Kill Bill

Favourite Films on Friday: #25, Kill Bill (Vol. 1 & 2)

When we’ve talked about the various Pixar films on this list – and there will be plenty when all’s said and done – I’ve admitted that it’s hard not to think about them in terms of the larger framework of that studio’s output. A similar rule applies to my enjoyment of the work of Mssr. Quentin Tarantino, another figure who will be proliferating this list. Kill Bill marks a kind of watershed moment in Tarantino’s work. This is how I see it, anyway. It drew a line, between the types of films he made then and now. Moving from crime, and into other genres that leant more towards action, wearing all his cinematic influence on those baggy sleeves, while adopting a novelistic structure and odd moments of unexplained experimentation. The QT House Style of the 21st Century, I guess. Two films later, with Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino’s biggest hallmark was revealed for all the world to see. Not the bloodshed, not the pop-culture chatter that everyone had been doing in their impressions. It was simply long, building scenes of tension where violence simmers just under the surface, and is suddenly released. With, okay, maybe a little bit of blood, a smidgen of chatter. Looking back, almost every Tarantino film is a collection of these build-and-release scenes, of varying lengths. So, it’s odd that in Kill Bill you pretty much know exactly who will be standing in the end: our singular heroine will survive. It’s just that kind of film. And Bill? Well, it seems unlikely he’s going to make it, somehow. So how do you build that thick, syrupy tension? Kill Bill’s answer finds its answer somewhere in that novelistic structure we talked about earlier (oh yes, the gun was very firmly above the fireplace). Kill Bill isn’t just in volumes: it’s in chapters. When the films were on the BBC recently, my lovely girlfriend – who has never seen the films before – and I only caught the middle three chapters of Vol. 2. To my surprise, each worked perfectly and satisfyingly as a self-contained story, and the three put together felt like a full, satisfying film. The chapters phrase The Bride’s various capers in small, contained bursts that manage to feel dangerous, or else take the opportunity to dance across the other strains of the film’s mutant DNA. They build up individual characters – the supporting cast of Kill Bill’s insane world – with conflicts, threats and finally resolution (mostly, bloody resolution). It’s probably telling that Tarantino leans so much towards large ensembley casts. Nevertheless, however it’s managed, and however you or I choose to intellectualise it, Kill Bill manages that rarest thing for a modern action film, looking back over its long lineage of jumps, thrills and stunts: it feels breathtakingly risky. Not always, and not always because of the danger to our heroine, but it’ll get to you at least once in that four hour running time. ….Phew. I got through that without a single mention of the word ‘iconic’. Not even the merest whiff, talking about the most riffed-on film of the last ten years, as the sword-reflected eyes of the Bruce-Lee-dressed Bride stare over me from a tattered poster in my bedroom back home and I’m starting to faintly hum the 5678s… Not a single mention. I must be getting better. Right?

(In?)Glourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino’s developed a different reputation, it seems, in the wake of Kill Bill and Grindhouse. He’s started to become entangled with the traits he played with there: breaking-the-rules, ironic ridiculousness, over-the-top-till-its-funny violence and homage to so-bad-they’re-good b-movies. And so when he does something in Inglourious Basterds, I almost feel a traitor for thinking about it seriously. Which leads me straight into the film’s biggest problem: Michael Myers. Funny when spotted in the credits, his Austin-Powers performance is so out-of-sync with the rest of the film it’s…well, it’s not funny. But because of the type of filmmaker QT’s become, raising these concerns with my friends was invalidated- just another joke. And it is a funny film, but at its best you’re laughing with (or, perhaps, at) the characters, not at the film. It feels like Tarantino’s trying to make a point in Inglourious, in a way I haven’t seen since that original statement: film characters have mundane lives too, y’know. And this is where I think Inglourious‘ negative reception comes from- that infamous one-star Guardian review, for example. Its hard not to give too much away, and I applaud the advertising campaign which has completely misserved the tone of the film (it comes off as a Brad Pitt action romp, which it really isn’t.) But if you’re going to see, I wouldn’t read on (I mean, I’d bookmark it and come back after and shower me with praise for my insight whilst linking all my friends, but that’s just me. Just a suggestion.) I think Inglourious is an attempt at taking apart the last films Tarantino’s made- Kill Bill and Death Proof. It precisely isn’t those films- there’s probably less action in this one than Reservoir Dogs– though it takes something from them. That last moment in Kill Bill Vol. 2, where Bea’s both crying and laughing and its the only time in the entire film anyone seems to make to anything to think, is all this revenge actually a good idea? The film is clearly pointed- the first two scenes serve as a perfect mirror- just as Col. Landa (wonderfully played, in the one thing everyone seems to agree on, by Christoph Waltz) hunts the Jews, and makes an extended, charismatic but horrifying argument for it, Lt Raine (Brad Pitt, I’m not sure if he’s another pure exertion of Pitt’s charisma or a one-dimensional cut-out) hunts the Nazis. But Raine doesn’t really seem to have a reason- because the genre demands it! Because they’re Nazis and they’re bad! Meanwhile, they offer the same choice to their captive audience- a French farm-owner and a Nazi sergeant- sell out your friends to your own benefit (i.e., survival) or don’t, and die. The Frenchman accepts, while the Nazi- boo! hiss!- stays loyal. And is very much killed. Woo! Yay! It seems like, by presenting us with cinema’s (and history’s) easiest baddie (excluding, of course, the loathsome CommieNazi), Tarantino is actually looking at how easily violence came in Kill Bill’s three-figure death count and how good he is at it- the stand-out scene in Death Proof is the wonderously misogyno-death scene of its (up till then) four main characters, played out in repeating, protracted pornographic slow-mo. The deaths here are inglorious- there’s no murder porn* as good as the Stuck in the Middle ear-subtraction, and the good guys come off as zealots. Even the Bea-2.0 character of Shoshanna, with a violently played out cause for revenge, is more terrorist than freedom fighter. Okay, in the words of John Lydon, I could be wrong, I could be right: perhaps Tarantino really is just making impulse decisions ’cause they’re kewl. And, if I am right*, its hardly the newest idea to say, yeah, but the German soldiers weren’t all Nazis or, maybe film violence is bad. Like all these things, though, its about context. The mainstream arena these ideas are being presented in, the subtle way** you can read the film either way, and the way it works against Tarantino’s reputation, make it interesting in a way chin-stroking Oscar-baiters or blatantly dogmatic addresses at the audience just never are for me. But, undeniably, Inglourious Basterds shifts the Tarantino brand- it strips away (probably not intentionally) the uber-cool soundtrack and the perfect remember-them casting, the pop-culture references and the worst excesses of ultra-violence. I think the reason I like this film so damn much is that I’ve finally realised what the Tarantino Thing is: the long, play-like scenes, the way he uses dialogue as a weapon to build tension and finally, messily, release. The entire film is a simple build-and-release tension-builder, and when we finally reach the violent loosing of that tension, nothing is ever really achieved***. But that’s Tarantino for ya.*And, okay, the film features Eli Roth, King Of Torture Porn, in an absolutely appalling turn as the promisingly built-up ‘Bear Jew’, so obviously we’re not entirely shaking off the shackles of violence oppression here. **Some would say “the proves-you-wrong way”. ***There’s an obvious way of arguing against this. Bring it. Come on. I dares ya. (Confession: I realise that the “Say auf Widersehen to your Nazi balls!” moment, at which I laughed at louder than the entire cinema like the absolutely abhorrent human being I am, somewhat undermines this argument. Its possibly the most ridiculous moment in any Tarantino film. I never said it was perfect- either my argument or the film. I just think we have to register some change.)