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It’s Only a Movie

Kill Bill—Volume 1

a film directed by Quentin Tarantino

1.

Kill Bill—Volume 1, the fourth movie to be written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, is about a number of things, but violence isn’t really one of them. This isn’t to say that it is not a violent film. Of the various controversies that have surrounded the movie since it began shooting—the first over the surprise announcement by the producers that they were going to cut what was to have been one movie into two parts (Volume 2 will open in February)—none has been as fierce as the one that has raged about the extent of the movie’s graphic gore. In Kill Bill—Volume 1, you get to see (among other things) a fight to the death between two young women, one of whom ends up impaled by an enormous kitchen knife before the wide eyes of her young daughter; a pregnant woman being savagely beaten and then shot in the head at point-blank range on her wedding day; a man’s tongue being pulled out; a graphic decapitation with a samurai sword; torsos sliced open; impalings with various instruments; and, in a scene that you’d be tempted to call climactic if the movie had any kind of narrative arc whatsoever, a twenty-minute-long pitched battle between a lone American female and dozens of Tokyo gangsters, in which the limbs of a great many of the latter get lopped off. It’s saying something about the sheer quantity of battery and bloodletting that Tarantino works into this film that the final act of killing comes almost as something of a relief, and strikes you as being almost dainty: a young woman in a kimono has the very top of her head sliced off, quite neatly, in a tranquil, snow-covered Japanese garden.

A good deal of intense brutality is, of course, nothing new to Tarantino fans. Reservoir Dogs (1992), the first feature that he both wrote and directed, contains an almost unwatchably savage torture scene that, at the time, seized the imagination of audiences and critics and has become infamous ever since: in it, a sociopathic petty criminal slowly cuts off a young policeman’s ear, to the accompaniment of some upbeat pop music, and afterward, he douses the cop with gasoline, meaning to burn him alive. This was a harbinger of things to come: since then, all the films that Tarantino has either written or directed are characterized by scenes of a sadistic and quite graphic violence, set in the context of random and, sometimes, unmotivated crime.

True Romance, the first commercial feature that Tarantino wrote (in 1987; it was directed by Tony Scott and released in 1992), features a stabbing with a corkscrew and the prolonged beating of a young woman; both True Romance and Tarantino’s breakout popular success, Pulp Fiction (1994), show men being kicked and shot in the genitals; Pulp Fiction ends with a scene of S&M torture and homosexual rape. (It also famously depicts a man plunging a syringe full of adrenaline into the chest of a woman who has OD’d on heroin.) Natural Born Killers, written in 1989 and directed by Oliver Stone, was about an amoral young couple on a crime spree; From Dusk Till Dawn (1995) is a gory vampire extravaganza set in a Mexican cathouse, into which an unsuspecting pair of criminal brothers—one’s a bank robber, the other’s a sexual predator played by Tarantino—are waiting to meet an associate. All of Tarantino’s movies are, in fact, about low-level criminals involved in complex crimes that get fouled up, and it’s not hard to see why: double-crossed thieves and drug dealers tend not to have many scruples about observing the Sixth Commandment.

What has upset many people about the violence in Tarantino’s movies isn’t the violence per se—as bloody as they are, they’re no more brutal than, say, the typical Terminator movie, and no more repellently graphic than any of the Alien films, which are far more popular—but rather the offhand, occasionally even comic fashion in which the violence in his films is presented. To many critics of Tarantino’s work, the violence—like the ear-cutting in Reservoir Dogs—has too often seemed gratuitous, included not so much to further the plot or illuminate character, as to punish the audience—to see how much it can tolerate. This notion may seem outlandish, but it gets support from Tarantino himself. “The audience and the director,” he recently asserted in a New Yorker profile that was timed to coincide with the release of Kill Bill, “it’s an S&M relationship, and the audience is the M. It’s exciting!” 1
(Watching Tarantino’s films, it’s hard not to wonder whether that sadism is not compensatory, reflecting a certain anxiety about masculinity and, often, about sexuality. In Reservoir Dogs, one of the thieves is vexed to learn that his alias will be “Mr. Pink”; True Romance and Pulp Fiction feature telling scenes in which male characters react violently to homoerotic teasing. The latter is the film whose climax is a homosexual rape.)

Because of the violence which is presented without any apparent moral comment, because of the adolescent embarrassment about adult sexuality in his films, Tarantino—who was born in 1962 and is thus of the first generation of directors to have been raised on cable television and video recordings, with their promise of endless repetition—has become, in the minds of many, the poster boy for a generation of Americans—mostly male—whose moral response to violence has been alarmingly dulled by too much popular entertainment.

It’s easy to see why Kill Bill has aroused enormous controversy and attracted an unusual amount of attention in the press. It’s been taken as a kind of culmination, the most violent film yet by a filmmaker with a known penchant for violence. Nearly all critical comment about the film, whether laudatory or disapproving, has focused on the moral and aesthetic implications of the film’s martial-arts sequences and its scenes of baroque bloodletting. (Tarantino has often asserted that, for him, the violence in crime movies is analogous to the dance sequences in musicals.) In general, the critics have fallen into two camps. In the first are those who see the film’s lavishly choreographed scenes of violence as a symptom of a cultural malaise. Anticipating a defense of the film based on the fact that its violence is too stylized to be taken seriously, David Denby argued, in his review in The New Yorker, that there is a “little problem” with this position, which is that a

filmed image has a stubborn hold on reality. An image of a rose may be filtered, digitally repainted, or pixilated, yet it will still carry the real-world associations—the touch, the smell, the romance—that we have with roses. Tarantino wants us to give up such associations, which means giving up ourselves.2

This is, essentially, a Platonic argument—one that worries about the tortured relationship between sophisticated imitations of reality and reality itself. It is an argument that the film historian and critic David Thomson also advanced, in a long and ambitious piece in the Independent, when the film first came out. In that article, Thomson explored, in considerable detail and with unconcealed anguish, the relationship between the violence to which young consumers of popular culture are regularly exposed and the violence of the society in which we now live:

I don’t mean to suggest that film is the source and model of all that is wrong in modern society. But I do think that the world of film, which includes those people who are madly enthusiastic about any film, need to examine very carefully what happens in our minds when we watch endless violent imagery and feel no wound or repercussions. For one, I am no longer confident that a message has not been passed down to several generations, in their bloodstreams, in their nervous systems and in their trigger fingers.3

The moral argument inevitably fuels the aesthetic objections: Thomson makes the point that while all of Tarantino’s films were violent, at least the earlier ones were “about people”; he goes on to bewail the way in which, in the new movie, Tarantino has chosen to “ignore character and conversation” in favor of what he calls “‘pure’ cinematic violence.” This allows Thomson, in turn, to dismiss the new movie as “a streamlined version of a kids’ video game.”

To these old-fashioned arguments, another, perhaps hipper group of critics has objected that it is precisely as a game that we should see Kill Bill; that, because the movie’s violence is, as the author of the New Yorker profile put it, so “stylized and funny,” so over-the-top, so cartoonish, its rivers of blood so obviously fake, its killings so unrealistically elaborate, we can’t really take it seriously. So, for instance, Richard Corliss in Time observed that the film is

really about the motion, the emotion, the very movieness of movies …an effusion of movie love by the prime nerd-curator and hip creator of cult action films. Kill Bill is his thank-you note to the Hong Kong kung-fu epics, Japan’s yakuza gangster dramas and ‘70s Italian spaghetti Westerns and horror films that shaped his sensibility.4

There is some truth in this; a well-documented aspect of Tarantino’s biography is that he worked for five years as a clerk in a California video store, where he absorbed the dazzlingly encyclopedic knowledge of genre films—Asian, Mexican, American—that has influenced all of his work, which is full of intricate allusions to and quotations of other films. It’s no accident that the characters in his films talk obsessively, even manically, about popular movies, TV shows, and songs. True Romance begins with its boyish hero making an impassioned paean to both Elvis and the Japanese martial-arts star Sonny Chiba (who appears in Kill Bill as a master sword-maker). Reservoir Dogs opens with a group of thieves arguing about the meaning of the lyrics to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” Pulp Fiction features a crucial scene set in a restaurant whose waiters impersonate Marilyn Monroe and Buddy Holly (the maitre d’ is, appropriately enough, Ed Sullivan); Jackie Brown (1997) starts out with a gun dealer, played by Samuel L. Jackson, discussing the influence of “Hong Kong flicks” on his clients’ buying habits. “The killer had a .45,” he observes, “they want a .45.”

And yet it’s possible that the “movieness” of Tarantino’s work, the endless invocations of other motion pictures, is itself a far greater problem than its violence. Indeed, if you for-get for a moment about the content of Tarantino’s latest film, about the violent acts that it so ornately represents, you’re forced to wonder what it is, precisely, that his movies’ end-less reflections on, and references to, the culture of popular entertainment give you—apart from an appreciation for Tarantino’s inexhaustible ability to quote from and allude to the thousands of movies that he has seen and seen again. The answer to that question is more troubling by far than the sight of a few heads lying on the floor.

  1. 1

    Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Movie Lover,” The New Yorker, October 20, 2003, p. 155.

  2. 2

    Dead Reckoning,” The New Yorker, October 13, 2003, p. 113.

  3. 3

    The Fatal Attraction,” The Independent, October 10, 2003, p. 4.

  4. 4

    And Now…Pulp Friction,” Time, October 20, 2003, p. 70.

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