Kill Bill: Volume One
n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
La vengeance est un plat qui se mange froid” as the Klingons say. It is also best served with a bad ass soundtrack. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 revolves around filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s two signature calling cards: revenge and super-fly tracks. What the man lacks in novel thinking and originality he more than makes up for in style. He makes films not to convey his vision, but because he loves film. A lifelong cinephile, his catalogue is a pastiched homage to the films he’s loved. In his hands, imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery. He isn’t taking shortcuts; he is creating visual love letters.
Tarantino has re-introduced spaghetti westerns, Nouvelle Vague cinema and Hong Kong kung fu flicks, not to mention Dick Dale, popular beat combos from the 1960s and afro-sheen funk to a whole new generation. You simply have to applaud that. What have the film critics who dice him up for his ��misogyny’ and ��emptiness’ done for the kids lately? Spewed over-articulated sheen about pretentious films that people feel obliged to love lest they fall out of favor with the hipster throngs? Give me surf rock, witty banter and natty threads. Besides, Tarantino has all the cool weapons. What would you rather have: a book by Pauline Kael or a sword by Hattori Hanzo? ��Nuff said.
Tarantino raises the bar for soundtracks. For him, music isn’t just background, it’s an integral part of the work’s narrative. No one, bar record store nerds, possesses his encyclopedic knowledge of musical scores. This, in turn, allows his work to be enjoyed on two levels. The first: the sheer smoothness of music and visual working in a perfect tandem. The second: inside joke smarty-pantness. His fourth film tells the story of "The Bride" who was once part of a group of world-class assassins until the group leader, "Bill" and the other assassins turn against her. Four years later, "The Bride" awakens from the coma the assassins left her in when they shot her pregnant ass down at her wedding (hence The Bride moniker) and she heads out to seek bloody revenge. Hell hath no fury like a child torn. “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”, a 1966 Sonny Bono classic sung by his then wife, the botoxic Cher, kicks it all off. Tarantino always knew this was his opener, but at the last minute, opted for the more sparse and mournful Nancy “Her boots are made for walking” Sinatra version. And this sets the theme for the film: women and the men who fuck them over.
Betcha no one out there would ever think of Quentin Tarantino as a feminist. But Kill Bill proves he’s a champion of, and friend to, the sisterhood. He gives us not one, but two glorious female leads: Lucy Liu as O-Ren Ishii and Uma Thurman as The Bride. They are both cut from the same revenge cloth. The Bride’s logic is born from the most female of all places: a lost child. Hell hath no fury like a child torn. Yes, she takes on some decidedly masculine traits but she never loses her femininity. Even when gutting a Crazy 88 like a fish, she has a grace and an elegant strength that only a woman warrior can carry off.
The hospital scene, where we find the Bride has survived the shooting but lays in a coma, brings the viewer to another Tarantino controversy—the rape sequence. People criticize the rape sequence as misogynistic. News flash—rape is misogynistic—it can not be portrayed any other way. It is ugly, raw, and brutal. But Tarantino’s handling of it empowers her. Here, the Bride’s blood-painted path of vengeance begins. She kills both her would-be rapist (by chomping a hunk of mouth) and the dick-wad Buck ("My name is Buck, and I came here to fuck") who pimps her out. To music from Lucio Fulci’s cult-horror flick, Sette Note In Nero (Seven Notes in Black), she waits to slice Buck’s Achilles, then takes both his Elvis-in-his-doughy-days sunglasses, and the keys to his “pussy wagon”. Wheeling up to Buck’s hyper-crude vehicle, Thurman is accompanied by the oh-so-appropriate Isaac Hayes penned “Truck Turner” (from the eponymous blaxplotation flick). Driving the ��pussy wagon,’ which takes on a whole new tone when driven by a person who actually possesses a pussy, the car becomes a statement of unflappable womanhood. When a man is behind the wheel, it’s sexist. But with a women driving, she owns that formerly derogative term. It can’t hurt her—she drives the damn thing.
O-Ren’s path was cast when she was a child. In a skillfully poignant anime sequence accompanied by RZA’s “Origin of O-Ren Ishii” (which takes samples from I Lunghi Giorni della Vendetta (Long Days of Vengeance) by Armando Trovaioli), we are told the story of how she came to be. She lost her soul and replaced it with the hard cold force of settling scores. For with revenge comes redemption—the yin and the yang of being screwed over. You can’t be set free until you release those demons, and you won’t release them until you destroy them.
The Bride and her colleagues comprised the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (inspired by Pulp Fiction’s Fox Force Five). Again, Tarantino gives it up to the ladies—they are primarily women—hence their (with added I) acronym DIVAS. Daryl Hannah plays Elle Driver—one of the remaining squad. Her path is paved not with vengeance, but good old-fashioned evil. In another clever-clever cine-geek Tarantino-ism, Driver whistles her own theme song, the same tune whistled by the troubled lead character of the 1968 British film, Twisted Nerve. Composed by Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock’s favorite composer, it’s used during a split screen sequence that introduces Driver to the audience, which pays tribute to H-cock knock-off Brian De Palma’s film Dressed To Kill. Never one to be outdone, The Bride’s own signature tune is “Ironside” (who knew Quincy Jones wrote it!) but again—it takes a bit of cleverness to really get it—The Bride’s legs don’t work right after years in a coma. Plus Ironside’s main impetus was revenge. It was also used in a similar manner in the 1973 Kung Fu classic The Five Fingers of Death. Get it now? I knew you would.
The Bride’s other signature tune is the theme song from The Green Hornet (done in zipplicious form by Al Hirt), one of the many homages to Bruce Lee—the first being Thurman’s yellow fighting suit from Lee’s film Game Of Death (about a character who fakes his death to find the people who are trying to kill him. See how all the ends tie up Tarantino style?). The final nod to Lee occurs during the film’s set piece in the House of Blue Leaves. Irregardless of how you feel about Tarantino, you must give him props for this thing. Large-scale and expertly choreographed with at least 1.7 million gallons of splashed blood—it still looks majestic, breathtaking and stylized to within an inch of a Hanzo blade.
Setting the music pace for this scene is the all-female Japanese band 126.96.36.199s. The Blue Leaves house band, they hit note for note candy-colored pop confections clouds of “Motorcycle Go Go Go” and “Woo Hoo.” Then, as The Bride fights off enemy after enemy, it becomes chop-socky slices of RZA, Ennio Morricone and Tomoyasu Hotei. While fighting the aforementioned last Lee nod of the Crazy 88s, “Nobody But Me” by '60s rockers the Human Beinz helps our heroine dance her bloody boogie. But the real magic is yet to come. Our two bookends of vengeance still need to face off.
Creating the most stately set piece of the entire movie, Tarantino allows poised stillness to lull us into the most harrowing of the Bride’s battles. In the softest, whitest snow, O-Ren and The Bride fight the good borne from bad fight. At first glimpse, the scene has a polish and tranquility that belies what is about to commence. For the second time, Tarantino turns the soundtrack volume down. The first is when Hanzo presents Thurman with the sword that "If, on your journey, you should encounter God, God will be cut"—a line supposedly lifted from Samurai Resurrection when the lead character is presented with a sword to kill the undead for those of us who are afraid to face such spirits. The scene is made quite tender by “Master of the Pan Flute” Zamfir’s “The Lonely Shepherd,” which undulates softly in the background. Now, with the mother of all revenge smack-downs, once again Tarantino turns it down. For a good chunk of the time, we are hearing a fountain fill and then empty its spout using only gravity—a symbol of symmetry and balance. But the cheeky musical Tarantino wit displays itself and a rollicking, flamenco cha cha version of the Animals’ classic “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” commences battle. Then, once O-Ren is defeated (in a very gruesome manner) the aptly titled “The Flower Of Carnage” flutters in—Meiko Kaji’s buttery lilt lifting one more assassin weight from the Bride’s shoulders.
Feminism, in its clearest, most succinct form, simply means gender equality; equal pay for equal work and opportunities without prejudice, and women issues being treated with the same attention and dignity that men’s are. And when women comprise over 50% of the population yet are still considered a minority, we still have a problem. One worth fighting for.
But you ain’t gonna win a war by feigning superiority and isolating yourself from those who need to see the estrogen light. The Bride advances the cause by putting life in a context that makes sense to males—a samurai-sword-sporting, martial arts butt-kicking, comic-book theme song strutting, super-fine-fit human machine. Guys don’t know if they want to fuck her or be her.
And that’s the most feminist statement of all: you got to be in it to win it. The uninformed think they have nothing to gain by understanding the unknown. Doors have opened, sure, but the disturbing trend is still this: tons of people think it’s still okay for girls to grow up believing what they weigh and wear is more important than what they know and read, say and do.
Do the girls and everyone else a favor. Prove the uninformed wrong, and kick their flabby asses while you’re at it.
By: Hope Zabriskie
Published on: 2005-01-04