the encounter between an enraptured female gaze, whether in fear or satisfaction, and the ejaculatory gushing of blood. In the first conversation in Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Brown, played by Tarantino himself, gave his own reading on the meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” The song, Mr. Brown insisted, wasn’t about romance, or about meeting “the one.” Instead, it was about a loose woman who was looking for a phallus so large that she could effectively experience losing her virginity for the second time, and could be damaged enough, vaginally, to feel like her hymen was breaking for a second time. Something of that misogynist fantasy carries across to the animation sequence here, which sees a young O-Ren sexualized by first witnessing, and then demanding, these hymeneal gushes of blood from her male victims and sidekicks.
Between the Bride’s story and O-Ren’s story, this rape-and-revenge imperative allows Tarantino to repeatedly poise the entire film at the cusp that Reservoir Dogs finds so fascinating – the very brink of a woman losing her virginity to an unimaginably dominating man. The more violent the Bride becomes, the more she is trying to resist the original flow of blood, and to revert to the virginal state that she can never fully recover. It makes sense, then, that Thurman’s character, whose code name is Black Mamba, is nearly always referred to as the Bride, since her revenge is always an attempt to return to the moment of her wedding, and to the moment at which she crossed over into marriage as a virgin, clad in the virginal outfit of her wedding gown. In the process, her revenge enhances her veneration for the sword, and the phallic potency that it represents, while she has to identify with the machismo of her aggressors – and even encourage it – to draw them out into the open. While Kill Bill has often been framed as Tarantino’s feminist film, or as an atonement for the misogyny of his earlier features, then, this probably isn’t a fair assessment. If anything, the spectacle of revenge ends up reiterating the spectacle of rape, both of which reiterate the film’s pleasure in the unbearable loss of virginity that Reservoir Dogs found so entrancing that it didn’t see a need for a single female character once the first anecdote was delivered.
Despite the increasing weirdness of Tarantino’s take on women, however, it’s hard not to be entranced by Kill Bill’s incredible sense of play and jouissance. Each chapter in the film deals with a different kill, and each mines a different pulpy style, from hospital horror to kung fu. While there was always a sense of artifice to Tarantino’s screenwriting style, that artifice now carries over into the visual field as well, producing a pulpy, dayglo, fanboy style that tends to be centred on bright yellow, which is both the Bride’s signature colour, but also a colour that tends to look artificial and plastic in most mise-en-scenes. There are also far more elaborate intertitles and credit sequences than in Tarantino’s earlier films, full of word and number play, along with a real relish for arcane names and labels, often with numbers in them, and often referring to groups of gangsters, like so many forerunners of The Hateful Eight. Throughout it all, Tarantino constantly shifts between different ways of relating sounds and images, changing the visual palette of the film before we can ever settle into one style enough for it to seem naturalistic, whether through action sequences, animation sequences, subtitled sequences, black-and-white sequences or lurid Technicolor sequences.
In other words, Kill Bill is Tarantino’s most maximalist film, which is perhaps why the few quiet scenes don’t really work, since they just recall the heightened silences that back the monologues of his earlier films, but without the monologues themselves. Part of this maximalism is the film’s pleasure in travel and movement as a campy spectacle in and of itself. This tendency was always there in Tarantino’s earlier film, especially in the baroque way that he riffed upon the pleasure of intertitles – “the city of Santa Monica,” “the largest mall in America” – but it reaches a new level here, especially once the Bride arrives in Japan. In a bravura sequence, Tarantino intercuts the Bride’s plane arriving in Tokyo with O-Ren travelling downtown in a motorcade, with samurai swords strapped to the back of the motorcycles. Eventually, the plane gets low enough for the Bride to look down on this motorcade, and a moment later she has strapped herself into a motorcycle and is in pursuit.
This paves the way for the spectacular final part of the film – a showdown between the Bride and O-Ren at the House of Blue Leaves. This venue is to Kill Bill what Jack Rabbit Slims is to Pulp Fiction – a postmodern mélange of styles and fixtures that now takes on international dimensions, whether in the form of O-Ren’s assassins playfully laughing at a monk because “he looks like Charlie Brown,” or the presence of the 126.96.36.199.’s, a Japanese band that specialize in covers of American surf music and rockabilly. Rather than having any one function or purpose, the House and Blue Leaves hosts a criminal headquarters, martial arts institution, groove dance school, senior citizens centre and tourist attraction all in one space, fusing all the campiest and most flamboyant cues in Tarantino’s playbook. As martial arts segues into dance, and dance segues into the movement of the crowds who are watching, Tarantino evokes and exceeds the incredible collective jouissance of the dance scene in “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife,” for what is still one of the most infectious and accomplished sequences in his career to date, brimming with life and energy.
In fact, this scene at the House of Blue Leaves plays as a miniature film in its own right. The first act establishes the House of Blue Leaves and takes us quickly through a series of one-on-one encounters between the Bride and O-Ren’s henchmen; the second act sees the Bride dealing with a fresh influx of assassins en masse; and the third act has her dealing with O-Ren solo, as the action moves out into the snowy courtyard. Watching it, I wondered whether the division of Kill Bill into two films was partly so that the integrity and impact of this miniature film could be preserved, since it works beautifully on its own terms, in splendid isolation from the rest of the film. Whereas Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction tried to fuse cinematic citations with the present moment while retaining a semblance of grungy naturalism, the House of Blue Leaves foregrounds anachronism as a pleasure in and of itself – and as the ultimate pleasure of cinematic fandom. Watching Tarantino craft such an implausible and improbable mélange of styles is like seeing the process of fandom translated to the big screen, especially the way fandom inevitably blends and fuses different cinematic experiences into a joyful and insatiable totality that is always restlessly evolving.
The most anachronistic – and enjoyable – part of this fandom involves Tarantino’s relation to the more meditative elements of martial arts and western cinema. While he loves meditative style, he only loves it as style, punctuating the final sequence with meditative lines and poses, even as he accelerates the pace and indulges in an increasingly absurd range of weapons, moves and soundtrack choices. It’s a brilliant counterpoint to the more “authentic” exercises in wuxia pastiche that flooded the west in the wake of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and ends the film on a note of hyperactive auterism, in which Tarantino is so keen to make the most of every shot and space, and so restless to punctuate, rearrange and reconfigure every shot and space, that the auteurist hubris of his earlier features is entirely eviscerated. His hand can be felt, viscerally, on every shot, but in such a way as to make the film feel fresh and spontaneous, rather than pedantically curated, as could sometimes occur in his earlier work, giving his style and voice room to breathe – ironically – in the midst of the most plastic and artificial scenes. It would all work brilliantly, then, if it ended here, but a final question from Bill sets up the second volume for an intriguing question – how to deal with the tension between Bill’s voice and all the parts of the film that elude it? Dealing with that question would take Tarantino into the second phase of his career and beyond, but in some ways the question, as raised here, is more entertaining and engaging than any of the answers that Volume 2 and Death Proof provided.
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