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.
Certainly Kill Bill offers few of the traditional satisfactions of drama—even genre dramas such as martial arts or spaghetti Westerns. This is strange, given that it takes the form of that most satisfying of narratives, the revenge saga. (A title that appears just after the opening credit reads “Revenge is a dish best served cold.—Old Klingon Proverb.” The reference to the villainous alien race in the Star Trek series will remind cognoscenti that this proverb was quoted by a character in the second of the Star Trek feature films.) Its heroine is a young woman known only as The Bride, a former member of a squad of female assassins that’s called the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS)—the kind of gang that certain Seventies TV shows, like Charlie’s Angels, celebrated. In Pulp Fiction, a drug dealer’s moll, played by Uma Thurman, who here plays The Bride, tells another character that she’d once appeared in the pilot episode of a series called “Fox Force Five,” about “a bunch of foxy chicks” who are a “force to be reckoned with”: one blond, one Japanese, one black, one French, one who specializes in knives, etc. DiVAS, which consists of just such an assortment, is, therefore, in the way of an in-joke for Tarantino fans.
For reasons never explained in Volume 1, perhaps because of the tardy division of the film into two parts, The Bride has abandoned her life of professional crime, and presumably because of that is gunned down, along with her husband-to-be and the rest of her bridal party, on her wedding day by the other DiVAS and their ringleader, Bill. (We know this because in a flashback we see their bodies on the ground.) Although she’s been shot in the head at point-blank range by Bill, The Bride survives, awakes after a four-year coma, and plots her terrible revenge.
The action of Kill Bill covers two of these retributive murders. (At least two: when The Bride wakes up, she first kills the corrupt orderly who, as she overhears, has been renting out her immobile body for sex.) Tarantino is famous for his temporal scrambling—he often shows you something happening, and only later provides a flashback that illuminates why it’s happened—and Kill Bill is no exception: the second of the revenge killings to take place is actually the first one you see. At the beginning of the film, The Bride enters the home of one of her former colleagues, Vernita Green (code name; Copperhead), played by Vivica A. Fox, and after a brutal hand-to-hand fight ends by knifing Vernita as her young daughter mutely watches. We then see what has preceded this: The Bride journeying to Tokyo in order to track down and kill another of the DiVAS, O-Ren Ishii (a.k.a. Cottonmouth, played by Lucy Liu), who now reigns as the boss of all bosses in the yakuza underworld. (Her surname, in another bit of Tarantino film-buff allusiveness, is a tribute to two Japanese filmmakers: Teruo Ishii, who directed yakuza films in the Sixties, and Takashi Ishii, who directed the female revenge movies Black Angel Volume 1 and Volume 2.) The Japanese portion of the film features a flashback, done in the style of Japanese anime cartoons, to O-Ren’s traumatic childhood: her parents were killed by a yakuza boss before her eyes when she was seven, and at the ripe old age of eleven she dispatches him in a suitably grisly manner.
In order to defeat this fearsome adversary, The Bride needs a suitable weapon: a legendary samurai sword forged by the master swordsmith Hattori Honzo. (The character is borrowed from Japanese films, where he was played by Sonny Chiba, who plays him again here.) Using this fearsome blade, The Bride eventually dispatches, in that climactic confrontation, hordes of O-Ren’s colleagues before slicing off the cranium of O-Ren herself. First, however, The Bride dismembers O-Ren’s closest associate, whose still-living trunk she deposits, after the slaughter is over, at the emergency entrance of a Tokyo hospital, as a warning to Bill. Then the movie is over.
What few critics have remarked on is how boring all this actually is—how random the action seems, how incomplete the narrative feels, how tedious, for all their color and noise, the scenes of violence are. If the feeling you leave with is one of flatness, it’s because Tarantino has lavished his attention on (as it were) the choreography while neglecting the story. We never do learn why (or, for that matter, who) The Bride married, why she reformed herself and left the DiVAS, why they assault her, what her relationship with Vernita and O-Ren was, why they are the first (if they are) to be dispatched, why Bill seeks her death: these are questions that Tarantino either isn’t interested in or is leaving for the second part of his film. The result is that the violence, however artfully enacted, never feels climactic—never feels as if it’s accomplishing anything moral or emotional. The final gruesome tableau of Kill Bill has the same emotional impact as the brutal catfight with which it begins; either one could come at any point in the film, with pretty much the same effect. In this, Tarantino’s film differs from its genre models, in which, however artlessly, the culminating tableaux of brutality are meant to feel, and often do feel, satisfying.
Indeed, in this respect Kill Bill may be said to differ radically even from Tarantino’s own earlier films, in which (you could argue) the violence has a kind of point, either thematic or stylistic. When the hitman played by James Gandolfini in True Romance methodically beats a gamine young woman, prior to his planned shooting of her, and her increasingly bruised and bloody face keeps filling the screen, we know that he’s just doing his job. Even killings that are presented to get big laughs, like the accidental shooting of a minor character in Pulp Fiction (which precipitates a manic bout of car-cleaning) or the offhand gunning of an extremely annoying young woman in Jackie Brown, could be said to illustrate something about the world in which those characters live, one in which casual violence is a quotidian affair.
If you were reluctant to ascribe to Tarantino any moral sensibility whatsoever, you could, conversely, argue that the violent acts were just the commas and semicolons of Tarantino’s cinematic vocabulary—ways of punctuating the progress of the narrative; and indeed that the blazing gunfights and orgies of extermination with which nearly all of the films that Tarantino has been involved in end may be said to function as triple exclamation points, an emphatic means of calling our attention to the fact that the story is now over. (The DVD of True Romance features the chapter titles of the various scenes; two that come toward the end are entitled “Room Full of Guns” and “Room Full of More Guns.”)
The violence in Kill Bill feels different—or, rather, it doesn’t feel like anything at all, and not merely because Tarantino hasn’t bothered to give it any emotional resonance. Whatever you thought of Reservoir Dogs, the torture scene was unbearable—which is to say, it affected you; the same is true for those comical killings, which affected you in a different way. (The sheer randomness of the killings reminded you that the criminals who performed them lived in a moral universe so alien to your own that the only response was to laugh.) None of the violence in Kill Bill, by contrast, affects you at all: as you watch the limbs flying off, the heads spinning across restaurant tables, the kitchen knives sticking out of people’s chests, you look at it with the same sense of detachment with which you watch those carefully orchestrated shows on the Food Network—you just admire the professional’s expertise. After The Bride kills Vernita in her neat suburban kitchen at the beginning of the film, she turns around to find that Vernita’s young daughter has witnessed the whole thing. But—as The Bride apologizes to her—the girl says nothing at all, shows no reaction. Neither does the audience.
This lack of affect, our protective awareness of the “movieness” of what we’re witnessing, is what Tarantino’s admirers use to defend him. (“See? It’s so artificial that no one takes it seriously.”) But it’s not clear that Tarantino wants you to feel nothing at all. In the New Yorker profile, the director asserted that what fills in the blanks of his cartoonish characters, what provides the “backstory,” is what the audiences already know, as movie audiences, of the actors themselves. “Robert Forster’s face is backstory,” Tarantino said, referring to the actor who plays the middle-aged hero of Jackie Brown:
That was so with both him and Pam Grier [the film’s female lead]. If you’ve been an actor in this business for as long as they have, you’ve seen and fucking done it all, all right? They’ve had heartbreaks and success and failure and money and no money, and it’s right there. They don’t have to do anything.5
For Tarantino, the movie fan who knows everything about the actors in the films he loves, it’s unnecessary to write psychology or motivation into the movies; he’s assuming that, like him, you’ll be able to fill in the blanks. This goes for plot as well as character: he assumes that you, too, have seen enough kung fu movies and bad old westerns (to say nothing of bad Seventies chick-cop shows) to know why these characters do what they do, why they’re seeking revenge, and so on. He thinks, in other words, that he can devote an entire film to choreographing scenes of kung-fu violence because you already know the story, in effect, and are willing merely to sit back and enjoy the fight sequences that he’s hung on a tenuous plot line.
The problem with this—and, ultimately, with the “movieness” argument in general—is that the writing and the actors do “have to do” something. What, after all, if you don’t know who Pam Grier or Robert Forster is? Tarantino’s devotion to his B-movie idols is touching, but it shows up the flaw in the argument that (as the admiring New Yorker writer put it) the reason that “Tarantino is as good a filmmaker as he is is that he is an audience member first and a director second.” But audiences are necessarily passive, whereas directors must transform what they have seen into a new vision. Tarantino ingests, but it isn’t clear that he digests. Watching Tarantino’s films—and none more than Kill Bill—is like being stuck in a room with someone who, like so many of this director’s characters, can’t stop talking about the really neat parts in the movies he’s seen. This is entertaining if you share his mania, but if you don’t, he ends up being a bore.
Here it is worth mentioning that Tarantino emphatically rejects the notion, advanced by some critics, that his paraphrases and quotes of other films are meant to be ironic. “I mean this shit,” he has said. “I’m serious, all right.” Tarantino, in other words, has absorbed whole all of the movies he has seen, from the vampire flicks to the Douglas Sirk melodramas he so admires; in his filmic allusiveness, there is no “take,” no postmodern frame—no point of view. He just loves these movies without judgment, without critique. “It’s hard to pin down Tarantino’s taste,” the New Yorker writer commented, “because he likes nearly everything.” Another way of saying this, of course, is that he has no taste at all.
The lack of a sense of intellectual process or judgment that characterizes Tarantino’s approach to his movie influences helps explain the ultimately vacant quality of his work, no matter how clever it often is. This is certainly true of Kill Bill, but it also goes for the earlier films—the ones “about people.” When they first came out, I enjoyed the structural cleverness of Pulp Fiction, the comfortable plot machinery of Jackie Brown, the taut, depraved claustrophobia of Reservoir Dogs. And yet when I saw them again recently, I was surprised to find myself bored by all three. In the end, they feel wholly disposable—they’re not really about any of the elements they are made up of (crime, guilt, race, violence, even other movies), and it occurs to you that Tarantino doesn’t have any ideas about them either. He just thinks they’re neat things to build a movie around.
This, in the end, is the most troubling thing about Tarantino and his work, of which Kill Bill may well be the best representative: not the violence but the emptiness, the passivity, the sense that you’re in the presence not of a creator but of a member of the audience—one who’s incapable of saying anything about real life because everything he knows comes from the movies. (It occurred to me, after I left the Kill Bill screening, that Tarantino may well think that “revenge is a dish best served cold” really is an “Old Klingon Proverb.”) People worry about Tarantino because they think he represents a generation raised on violence; but it’s as a representative of a generation raised on televised reruns and replays of videotapes that he really scares you to death.
December 18, 2003
Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Movie Lover,” The New Yorker, October 20, 2003, p. 155. ↩
“Dead Reckoning,” The New Yorker, October 13, 2003, p. 113. ↩
“The Fatal Attraction,” The Independent, October 10, 2003, p. 4. ↩
“And Now…Pulp Friction,” Time, October 20, 2003, p. 70. ↩
MacFarquhar, “The Movie Lover,” p. 150. ↩