Living in the World Today
Jeff Reichert on Kill Bill: Vol. 1
Each new decade lays its own claims to surrogacy over the global village. If ever there was a movement to locate it firmly, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 should be the standard-bearer for the first decade of the 21st century. Look at where we are. Burmese, Ethiopian, Argentinean, or Korean for dinner? Forget choosing between a panoply of local restaurants and ethnic enclaves—click twice, find a recipe and make it yourself. One more click to any music from anywhere that you’d like to hear (albeit illegally, for now). Click again, and turn corporate-friendly news reporting into alternative voices from around the globe. Go to your living room and make a choice from thousands of stations. Digital projection systems that will eclipse our world of platters, splices, bulbs and sprockets offer promise for choices in the theaters that would make the change ‘em up ethos of classic repertory cinema seem staid. The onset of digital has made earlier claims that never before has so much been so close and so bewildering and so exhilarating all at once seem like the naive words of children, and we’re far from the point of knowing how even the most unassuming of new possibilities could turn revolutionary. It is in this milieu that Kill Bill firmly situates itself, virtually breathes it from every frame. This hyper-capitalist landscape has us locked into cycles of desire and want spinning ever more quickly out of control and though it’s easy to complain that we can never be satiated amongst the flood of sameness we’re being offered, we shouldn’t ignore that we’re also starting to demand much more. Sooner or later the scale is going to tip in our favor. If Kill Bill’s genius is in delivering us our “now” it achieves it by bringing the “more”—images, sounds, scenes, styles, pop-culture references. “More,” and for this filmgoer, pretty damn close to enough.
Kill Bill: Volume 1, more than any film released in 2003 screams “now.” Its mere existence quickly eradicates questions of “good” and “bad” years for cinema—Tarantino’s gift would irrevocably change any year that it was released. That it came, almost unheralded, during the drought of a, yes, “bad year” for movies makes its essential importance stand out even more, and will forever mark 2003, if nothing else, as the year that it happened. Or at least, should. A shot to the heart of early 21st-century film culture garnered Quentin, at best, a slew of “that’s nice’s” followed by patronizing pats on the head as everyone rushed off to see something else. At worst, facile gimp-masked moralism was woken again from its slumber and trotted out to fuck Bill, and hard. Why descend for honest combat wielding rigor and analysis when the lofty perch is so damn comfortable? Either way, it’s almost as if no one could—no, wanted—to believe that he, the prodigal son, could return after so long, after so much, and show us exactly who we are, where we are, where we’re heading, and with such ghastly style and horrible grace. And let’s not forget that he remembered to entertain beyond the limits of anything produced within the mainstream studio system in recent memory. Jackie Brown is a great film, but Kill Bill: Volume 1 is the logical forward step (no, leap) from Pulp Fiction. Had it been made in Jackie Brown’s place in 1997, it would have seemed alien—no one would have been ready. As it is, 2003 is still not quite there yet.
Can it really be claimed that Kill Bill’s all-out assault on the boundary between high and low culture isn’t anything less than essential? Would it be too bold to state that it is this very threshold which the art of cinema needs to address to maintain its vitality into the 21st century? Quentin has made a film that absorbs world changes large and small: culture clash, file sharing, satellite dishes, DVD commentary, chat rooms, global commerce—indeed it could not have been made in a world that wasn’t so fully saturated by them. And he doesn’t stop there. To call him out for excessive violence is to forget that ours is a world of violent excess. It is this beyond itself that characterizes our present condition. Questioning the seeming lack of editorial on said violence? It’s there, look again (hint: a child’s glance at a killer over her mother’s dead body, a later echo in anime eyes witnessing even more horrifying carnage). To complain that he borrows—from Hark, from Fukasaku, from De Palma, from Leone is to miss out on the possibilities of a moment, this moment—where everything just may be up for grabs and the concepts of ownership and authorship need to be revised, and just how fucking great this could be. But then, perhaps his subtlest joke is how he makes all this “borrowed” material finally, irrevocably his.
Other films on our year-end list address the “now”—demonlover and Elephant with trepidation, Lost in Translation with wry, resigned detachment, Lord of the Rings through allegory and sheer force of its realization, Mystic River by complete refusal—but none live and breathe it so urgently as Kill Bill. Way back in 1994, Pulp Fiction changed the cinematic landscape. Near simultaneously, the Wu-Tang Clan shattered the rap world with Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Both succeeded on airtight aesthetics of ethnic idolization copped from the movies (blaxploitation on the one hand, kung-fu on the other) coupled with a yawning disinterest in high and low, underground and over, and no oddsmaker could have predicted their unexpectedly wild success. Both spawned knock-offs and imitations, and didn’t return (notwithstanding the numerous Wu-Tang side projects or Four Rooms) with new works until 1997. After that, silence until after the turn of the century. Silence that raised questions about whether either were that good in the first place. It’s all too fitting that the architects of both (Quentin and the Clan’s RZA) have come together nearly a decade later to prove the skeptics wrong. If you’re still not convinced that Kill Bill deserves this spot and that Tarantino and RZA are the most exciting cinematic pairing of 2003, check out the interplay in the Lucy-Uma cat-sword-fight finale. As solo flamenco guitar morphs into mariachi into funk on the soundtrack, Tarantino’s protagonists circle each other warily, impending death fully palpable, in one of the most indelible, fatalistic moments of 2003. Too fatalistic? Remember it was Rainer Werner Fassbinder who said “The more fatalistic a film is the more hopeful it is.” Maybe Volume 2 will make the fundamental optimism in this work more obvious. For all its merits, that may be the best part of watching Kill Bill: Volume 1—the realization as it ends: we’re only halfway there.