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Remix Aesthetic in Moulin Rouge and Kill Bill

An essay on postmodern remix aesthetic in Moulin Rouge and Kill Bill from a college film class I took last year. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it anymore, but I don’t necessarily disagree with any of it.

“You’re a natural born killer.”

The film and its audience, one could say, ‘know their own histories’. The pleasure of the texts consciously spills over into an audience’s knowledge of other films, other performances, other musics. One only has to think of the success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction to see the power of these commodities to reference not only social life but, more importantly, all other forms of popular culture…. Some theorists, like Baudrillard, extend this line of argument to conclude that the social world ‘outside’ of popular cultural terms has ‘gone away’, cinema can now only refer to other signifiers of popular culture.1

Val Hill and Peter Every thus describe the pleasure of the postmodern film, and considering this passage, I’d like to cut to the chase: Moulin Rouge and Kill Bill are quintessential postmodern films. To be sure, there are other films which play with similarly explicit pastiche, but few which seem to take the play so seriously take the intertexuality so far. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction may let us in on the play of pop culture reference, but Moulin Rouge and Kill Bill are nothing but pop culture reference—the worlds of the films are constructed entirely from parts of other texts.

Walter Benjamin, in considering the consequences of artistic media which are predicated on their mechanical reproduction (among which Benjamin considers film the best example), claims that “the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced.”2 In other words, the mechanical reproduction of a work of art eliminates its unique existence, undermining its authenticity—if every copy of a film is identical, there might as well be no authentic ‘original.’ Moreover, it decontextualizes the work. Some of the authority of Michaelangelo’s David as a great work of art is inevitably lost when it’s removed from its original context and placed on refrigerator magnets. On one hand, this leads to a crisis in art: if art is stripped of its authority, is it worth anything anymore, does it mean anything? On the other hand, it turns a great deal of power over to the audience of a work of art—if it has lost its authority, we don’t have to ‘respect’ it. Art stops being a cathedral and becomes a playground. Benjamin notes another consequence:

Works of art are received and valued on different planes. Two polar types stand out: with one, the accent is on the cult value; with the other, on the exhibition value of the work…. With the different methods of technical reproduction of a work of art, its fitness for exhibition increased to such an extent that the quantitative shift between its two poles turned into a qualitative transformation of its nature.3

This transformation leads to the postmodern condition of art, in which high art is awarded no precedence over what was once trash culture, and which seems to emphasize style over substance (the pleasure of the exhibition over the pleasure of reverence). Moulin Rouge and Kill Bill are exemplary. Elvis Mitchell points out that ???????[Kill Bill] works like a multimedia mix tape, and Mr. Tarantino rides the tempo of his films like a D.J….”4 This DJ aesthetic is central to both Moulin Rouge and Kill Bill, and indeed much of the pleasure to be had in both films, as with DJ music composed by remixing samples of other songs, is in appreciating how stylishly they play their samples together. Meaning in these films is a matter of how and why they use the DJ aesthetic.

“The show must go on!”

Moulin Rouge flags its exhibitionary quality with its play-within-a-play construction. The players whose lives parallel the play they’re performing is as clich???? as it gets in musical plots, but use of cliché, something reproduced so much it becomes completely detached from its original context and has no meaning beyond its existence as a copy of a copy of a copy, may become an artistic expression in postmodern art. In Moulin Rouge, the use of cliché reveals the film’s priorities: we know how the story goes, we know the plot is nothing special, it’s not what the film is about that’s important but how it’s about it. Moulin Rouge suggests its own artificiality in other ways, by opening and closing the movie with the opening and closing of red theater curtains, by saturating scenes with colors reminiscent of certain film stocks, by turning Paris into a gigantic three-dimensional stage backdrop.

Kill Bill has a movie-within-a-movie structure, but it’s more difficult to detect than the play-within-a-play of Moulin Rouge—in fact, it doesn’t occur in the text of the movie itself, but in the intertextual relationships of Quention Tarantino’s films. The gigantic advertisement for Red Apple Cigarettes, a fictional brand used in all Tarantino’s movies, in the Okinawa airport is so huge and obvious that it suggests nothing more than shameless product placement, as if Tarantino is poking fun at his use of fictional consumer products. The Bride’s drawing a square in the air as she discusses vengeance with Vernita Green immediately brings to mind Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace from Pulp Fiction, who is an actor and makes just the same gesture. The Bride is credited as Uma Thurman, but is that merely obfuscatory? Is the ‘real’ actor Mia Wallace? The huge Red Apple Cigarettes ad may be a joke, but on what level does the joke work? Is it a joke about fictional product placement, or is the joke that it’s actually ‘real’ product placement????????because Kill Bill is a movie-within-Pulp Fiction? These aren’t the only references to other Tarantino movies in Kill Bill, and others don’t necessarily support it. Some seem to undermine it—for example, the Bride and Butch have parallel scenes (each murders a man who tries to rape him/her and then steals the man’s vehicle, and each scene includes a nearly identical closeup shot of the dead man’s key chain) which are awfully coincidental if Kill Bill is inside Pulp Fiction’s reality. However, I think undermining is perhaps the dominant technique used by Tarantino in Kill Bill, as I will argue below, so this isn’t necessarily a problem. If this is true, at any rate, it means Tarantino has kicked the movie-within-a-movie construction up to the next level: Kill Bill is doubly removed from our real world (as are all movies-within-movies or plays-within-plays) but also removed even from its own ‘real world’ as it appears fully formed in our world like some artifact of Jorge Luis Borges’s Tlön.

If art imitates life, art ‘inside’ other art must imitate the ‘outside’ art. (…right? Maybe not, but it seems reasonable that it would do so.) Kill Bill achieves a remarkable degree of decontextualization by hinting that it’s a movie within another Tarantino movie and then removing itself even from that other movie.

“Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs.”

Moulin Rouge constructs its world from the Puccini opera La Bohème (19th century pop culture), vaudeville and burlesque shows, and every ‘classic’ pop song you’ve heard ten times too many. The image of decadent upper classes and Bohemians of 1900 Paris gathering at the Moulin Rouge to can-can to a “Lady Marmalade”/”Smells Like Teen Spirit” dance remix seems like a joke, but Baz Luhrmann doesn’t sound like he’s joking. He claims he chose to use pop songs because in the classic movie musicals audiences always knew the songs from the radio long before the they saw the musicals themselves, and because the resultant artificiality of the film is a kind of contract with the audience: we’ve left the realm of art imitating life far behind.5 Whatever the reasoning, it’s clear that Luhrmann doesn’t consider the referential playfulness of his movie to be primarily humorous, although humor may be the first reaction of the viewer. In fact, the beginning of the movie is very humorous—the notion of “The Sound of Music” as Bohemian anthem and the aforementioned “Lady Marmalade”/”Smells Like Teen Spirit” mashup are too bizarre not to inspire laughs.

But as the movie progresses, a strange thing occurs. As Christian stutters the opening lines of Elton John’s “Your Song” as if he were making them up on the fly, Satine launches into a frenetic parody of orgasmic ecstasy (Christian thinks they’re having a private poetry reading, and Satine thinks Christian is a duke with an odd poetry fetish). But when he spontaneously breaks into song—”How wonderful life is, now you’re in the world!”—the movie pauses for a long closeup of Satine’s suddenly awed face, and it’s easy to agree with her, if only on account of the movie’s audacity in presenting a magical Bohemian version of “Your Song” with a straight face. And by the time the narcoleptic Argentinian is using a tango version of “Roxanne” as an allegory of Christian’s doomed love for Satine, the movie is very serious indeed about its referential play.

Moulin Rouge gives its silly love songs the world they’re made for, the Bohemian World where all you need really is love. Luhrmann doesn’t cynically treat his assembled bits of pop culture as trash, nor does he try to ‘elevate’ them into high art. He only revels in the joy of love and the joy of playing in the text.

“Silly rabbit…” “Trix are for…” “…kids.”

Kill Bill constructs its world from parts of Kung Fu movies, grindhouse cinema, Spaghetti Westerns, revenge flicks of all kinds. Sonny Chiba appears to reprise his role as Hattori Hanzo. The Bride, wearing Bruce Lee’s yellow tracksuit from Game of Death, battles Kung Fu hordes who all wear Bruce Lee’s Green Hornet Kato mask. This is the Revenge World, where Japanese airlines provide katana-holders for passengers and where there is no morality beyond revenge—in this world, you’re either seeking revenge or inspiring someone to seek revenge, and usually both.

I claimed earlier that undermining is a dominant technique in Kill Bill. A superficial viewing shows that the movie is maddeningly inconsistent—one sequence in Vol. 1 careens from a horrific scene of the Bride awakening from her coma and realizing her unborn baby is gone to an apparently superfluous and disturbingly comic-in-tone rape-revenge subplot to the beautifully animated and absurdly bloody anime tale of O-Ren Ishii’s childhood. Most of both volumes pass by in a fantasy of revenge before Bill and B.B. appear in Vol. 2 to throw in the monkey wrench of moral self-awareness and awareness of the ‘real world’ (i.e., the world in which morality is not defined by revenge). The high point of the movie’s apparent critique of revenge-movie morality comes when the Bride finds Bill’s home, enters, and discovers Bill with their daughter B.B. playing guns:

B.B.: Bang bang!
Bill: You’re dead, Mommy. So die.
The camera pauses for a long moment on the Bride’s utterly shocked face, until she finally rouses herself…
The Bride: Oh, B.B., you got me. I should have known????????you are the best.
B.B.: Oh Mommy, don’t die. I was just playing.

This scene seems to acknowledge the naïve, childish mood of so many action movies which more resemble children’s playing with guns than any adult emotion.6 Later, Bill compares the Bride to his conception of Superman:

Superman did not become Superman, Superman was born Superman…. His alter ego is Clark Kent…. 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.

The idea in Kill Bill’s moral world seems to be that the Bride believes that her motherhood will allow her to escape the vortex of violence and death in her assassin’s life, marry a nice guy, and become just regular folks, and Bill thinks she’s hopelessly naïve—or maybe he’s just jealous she got out of his control. All this comes to a head in the movie’s climactic scene, which at least some critics praised as “the one genuinely subversive twist in the movie”:

Tarantino knows that we’re expecting a huge confrontation when Bill and the Bride finally meet again (the picture is called “Kill Bill,” after all). And he gives it to us — but in words rather than in physical action…. The way Tarantino throws away what could have been a predictable finish by choosing to emphasize character and performance over spectacle is a sly rebuke to what passes for craftsmanship in mainstream movies where final confrontations are simply excuses for elaborate special effects and multiple endings.7

If only ’twere so! In fact, the ending is subversive, but its ambition is greater than a critique of dumb action movies. Since the movie has pointed out that the Bride surely can’t escape the vortex of death she’s caught in (after all, she has spent the last several hours of movie time reveling in it, and the movie has hardly shown this to be a bad thing), it is patently absurd that she should be allowed to kill Bill and escape without consequence into motherhood, and yet that is exactly what she is allowed to do in the end (within a token nod to the mental anguish of the murderer in the penultimate scene of the Bride lying on the bathroom floor of a hotel room weeping from grief). The climactic scenes undermine the movie’s action-revenge trajectory by injecting the appearance of a moral point and then undermine the moral point. The maddening inconsistencies in the movie make sense only in consideration of Tarantino’s incessant attempts to undermine and make a joke of whatever he can. The Bride’s real name is portentously bleeped out in Vol. 1, but Vol. 2 reveals that this was merely to delay the punchline of a truly egregious pun on the Trix cereal slogan. If Moulin Rouge is about the joy of play, Kill Bill is about an attempt to achieve playfulness through the pure cynicism of a purely derivative action movie. Kill Bill takes the spectacle, the ideal of style over substance, the remix aesthetic for its own sake, far beyond Moulin Rouge, right off the ‘deep’ end of postmodernist whatever.

  1. Every, Peter and Val Hill. “Postmodernism and the Cinema.” The Routledge Critical Dictionary of Postmodern Thought. New York: Routledge, 1999. p. 104. [return to reference 1]
  2. Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Wart in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Retrieved 15 May 2004. [return to reference 2]
  3. Ibid. [return to reference 3]
  4. Mitchell, Elvis. “Vengeance Still Mine, Saith the Lethal Bride.” The New York Times. Published April 16, 2004, retrieved 16 May 2004. [return to reference 4]
  5. Luhrmann, Baz. Moulin Rouge commentary with Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce. [return to reference 5]
  6. The notion of action-movie violence—especially the ecstatic ballet of Hong Kong-style action movies—as an adult version of or reference to children’s gunplay games was first suggested to me by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, the professor of the film class for which I wrote this essay. [return to reference 6]
  7. Taylor, Charles. “Kill Bill, Vol. 2.” Salon. Published April 16, 2004, retrieved 16 May 2004. [return to reference 7]


  1. Athianos says:

    The Bride is not crying from grief in the last scene.
    She’s crying from relief.
    The one thing that drives her throughout the movie is the surrender to her actions. a recognition on some level that what she is doing is ultimately in the name of love. If her actions lead her to her death, she is prepared to accept that, knowing her conscience to be clean. Hell hath no fury - this IS a woman scorned.
    Yet, throughout all of this, at some level there is the tiniest doubt. It is the presence of this doubt - this question mark that keeps her on her toes and out of blind fury - that allows her to accept the change in perceived circumstances - the existence of her daughter - with such grace and reevaluate what must be done. This doubt allows her to spend one evening with her daughter before facing Bill. Just in case.
    Now doubt like this, or this humility, allows her to trust what forces drive us, believing her cause to be true. The strength of her mind keeping that doubt in check! the possibility that all the death at her hands may be because of some mistake or confusion, that strength is unfathomable by mind. And it takes the likes of Uma Thurmann to portray it.

    The tears at the end. They are of relief, yes.

    But also of gratitude.


    — 10 May 2006 at 12:44 pm (Permalink)