It's hard to ignore the box-office popularity of Quentin Tarantino's latest movies, “Kill Bill: Vol. I” and the newly released sequel. Their success is a major coup for Miramax CEO Harvey Weinstein, who backed them financially, and could pave the way for Weinstein to have an expanded role in the troubled moviemaking operations of Miramax parent Walt Disney. Given how many young American viewers and film buffs worldwide have flipped for the “Bills”, it's pretty unhip not to like these movies.
And yet, I hate them — both of them — even after seeing them several times. I'm bothered by something Tarantino's admirers try to minimize: the sadistic violence. The director likes to say his technique is to leave out all the dull moments and focus his plots on the intense stuff people really want to see.
That worked with “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino's first big hit, which I loved. But with his latest movies, the director makes virtually every scene a pretext for humiliating, brutalizing, or murdering his characters. He's like a creepy kid torturing insects with a magnifying glass. And coming at a time when Americans are being bombarded by real images of U.S. servicemen and women humiliating and torturing Iraqis, that leaves me feeling very uneasy.
Blood and guts, obviously, are longtime Hollywood staples. In “Reservoir Dogs,” his 1992 directorial debut, Tarantino set out to make a slick Hollywood movie with torture as one of its core themes. Torture also figured in the hugely successful 1994 “Pulp Fiction” — the rape scene involving the druglord Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), for example. And certainly, torture is featured in other recent Hollywood blockbusters, notably Mel Gibson's controversial “The Passion of the Christ.”
In “Kill Bill,” however, Tarantino ups the ante to new heights. The gore and humiliation are taken out of any emotional context. The movies pretend to borrow their moral code mainly from Asian martial-arts movies, but those movies make reference to real history, and real rituals of honor and discipline. Here, the action is all synthetic. It's almost as if Tarantino is sampling violent scenes from other movies in the way a hip-hop artist samples snippets of recorded music — except that these snippets involve things like a woman having the top of her scull sheared off by a sword.
Predictably, all the mayhem hasn't hurt sales. “Kill Bill: Vol. I” has grossed more than $180 million in ticket sales worldwide, and Miramax predicts that DVD sales will total $90 million to $100 million. “Kill Bill: Vol. II” grossed $60 million worldwide in its first two weeks, and it seems likely to at least rival the first installment's numbers. That means the two combined will probably take in 10 times the $55 million Tarantino spent making them.
Mayhem with a purpose
The movies especially appeal to one of the most lucrative demographics in marketing — young men. Miramax says 60 percent of the viewers are 18 to 34 and male (the movies are rated R, so those under 18 can't get in without their parents). And stylized violence (like sex) sells well everywhere: A phenomenal 60 percent, or $110 million, of “Kill Bill I's” box office was generated outside North America.
So why can't I stand these movies? At least in “Pulp Fiction,” the mayhem had a purpose, creating a fictional portrait of the underbelly of Southern California society. The basic message of the movie was that lurking beneath social norms lies a violent and exploitative mirror image.
A man can wander into a pawn shop, for instance, and wind up being beaten and raped by a pair of sadists who keep a groveling hooded man in a trunk in the basement. A suburban dad can be lounging around in his bath robe one morning waiting for his wife to get home from her nightshift job when a pair of men show up in a blood-spattered car looking for help disposing of the freshly murdered man in the back seat.
Sure, it's not very realistic, but it's disturbing because of the many ways it takes the norms of everyday life and turns them upside down. In “Pulp Fiction,” the gangsters, sadists, and pimps listen to the same music, dance the same dances, and eat the same junk food we all do. They tell the same jokes, make similar small talk in idle moments, and even have moments of sensitivity and understanding.
The vicious hitman played by Samuel L. Jackson spouts Biblical verses before executing people. He later has a religious conversion and decides to give up his job — just as the accountant next door might. Tarantino seems to be asking: Are these people really so different from you and I?
In “Kill Bill,” all the context is gone. The plot is a comic-book story in which Uma Thurman plays a hired killer called Beatrix Kiddo (also known as The Bride) who's shot during her wedding rehearsal, remains in a four-year coma during which she's repeatedly raped, then goes on a bloody spree of revenge killings against the assassins who murdered her groom and everyone in her wedding party.
Agony and agony
Her ultimate goal is to “kill Bill,” the sadistic gang boss (played by David Carradine) whose child she was carrying when he shot her in the head. It's as if Tarantino has distilled dozens of comic books into their meanest, most violent scenes.
Almost every plot turn depends on gushing blood or sadism. Bill's nasty, alcoholic brother Budd (Michael Madsen) dies an agonizing death after being repeatedly bitten in the face by a poisonous snake. Beatrix awakens from her coma and rips the lips off a would-be rapist causing him to bleed to death. (I'll spare you the rest.)
The cumulative effect is very different from that of “Pulp Fiction.” Rather than coming out of the theater wondering if there isn't a little bit of the gangster and pimp in each of us, I came away from the “Kill Bill” movies feeling as if Tarantino wants me to think it's OK to get a little thrill from the suffering of others.
The second time around with both movies, I became inured to their violence, which makes them more disturbing. It's as if Tarantino is saying, "You know that creepy kid with the magnifying glass? He isn't so bad."
Sorry, but that's a creepy sentiment with the news full of pictures of Iraqi prisoners being humiliated and tortured by their American jailers. If filmmakers keep glorifying ever nastier and more perverse violence, that'll take American society and culture down the wrong road.