Tarantino’s At It Again

Halfway through Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, there’s a scene where the avenging Bride (played by Uma Thurman) walks into a rustic sushi joint on Okinawa, acting the flighty tourist but actually in search of the legendary swordsmith Hattori Hanzo. The dialogue between the man behind the bar and his bumbling assistant is a perfect pastiche of the humor you see in anime all the time—those Japanese jokes that aren’t quite funny and you suspect it’s because of some sort of culture divide but eventually you find yourself laughing anyway if only because it’s so darn wacky. Tarantino gets it just right. The whole scene is stylishly executed, culminating in the Bride’s slide from her flirtatious front into a dead-serious request to meet Hanzo, and the sound of the bartender’s assistant dropping a sake bottle, off camera.

It’s a scene that says everything about Tarantino’s genius, as well as his limitations. He’s not telling an original story, his characters are all sly references to ones from a host of media, and his dialogue goes out of its way to sound like something we heard somewhere else. But his pastiche is spot-on, and he puts it all together with a masterful eye and a quirky style that keeps every moment riveting in its own way.

Tarantino makes campy material transcend camp—something he’s uniquely qualified to do because, to all appearances, his love for Hong Kong action flicks, blaxploitation movies, and Leone westerns is deep and true and devoid of ironic detachment. Or maybe it’s that the irony is so fused into his being that he’s achieved some kind of post-ironic purity. Whatever the case, he gets away with having his cake and eating it too, since he revels in the over-the-top goofiness of his subject matter, hardly worthy of our notice, while still demanding serious attention from his audience. He earns that attention not because of his pastiche but in spite of it and because of everything else. He elicits sharp, memorable performances from his actors, most often to humorous effect, but with intense dramatic exceptions. (When the Bride wakes up from her coma and finds herself childless, her grief is genuine and poignant.) If I were a film critic I’d have a better way to put this, but—his movies just look really good. His visuals are playful, elegant, and arresting. His momentum sweeps you along. Unlike his inspirations, his stuff is the real deal.

Only in movies, where so much of the artistry lies in cinematography, acting, and editing, is it possible to make a solid work of art with a story that is cobbled together in a sloppy pastiche. That crime isn’t as heinous as “Aaron Haspel makes it out to be”:http://www.godofthemachine.com/archives/00000489.html; Kill Bill’s revenge theme makes for obvious comparisons to another great thiever of tales: Shakespeare. (Before I get ambushed I should clarify here that I in no way mean to equate the magnitude of Tarantino’s excellence with that of Shakespeare; of course they’re in differenct leagues entirely; yada yada.) The difference between Shakespeare’s debt to his source and Tarantino’s is that Shakespeare draws from one place, the Spanish Tragedy, while Tarantino mines dozens of movies and television shows, a little of this, a little of that. Tarantino isn’t plagiarizing, but neither are his stories worthwhile in themselves—they simply serve as vehicles for his expression. That’s why he’ll never be capital-G Great. (I recently wrote about another such master of style over substance, Thomas Pynchon.)

In Kill Bill, the scene in the sushi bar is unusual in that it does not not involve martial arts, swords, and fountain upon fountain of arterial spray. It is without question the most violent movie I’ve seen in recent memory. In your typical Hong Kong martial arts flick, Jet Li fights off a couple dozen swarming attackers, but we never see much blood or hear many bones crack—we do not, if you’ll pardon the expression, feel their pain. The vanquished either get up and scramble away, or the fight conveniently changes venues so that we never see the aftermath. Tarantino, by contrast, forces us to look at the awful consequences. After Uma Thurman fights a couple dozen katana-swinging yakuza, their moans and groans continue in the background, and the camera pans up to capture the blood-spattered dance floor where it all occurred—we see the dead and the maimed, some lying still, some crawling or trying to stand, one stumbling around aimlessly. We can’t get lost in the balletic grace of the fluid motions of the swordfights, because Tarantino makes us wince with each slice.

What do we make of that? We can hardly call it “realism” in a movie that has no such aspirations. It’s not a virtue, exactly. But neither can we fault the film for “glorifying violence”—after the fight scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you’re left with a sort of ethereal thrill, but in Kill Bill the thrill is paired with a sick feeling in your gut, with a sense of relief that it’s over. But by no means is it that Tarantino’s violence is meant to be cautionary—the second after you flinch upon seeing someone’s foot chopped off, you laugh at a quippy bit of dialogue. Horror and humor are never comfortably separated in Tarantino’s movies; often they are right on top of each other. He pulls it off in a way that is riveting and that I haven’t seen anyone imitate without becoming campy on one side or just plain sordid on the other. But whether there’s any deeper accomplishment here beyond the filmmaker’s task of grabbing our attention, I’m not sure. Tarantino’s greatest movie may be the one where he finds a way to keep his edge but leave the violence behind. I often think of people like the guys a few rows behind me in the theater, who seemed to find every single scene incredibly funny—especially the most horrific ones. It occurred to me as I heard them that reaching that point might be a decent milestone for losing one’s humanity.

Kill Bill’s score is by RZA (or is it The RZA?), co-founder of the Wu Tang Clan. It’s one of the coolest things about the movie. I wasn’t paying attention to it at every turn, but what I did notice was quintessentially (if I may) Tarantonian. At one point an upbeat pastiche of a Leone/Morricone riff segues smoothly into surfer rock. I’d be tempted to call it parody if it wasn’t so good—as it is, I’ll buy the soundtrack.

Splitting the movie in two was probably a very good idea; it’s episodic, not epic, and works better with a break. We even get a revelation at the end that promises to complicate the straightforward nature of the Bride’s revenge—not a new twist, by any measure, but one that you can bet Tarantino will find a fresh way to play with. It’s what he does best.

Further reading: Aaron’s comments cited above are well worth reading, if misguided. Via his blog I found Rick over at Futurballa, who has some worthwhile commentary across a number of entries. He in turn references David Edelstein’s review, which I mostly agree with. I’ll add more links if I find more.
UPDATE: Good quote by Stephen Hunter in the Post: “The thing is about as refined as watching someone feed hot dogs into a Cuisinart set on 10, except that it’s delivered with such high panache and brio, it’s mesmerizing.”

UPDATE: Added a bit about the music that I left out before.