Camp worship

Apr 21, 2004 at 12:00 am

I left Kill Bill Vol. 2 feeling as though I’d taken an acid trip, a barrage of images and sounds from cinema’s campy past running into its savvy, modernistic future, the two worlds colliding in my mind’s eye.

Vol. 1 came out last year, and was released last week on DVD; Vol. 2 opened last weekend at theaters. I’ve got to admit, I love these movies — separate works telling different parts of the same story, the first more violent in a tongue-in-cheek way, the second, more narrative, and together, a stunning accomplishment in film.

Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus is a tapestry of ’60s and ’70s Kung Fu and samurai flicks and campy horror and blaxploitation films, to name just a few of the obvious antecedents. The writer, director and producer calls the project his “grindhouse epic,” an homage to the B-movies he watched with his mother in cheap theaters growing up.

But the mining doesn’t stop there. For Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2 (best seen in succession), Tarantino plumbs glamour and camp from Hitchcock, Japanese animation, silent films, ’60s and ’70s television shows such as “The Green Hornet” — the list could go on forever, and nearly does at

Some Kill Bill images that won’t go away are black-and-white Psycho-esque shots of Uma Thurman driving; Darryl Hannah in her naughty nurse’s outfit, a patch over one eye, whistling while slowly walking down a hallway; and a split-screen shot of Thurman and Hannah after they’ve kicked each other to the ground in a raucous brawl.

It’s a masterful robbery, perhaps, or fetishistic worship of all in cinema that, as Tarantino would say, is “cool.” You can almost imagine him rolling around on the floor with his collection of videos, kissing them with thanks and adoration. Nonetheless, the brilliant film-obsessed director achieves with Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2 a sum greater than its parts. Moreover, he’s broken ground in what could be considered a new genre of cinema: neo-camp pop.

It helps to know the references, to grasp the fact that, hey, that blood shooting like geysers from fighters’ necks in Vol. 1 is a send-up of Japanese fight films. Or that the use of melodramatic music and extreme close-ups of characters’ eyes are knock-offs of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, most pointedly The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

But this isn’t Cinema 101. Kill Bill tastes good, offering plenty in breathtaking landscapes, exquisite Technicolor sets, sharp dialogue, righteous costumes and characters, and, best of all, plenty of surprises.

But that’s not why I love it.

In Kill Bill, the lone avenger, the warrior/victor, the fearless vanquisher of all that’s bad, is a woman, and not just any woman, a blonde. Do I, a blonde, relish what seems like the first time that a blond woman has kicked ass and not done anything stupid or wimpy or vampy in the process?


Thurman, the avenger, makes Kill Bill work, playing a sort of female reincarnation of Bruce Lee with a samurai sword, as in when she makes mincemeat of dozens and dozens of Kung Fu fighters rushing her in a Toyko restaurant, slapping men to the ground with her feet, swirling and stabbing her sword with precision.

She even wears Lee’s classic yellow-and-black-striped motorcycle/fight suit. There’s an implicit joke in comparing the actress to the man who was one of the best martial arts fighters in modern times, and certainly in cinema. Nonetheless, Thurman is a convincing Kung Fu phenom. She’s tough. Her face is the picture of ferocity and determination, sweating and bleeding and all. She punches the hell out of people. She’s lighting quick.

When she fights Vivica A. Fox in a suburban California home in the beginning of Vol. 1, her punches and kicks are palpably real. When she slams her hand into a wooden board, determined to break it, the blood is hers. And when she and Daryl Hannah beat the hell out of each other in Vol. 2, her series of high leg kicks and martial arts punches seem as real as did Lee’s (thanks in no small part to martial arts director Yuen Wo-Ping, the man behind the action in The Matrix, Crouching Tiger and dozens of groundbreaking Hong Kong flicks).

Kill Bill avoids the normal sexist plays — the boob shots, the leg shots, the transparent seduction — except once, when Thurman’s stomach is a focal point. Don’t get me wrong, — Thurman is sexy in Kill Bill. But like her female co-stars, she’s never forced to be a tramp, a femme fatale, a damsel in distress. It’s sad that this is remarkable, but, in Hollywood, it is.

From a feminist point of view, it’s also hard not to get a kick out of the fact that Thurman’s character, The Bride, is sparked into her fatal rage by her maternal fury: She’s avenging the loss of her baby. That’s the premise. All major fight scenes take place between women who only show mercy when a child is in danger.

The movie began filming just months after Thurman, Tarantino’s professed muse, gave birth to her own child, which might explain the actress’ convincing cries when her character discovers she’s lost her baby.

Maybe it’s silly to think that Kill Bill’s vicious, cold-hearted assassins have soft spots for kids. But it couldn’t be sillier than believing that these beautiful Americans are world-class Kung Fu/Samurai warriors fighting in the western United States and in Tokyo, now could it?

What’s the difference between Vols. 1 and 2? Vol. 1 is more violent, there’s more bloodshed, and the sound track is amazing. Vol. 2 is more human, there’s more dialogue, for better or for worse, and the sound track has some soft, even corny, spots.

And Bill has a face in Vol. 2, after appearing in Vol. 1 as a Charlie figure, a la “Charlie’s Angels” or No. 1 from the James Bond flicks. He was shown waist down, stroking a sword, and calling his assassin on her cell phone.

In Vol. 2, David Carradine, of the 1970s “Kung Fu” television series, is introduced as Bill. It’s almost as if he’s been in character ever since his show and has appeared from nowhere to spout ancient wisdoms in broken English.

What will Tarantino do next? Obviously, he’s got a thing for tough women and mass slaughter. In Reservoir Dogs, he redefined cinematic violence with a film that didn’t let any shot, any cut, go unfelt. In Pulp Fiction, he again pushed the boundaries, this time flexing his pop-cinema muscle and adding non sequitur dialogue. (He also wrote Natural Born Killers and True Romance, other works in exquisite and romantic violence.) With Jackie Brown, Tarantino paraded die-hard fans into the theaters to pay respect to one of his greatest influences, 1970s blaxploitation films.

Kill Bill melds themes Tarantino has played with before, but this time, nails dead on. The two films are a raucous rollercoaster, about the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater in ages, and one of the only times in recent memory that I’ve been left hungry for more.

Lisa Collins is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]