KILL BILL, VOLUMES I&II

Hearing that the Kill Bill story was written and filmed as one movie, then separated into two movies at the behest of studio heads, one might reasonably expect the worst.  It sounds like just a cheap and sleazy way to make fans buy two tickets to see one whole movie.

Having seen both films, however, it really does make more sense this way, cutting it into two movies.  It plays like two whole different movies, with different styles, subjects and goals.  The whole tone of the story takes an abrupt shift with the first scene of  Volume 2. You might think of it as Old Testament vs New Testament.

The first movie was all action.  Some reviewers described Volume 1 as the most violent movie ever made, or some such.  With all the body parts flying off the edge of Uma Thurman's sword, that seems like a reasonable judgment.

The main defense of this horrible gore was usually that it was presented in an ultimately cartoonish manner.  The flying and spurting blood were obviously fake, so they really were not representing real suffering and death.  The whole first movie, with the hundreds of up close and personally hacked-to-death dead plays more as an homage to the Quentin Tarantino fan experience than any immediate story, there being little dialogue or storyline in this film.  The real meta-subject becomes the director's joyous memories of movie bliss.  It works somewhat like the Indiana Jones movies that way.

On one hand, the palpable joy of Saturday afternoon at the movies constitutes a perfectly good topic for art, just as valid a part of the human experience as whatever angst filled dark night of the soul you want to conjure up.  One beautiful aspect of the human experience comes from being a young man in a theater enjoying the finer aspects of action movies and a big box of popcorn.  

Volume 1 gets to that with just perfect, heightened artistic sense to wring the most out of the experience.  Tarantino's doing tricks here in all directions with choreography, photography, sets, editing and surely a bunch of stuff that I don't even notice.  It's well worth the price of the movie just to see the ballet of this presentation, the juggling act of colors and sounds.  

It is widely noted that Volume 1 lacks any significant story or motivation- only the most primitive loyalty and revenge.  This is true, but somewhat defensible.  Indeed, there is very minimal dialogue of any kind at all though, because Tarantino's got other stuff going on.

Strongest argument for Volume 1:  This film will eventually be considered a must-see by any serious student of film history, even just on technical grounds.  Personally, I'm typically not so motivated by fx and technical tricks- which are the strong suits of the film.  Still, even I am wowed.

The extended anime section merits special credit.  This section tells the truly horrific backstory of the Lucy Liu character as a child.  At least one version of the story has it that Tarantino chose to do this sub-story as animation for fear that he wouldn't be able to get an R rating if presented these events as live action. To me, this sounds suspiciously like a self-promotional rumor.  It makes sense that he would in fact do an anime sequence amidst all this marshal arts pulp, and it makes the most sense that it would be for this, the only major actual Asian character.

Interestingly enough, O-Ren Ishii aka "Cottonmouth" aka the Lucy Liu character showed the most involved and human character in the movie, precisely because of the animated sequence.  She effectively gets more storytelling in this literal cartoon section than the other characters get in live action.

A significant part of the appeal comes from what might be called the masturbatory fantasy aspect.  This film consists mostly of hot female warriors in full sweaty combat mode.  Partly this provides a beautifully artful erotic stimulation, but just as much provides the basis of humor.  

Which brings us to Gogo Yubari, apparently a Japanese schoolgirl/professional assassin working for Cottonmouth.  This image encapsulates just that special Tarantino combination of erotica, humor and violence.  

Best I can figure, the laughter comes in male recognition of just how easily and ridiculously their cheesy fantasy buttons can be pushed.  Jeez, he might as well have inserted a title card about this point saying "Begin Self-Stimulation Now."

At some point, though, the ironic distance undermines or limits the depth of the overall experience.  The same holds true for the Indiana Jones films.  They may be judged among the most popular and generally respected films ever made- highly enjoyable and perfect presentations of technique, but few people would rate any of them among their ultimate top 10.  Kill Bill, Volume 1 and Raiders of the Lost Ark rate high praise for raising their pulp origins to some platonic ideal.

Problem is, the Trivial Pursuit aspect of moviemaking is ultimately, in fact, a trivial pursuit.  It's fun to see some occasional oblong movie reference, but it doesn't typically mean anything.  Playing spot-the-pop-culture-reference might be an amusing way to while away a Saturday night at the movies, but how deep a spiritual or intellectual impact does that ultimately have?

Volume 2 of the story, however, fulfills and brings new meaning to the first movie in retrospect.  Volume 1 stands alone as a complete and whole movie experience, but means more seen again after part deuce.

It seems as if Tarantino started out with fond memories of action movies and comic books past, and made a movie in homage to this, Volume 1.  

Then he said, gee what kind of actual story might there be in these cartoon characters?  How could I add character, motivation and plot, and turn this group into real people expressing some insight into the human condition?

The movies fit together by being largely opposites, like night and day.  For starters, the body count drops WAY down.  You'd be hard pressed to get a definitive body count in Volume 1, but it might be a hundred people killed, many in the bloodiest, goriest ways the director could imagine.  Whereas in Volume 2, you could count the bodies on one hand.

Those three deaths, however, count for more than all those in the prior movie, because they all represent real characters.  There has been a creative investment in Bill, his loser brother Bud, and the teacher Pai Mei.  They were not just digitized icons in a video game, but characters with stories who met their individual fates.  Notable in contrast to the first movie, NONE of these were particularly gruesome looking, or highly visually eroticized.  

The wedding scene played out at the beginning of each movie, and the different approaches of the two movies are well established right there.  The first movie shows the bloody massacre, bodies strewn in Rorschach patterns of blood.  Other than that this was some kind of wedding scene, hard telling who any of these people were.  Hell, in the whole flippin' movie The Bride never got a name.

From the start here, we learn that Beatrix Kiddo is marrying a humble record store owner.  We get at least a brief introduction to everyone in the room, including the organist who's played with every R&B act to ever come through the region. Kiddo and Bill have a beautiful and gentle scene together, and tender sensitivities as she introduces him to her groom, vainly hoping for his blessing.

Tarantino doesn't even show the massacre in this version, pulling out (to use an appropriate metaphor for the orgy of violence in Volume 1) as the assassins walk into the chapel.  Just the implication of these deaths means far more in the second picture, however, as they are now taking out all these individuals that we've been getting to know.  

Man, but Volume 2 is a huge gabbing talk fest.  I definitely mean that in a good way, because no one can write dialogue like Quentin Tarantino.  Not everything goes to his more obviously imitable broad stylistic touches, the comic riffs on cheeseburger royales and foot massages.  Bud's opening speech about facing consequences has a Western tinged moralism that has a distinctive Tarantino flare.  The reluctance and weariness of this speech, and the scenes of his humiliation as a lowly bouncer living in a trailer generate a character that casts a unique angle of  shadows on his eventual sadistic actions with Kiddo.

But Tarantino still works the magic with his more obvious dialogue techniques.  Bill finally makes a long, extended explanation to Kiddo for why he was angered enough to wipe out her wedding party.  The bulk of the explanation builds from a unique intellectual interpretation of Superman and the implications of his Clark Kent alter ego, building a big metaphor for how he interpreted her actions.  It just totally works.  It makes sense intellectually, shows great personality implied in thinking this out, and plays very tenderly in the emotional frame between them.

Volume 2 plays out stylistically and to some extent in meaning like Pulp Fiction.  They're different movies, with different characters and stylistic devices, but let's say that they look like they were made by the same person.  You could say that somewhat based on lots of little things.  There's the general theme of philosophical assassins in common, for starters.

One scene from Volume 2 particularly parallels the famous diner scene that frames Pulp Fiction.  Like the diner scene, the scene in which Beatrix Kiddo takes her pregnancy test in a hotel bathroom features a professional assassin who has a distinct moment of spiritual awakening followed immediately by a desperate effort NOT to kill someone totally deserving what they would normally have gotten. However, in Kill Bill, this scene of awakening was more a bonus, not the climactic denouement as it was in Pulp Fiction.

This seeking of redemption leads Tarantino the filmmaker and his characters to an almost amazingly quiet and tender resolution to a movie about seeking vengeance against a professional assassin for an incredibly hideous massacre. It would be difficult to imagine a more emotionally distant tenor from the wedding massacre to the tender family scenes at the end of the story. The effect of the daughter on both mother and father is the greatest profundity of the film.  The parents both knew that this family night was the only time it would happen like this before one had to kill the other, and they were at pains to keep the experience totally pure.

The tenderness remained even when the daughter was gone, and it was time to settle accounts.  Neither one really raised their voice or became majorly angered during the final confrontation. The civility was remarkable

Clearly the malice has drained from The Bride.  She has to put him down like a rabid dog, but she does it with love. By the time she gets to actually doing it, she clearly does because she HAS to rather than wants to.

You might reasonably take it that even Bill was pleased with the outcome.  Think about his pimp/father figure having explained to Kiddo that he was telling her how to find Bill because he knew Bill would WANT him to.  How else was he ever going to see her again?  

Tarantino does a lot of things very well.  For example, his work with sound here.  He gets a lot of variety and seeming reality and mileage in Volume 1 out of the sounds of swords, and the lopping off of various body parts, for one thing.

He's also famous for his creative use of pop music, such as the beautiful but less than obvious tango music over the big closing fight of Volume 1.  Cooler yet, after Kiddo's opening monologue in Volume 2 where she spoke of getting "bloody satisfaction" in wiping out all those henchmen in the first part, she's sitting quietly under Bud's trailer, thinking she's getting ready to kill him.  Meanwhile he's inside with just the reverse thought, listening to Johnny Cash singing "A Satisfied Mind."  That's just such a perfect philosophical musical statement for him to be listening to out in the desert.

There's a lot here to sift out, so it's hard telling what to think of them right away. However, he's got a lot of things going on here. These are very ambitious movies, and he's certainly done a lot of things right.  Quentin Tarantino is very good at what he does.

He's created two very different movies, not like each other or really like any other movie. They'll really repay your effort in watching them.

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