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Monday, 22 July 2019

Stop trying to hit me - and hit me ! ~ Morpheus

A response to re-watching Kill Bill : Vol. 1 (2003) and Vol. 2 (2004)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2019 (17 to 24 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

22 July

A response to re-watching, but on a cinema-screen, Kill Bill :
Vol. 1 (2003) and Vol. 2 (2004)

For Jim 'TAKE ONE' Ross

In Kill Bill, Tarantino has set himself not only making a revenge story into a film, but also one where he has delayed addressing what happened that gave rise to it at least until the beginning of Vol. 2 (2004) - even if he does not completely do so until Beatrix Kiddo ('The Bride' / Uma Thurman) has tracked down and confronted Bill (David Carradine), whom we do not even see until Vol. 2.

Suspending the full account for what we have seen for around four hours (since Vol. 1 (2003) is very nearly two hours, and Vol. 2 is longer) puts an especial need to represent the 'chapters' of the film (and parts of them) in a way that makes them varied and discrete, because Tarantino has to maintain our interest in what we see, without our really knowing why we are seeing it.

In Vol. 1, Tarantino cannot resist the bloody fountains that are loosed by decapitation (Boss Tanaka / Jun Kunimura) or severing an arm (Sofie Fatale / Julie Dreyfus), and, whatever anatomical truth there may be in such depictions, he knows that he needs to keep the imagery fresh : so, for example, he switches into monochrome during the onslaught by The Crazy 88s ; when O-Ren Ishii first witnesses killing, he has it rendered in anime ; and The Bride’s first meeting with Hattori Hanzo¹ is quirkily in the style of a picture-story.

There is humour here (as well as passion), but there is more in Vol. 2, and it is more overt - for example, Gordon Liu (who headed The Crazy 88s in Vol. 1) as the amusingly tetchy Kung Fu Master Pai Mei. What remains covert and unexplained – and just as a given (apart from when alluded to in the edgily hilarious stand-off with Karen (Helen Kim) and the pregnancy-test) – is the exact purpose of Bill's having, at his disposal, the killers of The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad : because Tarantino wisely does not flesh it out, and Bill appears both a dilettante and fairly irrational, it seems to operate not as a commercial venture, but a vanity-project. (Which seems quite fitting.)

When, as if to make a statement by their full deployment (though, for the reasons given, it is unclear what that statement would be²), they attack The Bride and her wedding-party, the squad comprises three other women and Bill’s brother, Budd (Michael Madsen). By the time of the opening of Vol. 1, two remain active (O-Ren (Lucy Liu) and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah)), so it is not as if this is an outfit that one can never leave, because Budd (Michael Madsen) and Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) are in forms of domesticity, and, in Vol. 1, The Bride indeed meets (and kills) the latter in a stage of motherhood that is consistent with having quit from working for Bill soon afterwards.

We all deserve to die ~ Budd
[before he qualifies his utterance]

As we would expect with Tarantino, by Vol. 2 we have looped around on ourselves in this respect, and dialogue has forearmed us, at least, that The Bride’s daughter also survived the shooting (now called B.B., and played by Perla Haney-Jardine). (We know no more than that, or how Bill brought about the current state of affairs, but it must have been the influence of money - as in Chinatown (1974), a film-reference that has greater relevance below.)

Even without knowing the film itself, we may well doubt whether Bill’s influence as a parent is for good when we hear that one of those from which B.B. makes a choice, when she asks if her mother will watch a video with her, is Robert Houston and Kenji Misumi’s Shogun Assassin (1980) : at the same time as Tarantino also appears to be evoking the dubious battle, in Chinatown, for Evelyn Mulwray’s (Faye Dunaway’s) daughter Katherine, born to her own father (Noah Cross), he somehow satisfies us, at the end of the film(s), that The Bride and Bill have wholly different motivations, and that her motherhood will be very different from his fatherhood.

John Huston, James Hong, and Belinda Palmer in Chinatown (1974)

For all the deceptions that Evelyn Mulwray practises on J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), and his indulgence of them (not patiently borne), perhaps we have good reason similarly to believe that she would have been kinder to her daughter than Noah Cross will be…

As co-creator with Tarantino of the character of The Bride, Uma Thurman carries us along with her.

Not unusually for the genre of revenge in film (or for its motives unfolding slowly and backwards), this story of a suffering figure, whom we see bloody and beaten, resembles the opposite of hagiography, or of the purpose of an allegory such as that of Constance in Chaucer's Clerk's tale in (The Canterbury Tales), because The Bride expressly endures to kill those who would have killed her and for that motivation :

She is identified strongly with motherhood only towards the end of Vol. 2, and, despite her having a daughter, killed Vernita Green (albeit not as intended) in Vol. 1. Vernita talks of somewhere else to go for a fight (as, later, Bill does), but means it only as a distraction from their murderous plans, whereas, in moonlight and unexpectedly fallen snow, O-Ren provides another an unexpected venue for their fight to the death (although, as she admits, she expected to have tired The Bride out indoors, with The Crazy 88s).

Revenge is never a straight line. It’s a forest, and, like a forest, it’s easy to lose your way, to get lost, to forget where you came in ~ Hattori Hanzo

Ashen when, Christ like, The Bride defeats the grave and cheats death, but still slogs it barefoot to rendezvous with Budd and Elle, she stands for some different force : driven by retribution, and, although she is calm, her serenity does not resemble that of The Annunciation from the predella of an altarpiece by Veneziano³, but the bloodiness and brutal energy of the deeds in A Miracle of St Zenobius, which, accompanying the former, helped form part of one whole :

For the life of the flesh is in the blood : and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls ~ Leviticus 17 : 11a [KJV]

As if abiding by some code of honour (and in a scene that involves too much screeching⁴), we have seen Bill persuade Elle not to kill The Bride in her sleep. Yet, as we find at the close of Vol. 2, it is not, except on his terms, a sense of fairness such as suits him (as does her being in a coma, and the humiliations to which it subjects her ?).

The familiar Orwellian allusion will not escape us when we see that Bill is in Room 101 in the complex where The Bride finds him - just as, by firing a dart at her, he does not allow her to escape saying that she did not believe that marrying Tommy Plympton would actually work out.

Although the immobility of The Bride's bottom half is alluded to by Buck (during his coarse briefing to the sex-client who wants to sleep with her), she is arbitrarily still accorded use of her arms and torso. Having freed herself from Buck, she is seen exerting herself to retire to the back-seats of his Pussy Wagon, and willing strength to exist and make itself manifest in her lower body - a scene that Tarantino and Thurman's characterization has given such emphasis (through voice-over and her repeated injunction to her big toe) that we know, and should keep recalling, how extraordinary are the powers, now and later, with which she gains control of her physical body.

Talking to The Bride at the close of Kill Bill, as well as saying – an understatement ! – that he over-reacted when she disappeared, Bill claims that motherhood was not going to change her nature as a killer.

By the incidental bite of a mosquito (as she is a form of Sleeping Beauty), The Bride woke to a full and vivid awareness of the enormity of the horror of what happened to put her in a coma⁵. We have since seen her screw her energies to kill all those who denied her motherhood and would have stood in her way, as it turns out, of getting not only to Bill, but to her daughter.

The conundrum that the film poses is whether, by doing all that she did, she has actually proved him right.

Epilogue :

There is an entry for Kill Bill : Vol. 3 on IMDb, but, unless you have guessed, you might not wish to know what it tells you...

End-notes :

¹ It is just ‘one of these things’ about Kill Bill that The Bride is so easily able to enlist the services of Hattori Hanzo (Shin’ichi Chiba (Sonny Chiba), who also tutored the cast) just by alluding to the debt that he owes because of his former disciple (whom Hanzo himself readily identifies as Bill) – presumably, this is why he went into retirement, and breaks a sacred vow to come out of it (Bill, yet only through expedience, is surprised that he did).

² Beyond, that is, the impact in the internal world of the film(s), although voice-over tells us that, in news-reports, the killings went by at least two names – despite hearing the police chief’s pronouncements at the scene, we are simply not invited to consider in any detail what it would actually have looked like for four weapons to be used against less than a dozen unsuspecting people.

In the first film, we not only see the devastation, but also the plea from The Bride to Bill ; in the other, after the two have talked, the camera retires to a safe distance, up and to the left of the chapel, when the four assassins are entering, so that the episode becomes aural, not visual (as we have already seen, what was to be seen).

³ Domenico Veneziano (Domenico di Bartolomeo da Venezia) (1400-1461) ; painter ; Italian artist. Church of Sta. Lucia dei Magnoli, Florence : both panels are now in The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

⁴ The 'marked-on' nature of Daryl Hannah's attire signifies more than it may seem. She may come good in her last couple of minutes on screen, but otherwise, unless Tarantino saw something in her in The Tie That Binds (1995) (or her role as Morticia Addams), she both seems an odd choice (as Sean O'Hagan put it, in The Observer, Tarantino's latest chosen candidate for career resurrection), and nearly did not carry it off. (Nonetheless, Kill Bill may have led on to other things for her.)

⁵ Although Almodóvar’s Talk to Her (Hable con ella) (2002) may look more like coma-care ?

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Frank Bowling at Tate Britain (avoiding all extra puns)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2019 (17 to 24 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

12 July

A report on visiting the retrospective of Frank Bowling's work at Tate Britain on Friday 12 July

The retrospective exhibition at Tate Britain is keen to stress (Room 1, room-note) that Frank Bowling was at art school with Kitaj and Hockney, but it does not seem even convincingly curated (since, in Room 1, two swan-paintings are said to show influence from Bridget Riley, whereas a painting in Room 2 makes even more clear that the reference is Victor Vasarely):

Or, rather, is it that the art is, if not over-dependent on explication and an explanation of its place in the other things that occupied Bowling at the time, then probably - certainly for the first half of the show (Rooms 1 to 5) – then not strong or striking enough, so that those curating the show find themselves invited to give that level of information ? In other words, with a strong painting by Hockney, does it not speak for itself, and so one is not going to talk unnecessarily on its behalf ?

It is not exactly that one looks at a canvas of Bowling's and says 'So what ?', but almost not short of it, in that (everything else being equal, such as price, where it would hang, etc.) it is wise to apply a rule to the possibility of acquiring a work of art, which is that, whatever it says now, will it continue to have things to say when hung elsewhere and lived with ? : if the answer is that it is unlikely to continue to speak to the purchaser, then one might as well gather the initial or even superficial import now, and move on.

Simply put, in this case, it is not until Room 6 that anything compels one to prolong one's look, because - aside from what has been sometimes screen-printed into the fabric as detail - the work has principally uttered, and one would just be accumulating personal / biographical material. Or Bowling's poured paintings, which seem to compel no more than Damien Hirst's 'turntable' paintings, so a single look suffices : one looks longer, but finds / sees no more than at first. By contrast, #UCFF lived in the Gorky exhibition at Tate Modern for its last three days (a weekend that had been extended by the final day being a Bank Holiday) :

Not to say that Gorky's canvases are typical, or that Bowling stands per se to be judged for not being Gorky (since, in plenty of other ways, many artists are not a Gorky), but they in no way offered themselves up to an initial look, and each insight that was gained had the potential to send one on or back one or two Rooms to follow up the connections. Of course, Gorky is an extreme counter-example to Bowling, as exemplified by Rooms 1 to 5 at Tate Britain, but one can still ask what there is that actually arrests the eye here.

From Room 6 onwards, and certainly by Room 7, the allusive quality is no longer a famous resemblance to Francis Bacon or to what may have been ghosted in with screen-printing, but to the nature and character of the picture-plane itself and, say, one perceives the watery quality of The Thames in a tessellated way.

Great Thames IV (1988-1989)

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Yes, amazingly did not see Reservoir Dogs (1992) at the time¹

Reservoir Dogs (1992) - so what was all the fuss about... ?

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2019 (17 to 24 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

1 July

Reservoir Dogs (1992) - so what was all the fuss about... ?

On this showing, it is less clear what in it caused the clamour for QT, but the story goes that Tony Scott directed Tarantino's screenplay for True Romance (1993), because the latter only had the chance to make one of them, and he chose Dogs : #UCFF thinks Scott's film far superior

Except for those who like painting in blood – actually, a slick of it (do we question that ?), or so that, we are to believe (or are we ?), it perfectly soaks into one or two white shirts, to leave them uniformly dyed (with no streaks or other colour-variation) – it may not be immediately clear what, after the opening scene in the restaurant / diner, Dogs newly offered audiences that did not routinely depend on shock for effect.

Maybe it is that, as heralded or betokened by that opening (which therefore acts as a kind of synthesis of the elements of blood and brain ?), Tarantino seeks to set up a kind of bi-polar opposition to all this bloody physicality : maybe we also see these considerations applying in Kill Bill : Vol. 1 (2003) and Vol. 2 (2004) ?

For the life of the flesh is in the blood : and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls ~ Leviticus 17 : 11a [KJV]

Considered in this way, Tarantino's aim may be akin to the purpose of the phlegmatic ‘calm before the storm’ in films made by The Allies during World War II (or to promote their messages afterwards) – or even the mysterious (dis)quietude of the mise-en-scène of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter² [1957] ?

There is, for example, the highly protective tenderness of Mr White (Harvey Keitel) towards Mr Orange (Tim Roth), or how the latter’s throaty shouting³ is in contrast to moments of quieter conversation (when, for example, Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi) arrives, and White and he go aside to talk). Yet too much else, as we wait around in this space for 'something to happen'⁴, feels located - as in Beckettt's fame-making play⁵ En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot) - in an excessively heady mood, as if it were a text-book on epistemology, or on irrationality in decision-making⁴.

Lacking the cunning and panache of Pulp Fiction (1994), Dogs still clearly does what Tarantino wanted – making a statement [of intent] and / or his mark. However, in later films under his direction, he has much better handled issues that are important to him, such as that of trust and its basis, and, in scripting them, the role of flashback and how to use it innovatively, which we see him rather noisily and boisterously trying out here.

#UCFF has some other things to say here about Tarantino and Kill Bill : Vol. 1 (2003) and Vol. 2 (2004)

Yeah, you made me feel
Shiny and new :

Whenever Tarantino imagines us thinking Reservoir Dogs set, on its release, the notoriety around Madonna in 1992 was not these initial hits (on which the breakfast club egotistically dilates), but the music-video (lesbian kiss, S&M, etc.) and lyrics - Put your hands all over my body ? - of 'Erotica' (and, that year also, the publication of Sex)

End-notes :

¹ The Arts Picturehouse (@CamPicturehouse) was preparing for Tarantino's Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (2019), all 2h 39mins of it, by reprising his film career.

² We should recall that part of the Zeitgeist, into which both films were feeding, was Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) – with the edginess of the situation of Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon. (A film that, amongst other names, also boasted Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey and Jonathan Pryce.)

³ Which, at least, seems verging on homo-eroticism ?

Apart from ‘Nice Guy’ Eddie (Chris Penn) in particular, so many of the characters present as very hoarse, gruff, or both, as if thereby asserting – beyond (reasonable) question – their hard-ball, masculine status ? So much of this guff about the lyrics of 'Like a Virgin', or Larry grabbing / confiscating Joe's pocket-book, is really just posturing about 'Who's got the biggest dick ?'...

⁴ At times, do the reasons for any of the Reservoir Dogs, notably Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi), to stay where they are and / or their irresolution about doing so seem as flimsy as those of the two principals in Godot (i.e. that they are waiting for Godot) ? :

Vladimir : Well ? Shall we go ?

Estragon : Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.

Artistically, as learnt from cinema, Tarantino has an attraction to stand-offs (and Reservoir Dogs finally resolves with / in one), but he uses this one in a stylistic way, without resolving it : that does not work as an unresolved chord would in music, because he gives the impression of having started that which he cannot (plausibly) finish by scripting - unlike a killer chess-move, or maybe Buscemi taking the legs from under Keitel (though, in this still, all the energy is in and from Keitel's stance)

⁵ One of the two posthumous biographies of Beckettt is called Damned to Fame.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)