Taking Tarantino to task

The Kill Bill circus is a product of a culture incapable of doing a definitive version of anything.

Sandy Starr

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Now that the second instalment of Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus Kill Bill has been released, it should be possible to step back and assess the work as a whole. The trouble is, you can’t.

Kill Bill was not made to satisfy critics – it was made to satisfy the lurid tastes of über-film geek Tarantino, who has accurately described his two-part film as ‘30 years of grindhouse moviegoing in a duck press’ (grindhouses were cheap US cinemas that showed trashy movies circa the 1970s.) Tarantino has also told interviewers repeatedly that ‘I make the films for me, and everyone else is invited’ – which is just as well, because Kill Bill is completely without substance, a garish and highly entertaining confection with basically nothing in it worthy of comment or criticism.

The plot of Kill Bill is simple. A former assassin known as the Bride (Uma Thurman) awakens from a coma and sets about killing the five other members of her old team, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS), who put her in the coma. Head of the DiVAS, and last on her list of victims, is the titular Bill (David Carradine). The Bride’s five violent confrontations, interspersed with bits of her backstory, are divided into numbered chapters and told at a painstakingly slow pace over the course of the two films. And that, give or take a couple of twists, is it. The pleasure of watching Kill Bill derives not from the story, such as it is, but from the slick style in which the story is told.

An additional pleasure to be had out of Kill Bill, as with all of Tarantino’s films, is the casting. He has a rare eye for cult actors who have fallen on hard times, and the way in which he exploits their talents is a rebuke to unimaginative casting in mainstream Hollywood. David Carradine in particular, veteran of countless movies but best remembered for his role in the 1970s TV show Kung Fu, shines in Kill Bill, just as John Travolta’s career was rescued by Pulp Fiction and forgotten B-movie actors Pam Grier and Robert Forster shone in Jackie Brown. History may remember Tarantino as a great casting agent rather than a great director.

The interesting thing about the vacuous Kill Bill is not whether the film is any good – the only possible answer to which is yes, if you like that sort of thing – but the circumstances in which the film was made, and what these circumstances say about today’s culture. The normal process of making and releasing a high-profile film – secluded film shoot, selected titbits about film released to the press to build up hype, hype peaks, film is released at cinemas, film is subsequently released on video/DVD and then shown on TV – has been skewed recently, by a whole new set of dynamics. Kill Bill is a prime example of how things have changed.

Early drafts of the script were circulating on the internet before the film even started shooting, and were widely read by film geeks. The internet’s most prominent film geek, Texas-based Harry Knowles, was given a copy of the script by Tarantino in 2001, to review for his website Ain’t It Cool News. Knowles was then invited to report on the film shoot in China, and was given the kind of access that your average film journalist can only dream of. (Knowles, whose ungrammatical online outpourings are mocked by professional journalists and who was once considered by studios to be little more than an irritant, has enjoyed such privileged access on a number of recent film shoots, and has gone on to become a film producer in his own right.) (1)

So the audience that was keenest on seeing Tarantino’s Kill Bill had already experienced the film thoroughly, by reading his script and reports from the shoot, long before the film came out. As Graham Barnfield noted on spiked, ‘a closed circle of fans and film geeks…endorsed his vanity project’ (2). This kind of frenzied hype may be driven by the nerdier end of film fandom, but it is priceless for a film studio – effectively, the geeks do the marketing department’s work for free.

Then the decision was taken to split Kill Bill into two instalments, or ‘volumes’, even though it was shot as a single film – ostensibly because its running time was unwieldy. Tarantino’s justification for the split was that ‘something was bothering me about releasing a three-hour grindhouse movie. It seemed pretentious…. Two 90-minute movies coming out fairly rapidly, one after another – that’s not pretentious, that’s ambitious.’ (3) This statement is misleading; the two volumes of Kill Bill taken together clock in at over four hours in length. A three-hour grindhouse movie in one instalment is indeed pretentious, but a four-hour grindhouse movie in two instalments is even more so.

The tinkering doesn’t end there. It is common practice today for filmmakers to go back and alter their work after it has been released, creating alternative versions or ‘director’s cuts’ for the video/DVD market (see Hollywood Redux, by Sandy Starr). Tarantino, however, started tinkering with Kill Bill the moment it came out. The version of Kill Bill Vol 1 released in Japan was bloodier than the version released in the West, creating a lucrative demand for a version of the DVD (currently) exclusive to Japan. Tarantino has announced that having released the film in two instalments, he will now edit it back together into a single film to be shown on the last day of the Cannes Film Festival (4).

There is a seemingly endless sequence of DVD releases of Kill Bill to look forward to. DVD enthusiasts are now used to their favourite titles being ‘double-dipped’, or released multiple times with different content and features – a practice which is obviously irritating to those who wish to own the definitive version, because there is no definitive version. First comes the ‘bare bones’ or ‘vanilla’ release, with little on it other than the original film. Then the ‘special editions’ follow, and sometimes ‘ultimate’ or ‘platinum’ editions follow after that.

Kill Bill Vol 1 has already had a vanilla DVD release, although the aforementioned Japanese alternative DVD also exists to confuse matters. Then there will be a vanilla release of Kill Bill Vol 2. Then there will be ‘special edition’ releases of both volumes, possibly incorporating the variant Japanese footage. Then there will be a ‘special edition’ release of the combined, bumper version of both volumes. And so on, ad infinitum.

Kill Bill is a product of a culture that is incapable of releasing single, definitive versions of works into the world. Instead, the creative process is endlessly, neurotically toyed with, before, during and after the increasingly meaningless ‘release’ date. Film scripts – which are, after all, the recipe and not the meal – become consumed as cultural products in their own right. Films are shot, chopped in half, stuck back together again, bits added, bits taken away, and the process goes on forever.

This isn’t just a harmless matter of films being repackaged for the DVD market post factum, but is increasingly a consideration when the film is being made. Films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy are now shot with an eye on reinserting cut footage down the line, and Star Wars creator George Lucas – notorious for endlessly tinkering with his films – goes as far as creating extensive special effects from scratch just for the ‘deleted scenes’ that are included as extras on Star Wars DVDs. An ‘alternative ending’ to the zombie film 28 Days Later, that was originally just an extra feature on the DVD release, was then substituted for the original ending when the film was re-released in cinemas.

These developments express an insecurity on the part of filmmakers, who are no longer capable of simply offering up their work up for judgement by the public, and then moving on to do other work.

At the same time, this situation is a licence to print money for film studios, who can milk a single product by hawking its multiple iterations to hungry geeks with plenty of disposable income. When the films in the Lord of the Rings trilogy were double-dipped on DVD, the vanilla versions were followed by lavish four-DVD box sets, in which over half an hour of additional footage was reinserted into each film. This was hailed as an innovative strategy that gave the public access to more faithful renditions of JRR Tolkien’s original novel, but the way such strategies have been replicated with 28 Days Later and Kill Bill points to more cynical motives. Kill Bill Vol 2’s box office takings were virtually all profit, because the costs of the entire production were recouped with the takings of Vol 1.

Filthy lucre aside, the insecurity surrounding Kill Bill’s staggered release also extends to the content of the film itself, which is divvied up by endless irritating framing devices and other gimmicks, in a vain attempt to elevate the material. Apart from the chapter headings that appear throughout the two instalments of the film, Kill Bill Vol 1 is also prefaced by an epigraph taken from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And the Bride’s real name is bleeped out during the whole of Vol 1 and half of Vol 2, whenever it is mentioned – not because there is anything interesting or mysterious about the name when it is eventually revealed, but just as a cheap way of building up intrigue without earning it.

The interminable end credits that conclude Kill Bill Vol 2 – crediting the actors that appeared in both Vol 1 (which also has its own end credits) and Vol 2, and crediting many of them twice at that (once with an image of the character they portrayed, and once in the credit listings proper) – seem to be Tarantino screaming at us with a loudhailer: ‘ME AND MY FRIENDS MADE AN AMAZING FILM, DIDN’T WE?’ No, actually, you didn’t. Kill Bill is an entertaining four-hour hodgepodge of B-movie hokum, but it’s no masterpiece. Sadly, its deluded insistence that it is a masterpiece gets in the way of being able to enjoy it for what it is.

Read on:

The geek shall inherit the Earth, by Sandy Starr

Killing Kill Bill, by Graham Barnfield

(1) See Harry exclusively reviews for your pleasure Quentin Tarantino’s Screenplay to KILL BILL!!!, Harry Knowles, Ain’t It Cool News, 14 September 2001; Big Harry in Gigantic China: KILL BILL Set Report #1!!!, Harry Knowles, Ain’t It Cool News, 25 August 2002; Mr Beaks Interviews The Newest Producer Of Paramount’s PRINCESS OF MARS!!, Mr Beaks, Ain’t It Cool News, 1 April 2004

(2) Killing Kill Bill, by Graham Barnfield

(3) The Playboy interview, Quentin Tarantino, Playboy, November 2003

(4) See Tarantino to unleash ‘the fused’ KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR at Cannes, Mark O’Connell, Ain’t It Cool News, 21 April 2004

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