It isn’t easy articulating a reaction to Kill Bill. On the one hand, you’ve got to acknowledge folks like this,
And 20th century intellectuals worshipped violence, apotheosized it. They served as lickspittles to Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Castro, and Arafat. They made cults of thug writers like Jim Thompson and William Burroughs. And now degenerate intellectuals, newspaper movie critics, praise a thug director like Tarantino in terms that turn out, upon inspection, to be suspiciously elliptical. After all the "deliciously perverse" and "voluptuous," "uniquely twisted," "sumptuous" and "operatic," the question remains: what is it about Tarantino that these people really like?
who seem more interested in advertising their ascetic revulsion than they are in saying anything of substance about the movie. (Is Tarantino really only two sentences removed from Stalin?) And yet just when you’re prepared to defend the film’s violence, to say it’s “cartoonish” and “surrealistic” and no one really takes it at face value, you come across this guy:
She dismembers a part of Sofie Fatale (O-Ren's lawyer) in a gory graphic way with her sword. I thought this was both shocking and exciting.
At least I wouldn't mind sharing an elevator with Aaron Haspel.
How do you respond to a movie so awash in the objectionable, especially if you didn’t find the movie as a whole objectionable? Steven Berg, trying to articulate his own objections, asks:
With the Bride and Bill, you don’t have to read it as some kind of commentary on gendered violence or victimization of women or something, but the Buck chapter pretty well requires a reading pertaining to those themes, since there’s zero characterization of Buck or the trucker rapist or the Bride anywhere to be found and so there’s nothing to think about but the general gender politics. So are we supposed to cheer or something when the Bride eats off her rapist’s face? Jesus. And then we have to say… Well, gee, is the whole movie about violence against women or something?
I would say yes. Both volumes, the whole five or six hours, are absolutely, in their entirety, about violence against women.
They are, naturally, about other things as well. Tarantino makes all sorts of overt statements about vengeance and redemption and parenthood, but these are almost too overt – however central they may be to the film, they play as uncomfortable attempts to provide some kind of “serious” thematic gloss to a movie that is fundamentally preoccupied with the joys of eviscerating large numbers of men in Green Hornet masks. I say “preoccupied with,” not “about,” because Kill Bill does have one overriding concern that it stresses at every opportunity but doesn’t oversell with self-conscious dialogue. The repeated abuse of women is the movie’s only subtext worth the name.
Consider the many instances of sexual or sexualized violence that Rose has already tabulated. Her catalogue leaves little doubt that Kill Bill depicts a world steeped in sexism, ranging from the lurid to the quotidian, from the repeated torments heaped upon Beatrix (the movie is, as others have already noted, a Tippi Hedren-like Passion of the Uma) to the movie’s almost casual encounters with drunken Japanese businessmen and face-cutting Mexican pimps. Some of these actions are punished and some are not – and some are punished quite out of proportion to their infraction – but they all uniformly revolve around the abasement of women. (Even the reverend and his wife are a little sexist in their insistence on a “traditional” wedding for a woman who is desperately fleeing her closest thing to a “traditional” family – and I defy anyone to plan a wedding without encountering patronizing and sexist attitudes from somebody.)
But is a movie filled with sexism and misogyny necessarily a sexist and misogynist movie? I’ve never been of the opinion that you could eradicate an evil by politely ignoring it, and while I’ll concede that the extreme and repeated representation makes that misogyny more difficult to transcend, it’s not impossible. In other words, being about sexist abuse mitigates Kill Bill’s constant presentation of that abuse, prevents the movie from simply being sexist.
This distinction, admittedly, has never been Tarantino’s strong suit. His movies don’t so much walk the fine line between commentary and exploitation as traipse merrily back and forth across it. But if depicting isn’t the same as endorsing, neither is it the same as critique, and Tarantino has in the past been perfectly willing to confuse any of these stances for each other. (Remember his Pulp Fiction-era infatuation with “nigger”?)
Nevertheless, I don’t think he has set out to casually exploit sexism the way he’s casually exploited racism in the past, because he's made sexism the most pervasive and intangible of the challenges Beatrix faces. I categorically refuse, however, to make the insipid argument that, by having Beatrix kick a lot of ass, Tarantino has made some kind of “postfeminist” empowerment trip. In fact, one of the most unfortunate things about Kill Bill is that Bea is powerless – or unwilling – to fight that sexism on any more than the most personal level.
Beatrix does nothing to change this world of habitual and endemic misogyny; she carries out her own personal mission of vengeance, and that’s it. I was rooting for her to take a little time out to hunt down the midget who helps Budd bury her, or to ensure that Esteban never scars another girl again, and I was quite disappointed when she did neither.
I suspect this reaction might make my own statements repugnant to those viewers who, simply upon noting the film’s violence, are already halfway to clucking their righteous disapproval – yes, I am freely admitting that, in two instances, I wanted Kill Bill to be more violent – and I’m comfortable with that.
This is in large part due to the very excess of the violence. It isn’t just “cartoonish,” it’s rooted in the film’s kung-fu spaghetti western revenge flick genre pastiche so thoroughly that it becomes part of the milieu, the standard operating procedure, the suspension of disbelief.
This is not to say the movie “desensitizes” us to its violence; rather, I think it resensitizes us, sometimes (as with Buck) when it strips the violence of any genre glamour and sometimes through its extremity. It’s hard to ignore any of the deaths; the demise of even the craziest 88 is clearly the loss of a living, breathing, and (especially) blood-pumping human being. The movies where hundreds of millions of faceless, meaningless nonentities get blown up by aliens and asteroids in clean waves of incineration just so the producers can put asses in the seats on the Fourth of July weekend – that’s desensitization.
So no, the violence alone didn’t alienate me, and in two instances I felt more would have been warranted (and, in Esteban’s case, probably pretty satisfying). But that would have taken the movie off its narrowly charted path, because in Esteban’s case (and not the midget’s), killing him wouldn’t have been revenge. He does nothing to harm Beatrix or impede her quest; quite the contrary, he helps her on her way. Punishment for Esteban would have violated the movie’s internal ethic, because it would have meant Beatrix was helping someone other than herself. And that was what I wanted to see.
Oddly, the character who comes closest to landing some sort of larger blow against the pervasive sexism is O-Ren Ishii, in her rather forcible shattering of the Yakuza’s glass ceiling, but even this can be attributed to personal ambition, not social conscience. (Go-go arguably does the same thing, executing a parodic version of her boss’s assault on the Yakuza patriarchy when she murders the businessman, but this too can be attributed squarely to her psychosis.)
All the old criticisms of Tarantino are just as true of Kill Bill, only moreso. The violence is problematic, not because it’s fun (and it is fun, although, alas, the second volume never recovers the dizzying heights of the Showdown at House of Blue Leaves), but because Tarantino as usual tries to have it both ways. He wants a gleeful blood-soaked romp and a stoic meditation about vengeance and redemption. (Dave Fiore says Tarantino is “seriousness masquerading as play,” but all too often he seems to be just the reverse.)
Yet somehow the movie transcends all these problems, through bravado or sheer enthusiasm or even through craft; those exhilarating shots in silhouette annihilate any qualms, save perhaps that they don’t last long enough. More importantly, though, Tarantino redeems the movie from its own scariest elements by offering an insistent (albeit inchoate and disappointing) criticism of them. When Steven asks,
Is the movie a repugnant statement or is it just badly designed?
I would say neither.
Epilogue. This was on the marquee at the movie theater last Saturday night:
Looks about right to me.