16/04/04 Film Essay # , , , ,

Kill Bill, Volume I & II (2004)

Kill Bill, Volume I & II (2004)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Uma Thurman, David CarradineVivica A. Fox


…”Who is Bill? If you see Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films and don’t grapple with that question, you’ve missed a key point. Kill Bill I set us up to ask the question. Kill Bill II delivers the answer.”

At a time in history when comics and comedians – Doonesbury, Boondocks and Jon Stewart – are delivering cutting edge truths about the uses and abuses of power, it’s not surprising to see Tarantino’s comic book movies delivering deep philosophical truths about traveling between the mythic realms of life and death and dramatizing the imbalance of masculine and feminine forces in our modern age.

Kill Bill I and II certainly capitalize on the fascination with gore and violence that sells movies but they go far beyond the usual Pow! Bam! Shoot ’em Up attraction. Believe it or not, there’s a mythic sized romantic tragedy at the center of these films. A beautiful young woman falls in love with a smart, older man who thinks he knows what’s best for her. She puts herself in his hands, wanting to please him and fulfill his vision of the perfect woman. And then she grows up, gets pregnant, questions the fast track life defined by her man, turns on a dime and disappears. He feels abandoned, alone and rejected, his manhood radically in need of revenge and reparation. He tracks her down, finds her with another man and kills her – he thinks. But women these days are not so easily put out of the picture. She comes back, ready to do battle with any man insensitive enough to take her unborn child for his own ego satisfaction.

But Kill Bill is not simply a story of revenge, it’s a contemporary portrayal of the larger seesaw of life and death forces aptly dramatized by the storyteller of our times – film. With finely tuned cinematic appeal, Good and Evil rage against one another in a most acceptable form – the unreal world of the comic book. The conflict between the universal forces of feminine and masculine, subjective and objective perspectives as well as the mystical and the scientific are set into high-speed motion by Tarantino for your viewing pleasure and enlightenment. It’s all very believable in the realm of fantasy; impossibly so.

Done in lighter ways, this story is Pygmalion – a man who thinks he knows what a woman should be and finds himself left behind when she grows up and has some ideas of her own. Done in a dark way, this is Medea where a man was wrong when he thought a woman who devoted herself to him and his career would not mind him taking their sons and moving on to greener pastures. Done darkly in the movies, this is Lost Highway where David Lynch morphed men mercilessly in the night searching for a comfort zone with gorgeous women. Men who base their masculinity on control of the feminine may start out well, even draw the most beautiful and exciting women. But the rebellion that occurs when a woman gets her own idea of who she is can make for a nasty ending if a man resorts to violence to maintain his control. It’s this kind of woman and this kind of man that fill Tarantino’s bill in both volumes of Kill Bill. Mother nature has drawn an invisible line of respect in the sand between men and women – and Bill crosses one that invites a fight to the death with his beloved, The Bride. We know from the film titles, from the horrific massacre at the beginning of Kill Bill I, and from the fact that a sequel, Volume II, promised to reveal Bill ‘s true identity and the truth about his top woman assassin’s determination to do him in.

So, who is Bill? I mean – really. Sure, he’s a pimp, a broker of killers for hire. But what does he represent in the world and why must he be killed? For the woman’s sake, for the world’s sake?

The first twenty minutes of Kill Bill II almost sent me from the theatre in shivers, willing to miss out on the answer. There’s a relentless, ruthless attack on The Bride (Uma Thurman, the hero we believe in) by Bill’s brother, Budd (Michael Madsen, a true brother in crime). I wish I could say I had the trust of a kid reading a comic book that the good girl would win while watching Volume II. But I was really worried that I could be in for a misogynist driven second half to Kill Bill I. After all, Uma got away with a lot of murder in that first half. It wasn’t just the sadistic laughing of Budd who felt he was justified in burying Uma alive because she had hurt his brother’s feelings by leaving him. It was the finality of comic book logic – every superhero meets situations where there’s no way out.

Burying The Bride alive was just a little too close for comfort to the history of male-dominated societies and sad revelations of female mythology. Many books testify to how the patriarchy has sunk the feminine far into the underground on purpose, for greed and power (The Da Vinci Code is a recent, fictionalized version of this research.). My trust moved to even shakier ground when Uma not only got nailed into her coffin with feet and hands bound by heavy ropes in a box barely the size of her body but was also lowered into a gravesite and covered with dirt. Even if she did have the wherewithal to get out of the box, the earth would crush her. Her plight arouses a flight or fight response that had me gasping for air. It lasted just long enough — lit off and on by a flashlight she had chosen (over being blinded by mace) to ease her crossover to death– to make me desperate for a superhero to show up.

And then, just when I thought I couldn’t stand it another minute, Tarantino tucks in a back-story. He changes the pace, eases the despair of terror by showing The Bride adding Chinese martial arts under the tutelage of The Master Killer, Pai Mei, (Chia Hui Liu) to ones she honed earlier in Japan. This taught her mind over matter. Whew. I won’t spoil the suspense but suffice it to say, it has something to do with getting in touch with the power within. It’s well known that an individual’s subjective viewpoint colors much of how you see things but the lesson here is that it could save your life. It isn’t Superman but The Bride’s own, natural superpower that gets her out of the box. A Wonder Woman for an age of wonder, she taps into the roar of her eternal life force. The Bride rises like an original earth goddess from Budd’s intent to suffocate her, spiraling like a whirling dervish straight from the grave as truly as the ancient Sumerian goddess, Inanna, returned after her descent into hell.

The larger story point is that women in descent – pushed or pursuant – experience revitalization. Years of oppression do not go unrewarded in mythology. They reconnect with their unconscious, uniquely feminine spirit and begin to rise again. The Bride survives this second certain death at the hands of a man determined to do her in and resumes her path of revenge toward Bill. Integrated now with the powers of the mythic Underground as well as martial arts from Japan and China, The Bride holds new options for taking on obstacles – even at close range and when seeming hopelessly trapped. Flying in space and traversing time without constraint is old hat for this heroine. This feminine hero now possesses a few special, secret tricks about resilience that will come in handy later, in the nick of comic book time.

Dusty and smeared with mud – otherwise no worse off from her ordeal – the Bride, fleet of foot and vast in energy, crosses desert mountains with in a single stride to pay Budd another visit. But she finds her dirty work done. One of Bill’s other ViPERS, Elle (Daryl Hannah, a ‘She’ if there ever was one), has given Budd more than money for The Bride’s famous sacred Hattori Hazon sword. She hid a poisonous snake midst the million and killed him, dead within moments. Elle, a one-eyed blonde mirror image of The Bride greets Uma, Hattori Hazon sword in hand – knowing full well how to use it. And Elle wants nothing more than to take The Bride’s first place position with Bill. But look out. The Bride knows Budd has been hiding a Hattori Hazon sword of his own, given to him by brother Bill. She finds and pulls it from its sheath.

Now, as kids would say, the next scenes are the good part – a clashing sword fight between two lithe, tall, blond and well-matched female warriors. They tear poor old Budd’s trailer to shreds as they would smash a city to smithereens if they were let loose in it. They go at their fight pretty evenly until The Bride discovers that Elle killed Master Pei Mei who had taught them both their super skills. Then she ends it with one of those other tricks she’s learned from The Master Killer – another one that should be revealed only to the brave moviegoers who survive The Bride’s Texas burial. That’s when we begin to suspect The Bride of ethics not befitting a cold-blooded killer. The white eye-browed bearded monk not only trained The Bride as a master assassin, he opened doors of perception for her, and ones he didn’t open for others. Everything she sees is psychic, there for dissolution, remaking and transforming to her heart’s desire.

From now on, she is a sleek killing machine intent on ridding the world of Bill, her archenemy, ex-lover and the leader of the ViPER pack. Volume II began by telling how the wedding massacre in Volume I came about. The Bride had left Bill when she found out she was pregnant, wanting to leave the business that endangered the new life growing in her body and putting her in constant peril. She dropped far out of the limelight, looking for a quiet retreat into domesticity. But Bill found her and, unable to lure her back to him, shot her in the head. She didn’t die but she did go into a coma for four years, a symbolic death from which she awakens stronger than ever. In Volume I, she makes a list and starts on the rampage that leads her to Bill in Volume II. It’s clear. There is no life for her if Bill is alive. This is more than revenge, more than retribution for the death of her child and the unmitigated attempt on her own life. She could never be free. He owns her perception of herself as a natural born killer. To have a chance at being her true self, she must break the mirror.

As The Bride descends upon Bill’s house, she is intent upon killing this enemy of her soul. But she’s met with a surprise that pits her realities one against the other. She discovers an outer reality that she definitely wants to be a part of. But there is also the internal reality – being in service to Bill – that goes directly up against it. The emotional tension of The Bride carrying both simultaneously visibly reads as a tough cookie with heart. She’s awesome. And we want to know what she’s going to do. It will be a fight to the death – of realities. The Bride kills Bill and, with him, the old image of herself. But that’s not the secret that closes the story. Again, I wish I could tell it but The Bride has a grand trick this time, one that restores balance in her life, one that you have to see and feel for yourself. Bill’s ability to maintain an imbalance of power is killed. His foot on the neck of innocence and belief in the goodness of ordinary life is lifted.

Bill’s own ego killed him. Like Orpheus who – against explicit orders from Hades – had to take one look back as he led his beloved Eurydice up from the underworld, Bill had to know why The Bride left him. Unable to tolerate ambiguity, uncertainty and the tension of trust without control, he shoots The Bride with a truth serum so that he can believe what she tells him. And she does tell him the truth. She left him because he was wrong; she is not a natural born killer. She is not his right arm. She was a manmade killer and she no longer is. When she discovered she was pregnant, she found her center, the eye of generativity that offset the historical horrors in her life. And Bill (like Orpheus) loses her, dies of a blow to the heart he didn’t know was possible. In truth, it was Bill’s lack of imagination, his inability to embrace the ineffable meaning of love and his perverse addiction to the momentary delight of domination that did him in. It was his inability to trust The Bride as his own soul.

Lucky for us. Because Bill symbolizes the separated, unbalanced masculine that turns away from the mystery of what is not yet known, what is yet to come.

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15/10/03 Film Essay # , , , ,

Mystic River (2003)

Mystic River (2003)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Brian Helgeland (screenplay), Dennis Lehane (novel)
Stars: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon


“The time bomb buried in the psyches of young boys sexually abused by men of the cloth explodes in Mystic River, a gutsy expose of a deep and far reaching problem ignored by the Catholic Church for too many years.”

Clint Eastwood steps out of the picture as a real hero of society with his production of Mystic River, brave beyond his ‘make my day’ film image.Mystic River makes it abundantly clear that sexual abuse by a priest is not comparable to any pain a child suffers at the hands of an ordinary adult. It’s personal, familial and societal, implanting a boy with a resounding world of hurt and filling his community with confounding guilt. Eastwood’s willingness to tell it like it is and show the power of sexual abuse laced with religious overtones to persist throughout a lifetime is more than an act of bravery. It’s a gift of sight. Mystic River translates a complex emotional injury into terms that everyone can fully comprehend. Sexual abuse by a man carrying religious authority acts as thief and killer of a child’s soul. Even the friends of a child who’s been abused, the ones who don’t directly experience the abuse but simply know that they could have, so easily, been victims suffer a crisis of trust that will affect their actions and personal destinies.

Three boys of about ten years old playing stick hockey in the side streets of an Irish Boston suburb lose their ball down a sewer drain. Left without a game to play, one suggests they amuse themselves by taking a parked car and driving it around the block. Another says his mom would kill him if he did anything like that. The third hangs back, hankering for a little excitement but not ready to break the law. Finally, the first gets a bright idea. They can carve their names in a block of freshly poured concrete sidewalk. He goes first, aggressively printing his name, “Jimmy”, with the end of a stick. The second goes along, scrawling “Sean” in the wet cement. And then, rising to a jibe from Jimmy, the reluctant third one takes the stick. Just as he finishes the second letter of his name, “Da..”, a car pulls up and a large burly man acting like a cop steps out in a big overcoat and, in old fashioned terms, puts the fear of God in the boys for destroying public property.

All well and good. A familiar scene of getting caught etched in the memory of many adults from childhood. But then the cop steps forward, a bit out of character, zooming in on the boy who went last when he finds out that he doesn’t have parents who might be watching from an overlooking apartment. He physically forces him into the backseat of his car. And then it gets worse. It’s not the false badge flashing nor the hand cuffs hanging from the belt, but the ring with the insignia of the priesthood on the hand of his pal waiting in the car that sends chills up our spines. The pal, a man in black with the telltale white collar casually drapes his right hand with the ring over the back of his seat, turning back to get a good look at Dave. Later, a large gold cross swings loose around his neck as he comes after Dave cringing on a mattress in a bleak cellar where he is being held by these two men against his will.

Dave manages to escape four days later, running through the woods like a wild, hunted animal. As he returns home, a crowd gathers to watch and someone whispers ‘looks like damaged goods to me’. Everyone knows what that means. His shamefaced mother huddles him into the house and can be seen berating him in an upstairs window. Not just Dave but his friends, Jimmy and Sean, will bear the blame for this abduction as if it were them, not the priest who perpetrated the crime. There is a specter of evil that comes in human form that cannot be captured and put behind bars. It lives in the shadows of hubris and rises up years later to take a deadly toll. Wanton assault on a child’s innocence by adults holding not just lawful but sacred authority is a game with far reaching consequences.

The three boys drift apart, grow up into a mobster, a cop and an unemployed ballplayer. Their friendship becomes a thing of the past until a young girl is murdered in their old neighborhood, forcing them to cross paths and showing exactly how the ghosts from a childhood incident can still dictate the critical choices in their lives. Dave (Tim Robbins) now has a young son, about the same age he was when he was abducted. He’s a dear but broken man, tormented by demons and married to a frightened, stupid woman (Marsha Gay Harden) who may love him but has no ability to think for herself. Sean (Kevin Bacon) has aligned himself with the law, becoming a homicide detective on the Boston police force. Married but estranged from his wife, he cannot say what he wants nor apologize for what distances him from her pregnancy, afraid to take on the responsibility of being a father. Jimmy (Sean Penn) solidified his penchant for rebellion into life of crime as a smalltime mob boss after a couple years in jail. He’s become a family man with a loyal but jealously possessive wife (Laura Linney) and three daughters, the oldest a blossoming nineteen-year-old daughter from an earlier teenage marriage. She’s the girl who’s been murdered.

Jimmy’s mind meets the disaster with rage, so wracked with grief and guilt that he can believe – against evidence – that Dave still holds his fate against him for that day so long ago. Dave still reels with shame about his hatred for fathers who abuse boys and cannot speak in his own defense. At first, Jimmy seeks Dave out as a confidant for his own guilt but then he turns on him as if Dave’s death offers salvation. He kills him with self-righteous clarity, raging against injustices he cannot prevent and raging justifiably against the forces of evil that have invaded him. Jimmy’s friends as well as his wife are persuaded by his hatred of an enemy they cannot find, admiring of his wild impatience with the law. Any enemy will do. Of course, Jimmy’s actions make him exactly what he so much wants to eliminate — an irrational force of violence aligned with religion against the exploitation of the innocent. And, once again, Jimmy slips away from the reach of the law, evading the police but not Sean. And Sean, once again, gets caught bearing witness to an injustice he cannot make right, cannot understand.

Sadly, each of the three wives in Mystic River is deeply enmeshed in her husband’s misery, playing roles that close rather than open doors. Dave’s wife is in over her head when he comes home covered in blood with a story that he may have killed a mugger who attacked him on the way to his car. She cannot contain her anxiety about what really happened and, when Dave cannot speak clearly in his own defense, she makes a terrible choice to seek solace from Jimmy. Jimmy’s wife is a woman envious of her step-daughter’s tag on her dad’s heart. So, when Jimmy is at his darkest moment, realizing the power of guilt to distort his good sense, she assuages him with a speech of self-righteous rhetoric that barely covers her glee at finding herself at the center of his attention. However, it’s Sean’s wife that clearly reveals the wives of such men to be mirrors of their own trap. She appears as a woman without identity on the other end of a phone, separated from Sean and pregnant. She dials but she doesn’t speak, making random calls to him that bear no message. She’s a reflection, waiting for him to speak. He must break the silence if it’s to be broken. It is only he who can open the door, make an attempt to escape the legacy of ‘what if’ – what if it had been him who had been abducted that day. Is he up to the role of father?

Mystic River is not a new story, it’s an old one. Children being brought up in a simple system of right and wrong where they are continually complying with and breaking rules, finding their way toward being an adult as they make their choices and receive punishment or praise. However, somewhere behind the simple system lies the ‘big system’, the one that determines whether they’re a worthy human being in the eyes of God. And somewhere along the line, a child decides about himself and begins to make choices that fit his decision of worthiness. In Mystic River, two boys get to make that decision – one doesn’t. For the two who do, one goes with the law and one goes against. The one who lost that critical decision lives life with a shredded soul guided by hands that shake and a mind that can’t remember. That child, haunted by nightmares, grows up never sure whether he’s a real human being at all, much less a worthy one. He’s eaten up by a wolfish anxiety that steals his choice, his intelligence and his spirit – and makes him a victim all over again.

At the end of Mystic River, Jimmy and Sean attend a community parade in the old neighborhood with their families. For a brief moment, they catch one another’s eye across the street. Silence hangs heavy between them like it did on that day so long ago. They’re not friends but a familiar feeling passes between them. They’re again implicated witnesses, bonded beneath the skin by a certain knowing. The son of the third man – the missing one – rides in the parade. One day, that kid will need the truth. Will he get it? Mystic River gives some idea of the complexity of that truth, some picture of just how many men and women are truly responsible for Dave’s death. And Jimmy’s daughter?

This is a story with a moral. When a boy’s soul is not protected from evil, he walks a dark path of perpetual doubt about whether he qualifies as a real human being.

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25/05/01 Film Essay # , , ,

Memento (2000)

Memento (2000)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Christopher NolanJonathan Nolan (short story)
Stars: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano


Memento rides Oscar momentum so, hurry, catch it up on the big screen. See if you can figure out who killed Lenny’s life —— oops, I meant wife.”

By the end of Memento, I felt like I was inside Lenny Shelby (brilliantly played by the stunning Guy Pearson), an insurance agent who can’t form new memories after his wife dies in a bizarre accident. I wasn’t sure who had done what to whom or if what I’d seen had happened at all. But if you were to ask me what I’d seen as we walked out of the theatre, I’d give you a good story and believe it myself. In spite of my certainty that I couldn’t know anything for sure, I’d act as if I did. And soon you would join me figuring out whether we were in or out of sync with reality, both of us driven by a mysterious force to make sense out of what we’re talking about.

Lenny Shelby, believes that if he can – somehow – find out who murdered his wife. Then he can – somehow – kill him. And then he can – somehow – restore his peace of mind. Find the killer and kill him. That’s the simple story of Memento. Before his wife died, Lenny had a life – a routine, love and confidence. Now he has motel rooms, friends he doesn’t recognize and an identity he can’t be sure of. If he can just find the man who murdered his wife, he believes he can get back what he’s lost, his true reality. Lenny is desperate, crazily searching for a sense of himself that once seemed god given, natural and forever.

At its core, however, Memento opens up into a larger story, yielding a rare peek into a quest usually hidden from view, buried deep in the unconscious. It’s as if Lenny meets the Sphinx, a fabulous being of several heads, various animals and the snapping tail of a dragon. The Sphinx is said to watch over an ultimate meaning that must remain forever beyond the understanding of man. Lenny searches for the secret of sanity in a world of shifting images, messages and recollections. Perhaps his true quest is for an answer to an ancient riddle – “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it fall, does it make a noise?” Lenny may say “the world doesn’t just disappear when you close your eyes” but for him, events disappear minutes after they’ve occurred. And then what evidence can he possibly use to prove an event ever happened? Testimony from someone who was there? Did the murder of his wife actually happen —— and did it happen the way he thinks it did? The tree fell but did it make a noise if he can’t remember what happened?

Across Lenny’s chest, there’s an indelible tattoo of a fact he doesn’t want to forget —— “John G raped and murdered my wife”. But he —— and we —— can only read the message when he looks in the mirror, at a possibly soulless, two-dimensional reflection of himself. Hope and rage drive Lenny to compulsively track his wife’s killer, never doubting that he’s progressing toward recovery of his loss. If the killer can be stopped, he can get his life back. He believes killing the killer is the key to recovering his ability to make new memories and his sanity. I found myself dropping logic and entering Lenny’s frustration at not being able to remember events, his handwriting the sole clue that he once believed what he’d written. As Lenny moves through collapsing reflections captured quickly by a Polaroid camera, only his burning desire to find his wife’s killer holds him together.

Lenny justifies his drive for revenge in an intense speech to Teddy (Joe Pantoliana) —— a sinister, ever-confounding friendly cop who plays as good a demon of confusion as you’re ever going to see outside your own mind. “How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?”, Lenny argues. Cultural as well as ephemeral, time is critical to sanity. But feeling time is an invention of a mind plagued by its loss. It may be romantic to think of living continually in the moment, never besieged by an emotional invasion from the past. But being in the moment takes on new meaning when memory fails, disconnecting past from present and present from future, leaving its owner stranded in between. Without the ability to form new memories, Lenny’s like a naked man in a dream, exposed and defenseless. It’s a frightening realization. One who can’t keep track of what’s happening can be easily led down dangerous paths.

The extent of Lenny’s vulnerability becomes wrenchingly apparent when he can’t discern that Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), the flawed beauty behind a bar who invites him home has just served him a pint of beer that she, a stranger and he himself has spit in. And Natalie doesn’t stop at teasing. She tricks and exploits him, becoming a vehicle for propelling him deeper into the spiraling whorl of reflections that he believes is his salvation. Mementonow asks a harder question of the Sphinx than the first one —— “if a man were there when the tree fell but doesn’t remember the noise the tree made when it fell, what’s going to happen to him?” In other words, what happens when the psyche can’t, won’t or doesn’t —— for any reason whatsoever —— keep up with the bombardment of information most of us find common to everyday modern living?

I believe Memento may be visionary, bringing to light a palpable fear barely speakable, perhaps only askable to ourselves in the morning mirror when the answer lies buried beneath a need to get on with the day. This isn’t about Alzheimers; Lenny is a young man. This is about a loss of memory from an unknown source, not far from something we all experience from time to time. Lenny struggles to keep track of what’s required and what’s needed to navigate practicalities as well as achieve his goal. He’s lost “it“, whatever “it” is that makes it possible to keep up a pretense of sanity. We all fake recognition of name, a person or an object when we feel on the spot. As long as we can remember what’s expected, we’re in the game. Our recognition of protocol provides protection, a thin line but still solid. However, danger lurks nearby; will we soon mistake the ad showing a hamburger for the real thing and try to eat the menu? Layering the murder of Lenny’s wife with an obliteration of short term memory, Memento poses yet another a pressing question of modern times, “of what do we become capable and of what do we become victim without the ability to form new memories?”

Certainly Memento qualifies as a complex murder mystery. I’m still trying to figure it out. Christopher Nolan who won numerous awards from his screenplay cleverly structures the film to keep multiple possibilities vying for truth right up to the end. Track Lenny’s system. Don’t miss the tricky turns. And you will also tap into the profundity of the questions raised byMemento, asked of the Sphinx —— the one who lies behind the doors of perception. Lenny’s plight rouses alarm for what happens when memory loses its race with time. It’s as if a silent killer lies in the psyche, capable of wiping out a security once taken for granted. Lenny himself may be the one he seeks. That is, the one suffering may be the one guilty. Diving into the fearsome depths of death by memory loss throws Memento into a chasm of human mystery far beyond Lenny’s drive for revenge.

Restore your own memory after watching Memento; watch it again. The murder, like Guy Pearson’s fine physique, acts like a pair of broad shoulders from which a tailored suit hangs in perfection, taking you – not just Lenny – on a trip across a threshold from which you will return, changed and thoughtful. Memento is nothing if not a gift of effect —— engaging us directly in our primary need to track events in order to feel safe.


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