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July 15, 2004

Alice on "Kill Bill"

I'm a great fan of The British Blogger Formerly Known as Alice Bachini -- the gal who recently relocated to Texas and who now blogs as Alice in Texas, here. Alice is a wonderfully volatile phenomenon: flighty yet full of commonsense, larky yet incisive ...

Alice mostly blogs about politics, from what I think of as a realistically-libertarian point of view: no loony visions of how we'd be settling Jupiter today if only it weren't for government meddling. But she's also a terrific cultural observer, with an impossible-to-predict set of free-range interests, a quicksilver set of instincts, and (for my money) the merriest writing style in blogdom.

I'm delighted to have persuaded her to take advantage of 2Blowhards as an outlet for some of her cultureblogging. Please do check in with her own blog, Alice in Texas (here), for Alice on politics. And now, Alice on "Kill Bill 2."

Five good reasons to see the Kill Bills:

1) Uma Thurman is the new Clint Eastwood,
2) The fight scenes are extraordinary, morally powerful, and often beautiful (in an extremely bloody kind of a way, obviously),
3) The music is as full of character as the characters (especially in KBI, although the cowboy signatures in II are as powerfully stylised as anything from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly); in fact some of them even use the same notes,
4) Kill Bill is the latest incarnation of the bounty-hunting warrior myth, which places it squarely inside an important movie and story-telling tradition,
5) Uma is cool. I want to be Uma. Where can I get that yellow jumpsuit?

In martial arts, the big trick is to use your opponent's weight and strength against them. So, for instance, if they are rushing towards you with a sword at a hundred miles an hour, you just flick them gently into the air on contact, and they whack the ceiling then land crash on the glass coffee-table creating a beautiful shower of glass shards somewhat like cherry-blossom falling in the breeze. After that, being indestructible, they get up again, which is a bit of a pain; but anyway, the point is that this principle of intelligent re-direction of force, as opposed to head-to-head conflict of brute force, is what provides us with the idea that women Samurai can potentially be as good as, if not better than, men.

In warrior console games, it's the same story. Women and men fight on equal footing. Little adolescent girls win at least as often as heavy hulking Hell's Angels, in fact their litheness is an advantage. It's all about the foot-work. There is an anime cartoon in which console games have risen to new heights, being fought-out by robots operated by telepathy, in which women are naturally superior. Me, I'd rather make a sponge-cake. But who knows.

The superiority of the female sex in Kill Bill I and II seems to be part of a cultural trend of growing significance that harkens from Japan, and you could read the entire move-pair as a parable about how the paternal culture (Bill) bred a group of strong women (the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad) only to have the next generation in the shape of Uma outgrow him, and when he refuses to give up his hold on her, bring the whole structure down and supplant it with the maternal culture (avoiding spoilers here just in case). But the movie doesn't really say that girls are better, it just says they have babies and men should be sensitive about how that affects their prioirities. It's hard to stay interested in your high-flying job when something more important came along. Bill's mistake is to fight that instead of taking a step back.

Still going with the reading-a-lot-into-it thing here, because that's just what I like to do, what Bill does wrong is act like a jealous child and a father, rolled into one. He over-rules Uma's feminine autonomy, because he "loves" her in an egotistical way. He behaves contradictorily because he doesn't want to be a "father" yet reserves the right to act like one. And it's a big mistake because a bunch of people end up dead from it. Starting with the wedding-party he guns down in El Paso. (Which reinforces my theory that Texas is the centre of the world, it's just that nobody noticed that before).

Anyway, having dispensed with the gender stuff, really the main thing I like about Tarantino is that he's a Big Picture guy. He gets his vision in place then fits the little details like plot and character inside it. Being a Big Picture person myself, I like that a lot. I think people who hate Tarantino see a mish-mash of disparate bits and pieces because they don't get the BP, because the BP is always radically new and thus not easily recognisable. It's like when people first heard The Rite of Spring or first saw Picasso's rearranged body-part portraits. These days, they won't admit to being outraged, even if they haven't become innured to any such sensitive reaction. They complain instead that the thing is a collection of disparate parts without internal coherence. Which is exactly what they would have said about Stravinsky and Picasso just as soon as they got over the shock; in Picasso's case, literally.

So what is the KB BP?

The trouble is, I really need to see KBII again. I hadn't even started thinking about it until the thing was over; I was still in shock about how different it is from KBI and trying to figure out why he did that, and could only come up with technical explanations so far. I already had a pretty good Big Picture about KBI, and KBII blew it to pieces. KBII it fills in the plot background, adds depth (literally, in the burying-alive scene) and puts the action into a philosophical context. But unexplained violence standing alone was the whole point of Volume I! So I fear more viewing is needed before I can properly decide whether KBII is perfect or detracts from KBI. Never dismiss people's ideas until you have given them the hearing they deserve. After KBI, Tarantino definitely deserves more of a hearing from me than he's had so far: particularly from a movie where fair hearings, or the lack of them, are a major part of what dictates the plot.

In fact, that dictates the entire plot. Bill's first impression of Uma's attempt to leave him is false, and leads to the first act of violence from which the story is played out. By the end of KBII, he has started asking questions and gains a better picture of things, and that provides the conclusion to the movies.

I think Tarantino is asking a lot of his audience. It's easy to sympathise with Uma through the trials she endures, and the successes she achieves against the odds. Sympathising with Bill, whose suffering is far less great and brought on himself through his own mistakes, is a lot more difficult; sympathising with him when he is the cause of Uma's suffering near-impossible. In the end, if we regard Bill as a character who represents something about ourselves, the movie is turned inside-out. Personally, I would find it damned tricky sympathising with a man who picks up women half his age then murders them in cold blood, even if he didn't bore the pants off me with his Eastern philosophical hippy-talk (which, by the way, is not a negative criticism of the movie: it's in character and, I think, an admirable risk to take).

But then, Uma makes a big mistake too. She rejects the father of her child for having the nature of a killer- and then what does she expect? This mistake nearly destroys both her and her baby. If in the end she is victorious (I don't think that's a spoiler- nobody could seriously expect a movie called Kill Bill to end with the death of the avenger) it is a victory staggeringly hard-won, with nothing to show for it except survival.

When Bill grants Uma a fair hearing ("grants" is not the word- in fact he has to give her a truth-drug to make it happen) and thus gets his hearing as well, we don't find out much we didn't know already. Uma's mistake was a well-intentioned mechanical one, whereas Bill's was an evil act. Their relationship is perfectly representative of a certain kind of deranged male/female relationship where the egotistical man is proprietorial and progressively more violent, and the women is innocent and seeking knowledge.

But egotism is only Bill's single fundmantal flaw: in all higher-level respects, he is knowledgeable and clever and even capable of kindness, especially to his daughter.

What's difficult about Kill Bill is, we see Bill's evil from the start and his other qualities are layered on top in the second movie. In real life, like Uma, we get it the other way around. This is morally spot-on, but more difficult to recognise. I don't think Tarantino expects us to sympathise with Bill, but I do think he expects us to consider it. The question of what makes a person good or bad ultimately hinges on egotism, and that is something we tend not to be very good at recognising in others, whether because we share the same fault or from the vulnerability of genuine truth-seeking innocence.

The moral, "Don't shack up with dodgy guys unless you know exactly what you're doing," might sound trite, but I wonder if actually that isn't today's genuine explanation for life, the universe and everything. It is better to stand alone than to hook up in moral compromises; otherwise you find yourself not just standing but fighting like hell for your very survival. And if you are smaller or fewer in numbers than the opponent who was once your unholy ally, then you'd better learn the...

STOP! Spoiler alert!

...five-point palm exploding heart technique. Hmmm.

Many thanks to Alice in Texas.

posted by Michael at July 15, 2004


Interestingly, Tarantino himself refuses to justify Kill Bill with the "female empowerment" jive that so many of his supporters use.

An alternative explanation for all the violent women we are seeing in the movies is that they pander to and further stoke a male sexual fetish.

For example, the Wachowski Brothers caused a sensation in 1998 with black-leather clad butt-kicking babe Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) in the original Matrix. After they got rich, one of the brothers started living out the fetish: he broke up with his wife and moved in with his dominatrix. Not surprisingly, when he went from sublimating his fetish into his art to living it our in real life, his art collapsed and the Matrix sequels stunk.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on July 15, 2004 04:09 PM


Alice: If in the end she is victorious,[...] it is a victory staggeringly hard-won, with nothing to show for it except survival.

Er, well...nothing to show except survival...and her daughter, which of the point of the whole movie. She recovers the thing that was the reason she left the game in the first place, so now she can really turn her back on that life; and prove Bill a liar when he said that change was impossible for "people like us."

My 0.02.

Posted by: st on July 15, 2004 07:09 PM

From my general field of interest in videogames there's a ubiquitous criticism of women as being portrayed only as sex symbols who are helpless. This perception holds two observations. The first is that women in games are sex symbols and the second is that there's a misogynistic trend in the gaming industry that portrays women as weak.
The latter, I think, is patently untrue and hasn't been true for at least ten years. I could go on and on about strong female characters— Virtually every game has one or more, and it's an easy thing for a game company to sell itself as being progressive by putting a female character model in (even if the character itself is essentially completely interchangeable with a male).

My own experience is that female characters tend to be better, on average. The standard trope is 'Men are stronger, Women are faster/smarter.' While it can vary based on playing style, I find that speed is more often than not, the most desireable trait. Being able to avoid getting hit, after all, is generally superior to being able to take a few more hits. I think Alice is right to point towards [popular conceptions of] eastern martial arts for the basis of what I call the Cult of Speed™. However, the dichotomy between strength and speed is a contrivance outside of attempts to justify some sort of juvenile conception of physical equity between the sexes.
There is also the social consideration when playing a female character in a multiplayer setting that many people will consider the player a female, thus giving out freebies to that character, taking it easier on her, giving advice, being more polite, and not fighting as intensely against her. All positives by my book.

For the first point, it is true, and it is inevitable that women in games are and will be sex symbols. Guess what? Women in movies are sex symbols. Women in books are sex symbols. Women in music are sex symbols. To be honest, I don't understand the mentality that goes into criticizing this and can only explain it as jealousy. What's wrong with women in a fantasy being, you know, attractive? I may not be a bishounen (long-haired pretty boy) but I don't begrudge their existence. I might be a little jealous about not having supernatural [weapon] wielding ability, but that doesn't mean I argue that all heroes should represent your average [weapon]-wielding inept human. That would be stupid.

What's the point of all this videogame discussion? Well, in my eyes, with movies like Matrix, Kill Bill, Tomb Raider, etc, and the advent of the computer generated actor (Spiderman 2, could your CGI Spiderman have been any more obvious? How about making Tobey wear the damn suit some more, he's making millions...) we're starting to see the effects of feminist rhetoric on games bleeding over to movies. While I don't think criticism of games has been even a fraction of that directed against movies, movies have always had to deal with the unfortunate fact of using real people and real physics in its roles. Videogames have leeway in both and so can present believably things that would be impossible in yesteryear's movies, so they have "created" in a sense the the uberwomensch model that we're seeing come to fruition in movies.

Posted by: . on July 15, 2004 09:44 PM

"the point is that this principle of intelligent re-direction of force, as opposed to head-to-head conflict of brute force, is what provides us with the idea that women Samurai can potentially be as good as, if not better than, men."

I hate to nit-pick, but if that's the idea, its a strikingly wrongheaded one. I always recommend to anyone whose head gets too filled with mumbo-jumbo about the efficacy of "eastern" martial arts that "use the opponents energy against him" or some such that they watch a few matchs of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. While the UFC has a (deserved) reputation for brutality, the fact that it allows virtually any type of fighting has served as object lesson in what works in the real world and what doesn't (particularly for those of us who grew up in pansy-ass white collar surroundings and don't have direct experience of violence). And guess what? You don't see much in the way of balletic kicks and fancy t'ai chi moves, and the bigger guy usually wins (in fact, the original concept was to have no weight classes, but they had to do away with that fairly quickly) What works is good-old fashioned bar-brawl-type punches, and wrestling-style grappling and submission holds (which still require a good deal of strength and weight to pull off.)

Posted by: jimbo on July 15, 2004 09:59 PM

"." writes "movies have always had to deal with the unfortunate fact of using real people and real physics in its roles."

But I like that about movies!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 15, 2004 10:38 PM


I watched the first "Kill Bill" with a room full of women and men. When we got past the part where the orderly had been selling the comatose B____ K_____ for favors, all the women checked the hell out. All of them. I had a hard time getting past that point myself, but I did. I think the series pays off. But that one part of the lead-up is a tad harsh for most women - and men. Understandably.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on July 15, 2004 11:23 PM

One concept that isn't discussed much is how pro life the film is (by pro life meaning celebrating the importance of life--not in abortion sense). Uma is actually killing not for revenge but to free herself so she can truly live, which she cannot do without eliminating the evil in her life. If I get time, I'd love to post more thoughts on this subject and films which I thoroughly enjoyed.

And many of the music pieces are actually taken directly from Ennio Morricone my favorite film composer of all time.

A great film and glad to see that some discussion is taking place here about it.

Posted by: khh on July 15, 2004 11:35 PM

I like it too! But if you've got an agenda to push it gets in the way.

Posted by: . on July 16, 2004 12:02 AM

As a former wrestler, I find all the martial arts stuff off-putting and outlandish appearing, which is one reason I have avoided the Kill Bill movies even though I realize Tarantino is a gifted writer and filmmaker. Wrestling is a pure sport with modern Olympic rules. It does not seek to injure the parties, only to immobilize them, to cause them to surrender not to die. Tarantino's use of violence to entertain is pernicious; it is not directed toward the beautiful.

The idea that women are somehow better warriors than men is contrary to thousands of years of history. It is fantasy Tarantino is using to make money. No more, no less. Women buy most fantasy novels.

Fantasy is entertaining and useful, but it is best used to point to something good, true, or beautiful rather than falsehoods and ugly violence. Oh it might have some profound message, which will be lost on vast numbers of people, but so did Nazism and Stalinism. If only Hollywood would turn its huge reservoir (no pun intended) of talent towards better things.

Posted by: P Murgos on July 16, 2004 12:07 AM


Well yes, survival of herself *and* her daughter was what I meant. But the point of the whole movie- no, because she didn't know her daughter had survived until the end of her revenge-spree.

"She recovers the thing that was the reason she left the game in the first place, so now she can really turn her back on that life; and prove Bill a liar when he said that change was impossible for "people like us." "

That's not quite how I see it (although, hell, it gets complicated when you look at it these ways). I would say: she recovers the reason she left the game in the first place, but the reason she can really turn her back on that life is not that she has her daughter back, it's because she has killed all the people who were still out to get her (who tried to kill her for attempting leaving of the life) and also thereby won her retribution: and she proved Bill a liar the first time she tried to leave, because the reason she *did* continue killing after that was nothing to do with being a killer, and everything to do with having to defend herself from him and the gang, and restore justice.


Posted by: Alice on July 16, 2004 12:44 AM

At least with Sam Peckinpah you got a code of honor along with the reveling in death and destruction.
With Tarantino you get pure undiluted nihilism.
If that's your thing.......

Posted by: ricpic on July 16, 2004 07:49 AM

interesting how different people come to the same conclusions.

Posted by: Tatyana on July 16, 2004 10:38 AM

Wasn't anyone else astonished that Tarantino would actually use music directly out of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns? I mean, umm, I don't think a comparison between Tarantino and Leone is one that Tarantino would want to encourage. Leone is a real director; Tarantino is a pretty good director...for a writer.

Hate to sound so crusty and old-fartish, but it's the truth.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 16, 2004 01:05 PM

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