Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Film commentary: Kill Bill Vol 2

It's difficult to write any criticism of "Kill Bill Vol. 2" that Quentin Tarantino himself wouldn't regard as a compliment. Yes, it is an obscenely violent, completely amoral, cynical revel in relentless, brutal sadism. But that is, by now, the signature of the Tarantino aesthetic. You know what you're getting, and if that sort of thing is the sort of thing you want to see, "Kill Bill Vol 2" provides it in spades. Given the very real carnage and horror currently churning out of the war in Iraq at the moment, one might imagine audiences already have had, for the time being, more than their fill of vicariously experienced violence. But Kill Bill 2 doesn't seem to have suffered for want of patrons, so clearly this is a film that satisfies somebody's wants.

I guess what you might say is that, considered as a Tarantino film, it is but a shadow of his former work. Tarantino looks, more and more, like a man parodying himself, no longer capable of anything more than endlessly repeating and retreading his own ideas. The pattern established in "Reservoir Dogs" has become a entrenched monomania in "Kill Bill." As in the first volume, which featured endless riffs on popular culture, from the ironic use of banal advertising catch-phrases ("silly rabbit") to ironic twists on pop-cultural icons (such as the anime style asian schoolgirl), "Kill Bill Vol 2" is a thorough and intensive pastiche of western and martial arts tropes. The problem is, in "Kill Bill vol 2" there is nothing more than pastiche, neither transcending nor even coming to the level of the source material it models itself on.

Tarantino's malaise seems to be this: if you have a keen eye and ear for popular culture - music, movies and television - you make a film like "Pulp Fiction." But if your only experience of life is music, movies and television - if you are at a loss to describe what really motivates people, what they do or what they might actually want, you make a film like "Kill Bill". Tarantino has become so obsessed with his signature violence and brutality that he can no longer imagine there being any other value in life. There is no character in "Kill Bill vol 2", apart from a few stand-in victims quickly and contemptuously disposed of, who isn't a killer, a sadist, or both, from Bill to the Bride to the Bride's ruthless master, Pei Mei, who once ripped out one of his student's eyes in a fit of pique. You come to a realisation; Tarantino doesn't embrace brutal, unprovoked violence because he makes films about gangsters, outsiders from society, for whom such values come naturally. Tarantino embraces brutal, unprovoked violence because he believes the willing propensity to inflict such treatment, along with the ability to resile in the face of such treatment from others, exhausts the meaning of the word "strength."

This is a long way from the philosophy of any martial art that I'm aware of, and the reason why, far from being a tribute to martial arts flicks, "Kill Bill" represents a twisted perversion of them. Now I'm sure Tarantino could name plenty of Hong Kong martial arts exploitation flicks where violence is used in much the way it's used in "Kill Bill", but it's rather different if we consider the best of them. To take one example: Bill, played by David Carradine, with his omnipresent flute, is a clear reference to Carradine's martial arts epic "The Silent Flute", but where "Flute" was an extremely campy, but entertaining exercise in stylised, inoffensive chop-socky, blended with ruminations on cod eastern philosophy, "Kill Bill" is a thoroughly American meditation on the necessity, desirability and inevitability of horrific, bloody, brutal vengeance. And although "Kill Bill" also has pretensions of offering philosophical ruminations of deep import, the alert viewer notices that they tend to rather resemble childish observations on, say, the nature of alter egos in superhero comics.

So, in Tarantino's unique understanding of the term, Uma's character of The Bride is indeed a "strong" character. In the terms of natural language, this translates into a character who spends most of the duology suffering extraordinary levels of the most extreme and mysogynistic violence and sadism, followed by sequences of ruthless, visceral, and supernatually implausible retaliation for same. Given the sheer relentlessness of this treatment, you get the inescapable feeling that this represents some deep psychological need of the film-maker, to torture Uma, rape her, blast her brains out, beat her to a bloody pulp, shoot her in the tits with a shotgun, drug her into submission, bury her alive, and every time to perform a deus ex machina resurrection, miraculously restoring her to her natural movie star state of perfect makeup, perfect teeth, and perfect body, so that same flawless face and body can be made subject to the same brutal geometry of destruction over and over again.

To say that, each time, she gets her own back in the end is not to exculpate or refute this treatment, but to affirm it; for after all the Bride is herself nothing more than a contract killer, and as one of her targets, Sidewinder, points out, there's really nothing to differentiate what she deserves from what anybody else in the film might deserve. Ultimately the Bride is not killing out of justice, or mercy, or self-defence, but merely for revenge, and by embracing such a nihlistic vision of violence, she only endorses her own degradation.

Tarantino does, nonetheless, offer the opportunity to escape this cycle. For the Bride, this comes through killing the Big Boss, followed by her putting aside violence and choosing to become feminine through the embrace of motherhood. For the audience, this comes by making it through to the point where the credits roll and then leaving the cinema for more salubrious climes. But for Tarantino himself, one senses there is no escape. He will continue to reinscribe his own banal obsessions onto the medium of film until death or indolence overtakes him. And he will continue to be reinforced in his obsessions by the willing audience his films find and the inexplicable critical praise he receives. Thus, his reward is also his punishment and his punishment his reward; and his blessing is that, by now, he no longer knows or cares what the difference might be.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Moral Clarity, Part 4

Let's recap. What was your reaction, upon seeing those awful, appalling photos of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison?

a) Oh my God! That's awful! Thank God the story is out, so we can punish those responsible!

b) Oh my God! That's awful! How dare the media publish those photos which will only encourage more terrorist acts against us!

If you picked b, you've just embraced the evolving right-wing discourse that's formed around this story in the last day or so. At first it looks like our old friend "any criticism of the conduct of the troops is objectively pro-terrorist." And it's true, for these bloggers old habits die hard. But the latest rhetoric turns out to include a subtle but, in its own sophistical way, infernally brilliant refinement to our familiar argument by intimidation.

Here's our friend the torture fetishist, Jonah Goldberg, writing on "The Corner."

Whoever leaked these pictures to the press was not doing anybody any favors. Since the case was already being handled, the release of these pictures did more harm than good. I don't blame 60 Minutes for running them -- though I don't applaud them either. But a person would/could be morally obligated to leak these pictures if the army was covering it up or refusing to investigate. It doesn't sound like that was the case. So releasing the photos isn't prodding the government to do the right thing, it's encouraging millions of Arabs to hate us. That's not whistle-blowing, that's sabotage.

That's not whistle-blowing, that's sabotage. So far, argument by intimidation. But see the move? Those photographs were absolutely appalling, sure. But the army had already investigated. There was no "cover-up. The matter was being dealt with. The charges could have been covered without actually publishing them. In fact, given the violence they could inflame, CBS had a positive moral duty not to.

In this evolving argument, the public has no right to know what war crimes US soldiers have committed in their name. Maybe they can be given some sketchy details in a buried story in the New York Times. But the pictures add nothing to the story beyond their sickening, ghoulish impact. Hence, we know that publishing the photos was nothing but an intervention by the liberal media.

You see, the journalists who insisted on publishing these photos just aren't team players. Sure, those acts of abuse were appalling. And sure, had they recorded the actions of Saddam's Fedayeen thugs, they should have been shown, just like other footage of Saddam's atrocities has. But it's not like the public has any right to see appalling war crimes by our own side. After all, we already know we are the good guys. Our moral superiority is proved by the fact that the soldiers will be prosecuted. These unfortunate aberrations shouldn't have been allowed to tar our good name. All this talk of "exposure" and "journalistic integrity" is just a smokescreen for treasonous disloyalty.

So goes the argument. But there's an ironic twist to Goldberg's argument. Because, beyond all others, Mr Goldberg has been busy cheering the torturers on. For Goldberg, torture is in according with the "hidden law", which, among other things, abandons that pesky thing called "moral consistency":

Along came the lawyers. With their hyper-rationalism and self-righteousness intact, the lawyers declared that if something is wrong, it's wrong for everyone - and therefore it must be illegal for everyone.

In fact, as we've already seen, Goldberg has been the head cheerleader for the cause of socially sanctioned torture. Goldberg argued that torture should be a hidden practice countenanced by hidden law. And now he turns around and tells us that, actually, he finds all this torture business appalling and unacceptable. But don't worry, people! There's no need for public oversight. Military justice is already on the case!

Somehow, I just can't just wrap my head around the concept that, even though these pictures disprove months of fervent US army denials of prisoner abuses, those denials were actually made for our own protection. And I guess I can't quite abandon my lingering, irrational superstition that democracy means that sadistic war criminals who do horrendous deeds in the state's name should have the full force of their barbariasms exposed in public for all to see.

Goldberg was fine with the concept of the US torturing prisoners, so long as he didn't have to see it. When he does see it, he claims that of course he's appalled. But all Jonah Goldberg really objects to is having his own colossal hypocrisy exposed.