Thursday, March 31, 2011
And In That Purpose
Every now and then I find myself looking at Youtube clips of Ennio Morricone conducting some of his work in concert which are generally being held way off in Europe somewhere. Featuring legendary selections like “The Ecstasy of Gold” from THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY or the most famous theme from DUCK YOU SUCKER aka A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE and others, viewing these heartbreakingly beautiful selections from films—spaghetti westerns, cop movies, giallos, whatever—that are often dismissed as junk at worst and sometimes fodder for parody at best is something I find stirring in a way I can hardly even express. Some of this music never seems as appreciated as it should be but here it is being performed for people who love it, with beautiful sopranos belting out those wordless arias, placing all this amazing music in a context of culture and beauty. And when I watch some of these clips, wishing I could actually be in one of those far off places to see one of those concerts in person, something about it all just seems so right. When I see KILL BILL by Quentin Tarantino I feel like I’m seeing a film made by somebody who understands this, somebody who also looks for the beauty that can be found in the unexpected corners of these films. And yes, while completely loving how flat-out enjoyable they are as well. KILL BILL is a film made by somebody who feels nothing but passion for those movies and refuses to look at them as frivolous camp or something to make fun of, but rather as something beautiful in a way that only he can really express. These are movies, with real passion to them that can be found in every ounce of action, drama and total sleaze they contain. In making something like KILL BILL—the complete KILL BILL—Tarantino elevates those movies to the level they already are in his mind. The way it should be.
It wasn’t until recently that I learned the part of Estaban, the eighty year-old Mexican pimp who directs The Bride towards Bill during the latter stages of the film was originally supposed to be played by Ricardo Montalban. When Montalban was unable to make a cast read through Tarantino had Michael Parks, already cast as Ranger Earl McGraw, assume the role for that one occasion but was so blown away by what the actor did he changed plans on the spot, having Parks ultimately play both roles. It sort of makes sense that Montalban was going to be Estaban since he was the right age for it and it also ties back to the use of a certain famous quote at the very beginning of VOL. 1. But I can’t help but wonder if his very Ricardo Montalbanness would have been a problem here, that the joke of his appearance in the scene would have stood out more than anything. Parks, on the other hand, is damn near brilliant and completely disappears into the role—even though I see it listed in the credits I still can’t quite believe it’s him and I love how the movie stops at this crucial juncture to let us meet this guy, to allow him to take his time with every syllable he reveals to The Bride. By this point it’s almost as if KILL BILL has moved beyond mere references for the sake of a joke into something deeper about the characters that have risen out of the ashes of these references. It’s like that infamous deleted scene showing David Carradine’s Bill fighting Michael Jai White, cut from VOL. 2 and found on a deleted scene on the DVD—not only is there no good place for it in the film but it’s done in such a goofy way that it clashes with everything around it and the right choice was made to simply have the scene shrivel up and die on the cutting room floor. KILL BILL needed to become something greater than those references until all it could possibly do was transcend them on account of its own power. The way it should be.
It’s a nice daydream to imagine Miramax actually attempting to release the complete KILL BILL way back in 2003 as one full movie, maybe taking a stab at doing some sort of old school roadshow release to make it a true event, to underline what an epic this was and push for a bunch of Oscar nominations while they were at it, not just a pair of action movies released six months apart. On the other hand, this is one occasion where I can’t blame anyone for wanting to play things a little safe and make their money back. The way things played out back then was probably for the best and the cliffhanger as seen in the release version worked like gangbusters at the time, only increasing the anticipation for what Vol. 2 would contain. Viewing it all as a full movie with a number of years distance part of me now wishes that this hadn’t been the case, that the surprise the movie ultimately leads to in its final chapter, the one that places everything that has happened in a different kind of perspective, could have been kept from us just as it was kept from The Bride. To be honest, I can’t say it works better right now any more than I was able to proclaim that the version of BLADE RUNNER without the narration worked better than the original release with it. It’s still there in my head, just the way that coda in VOL. 1 of KILL BILL always will be in some way. But to see the film in this original form, to get an idea of what it may have been like in that alternate universe, was a wonderful thing. Taken all at once it’s a feast, an absolute feast of pure cinema.
So now, as the grand finale of his month of programming at the New Beverly Cinema, Quentin Tarantino has presented KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR (or, as I suppose it should simply be called, KILL BILL) with tickets selling out so fast that extra dates had to be added by the theater later on. Acting fast I managed to get one for opening night, which just happened to be Tarantino’s birthday. As it turned out, the celebration part of the day was held at the first show in the afternoon, where Tarantino introduced the film and Julia led the crowd in singing Happy Birthday to him. In comparison, the evening showing was uneventful, unless of course you count the fact that we were getting to see the full KILL BILL which was of course more than good enough for me. Funny, even though because of the late ending of the 2:00 show, the film began closer to 8:00 than the scheduled start time of 7:00 everything there couldn’t have been more orderly, a credit to the New Beverly but also maybe because a great many of the people there that night were familiar with how things work at the theater so everyone behaved. It wasn’t even all that rowdy a crowd during the film, as if since everyone there had probably seen it already we were all studying it as close as possible (one person who got a round of applause both times her name appeared onscreen was Tarantino’s late editor Sally Menke). The screening was preceded by a few things presumably picked by Tarantino himself to go with the movie and very obviously had a great deal of pertinence—an animated ad for Dr. Pepper, a ROLLING THUNDER TV spot, trailers for the likes of COFFY, STING OF THE DRAGON MASTERS, THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU, THEY CALL HER ONE EYE and, yes, SHOGUN ASSASSIN—actually, their placement before the film seemed so right it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if they were all played at every screening of KILL BILL ever held from here on out. Incidentally, the version of THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR shown was not just what premiered at Cannes back in ’04—it was the actual print, only screened a handful of times since, complete with a Cannes Film Festival logo at the top and French subtitles through the entire running time, adding an additional level of internationalism to this globe-trotting epic—for those curious, the subtitle for the Pussy Wagon was “BAISODROME” and for whatever reason the name Beatrix was always subtitled as “Beatrice”, not that I spent much time focusing on those subtitles. Anyway, so KILL BILL has now been seen in its proper form as KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR, playing at the New Beverly in what I suppose should be called its premiere theatrical engagement and while I don’t know what the future of this version of the film is going to be in terms of any subsequent releases I don’t think it’s at all a stretch to basically say right now, that this is the movie. There is no VOL. 1 and VOL. 2. There is just KILL BILL.
The differences may be few—and, for the record, there are no changes to the overall chapter structure—but they are absolutely crucial. The plot, of course, is the same. When a pregnant woman who we know only as The Bride (Uma Thurman) is beaten and shot in the head just as she’s about to be married, but when she wakes up from her coma four years later she sets off on a roaring rampage of revenge against the people who did her wrong, her former colleagues in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Jetting off to Okinawa where she acquires a samurai sword from the legendary Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba) The Bride sets off after the names on her list: (1) O-Ren Ishi (Lucy Liu) (2) Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) (3) Budd (Michael Madsen) (4) Elle Viper (Daryl Hannah) and (5) the main one she’s after, the legendary Bill (David Carradine). And since revenge is a forest, as we’re told by Hattori Hanzo in a line not included in THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR things are not presented to us is simple linear fashion.
The more I think about it, the stranger KILL BILL seems to become, with the world it’s all set in never fully explained and yet at the same time it all makes perfect sense. There’s such an energy given to every single moment, a richness felt in how this entire world and the people who occupy it were all created that is continually exciting and addictive. In some ways it is a kind of updating of the 70s Grindhouse aesthetic Quentin Tarantino grew up with just the way that the likes of STAR WARS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK were meant to be updates of old time serials. But it becomes much more than that, almost as if it’s Tarantino’s own personal tour of these movies as filtered through memories of his own adolescent daydreams and its characters as they swirled through his head in the dead of night. But he’s not thinking of those characters in their films, but what they meant to him and how they might exist outside of those ninety minutes they’re seen in--there seems to be a recurring theme in his films of the characters being caught in between their own missions, the big epic movies we’d imagine them as the lead characters of, and instead of that the film we get to see is the one that pulls these characters away form the restrictions of their narratives. Whatever big action movie the Deadly Vipers were ever a part of is something that only Tarantino has ever been privy to in his own mind. What we see here comes before and after. And whether the intermission is fifteen minutes (and, in case you were wondering, there was one at the New Beverly right after The Bride states, “They’ll all soon be as dead as…” which is probably where you expected it to be) or six months the effect is not entirely unlike what was done later on with the two films in GRINDHOUSE—the first half is the fun stuff and the second half tries to dig a little deeper as if trying to figure out just what the hell these movies—as well as any sort of obsession with them—really means anyway.
On the one hand, the clean break between the two volumes was ideal for the original theatrical releases (so ideal that it still feels natural to continue making references to them as two volumes and I may have to), dividing the fun stuff with the more introspective character elements after we’ve already gotten to meet them. The thrust of the story balances its key inspirations of Asian Cinema and spaghetti westerns, dropping a piece of score that comes from genre (including numerous Morricone cues) right into a scene taking place in the other, along with drops of blaxploitation (since this film follows JACKIE BROWN it seems to make sense that the Bride’s confrontation with Vernita Green comes first in what we get to see) and even a riff of flat-out horror with The Bride getting the drop on Michael Bowen’s Buck scored to music from Lucio Fulci’s THE PSYCHIC and all. The first half seems to be all style and no emotion but it isn’t really that at all, every moment affected by The Bride’s first waking moments where she wails as she comes to her realization from clutching where her baby used to be. Once during my numerous viewings at the Vista back in ’03 there was a girl sitting next to me who I didn’t know and I noticed undeniable tears streaking down her face during this scene. This isn’t camp for Tarantino, this isn’t spoof and it isn’t just flashy excitement. As absurd and fantastical as this entire world may be, he means every second of it, he means every ounce of pain and regret the characters feel along with how that affects what they do in response.
When VOL. 1 opened in the Fall of ’03 it played right down the street from me at the Vista—you know, the one where Clarence Worley met Alabama. The Pussy Wagon was famously parked right out front during the run and I went at least once a week each week it played, over and over, and to this day when I listen to “Urami Bushi” which plays over the end of both films I find myself back in that theater watching those credits roll as that song echoes against the walls. To this day I get such exhilaration out of the rollercoaster of that first half, starting right from the suburban set brutality and dark humor of the fight with Vernita Green leading up to the necessary cruel note it ends on. But there’s also such warmth in the droll humor found in the first scene of Sonny Chiba’s Hattori Hanzo leading up to the undeniable, emotional frisson felt in the air as we head up to his attic to get a look at those samurai swords. The Bride’s battle with the Crazy 88s at The House of Blue Leaves is a genuinely phenomenal piece of filmmaking, a veritable master class in action filmmaking in this day and age, but actually even more addictive for me is the build up to the fight–the continued musical trail as the Bride arrives in Tokyo beginning with the GREEN HORNET theme, moving to the Crazy 88s entering the club all through the preciseness of that De Palma-like Steadicam shot as the 5 6 7 8’s play and we follow Julie Dreyfus’s Sofie Fatale through the club is like pure, uncut cinematic crack for me. And much as I love that first half, there’s something about VOL. 2 I find myself drawn to more and in some ways it can be as easy to drift into its more languid vibe while watching at home as JACKIE BROWN is. It’s not as fun as VOL. 1, no, but it doesn’t have to be. The second half dispenses with the flash and chooses to zero in on the unspoken guilt Michael Madsen’s Budd feels for his role in the Two Pines massacre, willing to literally clean up shit because he knows he deserves to, yet still unwilling to go quietly when The Bride finally comes for him. Maybe because it’s what he knows how to do, maybe because he believes it will absolve him. The remarkable cinematography ( by Robert Richardson, absolute aces all the way through) takes hold for me here, playing off a more blatant spaghetti western fashion than in the first half with the characters faces filling the frame like they hadn’t before. Maybe part of this is my own personal preference of filmmaking styles--when it comes to Asian/Kung Fu cinema, I’m a little lost, I admit and here I’m totally drawn in to an extent that even now I find a little surprising. Even the music seems to go beyond the surface, with such mind-bendingly beautiful tracks like a piece from the giallo THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH by Nora Orlandi mixed in with a little original score by Robert Rodriguez lends it an extra level of emotion that is maybe nowhere else to be found in Tarantino’s films. And moving from what has to be the greatest buried alive sequence in cinema history to trapping us with Budd in his scummy trailer of his—it feels a little awesome that this globe-trotting epic spends so much time in this enclosed space and the way Tarantino lays out the ultra-nasty fight scene between The Bride and Elle within this space (how a director shoots physical action within such a space is always a good test of their skills). When we finally get that face to face confrontation I’m not sure that anything tops seeing David Carradine as Bill methodically make those sandwiches using that enormous knife (carefully cutting the crusts off) but just watching the way he continually downs that tequila while sparring through this dialogue with Uma Thurman is a little mesmerizing. I always found it kind of interesting how Tarantino expressed a desire to make a faithful adaptation of CASINO ROYALE (this is back before that reboot happened, of course) because I can’t help but think that there’s a tinge of the confrontation between Bond and Vesper Lynd in that book in the isolation of The Bride and Bill in the final stretch of KILL BILL, not building to the final fight we may be expecting, but the final confrontation between these two people, this man and woman, all that this long, epic tale finally comes down to and what it needs to be.
The differences in THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR kick off right at the top with the “Revenge is a dish best serve cold” epitaph (“Old Klingon Proverb”) replaced with a dedication to Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku. The anime sequence depicting the ‘origin’ of O-Ren Ishhi is slightly longer with considerably extra gore but the greatest, and probably best known, alterations come during the legendary House of Blue Leaves sequence, which a friend showed me the long version of several years ago, it is in full color and slightly longer, with more carnage and even an additional earlier comical beat with the kid who The Bride confronts at the end. Maybe this is sacrilege, but I wondered then and I wonder now if the shorter cut isn’t slightly better simply because it’s just a little tighter, a little punchier. The early beat with the kid just feels unnecessary, as if it’s an attempt at a running gag that never quite becomes one—if anyone thinks that I’m looking for a less violent KILL BILL that’s not where I’m coming from at all and I should add that I’m totally in favor of the extra beat showing what else happens to Sofie Fatale later on, even if it does cause an unfortunate continuity error. As for the color, however, I always wondered if having most of it in B&W made the later color shot showing the full result of the carnage in all its glory wasn’t a good thing. It is, yes, but having seen it all on the big screen now, I just love it this way, it seems more pure, all that carnage is overwhelming in the best possible way and that wide shot still possesses all the power it always did. Now, am I hesitating in fully praising this, wondering if it isn’t better a little tighter? Yeah, I admit, I am. But keep the color. It feels absolutely essential. Obviously, the changes to VOL. 2 are nowhere near as extensive, possibly limited to some extensions to the Road to Salinas sequence which helps immeasurably to give it the right kind of Peckinpah vibe. Naturally removed from this version are the epilogue to Part 1 and prologue to Part 2 since in this context they serve no real purpose anymore. They’re not needed but in a nitpicky way I’ll say that I honestly miss the glimpses of other passengers with their own samurai swords on the Air O flight as The Bride jets towards Tokyo. Of course, there is only one final crawl, now longer in order to account for everything in the two halves. I suspect there may be a few small differences here and there I’m missing—although it looked to me that the blinking shot where we go back to color from black & white is no longer there since that change doesn’t need to happen. How’s that for anal?
As forever rewatchable as it might be, KILL BILL is a film that makes heavy analysis somewhat daunting (and I can’t even bring myself to try doing it at the moment) since so much of it seems to be a part of its maker’s own head and for all I know may even be reflected in a number of the films he screened over the past month, maybe even BLUME IN LOVE for all I know, at the New Beverly (Needless to say, the credit during the end crawl for the theater we were seeing the film in and its late owner Sherman Torgan received a round of applause as well). You could almost say that every film he has ever loved is reflected in his movies in one way or another. It’s absolutely clear how much he loves putting together something like the Pai Mei training sequence and getting to use all those zooms as if making his own little 70s kung fu movie but he never loses his own film in all that. Like most other people I’d probably love it if the Pai Mei section were twenty minutes longer but Tarantino winds up ending the sequence before we expect, taking what seems to be both tribute and character background and suddenly stunning us with actual plot when we go back to the present, a subtle example of how good a screenwriter he really is beyond all the dialogue everyone loves that is both underappreciated and totally undeniable. The Hattori Hanzo section starts off with The Bride saying the simple word “Domo” to the man, with him not knowing this is anything other than a good-looking American tourist. At the end of the sequence, when she has earned his full respect, The Bride leaves him with the exact same word. What starts out as something simple turns out to have great meaning behind it but ultimately things circle back to find the depth in that simplicity. Once when he was introducing films at the Alamo Drafthouse Tarantino stressed, “Laugh when it’s funny. Not to show that you’re superior to the movie — none of you people are superior to these movies.”
This is Uma Thurman’s greatest role and she more than lives up to it, playing every ounce of fiery passion, always keeping this larger-than-life assassin totally and completely human, even while fighting her way through the Crazy 88s, making her one final move against Elle Driver or when she looks at Bill for the last time. The Bride becomes a legend as we watch her and Uma Thurman is that legend. As Bill, when David Carradine is onscreen I can’t do anything but sit there, watching him in awe and he more than lives up to what is delivered when he finally makes his delayed appearance in the flesh. One small moment I have a fondness for is the way Carradine stands there regarding Michael Madsen during their final moment together (“So I guess, we'll... just see. Won't we?”) and it always feels to me like the actor himself is looking at him with just as much affection and admiration as Bill is regarding his brother with. And as that brother Budd the phenomenal, beyond cool Michael Madsen, looking up at that onscreen brother with those beady eyes, is maybe the most underappreciated of anyone in this film with even his tiny gestures as he mixes that nasty looking margarita infusing every fiber of his being with who this guy is. Daryl Hannah playing Elle Driver gives off an absolute coolness in that suit she wears to Budd’s trailer, an imposing ferocity as she strides down that hospital corridor whistling Bernard Herrmann and watching every second of the actress in this role feels like she’s diving off a cliff without checking to see if there’s water below—even the way she crosses her leg is somewhat hypnotizing. The film is filled with faces that Tarantino holds on with total love for his actors—Sonny Chiba’s majesty, Julie Dreyfus’s odd officiousness that turns to terror as Sofie Fatale, the unforgettable Chiaki Kuriyama as Go Go Yubari, Larry Bishop’s “Calendar time for Buddy!” Michael Parks in both those roles he plays. Lucy Liu almost feels like the one thing in the movie that dates it at all now since she feels like she was cast due to being hot in the first years of the twenty-first century, but even she brings a memorable feeling of a crumbling porcelain doll during her final moments. There are probably too many other bit players to mention--Laura Cayouette appears as the stripper Rocket who I mention mainly because I met her at a party once and with me asking lots of questions about this film and displaying my probably too-extensive knowledge she said I reminded her of a certain somebody. She was probably just being nice, but it was still pretty cool.
My own feeling now is that this is KILL BILL, this is the movie and hopefully at some point this is how it will be considered. So hopefully at some point soon that will happen. It’s at least simple as far as the film goes—do some cleaning up involving the credits, like how there’s still a Vol. 1 seen at the beginning (the title THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR is never seen on the actual film) along with any other such small fixes that are needed and the Weinsteins, presuming they have the domain over the title, should be ready to go. Re-release it. And I’m not talking about Blu-ray, I don’t care about that. Open it at the Cinerama Dome. The Ziegfeld in New York. Places like that. Let it be rediscovered. Make it an event. The film deserves it. Anyone who wants to see it deserves it. Let them be exhilarated by this love of cinema, something that as far as I’m convinced would be an absolute good. The way it should be.