Thursday, March 16, 2023

Kill Bill: Volume 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)

Kill swill

Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is about as basic as you can get-- The Bride (Uma Thurman) once upon a time badly beaten and shot in the head by people she once worked with and loved; falls into a coma, sleeps a couple of years, wakes up demanding payback, big time.

To this framework Tarantino hangs many an elaborate ornament: colorful monikers (The Bride's codename is Black Mamba; Lucy Liu is O-Ren aka Cottonmouth, and so on); cameos by actors from favorite films (Sonny Chiba from the Hattori Hanzo TV series; Chiaki Kuriyama from Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale; Gordon Liu from, among many others, Liu Chia Liang's The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter and Legendary Weapons of China); obscure references and tributes (old Klingon proverbs; masks straight out of The Green Hornet) and a smattering of painful puns ('Johnny Mo' for filmmaker Zhang Yi Mou).

A colorful brew even if (or especially because) it's mainly from B-movies, violent Japanese films, old TV shows, and the like. It's testament to the range of Tarantino's pop knowledge, his interest in things both art and junk, and clearly an act of love. In a recent New Yorker interview Tarantino says he can't understand why critics attack him for what they call the "ironic" tone of his films with all their pop references. Truth is he's not being ironic-- he truly enjoys the trash TV and B movies he watches, prefers some remakes over the original (Jim McBride's Breathless over Godard's; Adrian Lyne's Lolita over Kubrick's), and thinks some screenplays fine literature (Frank Darabont's The Green Mile from the Stephen King novel). When Tarantino inserts an allusion to some obscure chop-socky movie from the '70s he doesn't do it he insists to show he's hip, that he knows and is ultimately superior to that movie; he does it because he loved that movie.

Interesting distinction to make; watching Kill Bill you can't help but think (not without some awe) "he does it for love!" because it's possibly love that does Kill Bill in. I imagine the published screenplay would look like twenty pages of actual script plus two hundred pages of footnotes; if ever there was a case of tail wagging dog this particular tail has flung its dog across the sky past the moon. The characters are tenjugo paper-thin, the relationships governed more by genre conventions than human psychology, the drama manufactured via Tarantino's curated soundtrack and  Robert Richardson's camerawork. Uma Thurman as The Bride gets points for just surviving the physically demanding role (her samurai sword looks to weigh some seven pounds); the rest of the cast fill their roles more through physiognomy than acting skill (Sonny Chiba as swordmaker walks away with Coolest Screen Presence, Chiaki Kuriyama with high-tech mace qualifies as Most Fatale Femme).

The cameos, puns, monikers, bright colors, exotic locales, bizarre props, obscure pop references, hidden tributes, and sudden shifts to black-and-white and anime mode could, given the right emulsifier, thicken and set, but a key ingredient is missing. Tarantino writes clever scatological dialogue (though everyone tends to sound alike); he's also brilliant at casting, dusting off some forgotten star or character actor, giving him a role that resurrects his career (John Travolta in Pulp Fiction; Robert Forster and Pam Grier in Jackie Brown-- maybe their best work). He's a clever conceptualizer, able to take a story (the plot of Ringo Lam's City on Fire) recast as a minimalist passion play (Reservoir Dogs), or take a bag of brilliant narrative tricks (such as Jean-Luc Godard's) tell them in achronological order (Pulp Fiction).

But he can't quite create cinema. He has his own (somewhat monotone) dialogue style but not his own visual style, just a mixture of borrowed looks and attitudes; the clever comes from the way he mix and matches. When he abandons dialogue (about the cleverest conceit in Kill Bill is that everyone sounds like badly translated triad gangsters) the film sounds flat. He relies on the basic Bride Wore Black story outline and various garish baubles to fill up the frame; it's a concept, I suppose, but can't fuse a series of disparate elements into a whole.

Tarantino in a way can't help but make one think of Sergio Leone: like Tarantino, Leone's movies are the sum of unlikely elements-- ponchos, rolled cigarettes, Colt '45s, Winchester rifles, beautiful whores, innocent virgins, sadistic killers, taciturn gunslingers, harmonicas, the like. Leone's most personal works reflected his love of American westerns and gangsters. Unlike Tarantino, Leone was a filmmaker able to take his ponchos and harmonicas and fuse them into a lyrical whole. He knew how to frame people and objects so that the five-minute wait that opens Once Upon a Time in the West has more snap to it than any twenty minutes of Kill Bill; he knew how to cut action sequences for coherence, you knew when who is doing what to whom where why-- and better still the sequences had rhythm (Tarantino despite Richardson creates beautifully lit shots that don't flow together or enhance the fight choreography (by the great Yuen Woo Ping-- who come to think of it might have been a better director for this production)). Leone is a world-class film artist who makes pop visions, where Tarantino is a world-class film fan who references pop visions.

All this mostly from the evidence on hand; will Kill Bill improve with Vol. 2? Miracles have been known to happen, not often. Not holding my breath.

(Originally printed in Businessworld, January 16, 2004)

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