Hell Hath No Fury

Scorned auteurs drag their leading ladies through the mud

Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill--now complete in its two volumes--looks as hip-slung gorgeous as its dirty-faced Barbie Doll heroine. The movie mixes color and black and white, live action and animation, long tracking shots and quick snippets with the road-tested confidence of a Diana Taurasi (albeit with little of her fierceness). There are one or two fight sequences so elegantly art-directed and choreographed that this viewer knew they were sinking teeth into her movie mind even as they unspooled.

So why, oh Polly Jean Harvey, does it leave me so dry?

The Barbie Doll a.k.a. the Bride a.k.a. Uma Thurman: I don't know. Because I'm a bad person.

The Director a.k.a. Bill a.k.a. David Carradine: No, you're not a bad person. You're a terrific person. But every once in a while, you can be a real cunt.

I can say that Tarantino's protagonist and antagonists here remain flat cartoon cutouts about whom I cared less in the end, after four full hours, than I did in the first minute. (These are not so much character arcs as--in the spirit of the bloodfest--leakings.) But then Tarantino wrote them emphatically flat dialogue, gave them one-dimensional lives, offered at best two motivations (revenge and love). He even provides an easy illustration for viewers seeking depth: black silhouettes fighting and falling against a vivid color screen (shades of Charlie's Angels). Tarantino leads are not known for their complexity of soul (complexity of the triple-cross sting, sure); yet Pam Grier's Jackie Brown and Robert Forster's Max Cherry were deep-sea diving compared to these slogan-spouting ciphers.

Why so bland? Maybe it has something to do with the freeway-wide plot. In brief: A trained killer known as Black Mamba (Thurman) flees her life with Bill (Carradine), the head of an international assassin team, because she's pregnant. Bill tracks her down at a Texas chapel, where she's marrying a record-store owner. Bill's four top assassins crash the wedding rehearsal, machine-gun the participants to death, and beat the very pregnant Black Mamba. Even as she confesses she's carrying Bill's baby, Bill shoots her in the head. Four years later, the wronged woman now known as the Bride wakes from a coma, recovers muscle tone in minutes, and sets out to kill 'em all. She will, of course. That's what happens in the martial arts/spaghetti western/grindhouse movies Tarantino is referencing. The "pleasure" is supposed to arrive on the, y'know, journey.

The sluggish Kill Bill Vol. 1 only whacked two of the Bride's five targeted assassins, taking out the black one, Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), in a quick five and a half minutes (a joke in itself?) in order to spend a little time on backstory and the rest on the ramp up to an epic tea house massacre. Unfortunately, said massacre fails to make for a classic scene, as the suited minions of Tokyo crime boss O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) go down like so many Matrix clones. The magic of the Bride's subsequent duel with O-Ren, set in falling snow with slashes of red, arises from its spareness and brevity; it's the one sequence in Vol. 1 where I believed the hype. Otherwise the movie, to me, seemed bloodless (despite all the fire-hydrant sprays): a series of cinematic references improved, perhaps, by technology, but not by new vision. And I didn't laugh! Worse, I could tell I was supposed to.

If I didn't catch the rush, what was the point of it all? In the absence of characterization, I can only say that there wasn't one. Vol. 2 will be pegged as the "emotional half," where what's at stake is revealed in all its lioness-defending-cub glory. (Kill Bill's one sharp turn comes at the end of the first installment, when Bill reveals the existence of the Bride's child.) But most of the second half is spent killing off the remaining two junior assassins, who are so lightly sketched that Tarantino can play their deaths for comedy. (Vol. 1's enemy assassins, by comparison, now look as well-rounded as Hamlet.) Trailer-living, topless bar-bouncing Budd (Michael Madsen), who's mad at Bill, and one-eyed Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), who's mad for Bill, get the cheap deaths they apparently deserve. I couldn't muster a snort. (In my defense, Reservoir Dogs killed me. Am I simply inured?)

The remaining chapter, in which Mr. Bill faces his love/nemesis and the Bride becomes Mommy, veers into floppy sentimentality. We may be talking about "sentimentality," because it seems to be accompanied by a reverential smirk. Bill makes wholesome sandwiches for his daughter with a butcher knife and what looks like "Bimbo" white bread. Mommy plays pretend assassin with the girl, then hugs her tearfully. This is where I expected the flat edge of character and dialogue to start cutting. It does a little. The movie draws a subtle circle from the girl witnessing her mother's stabbing in the initial set piece to the Bill-Bride-daughter finale. But subtlety gets lost in this cartoon. I wish Tarantino had one-upped John Woo and made a tragic Killer ending that reached through all the flatness and grabbed me by the hair. As it is, there are some vague gestures toward media violence that could be taken any which way. Is the daughter doomed or privileged to be the spawn of this killer-bee mother? Who cares?

The first volume was criticized for its violence. What bums me out is that the violence isn't moving: So often it isn't funny or terrible or even yucky. All Tarantino's stylish visual and aural explosions--the over-the-topness of it all--don't make me giddy, only perplexed: feeling like I ought to be feeling something, but not feeling it. The various humiliations suffered by the Bride look like the biggest pandering (to the audience that enjoys female suffering). I came, saw, shrugged.

And, bored, I looked for meaning. Why does the Bride's blondeness draw constant admiration from man and girl alike, along with the immediate urge to smudge it? Is she supposed to represent America post-9/11? Traditional femininity? (The sentimentalizing of maternity is what's really over the top.) Thurman zigzags between acting and "acting," hitting every off note in between. Carradine stays true to his greasy Henry Higgins. My favorite line is his first--Do you find me sadistic?--because it seems to be Tarantino's question to the viewer. This is me at my most masochistic, the Svengali continues. Why? Because he's messing up what he loves? Does he want a medal?

 

I might have asked the same questions of Lars von Trier, whose orchestrated female submissions (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark) make me want to kick his teeth in. (I guess, given Mel Gibson's very orchestrated male submission, I ought to be happy with equal opportunity martyrdom.) In von Trier's latest, Dogville, the raped and battered woman (Nicole Kidman) goes refreshingly Bridal; unlike Tarantino, von Trier communicates the ugly horror of her persecution and her revenge. (Trust the manipulative von Trier not to provide an easy way out.) All this in a copiously arch style: The small-town setting is a black stage with white markings for buildings; one character is a writer who's into moral "illustrations."

Kidman's Grace, on the run from gangsters, is first sheltered and then abused by the Depression-era townspeople. Then the Mob shows up. For the first time, this female degradation is a means to an end, not some kind of misogynistic tribute. The end being Grace's ponderings: How do we as a society deal with those who hurt others? Do we forgive them, try to educate them because of their impoverished moral backgrounds, or do we hurt them back? It's definitely a post-9/11 question. It's also an arrogant one. (Who set "us" up as morality judges?) I don't doubt von Trier's critique of U.S. society and policy: His arrow pierces, though as usual his movie (like many in the U.S.) willfully ignores complex alternatives to its philosophical crucible. And von Trier can't help condescending to someone: here, to our country's poor, finally pictured in dirty desperation to the tune of Bowie's "Young Americans." You can bet they love being illustrated.

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