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Kill the Matrix

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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.

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About Chad Orzel

  • Eric Olsen

    simply brilliant, clear, concise and dead on in every way, Chad. Absolutely great, thanks!

  • jadester

    i must admit i hadn’t really thought about it like that before. At least not the violence thing (altho i had thought that of Trainspotting when i ehard people claim it glorified drugs use. yeah, cos i’d love to go thru all that…)

  • Chad, You can’t POSSIBLY be serious. I’ve seen Kill Bill twice now, and glorification of violence is precisely what makes the film work: it romanticizes it, rolls around in it, makes love to it. What gives the film its electricity is that Tarantino is so unashamed and in-your-face about it; he invites you to share the sheer sick humor of so much blood-letting, like the oceans of blood that spew in the anime sequence, or from the man at the bar when Go Go Yubari slices him open, or the way Black Mamba nails Go Go with a table leg, or the way Ishii beheads her critic, or the way she herself gets scalped at the end. The idea that you’re supposed to look at all this hyper-theatrical bloodletting as anything more than an exercise in style in simply absurd. Saying Tarantino’s films are anti-violent is like saying Astaire and Rogers films are anti-dance. Tarantino does not approach violence like Eastwood or Scorsese or Coppola at all; the violence of his films is closer in tone to the onyx-black humor of the Brian De Palma of Dressed to Kill or The Fury — it’s there very, very much for our own entertainment, and Kill Bill is definitely one of the mostr sheerly entertaining films of the year.

  • Do I think that Tarantino is a closet Quaker, condemning all violence? No. I’d have to be an idiot to do that.

    But the mere fact that the movie relies heavily on violence does not mean that it’s glorifying violence. That’s why I compared it to Unforgiven— you can perfectly well watch Unforgiven as just another Western in which Clint Eastwood kicks ass. The gunfight scenes at the end are some of the best stuff out there.

    But at the same time, Eastwood is doing something deeper. Yeah, you root for the two cowboys to get killed, but when they do, they die horribly (one is gut-shot in an ambush, the other dies in an outhouse). And yes, you root for Clint Eastwood to get revenge on Gene Hackman, but at the same time, it’s clear that there’s a heavy price to pay for it.

    Tarantino’s doing the same thing in the martial-arts genre. Yeah, the fight scenes are spectacular (though the means of death are no more extreme than what you see in many other movies), but when they’re over, you’re faced with the cost, whether that’s a room full of maimed and dying yakuza, or the shocked eyes of a four-year-old girl.

    It’s terrifically entertaining, there’s no denying that. But it’s not in the same moral vacuum as the bloodless violence in The Matrix, or any of a host of other movies.

    (I get this, in part, from Tarantino himself, by the way. He has an interview in a recent Rolling Stone where he complains about the way that a bunch of recent movies excuse violence by making it not real– the victims are robots, or computer programs, or otherwise non-human. I’ll see if I can find that issue later on, when I’m not late for work…)

  • I am not saying the movie glorifies violence merely because it relies on it — it glorifies violence because it is in love with it. What you saw in Unforgiven was realism — what you see in Kill Bill is as far from reality as you can get. It’s a Tom and Jerry cartoon, full of people doing extraordinary things, and surviving in ways humans simply cannot, and dying in extraordinary, hyper-gory ways. I’m not even sure people in war, or people in a real sword fight, would die as spectacularly as they do in this film. (Do gallons of blood spew in a projectile manner when your stomach is ripped open, for example? Never having eviscerated anyone, I’m naturally curious.) The means of death are most definitely more extreme than what you see in many other movies — when is the last time you saw such unrelieved, over-the-top gore? As for the four-year-old girl, I don’t recall her being shocked; non-plussed is more like it. She is untraumatized only a child in the unreal world of this film would be.

    In the interviews I’ve read, Tarantino has described the film accurately as a kind of thrill ride that you have to take more than once. That was certainly the case with me. It reminded me of when Raiders of the Lost Ark came out — so many thrills you just had to sit through it more than once. Tarantino said in Newsweek that he wanted the movie to be like sex or drugs — a piece of pussy that you had to have more than just once.

  • The bit from the Tarantino interview I referred to above is:


    What do you not like about movies today?

    There have been all these bloodless battle action sequences in movies of the last six years. Both of the two Star Wars movies had big battles, but they were always fighting a robot, so it’s safe, it’s OK. Even the Lord of the Rings movies, which I really like, had you all set up for this giant battle at the end of The Two Towers. The lead-up to it was great, but the battle wasn’t that special. It was these flesh-and-blood characters fighting skeletons with glowing eyes and robes. Same thing with Pirates of the Caribbean. Same thing with the Matrix movies. Ultimately, they’re just a bunch of computer people fighting computer chips.

    Sadly, he’s messed up about the LotR movies (Skeletons with glowing eyes? Where were they?)…

  • Yeah, but so what? His point is aesthetic, not moral. He’s tired of watching people fight computer-generated figures. He’s not saying, as you claimed, that those movies “excuse violence by making it not real” — all he’s saying is that he prefers flesh and blood fighting flesh and blood, and he’s made the comment before that he’s tired of all that CGI, Industrial Light and Magic crap reducing movies to just computer-generated storyboards. He likes movies with people in them. So do most of us.

  • Eric Olsen

    I don’t recall such a contentious disagreement between people who actually LIKE the same movie

  • Eric, It’s a disagreement I’ve had it with others. The problem with Kill Bill is that it’s so immensely entertaining that people have to come up with some deep intellectual reason to justify their enjoyment, when actually all that drives the movie is Tarantino’s masterful grasp of pure cinema.

  • Eric Olsen

    I understand that (haven’t seen it yet), but is it possible to completely divorce form from content? Can a “work of art” be just form?

  • Good question, Eric — and yes, I absolutely think it’s possible. There are movies that seem, on reflection, to be nothing more than exercises in sheer technique, movies where, at the end of the day, you find yourself thinking “You know, this film may be saying something, but the main thing it is saying is `I’m a fucking genius with a camera.'” I’ve heard that said of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Hitchcock’s The Birds as well. To me, whatever point people find in Kill Bill seems all but negligible beside the kinetic visuals, and the sheer blazing sense of craft. In fact, that’s also the downside to the movie, I think; there’s a point where the dearth of substance drags it down a bit, but you find yourself — or I found myself — forgiving its excesses, forgiving its reliance on pure surface, because the surface is so spectacular.

  • JR

    “There are movies that seem, on reflection, to be nothing more than exercises in sheer technique…”

    Like “Star Wars”.

  • Yeah, but so what? His point is aesthetic, not moral. He’s tired of watching people fight computer-generated figures.

    I’d argue that there’s more to it than simple aesthetics, given that he derides the killing of robots as “safe.” Which implies that violence with flesh-and-blood people is “unsafe,” and I think there’s a moral component to that.

    It’s also worth noting that Easterbrook’s original charge is that the movie “glorifies the killing of the helpless as a fun lifestyle choice,” which is manifestly not true– the two helpless people Our Heroine faces (Vernita’s daughter, and the hapless yakuza who gets spanked) survive their encounters with her. The only people who kill the helpless are the villains, and those killings lead directly to their deaths.

  • Could somebody please clarify for me:

    Which one’s Itchy and which one is Scratchy?

  • I think Tarantino was talking purely in terms of audience reaction, and I don’t think morality was on his mind. A computer-generated figure cannot be hurt, and it does not draw the same response as real actors. There’s a chance, when you make a violent film involving real people that does not rely on a lot of computer graphics, that people will be turned off. That’s what I think he means by safe.

    “It’s also worth noting that Easterbrook’s original charge is that the movie `glorifies the killing of the helpless as a fun lifestyle choice,’ which is manifestly not true– the two helpless people Our Heroine faces (Vernita’s daughter, and the hapless yakuza who gets spanked) survive their encounters with her.”

    You may have a point there. Easterbrook’s column was somewhat bone-headed, especially for someone as incisive as he is, but it was sincere in its central point. The clumsy wording of the “Jewish” quote was, of course, terribly unfortunate, but by the end of the week, he looked more sinned against than sinning. That guy is not an anti-Semite, and he didn’t deserve the blood-letting he got; ultimately it just seemed like Michael Eisner using his muscle to protect his product, firing Easterbrook from Disney-owned ESPN because he openly criticized a Disney-owned film.

  • Honestly, I’ve always been pretty ambivalent about Easterbrook. He strikes me as a terrifically smart guy who’s trying to wear a few too many hats. His football stuff was very good (the best thing on ESPN’s web site, by far), but most of his pieces for The New Republic have a weirdly half-finished feel. Too many of his essays feel sort of like he got a great idea, but had to run off to do something else before he could really work it all the way through.

    Amplify that dashed-off feeling by a factor of ten or so in the move to the blog format, and you get his really unfortunate recent output. The thing he wrote the other day about extra dimensions in physics is so silly I don’t even know where to start…