I finally got around to seeing Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (Vol. 1) a few hours ago (there might possibly be a movie that Kate would be less likely to want to see, but I’m sure I couldn’t name it, so I waited until she was out of town for the weekend…). I’ve enjoyed all of his other films immensely, and this was no exception. Seeing the film got me thinking about Gregg Easterbrook’s titanically stupid essay about the movie, though, and I realized that most of the people talking about Easterbrook’s comments are really missing the point.
For those who have been living in a cave for the past month or so, here’s the backstory: Easterbrook wrote a blog post/ essay for The New Republic denouncing movie violence in general, and Kill Bill specifically. In it, he made a dumb comment about Jews that might be construed as anti-Semitic (I doubt that was the intended meaning, but the phrasing he used was awkward enough to make it look bad). This, of course, caused a kerfuffle among the pundit class, with the end result that Easterbrook was fired from his job at ESPN.
All of that is pretty unsavory, but the worst part is that the real stupidity of his column has been lost in what is, essentially, a side issue. The dumb part of his column was not that he said stupid things about Jewish studio executives, but rather that he’s attacking the wrong target.
The column in question was an extended rant against violence in movies, taking the bold position that Hollywood violence is a cause of real-world terrorism:
Why do we suppose that, with Hollywood’s violence-glorifying films now shown all around the world to billions of people–remember, mass distribution of Hollywood movies to the developing world and Islamic states is a recent phenomenon–young terrorists around the globe now seem to view killing the innocent as a positive thing, even, a norm?
(Let’s just pause for a moment to let that sink in. Glorification of violence in movies is the root cause of terrorism in the Islamic world. That’s a spectacularly idiotic thing to say– much dumber than anything he said about Jews.)
The problem is that he’s going after Quentin Tarantino for making “violence-glorifying films,” when really, Tarantino’s movies are anything but.
Now, I’m not half foolish enough to claim that Tarantino’s movies aren’t violent. They are– Kill Bill is one of the most disturbingly violent movies I’ve ever seen. But that’s the point– it’s not glorified violence, or romanticized violence, but disturbing violence. This isn’t a bang-and-fall-down sort of movie– the people who die, die messily, and painfully. In the climactic scene, Uma Thurman hacks up a whole army of yakuza with a samurai sword, and as the scene goes on, you can hear the moans and shreiks of the wounded and dying getting steadily louder as the body count grows. This really doesn’t do a lot to make the idea of violent death seem attractive.
And this is a common feature of all of Tarantino’s films. Reservoir Dogs opens with some snappy banter in a restaurant, but the next scene you see features a gut-shot Tim Roth screaming and crying and bleeding in the back of a getaway car. Pulp Fiction is renowned for its quotable lines, but also prominently features a couple of blood-spattered hit men cleaning bits of skull and brains out of the back seat of a car. These are not romantic images.
What makes Tarantino’s movies work is that the violence is always real enough to be shocking. However flashy the camera work, and however snappy the dialogue, his characters bleed, suffer, and die in a way that reaches through the flashiness of the film-making and makes you feel it.
Easterbrook’s attack is rather like Bob Dole’s famously silly statement that Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting “feature the romance of heroin.” (Yeah, the bit where Uma Thurman OD’s and has to get an adrenaline shot to the heart was exceeded in its romantic appeal only by the scene where a detox-ing Ewan McGregor gets attacked by a dead infant…). He’s mistaking a violent movie for a movie that glorifies violence.
(I probably shouldn’t be surprised, given that his sole specific reference to Kill Bill seems to indicate that he hasn’t actually seen the movie:
Disney seeks profit by wallowing in gore–Kill Bill opens with an entire family being graphically slaughtered for the personal amusement of the killers–and by depicting violence and murder as pleasurable sport.
(He’s 0-for-2 in that one sentence alone.)
If you want to attack movies that “[glorify] the killing of the helpless as a fun lifestyle choice,” Tarantino’s not the guy to go after. If you want to see the killing of innocents glorified, you want The Matrix, where Our Heroes cheerfully slaughter hundreds of innocent people. In The Matrix, you’re essentially asked to root for the terrorists to win, and accept that their victims don’t really matter, because it’s all a computer generated dream.
Kill Bill draws on a long history of violent movies, most of them Asian, as a source of imagery and plot elements. But those movies are generally remarkably bloodless– people get stabbed, or shot, or decapitated, and drop silently out of the scene. They’re like German soldiers in an old WWII movie, or evil gunslingers in a Western. They get shot (or stabbed), they fall down, and that’s it. No muss, no fuss, and just enough blood to be artful.
Kill Bill is to its sources what Unforgiven is to the Western genre. It puts the blood and pain back in, and restores the essential ugliness of the fight scenes– if anything, it almost overdoes the spurting blood thing. It’s shot with a fine sense of style, and an eye for the dramatic, true, but its treatment of violence is almost subversive. Even though the mass killing looks really cool, the very intensity of the fight scenes makes them unappealing.
The Matrix: Reloaded is a movie makes you want to put on a leather trench coat and take a katana to a high-end SUV. Kill Bill is a movie that makes you want to stay very, very far away from people with swords. That’s the difference between a movie that glorifies violence, and a glorious movie that happens to be violent. It’s about as big as the difference between a thought-provoking column and an ill-informed rant.