Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Oct 26, 2003 6:36 pm 
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The key to the treasure is the treasure

Forget plot; forget motivation, or what Kill Bill might be about. The fun and excitement result from the way the film takes us deep into movies and into the mind of Tarantino himself. It is his own writing again. There are references galore, to the Shaw Brothers, for example, and Bruce Lee, to Sergio Leone - but also quite notably to his own work, especially Pulp Fiction.

Kill Bill's star is Uma Thurman, who was the most delightful, fun person in Pulp Fiction. As Mia Wallace, the wife of scary crime boss Marsellus Wallace and John Travolta's dangerous dream date, Uma was the most coolly reckless female powerhouse in the Tarantino oeuvre. Tarantino knows how actors carry the parts they've played into other movies, and Uma brings the aura of Mia Wallace into Kill Bill. When Black Mamba is teased by a mosquito into awakening from her four-year coma to begin the chain of revenge Kill Bill chronicles, she gasps and pops up just the way Mia did when she got the hypodermic needle of adrenaline to the heart: it's a direct audio-visual echo.

Kill Bill pays homage to a different kind of pulp and lacks Pulp Fiction's amusing and outrageous dialogue. But similar thought processes are at work in the way Kill Bill is put together. Kill Bill's opening two-woman battle is a prologue that sets things up just as the diner holdup scene with Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) and Pumpkin (Tim Roth) sets up the action of Pulp Fiction.

The battle between Uma and her first enemy leads into the wedding murder scene - the place where Kill Bill actually begins - with its stylized Wild West imagery and Sergio Leone overtones. From then on Tarantino thinks in blocks of near-autonomous set pieces much like the main segments of Pulp Fiction. There's the hospital sequence where Uma comes to and takes charge of the "Pussy Wagon" she was using in the Prologue. Then the samurai Sword Sequence featuring Sonny Chiba and set in Okinawa, where Black Mamba gets her magic, invincible weapon. Then the Tokyo Sequence, which is in four parts, each a different shooting sequence:- the anime of the young O-ren Ishii/Cottonmouth being turned into a killer by having to fight off a pedophile grandparent; the adult O-ren beheading one of her Yakuza gang members for insubordination; Uma/Black Mamba's battle royal with O-ren's posse in the restaurant/nightclub; and finally her showdown with O-ren herself in the exterior snowy garden, where Vol. 1 comes to what may seem a surprisingly peaceful and beautiful end.

It's not only the higgledy-piggledy time scheme and the use of big autonomous segments that link Kill Bill: Vol. 1 with Pulp Fiction: there are more specific echoes.

I've already mentioned the "awakening" of Uma. In fact, the showdown in medias res (in the middle of the story) between Uma and Vernita Green/Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox) which serves as prologue has a family resemblance to the Kahuna Burger sequence with Travolta and Jackson: the exploded head in the car and The Wolf (Harvey Keitel) calmly supervising the tidying up of the bloody vehicle at the house in Toluca Lake. What the two sequences have in common is ultra-violence in a bland, suburban setting as professional killers take revenge, with interruptions for brief spurts of terse dialogue. We have the same affectless children too. The deadpan reaction of Copperhead's little daughter to her mom's extinction, reminds one of the small boy in Pulp Fiction: expressionless, as he learns of his grandfather's watch in a preposterous speech from Chris Walken. Kids in Tarantino-land are innocent victims and passive onlookers.

It's the hospital sequence that rhymes most clearly with Pulp Fiction. The way Uma's character brutally punishes the crude orderly who's been renting out her inert body and then escapes to the "Pussy Wagon" to rid her nether limbs of "entropy" by sheer power of thought, reminds us of Butch in the prizefight Zen/Maynard pawnshop sequence: retrieving his watch, escaping his tormentors, freeing Marcellus Wallace to revenge his sexual assault, and then returning to Fabienne on the commandeered "chopper" -- his "Pussy Wagon."

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is more stylized and pays more ritualized homage than Tarantino has ever done before. Commendably, the greater artistic freedom and higher budget has led him to restrict himself more. However, his treatment of race and gender continues to be provocative: the more so since the three opponents are women - Caucasian, Asian, and black. In the multiple languages, the translating, and the interracial battling, Tarantino is wrestling with the foreignness of his source material, as well as with gender and racial roles.

Larissa MacFarquhar's recent New Yorker magazine article "The Movie Lover" (October 20, 2003) provides insights into Tarantino's mindset. She emphasizes the filmmaker's incestuous familiarity with pulp movies, the endless quantity he knows by heart. He's still the video store geek, raised to the nth degree. Favorite movie sequences replay in his photographic memory. His plots all mesh - somehow - but it's the furiously engaging set pieces that stand out. For that's how his mind is stocked. He thinks in these autonomous blocks.

It's important to realize Tarantino is an unadulterated movie lover. There's no irony in his homages. "The problem with the irony charge" against Tarantino, MacFarquhar says, "is that pop culture and life are not separable for Tarantino." Any homage to pulp is homage to movies and homage to life. That granted, Kill Bill is as life affirming as it is art-affirming. "What is Kill Bill about?" is an irrelevant question. The key to the treasure is the treasure. Statements to the effect that Kill Bill is
"smart, but thin" (Hoberman), "brilliant" but containing "no story" (Ebert), or worse yet "decadent" and "crap" (Denby) miss the movie's affirmative aspects and make it seem cold when it's bubbling with enthusiasm and joie de vivre. It's a celebration.

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