When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.
– Tuco (Eli Wallach) standing over the still warm corpse of an excessively verbose enemy in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)
It’s a real shame when the Bride (Uma Thurman) finally faces Bill (David Carradine) for their showdown at the end of Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2004). For a start, it means the fun’s nearly over – couldn’t Tarantino have somehow spun a dozen episodes out of this saga? (Bet Feuillade could’ve!) But it’s also a very bad scene, an anticlimax to what otherwise might well have been the best – that is, the richest, most intelligent, unique and exciting – film to have come out of the Hollywood mainstream since Scorsese’s Casino (1995). But the reasons that this scene fails are very revealing, illustrating why the rest of the film works so well and why it is different enough from Tarantino’s previous work to finally win over even an inveterate Tarantino-sceptic like me.
Let’s skip back to the beginning of the exquisite first “volume”. Tarantino kicks off with the Bride visiting vengeance on ex-assassin, now devoted mum Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) in her immaculate suburban house, an advertiser’s archetype of stable, affluent normality. After the two smash the pristine home and each other up a bit, their battle is interrupted by the return of Vernita’s young daughter from school. She is boggle-eyed at the spectacle of these two bloodied women suddenly assuming a patently fake air of ordinariness – mummy’s old friend just dropped in for a visit. The incredulous poppet is packed off to watch telly and the antagonists, after a brief conversation, proceed with their violence. The Bride comes out victorious. The little girl catches the Bride standing over her dead mother and is given a lecture on her right to claim vengeance when she grows up. This scene is significant in several ways, and we will return to it. What needs to be emphasised now is the extent to which it wilfully, almost gleefully demolishes the image of stable, everyday familial normality. It does so with a smirking humour that is all but contemptuous. The message is clear: abandon here any residual attachments to real life, including its values and ethics.
Flash forward to the end of part two when the Bride discovers that her little daughter is still alive and living with Bill, her father and the Bride’s ex-boyfriend. In the reunion scene Tarantino comes close to doing something truly brilliant – creating a radical, dazzlingly perverse body of familial ethics, a mutant normality to replace the one he demolished in the destruction of Vernita and her home. In a jaw-dropping “facts of life” talk, dad explains how he came to put a bullet in mum’s head. He does so in terms of an analogy with the little girl’s recent killing of her pet goldfish and the ineffectual remorse she felt afterwards. They feed her a sandwich and tuck her up in bed. Can she watch a video with mum? Sure. How about a slice of Japanese mega-violence like Shogun Assassin (Kenji Misumi & Robert Houston, 1980), the story of a samurai and his infant child on a revenge quest? Dad has his doubts, but mum agrees. After all, it’s a special occasion – she’s been “dead” for the past four years! So mother and daughter bond watching savage swordplay films and the little girl seemingly accepts the grand melodrama of her parents’ story as adult normality.
At the risk of impertinence, it must be said that it would have been wonderful had Tarantino ended the film just there, with Bill and the Bride back together again, a happy couple. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, Tarantino is famed for playing surprising tricks on his audience. A film called Kill Bill that ends with Bill alive, a revenge film where revenge is ultimately unnecessary… that would be a smart trick! Besides, Uma Thurman and David Carradine are such a beautiful pair that it would have been satisfying to see them end up together. They both positively drip cinema. When was the last time a Hollywood film treated us to close ups of a male face as fascinating as Carradine’s, as anachronistically iconic, a face of the Western whose lines and creases reflect the desert landscape? That this film marks something of a comeback for him only adds to the potency of this aura: it is as if he spent the past twenty years wandering the same desert as John Wayne in The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) or Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984). Except that when he finally returned to civilisation he didn’t set about reuniting a family that would ultimately exclude him. Instead he filmed with Tarantino and destroyed a family. The out-of-time authority of his appearance is backed up by the impressive control of his performance, all deadly gentleness and lived-in irony, with a voice almost disturbingly reminiscent of Jason Robards’ world-weary rasp. Publicity material seems keen to promote Uma Thurman as something of an anachronism, too, a throwback to the elegantly glamorous stars of the ’30s and ’40s, an avatar of Carole Lombard or Marlene Dietrich. Looking at her magnificently expressive eyes or full, sensitive mouth one might concede that lineage. The severe, almost robotic slimness of her body, on the other hand, belies it, working against the requisite aethereality with a hard edge of almost mechanistic toughness. This combination works perfectly for Kill Bill‘s killer heroine, a role which is obviously intended to elevate her to the status of an icon. Together Bill and the Bride form a couple whose only context and only home can be the history of cinema or, more specifically, the history of cinema according to Tarantino. Thus there is, on a mythological level, a certain natural justice in Bill trying to kill the Bride before she can marry an ordinary man, not to avenge the hurt of her running out on him so much as to prevent the union of a creature of pure cinema with a “mere mortal” which, Bill would have us believe, could only have ended catastrophically. For, as the circumstances of Vernita’s death announce, ordinary values have no purchase in this extravagant universe.
In most instances, larger-than-life movie characters who exist beyond the rules and limitations of normality are loners, outside of society, constantly faced not just with death but with extinction. But Bill and the Bride have a child and through that child – brought up with a comic book wisdom beyond good and evil – Tarantino has the chance of bringing Kill Bill’s structure full circle by proposing an alternative to the shattered normality-image of Vernita’s home. (The hyper-mundanity of this home was after all, simply a disguised haven for another lethal killer – Buñuel would doubtless have approved!) From the impossible lives of his epic characters he could potentially create a new domestic ideal, as the epic becomes the banal for a child raised with cartoonish battles as background to the everyday gestures that make up her life. This new ideal would not be a perversion or poisoning of normal family life but rather a completely new value structure with the ethos of action cinema at its centre. This is as opposed to the devastating invasion of home life suffered by the little girl the Bride orphans or by the young O-Ren Ishii (as an adult, Lucy Liu), the pathologising intervention of monstrous circumstances that so often define the fate of action movie characters. The Bride’s child’s comparatively cosy upbringing is pragmatically geared towards making her not necessarily an action movie character, but an inhabitant of the world of pulp cinema nevertheless. She is a child of cinema, and there is something of a film nut’s wish-fulfilment fantasy in having parents able to relate to the extremes of violent cinema and, instead of censuring or interdicting them, allowing those extremes not only to coexist with the tenets of a loving household, but to be integral to them. That these parents should also be protagonists of this cinema awards the otherwise imaginary concerns of a film-fevered young mind an adult importance unobtainable in reality.
This original and interesting outcome is unfortunately only semi-realised. As soon as the little one goes to sleep and the big confrontation commences, either Tarantino’s inspiration dries up or else, faced with the weighty task of satisfactorily concluding his saga, he just loses his nerve. Instead of pushing his ruthless action movie pseudo-morality through to the bitter end, he does a sudden U-turn and pleads in terms of a traditional reality-based morality which he has thus far systematically purged from the movie. His sudden mushiness is utterly illogical, as infuriating as Samuel L. Jackson’s “redemption” at the end of Pulp Fiction (1994) and far more damaging because here the entire movie hangs on the scene’s outcome. The problem with these sudden renunciations is that the invocation of the noble intentions of redemption or, in this case, the desire to provide a normal family situation for a child, are both meaningless and hypocritical because they are without basis in the universe Tarantino has created. He arbitrarily appeals to values that he assumes are so strongly present in the audience a priori that he doesn’t have to bother working them into the ethical mechanics of his cinema. The form this appeal takes in Kill Bill is an excruciatingly awful flashback in which the Bride, having just discovered that she is pregnant, lets an assassin who tries to kill her remain alive. In accordance with the logic of the rest of the movie, one would assume that her reaction would have been to strike out even more ferociously at her assailant to protect her unborn child. For the better part of four hours the audience has been treated to an exhilarating celebration of movie violence – one weak flashback is far from sufficient to convince us suddenly that this image of violence is abhorrent. There might have been some justification for this transformation had Tarantino created an insurmountable dichotomy between the world of the assassins and parenthood, but Bill is depicted as an excellent father. Furthermore, the possibility of reconciliation is open to the Bride who decides to reject it. One might choose to read the fact that the Bride ends up destroying one of her daughter’s parents, as well as her home, as rich in irony – after all, is this not exactly what Bill did to set the whole revenge quest in motion? But the fact remains that she does so in the name of a higher morality, or, rather, a higher normality, that simply doesn’t exist in the film. In fact, by the skewed rules of Kill Bill‘s universe, Bill’s shooting of the Bride is almost more just than her revenge. The lazy, dishonestly moralistic about-turn that Tarantino makes with Samuel Jackson’s “redemption” in Pulp Fiction is ultimately of little consequence amid the self-satisfied posturing of that film because the full extent of its “moral vision” is no more than immanent glibness. In Kill Bill, however, there does exist a playfully challenging system of cinephilic pseudo-values that, for most of the movie, manages to assert itself.
Before lamenting their abandonment, however, we need to ask: in what way are these pseudo-values positive? They are fundamental to the world Tarantino creates in Kill Bill. This world exists purely in terms of cinema, completely independently of the real world. While this is, of course, the case with countless genre films, most of them propose an alternative universe, the rules of which we are called on to accept as a substitute reality. In Kill Bill, on the other hand, the audience is constantly, winkingly reminded that what it is watching is “only” a movie. This postmodern distance gives rise to if not exactly a critical distance, then a pedagogical one. What Kill Bill offers is a lesson in cinema history that unites several genres in a loving, mannerist monument to the films that made Tarantino’s cinephilia as powerful a driving force as it evidently is for him. We are not looking at an alternative reality, but an actual existing reality or, rather, realities – those contained in the history of certain movie genres, each with its own folklore and ethical procedures. In his role of self-appointed historian/ambassador to these domains of fiction, Tarantino is – at least up until the aforementioned back-pedalling during the scene of Bill’s comeuppance – uninterested in making their customs morally palatable to us citizens of the non-fictional world. The ways of the chambara or Kung-Fu flick or Spaghetti Western are not our ways and Tarantino’s unique, almost unbalanced degree of respect for these traditions is such that he demands the same from us. The deranged intensity that this attitude generates is the source of Kill Bill‘s charm – its pseudo-values might be false, but the sincerity of Tarantino’s faith in their fantastical power effectively dynamises them.
Let’s open a long parenthesis and contextualise Kill Bill within Tarantino’s oeuvre. Reservoir Dogs (1992) was a good movie, lean and intense, a worthy addition to the grand tradition of low-budget American crime cinema. Its director was imaginative and unique enough to have brought that tradition creditably into the ’90s. Not a genius like Abel Ferrara or Takashi Miike, but a potentially exciting filmmaker nevertheless. Then he made Pulp Fiction (1994) and it all seemed to go wrong. He stopped making generic crime cinema and instead devised the “Tarantino film”, an overblown, schizophrenic monster. The good but damagingly overpraised qualities of his debut – a flair for making striking use of known actors both in terms of character and iconic imaging, an interesting grasp of structure, the much celebrated post-modern referentiality of the dialogue that functions to effectively but superficially endow genre characters with a sense of existing in “the real world” – are sufficient to make a genre film interesting but too flimsy for Tarantino to build an entire movie upon, which is what Pulp Fiction attempted. The result is crippled with self-consciousness. Every line of dialogue has to be an event. Every plot twist has to be a surprise, but a surprise so carefully worked out that it becomes predictable. With Pulp Fiction any sense of spontaneity left Tarantino’s cinema never to return.
Tarantino might freely use such expressions as “grindhouse” in describing his work, but he does so from within the safety of the mainstream, never exposing himself to the real dangers and messy pleasures of the B-film. His take on genre since Pulp Fiction is more like a theme park ride version of “grindhouse” than the real item, a place where actors can flirt with carefully packaged disreputability and come away looking and feeling hip while actually risking nothing. After all, how can a B-movie shoulder the responsibility of being a major pop-culture event, which is what is demanded of poor Tarantino every time out? Of course, there is nothing necessarily wrong with creating a hybrid form and, to his credit, Tarantino’s films have always remained personal. Yet even with the release of Jackie Brown (1997), on many levels an extremely good film, the nagging fantasies persisted of a poorer but more vital Tarantino making a small, ferocious movie every year (assuming that he couldn’t make five ferocious movies every year like Miike!) instead of a bloated self-important “event” every four.
He has stated that his films function as generic crime narratives whose traditional progress is interrupted and derailed by the unexpected intervention of events from “real life”. However “real life” was never Tarantino’s forte. His films deal uniquely with the cinema and, more precisely, his relationship with the cinema. “Real life” is largely signified by the discussion of pop culture which appears to be the only alternative to enacting generic cinema rituals – what is not “cinema” is still defined only in terms of cinema (or music or TV or fast food).
The Tarantino character is not a fully rounded human being as he or she exists neither in relation to others nor to a broader sense of the world, but only to his or her image. Nor is he or she simply a genre type, as those figures are defined by their actions often to the point of being mere pretexts for those actions. Tarantino’s creatures are a new and original mutation of the latter: they are defined by the poses they strike of which their actions, like their relationships and even their ethics, are merely functions almost describable as fashion accessories. They are generic archetypes endowed with one human quality: an acute, narcissistic self-consciousness. They don’t exist in terms of their acts but of their words and general posturing when interacting. It’s all about performance, but a performance that never gets deeper than a posture. When a character speaks, the words do not spring forth from the character so much as the character exists only to utter them. Their self-consciousness is that of an actor playing a role, but there is no sense of a real individual behind the performance.
What is instead present is Tarantino whose voice comes through in every character, every event. Many directors create unique universes that represent their fantasies or visions of the world, but few, if any, are as neurotically, univocally present as Tarantino. In this respect he is closer to stand up comedian than exponent of crime cinema, enacting all the parts in his sketches with one variously modulated voice. Except that Tarantino enacts the parts through other actors. He is the phantom actor behind the self-consciously performative tics of his otherwise two-dimensional characters. It is not that he wants to be these characters, but he wants to speak them, act them out – in short, to play at movie gangster. Each character and situation is like a custom-made virtual reality game through which Tarantino can insert himself into cinema. In this way every character becomes a wish fulfillment fantasy for one man, an assortment of iconic figurines personalised through the addition of some everyday quirks. His great good fortune is that, in his physical absence, an audience can pick up on this karaoke ontology and play Tarantino’s computer game as well. They can slip into the empty space behind the characters and enjoy their posturing with more than the usual vicarious identification because, unlike in an average Hollywood product, the “game” is so personal. The Tarantino formula doesn’t get into your head, you get into its head. You leave yourself behind and move through a carefully designed pattern of behavioural set pieces, often apparently outrageous but never actually dangerous thanks to the taut degree of control exercised over them. The downside of this heavy-duty manipulation, unleavened by the attainment of a visionary state (as in the horror film), is a depressing emotional aridity, a claustrophobia arising from the brutal suppression of the viewer’s faculty for forming a free relationship with the world on screen and a relentlessly mechanistic reliance on ultimately grating and empty cleverness. His invitation to a viewer is not the usual one – to look at a/the world through the director’s eyes – but to fuse with his mental gestures, gestures that ultimately constrain rather than liberate the audience.
These characteristics were latent in Reservoir Dogs but came to dominate in Pulp Fiction. Of course Jackie Brown transcended these paradigms in many ways – it showed Tarantino capable of genuine gentleness, willing to work with characters that existed beyond the gestural moment with pasts, futures and real relationships. However, at the risk of sounding mean-spirited, perhaps this “mature” Tarantino had simply made a more conventional film? With Pulp Fiction, his defining moment as a filmmaker, he had come up with something as unique as it was questionable. With Jackie Brown, rather than develop and move forward in terms of the challenges set down by Pulp Fiction, he successfully deviated into adaptation which, to play devil’s advocate, might seem to represent not a step forward so much as a parenthetical aside in the unfolding Tarantino style. But on another level it represented a very crucial point of transformation between Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. It is no longer the “Tarantino monologue” but instead Tarantino engaging with a text, Elmore Leonard’s novel. Jackie Brown charts the interaction of Tarantino’s sensibility with something outside himself, not “real life” but a book that is in itself a pop-culture object. Even if it’s only perceptible in post-Bill retrospect, the real breakthrough in Jackie Brown was the emergence of Tarantino the spectator (or reader) director. It revealed his true talent as a textual filmmaker. He might fail in Pulp Fiction at generating a personalised take on “reality” that goes beyond noisily limp post-human caricature, but when he films as a connoisseur and even curator of pop culture “texts” – whether Leonard’s book (by way of his concerns with Blaxploitation cinema) or his own personal digest of film history in Bill – he can be a brilliant and engaging cinematic mind. His undeniable sophistication evidently needs something to engage with outside of itself.
Of course, no two Tarantino films are more different than Jackie Brown and Kill Bill. Through his adaptation of the former, he approached a level of verisimilitude that went beyond that of Pulp Fiction. By glammed-up, streamlined Hollywood standards, Jackie Brown presents an image of reality that isn’t exceptionally stylised. Bill, on the other hand, returns to the uniquely “Tarantino world” of Pulp Fiction and solves its problems by rejecting any semblance of reality. He has frequently described Kill Bill as the film that characters in his previous movies would go and see – a composite fantasy of the “movie-movie”. The gangsters, especially in the first two films, are linked to the viewer only by their common consumption of pop culture – both products and consumers, they exist halfway between the audience and the realm of cinema (and television) that haunts these pictures almost like a mythological belief system. Kill Bill directly confronts the ontological mystery beyond these characters and explores the mythological underpinnings of their existence. Thus Kill Bill is no longer about Tarantino; it is about what Tarantino loves and what he wants to share with us. The annoying posturing and tiring cleverness of Pulp Fiction have been replaced by a profound and strangely moving generosity.
Compared to the previous movies, dialogue takes a backseat for much of Kill Bill. Its director is now looking rather than talking. Much credit for this development must go to his fetishistic fascination with Uma Thurman. He has, rather touchingly, described the influence of the Sternberg/Dietrich collaboration on his treatment of his star, on the fact that the film is designed entirely to highlight her presence. There has always been an element of playing at filmmaker with Tarantino, as if he were ticking off a list he made when he was about 12 years old of films that he wanted to direct. This time round he is playing at collaborating with “his” actress, at creating an icon. He’s found a playmate in his game of cinema, one whose presence has managed to distract him from the sound of his own dialogue. Fortunately, Thurman proves more than worthy of all this attention and embodies the sword-wielding Alice in his Wonderland with exceptional grace and authority. If she is a Jane-of-all-genres, most of the other main characters also function iconically, as the embodiment of a particular genre and the pretext for the Bride’s engagement with the tropes and geography of that genre: the chambara (Sonny Chiba), the yakuza movie (Lucy Liu), the Kung Fu film (Gordon Liu), the Western (Michael Madsen), the Blaxploitation picture (Vivica A. Fox). In Bill, or, rather, in David Carradine, star of both The Long Riders (Walter Hill, 1980) and the Kung Fu TV series, the traditions of the Western and Martial Arts cinemas are neatly united. He incarnates the cultural fusion that the whole movie attempts.
The difference between these overtly monumental characters and those in previous Tarantino films becomes most obvious in that unfortunate Bride/Bill confrontation scene which we will return to simply in order to highlight its difference from the rest of the picture – and its incongruous similarity to the previous work. As soon as their daughter is safely asleep, the antagonists start talking. They talk at great length, in so doing basically going over everything that we have been shown over the course of the film, over-emphasising, over-explaining. It is the only occasion when dialogue is not tied to unfolding events, to movement, to action. The Bill-Bride relationship was already admirably summarised in a wonderful scene in church during her wedding rehearsal, just before he shoots her. Not only is the dialogue here redundant on an expositional level but it reveals a serious underestimation of the actors on Tarantino’s part. Their expressivity is such that a few looks and gestures would have been more than sufficient to convey everything that needs saying with much greater feeling than all the scene’s verbose hot air. Worst of all, their verbal expressions are often woefully inappropriate. It’s as if the prospect of finding an adequate conclusion to Kill Bill scared Tarantino to such an extent that his only recourse was to drag every Tarantino party trick out of the closet. Or maybe he believed that the audience would feel cheated if they didn’t have enough of the requisite “Tarantino dialogue”. Either way, the result is close to self-parody. Tarantino’s voice starts speaking through Bill and the Bride; they talk like characters from Pulp Fiction. But whereas the earlier film was entirely built on Tarantino’s univocality, the effect here is that the words overwhelm the characters and their predicament. Even the actors’ delivery seems suddenly excessively smug, heavy with the knowledge that every word spoken adds another gem of Tarantino’s smartness to the grateful setting of popular culture. The problem is that this manner of speech, as described above, sets the character midway between the audience and the world of “movie-movie”, which Kill Bill emphatically inhabits. It is blindingly obvious that Bill and the Bride were born to be “superheroes”, to be different from ordinary people. There’s no need for Bill to verbalise that and certainly not as an embarrassing, pseudo-philosophical dissertation on Superman comics. Such a speech would not be out of place in the mouths of John Travolta or Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction, existing as do they between viewer and generic archetype. But hearing it from David Carradine, with all Bill’s gravitas, is almost grotesque, as if Superman himself suddenly started imitating Tarantino!
Fortunately, elsewhere in the film the dialogue, while recognisably Tarantino’s, remains appropriately the language of “superheroes” and elegantly functional. The conclusion notwithstanding, Kill Bill is the first of his films plotted in such a way that he doesn’t need to rely on smart dialogue, with expertly executed action based set-pieces taking centre stage. With every major character representing a genre, the Bride’s almost invariably violent encounter with each antagonist is Tarantino’s way of invoking and even explaining those genres and thus creating a stylistic plurality that renders the univocality of his previous films undesirable. The indexical nature of the characters is crucial to Kill Bill‘s daffy grandeur. They don’t simply happen to be from different cultures and fighting traditions. If that were the case, there would be little difference between the Bride’s journey and the sleazy, neo-imperialist action movie tourism of James Bond. Tarantino’s assortment of killers are more than characters, more than products of different film styles: they are conscious symbols of their genre and carry with them the weight of its history. Their interaction amounts to nothing less than clashes between the entirety of the cinematic traditions that they represent. Thus, these battles are able to assume an importance that feels grander than the immediate narrative predicament. An example of this dynamic: in part two the Bride goes to kill westerner Budd (Michael Madsen). She goes with her sword at night and hides under his mobile home, ninja style. Upon breaking into the trailer, she finds him waiting for her, shotgun at the ready. He wounds and captures her without a struggle. One up for the Western! Then, in the macabre tradition of the Italian Western, we learn that her fate is to be buried alive in a graveyard (although effective, this interment scene is notable as the only mannerist set-piece in the film that the essentially prosaic imagist Tarantino doesn’t get the maximum out of visually – one could imagine an Italian director milking it for much more gothic visual poetry). Once six feet under, the heroine overcomes her despair by mentally flashing back to her period of training with martial arts master Pei Mei (Gordon Liu) that took place in the grainy, zoom-rich, bleached out colour of a ’70s Kung Fu flick. Drawing on the techniques she picked up in China, she is able to literally punch her way out of the grave. Thus the martial arts movie beats the Western in this round. Her emergence from the ground is given a comic punchline that links it to the zombie subgenre – looking every bit like she just crawled out of a grave, she wanders into a late night diner and asks the startled waiter for a glass of water! If Kill Bill has a truly epic dimension, it is born of this clash of traditions, the battle of film histories. The density of Kill Bill‘s cinematic esoterica also differentiates it from the “image karaoke” of the Charlie’s Angels or Austin Powers movies – almost post-genre comedies where the history of cinema has become no more than a trunk of fancy dress outfits in the attic to be raided at whim.
Death and rebirth are at the heart of Kill Bill‘s vision of cinema: the vulnerability and resilience of genres that are all essentially dead. They exist either completely in the past or else the era of their history that Kill Bill specifically cites is no more. Cycles of revenge dominate the structure of the film: Bill’s shooting of the Bride, Vernita’s daughter’s possible future revenge against the Bride for her mother’s death, the Bride’s revenge quest, the massacre of O-Ren Ishii’s parents that turned her into a killer. The nature of revenge: one moment of the past played and replayed obsessively to the point of excluding present reality – the absolute domination of a past that not only won’t go away but is not allowed to go away. Perhaps Kill Bill is the past of certain cinemas come back to take revenge on the collective mainstream of cinematic memory that has almost forgotten them. Rebirth against all odds is also central to Kill Bill. However much punishment she takes, the Bride keeps coming back – shot in the head, raped, buried alive, drugged, battered several times over, she refuses to let herself die. Her persistence is at once the persistence of basic cinematic narratives that won’t go away, like the revenge story, and their destruction: her quest is, after all, to systematically eradicate film genres that are already, in fact, dead and, ultimately, to save her daughter from the clutches of cinema, to return her to a normal reality where the formal relics through which she has fought can find no nourishment. Yet is her murder of a little girl’s mother at the film’s opening not perhaps a booby trap that could one day result in her own death and the recommencement of the endless cycle of revenge with her now apparently safe daughter? Is the normality of their family life going to be any less of a Buñuelesque sham than Vernita’s was? Might not one day a flow of blood again lead to a flow of images, memory images of a cinema past that, vampire-like, is waiting to leap anew into spectral action at the first drop? The image of the violent murder of loved ones, the indelible image of violence that leaves an after-image so potent that it must be pursued forever after, here doubles as the cinematic experience, as the cinephile Tarantino witnessing his own unforgettable images of violence in the cinema and pursuing them until he had replicated them. William Witney, Kinji Fukasaku, Charles Bronson and the other names on the list of the dead in the closing credits might be no more, but the narrative echoes of the films they participated in carry on endlessly, perpetuating themselves in a void that now exists beyond time and which can be accessed only through memory – or the refusal to forget. This is the space that Kill Bill articulates.
The fragility of life, or, rather, of the images which sustain the lives in Kill Bill is constantly highlighted: Vernita’s wrecked household, the snow-covered garden appearing behind the Tokyo nightclub, the Bride’s new family-to-(never)-be wiped out in the church, the apparently washed up Budd’s unexpected ambush, the snake that bites him hidden in the case of money, Bill’s assumed superiority in martial arts undermined by the Bride… This fragility does not merely reflect the constant threat of death or the deceptive nature of appearances, but the thinness of those appearances and the emptiness behind them, their lack of roots in reality. Like the characters in Pulp Fiction, those in Kill Bill exist only through their image, but this time around Tarantino acknowledges the fact and its consequences and, crucially, links their faux-existentialist predicament to the memory of cinema past. In the act of acknowledging the disappearance of these cinemas, Tarantino causes them to live again and die again. But this death is never final because even if a character is truly done for, it only takes another killing and the endlessly renewable forces of basic narrative will start the whole pageant again with an equivalent character built of the same image, an image as indestructible as the host-character is disposable… It could be in the studios of Hollywood or Shanghai, on the streets of Tokyo or Hong Kong, in the deserts of Almeria… It could be the ’70s, it could be now, the ’60s, the future… It could be a memorable film or we might forget it immediately. But at least we can do so in the knowledge that Quentin Tarantino, an interesting filmmaker and a priceless film historian, is probably remembering it for us.