Kill Will: The Rough Magic of Quentin Tarantino
There is nothing new under the sun, especially in Hollywood. Numerous screenwriting how-to bibles claim there are only six plots, and a mere three acts to plot them in. Equally limited in number are the character types available to populate a story with: the naïve hero, the wise mentor, the fair princess, the formidable villain, the shape-shifting trickster, and a few others. While the merits of this more allegorical approach to the act of creation are debatable, they can in fact assist in reviewing and re-viewing films by simplifying an approach to a complex artistic medium.
This allegorical approach is partly rooted in early modern storytelling. In the English morality plays one of the stock characters was named Vice. It was an aptronym: a name that represented what the character did, in an allegorical mode later perfected by John Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress. The Vice character is one of the main players in the psychomachia of a typical morality play: the battle for the hero’s soul waged by good and evil forces, the little devil on the hero’s shoulder, whispering in his ear.
The Vice character proved not only popular on the stage, but malleable on the page; he evolved in two directions: sinister and comic. Shakespeare transformed Vice into Iago on the one hand and Falstaff on the other. For Shakespeare’s contemporary Marlowe, and later for Goethe, Mephistopheles plays the Vice role in the Faust legend, more sinister in Marlowe, more comic in Goethe. The Faust tale, by the way, is one of those six basic plots, and the only one to be contributed by Christianity. In 20th century literature and film, the Vice character is the protagonist, the anti-hero, from Leopold Bloom, Gregor Samsa and Meursault, to Michael Corleone, Travis Bickle and Vincent Vega.
While two of the directors whose characters were just referenced, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, often vie for the title of most violent film director, they both have also made much more MPAA-friendly movies (e.g. Finian’s Rainbow, Tucker and Peggy Sue Got Married for the former, and Quiz Show, The Age of Innocence and New York, New York for the latter).
Tarantino is the only director in this not-so-holy trinity who has consistently made movies that are both popular and critically acclaimed, that are all violent, sometimes brutal, and that all feature a postmodern version of the Vice character as protagonist.
Comparing literary precursors to movie anti-heroes would be something Tarantino himself might do. He often defends his choice of lurid subject matter, low-life protagonists, hyperviolence, and narrative cut-and-paste by referencing the techniques he learned from the pulp fiction of such authors as Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford and Elmore Leonard. As Tarantino himself claims, “In movies, everyone has to be so fucking likeable, the audience has got to be behind him; the audience has got to root for him. You can write a novel about a perfect bastard, right? It doesn’t mean you don’t want to turn the page. You’re just reading a story about a bastard and that’s okay, that’s interesting.”
With his wise-guy killers dealing with loyalty and betrayal, his dismembered plots, his pop culture seasoning, and his alternation of hilarious profanity with hideous brutality, Tarantino presents a perfect subject for the study of vice. Yet, as he is castigated by the religious and political right, he actually makes violence more real to us than, say, Schwarzenegger movies (or legislations) do. His movies, he says, “almost follow the old Hays code. Violence was never a major issue in the old days of Hollywood. You could have as much violence as you wanted as long as the bad guy dies in the end, or denounces his sins.”
Tarantino is something of a Vice character in real life: from his stints in jail for small-time crimes, to his tabloid romances with female stars and groupies, to his gossip column fisticuffs with male producers and cabbies, to the accusations of plagiarizing obscure films and betraying old friends. But above and beyond his off-screen escapades, he also deserves our attention for his depiction of vice (and Vice).
Sin City, structured like Pulp Fiction is an adaptation of three tales by legendary graphic novelist Frank Miller, directed by Miller and Robert Rodriguez, with a sequence directed by Tarantino (he traded the gig for having Rodriguez score Kill Bill, each agreed to be paid one dollar for their work). The production notes for the film say Sin City is a place where “some are seeking revenge, others lust after redemption and then there are those hoping for a little of both.” Tarantino’s characters fit the same mold. His Vice characters follow one of three trajectories:
First, in Natural Born Killers (directed by another vice-regent of film, Oliver Stone) and Reservoir Dogs, the Vice character(s) lean toward the very dark side: there is only the slightest glimmer of redemption, overshadowed by motiveless malignance in the characters’ glee as they perform torture, robbery and murder, often while eating fast food. It should be noted: these are two of his earliest efforts, and were written while he was desperately frustrated trying to break into Hollywood. Yet Tarantino’s segment from Four Rooms, “The Man From Hollywood” also fits this mode, although written later, after becoming a household name.
In other Tarantino movies, the heroes are trying to escape their “minimum wage” existence with one perfect crime: Butch the boxer in Pulp Fiction, Clarence and Alabama the lovers in True Romance, and Jackie Brown the stewardess in the eponymous movie. In fact, escape could be said to a major theme of all of his movies and scripts. “I’ve often wondered,” Tarantino writes in his liner notes to Johnny Cash’s album Murder, “if gangsta rappers know how little separates their tales of ghetto thug life from Johnny Cash’s tales of backwoods thug life. Cash sings tales of men trying to escape-escape the law, escape the poverty they were born into, escape prison, escape madness. But the one thing Cash never lets them escape is regret.” Sounds like the pot calling the kettle black.
The third trajectory, and the most interesting for our discussion, is the trajectory of characters also trying to escape, not from poverty, but rather from filthy-rich criminality: the Gecko brothers in From Dusk Till Dawn (one of whom is played by Tarantino) want to plan one last bank robbery and then hightail it to a mythical place called El Rey where you can live like a king with other criminals, but, once you run out of your ill-gotten gains, you’re dead meat – literally: they eat you for dinner. Jules, in Pulp Fiction, who conflates Ezekiel 25:17 with Psalm 23 to strike fear into his victims before killing them, has a near brush with death, concludes it was a miracle, and, while holding a man at gunpoint, exegetes the new, combined text he has created about “the path of the righteous man.” It has become a script(ure) for his life. He decides to leave his life of crime, thus saving a diner full of people, and leaves to “walk the earth,” like Caine in Kung Fu, waiting for God to show him a new path, even if it takes “forever.” As Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Jules, said, “The voice of redemption flows throughout the whole film. I mean, Mia gets it when she comes back to life after OD’ing, Butch gets it, Marsellus gets it, and I’m the person who actually voices it.” In Tarantino’s words, it is “ultimately a film about forgiveness and mercy, albeit in a hard and brutal world.”
Where Pulp Fiction ends, Kill Bill begins: with a character striving for redemption from his/her self-made prison of sins, crimes and misdemeanors. Indeed, Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill is shot in the head in retaliation for escaping not only her life of crime, but the love of her life: Bill.
The Vice character of old, Marjorie Garber explains in her magnum opus Shakespeare After All, “carried a broad flat dagger of lath that made a loud slapping sound, and he was generally a figure of ribald improvisation as well as an inciter to rebellion, disobedience, and sin. We could say very generally that the Machiavel was to the incipient genre of revenge tragedy what the Vice was to older and increasingly comic morality plays.”
We could also say very generally that Tarantino’s anti-hero is to the incipient genre of revenge films what the Machiavel was to older stories. Kill Bill’s exterminating angel Beatrix also carries a sword, although not a cheap wooden lath, but rather a priceless samurai sword: one, it is said, that would “cut God.” With it she carries out a female familial revenge rampage unequalled since the blaxploitation masterpiece Coffy (one of Tarantino’s favorite movies, by the way, starring Pam Grier, who he chose to play Jackie Brown). Even more apropos of Garber’s quote above, when Beatrix leaves her life as the world’s deadliest assassin, she renames herself Arlene Machiavelli.
Kill Bill, which took a year and a half to write, another year to make, and cost $55 million, is a “duck press,” as Tarantino puts it, of all the genre action movies he grew up loving (Hong Kong grindhouse, Japanese samurai & yakuza, spaghetti Westerns, Italian giallos, French policiers – there is even an anime sequence). It is also a mix of film styles (black and white, 1:33 to 1 aspect ratio, split screen – there is even a 2-minute scene shot in utter darkness). It is a brutal, visceral, action-movie-to-end-all-action-movies, yet with a decidedly feminine twist (Uma Thurman, the movie’s star, who Tarantino calls “my muse,” helped develop the main character of assassin Beatrix Kiddo, and Thurman even shares story credit with Tarantino). Renowned for being a career-resurrection artist, Tarantino has revived his own career six years after his last film (the uncharacteristically peaceful and contemplative Jackie Brown) and nearly a decade after Pulp Fiction, with this one-two cinematic knockout punch.
Kill Bill was originally slated to be one movie, but was split into two by Miramax (perhaps in imitation of the Lord of the Rings success of releasing on the installment plan), and may prove Tarantino’s crowning achievement when it is reassembled as a single work. And I say this as a person who was in the middle of film school when a “little indie” movie came out that shook the film world: Pulp Fiction. I saw the film with another student with whom I was editing someone else’s film. Our little project had been set up as a postmodern, non-linear film, but it was falling apart at the seams and we were desperately trying to save it. Seeing Tarantino pull the same thing off with such brilliance made me as jealous as Salieri in Amadeus. Pulp Fiction was not only a great movie, it made Tarantino wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, but, perhaps more to his purpose as a film geek with an agenda, made him more famous than the previous two generations’ household-name directors, Hitchcock and Spielberg, combined. People had to listen to him, and he rarely stopped talking. Innumerable appearances on the talk shows confirmed my feelings toward this little man farting at parties, this boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy, this upstart crow.
Kill Bill takes place in what Tarantino calls his movie-movie universe as do two other films he wrote, but that were shot by other directors, Natural Born Killers and From Dusk Till Dawn. His other movies take place in a movie universe, but the movie-movie universe is one step even further removed from reality. When his characters in his regular movie-universe movies watch a movie, these are the movies they watch: the movie-movies.
We may fear to admit the power movies have over our lives. Tarantino is an extreme example. His education was ultimately at VCR Night School (which became Laserdisc College, and is now DVD University). Pop culture references abound in his films, and he is at the cusp of a generation that will grow up with movies as readily available as only books used to be. My five-year-old son asked if he could watch a movie the other morning (a request that would have been ridiculous when I was five and all we had were three networks on an old RCA TV with rabbit ear antennas!). Well, I had to say no: he was leaving for school in a few minutes. Instead of grunting in anger as he usually does, he stared at the ceiling, deep in thought, with a smile on his face. Then he said, “I’m watching all my favorite movies in my head; all mixed up together!” It’s exactly this playfulness with story that is engaging and even endearing about watching a Tarantino movie, especially one like Kill Bill, where you get the sense that Tarantino is watching all his favorite movies all mixed up together. And it works. He takes the old plots and stories that have become tired and reinvents them with a depth of subtle characterization and sublimity of dialogue that reminds people … well, of Shakespeare.
Bruce Willis took a major pay cut to play Butch in Pulp Fiction, because the script was “like Shakespeare.” Tarantino said that the role of Jules in the same film, written especially for Samuel L. Jackson, would be where Jackson could express “this Richard III side of himself that he has.” An improv troupe in New Zealand performs “Pulp William,” a scenario where William Shakespeare returns from the dead as a zombie and meets Tarantino in a bar. They find that they have a lot in common. Critics have compared Tarantino’s use of the “n” word and exploitation of black culture to the equally-disturbing-to-political-correctness portrayals of Shylock and Othello; they have heard echoes of the Bard in Tarantino’s theatricality and emphasis on characters that are playing roles within their own stories. Alexander Walker compared the end of Reservoir Dogs, where everybody dies, to that of a “Jacobean revenge drama.” Adrian Noble thanked Tarantino “for the revival of Shakespearean cinema.”
by Eric David