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

Elephant (2003)

Elephant (2003)
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Gus Van Sant
Stars: Elias McConnell, Alex Frost, Eric Deulen


“Why would two seemingly normal teenage boys load themselves up with assault rifles, walk into their own high school in broad daylight and pick off classmates as if they were ducks in a shooting gallery? If that could be answered in a sentence, a film like Elephant wouldn’t need to be made.”

Elephant attempts to delve beneath the surface of an evil happening, an event so close to the tragedy that happened in Columbine that it touches off a familiar dread and far enough removed that it sets off profound questions about what could possibly account for such bizarre behavior. Although the murderous acts committed by two teenage boys at Columbine may have stemmed from a deep emotional disturbance, random killing has become too commonplace for insanity to be its only explanation. Elephant invites a systemic look at the problem, taking an activist stance and demanding social responsibility.

One of the most provocative aspects of Elephant is its portrayal of abnormal as completely normal. The teenage killers in Elephant seem like normal boys, at least as normal as other students in their high school.

Elephant opens with a teen taking over the wheel of the family car because his dad is too drunk to drive properly – at 11 am! The son treats the whole thing like it’s par for the course; he’s obviously used to taking over his father’s responsibilities and covering up for his father’s failings. He does it with a straight, quiet face. That’s how the film gets its name. When there’s an alcoholic in a family and everyone covers it up, AA calls it ‘the elephant in the room’ syndrome. Everyone looks with a blank face. Harboring an alcoholic family member distorts how everyone thinks, feels and behaves but the source is a secret. Such a protected secret is like an invisible elephant, trampling childhoods, families and communities with an insidious mind-bending effect that flattens feelings.

Elephant points its finger at a couple hidden elephants as it probes for the source of a deadly teenage shooting spree. Elephant points first in the direction of teenage alienation, a state of quiet insecurity marked by sarcasm, scapegoating and an air of indifference. Gus Van Sant creates the presence of this elephant of estrangement by following teens around, mostly from the back, as if they were avatars in a computer game. After they’re made familiar, their first names come up on the screen. Only their first names. They are anonymous in their familiarity. The elephant stalks teens hanging out in the halls of a high school campus draining feeling from their personal interactions. Not even the most popular teen feels secure. Each exists more or less in their own bubble, feeling alone and worrying that they aren’t measuring up.

There’s the shy boy who uses photography to get people to pay attention to him. He shoots photos of a symbiotically dressed Goth couple who think he’s a bit of a freak but lets him take their picture anyway. His favorite photo of them is an anti-romantic shot of them looking completely away from one another. Then there’s the frumpy overweight girl who’s too embarrassed to put on shorts for gym class and never takes showers. There’s the stereotypic popular couple; the guy who wants to impress his guy friends by being with the cutest girl in the school and his girlfriend who is so jealous that she’s ready to beat up any other girl who even looks at her guy. And there’s the hot girl clique in tight jeans and mini-tees, longing to replace the popular guy’s girlfriend; they all keep their tiny figures tiny by throwing up after they eat lunch. To complete this picture, there’s a hanger-on girl who wants to be in but she’s out. So, when a boy who plays classical piano is visited by a friend who plays endless computer games while he practices, who’s thinking “this doesn’t seem very normal”? All these teens have problems and it all seems pretty normal — just the ordinary, everyday wallpaper of modern adolescence. Then, the friend boots up his computer to a website that sells military guns and everything changes.

Two teenage boys order assault rifles over the Internet with the ease of ordering a pizza. One minute the guns are on the computer screen, the next they’re in a cardboard box at their door. The boys sign for them, try them out on a wood pile in their garage and, dressed in combat black with the guns stashed in duffel bags, head out to school. They park. They walk across the school’s front yard at lunchtime. No one notices. Well, not quite. The first teen, the one with the alcoholic dad notices. One of them is a friend of his and he asks him, “what’s happening”. He’s told to get out here, some weird stuff is going to be happening. The two boys walk into the school, wait for some pre-planted bombs to explode and when they don’t, one guy says to the other, “Whatever you do, dude, be sure to have fun”. As if they’re walking through a computer game, they proceed to shoot those rapid-fire rifles and wipe out a myriad of students and teachers. It all happens so fast that one even calls 911. One student even looks for them, searching the halls, as if he might be able to just walk up and talk them out of it. He gets shot dead without a thought. Unreality is reality.

The alienation that many, many teens feel, bear in their everyday lives as they drive to school, take classes, pursue their hobbies and navigate the social pressures of judgement may seem normal – but it’s not. ‘Cool’ is no longer ‘cool’. Cool covers up a desperate anxiety about keeping up, keeping on top and keeping on going that – like the young man’s face in the opening scenes of Elephant – is a complete faade. The world is large now, overwhelming and certainly over the heads of many who have only been on this earth a bare few teen years. Parents as well their children often withdraw from the challenge, leaving teens even more vulnerable to a pressing anxiety – angst. A parent acting ‘cool’ often simply doesn’t have the answers, the skills or the strength to take on the job. They yield to their adolescent’s withdrawal with their own, doing the best they can but leaving the elephant loose in the house, the streets and the school.

The other hidden secret lumbering in plain view through Gus Van Sant’sElephant is a culture that idealizes macho images of gun-toting soldiers and action-adventure actors as real men. For teenage boys struggling with hormonal confusion and failing fathers, these role models not only distort, they torture. Any desires for touch or comfort or sympathy may be a sign of being soft, worse – gay. The culture dismisses gay as inferior and an embarrassment, certainly not acceptable as a real man nor indicative of what it’s going to take to be successful. Unfortunately, idealizing macho and demonizing gay elevates the threat of violence from boys. With guns so easily available, the war on terror billed as a patriotic act and boys eager to be men, picking up a gun can seem like an easy solution to sexual certainty. And safety from humiliation.

The gay issue is such a known issue now that efforts are made to address it. Students at the high school in Elephant meet to discuss whether you can tell just by looking at someone whether they’re gay. That’s the concern. Not what gay is but whether you can tell. What abnormality may be lurking beneath a ‘cool’ exterior that sets a guy apart, makes him weird and unacceptable. No matter how bright, how nice, how talented or how good-looking a guy may be, being thought to be ‘gay’ is high on the stigma list for derision and exclusion. All teens struggle with wanting to fit in. The two boys who became killers had fooled around with each other sexually and, presumably, chafing under the weight of their secret, felt in danger on their own turf — their home and their school. They anticipated being ostracized, for sure, and could be hurt physically, maybe even killed. Identifying with the military, men at war against a legitimate enemy, double solves their problem. They are identified with ‘real’ men and they’re on the right side. The fact that they could end up dead is all part of a game they don’t think they can win.

It would be easy to accuse computer games, computer access to guns and computer anonymity as engendering a teen’s alienated sensibility. But computer games are not the culprit. They’re the symptom. And symptoms are clues. They can lead to the source of the dis-ease in our society that makes killing seem like a solution to an adolescent challenge, the one of becoming a man in today’s society. Helping to free boys from the narrow and harmful constraints that traditional expectations of masculinity impose on them is critical. The film doesn’t give guidelines, leaving the quandary to its audience — what “elephant” of artificial normalcy were two teen-age boys seeking to overcome, shoot dead in the broad daylight of an ordinary afternoon at their high school?

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