Killing Kill Bill

Why critics and fans alike are attacking Tarantino's fourth film.

Graham Barnfield

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Recently there has been a rise in violent set pieces as an integral part of mainstream movies. Coupled with the new trend for remaking grindhouse classics and rehabilitating the video nasties of old, this suggests a drift towards laziness in contemporary cinema. And where once fake mutilations were the bait luring teenagers to watch The Burning or Absurd, now they get reappraised as an art form. In a recent spiked article, I admitted to being troubled by this misanthropic agenda – but in the light of subsequent developments, I almost wish I hadn’t bothered (see From one extreme to another).

The release of the ‘Fourth Film from Quentin Tarantino’ has prompted much soul-searching among commentators. Kill Bill Vol. 1 is structured around the kung fu and samurai movies upon which the boy Tarantino was raised. Needless to say, this involves some ultra-violence. Kill Bill’s critics express surprise at this, as if somehow the comparatively sedate Jackie Brown (1997) was Tarantino’s only movie until Kill Bill exploded on to the screen. Echoing the response to Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs, the commentary on Kill Bill soon jumped from the review pages to the editorials.

The instant cult cache of Kill Bill is taken as an indicator of a sick society. Veteran film writer David Thomson argues that the real danger of film violence is increased by the fact we don’t get hurt watching (1). Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland claims that where the televised death of a soldier would repel us, ‘when the victim wears lipstick and the killer is Uma Thurman, we pay just to get a look’ (2).

On the surface, this is a similar reaction to that which greeted Reservoir Dogs in 1992. Then, critics with a sense of film history saw at least part of the movie as a logical outgrowth of Point Blank and Mean Streets. Aligned with Abel Ferrara’s (briefly) banned on video Bad Lieutenant and the Belgian shlock mock-doc Man Bites Dog, it seemed to some that the ‘new brutalism’ was set to reinvigorate contemporary cinema.

Tarantino was the template for younger, savvy directors, some of whom made a ‘Tarantinoesque’ calling-card film before moving on to better things (for example, Joe Carnahan, whose splendid Narc built on the 1970s corrupt cop sub-genre rather than wisecracking about pop culture). Tarantino prompted plenty of film production, but much of it was derivative – including the largely lamentable Lock Stock crock of British clones.

Borrowing from Tarantino usually had the unfortunate effect of dulling originality and inventiveness. But according to the proponents of ‘effects theory’, such movies also led to antisocial behaviour. Copycat journalists amplified this dubious academic research by claiming that teenage murderers were duplicating their favourite violent scenes. Unleashing what one wag referred to as ‘reservoirs of dogma’, they strengthened the pro-censorship lobby and paved the way for the evidence-free claims made about Child’s Play 3 and the role of videos in real-life killings.

Things have moved on since 1993 – not least in the shift from the Tory government that gave us the Video Recordings Act to New Labour and ‘Cool Britannia’. Although some sought a posthumous rehabilitation of Mary Whitehouse, she is still widely regarded as a crank. So out go the crude versions of effects theory, and in comes a discussion of the correct grasp of semiotics and media texts – especially in the more liberal regime in place at the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC).

These changes have occurred with but one Tarantino release to act as a test case in censorship, and nothing from him in the past six years. Even the row over the Tarantino-derived Natural Born Killers has died down. It seems to be dawning on the BBFC that horror films preach to the converted and providing excess for hardcore fans is the name of the game (hence the reappearance of many nasties, ironically now touted as ‘classics’). When not dispensing R-18 certificates to countless porn videos, or exhibiting double standards over the content of arthouse and home rental titles, the BBFC seems to acknowledge that the world has changed, helping The Exorcist, Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs to find a new audience.

Superficially, many of those hostile to Kill Bill seem to be out of step with the times (and with The Times, which distributed a promotional DVD on the film’s opening weekend). More disturbingly for me, they also seem to be in agreement with my earlier spiked article, where I argued that one could take issue with gore-drenched ‘extreme’ movies from a humanist viewpoint, without conceding an inch to the bans brigade.

However, there is an important distinction to be made between this argument and that of the born-again Tarantino-bashers. The shift towards formulaic gore is an indictment of the film industry’s lack of inventiveness, symptomatic of repositioning the US and UK markets around teenage nights out. It is not, as writers like Thomson and Freedland claim, an indictment of society. The reason? The violence on screen is pretend; the violence in real life is real. Duh!

Even when Freedland concedes this distinction, it is in order to continue a ridiculous argument. He thinks there’s hypocrisy at work in praising City of God for its documentary violence and Kill Bill for its cartoon-like mastery of kung fu chaos. Has he never heard of using different storytelling techniques for different stories? Granted, contemporary culture has spawned plenty of morbid symptoms, but watching movie violence is not the same as watching a public execution. You don’t need a film studies A-level to make this basic distinction between fiction and reality.

In their apparent desire to kill Kill Bill, critics are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. There is a case to be made against fake gore as entertainment, especially when it becomes as clichéd and repetitive as porn. But there are limits to this being humanist when one has clearly given up on the audience in advance. If cinema-going grown-ups are already a bunch of drooling oiks, then where’s the sense in slamming their choice of viewing?

One major loser in all this is Tarantino himself. His antagonists are so daft in their arguments that they provide no pressure for him to fulfil his potential. Visually stunning yet vacuous, Kill Bill appears to have suffered from a proliferation of yes-men and their refusal to force the enfant terrible to live up to his potential. (The creation of two movies in preference to some disciplined editing may be further evidence of this.) Rather than have the weight of expectations from six years of waiting make Tarantino sharpen up, it seems like a closed circle of fans and film geeks have endorsed his vanity project.

The angst of those who were not blown away by Kill Bill reflects Tarantino’s inflated reputation. Just as postmodernism was settling down in the universities, along came Reservoir Dogs to alert a wider audience to the pomo sensibility, in a way that Twin Peaks only threatened to do at the end of the 1980s. Here was a twentysomething who was hip, witty, surface-fixated and offensive to fuddy-duddies.

The unauthorised biographies flowed thick and fast, film-school recruitment rose and the academics had a field day. Some authors sensibly treated Pulp Fiction as building on film noir, like Paula Rabinowitz in her excellent Black & White & Noir (Columbia University Press, 2002). Others made peculiar claims about Tarantino as a guide to modern living, such as Fred Botting and Scott Wilson in The Tarantinian Ethics (Sage, 2001).

When Tarantino disappeared after Jackie Brown, the sense of disappointment was palpable. Now that the fortysomething geek has returned as a one-man exploitation flicks tribute band, critics with high hopes for Tarantino in the 1990s vent their disappointment with him and his audience. Those who see Kill Bill as evidence of social decay should calm down and remember the tag-line from an earlier exploitation revenge flick: ‘it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie….’

Graham Barnfield is a lecturer at the University of East London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Film

(1) ‘The fatal attraction’, Independent, 10 October 2003

(2) ‘The power of the gory’, Guardian 15 October 2003

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