April 25th, 2004

The Song

This is the song I was listening to when I lost track on the descent into Gila Bend back in February, 2003. To be more specific, the opening bars were playing when I looked down and realized what I was doing and the guitar solo was peaking when my sense of having a threshold experience was at its peak.

In retrospect, of course, I recognize that the words, "Set us free this time," are in the imperative and therefore leave open the possibility A) that there will be no setting free; and B) that, even if freedom is achieved, it will only be achieved for "this time," proving to be only the briefest interlude in our millennial bondage.
  • Current Music
    Set Us Free - J. Mascis And The Fog - Free So Free


Alright. So I just saw Kill Bill, Volume 2, which my friends who have seen it think is grand and which many mainstream critics reviewed unkindly. My friends are right. The critical critics are wrong. That's not surprising, in a case like this.

What baffles me is that no one, least of all the professionals, seems to have grasped -- or at least grasped in public -- the underlying seriousness of the film. I've understood the need to bash Quentin Tarantino. But now that the wax in his wings has melted, can't we try a little harder to acknowledge how smart his cinematic diptych -- I've been into diptychs lately, as regular readers of De File will know -- really is and how moving?

From where I sit, the work demands to be shown in two parts and, for the first time around, with a healthy gap between them. The second installment imparts a retroactive density to the first one. And the first one, in turn, lights up its successor with the flash of memory.

Kill Bill, Volume 2 features some of the most emotionally resonant, brutally "real" depictions of parents in conflict ever put to film. Indirection is like The Force in Star Wars: it can hit a target that the matter-of-fact will always miss. By wildly exaggerating some aspects of the conflict between Bill and Beatrix, Tarantino is able to make the underplayed family scenes burn with truth.

Any parent who has fallen asleep alongside one's child and then had to extract her or himself from the child's clutches will appreciate the accuracy of the scene in which Beatrix and her newly met daughter Bibi watch Silken Assassin. And Bill's bitterly restrained sallies sound like every man who wears the clothes of rationality in order to hide the monstrous rage beneath.

Much of the power of the parenting story in the Kill Bill diptych comes from the way it is paired with tales of pedagogy. The relationship between pedagogue and pupil both overlaps and undercuts the relationship between bride and groom. Bill loves Beatrix. Yet he is also her mentor. Every teaching scene in the two films is shot like a love story. Always, it's the differential between the master and apprentice that rises like cream. But what does that say about marriage?

Almost everyone who has given the films serious thought zeroes in on their faux feminism, the extent to which the female characters are "flat," male fantasy projected on the wall of the cave. Who's going to argue?

Problem is, Tarantino's faux feminism is shadowed by a filmic double. Structurally, the Kill Bill films are women's films. The melodrama ends not in marriage, but its rupture. You don't need a man; you need your child.

What happens when we match that narrative trajectory up with the one that characterizes each teaching sequence? For one thing, we see that the master and pupil don't need the presence of a third party. The absent one may be the catalyst for the pedagogic exchange -- its inseminator? -- but proves unnecessary over the long haul.

Now here's where the film gets interesting. We're talking about a two-part work in which the relationship between the parts is in doubt. More importantly, we're talking about a cinematic creation that almost everyone recognizes as a mish-mash of Tarantino's influences. Like Lucy Liu's Oren Ishii character, who beheads a man for remarking her mixed parentage, her cultural impurity, Tarantino wants, Tarantino needs to find a way to justify his films' heterogeneity. In other words, we're confronting a work in which the marriage of a superficially incompatible couple -- Kill Bill, Volume 1 and Kill Bill, Volume 2 -- plays out against a backdrop of the sort of serial monogamy that results in questions like "Who's your daddy?"

Yes, the Zombies worm their way into the second film. It's a cover of "She's Not There," but anyone who knows that the same band produced "Time of the Season" will have that later single in the back of her or his mind.

Back to the flow, we come to the crucial point. Who is the father of Kill Bill? Is it Tarantino, a modern-day badass, "as played by David Carradine?" Is it a more shadowy figure? Or is it the bastard whose mother can't even narrow down potential fathers to a manageable figure?

Worth pointing out here is that the child in Kill Bill, Bibi, is a girl. And it's her father who dies in the story, as does the other great master of Kill Bill, Volume 2, the martial arts expert Pei-Mei.

If you wanted to make a counter-argument that Kill Bill truly is a feminist work, you could claim that the story is meant to instruct us in the necessity of breaking free from the master-pupil relationship in favor of the mother-child relationship.
  • Current Music
    Don't Fear The Reaper - Blue Öyster Cult - Uncut