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Category: Movies

The True Superman

Hey, I’m back! For now… I’ve been having lots of trouble connecting to the Internet lately (entirely the fault of the awful campus network I’m on, so there’s not much I can do about it except graduate and move someplace with a good network), and given that I am preparing to graduate in about two weeks, I’ll probably be a bit busy in the near future and so the no-blogging trend may continue. I have lots of stuff to write about, but no time and an uncooperative Internet connection.


Superman stands alone. Superman did not become Superman, Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he is Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red S is the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears, the glasses the business suit, that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak, unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race, sort of like Beatrix Kiddo and Mrs. Tommy Plumpton.

This, of course, is Bill’s monologue on Superman from Kill Bill Vol. 2 (which Quentin Tarantino apparently “borrowed” from Jules Feiffer’s book The Great Comic Book Heroes). This is the most obvious possible interpretation of Superman, and frankly I’m surprised at the number of people I’ve encountered who seem deeply impressed by this allegedly brilliant interpretation. What did you folks think Superman was about?

Actually, I disagree with Bill. Well, certainly he’s right that Clark Kent isn’t the real guy, he’s a character Superman made up so he doesn’t have to be Superman all the time. However! Superman isn’t the real guy either… Superman certainly isn’t his real name, his name is Kal-El. (Or Kal-L on the erstwhile Earth-2.) That’s his Kryptonian name—so is the Kryptonian Kal-El the real guy? But he was never really Kryptonian. Sure, in the pre-Crisis DC Universe (and Bill has us talking pre-Crisis here, the weakling coward Clark Kent is a pre-Crisis artifact), it seems like half the population of Krypton managed to escape, what with Supergirl, Krypto, the bottled city of Kandor, and whatever other obscure Kryptonians were lurking around—but even with all those Kryptonians around, Kal-El could at best get history lessons. He couldn’t ever be part of a living Kryptonian culture. And anyway he certainly didn’t grow up Kryptonian. He grew up American, but his extraterrestrial origin and his superpowers serve as constant reminders that he’s far from a natural citizen. Even his powers aren’t naturally Kryptonian. He’s an emigrant from a place which doesn’t exist and which he never knew, to a place from which his alien genetics always separate him.

Superman has plenty of alter egos, but no natural self. His only nature is alienation from nature. He is, in fact, a metonym of human nature, which is alienation from nature. What Christians call Original Sin, alienation from God. What people are looking for when they give up the hectic bustle of modern life and join a commune or something. The immigrant embodies this alienation physically, and Superman takes immigration to the next level: not only is he from another planet, he’s from another planet that blew up and no longer exists. It’s like Genesis without the moral judgement and without Happy Heaven as a final reward after a life of struggling to get back to Eden. Superman’s only reward for the true selves he tries to cobble together out of the pieces he’s been left with is no more and no less than whatever self he manges to cobble together. His life as Superman, Clark Kent, Kal-El are the closest he’ll ever get to Heaven. (This is one reason I find attempts to make Superman a Christ figure amusing. Or bemusing. He descends from some idealized place and takes on the burden of humanity, right, but then he doesn’t have any Heaven to ascend to! He’s like the first half of a Christ figure, which just means he’s human.)

As long as I’m writing about Superman’s identities I should note that Chris Maka and Ken Lowery are also pondering superhero identities. Ken specifically offers some criticism of the Punisher’s own identity issues, which makes sense but don’t trust me, I’ve never read any Punisher comics.

Kill More Kill Bill PSAs!

Sean Collins annoyed people this morning by saying that Kill Bill detractors should be ignored because they’re misunderstanding a great movie. I disagree with Sean that any of the characters renounce violence, except maybe the Tiny Yakuza who brings out Beatrix’s motherly side. And if they don’t renounce violence, are they all getting punished? Actually, I realize what he said was that “characters who refuse to renounce violence and deceit are inevitably punished for that refusal.” So maybe Beatrix escapes on a technicality for not managing to tell lies while dosed with truth serum, and limbless Sophie Fatale didn’t become headless too because she’s a coward who squealed. But that’s not what I’m focusing on here.

In an email, he clarified his thoughts on the aspect of sexual violence that had bothered Steven and me:

Anyway, I’d talk about the sexualized and exploitative violence–if, that is, I thought there was any, which I didn’t. Not all violence against women is sexualized, and I didn’t think any of it in Kill Bill was. No fetishizing shots of breasts, nipples, legs, crothces, asses, or even hair, really, just by way of a for instance. At any rate, it’s tough to think of a stronger female character than the Bride, who’s easily the best action heroine ever (depending, I guess, on whether you like her better than Lt. Ellen Ripley).

So maybe it boils down a problem with definitions, what makes some violence sexual and some not. I didn’t mean the violence was problematic because it involved femmes fatales in boob socks, which seems to be Sean’s definition of sexual violence. Well, I say it’s spinach and I say to hell with it. Without talking about which “worked” for me as story elements and which didn’t, I’m going to make an incomplete list of categorically grouped sex-related violence from both my hazy memories of Kill Bill Vol. 1 and the more recent volume.

There’s some straight-up sexual violence. Buck has been accepting money to let men rape Beatrix while she’s comatose. I’d argue that the murders in response to this fall in the same general category. Beatrix has no reason to murder these two men except that she’s been their victim, so she’s trying to “right” the power balance because there’s nothing she can do about the sex part, which of course is the point. And Esteban slicing up the faces of his prostitutes, that seems like violence as payback for infractions related to sex and power, though we never learn the details.

Then there’s gender-based or sexist violence. When Gogo slices through the businessman who propositions her, she’s upsetting social norms and doing something unexpected for a woman. She’s penetrating and controlling someone who sought to do the same to her. O-Ren has to do the same thing, beat the men at their game of brutality to lead the Yakuza. If Bill is to believed, Pai Mei is a sexist who makes the women in his tutelage work harder and suffer more to prove their ability.

And there’s no lack of violence in/and romantic or just sexual relationships. Maybe Esteban’s role as a sometimes violent pimp fits better here. I don’t just mean standard intimate violence, but the way sex and violence are intertwined for the characters. Elle kills Budd so she can take credit for offing Beatrix, thinking it will endear her to Bill, not to mention knock out a rival for his affections. And when Elle and Beatrix finally fight, is the extra brutality payback for old hurts or the old girlfriend going after the rival who’s taken her place? Most obvious, though, is that Bill and Beatrix were obviously having sex, and Bill killed Beatrix after she left him. Whether or not it had to do with his jealousy that he was being replaced in her heart and womb, when you kill someone you’ve been sleeping with, it’s intimate violence and it’s not uncommon in our world either.

Objectification seems too subjective to catalogue and was something I didn’t find too problematic, perhaps because it’s what Tarantino understands best. I thought the parallel between the prostitutes in the brothel and Bill’s Assassin Squad was an insightful one that added depth to the story. And I haven’t quite figured out the mechanics, but I liked the way Budd didn’t objectify the strippers he worked with but did treat Beatrix as subhuman when burying her. He treats women who are nothing more than puppets in the movie as characters and belittles (and thus underestimates) the two fully realized women he deals with in the movie.

I’m sure if I spent time thinking about it I could come up with more than this, but there isn’t much of a point. These are issues that hit close to home with me, so I know I’ll be more strongly affected by them than most viewers, but I don’t know how anyone could ignore them all or be unaffected by them. I didn’t think the movie was necessarily exploitative in a porny way, making Uma Thurman some kind of fetish object, but the violence exploited the audience.

Sean also says he’s avoided analyzing Kill Bill Vol. 2 because he likes it too much to have critical distance. I hope he reconsiders, because I think I can see what aspects people would like, but I’d love to hear what they actually are. It’s usually easier to do negative reviews and it can be difficult and self-revealing to talk in any detail about what you like. One of my goals in writing here is to get more comfortable doing both sorts of reviews. I’m still working on that part, but apparently have no qualms about pressuring others to do what I don’t. And Mr. John Jakala, this means you! We who haven’t yet seen Dogville want to know why we should!

Kill Bill Counter Public Service Announcement

Every time somebody says something like this:

It’s really for the best if you ignore the people who didn’t like Kill Bill Volumes One and Two, which taken together comprise one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.

It’s really for the best if you ignore them! Sean Collins said that. Why, I can’t imagine. Maybe he’s joking, but he mostly just sounds indignant. I guess he thinks only people who agree with him are worth paying attention to. How boring.

He also says:

I do, however, wish I knew how people can watch a movie in which bad behavior occurs and, because they find the film amusing on some level, deduce that that bad behavior is being endorsed–particularly in an oeuvre like Tarantino’s, in which characters who refuse to renounce violence and deceit are inevitably punished for that refusal.

Now, I personally didn’t find the “bad behavior” (I guess that would include raping a comatose woman, as well as the comotase woman eating off her rapist’s face, both pretty bad behavior) amusing, and I didn’t think the bad behavior was endorsed, so that’s fine. Actually, scratch that, a lot of the Bride’s bad behavior was most certainly endorsed, or at least looked upon with some approval by Tarantino—and members of the audience. Actually, the way Sean puts it here, which isn’t really a way I’d thought about it before, makes the movie seem way more fucked up than I thought at first—it gives us violent setpieces which are filmed in such a way as to entertain and exhilarate us, and then it says “Oh, but this violent which is so exciting and fun to watch is bad! These characters must be punished!”

I wish I knew why Quentin Tarantino and people in the audience Rose and I watched it with find this movie so amusing.

Oh, and pointing out other movies that immorally play gratuitous violence for laughs doesn’t exactly absolve Kill Bill… or maybe Tarantino does it morally?

And really, I came out of the theater thinking Kill Bill Vol. 2 was much better than Kill Bill Vol. 1, which I sort of liked but had lots of problems with, and I thought “Hey, get rid of that stupid Buck chapter and Kill Bill works pretty well,” but it’s such a frustrating movie, and I can’t figure out if it’s good frustrating or bad frustrating. I fear it’s both, and I fear Tarantino didn’t think it was supposed to be frustrating at all.

I do hope we get to hear why Kill Bill is one of the best movies Sean has ever seen. And Sean, I am curious, given your outspoken views on feminism and misogyny in movies like Dogville, to hear your thoughts on the issue of sexual and sexually violent exploitation of women characters for entertainment.

Kill Bill: “You and I have unfinished business.”

Unfortunately, I think Nate Bruinooge over at Polytropos has it right about Quentin Tarantino and Kill Bill:

Another, darker failing of his that has finally become clear to me is this: he finds abhorrent violence terribly funny. One of his strengths has always been the fact that he does not sugercoat violence, or pussyfoot around its most graphic and troubling aspects. He doesn’t allow us to get comfortable. But I’m afraid this may be accidental, because for him the violence we’re talking about — a goon splurting blood from a lost limb, a woman thrashing on the floor after losing her last eye — is already comfortable for him. If this is true it is rather damning of the man, not necessarily his work, though this particular movie seems to be a clear expression of his personal quirks unfettered by editorial critique or high inspiration.

I really only have one thing to say about Kill Bill Vol. 1, I guess (I’d probably have more to say if I watched again): OK, Buck? Who likes to fuck? How the hell did this shit not end up on the cutting room floor? It’s stupid, it’s nonsensical, it’s one of the most repugnant comedic-abhorrent-violence scenes in either volume of Kill Bill. Kill Bill Vol. 2 makes even clearer how wrongheaded the chapter is—it’s totally self-contained, it has nothing to do with the rest of the story (except for mild jokes about the Pussy Wagon), it serves only to dilute the sexualized violent relationship between the Bride and Bill. It turns the Bride from a person who was specifically victimized in specific ways by Bill into a general sexually victimized woman. With the Bride and Bill, you don’t have to read it as some kind of commentary on gendered violence or victimization of women or something, but the Buck chapter pretty well requires a reading pertaining to those themes, since there’s zero characterization of Buck or the trucker rapist or the Bride anywhere to be found and so there’s nothing to think about but the general gender politics. So are we supposed to cheer or something when the Bride eats off her rapist’s face? Jesus. And then we have to say… Well, gee, is the whole movie about violence against women or something? Is it supposed to be some kind of statement about victimization of women in action movies? Or is the Buck chapter just stupid and nonsensical and totally unrelated to everything else?

Is the movie a repugnant statement or is it just badly designed?

Well, anyway, here’s what I think about Vol. 2:

The best scenes in the movie manage to be at once trite and powerful. Most of them involve little B.B. Take the scene in which Bill explains to B.B. how he shot Mommy. The dialogue goes something like this:

Bill: I shot Mommy right in the head.
B.B.: Why, did you want to know what would happen?
Bill: No, I knew what would happen to Mommy when I shot her in the head. But what I didn’t know… was what would it would do to me.
B.B.: What did it do to you, Daddy?
Bill: Well, it made Daddy very sad.

It’s totally ridiculous and trite, but, well, it’s true, in a way. Tarantino uses B.B. to let his characters say things he could never get away with otherwise. They’re talking to a child, so they can talk like children. I said the stuff like this is trite, but also powerful, because it cuts right to the core of a lot of action movie morality, which is often painfully naïve. Take John Woo’s The Killer. Where did I just see something insightful about John Woo? Ah, right, from Dave Intermittent, in an attempt to formulate a taxonomy of martial arts action movies:

The second type [of martial arts movie] is played straight. Which is not to say realistic; but it takes its own absurdities very seriously. It doesn’t wink at the audience. And because it takes itself seriously, it can reach for something beyond simply entertaining an audience. Its lunacy becomes contagious; it can aspire to narrative power. Think about (not a kung fu movie, but the point remains) John Woo’s Hard Boiled. It makes, frankly, no sense at all, either in its narrative or its physics. It’s honor/betrayal paradigm shouldn’t really work, given what its yoked to; and explained to people who haven’t seen the film, it often doesn’t. But as a movie…it works. Oh man, how it works. It works because Woo never doubts that it should work, or lets on that he knows it shouldn’t. Woo never admits that his films are cartoons, and his belief that they aren’t transmutes them from cartoons into something more.

The Killer is another great example of this kind of movie. Woo obviously wants The Killer to be a tragic movie about violent people whose lives and the lives of the people they love end in horrific violence, but the thing is, the violence looks so damn fun! It’s exactly like a bunch of children playing cops & robbers or cowboys & injuns or the simplest, purest version of childhood violent play, the immortal Guns. Do children still play Guns nowadays? Just run around shooting each other, great fun. Kill Bill seems to want to acknowledge the childlike (childish?) quality of play in action movies, most obviously in the toy guns scene. Beatrix has tracked Bill to his home, she stalks through it looking for him, she steps onto the back porch… where Bill and B.B. stand holding toy guns. After some dramatic narration by Bill, B.B. fires her weapon: “Bang bang, you’re dead, Mommy.” Then Beatrix just stands there, looking at her daugher for the first time in both their lives, and this one closeup of Uma Thurman lasts maybe five seconds, and damn if that’s not about the hardest five seconds of film to watch that I’ve watched in a while. And ooh, Tarantino gets it, he’s taken the unconscious childlike-play metaphor of so many action movie gunplay scenes and literalized it. OK, sure, he falls victim to the same childlike ecstasy of violence in this very movie, but really, what an interesting way of dealing with it—put an actual child in the movie and let’s see if we can turn those trite statements about violence into something profound(ish). Maybe. Then I just now thought, “Yeah, but this is the same movie (OK, same two movies) with Buck Who Likes to Fuck, remember?” and that sort of ruins the effect, I have to admit.

I liked the goldfish scene, too, its parallelism with the Elle Driver scene. Elle is the goldfish outside its tank, flopping around after Beatrix pulls her eyeball out. Then Beatrix stomps on the eyeball—just like B.B. stomped on her poor goldfish. Yeah, trite and obvious, but that’s what we’re going for here.

Speaking of Beatrix… Beatrix? Beatrix Kiddo? I didn’t get the “Trix are for kids” joke until Rose pointed it out to me, and now I wish she hadn’t, because damn. Why is “Beatrix Kiddo” bleeped out in the first movie? What’s the allusion (there must be one)? Does it have anything to do with anything other than being an allusion? Some of the pastiche works as part of the text—Rose talks a bit about how the Western stuff works—but too many of the references seem to exist only as references, so that the text becomes sort of a laundry list of movies Tarantino has seen. The name-bleeping may not be the best example, because there’s a lot of reasonably good stuff about names and identities (the Superman speech! another pretty good scene) and the name-bleeping probably ties in to that. Still. Other seemingly pointless allusions apply. Am I supposed to be impressed that Tarantino has seen every single movie ever made? How boring. Why don’t I just watch the actual Once Upon a Time in China and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly instead?

Kill Bill frustrates me, you may have noticed. The more I want it to be a good movie, the more I wonder if it doesn’t want to be a good movie.

It does have some amusing dialogue, though.

Budd: She’s got a Hanzo sword?
Bill: He made one for her.
Budd: Didn’t he swear a blood oath to never make another sword?
Bill: It would appear, he has broken it.
Budd: Well… maybe you just tend to bring that out in people.

The Bride: You good with that shotgun?
Janeen: Not that it matters at this range, but I’m a fuckn’ surgeon with this shotgun!

“No one has succeeded in singing an epic of peace.”

Because I can’t make Kill Bill into the story I wish it could be, I’m open to suggestions. Are there cathartic quest stories about the search for forgiveness? Trite as it sounds, I’ve found forgiving worth the effort and pain, and I doubt that vengeance could be so satisfying (and certainly not for me), but is this a line of thought borne out in anything that isn’t a Lifetime Original Movie?

Kill Bill: “My baby shot me down”

The real climax of Kill Bill Vol. 2 comes at the end of the credits. The Bride has found herself a new identity, one that’s not chosen for her but actually chosen. Just because she drives off into the sunset as Mommy doesn’t mean she’ll be Mommy forever, but it is a new start. There’s a liminal moment where this change begins to take hold, in a doorway no less! Gun in hand, Beatrix spins to face the most cunning trap Bill could have set, beatific B.B. holding a toy gun. After a painfully long moment of shock, Mommy falls, in the clearest (and maybe first) display of real emotion in all of Kill Bill.

Of course, Daddy has been a bad Daddy, and not just because he lets B.B. stay up past her bedtime to watch Shogun Assassin. Bill tried to kill Beatrix in what he describes as a fit of agony over lost love, which also included anger and betrayal that he’s lost his favorite toy. Daddy metes out gentle punishment to B.B., firmly discussing the death of her fish and the guilt she feels over her role in it. He hasn’t grown more kind or fair to B.B.’s mommy, whom he shoots again, this time with a dart that gives him the power to extract truth from her against her will. Can this “marriage” be saved?

Beatrix has made a lot of choices in her life, but we don’t get to see them. Her only backstory is a glimpse of what she was with Bill, a lovelorn assassin, and what she is because of Bill, the vengeful Bride. Bill and the Vipers wiped out the wedding party and the hope of a new life, and Beatrix has done in the Vipers, so those two identities have been destroyed. “Beatrix Kiddo” is a name suitable for the sort of jokes it inspires in the movies, and she doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to go back to that. But suddenly on the floor of a California mansion she finds an alternative. Her story won’t be over when she kills Bill because now she once again has something to live for!

Beatrix and Bill have been locked in a power struggle for years. Young Beatrix submits to Pai Mei both to prove to Bill that she can (thus proving his warnings wrong) and to make him proud, and indeed it turns out she succeeds more thoroughly than Bill realized at the time. Bill enjoys his control over Beatrix and the Viper Squad disintegrates once that link is lost. Is this mutually destructive bond some Grand Passion or just a standard abusive cycle? And how does little B.B. fit in? Daddy and Mommy both love her very much (or do they?) but they don’t love each other anymore (right?) and so it’s better for everybody if they resolve their disputed custody with a fight to the death! It makes no difference to little B.B. whether Daddy cared for her out of love or for Beatrix or to atone for his violent past (and present) or just because he knew it would make Beatrix more angry. She had a Daddy and she had a life, and now she has a Mommy and a new life. Has anything really changed?

In Westerns, a cowboy heads off into the sunset because he hasn’t been domesticated, hasn’t settled down. If he wanted to complete his Oedipal trajectory, he’d find a nice woman (or make a woman nice) and start a solid life for himself in town or on a homestead. In becoming Mommy, Beatrix is trying to twist this. She’s domesticating herself, switching from murderer to caregiver in a matter of minutes. It may not work this way and may not work for good, since she’s left two little girls half-orphans in a revenge culture, but she’s a determined woman when she puts her mind to a task. She’s still defining herself through her relation to someone else, but that’s what has to happen to some extent if you live in society, and now she has someone who depends on her, has power she can use to do great good. It’s a wide horizon, full of promise, and mother and daugher are heading right in, not looking back.

Kill Bill Foundations: Audience

I’m still not into the meat of my discussion of Kill Bill, but I have a few comments about the moviegoing experience. I don’t like being in crowds much in general, and I particularly dislike it in movie theaters. It’s possible that I gravitate to non-Hollywood movies in part because there will be fewer people in the audience to make me wonder whether they’re observing me and, if so, what they think. But we were lucky both times to be in fairly sparsely populated theaters, and I’m getting over my awkwardness anyway, so it worked out, although there were tough spots.

What I hadn’t expected was that Kill Bill Vol. 2 would be such a comedy classic, at least if the audience was to be trusted. They thought all the fight scenes were exhilarating and funny and any character mannerisms were hysterical, particularly Pai Mei’s beard toss. I realize I have a stronger than normal response to violence, but I guess I’d hoped people would be more shocked or disturbed than amused by at least some of the fights. Then again, maybe the horrified people were as quiet as I was. On the other hand, the audience seemed at best lukewarm toward the dialogue, shifting awkwardly during any emotional episodes. I was somewhat chagrined by the family behind us, who had brought two elementary school children with them, but I’m sure there are benefits to introducing violent imagery early, at least one of which is that it will keep your kid from growing up like me.

Kill Bill Vol. 1 was a different setup. There was a group of maybe four college-aged guys and another couple there, and that may have been it, so there were two women watching the movie. The more recent crowd had something like a 3:1 ratio, I guess. The first crowd, particularly the guys, laughed some and sort of grunted approvingly during action sequences, but it mostly seemed to be in keeping with what I saw as the tone of the movie. Maybe it was what seemed like a drastic change in tone between the two that made the second audience so rambunctious. All I know is that it took me a long time to settle in because of the ridiculous giggles, and that I probably liked the movie less because of it, but that’s a criticism of myself as a viewer.

The reason I’m writing this at all is because I never got a sense of intended audience for the film. It’s possible the intended audience is just Quentin Tarantino, but I don’t know. I just don’t know if the rest of our audience left wondering whether Bill had loved The Bride and whether he would have been able to stop hurting her, and to what extent her total adoration had made him want to hurt her in the first place. I know one audience is geeks, the kind of people who are excited by the namedropping and the intertextuality, and that’s a valid group. I just wonder whether Kill Bill would have been better served by being less accessible and making viewers work a little harder to enjoy and appreciate it. Should it have attracted the same audience that went to see The Punisher? I guess I was hoping the answer would be no, because I’m so sick of revenge stories glorifying that ideology and am not much of a fan of women-in-peril pieces, though Kill Bill managed to subvert that at least a bit. As with Hellboy, I might have liked it more if it had been targeted at me more closely, but I liked it enough on its own merits. A lot of things would be easier if I were a fanboy, but I’m much happier as is, even if it means silently cursing moviegoers while they laugh and laugh. They should be glad I don’t support revenge!

Kill Bill Foundations: Good and Worthy Death

Here’s more prep work for discussing Kill Bill Vol. 2, the second of my two reflections on Kill Bill Vol. 1. Again, I’ve changed only coding and pronouns.

Originally posted 31 October 2003

Last time, I wrote about why I don’t like the characterization of rapists in Kill Bill. While I still don’t and don’t concede any of my objections, I have a thematic defense for it.

This is a revenge movie, but we don’t know (and perhaps never will) the reason why revenge is necessary. Sure, The Bride is betrayed by her (former?) fellow Assassins and left for dead, a massacre carried out at the word of the father of her unborn baby. But what’s her motivation? I joked that The Bride now has to wipe out all the people who’d seenher whimpering and begging not to be killed to be able to live with her bad-ass self, and in retrospect I think that could be partly true. There’s a pattern of how people die and how they deserve to die. An honorable warrior deserves an honorable death.

Other than giving me Tyrtaeus flashbacks, what does this involve? I’m not entirely sure; I was too caught up in Tyrtaeus. Still, the point is made early in the movie. Vernita and The Bride are evenly matched when sparring with knives and life histories, finding almost a comfortable camaraderie, but this changes when Vernita changes the rules. As quickly as she shoots from behind the symbolic shield of her daughter, she is killed conclusively and bluntly. Against an opponent who fights by whatever code they recognize, The Bride allows the battle to be a contest of skill and athleticism and all sorts of endurance, but those unworthy of such a display are summarily slaughtered.

It’s possible that this is why the rapists are basically caricatures, because without honor and principle, they are nothing more than beasts. They have no humanity, no depth because they are not a part of the world The Bride acknowledges as human, as on her own level. They die bloodily but easily, without fighting back. The dull die quickly.

I’ll go ahead and post this now and then go away for the weekend, part of which will be spent discussing the movie. Maybe I’ll understand more or better on my return.

Kill Bill Foundations: Self-Righteous Indignation

As Steven said, we saw Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2 this weekend, and in preparation for saying more, I’m reposting my comments on Vol. 1 from the older version of our blog. I’ve standardized formatting and switched to gendered pronouns from Spivak varient nongendered pronouns.

Originally posted 29 October 2003

Last week was a much-needed vacation not from work but, to a large extent, from the Internet. Now I’m back, refreshed and exhausted and working 10-hour days.

In the interim, though, I saw Kill Bill and I’ve been writing and thinking about it in relation to everything else I run into. It was a very frustrating half-movie, all the more so because I feel unable to critique it fully without recourse to the story’s end. All I’ve got are a bunch of references and reminders and preliminary theories, and they all make me want more. I’m not sure if that means it’s a good movie. I don’t think I’d talk about it in those terms, but it’s compelling to me and I enjoyed watching the later parts, although the first half hour or so (maybe hour, one of the benefits of wearing no watch) left me awkwardly uncomfortable.

I held off posting at first after seeing it because what I was going to say was too personal, and because I thought that most of the failure was my own. It’s not that I’ve changed these views, but just that I don’t see the point of not saying anything just because I’m unable to escape autobiographical criticism.

I have very strong views about rape. It’s an issue that impacts me directly and strongly. I’m interested in theory that surrounds sexual assault and can discuss it intellectually, but that doesn’t mean that I can give up my instinctual emotional impact, either. And Kill Bill really annoyed me on this front. I now have an alternate explanation for the way the scenes went, but I want to talk about my immediate understanding of and annoyance with the scenes involving The Bride and Buck, the hospital worker who sold her body while she was comatose.

First of all, Kill Bill is in many ways a superficial movie that seems basically devoid of social commentary. I mean, it’s not terribly difficult to interpret various stances and arguments into the movie, but, particularly because we don’t have all the data, it’s very difficult to see if there are moral judgments at work or just what Tarantino is doing. I know this.

Still, it seemed to me problematic and cowardly that Tarantino broadly stereotyped the rapists in the film in the way he did. Buck and the hapless redneck whose name I didn’t catch (if it was ever given) are nasty, miserable, ugly people. Both of them die in nasty, bloody ways as The Bride awakens to begin her arc of revenge, taking as spoils Buck’s outrageous “Pussy Wagon.”

The trouble for me is that unlike anyone the Bride kills later (in “real” chronological, not the movie’s narrative, order) they are both just caricatures of brainless hormones, Bad People. Or are we not supposed to read them that way? Are they just pitiful exaggerations of particularly sex-starved “normal” guys, albeit hideous and filthy ones?

The reason I called this depiction cowardly is because it’s easy. I mean, if they’d been black rather than white, it might have raised an outcry about the perils of racial stereotyping. However audiences just rolled with this characterization, laughing a bit in the audience I sat with. What makes this crime different from the others in the movie is that while most of the people in the audience haven’t executed an entire wedding party or disemboweled a man at a bar, a fair portion of what I presume is the target audience has (or knows someone who has) had sex with someone who wasn’t entirely awake or sober or otherwise consenting. To have the characters in the movie who do this be vapid idiots seems to me to allow viewers not to have any thoughts that might indict them or the sorts of things they believe in, since there is no entry for identification with these characters.

I don’t think Tarantino has any responsibility to advance my political views, and I’m not surprised he doesn’t seem do so. I was just troubled by this in the context all the violence toward and between woman, and the audience reactions to all of it. I’m not sure what I’m asking for, which is why I’ve come to different views of the scene, but it was upsetting to me basically because it doesn’t humanize a very human issue and because it lets stupid guys (and I’m stereotyping on gender and many other grounds, I know) go on being stupid guys when there was a clear chance to challenge them. I shouldn’t be looking for verisimilitude in a movie like this, but it’s there to some extent, in a chilling and emotionally compelling scene, and yet it could have been so much more and, for me, made the movie so much less.

Die DDR lebt weiter—auf 79 qm!

(The title means, The German Democratic Republic lives on—in 79 square meters!)

Rose and I saw Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Good Bye Lenin! this weekend. If Good Bye Lenin is playing near you, you should think about seeing it—it’s fun. If you’ve never even heard of it, here’s what the official American web site has to say about it:

October 1989 was a bad time to fall into a coma if you lived in East Germany—and this is precisely what happens to Alex’s proudly socialist mother. Alex has a big problem on his hands when she suddenly awakens eight months later. Her heart is so weak that any shock might kill her. And what could be more shocking as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of capitalism in her beloved East Germany? To save his mother, Alex transforms the family apartment into an island of the past, a kind of socialist-era museum here his mother is lovingly duped into believing nothing has changed. What begins as a little white lie turns into a major scam as Alex’s sister and selected neighbors are recruited to maintain the elaborate ruse—and keep her believing that Lenin really did win after all!

Good Bye Lenin! has some thematic resonances with The Invisibles, the seventh and final volume of which I recently read. If the movie were a story in Invisibles, probably everybody would end up dosed with Key 23, the jars of pickles labeled Spreewald Pickles would cause them to hallucinate the counterfeit pickles inside as real Spreewald Pickles, and we’d wonder whether a jar of Netherlandish pickles relabeled as East German Spreewald pickles is really a jar of Spreewald pickles.

(A brief note of explanation: Alex’s mother Christiane must have East German food products, since she doesn’t know the East German brands have disappeared from the shelves and been replaced by vastly superior Western brands. Alex is driven to rummage through dumpsters to find old discarded East German-brand jars and boxes, so he can trick his mother by filling them with Western food. Christiane particularly craves Spreewald pickles, and Alex gives her capitalist pickles from Holland disguised as Spreewalds.)

This is an important question in The Invisibles: Key 23 (or Key 64, or Logoplasm) causes you to hallucinate words as the actual objects those words represent. Is seeing a mirror with “Diseased Face” scrawled on it the same as seeing your own diseased face? Is being shot with one of those cartoon guns with a “Pop” flag the same as being shot for real? How do you get a goose out of a bottle without breaking the bottle or killing the goose? “What fucking goose?” is Jack Frost’s answer to the riddle. Elfayed’s more explanatory answer: “There’s no goose, Jack. No bottle. Only words.” What is more real than language, than the stories we tell ourselves and each other? It’s not that there are only words, as Elfayed claims, but that our interaction with the world is mediated by language. (Of course, for Elfayed, there really are only words—his comic-book world is made of words and pictures—the set of pictorial that make up comics is a kind of language.) If you see a tree and you don’t know it’s a “tree” (or “Baum” or whatever), well, you’re not really seeing a tree, are you, but some nameless thing. But what if you don’t know the words “nameless” or “thing”? If you have no language, you can’t even see nothing, because there is no “nothing” for you. As David Fiore notes, this is a recurring theme in Grant Morrison’s work, and recurs also in Jorge Luis Borges’s stories.

Where Morrison and Borges use fantasy and science fictional elements, writer/director Wolfgang Becker relies on good old-fashioned lying. Alex can’t let his mother know the GDR is no more, so he constructs an increasingly elaborate lie. The dominance of language in our conception of reality takes on apocalyptic importance for Morrison and Borges—and it does for Becker, but in a different way. It’s a quiet apocalypse in Good Bye Lenin!, which is maybe surprising for a movie with the fall of the Berlin Wall at its center. It would be easy to put this theme on a global scale in a story about the fall of a Communist government (1984, e.g., although that’s obviously a story about a Communist government not falling), but Becker avoids the global scale by using Christiane’s bedroom as a microcosm. The effect of the juxtaposition of the backgrounded social upheaval in Germany with the foregrounded familial chaos is a story which manages to be low-key and apocalyptic all at once. Alex’s surprise as his lie takes on a life of its own is mixed up with the terror he and his friends and neighbors must feel as the world they knew ends and a new world is born around them. The sense of simultaneous fun and panic as Alex’s fictional GDR gets bigger and bigger is much like the sense you get reading The Invisible Kingdom, the last volume of The Invisibles, as the narrative threatens to spin entirely out of Morrison’s—and the reader’s—control.

Good Bye Lenin! always makes clear the separation between inside, where Alex’s fictional GDR continues strong, and outside, where the GDR has fallen and East and West Germany reunited. Viewed from the outside, East Berlin is unaffected by Alex’s ruse. Viewed from inside the apartment, though, the newly emerging social status quo comes to mean the opposite of what it means on the outside, as Alex seeks to mitigate his mother’s increasing exposure to the onslaught of capitalism by enlisting an amateur filmmaker friend to invent fake newscasts about the fall of West Germany and the triumph of socialism. This is not the Borgesian conception of reality as presented in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”:

How could the world not fall under the sway of Tlön, how could it not yield to the vast and minutely detailed evidence of an ordered planet? It would be futile to reply that reality is also orderly. Perhaps it is, but orderly in accordance with divine laws (read: “inhuman laws”) that we can never quite manage to penetrate. Tlön may well be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth forged by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.

No, in Good Bye Lenin!, it’s easy to penetrate reality—just step outside the apartment. Alex’s mission, then is to keep his mother inside the apartment, and when she finally does step outside, to keep her thinking like she’s still inside.

The safety of inside is OK, but you can’t hide from the outside forever… right? It’s good of Alex to want to protect his mother from death—but who wants life when there’s nothing to life but lying in bed all day? Protecting yourself with your own little stories is fine, but at some point you have to either connect with the Big Story being told by the rest of the world, or admit your own insanity. Christiane’s unwillingness to emerge from inside the story she tells herself is what led to her heart attack in the first place—her husband had escaped East Berlin years ago and expected her to follow with their children, but she fell for the government propaganda, couldn’t bear to risk losing her children in an attempt to gain freedom, and so she abandoned her husband to the West, stayed in East Berlin and pretended she made a difference in the socialist regime by writing letters of petition demanding the state give the people better toasters. Now all she has to do to escape her self-created prison is step outside her apartment and see the new reunited Germany for what it really is, not the triumph of socialism but its defeat, and her son just can’t bear to let her go. Maybe a dose of the Big Story would kill her, but at least she’d be really alive in that Story before she died.

Still, Alex isn’t a bad person. He’s not judged or punished for his lie, but he’s also not successful in his lie. His girlfriend Lara, who thinks his desire to keep his mother locked up in bed is sort of sick (and she’s right about that), finally tells Christiane the truth. But they both value Alex’s good intentions, and they know as we all do the small happiness you can get sometimes from building up a little wall of protection against the scariness of the world—so they decide to give Alex a little protection and let him continue to believe he’s protecting his mother from the truth.

I think I’m going to stop here for now. Definitely more about The Invisibles later! And if you haven’t seen Good Bye Lenin!, see if it’s playing in a theater near you.