Not since Stanley Kubrick defused psychological interpretations of his adaptation of The Shining—by defining it as simply a ghost story—has a director so decisively discouraged theoretical analysis of an intriguing work. Yet, Quentin Tarantino has preempted similar inquiries with respect to Kill Bill by taking every opportunity to define his four-hour saga only in terms of its influences, while reducing it, without elaboration, to a singular and obvious theme of revenge. In spite of Tarantino’s recalcitrance, I’m unable to quell my suspicions that there may be more here than has been claimed.
Anyone can imitate anything; it is my sense that Kill Bill is more than an imitation, revision or reconsideration of Seventies grindhouse and western cinema. And it contains too many cues that it is more than “simply” a sprawling homage or the story of an angry woman’s revenge.
Let’s be honest. The young viewers who will be most influenced by Kill Bill won’t care, initially at least, that a particular scene “refers” to Dressed to Kill or that the character Pai Mei is an artifact from Shaw Brothers films (and before that, a historical figure); if they are in the midst of that miraculous courtship that viewers enjoy with films that rapture the imagination, they will naturally ask themselves the same questions Tarantino, as an impressionable youth, likely asked himself about the works that took his breath away: Why do I like it? What is this film about? What drives my favorite characters? Is there some less-than-obvious meaning here to be gleaned? In addition to those questions, one I sometimes ask myself when faced with a work this ambitious—and in some mysterious way obsessive—is, Why was it so important to this director to tell this story?
Tarantino is a gracious filmmaker in that he borrows to honor and bestow appreciation upon the antecedents he reveres. But certainty he has his own intelligence, his own obsessions and his own aspirations. No director creates new works only to call attention to old works. One would imagine that Tarantino, in Kill Bill, aspires not only to address film buffs who came of age in the Seventies but also to mesmerize the younger viewers who, statistics inform us, are the overwhelming consumers of contemporary cinema. For those viewers, Kill Bill will have to—and I think does—stand erect without the aid of a cane.
I confess my notions about Kill Bill are strange. But the film itself is strange. Kill Bill has been described—not only by critics but by co-creator Uma Thurman—as a story of revenge and redemption. The characters are eccentric and Tarantino takes pains to differentiate them. He shows us many things we need not see in order to be thrilled by this work; for example, the disturbing childhood and ruthless ascent of Rishi O-ren, miniature biographies of tertiary characters, and the failure and dissipation of Budd. Tarantino intrudes upon the most glorious metaphor in his work to provide the chapter on Pai Mei. It’s not initially obvious why such flashbacks are crucial, or sequenced as they are, if Kill Bill is little more than the story of a furious woman exacting justice against five individuals who tried to take her life. A story that simple should not require twenty minutes more to relay than the restored Lawrence of Arabia.
What about this vital question of redemption?
Although frequently disputed, the view of Kill Bill as a story of redemption is pervasive. Even that it is presumed enough to be contested is indication enough that it is strongly implied. We are told at the outset that the film is about “vengeance” and the narrative clings faithfully to the presumption that Beatrix’s journey is the quest for a fair reckoning that manages, for many viewers, to acquire murky features of redemption. But how does it?
Let us recall that prior to the massacre, Beatrix concludes she no longer wishes to participate in professional killing or remain in the company of those who do. But there is cause to question whether her change of heart represents renunciation in any moral sense. Beatrix does not claim to be motivated by remorse, regret or shame. As is made explicitly clear in a flashback, her determination to stop killing is formed concurrently with her discovery of her pregnancy. This new concern suggests that she has replaced an old preference with a new preference produced by a cause other than spiritual epiphany. She terminates her assignment not because she feels it’s morally repulsive to kill another human being for money, but because she does not wish harm to come to herself or her unborn child. Although she might seem righteous, most cultures do not consider it extraordinary to demonstrate kindness towards one’s self or one’s own child. Sincere compassion regards all life as precious and does not distinguish between the stranger one is paid to execute and the child one carries. If a thing is wrong when done to one’s relative, it is wrong when done to a stranger or adversary. Although Beatrix experiences a change of heart about what degree of risk she is willing to assume, her transformation is produced by a desire for self-preservation rather than a vexed conscience or the arousal of her deepest moral impulses.
Her escape to El Paso is a private decision that leads inadvertently to the appearance of a moral transformation that is never authenticated even when there is ample opportunity within the narrative for it to be confirmed. Beatrix has made a rational, not a spiritual, decision. Later, once animated by the desire for retaliation, she presumes murder of her assailants is the appropriate punishment for what she has suffered. During this quest to exact justice, many others are killed as well. Granted, this is murder motivated by comprehensible rage rather than profit; but it is still murder.
One who ruminates on this question of whether Beatrix is redeemed or not must eventually contend with this fundamental hypocrisy: How can vengeance ever be the path to redemption, particularly when she who seeks redemption is as guilty of the crimes for which she seeks redemption as those who she seeks redemption against? A murderess who expresses no contrition for prior misdeeds is not redeemed by murdering less scrupulous murderers while remaining indifferent to the transformation of herself.
Still, a vast number of spectators have clearly referred to Kill Bill as a story of vengeance and redemption.
A Google search on the terms Kill Bill and redemption returns 218,000 results. Here is a random sampling: Ely Portillo, editor-in-chief of Silver Chips Online describes Kill Bill as the “Bride’s epic saga of revenge and redemption.” Matt Cale at Ruthless Reviews calls it a story of redemption. Subhas K. Jha of Now Running refers to the film as including “gratuitous self-redemption.” Woodrow Bogucki of Hybrid Cinema writes of Vol. 2, “The character and the quest remain the same, but stylistically this movie is very different from its predecessor. Gone are the themes of honor and revenge, and redemption is in… sort of.” Don Kaye of Raw Story writes:
But when taken as a whole, the story of the Bride (Uma Thurman) and her quest for revenge becomes a surprisingly bittersweet tale, in its own twisted way, of redemption and responsibility. We see plenty of redemption-themed movies emanating from Hollywood, but not one in which the protagonist massacres dozens of people and more or less gets away with it.
Zach Campbell, essayist at 24FPS, writes:
“For starters, Kill Bill confirms that Tarantino is a moralist. He’s always setting up audience sympathies and letting them groove on protagonists’ vindication, redemption, and salvation.”
A Christian group called Ransom Fellowship poses on its Web site the following “Question for Discussion and Reflection”: In an interview on the DVD, Uma Thurman calls Kill Bill a movie about “justice and redemption.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
San Diego News Notes feature “Talk About Movies” is a monthly disagreement between critics Ernie Grimm and Matthew Lickona. Lickona argues that “Beatrix is redeemed by an act of love. She denies what she believes is her nature as a killer to go and be miserable in El Paso and give her daughter a clean slate.”
Grimm disagrees: “But it’s a particular act of love. It’s natural, not supernatural. She’s not laying down her life for a stranger, she’s pregnant … Beatrix continues to live by the sword. If it’s a redemption story, it’s only 5% redemption. The other 95% is revenge.”
Lickona counters: “For all the talk of swords, nobody dies by the sword. Bud [sic] dies because he tries to leave the life of penance he’s given himself. Elle loses because of her impiety—it cost her an eye and made her vulnerable. And Bill is treacherous.”
In an exhaustive and excellent analysis for Jump Cut, author Aaron Anderson writes:
“…the film itself is not simply a revenge drama, but also a story of redemption. The only way that Kiddo can deserve a normal life is to pay penance for her own past life. This penance, however, takes the form of more violent actions, involving both Kiddo’s ability to inflict harm upon others as well as her ability to endure pain and injury herself.”
These examples illustrate that a tendency to read Kill Bill as a story of “redemption,” in whole or in part, appears to be pervasive. Such interpretations that wish to elevate the work on moral grounds, however, must acknowledge that Beatrix is motivated by anger to undertake a task that is voluntary, because it gratifies a private need for retribution and, unbeknownst to her, ultimately to retrieve what belongs to her. In fact, the withholding from Beatrix of the knowledge that her child, BB, is alive only complicates any effort to argue that she undertakes her task for any reason other than visceral satisfaction. If anything, a conventional analysis of this narrative might lead one to conclude that Kill Bill, like Unforgiven, is the story of a protagonist who is characterized not by change but rather by a failure to actualize a professed change.
For these reasons I believe redemption has been forced upon the climax by wishful observers who impute a transformation to the character of Beatrix that is not demonstrated if the film is taken literally. Yet no one asserting this redemption has attempted to argue that Kill Bill should be assessed in any other way. Nevertheless, I count myself among those who concede that, when all is said and done, there is this sense that some important evolution has transpired within the character of Beatrix.
Opening the door
Critics have not probed deeply enough to build an argument for Kill Bill as a story of redemption. One solution, I believe, is to view the film as an allegory in which Beatrix is in combat not with literal enemies but external manifestations of a turmoil that rages within her own psyche: a task she undertakes in order to achieve something very specific.
This opens the door to some interesting possibilities. One could, for example, contemplate Kill Bill as a cinematic allegory in which a post-modern heroine confronts oppressive archetypes, or a feminist allegory in which Beatrix wages war against undesirable aspects of classic female conditioning. However, the allegorical interpretation that intrigues me the most is directly connected to the film’s subterranean immersion in Zen Buddhism, the Code of the Samurai and kung-fu. Such an interpretation views Kill Bill specifically through the lens of the Buddhist philosophy that lingers in its central nervous system, offering the possibility that Beatrix’s quest is an allegory about spiritual transformation and the pursuit of enlightenment. Kill Bill—in keeping with the Zen doctrine that forms the historical basis for its samurai and kung fu themes—is translated as the story of a warrior-heroine who acquires the mythological Sword of Wisdom to overcome five internal enemies (known as the Five Poisons) that separate her from her Buddha Nature.
The heroine of Kill Bill dismantles a false Self she has outgrown in order to reconstitute, or reunite with, her authentic, pre-conditioned Self. She transcends a legacy of violence and delusion to become reacquainted with her innate nature. In this way, Kill Bill might be engaged rather as Little Buddha. When Bertolucci’s Buddha confronts external adversaries, he is doing battle with outward manifestations of internal demons such as self-doubt, fear, desire and temptation. As he dispatches them, he transforms himself incrementally. When these adversaries are entirely vanquished, the viewer is to understand Buddha is enlightened. Perhaps when Beatrix wages battle against antagonists she is in a life-and-death struggle with aspects of herself that she recognizes no longer serve her best interests. Viewed in this way, most traces of contradiction within the work vanish. Kill Bill becomes a sovereign and vastly meaningful work—one that could earnestly be said to promote the theme of redemption.
Another advantage to an allegorical reading is that other baffling aspects of the work become more decipherable. It makes sense that so much time is devoted to exposing the temperament, idiosyncrasies and preferences of the other assassins in order that we understand what they represent. Pai Mei’s insistence that Beatrix learn to defeat enemies no further than three inches from her chest ceases to be a contrivance and becomes symbolic and poetic. A rational reason for the de-escalation of action scenes emerges, as does a sensible explanation for Tarantino’s refusal to divulge Beatrix’s name until a particular moment late in the narrative. We gain greater insight into the final dialogue between Bill and Beatrix. Metaphors such as Beatrix’s entombment and Bill’s exploding heart become profound and thematically symmetrical.
Zen Buddhist allegory
“Kill whoever stands in thy way, even if that be Lord God, or Buddha Himself. This truth lies at the heart of the art of combat.”
—Hattori Hanzo, Kill Bill
“Zen proverb says, ’Let go over a cliff, die completely, and then come back to life—after that you cannot be deceived.”
—Master Yuanwu, Zen Essence
Let’s take a second look at Kill Bill. Rather than engage it as a literal story of vengeance, let’s read it is a fable about transformation. The omnipresence of Bushido (The Way of the Sword), samurai and kung-fu precepts, references and themes in Kill Bill would appear to provide an opportunity to examine the film in this way; for, these disciplines are predicated on Zen Buddhism. Someone approaching this film from a Buddhist perspective will discern Zen in the teachings of Hattori Hanzo and Pai Mei, identify the significance of references to the Shaolin Monastery in Bill’s anecdote about Pai Mei, and perhaps notice the misapplication of the teachings by Bill. Whereas it may seem to Westerners almost perverse to test a Zen interpretation on a work like Kill Bill, to someone growing up in Japan, China, or Tibet, it may seem an irresistible or perhaps even an obvious avenue of approach.
Buddhism is a rather complex religion (or philosophy), but at its most elemental offers a schematic (path) whereby individuals can acquire wisdom and compassion in order to permanently extinguish the internal hindrances that lead to suffering. This process usually occurs under the purview of a Master, who gives his student a new name and is regarded as the practitioner’s spiritual father. Wisdom, in Buddhism, is represented by a figure called Manjushri, who wields the Sword of Wisdom. Symbolically, the practitioner picks up the Sword of Wisdom and uses it to cut the roots of interior delusions that obscure a correct apprehension of reality. As wisdom replaces ignorance, the practitioner cleanses the karma accumulated from the commission of past negative deeds, becomes more virtuous, and acquires compassion for the suffering of others.
Although Buddhism is a religion of non-violence, during later stages of the path (the Tantric stage) the practitioner calls upon the so-called “wrathful deities” to engage five inner enemies—pride, anger, doubt, ignorance and attachment—in a more aggressive way. One might even call this process violent, although it occurs largely within the practitioner’s mind and involves visualizations, mantras and prostrations. When these inner enemies are destroyed and replaced by the attributes which are their direct opposites, the practitioner is, or is on the verge of becoming, an enlightened being liberated from suffering—a Buddha. This is not, as one might presume, a process of adding to the personality but stripping away a lifetime of conditioning; in other words, it is about returning to a more innocent state of existence. Thus, it is common in Buddhist texts to encounter the child as a metaphor for enlightenment.
If we were to invent an allegory about this process, it could conceivably begin like this:
Once upon a time there was a yellow-haired Samurai warrior. Although skilled, she fell under the influence of a charismatic but corrupt Master named Bill. He accepted her as his disciple, remade her in his own image and gave her a new name: “Black Mamba.” He conditioned the warrior to apply her skills to evil rather than virtuous purposes. One day the warrior realized she was pregnant by her Master. In order to protect the life of the child and escape the hazards that surrounded her, the warrior fled the tutelage of her Master. She shed her old identity and adopted a new one. She was known as “The Bride.”
Let’s pause here. This is, of course, a retelling of Kill Bill. Beatrix, upon acquiring Bill as her Master and spiritual father, is bestowed the name Black Mamba. Upon recognizing that he has guided her towards rather than away from suffering, she flees and renames herself Arlene Machiavelli. That Beatrix chooses to name herself after the Italian statesman whose name is synonymous with manipulation and deception engineered to retain mastery over others and promote private aspirations is not only amusing; it is a strong indication that her egotistical desires persist. But her hopes for an idyllic existence are dashed when Bill and his four accomplices commit mass murder at her wedding rehearsal and leave Beatrix in a coma. During her convalescence she becomes nameless; she is Jane Doe and The Bride. Tarantino intentionally withholds from the audience her true name until he reveals it late in the narrative, even though there is no logical, dramatic reason for him to do so.
However, these cosmetic attempts to rectify her past and establish a more traditional present did not lead to sincere internal transformation. Because the warrior failed to sever the root of the Five Poisons, they reappeared to cause her even worse suffering.
The Five Poisons: “I have vermin to kill”
The Five Poisons are the internal enemies that one must overcome in order to transform the self and apprehend reality correctly. Although there are minor variations in explications of the Five Poisons in Buddhist texts, they are generally enumerated as Pride, Jealousy (or Jealous Anger), Doubt (i.e., Faithlessness), Ignorance and Attachment. These Poisons are considered to be the fundamental causes of human suffering. To permanently escape the misery of conditioned existence, the spiritual warrior must sever these poisons at the root. When so accomplished, the manacles that bind her to the misery of conditioned existence are extinguished, and the self is liberated from these contaminating forces. Once emancipated from the poisons, the practitioner is said to be enlightened.
In Kill Bill, let us imagine that the poisons that stand between Beatrix and the recovery of her Buddha Nature are embodied principally by the five assassins: O-ren Ishii is the embodiment of Pride; Vernita Green is the embodiment of Jealous Anger; Budd is the embodiment of Doubt; Elle Driver is the embodiment of Ignorance; and Bill is the embodiment of Attachment. In the context of allegory, Beatrix’s adversaries are approximate representations of psychological hindrances that act as direct catalysts for her own transformation.
This notion that assassins are embodiments of what are described in Buddhism as the Five Poisons merits explanation. First, it is valuable to establish why the poisons need to be eradicated and why the decision to do so is considered momentous in spiritual training.
“When the Five Poisons abide in you, that is the demon of mind… Dharma practitioners must cut off the root of the Five Poisons… [Ignorance] causes people to suffer greatly. [Doubt] causes people to behave like animals… Pride causes people to have many enemies, even if their other qualities are untainted. Attachment causes people to go through periods of great elation and depression so that they are unable to control themselves. Jealousy causes people to have strong ambition and to delight in suspicion. Do not let yourself be swayed by these Five Poisons.”
—Padmasambhava, The Path of Heroes
The determination to extinguish the Five Poisons, writes Zen Reverend Koho Zenji, “may be regarded as the turning point of self or as a fundamental reform in our life. All religions seek this self-denial. It is a subjective awakening to the fact that…only when we rid ourselves of the false self can we find our True Self.”
The specific grounds upon which we might impute that the five primary opponents of Beatrix may represent these poisons will be explained as we proceed. What is clear is that Tarantino carefully establishes discernible differences among the assassins. They are characterized by different temperaments, desires, lifestyles and traits. Some assassins are more painstakingly contoured than others. The depth with which they are developed, as well as their psychological complexity, correlates approximately to the order in which they are confronted and the degree of ingenuity required of Beatrix to defeat them. Vernita Green and O-ren evoke fewer contradictions than Budd, Elle and Bill. This, it will be argued, is because Green and O-ren are representations of gross concepts, whereas Budd, Elle and Bill are representations of subtle concepts.
The Five Poisons, angered by what they perceived to be the warrior’s impertinence, betrayal and arrogance, one day hunted her down and harmed her more than she had ever been harmed before. An ordinary person could not have survived. Yet, having begun—though barely—on the path of liberation, the obstinate warrior was granted temporary immunity from the cycle of death and, after spending four years in meditative stillness, awoke one day with a clear and focused mind. She was determined once and for all to face directly and extinguish the Five Poisons that led her astray, attempted to take her life, and apparently destroyed the life of her unborn child.
In accord with the teachings set forth by the revered Bodhisattva Manjushri—known as the Lord of Wisdom—the samurai warrior set out to acquire the Sword of Wisdom which, according to scripture, is necessary to slay the Five Poisons. She was deemed by the custodian of the sword to be a warrior worthy of wielding the finest sword ever made. Once having acquired Manjushri’s Sword of Wisdom, the samurai warrior then set out to eradicate the poisons at the root.
The samurai warrior and the Way of the Sword
“The ego—which seeks self-preservation as though that were important—is here destroyed.”
—Winston L. King, Zen & The Way of the Sword
Many excellent volumes excavate the fundamental link between Samurai principles and the Zen Buddhism that is their foundation. Winston L. King, author of Zen & The Way of the Sword, assures his readers that “Zen was far and away the preeminent samurai religion.” King quotes D. T. Suzuki to confirm that “Zen is indeed the religion of the samurai warrior.”
Beatrix is described on several occasions as a “Warrior” and, as such, must understand that the samurai sword, or katana, is not to be used trivially or for selfish purposes. One who wields the katana for personal gratification alone is doomed to fail. Writes Suzuki, “The swordsman’s mind must be kept entirely free from selfish affects and intellectual calculations so that the ’original institution’ is ready to work at its best.” King describes the correct mental disposition of the warrior as the “state of no-mind-ness.”
Inversely, the Way of the Sword can also function as a vehicle to spiritual realization.
Invoking Suzuki, King writes, “The owner and user of the sword ’ought to be a spiritual [woman], not an agent of brutality. [Her] mind ought to be at one with the soul which animates the cold steel.” “The sword,” writes Suzuki in Zen and the Japanese Culture, “is an inauspicious instrument to kill in some unavoidable circumstances. When it is used, therefore, it ought to be the sword that gives life and not the sword that kills” (emphasis added). Furthermore, Suzuki insists that “swordsmanship is, after all, not the art of killing; it consists in disciplining oneself as a moral and spiritual and philosophical being.”
Specifically, the samurai gains mastery of the sword while eradicating the ego and realizing the concept of No Self. Writes Suzuki, “The sword, therefore, is to be an instrument to kill the ego, which is the root of all quarrels and fighting.” Yamaoka Tesshu, a samurai warrior and the father of the Mind-Sword School, maintained that the warrior’s primary adversary was not external but rather “the ordinary ego-ridden consciousness.” Furthermore, “as I recalled my previous notions of skillfulness and ineptness, fighting and no fighting, I realized that these dichotomies have nothing to do with the opponent; all these things are creations of one’s mind. If there is self, there is an enemy; if there is no self there is no enemy.” This view of the adversary as a projection of ego is widespread in samurai writings. Thus, it becomes less exotic to imagine that an epic of a samurai warrior might be interpretable as an allegory in which opponents are external manifestations of psychic hindrances. By definition, any story about a samurai warrior must have spiritual dimensions, and allegory is one of the few avenues of approach available to tell such stories.
Neither kung-fu nor the Way of the Sword can exist without Zen, nor are these disciplines properly mastered without subduing the ego. This principle, rendered indirectly in Kill Bill, is dealt with explicitly in The Last Samurai. One who makes this connection between No-Self, the extinction of ego, and the awakening of a fearlessness that results in extravagant feats will note how Tarantino sutures a recollection of Pai Mei’s attempt to annihilate Beatrix’s ego to her escape from the interred casket. Pai Mei plants seeds during training that ripen when she faces her own death directly, following what appears to be her instantaneous comprehension and application of his teachings.
The samurai warrior hunted the Five Poisons in descending order, from the most conspicuous to the more entrenched and pernicious. Her pride and jealousy were gross distortions; therefore, Pride and Jealous Anger were easier to locate and destroy than the more deeply rooted and subtle poisons such as Doubt, Ignorance and Attachment.
Pride, naturally, was the easiest of the Poisons to locate, and—because Pride’s opinion of her own skills inflated—easy to defeat.
Tarantino gives viewers a sense of O-ren Ishii as prideful: of having an inflated opinion of her self, her power, her heritage, her authority, and especially, of developing a reputation that exceeds her skill. To compensate for these defects, she surrounds herself with a personal army of subordinates and equally pompous protégés who insulate her from having to demonstrate her talents. Although O-ren overcame extraordinary impediments to rise to underworld prominence, in her present incarnation she is all style and no substance. Beatrix herself remarks in the narration that O-ren is “the easiest to find.” When forced to fight her own battle, O-ren is no contest for Beatrix; indeed, the encounter is so asymmetrical it is almost painful to watch because of the dichotomy between O-ren’s reputation and her inability to put up a fight. None of the other assassins evokes this quality of pride.
Anger was next. Anger attempted to escape demise by distracting the warrior by issuing a stream of grievances produced by her remembrance of petty slights.
Vernita Green is the assassin about whom we learn the least. But she does express jealousy and bitterness. The poison of jealousy is sometimes translated simply as “hatred” or “jealous anger,” although anger is a component in nearly all of the poisons. Her last name and the color scheme of her house—both inside and out—is a possible clue that she signifies Jealousy. The engagement between Green and Beatrix has the qualities of a dirty street fight, and personal resentments play a role in the way they speak to each other and the ferocity and underhandedness of the combat. The word “bitch” is exchanged between them like a mantra. Much of Green’s conversation with Beatrix is focused on recollections of what Green perceives to be past slights and injustices (i.e., a quarrel over the bestowal of code names and who Bill believes is more proficient with blades). This encounter is the nastiest and least ritualistic. More than any other encounter, this one provokes a demonstration of anger in Beatrix, whose fighting style in other sequences is more formal, efficient and detached.
Next, the warrior progressed to the more complex delusions of Doubt, Ignorance and Attachment. Doubt was a slovenly but cunning enemy who, even more than the other poisons, resorted to unchivalrous and underhanded means to subdue the warrior. He tied her up and buried her alive.
“Save me from Doubt, that terrible ghost…
Who harms my yearning for conviction,
Who murders my liberation”
—First Dalia Lama Gedun Drub
Budd is characterized by listlessness, indecision, apathy, irresponsibility, alcoholism, uncertainty and avarice. His code name, SideWinder, evokes restless drifting rather than forward movement. When queried by Bill regarding Beatrix, Budd cannot form a firm opinion or answer to anything. He contradicts himself and even evokes suicidal ideation by contemplating the possibility that he ought to die, although he turns out not to believe this at all. Tarantino even bothers to show us in some detail that he is suspended indefinitely from his job as a “bouncer at a titty bar” for tardiness and, indeed, Budd appears indifferent that he is. Although ostensibly trained to be a warrior, when challenged by Beatrix, he abandons all semblance of propriety and resorts to what can only be described as cravenly torture. He does not trust his skills enough to even pretend to observe the conventional rules of engagement. Elle Driver later tells Budd to his face that his slothful and self-destructive lifestyle renders him a disgrace to the Code of the Warrior. Lastly, it is as a direct result of Budd’s internment of Beatrix that she must directly realize and implement the wisdom teachings of Pai Mei. In doing so she overcomes her own doubt about their legitimacy, usefulness and ability to implement them when facing death. It is in this pivotal sequence that the suffering she endured to acquire his teachings bears fruit. Thus, she overpowers her own doubt (or faithlessness) immediately before Budd—its allegorical embodiment—is subjugated by the Black Mamba.
This pivotal sequence, and the revelatory flashback that bifurcates it, could conceivably be viewed as the point in the narrative at which Beatrix acquires the final knowledge or direct realization necessary to complete the process of enlightenment. The term “direct realization” is frequently referenced in Buddhist texts. It refers, in this instance, to a delayed but instantaneous internalization of a prior teaching. The teacher, who is often deceased, manifests to the pupil in such a way that knowledge is transmitted to the mind of the pupil who, in these stories, is in urgent need of the teaching. This realization, sometimes called a transmission, is Kill Bill’s second major plot point, and the moment of transformation comes about when Beatrix recalls and actualizes obscure teachings passed to her by kung-fu master Pai Mei. This sequence is entitled “OK Pai Mei, Here I Come” on the DVD version, a designation that suggests not merely that the flashback is exposition intended for the audience, but that Beatrix herself has experienced its contents directly as a transmission.
The warrior was now interred and alone with her True Enemy: Herself. She lay beneath the earth, trapped there with the Poison called Doubt. Recollecting the teachings of kung-fu Master Pai Mei, who had replaced the corrupt Bill as her spiritual guardian, she recalled the link between No Self (egolessness) and the Fearlessness that is the antidote to Doubt. Realizing these teachings directly, she conquered doubt and applied them successfully to escape the Lord of Death.
The wisdom of Pai Mei and the concept of No-Self
Pai Mei is a master of kung-fu, and he teaches Beatrix far more than how to break a piece of wood. Many readers may not be familiar with the origins of kung-fu. According to the Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, “Today many people—including Westerners—associate the Shaolin monastery with the practice of kung-fu, a form of ch’i-kung that is often misunderstood as a combat sport though it was originally a form of spiritual training. According to legend, kung-fu was developed by Buddhist monks of Shaolin monastery.” Close observers may recall that Bill’s anecdote about Pai Mei concerns the crotchety sage’s encounter with a Shaolin monk. The teachings of Pai Mei are Zen teachings, unless Pai Mei is teaching a kind of kung-fu that no one else has ever taught. The kentsui or “tongs and hammer” approach Pai Mei employs to train Beatrix is “not for the faint-hearted. This frequently harsh-seeming way of training is, however, an expression of great compassion on the part of the master, who through it helps his students to realize their deepest potential and to progress as far as it is possible for them on the path to awakening.”
The histories of the martial arts, the samurai, and Zen Buddhism have been inextricably linked for centuries. Unless the mind is as fit as the body, practice of a discipline—be it Kung Fu, Bushido or The Code of the Samurai—is corrupted by ego. The martial arts are psychological disciplines that lead gradually to the attainment of physical mastery, which is why martial artists must obey behavioral and ethical precepts. In order to perfect a martial art—and this point is illustrated by Pai Mei—one must extinguish the ego before perfecting the consciousness that swings the blade or pierces wood. Internal change is as much a prerequisite for physical mastery as it is for Enlightenment. That is why it is necessary for Beatrix to suffer such humiliation in order to acquire Pai Mei’s wisdom—so that she recognizes it is less painful to divest of rather than cling to attachment to self, or ego. The physical suffering she endures is an external manifestation of a process that is predominantly psychological.
What, specifically, does Pai Mei impart to Beatrix once he replaces the corrupt Bill as her True Master? The nasty and hilarious sarcasm of Pai Mei may obscure the practical relevance of his harsh lessons. During their first encounter, Pai Mei savages Beatrix. In this scene, and the first lesson that follows, Pai Mei locates within her the residue of the Five Poisons and takes every opportunity to fling them back in her face:
Pride: “Your Mandarin is terrible… You bray like an ass.” “I will communicate with you like I would a dog.” “Do you think you are my match?” “Your swordsmanship is amateur at best… Your so called kung-fu is really quite pathetic.” “Compared to me you’re as helpless as a worm fighting an eagle.”
Anger: “Your anger amuses me.”
Doubt: “The wood should fear your hand—not the other way around. No wonder you can’t do it—you acquiesce to defeat before you even begin.”
Ignorance: “You must be stupid, so stupid.” “I asked you to demonstrate what you know, and you did: not a goddamned thing!”
Attachment (to the concept of a “Self”): “[Your arm is] my arm now. I can do what I please.” “Since your arm belongs to me I want it strong.”
By eroding Beatrix’s self-concept, Pai Mei endeavors to lead Beatrix to question assumptions about her attachment to beliefs about herself—produced by the Five Poisons of ego—which she has not yet realized are impediments to spiritual evolution. The process of eradicating the poisons is difficult for most students to achieve quickly, even under the guidance of an accomplished master. But, clearly, Pai Mei labors incessantly to plant the seeds of transformation.
The physical skill Pai Mei most obsessively wishes Beatrix to master in phase one of the training is a maneuver used to defeat an enemy no further away than three inches. Practically speaking, no competent martial artist should ever permit an adversary to get this close. So what is Pai Mei really getting at? What enemies are so close? Enemies that reside within are so close. The Five Poisons are so close.
Later, when Beatrix finds it necessary to actualize this technique—in Kill Bill’s most vital and glorious metaphor—it is not against an external adversary but an existential one. She is trapped alone with herself in her grave. Just as the Pai Mei sequence is about his efforts to extinguish Beatrix’s doubt that she can master the technique, her adversary in the coffin is the internal enemy of Doubt. Doubt (Budd) put her there. Beatrix employs Pai Mei’s technique in the service of a metaphor about overcoming doubt in order to conquer a fear of death, of separateness, and it is the implementation of this technique that leads to Beatrix’s rebirth and literal re-emergence from the earth. This is a classic illustration of enlightenment: to overcome inner defilements in order to escape the cycle of birth and death, also known as the cycle of suffering, or samsara. It is in this sequence that Beatrix overcomes Doubt; this is why it becomes intriguing rather than disappointing that Beatrix does not personally disembowel Budd. In allegorical terms she has already extinguished Doubt, and in so doing sets the karmic seeds of both Budd’s and Elle’s destruction into motion.
What indications are there that Elle Driver represents Ignorance? Elle Driver would seem to represent ignorance based on gross characterization and the conspicuous—almost textbook—symbolism it accompanies. It’s important to establish here that in Buddhism ignorance—the antipode of wisdom—does not mean stupidity or lack of intellect, but describes a fundamental defect in the ability to perceive reality, to establish enlightened priorities, and—particularly—to comprehend the intricacies of karmic consequence.
Pabongka Rinpoche, in his famous Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, describes ignorance as “not knowing, not seeing, not understanding… Ignorance is like blindness—not seeing the nature or mode of existence of something: the [causes of suffering], cause and effect… Ignorance is the root of all delusions.” Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in Understanding the Mind enumerates a twofold division of ignorance:
1. Ignorance of actions and their effects
2. Ignorance of emptiness
Gyatso draws from the Compendium of Abhidharma for a complete definition:
“A mental factor that is confused about the nature of an object and that functions to induce wrong awareness, doubt, and other delusions… For example, if we mistake a toy snake for a real snake we have an ignorance of the nature of that toy snake, and in dependence upon this we develop a wrong awareness that apprehends a real snake.” (198)
Parenthetically, perhaps the most frequently used illustration in all of Buddhist literature for the poison of ignorance is the proverbial coil of rope mistaken for a snake. Elle Driver mistakes a snake that could be deadly to her for a snake that is only deadly to Budd. Once the snake kills Budd, it doesn’t much concern her that it is still loose in the trailer; once she acquires the sword, she ignores the snake.
As this conceptualization of ignorance is rather complex to convey through the embodiment of a character, Elle Driver is transformed into a caricatured representation of ignorance—the metaphor of blindness is a classic illustration of ignorance in Buddhist parables. This inability to see is a metaphor for distortions created in the mind by a flood of transient desires, wants, hatreds, vendettas, and preoccupations that obscure wisdom. Elle Driver’s impulsiveness, idiosyncrasies, greed and fixation on gratification of short-term desires to the exclusion of considering long-term consequences are emblematic of ignorance. A few references to her being a blonde from California (code name: California Mountain Snake) are tossed in lest we miss this point. Furthermore, the circumstances by which Elle Driver became blind in one eye reveal that, when given the opportunity to overcome her ignorance, she rebelled against Pai Mei, an embodiment of Wisdom. Elle Driver not only lost her eye, but lost it when she mistook a wise master for a “miserable old fool” whose objective was to teach Elle Driver how to overcome an absurdly distended ego.
Ignorance, considered the Mother of all delusions because it gives rise to all the other poisons, is the most important and difficult of the five to eradicate. (Intriguingly, Thurman refers in the Vol. 2 Making Of featurette to Elle Driver—the “mother”—rather than Bill—the “father”—as her “arch nemesis.”) It is essential that Beatrix cross swords with Driver directly, as she is the most malignant enemy. Gyatso writes in Understanding the Mind that one certain “method for overcoming ignorance is to rely upon the [sword-wielding] Wisdom Buddha Manjushri” (p. 201).
Poison vs. Poison
A synergistic relationship develops between the embodiments of Doubt and Ignorance.
The ingenious interplay between Doubt and Ignorance is a rumination on cause and effect. Had Doubt and Ignorance not caused Beatrix such intense suffering, she would never have engaged Doubt, and Doubt would never have come into possession of the Sword of Wisdom. Because of its value, Doubt recognizes he can profit by its sale. Ignorance, who more than any poison needs the Sword of Wisdom, is too short-sighted (blind) and indifferent to consequences to deal fairly with Doubt. And so it goes.
Having at last reconnected with the principle of No-Self, the Warrior was now able to engage her remaining enemies. Ignorance’s craving for the Sword of Wisdom was so immense that the Warrior would not have to lift a blade in order to defeat Doubt; for, Ignorance undertook this task herself, using as her weapon the calling card from the Warrior’s own wicked past—the Black Mamba.
It is Elle Driver who, in Beatrix’s stead, manifests as the conqueror of Doubt, with the Black Mamba a symbolic representation of Beatrix’s karmic intervention. It is not a signal of Beatrix’s weakness that Ignorance defeats Doubt (or, as Andy Klein puts it in his liner notes to Vol. 2, an indication that she has been cheated out of a revenge that is rightfully hers), but a presage of her evolution. She has begun to use skillful rather than gross methods to defeat internal enemies. She is wise enough to allow contiguous poisons to prey upon one another. Furthermore, in killing Budd, Elle Driver creates the cause for her own destruction (at least for those of us who presume she is bitten by the Black Mamba).
In her conclusive encounter with Beatrix—who ascends to become the guardian of her own destiny upon learning of the death of Pai Mei—Driver is blinded entirely by Pai Mei’s successful disciple and reaps the suffering caused by her failure to consider the karmic consequences of permitting her lust for the sword to obscure her reason. The “ripening” of unanticipated consequences against the ignorant (literally, in this case, one who cannot see) is a motif commonly found in Eastern parables about the effect of ignorance on karmic fruition.
By plucking out Elle’s remaining eye and leaving her alive to die by causes Elle herself set into motion, Beatrix cements a pristine karmic metaphor:
The warrior then proceeded to engage her arch nemesis, Ignorance. She caught Ignorance—who was preoccupied with her new possession—off guard. However, in the hands of Ignorance a Sword of Wisdom is merely a piece of metal. Ignorance, characterized by the inability to see reality clearly, had already lost sight in one eye. Ignorance was so distracted by her desire for the Sword of Wisdom that the warrior was able to blind Ignorance entirely before leaving her debilitated and helpless in the company of the deadly Black Mamba. Ignorance’s own evil karma would manifest as the cause of her own undoing.
Now, let us back up for a moment and examine the larger picture.
Another important consequence of an allegorical interpretation is that it reconciles a structural abnormality that some spectators find unsettling. It seems clear from the way the saga is structured that Tarantino is less concerned in Vol. 2 with satisfying the spectator’s thirst for spectacle than he is in resolving abstruse but fundamental questions about how Beatrix is made whole as a result of her quest. Essayists and critics who accept Kill Bill at face value express bewilderment at the de-escalation in the intensity of primary action sequences.
One can sense Tarantino’s uneasiness in his decision to alter the chronology in Vol. 1 so that the confrontation with Vernita Green precedes rather than follows—as it does in narrative time—the stunning Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves. Thereafter, explosive action yields to a more circumspect and verbal exploration of circumstances and events. The anticipated encounter between Beatrix and Bill has about it an air of melancholy and has been described by some as anti-climactic: it delivers, for action enthusiasts, something less than is anticipated.
This decompression is only paradoxical if the assumption persists that Kill Bill aspires first and foremost to be an action film about a vengeance that must be sated with blood. It ceases to bewilder if Kill Bill is decoded as an allegory in which one measure of Beatrix’s evolution is her propensity to explore less obvious combat strategies as she draws nearer to completion of her goal.
One way the director evokes that Beatrix’s evolution is accumulative rather than climactic is by complicating her task in such a way that the heroine must increasingly rely on attributes—wisdom, self-awareness—other than sheer determination and tactical skill. Tarantino can make this point by reducing the stark contrast and directness of her confrontations, while gradually substituting them with more intricate dynamics that beg the very question of why he elects this approach. This question, it seems to be, would invariably return us to the crucial question of what is being accomplished by Beatrix in addition to the distribution of justice. This is answered in part by the realizations that occur to her along the way. Although she has learned many techniques from Pai Mei (the True Master in the film until Beatrix ascends to replace him), it is implied by the flashback that her encounter with Budd provides her the first real opportunity to implement (realize) the teachings and inhabit the state of egolessness that is their prerequisite. This sequence inaugurates a noticeable change in the level of insight she demonstrates in her dealings with remaining adversaries.
Within the framework of Buddhist allegory, Beatrix need not execute Doubt if Ignorance can be relied upon to do so. And Beatrix need not murder Ignorance if she has acquired the wisdom to recognize that Ignorance will defeat herself. Perhaps the very fact that Beatrix can sacrifice the pleasure of exacting corporeal revenge against her three remaining nemeses is its own implication that her path is something other than a straight line.
A graduation in skillful means
There is something noteworthy about the color scheme of Beatrix’s costumes that warrants comment. When the events depicted in the film are re-chronologized, one may notice that the general progression in the color of Beatrix’s costumes correlate, with the accomplishment of each successive feat, with the belt progression from novice to master of a martial artist. Beatrix is first a bride, then a hospital patient, and next the samurai practitioner taking custody of the Sword (white). After acquiring the sword, she is clothed in yellow. Once having overcome O-ren, she graduates to the orange (admittedly a brownish orange) color scheme. Throughout the Pai Mei flashback, Beatrix’s primary color is blue. She emerges from her tomb covered in dirt (brown). She remains brown for her encounters with Budd (Doubt) and Elle (Ignorance). She arrives for her conclusive engagement with Bill wearing a black leather jacket: White belt, Yellow belt, Orange belt, (Blue belt), Brown belt, Black belt. Admittedly, there are several discontinuities (she escapes from the hospital in Buck’s blue uniform and briefly wears her black jacket on other occasions), and it is of course possible this is serendipitous; even so, I find this interesting. Elle, Beatrix’s double, follows a looser but abbreviated progression, beginning the film as a nurse (white) and meeting Beatrix for their final encounter in black.
The flavor and temperament of her standoffs with the assassins gradually evolve as she ascends from one level of accomplishment to the next. A Buddhist scholar would almost certainly argue that this occurs because as each of the Five Poisons is extinguished, one of the five positive roots (indriya) arises in its stead.
According to the Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, the removal of the “unwholesome roots… is necessary for the attainment of enlightenment.” Transcendence is achieved by developing the “five spiritual powers or faculties (bala) that make possible the attainment of enlightenment.” These faculties—Mindfulness, Effort, Faith, Wisdom and Samadhi—arise spontaneously with the demise of the concomitant poison they directly oppose. For this reason, the five attributes are sometimes known as “antidotes” to the poisons.
Effort (or Exertion) arises in the absence of Pride.
Mindfulness arises in the absence of Jealousy (or Anger).
Faith arises in the absence of Doubt.
Wisdom arises in the absence of Ignorance.
Samadhi—which is described as equanimity towards an object that would ordinarily inflame desire or hatred—is said to lead to the “elimination of passions”; therefore, it arises in the absence of Attachment.
The aptitude Beatrix demonstrates in each successive encounter would hypothetically evolve because as each poison is dispelled it is replaced by its opposing faculty (bala) or Positive Root (indriya).
A return to origins
A breakthrough occurs to Beatrix seconds before she confronts Elle Driver: she reacquires her birth name. Inside Budd’s trailer, Driver prematurely declares Beatrix dead. Then Tarantino deploys an unorthodox flashback to formally unveil the name he has taken pains to conceal whenever it is uttered by other characters in the film. The brief flashback depicts Beatrix as a pupil in a grammar school classroom where a teacher is taking attendance. When the teacher calls Beatrix’s birth name she raises her hand and says simply, “Here”—“Here” as in present. In other words, Beatrix Kiddo—as opposed to Black Mamba, The Bride, etc.—is once again present in Beatrix’s body. Kiddo, of course, is a name that evokes qualities such as purity, youth, naïveté, and innocence. It designates a pre-contaminated state and is the antipode of the toxic identity forced upon her by Bill: Black Mamba. The restoration of her name terminates a narrative cycle in which Beatrix Kiddo has been dependent upon others to assign her a name and identity. However, in this crucial pivot, she is regressed by Tarantino to an age prior to her contamination by false masters or the Five Poisons.
Let’s consider why her birth name might be returned at this point. In the prior sequence, Beatrix has overcome not only Doubt but death and the fear of death. She has accomplished this by internalizing the No-Self teachings of Pai Mei. Once that is accomplished, theoretically the false selves designated as Black Mamba, Arlene Machiavelli, The Bride and Jane Doe have been extinguished. In the absence of these false selves, which were byproducts of the very poisons she is methodically defeating, the only self remaining is the original self: Beatrix Kiddo. And because Ignorance is Beatrix’s arch nemesis, she requires at this moment the extraordinary aptitude of the warrior that only mastery of No-Self can guarantee. By reacquiring her true identity she separates herself from the mother and the father—an affirmation of self-sufficiency she must experience before she can defeat Ignorance and Attachment.
The flashback testifies to the audience that this internal evolution has occurred, while simultaneously implying that Beatrix’s quest is not merely one of taking lives but reacquiring things that were taken from her—including her unconditioned identity. It may sound like a paradox to assert that Beatrix recovers her true self, dependent upon achieving the principle of No-Self. This apparent contradiction is resolved in two ways. First, Beatrix has not consciously sought her True Self, even though she discovers it nonetheless. Her immediate quest is to rid herself of the poisons that endanger her life—those five characteristics that have been acquired through the process of conditioning and that have egregiously betrayed her. Because the poisons are the constituents of ego, as they are extinguished the ego perishes as well. What is left is the true self. Secondly, No-Self does not mean the absence of a Self, nor is it a denial of existence; rather, it describes the state of every human being in the absence of the ego and the distortions produced by ego. According to Buddhism, we acquire rather than are born with these distortions, so another way of describing No-Self is as that state of being we all inhabit prior to negative social conditioning that gives rise to ego, its subsidiary poisons, and the fear and neuroses they produce. What could be a more appropriate name for one who inhabits that state than Kiddo?
Practically speaking, the audience knows from the prologue of Vol. 2 approximately what the outcome of Beatrix’s odyssey will be. The flashback and restoration of the birth name serves the purpose of cueing the audience that the outcome is less important than an understanding of why these victories are necessary and possible. The film contains clues, like this one, that strongly indicate that her conquests are contingent upon some internal transformation that is difficult to apprehend in the absence of these cues. The classroom flashback is one example of a cue that helps to exteriorize this concept of Beatrix’s quest as incrementally transformative. Her acquisition of her true name at this awkward moment, when its revelation is bracketed from the frantic action that surrounds it, is not likely to be intended merely as a joke.
Beatrix, who has obtained the Sword of Wisdom in order to defeat delusions that plague her, overcomes Pride, Anger and Doubt. At this juncture, Beatrix reacquires her birth name, defeats Ignorance, and sets aside the Sword of Wisdom. The implication is that Beatrix, by the time of her encounter with Bill, is already enlightened. When she visits with Bill, she does so as a liberated version of her innate self—patient rather than furious, meek rather than proud, faithful rather than doubtful, and wise rather than ignorant. In fact, she even seems to have overcome attachment prior to the final confrontation, most probably because by defeating Ignorance—the Mother of all delusions and Beatrix’s “arch nemesis”—she has severed the roots of its subsidiary poisons. At this evolved level, Beatrix is able to engage her pernicious rival in a method so subtle that it disappoints viewers hoping for a spectacular altercation.
Attachment: a kindly extinction
“Thus, an excessive love for anything will cost you dear in the end.”
—Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching, chapter 44
“Swordsmanship agrees with Buddhism and is in accord with Zen in many ways. It abhors attachment.”
—Kanzan Sato, The Japanese Sword
Of the five assassins, it is Bill who most closely resembles Attachment. Attachment is a fear of, or aversion to, being separated from an object of desire. Pabongka Rinpoche writes in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, “When, for example, one wants to look at an object, touch it, and so forth, a corner of one’s mind craves and clings to this object of one’s attachment; the attachment then spreads and is difficult to remove… The lasso of craving and attachment confines you to samsara’s prison.”
Attachment has a dark side. It is not merely a desire to unite with an object of desire, but an obsessive preoccupation with an object of desire that cannot be obtained. It is Bill’s attachment to Beatrix that leads him first to desire her and later to wish to slaughter her. It is Bill’s attachment to Beatrix that causes him to rescind instructions that Elle murder her in the hospital, and then to be obsessed with her whereabouts but ambivalent about whether he wants to murder or reunite with her.
The next and final step in Beatrix’s evolution, if Kill Bill is truly about progressive, redemptive enlightenment, must logically involve her use of a positive antidote—compassion, kindness, understanding, humility, faith, or some combination of all five—rather than a poison, to exterminate the last remaining defilement. This is precisely what she does with respect to Bill, whom she will meet not with enmity but mercy. Indeed, the most remarkable feature of her final encounter with Bill is the complete absence of rage.
Now only the poison of Attachment remained. No longer was there any need for the warrior to wield the Sword of Wisdom; for, she had acquired wisdom of her own by defeating Ignorance. Attachment would have to be dealt with cautiously. Attachment, as is its nature, attempted to manipulate the warrior’s emotions by arousing her sentimentality, weakening her resolve, distorting her beliefs and undermining her self-confidence. Attachment even dangled the warrior’s lost child—previously feared unrecoverable, and now so desperately sought—before her very eyes. But the warrior, having vanquished her pride, anger, doubt and ignorance, was invulnerable to manipulation by flattery, empty promises and appeals to her nostalgia. Pride had been replaced by humility, anger by compassion, doubt by conviction and ignorance by wisdom. That Attachment was in possession of the warrior’s child only fortified her belief that to spare Attachment would be folly. However, she had evolved beyond the impulse to destroy Attachment with violence.
The most profound aspect of this sequence is not Beatrix’s confrontation with Bill but her recognition that BB is alive. Indeed, the most heart-wrenching moment in the film is when Beatrix first sets eyes upon her child. It is overwhelming in any context, but what does it mean within the framework of allegory? Prior to this revelation, Beatrix was certain her child had been destroyed by the Five Poisons. After defeating four of the five, she reawakens to the truth that it is very much alive. The poisons can obscure her access to, but not destroy, the child. Now, Attachment holds the child hostage but, because this is Attachment, the incarceration looks approximately like a father’s love for his child. Furthermore, it makes perfect sense that the child would be a product of Beatrix and Attachment.
In the scenes that follow, Bill subtly attempts to reverse the progress Beatrix has made by convincing her she still is, and will always be, Black Mamba, and that Black Mamba, deep down, is still attached to Bill and needs him to survive. Attachment literally uses attachment as a rationale for why his life should be spared. His desperate interrogation of Beatrix nearly calls overt attention to the possibility of the film as allegory by provoking the viewer to speculate as to why it might be the case that Beatrix is neither defensive in the face of his manipulations, nor feels remorse for her recent killing spree. The interesting answer is not that revenge feels good—because this is not conveyed although it is presumed to be true—but that there is something necessary about these killings beyond the satiation of justice. Otherwise, the story of Kill Bill would unfold in a very different way and would not leave most spectators with the sense that it is a story of change.
First, her confession that murdering these enemies felt good does not shame her or arouse suspicions about her morality because Tarantino has established that these killings are necessary. Why should Beatrix be expected to feel morally neutral about saving her own life, whether we engage Kill Bill literally or as allegory? There is no reason to believe that these assassins will ever stop trying to murder Beatrix unless she reconciles with Bill—and that is an impossibility. Bill and his conspirators represent an imminent threat to her existence in any context.
Second, it is the nature of successful conditioning that an individual, once conditioned, is no longer able to distinguish between impulses that are a product of that conditioning and impulses that are not. Although Beatrix has acquired wisdom, she still faces a formidable poison that is the relic of a complicated emotional history and who, like her, lays claim to the child. In spite of this, she appears to experience virtually no ambivalence, and Bill cannot induce or trigger the reemergence of conditioning that has been destroyed.
One senses that in this sequence Beatrix is humoring Bill; there is no doubt in her mind as to his fate, but she nevertheless decides to play along in order to gain insight into her attachment to Attachment. Whether we find Bill’s presentation charismatic, clever, or simply pathetic, we glimpse why Beatrix could once have found him overwhelming and the emotions he provoked intense and contradictory. He is guilty of many evil deeds, but he is himself wounded, needy, even pitiable. The more powerful Beatrix becomes, the more transparent and helpless Bill seems.
The allegorist need be less vexed by this scene, for Bill is an internal aspect of Beatrix—the most conflicted voice in her head—and he is an adaptive mechanism striving to convince Beatrix that they are inseparable and that she needs him to survive, when the truth appears to be the complete opposite.
Even the things Beatrix may dislike about herself once ostensibly served some purpose, and eradicating her conditioning and entrenched defense mechanisms is a process fraught with ambiguity, perhaps even the appearance of hypocrisy.
At one time, Beatrix may have believed she needed Bill to survive, but she is ready to be rid of him and, in a sense, she has already destroyed him. For this reason, Beatrix is indifferent to Bill’s appeal for clemency. If the climax seems asymmetrical, it is because there is nothing substantive to discuss and no surprise in store. Beatrix does not demonstrably vacillate in her decision to do what she must. Bill is presenting his last and best case to someone who cannot be convinced. Once Beatrix ceases to believe Attachment can exist without her cooperation—that it is a relic of vanquished ego—there is no necessity for reciprocal violence. A projection cannot fight back. Conflict becomes not only irrelevant but impossible.
No less interesting is that Bill ultimately accepts these new conditions. Beatrix has acquired the wisdom that renders Bill powerless, and once his feeble attempts to reacquire dominance vaporize, he capitulates. What recourse does a figment of the imagination have against the mind that creates it? Bill only had power over Beatrix because she permitted him to; it has been revoked. He is panicking. She treats him with dignity because he is her creation.
The fact that Beatrix is so unmoved by Bill’s appeal to her emotions is perhaps the best evidence that exists in Kill Bill that Beatrix has changed. It may also be the reason that many viewers sense that something momentous has transpired even though it is confirmed in the vaguest terms possible: by the absence of conflict. Recognizing his irrelevance, Bill—the last of the Five Poisons—consents to be put out of his misery. Because Beatrix is bidding farewell to a powerless delusion initially established within herself for some purpose that is no long served, rather than battling an extrinsic monster, she derives no visceral gratification from his destruction. Bill, a vestigial aspect of Beatrix’s false Self, dies of a broken heart because, like Puff the Magic Dragon, he recognizes he is no longer necessary to his Maker who has outgrown him. Beatrix, who in the prior sequence has learned of Pai Mei’s death, is the ascended New Master, the New Maker.
It is a stroke of metaphorical genius that Bill is felled when his heart explodes at the mere touch of five precisely-placed fingers. This one final touch is necessary to release attachment forever. Each finger represents one of the Five Poisons, and it is a deadly maneuver she only employs to rid herself of the fifth, final and most paradoxical delusion. It is almost as if she cannot use this temperate, almost courteous technique until she has vanquished Ignorance, the Mother of delusions, and experienced the direct realization of the No-Self teachings of Pai Mei. Having completed these tasks, she evolves beyond emotionalism, because wisdom rather than ego demands Bill’s death. There is no private thirst to be quenched, merely a task to be consummated.
In the context of allegory, redemption is a natural consequence of Beatrix’s journey. By extinguishing the delusions that corrupted her and caused her prolonged suffering, Beatrix—by innuendo—does repudiate her past in a manner far more effective than trying to reinvent, suppress or deny it, as she does prior to the wedding rehearsal massacre. Her story becomes one of active engagement with aspects of herself she disdains, the destruction of which she undertakes to become a better and more independent person. Her unanticipated reward is the recovery of her lost child.
From Beatrix’s perspective, her encounter with Bill is reminiscent of a sequence in Scorsese’s Kundun in which the young Dalai Lama comes to recognize that his ire towards a Chinese general he feels he ought to despise is inappropriate, because the general is not inherently sinister, but merely a flawed, fearful and insecure human being. When the Dalai Lama’s empathy intrudes upon his outrage, the effect is one of poignancy; and the wisdom that leads to this epiphany is offered as evidence of his spiritual evolution. Furthermore, Buddhism teaches that humans owe a debt of gratitude to their enemies, who are in a sense more precious than friends because without them there could be no opportunity to overcome the poisons produced by the fiery emotions they provoke. They function—like Green, O-ren, Budd, Elle and Bill—as catalysts for personal transformation. Beatrix may finally understand that it is precisely Bill’s possessive pathology that made her transformation possible. She derives no pleasure from murdering him, although it must be done. Therefore, it is presented as a merciful euthanasia.
She engaged him for the final time. Attachment, desperate for a stay of execution, tried to seduce the warrior back to the Dark Side. Attachment strove to convince the warrior that she needed him to survive, was inherently evil and could never reclaim her Lost Child because there had never been anything pure and uncontaminated about her. But his words were wasted on the warrior, and once Attachment recognized that he was impotent in the face of her newly-perfected wisdom, the emotion of his primary delusion was turned against himself. His heart exploded at the mere touch of her hand, and he was vanquished.
When this last of the Five Poisons was defeated, the warrior was reunited with her lost child. Her quest was finished.
The estranged child represents Beatrix’s Buddha—thus, BB. Beatrix’s child, or Buddha Nature, is rejoined with Beatrix once she disposes of these five symbolic adversaries and their minions who are the proximate cause of their estrangement. Like the spiritual Path itself, the destination is unclear until the journey is made; therefore, Beatrix is deprived of a direct knowledge that her child is alive until she is sufficiently awake to perceive that its recovery is within her grasp.
Names and reunion with the child
BB: “I waited a long time for you to wake up, Mommy.”
Why does Tarantino find it important to conceal Kiddo’s true name from his audience when there is no apparent payoff when it is divulged? Is this just a joke or homage to antecedents, or is there a thematic significance? In Zen Buddhism, once a Master is acquired the pupil is given a new name. These are the master’s duties as described by Master Jiyu-Kennett in Zen is Eternal Life:
“The first master is regarded as the trainee’s “father” in Buddhism since he gives him birth in the family of the Buddhas at ordination, a new name in religion and the opportunity to be set free of the world of samsara. It is the first master’s duty to teach his new disciple the scriptures, to watch and correct his morals in accordance with the Precepts and to feed, clothe and otherwise watch over his welfare, as a parent watches over a child, providing him with financial aid at all times.”
Bill, whom Beatrix introduces to fiancée Tommy as her father, fulfills one of these obligations but clearly has failed on the rest and severely transgressed the parameters of the master/pupil relationship. In Kill Bill, Beatrix is renamed by a corrupt Master who absconds first with her birth name and then her child. Beatrix Kiddo’s full name is formally revealed to the audience as Beatrix conquers ignorance. From the moment Ignorance is defeated, there is no uncertainty in Beatrix’s mind that she will or can defeat Attachment; indeed, Tarantino permits her to assure the spectator directly how this encounter will end in the prologue that opens Vol. 2. Since the path to Enlightenment is traditionally described as a process not of augmentation but peeling away layers to reveal the original self, the young child is often a metaphor for the innate, pre-conditioned Self. Zen Master Jiyu-Kennett writes in Roar of the Tigress:
“You built [the wall]: you pull it down. You made the mess of you: you have to clean it up. If the pond is muddy and you can’t see the moon of Zen, it is because you polluted it… Buddha tried all sorts of ways; He had to go back to the naïve mind of the child to find the purity and the stillness, and the iron, with which to live life. And when you realize the true extent of this purity and stillness, you realize your position in the scheme of things and you know the awe-fullness of the Unborn.”
Master Jiyu-Kennett, in Zen is Eternal Life, speaks directly of how emulating the Lord of Wisdom on the path to enlightenment results in a return to the pure state of the child:
“To those who realize the heart of Manjusri [i.e., wisdom] not only is duality transcended into unity but the very unity itself is also transcended and the truth of Meister Eckhart’s words proved for all time: “And a man shall be free, and as pure as the day prior to his conception in his mother’s womb, when he has nothing, wants nothing and knows nothing.”
By divesting herself of all but the final poison, and then focusing on her Buddha nature, Beatrix has reacquired “the naïve mind of the child.” In fact, it is wonderful that the child addresses the mother directly, like some still-small voice formerly inaudible but perennially residing within. When the child and mother speak, this is like Beatrix having a dialogue with her long-lost self. The child tells Beatrix that she has waited patiently to be rediscovered.
One might then ask if there is any significance to other designations within the film. The initials that denote her proposed task are KB (Kill Bill) while Beatrix’s are BK, so the revelation of her true name marks the inversion of this designation of her task—it suggests, perhaps, that something malignant has been reversed, and something pure restored. Or, possibly, Kiddo’s initials could stand first for “Kill Buddha.” At the closure of the Path to Enlightenment observable phenomena are revealed to be empty of intrinsic existence—all phenomena, including the Buddha. That is why it is said—and a voice over narration by Hattori Hanzo early in the film is an explicit variant on this famous saying—that an enlightened individual meeting the Buddha on the final stage of the path must symbolically “kill” him and disable a reliance on his teachings. Beatrix, too, murders her first master, her “father” and a false Buddha, at the culmination of her path to enlightenment.
In Kill Bill, “Kill Bill” becomes a euphemism for the eradication of internal enemies in order to effectuate a lasting disposition, as opposed to a series of perfunctory and transitory changes. The murder of the so-called defilements is not a task separate from reconstituting her pre-contaminated nature but the very path to liberation. When it is accomplished, Beatrix reclaims possession of the misplaced child that is a symbolic manifestation of her essential nature. Her triumphant restoration of this Original Self is affirmed by the reunion with her child, BB—Beatrix’s Buddha. But this is more than merely a reunion; it represents the symbolic rescue of her imperiled innocent nature from the clutches of delusory conditioning itself since, without the certainty this reunion evokes, there remains a danger that she might be re-conditioned. By taking custody of her innate self, Beatrix—who has already escaped death twice—irrevocably shatters the cycle of conditioned existence.
A Zen allegory in context
Consider if you will that the concept, characters and story of Kill Bill were not conceived by Tarantino alone. This saga was the product of an ongoing and lengthy collaboration between Tarantino and Uma Thurman, who is the daughter of Robert Thurman, the first endowed chair in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies in the United States and widely regarded as America’s preeminent Buddhist and most esteemed Buddhist author and scholar. Hatched during the 1993 filming of Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill evolved over a period of ten years. Is it inconceivable that, under these circumstances, a film in which Zen-laden themes are ubiquitous could entirely escape evoking spiritual principles, either because they were placed there intentionally or seeped in by cultural osmosis? Does Thurman’s contribution at the conceptual level make this any more likely?
An obvious question arises: Is Uma Thurman Buddhist? The boilerplate biography available all over the Web affirms that Uma and her brothers were “raised in the Buddhist faith.” We are assured by the Celebrity Babes Web site that “[because] her father was a Buddhist monk, Uma was influenced by the Buddhist mindset of free-thinking from a very young age and is highly respected within the film world for her continued practice.” The biography at Platinum-Celebs.com is even more direct: “Uma Thurman, along with her three brothers, were raised in the Buddhist faith… Uma’s father was a personal friend of the Dalai Lama. She is Buddhist.” Thurman’s name certainly appears on a large number of lists—some of them admittedly suspect—of celebrity Buddhists, including one at E-Sangha.
How convenient it would be to stop there and rest my case; unfortunately, ambiguity is reintroduced as we consider this next quotation, extracted from the November 1995 edition of Cosmopolitan Magazine, from Ms. Thurman herself:
“I grew up in a mostly Buddhist environment. My father, when very young, was the first American to be ordained as a Buddhist monk. He now teaches Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University and is regarded as this country’s foremost authority on Buddhism. When the Dalai Lama comes to America, it’s my father who is his host. When asked if I consider myself Buddhist, the answer is, Not really. But it’s more my religion than any other because I was brought up with it in an intellectual and spiritual environment. I don’t practice or preach it, however. But Buddhism has had a major effect on who I am and how I think about the world.”
Very intriguing, but hardly a bull’s eye. Yet it is fascinating that there is this subtle—yet quintessential—disagreement between Thurman and Tarantino over the ultimate meaning of Kill Bill.
If indeed Tarantino should wholly disavow any deeper readings, we are left to ponder whether no such reading exists, or whether Thurman herself may have consciously or unconsciously steered Kill Bill in the direction of meaning and redemption. In the context of a film in which her character is victimized, brutalized and degraded, Thurman’s insistence that Kiddo’s suffering occurs for some purpose more profound than vengeance alone may constitute the sweetest revenge of all. And would it not be interesting if the collaborator she exacts it against is completely unaware that his playful homage has been transformed into spiritual allegory without his consent?
Cleary, Thomas (translator). Zen Essence: The Science of Freedom. Shambhala Publications. 1989.
Gyaltsab, Zhechen, et al. Path of Heroes: Birth of Enlightenment. Dharma Publications. 1995.
Gyatso, Geshe Kelsang. Understanding the Mind. Tharpa Publications. 1997.
Jiyu-Kennett, Reverend Master. Roar of the Tigress. Shasta Abbey Press. 2000.
Jiyu-Kennett, Reverend Master. Zen is Eternal Life. Shasta Abbey Press. 1999.
King, Winston L. Zen & The Way of the Sword: Arming the Samurai Psyche. Oxford University Press. 1993.
Lao Tzu. Tao The Ching. Translated by John C.H. Wu. Shambhala Publications. 1989.
Pabongka Rinpoche. Liberation in the Palm of your Hand. Wisdom Publications. 1997.
The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Shambhala Publications. 1991.
Sato, Kanzan. The Japanese Sword. Kodansha International. 1983.
Stevens, John. The Sword of No-Sword. Shambhala Publications. 1984.
Suzuki, D. T. Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton University Press. 1959.
Zenji, Koho. Soto Zen. Shasta Abbey Press. 2000.
Review: Ham on Rye Is an Elegant, Grand Chronicle of a Chaos Foretold
The film’s purposeful archness challenges the sentimentality that marks many a film and real-life ceremony.3.5
Tyler Taormina’s Ham on Rye, in which high school children come of age while moseying around the San Fernando Valley in anticipation of an undefined formal event, sets the audience up for a lark. Conflicting details give the impression that the film is divorced from time, with the children’s clothes—long and flowing dresses, gaudily ill-fitting suits—suggesting holdovers from the 1970s. Even the immaculately put-together mothers and Hawaiian shirt-clad fathers seem like vestiges from a different era. No cellphones are initially glimpsed, and there are no overt pop-cultural references, though other textures place the story in the present day. In other words, there’s a highly self-conscious, stylized, insulated innocence to the film that inspires distrust, as we’re invited to enjoy the sort of idyll proffered by many teen movies, yet we know we’re being played with. This archness, which isn’t without sincerity, challenges the sentimentality that marks many a film and real-life ceremony.
Taormina and co-writer Eric Berger don’t offer character development in a traditional sense, instead creating a free-floating and distinctly Altmanesque tapestry as they move among dozens of characters. The elegance and control of Ham on Rye’s aesthetic is breathtaking, especially considering the film’s shoestring production. Cinematographer Carson Lund bathes the story’s neighborhood settings in a pastel light that again evokes the ‘70s—or, at least, modern pop culture’s impression of the decade. And the camera lingers on details that indicate the ecstasies and miseries lingering underneath this suburban mirage, such as a shot of trash in a yard that suggests the aftermath of either indifference or violence, or of a postcard sent to a girl from her sister in college, which is written in an unnaturally, over-compensatingly proclamatory style that implies desperation while serving as a mockery of the girls’ simplified visions of future adulthood. Such details point to the influence of many titans of the cinema, among them Brian De Palma, Peter Weir, and David Lynch.
The film comprises a string of melancholic dead ends. A group of boys talk of the importance of “porking,” setting up a familiar “trying to get laid” scenario that never materializes. Later, they see another group of boys who resemble doppelgangers, and each gang puffs their bodies up, mocking the other, priming us for a fight that doesn’t occur, as the second gang jumps a chain link fence, never to be seen again. Elsewhere, a group of men, visually coded as old-school stoner types, drive around ready to raise hell, which also doesn’t come to pass. These half-formed anecdotes, and there are many more of them, come to resemble fissures in memory. We might be seeing the fuzzy, semi-sanitized, pop-mythos-addled recollections of the adult versions of these characters as they drink away their disappointments in a bar.
Once we’re sufficiently acclimated to Ham on Rye’s foreboding, wistful atmosphere, Taormina springs a poignant and satirical surprise. The children aren’t making their way toward a formal event like the traditional prom, but a ceremonial dance at a deli, in which they eat sandwiches together before forming boys- and girls-only lines so as to evaluate one another and couple. The strangeness of this arrangement, like the general timelessness of the setting, underscores the arbitrary ornateness of real ceremonies—prom, homecoming, graduation—that insidiously serve the purpose of conditioning us to become well-behaved cogs in the social machine, like all the disappointed parents who lurk in the periphery of the film.
Underneath Ham on Rye’s mystery and grandeur, then, is a theme that’s traditional to teen movies: children’s fear of selling out like their parents. Which isn’t to say that Taormina indulges snideness, as he invests this dance with an intense visual splendor that embodies the naïve, untapped passion, laced with terror, that comes with inoculation into adult rituals. This sequence has the daring rhapsody of the prolonged prom sequence in De Palma’s Carrie.
Ham on Rye’s second half is informed with a kind of survivor’s guilt that’s also reminiscent of Carrie. Haley (Haley Bodell), the closest the film has to a protagonist, flees the deli ceremony, casting herself off as Amy Irving’s character was cast off in Carrie. After her friends seem to vanish transcendently into thin air after the dance, Haley is left behind with her despondent family, perhaps stranded in childhood or simply this town, and the film abruptly shifts atmospheres. The pastels are traded in for industrial nighttime hues, and cellphones and other modern bric-a-brac are suddenly visible, while the posh suburban neighborhoods, with their kids who can afford to go to dances that whisk them off to neverland, are traded in for strip malls with disaffected teens and working-class parents who’re pushed by their disadvantaged children to the brink of insanity. Ham on Rye first shows us a dream, with its intimations of chaos, before then showing us only chaos, with its lingering echoes of the vanished dream.
Cast: Haley Bodell, Audrey Boos, Gabriella Herrera, Adam Torres, Luke Darga, Sam Hernandez, Blake Borders, Cole Devine, Timothy Taylor, Gregory Falatek, Laura Wernette, Lori Beth Denberg, Danny Tamberelli, Clayton Snyder, Aaron Schwartz Director: Tyler Taormina Screenwriter: Tyler Taormina, Eric Berger Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Dating Amber Is a Touching Yarn About Defying Heteronormativity
David Freyne manages to indict the societal expectation of heterosexuality as a traumatizing force while also humanizing its straight victims.3.5
“This place will kill you.” That’s a recurrent refrain in Dating Amber, writer-director David Freyne’s dramedy about two queer teens, Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) and Amber (Lola Petticrew), who pretend to be a couple so that they can make it through high school a little less scathed. It’s one of those lines that sometimes captures a character’s plight with such biting precision, and simplicity, that the viewer is caught off guard and the film is left feeling haunted. The place that “will kill you,” as Amber warns Eddie as well as her herself multiple times in one way or another, is rural Ireland in the 1990s, where divorce is still illegal—an idyllic meadowland plagued by backward prudes and homophobic bullies.
The demands of heterosexuality are lethal to both straights and gays in County Kildare. Amber’s father, for one, took his own life, and ever since then she’s been charging her classmates to use her family’s caravan as a place to have sex, so she can save enough money and move to London and work for a punk zine. By contrast, Eddie wallows in sorrow and denial, his gait the grotesque result of him trying to mimic butchness. He plans to do exactly what’s expected of him—that is, to join the army and marry a nice girl who will probably just make him sleep on the living room couch like his mother (Sharon Horgan) does to his father (Barry Ward). Amber knows that living one’s life according to the desires of others will kill you, so her offer to fake-date Eddie so their peers will stop harassing them seems more like an act of solidarity, an attempt to spare Eddie from the violence that she herself can take in stride.
The film is initially hyper-stylized, recalling Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader. The colorfully coordinated precision of the mise-en-scène and campy over-acting all point toward satire. But there’s a gravitas to Dating Amber that keeps pricking us little by little until it completely takes over in the film. Our first warning that humor may have been only the sheen of a much more serious cinematic proposition, a cheeky red herring of sorts, comes in a sequence in which Eddie and Amber take the train to Dublin and happen upon a gay bar. Instead of lusting over male bodies or dancing the night away on drugs (that comes later), Eddie is instantly transfixed by a drag queen singing Brenda Lee’s “You Can Depend on Me.” He approaches her on stage as if, at last, untethered from the world. In a kind of communion, Eddie embraces the drag queen like a lost child re-encountering his mother. She keeps on singing, rocking Eddie as if casting a queer spell, or baptizing the “baby gay,” as she calls him.
From that scene on, Dating Amber rather seamlessly strips itself of its hyperbolic affectations to reveal a heartbreaking story of emancipation through friendship. Freyne manages to indict the societal expectation of heterosexuality as a traumatizing force while also humanizing its straight victims. A brief scene when Eddie’s doleful mother is, for once, alone at home and puts on a vinyl is particularly wonderful. She looks at her husband’s framed photograph and smiles, reminding us that while the fantasy of heterosexual domesticity holds many promises, in practice, it can be an exhausting hell. “Anywhere!” Amber tells Eddie when he asks her where he could escape to. And as their own faux love affair begins to crumble, they can at last embrace the queerness and messy feelings for which there is no required language, no blueprints, and as such the opportunity to actually find a place that won’t kill them.
Cast: Fionn O’Shea, Lola Petticrew, Sharon Horgan, Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Evan O’Connor Director: David Freyne Screenwriter: David Freyne Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Bad Hair Is a Fiendish, If Tonally Uneven, Satire of Racist Beauty Norms
The film has an exciting, lived-in quality that elevates what are otherwise some markedly unsteady attempts at horror.2.5
The year is 1989, and while TV network Culture is considered dead weight by its parent company, its specialty in burgeoning, black-fronted music genres leaves it poised to successfully cover the sounds and styles that will dominate the next decade. Enter ex-model Zora (Vanessa Williams), the new boss with a new vision for the channel that includes rebranding it as Cult. Zora brought her own assistant, too, which puts pressure on Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), the assistant to Zora’s predecessor and an up-and-comer with ideas of her own, rent to pay, and something to prove. Her own natural hair gets her dirty looks from white co-workers in the lobby and a miniature lecture from Zora herself, so despite what her family and her other black co-workers might think, she follows Zora’s lead and gets a weave.
Justin Simien’s 2014 feature-length directorial debut, Dear White People, translated so neatly to an extended TV format in large part due to its plethora of characters and plot threads, and Bad Hair similarly evinces his keen eye for humanity. As in his earlier film, the characters all have a diverse range of relationships: with each other, with their own race, with their aspirations, and with the eyes of the world at large. Though someone like Zora could easily have been a thin antagonist, you instead feel the context of age, beauty norms, and societal pressure that shaped who she is and what she wants to do. Bad Hair can feel overstuffed at times, as Anna shares scenes with an ever-increasing range of characters, including her family, friends, an ex, and her skeevy landlord, but the details give the film an exciting, lived-in quality that elevates what are otherwise some markedly unsteady attempts at horror.
And as it turns out, the weaves are also alive, and they’re literally out for blood, at least those being offered at a mysterious salon where Anna, looking to make her mark on Cult as a VJ, is sent to by Zora. Their tendrils seek out oozing orifices, and their roots plant hunger in the brains of the afflicted while manifesting strange dreams. These scenes, with characters restrained and yanked off screen by hair-tuft tentacles, are initially promising, but their rhythm is all wrong. They’re choppily and timidly edited in ways that direct the eye away from the action, as if to obscure any hokeyness that might become apparent from close scrutiny. As such, you may find yourself wanting for the sturdy, kinetic ingenuity of Sam Raimi.
The film is also uncertain of how seriously to take its horror. The extreme close-up of the weave process, as the needle snakes through the tender landscape of Anna’s scalp while drawing blood, is brilliantly cringe-inducing. One memorable, repeated image of Anna’s family sitting at the table while clumps of hair descend from the cracks in the ceiling is so effective because it’s allowed to be eerie, rather than immediately undercut by a line about a support group for women with killer weaves. By the time the climax rolls into view, the film abandons any seriousness, even bringing in Lena Waithe, as the host of one of Culture’s newly canceled shows, to make a Friday the 13th reference while snarking about the horror-movie proceedings. Bad Hair unintentionally mirrors its characters’ own insecurities, teetering awkwardly between straight-faced camp and outright farce as it cuts the scare scenes to ribbons and makes jokes about itself, as if to preempt any disbelief from the audience.
Worse, the film is constantly overexplaining itself. Dear White People contained similarly blunt, into-the-camera messaging, but that felt appropriate for a setting where students are wrapped up in college politics and subjecting their ideas to class scrutiny. In Bad Hair, one character who confronts Zora utters a Freudian slip, accusing her of appealing to a “whiter” audience when she means to say “wider” audience, as though the film hasn’t so clearly been making that point from the very start, when the central channel got knowingly rebranded as Cult. The interactions between Bad Hair’s characters already convey the domination of white beauty standards and how the self dissipates when capitulating to them, so the extra steps taken to underline these themes only works to dilute them.
Cast: Elle Lorraine, Vanessa Williams, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland, Laverne Cox, Chanté Adams, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Blair Underwood, Usher Raymond IV Director: Justin Simien Screenwriter: Justin Simien Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Interview: Garrett Bradley on Exploring Human Dimensionality in Time
Bradley discusses how the forces of collaboration and intuition inform her filmmaking process.
Garrett Bradley’s films assume grand proportions through their sweeping titles: America, Alone, Like, and, now, Time. Her work expands our notions of concepts and institutions central to contemporary life by interrogating the audiovisual imprints that define them in the public consciousness. These explorations expand the meaning of their thematic subjects by injecting Bradley’s deeply intentional imagery into the conversation.
The filmmaker’s latest, Time, is as much about the ineffable passage of its titular concept as it is about the cruel duration of a prison sentence. Through a delicately woven tapestry of decades-old home videos shot by self-proclaimed “abolitionist” Fox Rich over the years while her husband, Robert, was in prison and more recent footage shot by Bradley and her crew, the film captures time in all of its contradictions. When cut between commonplace scenes of Fox interfacing with the bureaucratic maze of the carceral state, the rushes of her past feel both tantalizingly close and also impossible to reclaim—all while her future with Robert appears indeterminate. Bradley’s frequent deployment of stirring piano solos by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou may give Time the aura of a fairy tale as Fox faces down a seemingly insurmountable system of oppression in the name of love, yet the film never loses grounding in the everyday realities and inhumanities made normal by mass incarceration.
I spoke to Bradley shortly before Time became available worldwide on Amazon Prime. Our conversation covered what the documentary might have looked like without Fox Rich’s video archives, why she didn’t feel the need to explain racism in the film, as well as how the forces of collaboration and intuition inform her filmmaking process.
I’m blown away that such a central component of the film, Fox Rich’s personal video archives, weren’t baked in from the beginning. When she gave you that archive on the last day of filming, was it a matter of her fully trusting you? Had she forgotten they existed? Did it just dawn on her that they might make a great addition to the film?
I had no idea. When you’re working with someone so closely for a period of time, it presents all sorts of interesting emotions and challenges. At least from a filmmaker’s perspective, you’ve got all sorts of reasons why, eventually, you have to walk away from production. What I can say is it was, to my knowledge, the last day of shooting. It was in the evening, and I just remember saying to her, “I’m going to come back and show you a cut.” She was on the phone with Robert, and I remember her saying, “Hold on a second, let me get you something.” She handed me this bag of all of these mini DV tapes that ended up being about 100 hours of footage. She had not seen or looked at that footage since she shot it. I remember getting in the car, shipping it out to get transcoded and being so incredibly nervous about the fact that there were no backups for it. It was a real testament to her to her trust. But why, at that moment, I can’t say.
Without these tapes that so poetically give us a glimpse into Fox’s own history, would your film really have been Time? I can imagine it’s tough to speak to a project that was never realized, but what form and shape would your film have taken without them?
When I initially started shooting, my intention was twofold. One was to think about this film, which I was conceiving as another 13-minute Op-Docs short, as an extension of Alone, a sister film to this other film that had already come out. The intention behind that was to say, “How can I extend the conversation around incarceration, from a sort of black feminist point of view, from a familial point of view? From a point of view that that illuminates the effects of the facts.” Fox is, actually, briefly in Alone. I met her in the process of making it. And she’s a very different person than Aloné [Watts] and was navigating the system in a very different way. She was 18 years into the process of navigating the system, whereas Aloné was in the very beginning stages of that. I think, at that point, my head was really about, again, extending the conversation in a way that showed the diversification of experience within the same issue.
But then also, uniquely to Fox’s own story, I really focused in on her daily life as a way of saying if there’s anything that I’m able to illustrate in this film, if I have to stop shooting tomorrow, it’s to show how deeply embedded the system puts itself in daily life. There’s no separation between your work life, your personal life, your home life, your relationship with your children, your mother, yourself, your partner. There’s no separation between that and the system. It really unequivocally embeds itself into every element of your day.
That was my initial intention, and a lot of the footage was there. Part of the challenge in the edit when looking at it was, wow, this actually feels really two-dimensional. It feels like we have no way of my proving as a filmmaker what I knew, which was the holistic nature of who we are as human beings. We are 360-degree beings. We have context, we have history, we have experience that informs how we maneuver the present moment. How do I show that? That’s ultimately the challenge of making films, you can only tell stories and say things one frame at a time, from one dimension. I think that the film would have focused in on one element of life. It would have been very different, that’s for sure.
The film talks about how Fox’s story demonstrates the power of love as a tool of resistance. How do you convey such a radical notion without coming across naïve?
That’s a great question. Basically, it’s like, how do you make something good or bad, right? I have to say, I think in my experience, it’s been making sure that vulnerability and intention are intrinsic parts of the process. Vulnerability on all ends, as a filmmaker, as a collaborator. That there’s trust. I think the bottom line of that and respect are the ingredients of making something that I think can live outside of the opaqueness of what you’re describing.
In everything from the title of your works to the images contained within them, you maintain such a focus on redefining the way we think about giant structures and institutions in our lives. Is this a goal that you consciously set out to achieve when embarking on a new project, or are you discovering the way in which your work interacts with these notions and ideas?
I think it goes back to this idea of the sort of cinematic challenge of trying to allow things to feel as they do in the real world. Context, history, and multiple dimensions are so intrinsic to that. I think the same can be said for the macro and micro experience. That’s what we live in. We have our individual lives, but we’re a part of a larger system. And depending on who we are and how we’re moving through space, that can become oppressively clear or something that one has the privilege to forget. I think I always enter a project first from the personal. I don’t think that’s a rule though. There are other projects that I’m working on or thinking about where I’m coming at it actually from a larger scale first. I think it changes from one project to the next. But you’re right, ultimately, there’s always going to be for me a conversation between the two. The great meaning comes out of the conversation between the two.
Did you feel a need to rescue or shelter Time from the tropes of social realism or the journalistic point of view that normally pervades stories about mass incarceration or the prison-industrial complex?
There were certainly questions in the edit around how literal we wanted it to be, how much we felt the film needed to explain the minutiae of the crime, the trial, the legal system, the sentencing. Myself and Gabe Rhodes, who edited the film, as we were talking through a lot of that, I found myself feeling that to really explain it was also then to try to explain racism in America. And I’m not really sure that the film is particularly obligated to do that. Because it’s for people, and made with people, who inherently understand that and live it every day. And so when we think about obligations around certain forms of explanation, or sort of a literal proof of an explanation of the why, it can also be coded language. This idea of universality becomes coded language for who we’re actually speaking to if a majority of the people in the country are, in one way or another, affected by this issue. So, I didn’t feel that we had to do that.
How did you conceive the film’s coda? There’s something both comforting and tragic in the notion that cinema—and only cinema—can both preserve and reverse time.
I wish I had a profound answer. I struggled with this question a little bit. Because it was really at a point in the editorial process where we were just working off of instinct and emotion. And there was, riffing off of your last question before, just not even needing to have a literal reason for why we ended it the way we did. It just felt right. It felt like we were able to work with the images in a way that directly responded to what the entire film was about without having to say it in any other way. I think for some people, it works. For some people, it doesn’t. I wish I could say something more profound than that, but it was just pure instinct.
So much about this film feels like it was almost fated to come together: discovering Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbro’s music through YouTube algorithms, Fox Rich giving you her archive and transforming the project, the cosmic parallels revealed in the edit between the footage you shot and her videos. Has this transformed the way you think about artistic ownership and authorship at all?
I think my work has always inherently been collaborative. My work always starts with a series of questions, and the answers come out of conversations that are happening with people in my community are what inform a lot of the aesthetic choices. There was another project, for instance, that I was commissioned for the Whitney Biennial 2019, called A.K.A. That was me really having questions about classic American cinema and race relations between women. My instinct was to go to women that I knew and to ask them questions that I myself had, and a lot of their answers literally shaped the scenes, the camerawork, the lenses. I think Time is an extension of that same love I have for working with people.
Review: Rebecca Unimaginatively Runs a Classic Through a Netflix Filter
The film is a pretty bauble of a thing that ticks off the story’s shock revelations in an efficient, if not particularly surprising, fashion.2
Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca is effective at channeling elemental fears into a glossy package, but less so at crafting characters that are more than the sum of their archetypal parts. The story is little changed from Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 Gothic novel or Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Oscar-winning adaptation. While staying in a posh resort on the French Riviera, an unnamed young woman (Lily James) working as traveling companion for acid-tongued, man-hunting dowager Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), is romanced by dashing and recently widowed aristocrat Max de Winter (Armie Hammer). In quick order, the somewhat lost-seeming woman marries Max and refashioned as Mrs. de Winter, the new lady of Manderley, Max’s sprawling coastal estate that becomes her gilded cage.
Following the sunny, happy-go-lucky Riviera opening, the film pivots into psychodrama mode once it relocates north to the gloomier English seaside. Given Mrs. de Winter’s humble origins, she commits one faux pas after another. She’s riddled with class anxiety, not knowing when she will next offend Manderly’s icy housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), the platoon of servants and other staff needed to run the massive complex, or her new husband. The unspoken rules that she keeps breaking—asking the wrong questions, venturing into the wrong rooms, studying a menu incorrectly—all seem to lead back to the same source: Manderley is still in the ghostly grip of Max’s recently deceased wife, Rebecca.
At every turn, people remind Mrs. de Winter of how little she measures up to her predecessor, some more intentionally than others, from Max’s kindly sister, Beatrice (Keely Hawes), remarking about Rebecca being one of those “annoying people everyone loves,” to Danvers rhapsodizing in openly romantic terms about her late lady being “the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life,” to Rebecca’s rascally cousin, Jack (Sam Riley), making snide innuendos about Rebecca’s horse-taming skills. While Max doesn’t say such things openly to his young bride, his simmering rages and habit of sleepwalking at night to stare wistfully at Rebecca’s now closed-off quarters suggest his still being in the grip of an undying passion.
Much of the film’s middle section details what’s either a waking nightmare for Mrs. de Winter (the most effective parts of the story plug into relatable anxieties over being found out or not measuring up) or extensive gaslighting campaign. In either case, the primary instigator is Danvers, who despite being theoretically in charge of the estate appears to spend most of her time lurking in corners waiting for Mrs. de Winter to make another mistake. Thomas’s serenely imperious performance is one of the film’s highlights, stopping just shy of Ryan Murphy-esque grande-dame camp. Riley’s rakish gleam is similarly energizing, particularly when the story turns into a late-developing courtroom drama about how or even if Rebecca died.
As for the leads playing the mere mortals wriggling under Danvers’s unflinching glare, neither James nor Hammer measure up. James has the more difficult job of the two, needing to seem sympathetic even as Mrs. de Winter lurches from one clueless encounter to the next; the actress spends much of Rebecca blushing in joy or biting her lip while on the verge of tears, neither delivering much in the way of depth. And as Max, Hammer communicates a kind of stolid and unintelligent glumness that makes it difficult to comprehend how Mrs. de Winter could ignore so many warning signs of deep depression and anger.
One crucial problem with this new version of Rebecca, in fact, is that Max is reduced to little more than a repository of warning signs, from refusing to answer his bride’s questions to growling “Put that back!” when she dares to pick up a volume of love poetry that Rebecca had inscribed to him. Since Max has precious few plus-column characteristics that don’t fall under the categories of “handsome,” “wealthy,” and “smart dresser,” Mrs. de Winter’s travails after being trapped by her love for him are difficult to identify with.
At least the film doesn’t default to assuming that gothic necessitates a glum visual palette. The design of Manderley is spectacular, its classic English aristocratic grandeur seeming to stretch on for miles, lensed by cinematographer Laurie Rose with gorgeous chiaroscuro layering. Avoiding both the grotesquerie of some of his other work and the tight tensions of Hitchcock’s adaptation, Wheatley’s Rebecca operates instead as a less psychologically knotted and more straightforward costume drama. It’s an attractive and fairly shallow bauble of a thing that ticks off the story’s shock revelations in an efficient, if not particularly surprising, fashion.
Cast: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Keeley Hawes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Riley, Ann Dowd, Bill Patterson, Tom Goodman-Hill Director: Ben Wheatley Screenwriter: Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 122 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: This Is Not a Movie Is a Smart, Clear-Eyed Tribute to Robert Fisk
The documentary adroitly demonstrates that Fisk is still motivated by the boyish curiosity that drew him to journalism.3
As a boy in the London suburbs, Robert Fisk’s career aspirations were shaped by seeing Foreign Correspondent. In 1972, Fisk got the seemingly glamorous job that Joel McCrea had in the Alfred Hitchcock classic, and has been at it ever since. But reporting from overseas is messier in real life than in scripted drama, which is why Yung Chang’s engrossing portrait of the 74-year-old journalist is titled This Is Not a Movie.
Fisk began no further from home than Belfast, but in 1976 he arrived in Beirut, which became his permanent home base. He’s covered invasions, insurrections, and all kinds of catastrophes, always taking what he calls “the side of those who suffer.” This stance has engendered many conflicts with supporters of the region’s dominant powers, as well as with editors at several British newspapers. Fisk currently writes for the now online-only Independent.
The documentary’s title, which echoes that of Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film, suggests an attempt to deconstruct cinematic storytelling. But it’s Fisk who’s the iconoclast here, as Chang has crafted a conventional blend of new and archival footage, without any experimental narrative strategies. Unlike his earlier Up the Yangtze, which benefited from a narrower focus and compressed timeline, This Is Not a Movie isn’t especially shapely or propulsive.
The two things that give this documentary its power and provocativeness are intellectual rather than dramatic: Fisk’s work, and his ideas. Using digital minicams, Chang and his crew follow the journalist through Syria, Beirut, and the West Bank. There’s also a foray to Serbia and Bosnia, where Fisk tries to determine how European weapons were routed to the Syrian bloodbath, which he calls “the worst reported war in the Middle East.”
“If you don’t go to the scene,” Fisk says, “you can’t get near the truth of it.” And that’s the essence of his mission, which is as moral as it is historical: “So no one can say, ‘This didn’t happen.’ So no one can say, ‘We didn’t know. No one told us.’” Although he’s lived in Beirut most of his life, Fisk is no modern-day Lawrence of Arabia. In his unironed shirts and rumpled pants, he looks as if he’s dressed to putter in the garden at the Irish cottage he says he might have chosen as his retirement home. He admits to speaking only “a bit” of Arabic. (The film shows Fisk’s reliance on translators and guides but doesn’t explain where he gets them, as Chang is more interested in Fisk’s life and ideas than the practicalities of his work.)
Fisk’s focus on the victims of Middle Eastern power plays has made him some enemies. A defining moment in his career was the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatilas camps, carried out by Lebanese Christians but facilitated by Israeli forces. (It’s the only event that ever gave him nightmares, he says.) He travels with Amira Haas, an Israeli journalist he admires, to survey the West Bank areas sundered by Israel’s separation wall and to visit what Fink terms Israeli “colonies.” Inevitably, the reporter has been denounced as an anti-Semite, notably by Alan Dershowitz in a 2001 audio debate excerpted in the film.
That moment aside, Chang devotes little time to Fisk’s detractors. Notably, it doesn’t challenge his claim that there was no chemical attack on Douma, Syria, in 2018. Early reports may have been overstated, but few observers support Fisk’s account of the incident. Even a reporter who prides himself on getting as close to the story as possible can make a mistake. But Chang makes a strong case that Fisk’s approach is more reliable than that of journalists whose method privileges deflection and distortion. Indeed, what Fisk has to say about that should interest newspaper readers who never turn—or click—to the foreign coverage.
Noting that war is “not a football match,” Fisk rejects mainstream journalism’s standard operating procedure, which he describes as, “First you tell the truth. Then you get someone to deny it.” In the fourth year of Donald Trump’s presidency, Fisk’s rebuff of journalistic “balance” could hardly be more pertinent. Fisk may be out of sync with his profession, but Chang’s documentary adroitly demonstrates that the septuagenarian is still motivated as much by the boyish curiosity that drew him to journalism. Dismissing the idea of that cottage in Ireland, Fisk says, “I still want to know what happens next.”
Director: Yung Chang Screenwriter: Yung Chang, Nelofer Pazira Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
The 75 Best Horror Movies of the 21st Century
These are the films from this millennium that have most shocked us by plumbing our deepest primordial terrors.
Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.
Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”
At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. Budd Wilkins
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 10, 2018.
75. They Came Back (2004)
They Came Back is a triumph of internal horror, and unlike M. Night Shyamalan’s similarly moody freak-out The Sixth Sense, Robin Campillo’s vision of the dead sharing the same space as the living isn’t predicated on a gimmicky reduction of human faith. Campillo is more upfront than Shyamalan—it’s more or less understood that the presence of the living dead in his film is likely metaphoric—and he actually seems willing to plumb the moral oblivion created by the collision of its two worlds. Though the fear that the film’s walking dead can turn violent at any second is completely unjustified, the writer-director allows this paranoia to reflect the feelings of loss, disassociation, and hopelessness that cripple the living. It’s rather amazing how far the film is able to coast on its uniquely fascinating premise, even if it isn’t much of a stretch for its director: Campillo co-authored Laurent Cantet’s incredible Time Out, a different kind of zombie film about the deadening effects of too much work on the human psyche, and They Came Back is almost as impressive in its concern with the existential relationship between the physical and non-physical world. Ed Gonzalez
74. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Jalmari Helander, 2010)
Santa is one bad mamma jamma in Writer-director Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a yuletide fable that’s equal parts sincere, silly, and scary. Helander’s direction is assured in a manner that inspires flattering comparisons: his softly lit scenes of adolescent fear and fantasy, and of father-son estrangement, recall early Spielberg; Pietari’s (Onni Tommila) trinket-adorned room and makeshift alarm clock (involving keys, sweater thread and a basin) resembles Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsies; his compassionate black comedy evokes Joe Dante’s work; and his eerie snowbound setting and premise harkens back to John Carpenter’s The Thing. This last comparison is also apt in terms of aesthetics, as Helander and cinematographer Mika Orasmaa’s widescreen compositions capture a sense of unsettling scale and unseen terror as well as, in domestic sequences, a warmth and intimacy that helps compensate for somewhat sketchy characters. Nick Schager
73. The Monster (2016)
In The Strangers, Bryan Bertino exhibited a masterfully lush style that owed quite a bit to the elegant camera pirouettes of John Carpenter. Here, the filmmaker utilizes his command of medium for more individualized purposes. By the time that The Monster reveals itself to be a horror film, we’re so engrossed in Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and Lizzy’s (Ella Ballentine) pain that the arrival of the titular menace strikes us as an authentic violation of normality, rather than as a ghoul arriving on demand per the dictates of the screenplay. The film has an eerily WTF arbitrariness that should be the domain of more films in the genre. Chuck Bowen
72. Cam (2018)
When Wilhelm Reich developed the concept of “sex economy” in 1931, he had in mind something like the way societal expectations or advertising may compel someone toward compulsory masturbation. Almost 90 years later, compulsion is but one of an array of factors informing Cam, Daniel Goldhaber’s lithely satirical and startling take on the present state of online sex work. Based on screenwriter Isa Mazzei’s own experiences as a cam model, the film is neither plainly sex positive nor outright cautionary in its depiction of Alice (Madeline Brewer), an up-and-coming streamer whose account is hacked and stolen by someone appearing to be her doppelgänger. Even as Cam gives new meaning to “ghosting” when Alice watches “herself” online, the film’s strengths come from an intimate familiarity with the anxieties that accompany a life predicated on thriving in a gig economy still owned and operated by impenetrable customer service mechanisms and corporate channels of older, sweaty white men. Cam is also one of the first American films to grapple with the realities of being doxed to family and friends, further demonstrating its primary acumen as a check on the social pulse of a particular strain of U.S. conservatism that continues to think about and patrol sex work, and those who participate in it, in even pre-Reichian terms. Clayton Dillard
71. The House That Jack Built (2018)
Like Bob Dylan in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Dont Look Back, Matt Dillon’s serial killer in Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built flashes cue cards to the camera while standing in an alleyway. If Dylan’s narcissism, and Pennebaker’s giddiness to capture it, suggested a cultural turn toward celebrity worship, then Dillon’s psychopath is the bizarre complement. He’s neurotic, self-obsessed, and as devoted to mythologizing his own “body of work” as he is psychologically impenetrable and unknowable. A house built of corpses is both a provocation and an invocation of documentary footage taken from Auschwitz and Katyn. It’s also yet another allusion, this time to Alain Resnais and Dušan Makavejev, who are perhaps the two European filmmakers most devoted to reckoning with manmade catastrophe through montage and the carnivalesque, which are von Trier’s chosen aesthetic modes here. Despite having nothing fashionable in either its politics or its preoccupation with the egotistical artist, The House That Jack Built is one of the most forward-thinking films of 2018 for how it proposes an unruly resurrection of the past, and one’s past self, in order to grapple with its significance. Dillard
70. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)
The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Bowen
69. Unsane (2018)
In 1959, Georges Franju’s masterpiece Head Against the Wall used a man’s confinement at a sanitarium as an analogy for the listlessness of French youth—a generation old enough to remember the degradations and traumas of World War II but now confronted with the promise of a passive, consumer-driven middle-class existence. Steven Soderbergh’s down and dirty Unsane functions in a similar way, using the experience of institutionalization to probe the mores around mental health in a privatization-mad America. Few if any Hollywood-adjacent filmmakers have put as much brain power into making the digital revolution work for them as Soderbergh has, and even Unsane’s most ridiculous moments coast on the sheer energy of aesthetic gamesmanship. Shooting on an iPhone 7, the filmmaker continues finding economical solutions in a pinch. Soderbergh remains a major artist at the peak of his powers, fascinated by the textures of the contemporary world—the actual one, not the one we usually pay to see at the movies. Even if he’s just flexing a new mode of production, the result is still 98 minutes of shredding, analeptic cinema. Steve Macfarlane
68. Suspiria (2018)
Luca Guadagnino knew that a successful remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria would need, at the very least, to take the material in a completely different direction. And he winkingly acknowledges that belief in an early scene from his remake when Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, err, Lutz Ebersdorf) underlines the word “simulacrum” in a notebook. The new Suspiria is, especially in visual terms, anything but a simulacrum, as its palette is more reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Walerian Borowczyk’s films than Argento’s neon-tinged original. Guadagnino’s remake is, above all, a film about the terror that lingers in a European city long after its been blitzed by various catastrophes. Guadagnino uses Argento’s original as a launching pad for interrogating how the old, whether in dance or politics, often corrupts the new. Heady though it is, the film also more than delivers the genre goods. It strikes a delicate aesthetic balance between hysteria and control, most evident in an unforgettable scene in which Susie (Dakota Johnson) dances for Madame Blanc (Swinton), much to the bone-breaking detriment of the Markos Dance Academy’s former star. Dillard
67. November (2017)
In André Breton’s writings on surrealism, he envisions, and prescribes, a mode of fairy tale for adults rooted in juxtapositions so poetic and strange that they seem only possible in dreams. Or in the work of Rainer Sarnet, who crafts the uncanniest of fables in November. Based on a novel by Andrus Kivirähk, this gorgeously shot film is an intrepid portrait of an Estonian village inhabited by greedy old men, wise toothless hags, ghostly lovers, and anthropomorphic creatures made out of human hair and metal coils. November respects the logic and temporality of the unconscious. As such, it’s difficult to tell if the story takes place in medieval times or some dystopian future. Its impenetrable storylines take shape like most of its dialogue, bearing the enigmatic sparseness of poetic stanzas or ancient spells. There’s more to be enjoyed if one gets lost in the bewildering rhythm between eerie sounds and the black-and-white imagery, instead of trying to detangle the various strands of the surreal narrative. Diego Semerene
66. Train to Busan (2016)
When divorced of message-mongering, the film’s scare tactics are among the most distinctive that the zombie canon has ever seen. The zombies here are rabid, fast-moving ghoulies that, as Train to Busan’s protagonists discover, are attracted to loud sounds and only attack what they can actually see. This realization becomes the foundation for a series of taut set pieces during which the story’s motley crew of survivors manipulate their way past zombies with the aid of cellphones and bats and the numerous tunnels through which the train must travel. The genre crosspollination for which so many South Korean thrillers have come to be known for is most evident in these scenes (as in the survivors crawling across one train car’s overhead luggage area), which blend together the tropes of survivor-horror and disaster films, as well as suggest the mechanics of puzzle-platformer games. Gonzalez
65. In Fabric (2019)
Peter Strickland’s films are fetish objects that rue the perils of fetishism. The British filmmaker’s characters are walled off from others, channeling their longing into various acts of aestheticism, which parallels his own obsession with emulating the stylistics of the giallo, softcore pornography, and classic European chamber dramas. In Fabric finds Strickland doubling down on these qualities, mounting a gorgeous and lonely horror film that expresses emotion via a series of increasingly abstract motifs. Strickland allows his dreamy atmosphere to take over the film, as the characters are eaten alive by their hungers and uncertainties, though this free-floating reverie has a moralistic streak. Bowen
64. 28 Weeks Later (2007)
28 Weeks Later rolls in like a poisonous dust cloud of nihilism. The everyman hero this time around is Don (Robert Carlyle), who thinks he and his wife (Catherine McCormack) are safe in their wee rural cottage when the rage virus transforms most of mainland Britain into shrieking, blood-vomiting zombies that sprint head-on at their victims. 28 Days Later is a tough and uncompromising horror film, but it’s all sunshine and laughter in comparison to the sequel. The thesis of 28 Weeks Later is that the War on Terror is ultimately a self-destructive one for all concerned, from the bullying authority figures to the demoralized combat soldiers to the fractured family units. Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo seems to place his empathy with the recently infected. Much like Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there’s an understanding for what it means to be human—and the magic that is lost when that humanity is stripped away. Jeremiah Kipp
63. 1922 (2017)
In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen
62. Them (2006)
Hoody-clad sadists attack a couple, alone in their country home. That’s all the setup that co-writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud need to dredge up some uniquely discomfiting chills. You won’t be able to shake Them is primarily set in seems to grow bigger with each new hole the film’s villains tear out of. To get the maximum effect, be sure to watch this one at night; just don’t watch it alone. Simon Abrams
61. Black Death (2010)
Grim aesthetics and an even grimmer worldview define Black Death, in which ardent piousness and defiant paganism both prove paths toward violence, hypocrisy, and hell. Christopher Smith’s 14th-century period piece exudes an oppressive sense of physical, spiritual, and atmospheric weight, with grimy doom hanging in the air like the fog enshrouding its dense forests. His story concerns a gang of thugs, torturers, and killers led by Ulric (Sean Bean), a devout soldier commissioned by the church to visit the lone, remote town in the land not afflicted by a fatal pestilence, where it’s suspected a necromancer is raising the dead. Dario Poloni’s austere script charts the crew’s journey into a misty netherworld where the viciousness of man seems constantly matched by divine cruelty, even as the role of God’s hand—in the pestilence, and in the personal affairs of individuals—remains throughout tantalizingly oblique. Schager
60. The Neon Demon (2016)
Nicolas Winding Refn puts his monogram on his film’s title card. So did D.W. Griffith. The Neon Demon is about narcissism as a form of artistry and, girl, is it ever. Boasting color that would make Mario Bava blush and proffering hilariously conceited exchanges that oscillate between farce and bone-dry awkwardness, each successive scene loudly announces Refn’s turn of the screw. Refn finds the fabric of hidden cultural demons, and not the sorts of spirits that can be dismissed by an exorcist. Check the wallpaper behind Gigi (Bella Heathcote) after she barfs up an eyeball; it’s covered in swastikas. The appropriative and racist legacies of Los Angeles and Europe find women as only food or sex while in the crosshairs of these wide-eyed, well-dressed hounds. The lure of lights, the bass of electro, the will to power, the kino eye—what hath this delight in pleasure and knowledge wrought? Dillard
59. The Hole in the Ground (2019)
Quite a bit of the fun of The Hole in the Ground resides in guessing how Lee Cronin’s shopworn signifiers fit together, as he offers a smorgasbord of portentous elements that include a crone by the roadside, the aforementioned hole and the woods, a pointed reference to Sarah’s (Seána Kerslake) medication, and Chris’s (James Quinn Markey) newfound sense of inhuman formality. There’s also, of course, a past atrocity that haunts Sarah and Chris’s new residence. Yet the film gradually becomes something more than a mixtape of horror gimmicks, as it homes in on a frightening real-world subtext. Chris’s changing behaviors, which include chillingly crawling on the floor of his room like an animal and eating a large spider, are rooted in the distance that comes between Sarah and Chris after they leave Sarah’s abusive husband. There’s an unspoken sense that Sarah’s arising revulsion with her son may be rooted in how he reminds her of his father, and there’s a particularly moving scene where we see Sarah’s disgust with Chris as he eats spaghetti, which Cronin frames in a cruelly unflattering close-up. Bowen
58. Neighboring Sounds (2012)
Of course this upstairs-downstairs portraiture plays out with the tenor of horror. The class war is an inexhaustible source of terror—particular here, in Recife, Brazil, an affluent coastal town whose middle-class comforts are quite literally built up and around its history of poverty and oppression. Less social critique than abstract deconstruction, Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Neighboring Sounds is very much about the power of the cinema not to deliver, but to portend, and to that end its gears are always turning. Its sublime sound design, emerging at the intersection of ambient noise and musique concrete, offers a case study for how to suggest the existence of horrors we never see. Filho understands that an atmosphere of palpable dread sustains tension better than more sensational explication, and his commitment to withholding is, without exaggeration, worthy of Hitchcock. That it more or less forgoes the spectacle of an anticipated resolution is a necessary consequence of its methods; in other words, for Filho, process rather than payoff is the point. As Recife’s idle rich flaunt their privilege as lowly laborers circle them like sharks, conflict seems a guarantee. But the bubble of complacency in which these characters live doesn’t need to be punctured by violence. The status quo is damning enough. Calum Marsh
57. The Invitation (2015)
The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan
56. Mulholland Drive (2001)
David Lynch’s meta noir Mulholland Drive literalizes the theory of surrealism as perpetual dream state. Told as it is using a highly symbolic, ravishingly engorged language of dreams, this bloody valentine to Los Angeles naturally leaves one feeling groggy, confused, looking forward and back, hankering to pass again through its serpentine, slithery hall of mirrors until all its secrets have been unpacked. Whether Mulholland Drive anticipated the YouTube Age we live in (and which Inland Empire’s digital punk poetics perfectly embody) is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that this movie-movie will continue to haunt us long after Lynch has moved on to shooting pictures using the tools of whatever new film medium awaits us—tools that he will no doubt have helped to revolutionize. Gonzalez
55. Hereditary (2018)
The first half of Hereditary establishes Annie’s (Toni Collette) grief and decades-long mental illness to set up the arrival of Joan (Ann Dowd), a Caligari-like figure who preys upon Annie’s vulnerability. Although Joan seems like an honest and empathetic woman, she’s actually a deceitful minion of Paimon, an avaricious king whom Annie accidentally helps to conjure from the dead. Hereditary is chock-full of citations to other classic horror films (most notably Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining) that take as their themes the manipulation of women as mothers and wives. When Annie, deep in the haze of misbegotten conviction, tells her son, “I’m the only one who can fix this,” she’s trying to rectify the sense of maternal guilt she feels for her daughter’s death. She’s also invoking Donald Trump’s claim from a July 2016 rally, when he said in reference to law and order: “I alone can fix it.” Fallen prey to the circumstances of her own deception, Annie speaks the self-defeating logic inherited from her manipulator. Dillard
54. Sinister (2012)
Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Marsh
53. Maniac (2012)
Made in collaboration with Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, and with the sort of fearless artistic freedom often allowed by European financing, Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac begins with a psychopath’s synth-tastically scored stalking of a party girl back to her apartment, outside which he cuts her frightened scream short by driving a knife up into her head through her jaw. The film deceptively delights in capturing the mood of an exploitation cheapie before latching onto and running with the conceit only halfheartedly employed by William Lustig in the 1980 original, framing the titular maniac’s killing spree—this time set in Los Angeles—almost entirely from his point of view. A gimmick, yes, but more than just a means of superficially keying us into the psyche of the main character, Frank, an antique mannequin salesman played memorably by a minimally seen Elijah Wood. As in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, this approach becomes a provocative means of sympathizing with the devil. Gonzalez
52. Depraved (2019)
What does a Frankenstein figure look like in 2019? According to Larry Fessenden’s Depraved, he’s a guy with war-addled, once-noble intentions set adrift by male ego and shady benefactors. He’s a white man grasping for control in a world coming apart, a cog in a machine who hasn’t broken free so much as changed the machine’s function—from that of war to that of the pharmaceutical industry. The film, Fessenden’s first feature as both writer and director since 2006’s The Last Winter, paints multiple psychological portraits that are sad, angry, and strangely beautiful. It shows us the mind of not just PTSD-afflicted field surgeon Henry (David Call), but also that of his prototypical sewn-together “monster,” Adam (Alex Breaux), and his assistant and Big Pharma bankroller, Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Throughout, the film it remains firmly focused on its thesis of Frankenstein as a lens for examining modern society. Fessenden catalogues what personalities and power dynamics have shifted and what hasn’t changed at all. He diagnoses the rot of our era through these solipsistic men that pour their prejudices and their insecurities into Adam, an open book eventually read back to its authors with a violence they cultivated themselves. Steven Scaife
51. Us (2019)
Jordan Peele’s Us suggests C.H.U.D. for the Trump era. Even though it’s not as tidily satisfying as Get Out, it’s both darker and more ambitious, and broader in its themes. This film’s African-American characters also come under assault not in the inner cities of the white imagination, but in supposedly safer upper-class suburban spaces. But Us also moves past such racial themes. The shadow vengeance meted upon the Wilsons is in fact a plague, and it’s one that touches every family in Peele’s film. In Us, Peele is less concerned with blackness than he is economics, as the howling, homicidal doubles that torment the Wilsons represent an avenging under class. “What are you people?” Gabe (Winston Duke) asks when the terror begins. “We’re Americans!” his wife’s double (Lupita Nyong’o) hisses. It’s tempting to read these Americans as the embittered Trump base, rising up to destroy the false idyll that was the comfort—for some, at least—of the American status quo. Henry Stewart
Review: Honest Thief Is a Dried-Out Rehash of the Liam Neeson Actioner
The repetitious plot is more ritual than text as we watch yet another Liam Neeson avenger defy the will of younger, unscrupulous men.1
For more than a decade now, Liam Neeson has been primarily identified with the furrowed brows and flying elbows of men with particular sets of skills. Last year, Hans Petter Moland’s Cold Pursuit, with tongue firmly in cheek, seemed to suggest that Neeson’s propensity for playing brooding middle-aged avengers had reached a point of self-parody—á la Arnold Schwarzenegger in James Cameron’s True Lies. But director Mark Williams’s Honest Thief sees Neeson back in earnest “I’ll catch up to those men who wrecked my life” mode—á la Schwarzenegger in Andrew Davis’s Collateral Damage.
Williams’s action thriller casts Neeson’s as unassuming, denim-clad nice guy Tom Dolan, who has led a secret life as a bank robber known by the press-appointed sobriquet “the in and out bandit.” It’s a moniker ripe for riffs about hamburgers or intercourse, but Honest Thief is too stiff—certainly not too sophisticated—a film for wordplay spicier than the trite paradox in its title. Tom’s defining characteristic consists of his absolute lack of irony; in contrast to the jaded men of the Boston F.B.I. department who end up pursuing him, he’s the last bastion of guileless masculine honor. “She means more to me than all the dollar bills in the world,” Neeson utters in his gravelly baritone at one point, referring to the woman, Annie Wilkins (Kate Walsh), who has inspired him to leave his life of crime behind.
If the film doesn’t call up such clichés to mock them, it also doesn’t seem wholly unaware of them. Rather, and perhaps more dangerously, there’s an assertiveness to the way it rehashes corny lines and predictable beats, as if it’s saying that the old clichés—about men and women, about good guys, bad guys, and just deserts—are simply what works, and therefore what’s true. On the other end of the phone call when Tom proclaims the relative worth of his girlfriend is Special Agent Sam Baker (Robert Patrick), who Tom is attempting to turn himself in to, in exchange for a plea bargain. Having received many confessions from individuals claiming to be the bandit, Baker and his recently divorced schlub of a partner, Agent Meyers (Jeffrey Donovan), are slow to act on Tom’s call, delegating the task of conducting an initial interview with the man to two subordinates, Agents Hall (Anthony Ramos) and Nivens (Jai Courtney).
Hall and Nivens, being morally directionless men of a younger generation rather than the upright boomers represented by Tom, Baker, and even the disaffected (but soon reformed) Meyers, scam Tom as soon as they realize he’s the real deal. To verify to Hall and Nivens that he is who he says he is, and trusting in them as representatives of authority, Tom gives them the keys to the storage unit that houses the cash he’s stolen over the years. In a turn that suggests that Williams and co-screenwriter Steve Allrich failed to Google “civil asset forfeiture” during their research for the script, Hall and Nivens decide that they need to lie to their bosses and murder Tom in order to steal his misbegotten money.
Naturally, they flub the murder part of their plan, and Tom ends up on the run, with his irrationally loyal girlfriend accompanying him on car chases through the mysteriously empty streets of Boston. Emptiness more or less sums up Honest Thief’s entire aesthetic. It’s an effect that at first seems unintentional. But then, the film’s interiors are so bare that at times they almost resemble Robert Bresson’s alienated cinematic spaces; its urban exteriors are so strangely devoid of life that their deadness recalls midcentury existentialism, as if this were Taken by Beckett. A rushed and cartoonish final act, though, involving cops colluding in the uncontrolled detonation of parts of suburban Boston puts rest to such reveries.
In any case, the truth of the matter—that the film is a pared-down, dried-out rehash of the half-dozen Neeson vehicles that preceded it—seems almost beside the point. The repetitious plot is more ritual than text as we watch yet another of the actor’s characters defy the will of younger, unscrupulous men, surprising them with hand-to-hand skills honed by Marine training, bashing his stolen car into theirs when flight would have been the safer choice. Taken with all the other iterations of this story, Honest Thief isn’t about Tom, but about Neeson as America’s conservative Dad and his Sisyphean routine of grumbling, growling, and raging at a world in which he no longer seems to belong, and then inevitably doing it all over.
Cast: Liam Neeson, Kate Walsh, Jeffrey Donovan, Jai Courtney, Anthony Ramos, Robert Patrick, Jasmine Cephas Jones Director: Mark Williams Screenwriter: Steve Allrich, Mark Williams Distributor: Open Road Films Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
Interview: Cooper Raiff Talks Shithouse, Nostalgia, and Being There for Others
The filmmaker discusses how Shithouse reflects the specifics of a certain life experience.
“Bet you won’t click on this link and then email me,” read the tweet from college student Cooper Raiff to indie film maven Jay Duplass that began the journey of Shithouse. Raiff had directed and shot a film about a homesick freshman and a savvy RA called Madeline & Cooper over spring break with $300, two friends, and stolen equipment from his college. Duplass responded, both emotionally to the film and literally to the message, and helped mentor as well as support Raiff through making a more professionalized iteration of the film linked to in the fateful tweet. That new film, Shithouse, won Raiff the grand jury prize at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival at just 23 years old.
Tempting as it might be to ascribe a master plan to Raiff’s rise, the Shithouse multihyphenate—actor, writer, director, editor—evinces no evidence of being a calculating wunderkind. Raiff remains as affable and easygoing as his film, a leisurely but lofty college-set tale of two young people coming to terms with the personal baggage that weighs on them. Madeline and Cooper from the original scrappy feature become Maggie (Dylan Gelula) and Alex (Raiff), who navigate similar emotional terrain but within a larger personal and social framework that encompasses fellow students as well as Alex’s family at home in Dallas.
Shithouse recalls the best of Richard Linklater, not only because Raiff already proves his adeptness at mastering the director’s trademark “walk and talk” two-shots. He also shares an appreciation the unique window provided by the collegiate experience to focus on self-actualization. Raiff’s film recognizes the ability for extended conversations to soften characters’ emotional guards and expose real vulnerabilities, and it’s all conveyed with a distinctively Texan sense of casualness and compassion.
I spoke with Raiff over Zoom the week prior to Shithouse opening in select theaters and on demand, a scale of release that thrilled him but by no means felt inevitable. Our wide-ranging conversation covered why he doesn’t think about cinematography when envisioning a film, how writing makes him a better person, and where he wishes he’d been more precious in editing his personal but not autobiographical character. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to start our time by raising a personal connection: Raiff and I both attended small high schools in Texas that played against each other in the same athletic conference. Recognizing that bit of shared kinship led to Raiff revealing a number of ways in which Shithouse reflects the specifics of a certain life experience in addition to the story’s broader applicability.
Alex in the movie is wearing a Greenhill Wolves sweatshirt. But if I recall, the real Greenhill is the Hornets. I’m betting that Greenhill didn’t lend you the mascot?
No, I just wanted to have the stuffed wolf. I had this thing where I wanted it to be Alex’s dad, but for it to be a wolf dad. I really cared about it being a wolf, but it’s really funny because a lot of people think it’s a dog, so it doesn’t even matter. I also wanted it to tie back to high school. I wanted it to have that mascot. I think, at the end of day, I could’ve gotten permission, but I didn’t have the time to ask. I made a sweatshirt instead and made it so that if I said something…there’s actually a scene where I talk about Greenhill, and not that I shit on it. I say really nice things about it, but I just didn’t want any kind of legal thing to get in the way.
In terms of developing a passion for film or movies. I’ve heard you say that you don’t consider yourself a filmmaker. If watching movies wasn’t pushing you into making them, how were they acting on you and influencing you?
When I was directing for the first time, I realized just how deep into my bones movies are. I don’t watch a ton of them. I’ll also turn a lot of them off because I just know when one isn’t going to land with me. But when they do, I can’t stop thinking about them. It wasn’t a stretch to figure out how I was going to film Shithouse, because even if I direct a ton of movies moving forward, I like coming from this place of always just caring about these characters and themes that are coming from these characters. Where I come from is always: I’m obsessed with these two people, and I want to write scenes where these two people are gonna have the most fun. At the end of the day, the most important things to me are what their personalities say about life. The way that Maggie and Alex are such perfect foils for each other, I think, says something pretty universal about the way that two different people look at the way we relate to each other and our interconnectedness.
At what point did you did you know that the story that you were working on would have resonance for other people?
Like, a couple months after SXSW when more people started watching it. I think I knew that it was universal, but I didn’t know if I communicated that well enough. You never know until people see it. But I knew that I would love it. I knew that my family members and my ex-girlfriends would love it. On set, being in the scenes and watching Dylan play Maggie, I just knew that all the scenes were working so well, and it had the magic that I wanted. It felt special in the way that I wanted it to feel special. I knew that I was going to always love the movie. But it’s so small and quiet, so I didn’t know how many people were gonna really meet it. Because, and here’s the thing: Shithouse requires you to meet it where it is. It’s a movie that you have to really go there for it in a way. Most great movies are just there, like you don’t have to work hard to immerse yourself in it. And Shithouse is very comfortable with not being seen by a lot of people, it just comes across that way. I think it’s been so nice hearing that more than 10 people went there, enjoyed it and felt it the whole way through.
As someone who’s not all that different from Alex, I didn’t feel like I had to travel far. It was very much kind of like, “How dare you make this biopic of my life freshman year?”
Yeah, but even then, because Alex is such a specific character that I didn’t know how relatable he would be. Because Alex is myself stripped away a ton. I have, way deep down, this really huge, massive caring bone in my body. I just want to love and like taking care of people. I think realizing that people are relating to that part of Alex is awesome, and it feels really cool.
Are you someone who needs to parse the events of your life through art, writing, or creating something to feel some sense of closure or finality in the experiencing of it?
No, I never thought of this movie as cathartic while writing it. Honestly, when I was acting in it, it was pretty cathartic because there were certain scenes where I had never really gone there. I don’t think of my writing as therapy in that way. But I will say that as a writer—I think I realized this recently because I’ve been writing a ton again—it does make me a better person. Naturally, obviously, because it’s about trying to understand and have empathy for people. I don’t go to a script saying, “I have to figure this shit out.” But I am realizing that it does inform my life in the biggest way, where I didn’t think that before. I thought it was just something that I was doing and meant a lot to me, but it was a separate thing. I think it really informs who I am because I’m spending all day just thinking about other people and getting their interior lives. I think that’s who I am is someone who just moves about that way.
How did movies both prepare and fail you for college? Movies set at school, and college in particular, don’t really make a ton of space for stories like this about someone who’s feeling very alone and isolated.
I haven’t really seen a lot of college movies, honestly, but I’ve seen many movies that do little scenes from college. It’s always just written from a place of nostalgia. I think writers see college as a playground for them to write whatever they want. But, for me, when I knew I was gonna make a movie about college, there was really only one thing that I could write about, and it was the pain of leaving home and growing up. Just the fact that no one prepares you for how hard it is to fall asleep that first night under a new ceiling. Also, the pain of your parents dropping you off and driving away and leaving you there, it’s just horrendous.
But I think movies always fail people because they’re trying to be good instead of trying to say something. I’m not even saying entertaining, because I want everything to be entertaining, but I wanted to communicate something while being as watchable and entertaining as possible.
Even though the film feels very loose, it’s my understanding that Shithouse is highly scripted. How do you write for college students? Because, on the one hand, sometimes the way they talk seems very on the nose. But, then again, they’re all kind of taking their cues from movies or the idea of what it means to be in college.
Yeah, I totally agree with that. So, Alex is very much based on me, Maggie’s very much based on someone I’m with right now. Her name is Madeline, and the movie’s based on our relationship, so I know exactly how she talks. I know exactly what she’s gonna say, always. My mom, even more so. The roommate was a combination of every single guy friendship that I’ve ever had. I just picture them talking. I write a lot of like’s, and I write a lot of um’s. But with the script, I always tell the actors that they can rewrite whatever they want to rewrite. I never want something to sound false or feel uncomfortable coming out of their mouth. I don’t say, “You have to say the like right here, or you have to say the um right here,” but the like’s and the um’s in a line will just signal to the actor that it’s not as well thought out. He doesn’t exactly know what he’s saying here. That’s why there’s a lot of like’s and um’s. I always want my actors to know that I’m not precious about any of the lines or anything. I just wanted to get across that there’s gonna probably be some like’s and um’s in this one this big line.
As actor, director, and editor of Shithouse, how do you keep yourself from getting too precious in your performance? I was recently talking with Kirsten Johnson, the director who did Cameraperson and Dick Johnson Is Dead…
[eyes light up] I am obsessed! If you look on my Facebook page, a still from Cameraperson is my cover photo. I’m obsessed with that movie.
So good! She mentioned an exercise she does with her students at NYU. She will have them film each other talking about their fears about their thesis project and then edit both themselves and the other person in the conversation. She said, inevitably, that the edit of the other person is so much more interesting because they can just see something in these little moments. The version of themselves they present is so sanitized or watered down that they become boring. I caught so many little moments of Alex in Shithouse that made me think you really didn’t fall into that same trap.
It’s really tricky because I think there’s a story that the character is so close to me, but it’s really not. I don’t feel like Alex at all. I mean, obviously, that’s a slippery slope. I did have another editor who came on to make sure I was seeing everything. But so many people have talked about not having another perspective. And because I think there’s this thing where people think there’s four different movies: the movie that’s written, the movie that’s on the set, the edited movie, and the movie that the audience receives. And I think being in charge of all the things really collapsed it in a way that I really liked. Even with the editor, I wasn’t just coming in and saying, “Hey, do whatever you want.” I was trying to communicate, “Hey, this is exactly what I want. I want you to help me out with getting this certain thing and this certain quality.” It didn’t feel like the barrier that I think a lot of people think it was.
To answer that specific question about not being precious with the character, I always did feel like I was acting as Alex. If I could go back, I think I probably would have been more precious. Just the response that people are giving, it seems like they just think it’s me. If I had known that’s what would have happened…I just didn’t think this movie would have a big audience at all. And not that it does, but I thought it was just going to be my friends and family who all know that I’m certainly not so much like Alex. But experiencing so many people kind of even just talking about it in terms of “this is the filmmaker,” it’s like, “No, I’m not writing emotional propaganda!” I did write a character, and I drew upon my life in a major way as everyone does writing something personal and original. But I wasn’t precious with it at all.
Throughout Shithouse, a lot of the characters opine about the nature and meaning of college. I don’t want to assume that the characters speak for you, but did thinking through these questions give you any clarity on the questions?
Yeah, I mean, I still don’t really know what the thesis of college is, but I know the arguments. I think what I wanted to say about college was that it’s the first time for me without a safety net. I was so dependent on my family members, and they were so rock solid that I got to college and felt like I was without oxygen for the first time. And then you have Maggie, who’s been without a safety net for a long time. That’s just how she was raised. I think that’s why she’s crushing college. But I think what I wanted to say was that going to your second home, it’s kind of the most selfish time of your life. You’re really trying to figure out who you are separate from the home that you were raised in for so long.
But the other thing I wanted to say is, yes, I think we should be looking out for each other, and I talk about that so much in Shithouse. I hope people get that in order to take care of people and look out for each other, you have to first take care of yourself. Figure out your shit, make your bed, take responsibility for your actions in a way that you’re moving or not moving. I think Maggie’s line is, “Just because your life’s shitty doesn’t mean you can make other people feel like their life is shitty.” Alex is so harsh about the way that people are just trying to survive because he’s not doing a good job of surviving. But he thinks, “Oh, everyone should be having this hard time, you just need me to help you out.” Where it’s like, “No, no, I don’t need you.” But then there’s like that whole thing where, yeah, you do. You can’t not depend on people.
I remember an older friend of mine told me in my first year at school, “I think your biggest problem is that you are over college and you are already a freshman.” But at the same time, I was still 19 and immature. Holding those two thoughts in your head about how equipped you are to handle the experience is definitely challenging, and I think it is a very unique struggle that Alex goes through.
Have you seen the movie Liberal Arts?
I have, but it’s been a long time.
There’s a line in there where [Elizabeth Olsen’s character] is talking about how she can see herself in the future, and she feels like a rough draft version of herself. But she has the wisdom to know that she’s not there. You just have to live through certain things and experience certain things—and also experience certain pains—in order to get there. I think the people that don’t have that wisdom, it’s not a bad thing. They’re just turning on that part of their brain because sometimes it’s not useful to have that knowledge too soon. That’s Alex, and I think a lot of people probably deal with that. But they choose to drink instead.
You’re having such a strange version of the rising star director narrative: Your debut feature wins SXSW but you never get to experience the film play before that crowd, you do the “water bottle” tour of Hollywood, but it’s all over Zoom. Where does that leave your mental state and how you want to move forward making something else?
I was just talking about this. I’ve had a lot of Zoom meetings. I’m young and don’t know anything, so I’m not good at not doing the scrappy, singular thing. I’m having these Zoom meetings with [people asking] like, “What do you want to do?” I have these ideas, and I have literally scripts where I’m like, “Here’s what I want to do.” The reaction is always, “That’s small.” And I’m like, “Yeah, it’s small!” I don’t think I’ll make a big leap after this at all. I’ll probably do a very similar thing. But in terms of the Zoom thing, it’s been really nice because I don’t have to drive in a car to go all these places.
It’s just weird to be in a lot of interviews or Zooms where people are asking you to talk about yourself for so long. I hope to God I’ll never stop thinking about how weird it is. Like, no wonder people get so self-absorbed because all it is is me talking about myself. I’m trying to keep telling myself that. It sucks that it didn’t premiere at SXSW, but I wasn’t expecting much. I’ve never been to a film festival, and I didn’t have all these dreams and hopes for it. So when it got cancelled, it was kind of like, “Oh.” But everyone’s response to it getting canceled was so nice, and people really wrapped their arms around the movies in such a kind way.
When I saw your background when reading about Shithouse, I thought the odds were low that you’d be able to talk to someone on a press tour who’d be able to talk about both the film and the specific Texas private school background it comes from.
Yeah, it’s been so nice! The thing is, I’ve just been talking so much about how it’s universal. Everyone leaves home, because not everyone goes to college, but never would I think about someone connecting to the very specific private school to college [journey] and just how special that small school makes you feel. Not special in terms of you’re the one or something, but special in terms of like, we’re just like such a community. I think a good example is if someone’s sitting down crying at Greenhill, no matter what, in five seconds tops someone would be over there making sure they’re okay. But if you go to college, even Occidental, and someone’s crying, no one is going over to say [something]. It’s just understood that people are going through their exorcisms, and you leave them alone. And with Greenhill, I think there was this constant sense of like, no, I need to be there for my fellow peer or my fellow students.
Review: Nocturne’s Insights Are Potent, but It Lacks for Searing Imagery
Nocturne is a reminder that the notes themselves are just as important as how you play them.2
Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) is jealous of her twin sister, Vivian (Madison Iseman). Both play classical piano at an artsy boarding school, but only Viv got into Juilliard. Only Viv has a boyfriend (Jacques Colimon), and despite approaching their art with less apparent intensity than Julie, only Viv has the school’s most coveted instructor (Ivan Shaw). But Julie has the black notebook, which has a creepy sun symbol on the front and once belonged to the student who kills herself in the opening scene of writer-director Zu Quirke’s Nocturne. Between the music notes, the notebook contains six creepy drawings that metaphorically come to pass in Julie’s life: Her prospects improve, but at the expense of the people in her way.
That the sixth, torn-out page of the book involves death should come as no surprise. Nocturne proceeds exactly the way it seems like it will, letting the supernatural element remain reasonably ambiguous while Julie keeps seeing a light like the symbol on her new notebook—a light so blinding and prominent that it suggests someone flying too close to the sun. She’s isolated save for her obsession, and perhaps too well, as the film struggles to create any sense of history between its characters, especially the sisters. We enter their relationship at a time when they’re already drifting apart, and the resulting characterizations lack any real specificity or intimacy beyond how Viv calls her sister “wombie,” leaving most of their animosity to weakly fizzle rather than explode after years of palpable resentment.
Behind all that, though, is some otherwise promising subtext about the desire to succeed at a young age. Julie very much feels the strain of being part of what one character calls “the Instagram generation,” where so many spotlights are thrust upon young people for their social media presences, their displays of talent, and the general democratization of fame in an age where anybody and anything can go viral. Over the years, many have struggled to cope with that attention and pressure and died young, from various child actors to the SoundCloud rappers that the film briefly invokes during one dinner table discussion. But Nocturne again stumbles over its own insularity, seemingly reluctant to explore the view of society at large as Julie notes that she doesn’t even have social media.
But rather than seeming like a dated point of contrast, classical music becomes a clever, unexpected companion to what, on the surface, appear to be distinctly modern anxieties. The film’s characters note the field’s many young prodigies up through the 20th century, while the piercing gaze of a painting of young Mozart figures prominently as a towering forebearer. With falling audience attendance and general fading interest, the current state of classical music comes to echo present-day existence: Young people need to succeed now because tomorrow is uncertain, and the light only grows brighter from a world that’s on fire.
But Nocturne still manages no accompanying sense of doom because it hardly lingers on these ideas, giving little more than cursory acknowledgement of how banal our personal markers of success can seem. If Quirke’s film means to mimic the tunnel vision of its protagonist, it does so perhaps too effectively, losing its thematic potency as it travels on a predictable trajectory, involving spooky drawings and sisterly spats, all the while leaving the existential miasma sitting out of frame. With no searing images or haunting displays of psychological insight, Nocturne is a reminder that the notes themselves are just as important as how you play them.
Cast: Sydney Sweeney, Madison Iseman, Jacques Colimon, Ivan Shaw, Julie Benz Director: Zu Quirke Screenwriter: Zu Quirke Distributor: Amazon Prime Video Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020