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She'll Kill Bill while You Chill

by Thomas de Zengotita

“One of the most brilliant visual storytelling movies I've seen since the talkies.... It is pretty violent, I must say. At a certain point, it was like a Takashi Miike film. It got so fucked up it was funny. At one point, my friend and I, we just started laughing. I was into the seriousness of the story, of course, but in the crucifixion scene, when they turned the cross over, you had to laugh.”
Quentin Tarantino
on The Passion of the Christ

Someone should take charge of the word “sensationalism,” refer it to an articulated system of beliefs and practices, and put it on the list that includes, say, “socialism” and “Islamic fundamentalism.” The implicated ideas and activities are out there, just waiting to be formalized. Millions of people dedicate their lives to media-induced sensations, to their pursuit and their creation. Why not make it official?

The sensationalist movement is vast and varied and getting more so with every innovation in representational technology. But movies are primal. And when it comes to creating sensations through cinematic depictions of violence, nobody can match Quentin Tarantino. That makes his work an ideal object of reflection for anyone concerned about the psychosocial effects of mediated violence—and I don't mean its influence on sociopaths already on the verge of mayhem, but the much subtler question of what it says about our culture. It's easy to condemn graphic gore when it's schlocky, but what are we to make of depictions that are, on their own terms, masterworks?

“Their own terms” means movie terms. It means the history of movies, all kinds of movies, but especially violent movies—a self-referential world of movies within which Tarantinians dwell.

The Tarantino origin myth (that's not too strong a description) puts this tenth-grade dropout and pop culture addict behind the counter of Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, California, in the late eighties. There he held court for five years, dispensing freely of analysis and opinion to a widening circle of steady customers, some of them with Hollywood connections, many of them in thrall to his astonishing mastery of movie lore—an omnivorous authority that ranged indiscriminately across genres and periods, from early Hitchcock and fifties noir to the French avant-garde and obscure Hong Kong martial arts splatter flicks. Tarantino had seen it all, and remembered it all; that was the incredible thing—credits, music, dialogue, cinematography, editing, sets, plots—everything. And he wove it all into a single hyperenergetic discourse, a comparative tapestry that seemed to render, upon the screen of a single consciousness, the entirety of cinematic experience. No wonder Hollywood players whose acquaintance he made took him seriously when he asked them to consider his early screenplays. This was no schmuck with a script; this was a living library, a walking tribute to all they held dear.

Tarantino became a mythic entity, a cult figure, because he actualized a transformation to which his followers aspire. In him, the Ultimate Fan became the Ultimate Auteur. Through this video store clerk, the slacker media geek was vindicated, his obsessions justified—his tastes, his slang, his values, his vast comic book collection, his online gaming, his fantasy quests—his whole investment in virtual living was redeemed.

And Tarantino understands this. He remains true to his origins. He may now be acclaimed by the establishment, honored with the chair of the jury at Cannes, but he represents a virtual way of life that postmodern media have made possible in more marginal precincts—though no true Tarantinian would get caught talking seriously about anything as ponderous as postmodernism. Sensationalists are allergic to such abstractions. They are dogmatically anti-intellectual and apolitical. They draw that line around themselves in order to protect their way of life from the uncomprehending disdain they have come to expect from society's grown-ups. And Tarantino makes it easy to defend that line. The intricacy of his plots and the density of his allusions make for a genuine complexity in his work—if not what you could call (perish the thought) depth. That complexity, so richly apparent to the cognoscenti, is more or less invisible otherwise, and so it supplies sensationalists with a trump. When it comes to Tarantino, they can truly say that their critics just don't get it.

The complexity of a Tarantino movie is all the more alluring because it lurks beneath a fabulous surface, a sensual pleasure package for the puzzles and the lore. The riveting cinematography, the blend of editing and scoring, the pacing, the way the whole composition radiates hyper-real clarity, that distinctive look and feel we also find in David Lynch movies. This hyper-realism alerts the knowing viewer to a subversive intent that will lend heft to this feast of surfaces. It addresses those with the keys to the kingdom, flattering them with a wink and a nod that only they can detect. It invites them to pore indefinitely over intricacies of plot and timeline, to recline on a web of allusions so extended that even the most knowledgeable fans will never know if they have reached its end.

And it allows for inexhaustible discussion on websites and blogs.

In Tarantino movies the postmodern aesthetic of pastiche, of mixing and citing and recycling, reaches its logical limit. His movies are literally about movies (and TV shows and ads and pop music). And not just indexically. Tarantino resurrects and manipulates tonalities and styles; entire moods, entire genres are evoked, and the playing never ends. The spaghetti western score accompanies a chicks-about-to-kick-butt buildup to a frenetic ninja blowout scene, and there is David Carradine (echoing his seventies kung fu TV show) as Bill, a villainous inversion of the original character, but deploying the same affect, flavored with (and undercut by) a hint of sadism that, in turn, contrasts (in the first (John Ford inspired) scene of Volume II) so ludicrously with (yet another Carradine echo) the oh-so-authentic flute he still carries.

Even I could go on listing allusions, and I am just a visiting participant-observer, not even close to being a native Tarantinian.

Nor would I want to be. I have better things to do with my time.

But of that, more anon.

Back to the undercutting contrasts. They are importantly typical of Tarantino's allusive style. He doesn't just cite, this isn't mere homage; he plays havoc with citations. He can make them fit, even when they don't—and that's his extraordinary gift, which also conveys the essential message: It's all in fun.

Sensationalism is the ideology of fun in general, but this particular kind of fun is far from innocent. It is designed to put the Tarantinian one up, always, and to expose those who recoil from the graphic violence as congenitally out of it. If Pai Mei (the martial arts SuperMaster to whom Bill takes members of his Deadly Viper Assassination Squad for training) turns out to be the very opposite of the serene sensei we expect in this role, shouldn't that tell you something? If he turns out to be a spoiled prima donna, irascible, vain, and spiteful, the Tarantinian asks: Don't you see how funny that is? Deadly Viper Assassination Squad? Hello? Shouldn't that tell you something about the attitude here?

[ continue ]


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This article is from
Our War vs Peace Issue


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