Wednesday, April 6, 2011

NOTES ON THE SECRET WEAPONS IN KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR



Tonight and tomorrow night mark the end of the run for Quentin Tarantino’s very special presentation of Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair at the New Beverly Cinema. Every show since the brief engagement began on March 27 has been sold out well in advance, but tonight and tomorrow night no advance tickets will be sold. If you haven’t seen it during this run yet (or if you’ve never seen it period), this could be your last chance to gorge yourself on this epically entertaining, outrageous pop culture mash-up in its original form. Tarantino originally intended for the film to be released in a single 247-minute bite (not counting the built-in intermission), but Harvey Weinstein got nervous and it was decided that the films would be released almost exactly six months apart, in 2003 and 2004, forever bifurcating a sprawling movie that already had the feeling of a giant mosaic shattered into thousands of unexpected angles and reflections upon reflections.

But if you go to the New Beverly tonight or tomorrow night (and again, you really should), you will settle in for precisely the same experience that the first audience who ever saw Kill Bill had. The showcase print of this engagement is the very same print that ran at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003—not only have the two pieces of the Bride’s blood-spattered journey been united for their first run together anywhere other than the French Riviera, but the print itself sports the official Cannes Film Festival intro bumper and even the obligatory French subtitles created for the benefit of Gallic attendees of this international gathering who might find Tarantino’s colloquial linguistic stew a bit much to digest. (The intermission comes right where it should, attendant shivers of anticipation included, and it’s a lot more fun to sit through than the six months it originally took Americans and everyone else to get to Vol. 2.)


It was surprising for me to discover just how much fun it would be to see the films—scratch that: the film-- on the big screen again, the volume turned up loud to emphasize the crunch of every bone, the blast of every perversely appropriate musical cue, the eerie ring of vibrating steel as a freshly unsheathed blade waits amongst the hush just before battle, ready for action. But seeing The Whole Bloody Affair didn’t much alter my memory of the movies. Other than some incidental additions which themselves involve serious subtractions—of limbs—and the red, red krovvy which flows and sprays like orgasmic geysers of death, the chronological jumble of Tarantino’s story remains unaltered. The experience really boils down to the removal of that emotional disconnect caused by the separation of the two halves and the realization that the movie’s international cinematic influences are not as neatly divided as you might remember. Vol. 1 is not the martial arts half and Vol. 2 is not the spaghetti western half, as was often claimed by lazy reviewers looking for an angle. Tarantino’s vision is far too fluid, the variation and multitude of his influences far too permeated into the material to support such false demarcations.


Vol. 1 is, despite the real Ennio Morricone and the incredibly effective false Ennio Morricone (a.k.a. Zamfir) on the soundtrack, clearly more weighted toward the influence of martial arts and anime, it being the section of the film devoted to the story of O-Ren Ishii and the creation of the Bride’s sword by the legendary Hattori Hanzo. But the shift in location in Vol. 2 to the American Southwest and finally Mexico does not mean that the Asian influence disappears. Budd and Elle’s obsession with obtaining that Hattori Hanzo special, along with the large section of time devoted to the Bride’s training at the hands of Master Pai Mei, and even the homicidal serenity of the final encounter between the Bride and Bill, are explicitly extended from the first half’s obsession with Asia, even as the landscapes and iconography more often signal Sergio Leone or Sergio Corbucci. (Those beautiful Morricone cues, among others, remain too.) Part of the point of the entire four hour and seven minute enterprise is how neatly these different worlds have seeped into each other on an apparently genetic level. Yet rather than a melting pot producing a tidy sort of fondue of homogenous energy and perspective, Tarantino’s intention is pitched more toward creating the greatest movie salad ever made whose ingredients interact and coalesce and aspire to a one-of-a-kind taste yet still remain individually distinguishable and important on their own. Kill Bill truly sees the pop culture world (and, I think, the world at large) through eyes very similar to those of the current generation who have been raised to believe that the boundaries between cultures are less important than the ways in which we can interact and be enhanced by the presence of a different, perhaps contrary influence. In this regard, despite its hyper-violent subject matter and the absence of the usual “We Are the World”-style trappings, Kill Bill might just be the first great multicultural movie event.


Kill Bill is still capable of surprising audiences (or at least this single member) in other ways too. Those myriad influences fly by at apparent light-speed; I can’t imagine anyone other than Tarantino being able to catch them all. Yet they manage to coalesce into a canvas that serves to enrich character here as much as the viewer’s breadth of cinematic trivia. A good current corollary to the game Kill Bill plays is, strangely enough, Rango, and not just because that brilliant animated feature is playing with cards—the ones marked “spaghetti western”-- that are in some ways very similar to the ones dealt by Tarantino. Rango doesn’t use library music cues in the way Tarantino does to signal mood (or upend it). Rather, Hans Zimmer has woven a beautifully funny score out of the echoes of all those haunting Morricone moments, some of which have been filtered through Hugo Montenegro as well—everything from the opening credits of A Fistful of Dollars to “Jill’s Theme” from Once Upon a Time in the West is referenced, but to enhance emotion and stake its own place as an actual movie, not just to encourage the audience to pat itself on the back for getting the joke.

No doubt the movie references in Rango are legion. The difference here, as in Tarantino, is that they seem to leap whole from the identity-hobbled psyche of its lead character, a delusional lizard (voiced by Johnny Depp, in the year’s best performance so far) whose defensive flights of imagination lead to a desperate journey of self-discovery when he becomes lost in the desert of the Southwest. The lizard, who has a penchant for creating absurd scenarios involving inanimate “friends” to keep himself from losing his tiny little mind, is essential an actor, and when he discovers a dusty Western-style town called Dirt which affords him the free range (sorry) to concoct an entire persona cobbled out of the juiciest of familiar genre clichés and tropes, he leaps at it. When the lizard walks into the town saloon and the entire gallery of liquored customers—a hilariously gruesome assortment of desert-weathered creatures—falls silent, the moment will make every Western fan smile with recognition. But those who know Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West will also appreciate the squeaky turn of the ceiling fan, which underlines Rango’s entrance into the sudden silence while reminding us of a certain rather insistent windmill. It’s here that the lizard becomes “Rango” by appropriating even more layers of self-created mythology (all based on the most outrageous gun-slinging lies), and it becomes more astonishing by the minute how the film subtly implies that the illusions Rango spins, not to mention the very environment upon which he stumbles, may be the result of a Castaneda-esque desert-fever dream shared by the audience. The literary and cinematic references that make Rango such a rich comic experience are not devised like a game of Trivial Pursuit—it would be as impossible to catalog them all as it would be to do so in Tarantino’s movie. That lucid dream state becomes a corollary to the way we’re processing the references themselves.


The important thing is the ambience and the depth of character that the references add up to and finally strengthen. It’s an organic approach that is shared by Kill Bill, the difference between enriched homage and straight parody, the difference between Rango’s introductory saloon scene and, say, the moment in the genial but less-inspired Paul, in which our heroes walk into a roadside bar and the cowboy band is playing the cantina music from Star Wars. The John Williams cue is there because there are a thousand other nods set up to be caught by sci-fi geeks of every stripe, but they don’t add up to much other than a round of self-congratulation at having seen and loved the same set of movies as the writers. (Paul also lacks Edgar Wright’s innate cinematic sensibility and way with visual jokes, a more significant absence than might initially have been guessed.)

I’m running out of time, but I just wanted to register a few other brief thoughts that came up while soaking in Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair


Secret Weapon #1: The movie’s curiously moving take on motherhood. Images related to the subject tumble right from the beginning— “Bill, it’s your ba—" followed by one of cinemas’ loudest, most disturbing gunshots. But then Tarantino serves up two separate, horrific reversals of the primal scene in which daughters witness the death of their own mothers. The first, in which Vernita’s daughter stumbles upon her mother and the Bride engaged in a vicious knife fight and then is revealed looking upon the scene as the Bride takes Vernita down, is played both for a bitter laugh and a shiver. But the scene is deepened by the Bride’s sober promise to the girl that she understands her confusion and anger, and should she never be able to shake the horror of what she has seen as she grows up the Bride will be waiting for her when she arrives to exact her revenge.


The second comes during the staggeringly brutal anime sequence that illustrates the events that led to O-Ren Ishii’s ascendance to the position of elite assassin, posited on her firsthand witness to the assassination of her mother and father, and her subsequent revenge on the pedophile gang lord who committed the crime. But the Bride’s journey from pregnant bride to anguished survivor, through a literal rebirth from being buried alive (and having to access the most crucial elements of her training to avoid certain death) and the eventual reunion with a daughter thought long lost, is where the movie’s core of emotional truth is located. That journey is about revenge for a stolen life, of course, but it’s also all about the Bride’s profound feelings of motherhood, which are no longer supported by reality-- the deep sense of vengeance that propels her is borne out of being denied the one role she now holds more dearly than even her skills as a martial arts assassin. The scene in the hospital near the beginning of Vol.1 when the Bride awakens from a long coma and realizes she’s no longer pregnant is surely one of Uma Thurman’s shining moments as an actress and perhaps the most moving moment in the entirety of Tarantino’s career thus far. It’s where this great pop reverie reaches into the audience’s collective chest and squeezes, hard.

Secret Weapon #2: Gordon Lau, as the leader of the Crazy 88’s in Vol.1, but more importantly his spot-on perfect performance as Pai Mei in Vol. 2, spirited in directly from the oeuvre of King Wu and every other lesser directorial talent in the history of martial arts filmmaking. No one has ever adjusted a beard like Lau does in these sequences.

Secret Weapon #3: Sonny Chiba. Who would have guessed that the Streetfighter himself, using his real, undubbed voice for perhaps the first time in a movie, would be a gifted comedian? He has the gravitas to deliver one of the best lines in the entire four hours—presenting his greatest sword to the Bride before she departs to visit O-Ren at the House of Blue Leaves, he intones, “If on your journey you should encounter God, God will be cut!” But he’s also loose and funny as hell with Thurman at the sushi bar during the first of their scenes together. (“Warm sake??!! Very good!”) See for yourself…



Secret Weapon #4: Julie Dreyfus. The multilingual Tokyo casting director for Kill Bill actually read for the part of the Bride before being cast as the ill-fated Sofie Fatale (who loses an extra limb in this Cannes version).


Dreyfus is regally beautiful (she bears a pleasant resemblance to Monica Bellucci), and her appearance as Goebbels’ lover in Inglourious Basterds makes me hope that Tarantino will figure out a way to get her in his upcoming spaghetti western as well. She’s got a great movie face, a great movie carriage and presence, and it’d be nice if she one day got a part that would make her into a great movie star.

Secret Weapon #5: Bleeping out the Bride’s actual name. That gives me a shiver every time.

Secret Weapon #6: The end credits. I knew it was coming, but sitting in the New Beverly Cinema seeing Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair as it was unveiled at Cannes, watching the credit “Thanks to Sherman Torgan and the New Beverly Cinema” roll past actually brought me to tears—tears for a great legacy recognized eight years ago and one that is perpetuated by Tarantino through his films, certainly, but also through his good graces directed at the theater itself. Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair is ultimately a tribute to many things, not least of which is the spirit that still fiercely pulses through the veins of programmers like Michael Torgan, Sherman’s son, who is dedicated to making sure the legacy of cinema is not surrendered to the mockers and the parodists. Each week the rich ground in which referential movies like Kill Bill are planted is there on the big screen in all of its various forms and genres to be enjoyed in venues like the New Beverly. The biggest secret weapon of all turns out to be how seeing this movie at this theater becomes a unique opportunity to engage in movie love of an even more rarified nature. Don’t miss it.

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(A reminder: Tickets are on sale at the box office only, so anyone realistically expecting to be admitted should be looking at getting into what will undoubtedly be a very long line sometime during the 6:00 hour. The performance on both Tuesday and Wednesday nights begins at 8:00 p.m.)

(And Jen Yamato details the gory differences between the American release and the Cannes version for Movieline.)

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