PRINT February 2004


Lost in Translation and Kill Bill

AT FIRST GLANCE, Sofia Coppola’s melancholy love story Lost in Translation and Quentin Tarantino’s brazen splatterfest Kill Bill: Vol. 1 don’t seem to have much in common beyond their similarly lavish Oscar campaigns. But then a peculiar set of coincidences begins to emerge. Both are set in a dreamlike, poppalette Tokyo, the action in both pivots on the marital troubles of a female protagonist, and the films each sport a key scene in which the heroine rides along a hospital corridor in a wheelchair. Even some of the finer points are identical, like both films’ featuring a minor Japanese character nicknamed Charlie Brown. The chain of happenstance starts to look like the “eerie” coincidences connecting the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. (You know, Lincoln’s secretary was named Kennedy, Kennedy’s secretary was named Lincoln . . .) But while these young, talented filmmakers’ most recent works may bear similar details, they intersect only briefly at a set of opposing cultural currents. If the X marking Coppola and Tarantino’s generation stands for a crossroads, then one director is helping to maintain the status quo while the other emerges as American film’s first truly great female director.

Toni Morrison famously declared Bill Clinton the first black president; and by lights of a similar set of sociological shifts and personal circumstances, Quentin Tarantino has become the first “female” director to reach American film’s commercial and artistic pinnacles. While Sofia Coppola has a matter-of-fact Hollywood pedigree, Tarantino (like fellow hick striver Clinton) had no father. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, he was raised by a single teenage mom in Long Beach, California, eventually trading his shit job at the local video-rental mart for Cannes and a Palme d’Or. Also like Clinton, Tarantino grew up to be an accomplished and authoritative white man who can consider the subjectivities of women and minorities without breaking into a cold sweat. Beginning with Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction (1994) and Pam Grier’s Jackie Brown (1997), Tarantino has demonstrated an unselfconscious empathy with and ability to write strong, dynamic roles for women that no female director in America has yet matched.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 centers on a woman’s quest for justice. The title character Bill, played in Vol. 2 by David Carradine, is here an invisible figure looming over the story. We know Bill is the head of an elite, all-female group called the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, or DiVAS. Vol. 1 opens with Bill and his DiVAS gunning down a wedding party. The pregnant woman in the blood-soaked wedding dress, the Bride (Uma Thurman), is also known as Black Mamba, the most lethal Viper of them all. Bill and the Vipers leave the Bride for dead, but she is actually comatose. Cut to four years later. Suddenly awakening in a hospital, the Bride efficiently dispatches the hospital orderly who has been pimping her inert body (slamming a door repeatedly on his skull), steals his custom-built hot rod emblazoned with foot-high pink letters reading “Pussy Wagon,” and sets off on a ferociously focused mission of revenge. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari said that a hole is just a vagina traveling at the speed of light. For years I had no inkling what that gnomic pronouncement could possibly mean—and then I saw Uma Thurman hurtling around in the Pussy Wagon.

Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece of American screen violence Straw Dogs (1971) was famously called a “fascist work of art” by Pauline Kael; Kill Bill’s hallucinatory violence and rivers of gore have elicited similarly hysterical commentary. The New Republic’s Gregg Easterbrook went so far as to accuse Harvey Weinstein, one of the film’s producers, of promoting terrorism. In conversation, Tarantino praises violent films for their “honesty” and for being “true to themselves.” While Tarantino is a fan of nearly all violent cinema, from mainstream directors like Peckinpah to spaghetti westerns to Hong Kong action films, he claims that the primary influence for Kill Bill was a string of decades-old genre and exploitation films. “I had a whole list of these films. The Doll Squad [1973] by Ted V. Mikels, Burt Kennedy’s Hannie Caulder [1971], I Spit on Your Grave by Meir Zarchi [1978]—there are tons of them.” These cheaply made films, produced predominantly in the ’70s, acted as a sort of cinematic unconscious for mainstream Hollywood. Genre films often featured black or female protagonists on the losing end of aggressive scenarios who then come back to bloodily triumph over their tormentors. For Tarantino, violent genre films seemed to respond with honesty and immediacy to a culture undergoing wrenching social change. The constant slashing, stabbing, beating, chopping, slicing, beheading, disemboweling, kicking, and crushing of Kill Bill forms a sort of 4/4 backbeat as thirty years of Hollywood culture are updated in a breathless rush.

The punishing damage the Bride inflicts is also oddly, startlingly funny. Watching Kill Bill is a cathartic experience, like a great rock show, with the desire and aggression at the film’s heart seeming to originate within the audience. From the Little Tramp to Jim Carrey, physical comedy has long been a way for male comedians to express social and sexual anxiety. Kill Bill’s woman-on-woman martial-arts brutality updates slapstick for the twenty-first century, claiming it as a female genre for the first time. As if to underscore the mayhem’s metaphorical nature, Tarantino gives his gore a deliberately virtual look. Perhaps the film’s closest cousin in mixing humor, artifice, quotation, and aggression is The Itchy and Scratchy Show, the crazily violent cartoon-within-a-cartoon parody of Tom and Jerry on The Simpsons. While the look of Kill Bill is often patently fake, Tarantino’s upendings of convention comment on real cultural undercurrents. Like genre films and Peckinpah’s more mainstream Straw Dogs, Kill Bill uses violence to examine and describe seismic social shifts.

Straw Dogs is frequently read as an allegory of Vietnam, but the real violence being done is to conventions of white working-class masculinity. The film is based on Gordon M. Williams’s 1969 novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, with the siege seeming to occur when thuggish workmen come after a physically meek mathematician and his wife in their Irish country home. But, as in Junior Bonner the following year, Peckinpah seems to be describing an assault on the working class by the assent of a more economically and intellectually agile white-collar male. As film scholar Stephen Prince has commented, it is Dustin Hoffman’s urbane mathematician who is the interloper in the Irish village, arriving in a convertible sports car with the local sexpot, whom he has married and carried off to the United States. The “siege” of the farm is by the cosmopolitan math professor, who doesn’t physically work the land as has been done by village men for centuries but instead uses it as a place of leisure. By film’s end the professor succeeds in defending his pleasurable lifestyle with the use of extreme violence.

Whereas Peckinpah used slow motion to balletic effect, it is Tarantino’s lunatic kineticism and breakneck pop referencing that lends Kill Bill’s violence its often breathtaking formal beauty. Like the new pop musical form “mashups,” where existing songs are digitally combined to make new hits, Tarantino rapidly calls up decades of films and of a host of film genres, often within the same scene. Trying to spot the filmmaker’s references is part of the fun, if a seemingly infinite task. The director was particularly excited about casting David Carradine from the Kung Fu TV series as Bill because the actor evokes so many different genres. “Kung Fu, yeah, but he was one of the Long Riders too,” the director says. “You’ve got a great thing with David because Bill really is a mix of Asiatic influences and genuine American western influences.” When asked about using the actress Chiaki Kuriyama from the radically violent Japanese teen satire Battle Royale (2000) as Kill Bill’s Go Go Yubari, Tarantino responds with an anecdote delivered in his machine-gun rhetorical style:

I went out to dinner with Kinji Fukasaku [director of Battle Royale, who died last year] and his son Kenta. I was going, “I love this movie! I love the scene where the girls are shooting each other.” And Kenta laughs and goes, “The author of the original Battle Royale novel would be glad to hear that you liked that scene.” And I go “Why?” And he says, “Well, because it’s from Reservoir Dogs!” Even when I was watching it I was going, “God, these fourteen-year-old girls are shooting each other just like in Reservoir Dogs!”

The director travels so far in his reference making that often he winds up where he started—face to face with himself.

Just as Lincoln and Kennedy were both succeeded by presidents named Johnson, Tarantino’s and Coppola’s Tokyo stories both feature “Bill” at their center. Whereas Tarantino’s Bill goes unseen, the actor Bill Murray occupies most of Lost in Translation’s screen time. In contrast to Tarantino’s speed, Sofia Coppola’s partly improvised film unfolds rather lackadaisically. Lost in Translation follows Charlotte, a young woman in an unhappy marriage who falls for a melancholy actor old enough to be her father while they are staying in the same hushed and dim Tokyo hotel. Charlotte is the only character in the movie who is in Tokyo for leisure rather than work. Many have celebrated Lost in Translation as a breakthrough for this clearly promising director, but there’s a point in the semiautobiographical film when Charlotte ridicules the older man for having stopped making good movies in the 1970s and the breezy love story starts to feel like a queasy oedipal transaction. Compare Coppola’s film, where the confused May-December couple are still idly orbiting each other at film’s end, to Mike Nichols’s landmark 1967 youth anthem The Graduate. Would Nichols’s film be celebrated now if Benjamin hadn’t wised up and decided to shuck his torpid life spent floating in his parents’ pool and dump the gnarly Mrs. Robinson? Placing the image of Tarantino’s battered Bride struggling alone in her wheelchair, desperately trying to leave the hospital, alongside Coppola’s droll Charlotte being wheeled into an emergency room (for a stubbed toe no less) by her older love interest is a telling juxtaposition. Coppola’s Charlotte seems to prefer being pushed around, while Tarantino’s Bride understands that we had to crawl before we could walk, and walk before we could disembowel our mortal enemies with supercool samurai moves. “That’s the world that this movie takes place in,” the director says. “Everybody has a samurai sword.” Like many of his generation, Tarantino was not socialized to see the father as the center of the family—or of the culture. With his democratic vision of a samurai sword for every man, woman, and child, Tarantino abolishes established hierarchies on which elitism, superiority, and exclusion are built. If “Bill” represents a decaying social order, then Coppola’s Charlotte comes to praise Bill, and Tarantino’s Bride to bury him. Kill Bill is not your father’s action movie.

Theresa Duncan is a Los Angeles–based writer and filmmaker.