Mark at the Movies
Ten years ago this month Quentin Tarantino unveiled the second part of his Kill Bill double-bill. He wasn't making a lot of movies in those days. Kill Bill was his first picture since Jackie Brown six years earlier. I'm not the biggest fan of Tarantino, and I think he's almost incapable of engaging you in narrative drama rooted in real characters, but Kill Bill has moments that have stuck with me over the years, so I thought for our Saturday movie date we'd mark its tenth anniversary:
Kill Bill Volume 1 opens with "the Bride" (Uma Thurman) in silhouette in her hospital bed as Nancy Sinatra sings "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)". This is the song Sonny wrote for Cher as a bouncy pop novelty: they used to play shoot-'em-ups when they were kids, but now they're grown up and he's shot her down metaphorically, straight through the heart. Nancy ditched the bouncy-bouncy arrangement, slowed it down and recorded it with nothing but Billy Strange's tremolo guitar with the reverb cranked up. It's melancholy and haunting: as Miss Sinatra likes to say, "The poetry in it spoke to me." Her dad picked up on Nancy's version and recorded it with a dark brooding Gordon Jenkins orchestration that's probably a little more than a Sonny Bono pop trifle can bear. But he appreciated it enough to name the last great Sinatra saloon-songs album after it: She Shot Me Down (1981).
I like that Nancy Sinatra record because she takes a bit of kitsch and makes it real. The first time I saw Kill Bill I had the vague feeling Tarantino liked it for exactly the opposite reason: she takes a bit of kitsch and makes it kitschier â€“ "What's kitschier than early Cher? Early Cher in a cover version by Nancy Sinatra!" But on reflection that's unfair to the director. I think he loves this record and he wanted to give it his due â€“ and he certainly rescued it from obscurity, to the point where the year after the movie some hipsters called the Audio Bullys sampled Nancy's track for a Top Ten hit in the UK. And he uses it very well. Cool and reflective, it nevertheless provides the only emotional pulse in the opening: Without it, there's nothing going on. In Kill Bill, Tarantino goes to some lengths to distance himself from the tentative nods toward characterization and emotional reality he made in parts of Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, having decided that if you want that sort of stuff any old filmmaker can supply it. But he uses this song as an opening number to let you know that, underneath it all, something real is going on.
In fact, Sonny Bono's kiddie song is now a literal summation of the plot of Kill Bill: He shot her down, she hit the groun', bang bang, her (sort of ex-) baby shot her down. So she's going to shoot him down. That's it; that's all there is: The Basic Revenge Plot, with style. The twist is that the seeker after revenge is a woman, and the massacre took place on her wedding day, with groom, minister, minister's wife, organist, wedding party and the foetus inside her all grimly dispatched by Bill and his killers.
After four years in a coma, "the Bride" wakes up to discover she's the only survivor and determines to exact her revenge one by one on the members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. This she does with choreographic precision and a minimum of chit-chat. She makes a death list by writing 'Death List' at the top of the page and then five names. At the end of 93 minutes, she's only two fifths of the way through, so the rest is left to Kill Bill Volume 2.
My late colleague Roger Ebert summed up Kill Bill Vol 1 as "all storytelling and no story". But in a Tarantino movie it's better to travel ironically than to arrive, and for this one the director and Uma Thurman, his "co-writer", came up with as slender a plot as needed for a virtuoso display of technique and retro-cool. Kill Bill is mostly an hommage to Hong Kong kung-fu movies, but in the pop-cult cornucopia of Quentin's brain there's room for a lot else, too. It's bloody but it's also bloody brilliant: a bravura highwire act breezing along on nothing but style and the obligation to top what you've just done in the previous scene. Tarantino is lucky to have his on-screen muse Thurman: it's hard to think of many other actresses who could pull off 90 minutes of smiting foes in a yellow catsuit and give just enough of a sense that there's a real person underneath all the sword swinging.
For this director, happiness is just an allusion. Anyone can toss in the theme from "Batman" or "Superman" but Tarantino gives us the theme from "The Green Hornet". He makes superb use of "The Lonely Shepherd", some Zamfir pipes-of-Pan gloop that's transformed into the most achingly beautiful incidental score. His sub-titles mimic Run-Run Shaw's Seventies kick flicks even down to the grammatical errors ('Whom in Okinawa made you this steel?'). He has a pointless cameo by Asian action legend Sonny Chiba as a barkeep whose leaden crosstalk with his subordinate goes on forever for no good reason other than Tarantino's showing off his catch and is in no hurry to move on: Hey, look, kids, it's Sonny Chiba. The fact that 99 per cent of the audience has no idea who Run-Run Shaw and Sonny Chiba are is irrelevant. Whom cares? Tarantino is such a master of allusion he can make a movie alluding to stuff nobody has a clue about.
With lesser talents like Robert Rodriguez, these films remind you of old-time LPs, a half-dozen great numbers punctuated by filler tracks you skip. But Tarantino's the master of the form: Kill Bill plays like a Thirties musical full of spectacular numbers connected by a perfunctory plot. The climax, in which Uma Thurman singlehandedly dispatches a mace-wielding schoolgirl and 88 men in suits on the floor of a Tokyo restaurant, is the equivalent of "The Continental" or "The Piccolino" in The Gay Divorcee or Top Hat. The star (Uma) dances with individual partners (the psycho school girl), then with the gentlemen of the chorus (the 88 killers) at various tempi and in various patterns. It's beautifully choreographed by the master of martial arts Yuen Wo-Ping as Uma decapitates limbs and heads and sets her enemies gushing blood like champagne fountains in operetta. Just for variety, we cut to a black-and-white interlude and a segment in silhouette that looks like a Robert Alton nightclub number from the Fifties.
Kill Bill Volume 1 and Kill Bill Volume 2 were filmed simultaneously and only cleaved in two late in the process. But they turned out to have a pleasing symmetry about them. Vol 1 is all chop-socky, martial arts, Japanese anime, etc: an eastern, so to speak. Vol 2 is a western, in the broadest sense: John Ford, Ennio Morricone, the windswept, dusty Texas of The Last Picture Show, Johnny Cash, desert strip joints, Mexican bars, trailersâ€¦ Tarantino opens with Hitchcock titles, a touch of Bernard Herrmannics in the score, and the big bug eyes of Uma Thurman in black-and-white staring out from behind the wheel of a car as she tells us how she's killed all the others and now she's on her way to kill Bill. There's no pretense that she's really driving a real car on a real highway: instead, the road recedes into the horizon behind her like the backdrop in the opening scene of a Forties melodrama.
In Vol 1 the Bride stalked the stalk. In Vol 2 she talks the talk. It helps to watch them back to back. After all the bloodshed of the first part, you're drained, sated and ready to kick back and relax into the characters. But starting cold halfway through, Vol 2 seems a bit too ruminative and unhurried for its own health - the first Tarantino picture that could have used a bit more gratuitous violence. As for the heightened pop-culture anorak trivia that he established as his preferred mode of dialogue in Pulp Fiction, listening to the characters allude to the Three Degrees or recall trips to Lana Turner movies, you feel that the deployment of ironically dated references is now itself somewhat dated and that Tarantino's modus operandi is almost hoary enough to be ready for the kind of hommage he pays the flotsam and jetsam of the Sixties and Seventies.
But if the act's getting familiar it's better accessorized than ever. The excellent RZA (Robert Diggs) score mines everything from spaghetti western grandiloquence to the theme from TV's "Ironside". Orchestral echoes of Nancy's "Bang, Bang" become an ominous motif for the Bride as she nears her rendezvous with destiny. And, if Vol 1 was a solo act interrupted by cameos, Miss Thurman here gets to share the honours with David Carradine as the eponymous Bill she wishes to kill. His lean weathered masculinity is the perfect visual foil for her. When they meet up again on the peeling porch of the Twin Pines wedding chapel, Carradine persuades you (unlike anything in Vol 1) that they had a relationship that precedes the movie.
The best fight is between the Bride and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), an eye-patched killer, as they proceed to trash a rusting trailer in the middle of nowhere. The best talker is the laconic Bud (Michael Madsen), Bill's brother and now a loser bouncer in an unpopular strip joint.
Quentin Tarantino doesn't do Spider-Man or Superman, Hulk or Batman, but Kill Bill Vol 2 is the closest any movie has come to the spirit of a comic book â€“ a faintly pretentious comic book, like Dr Strange, say, but one that even at its most high-falutin has a kind of primary-colored sensuousness to it. This thought occurred toward the end when David Carradine launches into a meandering disquisition on Superman and Clark Kent, drawn from Jules Feiffer's book on superheroes. With hindsight, I realized what the character of Pei Mai reminded me of. He's the Bride's kung-fu mentor, extremely wise and ancient and sporting a long white wispy beard that he strokes a lot and two snowy eyebrows apparently borrowed from Mike Myers in The Cat In The Hat. Yet Gordon Liu, the actor who plays him, has a wholly unlined face. He's a comic-book notion of an old man, where an artist of limited skill draws white hair and white eyebrows on an otherwise youthful face because that's the only way he knows how to indicate age. His presence is almost a visual giveaway, of just how thinly drawn these characters are.
Tarantino miscalculates only once, in Vol 1 at the end of a sequence in which Uma kills an old enemy in her kitchen and turns around to see the woman's four-year-old daughter behind her. Presumably the kid's been introduced to give us a jolt: wow, she just murdered mommy in front of the child. But the moppet just stands there silently â€” no screams, no rushing to the body â€” and the moment feels dishonest. Tarantino introduced the kid to raise the stakes and then he failed to justify it.
That's the limitations of his act. Back around the time Pulp Fiction was released, I called him the Mantovani of mayhem: the cumulative violence becomes as bland and soothing as cascading strings. You leave admiring the director but unmoved by what he's directing. Enduring pop culture isn't merely hip and referential: Batman, Casablanca, Sylvester and Tweety, these guys were in it for real, if only because they didn't have half-a-century of back-catalogue to riff off. A culture of ironic allusion chases itself in ever decreasing circles. Tarantino is the state of the art, but the state is one of advanced decay.
from Mark at the Movies, April 12, 2014
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