Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is proud to reissue a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. The essay below was first published on 06/03/2005, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).
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?
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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: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Transforms Thorny Folklore into Fluff
In transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product.1
“Once upon a time…or perhaps twice upon a time, for you may remember this story,” begins the voiceover narration of Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. To its credit, the film opens by addressing the elephant in the castle: that we, as modern filmgoers, surely know this story well, through all its incarnations as old-fashioned fairy-tale romance and as insipid CG action-fantasy. But this sequel’s attempt to deflect attention from its own tiresomeness only highlights the cynicism of a corporation that insists on franchising the reboots of its adaptations—on repeating the process of filtering the imaginative irrationality of folk tales through layers upon layers of calculation.
Angelina Jolie returns as Maleficent, once one of the most deliciously evil villainesses in the Disney canon, who now—like Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West—has been reduced to a mildly grumpy environmentalist. Disney has erected a mythos around the character to explain her malevolent deeds—or rather, to expose them as truly good. Channeling themes of historical revisionism and post-colonial white guilt, the Malefi-verse positions its title character as defender of the marshlands known as The Moors and its multifarious magical inhabitants, the Dark Fey, against the incursions and crimes of the late-Renaissance Europeans who live nearby. In the film, whose subtitle has virtually nothing to do with its plot, she’s supplied with an army of fellow Feys primed to resist the destruction of their native lands by greedy humans. The deviousness suggested by Maleficent’s occasional wry, sharp-toothed smiles and curling horns is hardly on display in her actions, which have thoroughly virtuous motivations.
Mistress of Evil posits a “true story” behind the official one recorded in the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, as rather than persecuting the princess subsequently known as Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent has adopted her and raised her. Aurora (Elle Fanning), though she’s grown up among the Fey, has fallen in love with Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). Throughout, we’re given little evidence of their mutual attraction beyond the fact that they’re both young humans, though Joachim Rønning’s film does attempt to elicit our sympathies for their union with an early scene that stages a YouTube-ready surprise proposal. Though she harbors doubts about this union, Maleficent initially tries to play the good mother, reluctantly accepting the match. But then, at the engagement dinner, Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), frames Maleficent for the sleeping curse that befalls King John (Robert Lindsay). Wounded in the subsequent confrontation, Maleficent flees and finds herself in an enclave of other vulture-winged, goat-horned Feys, led by Borra (Ed Skrein) and Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
As played by Jolie, Maleficent is less a character than a pose. Rather than suggesting potency and confidence, the character’s impassiveness conveys indifference, a disinterested neutrality that emanates from behind Jolie’s green contacts and prosthetic cheekbones. Neither Maleficent’s anger at the humans who framed her nor her muted concern for the oppressed Fey succeeds in selling the clichéd plotline concerning indigenous rebellion. As debate rages in the ranks of the outcast Fey regarding a prospective uprising against the murderous humans—the screenplay, of course, makes Conall’s plea for a moderate response to creeping genocide more appealing than Borra’s call for a revolution—Jolie’s perpetually cool persona fails to anchor our feelings in the fate of the forest’s denizens.
The rebellious Fey recruit Maleficent for the same reason that the humans fear her: the magical powers she possesses. Yet Maleficent’s powers are ill-defined, the magical green tendrils that extend from her hands little more than a reference to visual effects devised for Disney’s classic animated Sleeping Beauty from 1959. But aspects of the magic in Mistress of Evil still draw inspiration from its diluted source material: the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale classic that the animated film was based on. In that story, the wise woman’s curse not only puts the princess to sleep, but also freezes all life in the castle in place and envelops the structure in an impenetrable thorn bush. Many princes attempt and fail to forcibly enter the castle, hacking away at the bushes, but after a century, the brambles open up on their own, at last allowing a prince to enter the princess’s chamber, so to speak.
In Mistress of Evil, we see the character that Disney has dubbed Maleficent deploy similar magical effects to much less metaphorical ends: She freezes a cat in the air mid-pounce to protect her were-raven familiar, Diaval (Sam Riley), and she conjures up spindly thorn branches to shield herself and Chonall from a volley of crossbow bolts. The filmmakers, no doubt, see such references to the original tale as forms of felicitous homage, but in transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product. The film arranges a marriage between fairy-tale motifs and a CG-algorithm-driven plot that’s as bland and arbitrary as the one it stages between its nondescript human couple, processing thorny folklore into smooth, consumable pop culture.
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Ed Skrein, Harris Dickinson, Robert Lindsay, Warwick Davis Director: Joachim Rønning Screenwriter: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, Linda Woolverton Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: Tell Me Who I Am Feels as One-Sided as the Curated Lie at Its Center
By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the scope of their abuse.2
When Alex Lewis was 18 years old, he was involved in a motorcycle crash that left him with a severe case of amnesia. When he awoke in a hospital following the accident, he couldn’t recall where he lived or who his friends were. He didn’t even know his name. As for the woman babbling and pacing around the foot of his bed, he was taken aback to learn that she was his mother. The only thing Alex did remember was that the young man standing before him, Marcus, was his identical twin, and that they had a special connection.
Upon returning to their family estate, Marcus began the lengthy process of reacquainting Alex with the particulars of his life, as well as re-teaching him the basics, like how to tie his shoes. And through it all, Marcus did his best to present a rosy picture of their parents, assuring Alex that their mother, Jill, was “cool” and that they took nice vacations to France when they were kids. It wasn’t until after their parents’ death that Alex began to suspect that their upbringing may not have been as pleasant as Marcus suggested. And after Alex discovered a cabinet full of sex toys in Jill’s room and a photograph of him and his brother naked with their heads torn off, the horrible truth began to dawn on Alex: that he and his brother were sexually abused by their mother. Marcus would go on to confirm the abuse but refused to provide additional details, leaving his brother with questions that would haunt him for years.
Based on a book co-written by Alex and Marcus, Ed Perkins’s Tell Me Who I Am tells the brothers’ story with an Errol Morris-lite mix of expressionistic reenactments and interviews in which the subjects speak directly into the camera. Like the similarly themed Three Identical Strangers, the film parcels out disarming hints and shocking revelations at a steady clip, with a view toward maximizing the emotional impact of the material. It’s undeniably effective and affecting, escalating toward a harrowing confrontation-cum-reconciliation between the two brothers in which Marcus finally reveals the full horror of what they endured as kids: that, in addition to being abused by their mother, they were subjected to sexual assaults at the hands of multiple abusers, in what essentially amounted to an elite pedophilia ring.
In its richer, more rewarding moments, Tell Me Who I Am hints at the complex relationship between memory and identity. Alex relies on photographs to fill in the blanks in his memory, and yet, these seemingly objective recordings of the past, curated for him by his brother, are as conspicuous for what they reveal as for what they don’t. (As Alex muses at one point, “We take photos of weddings. You never take photos at funerals.”) But for a film about the power of getting a full and accurate accounting of the truth, it’s frustrating how little Tell Me Who I Am reckons with its own revelations. By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the sheer scope of the boys’ abuse.
Tell Me Who I Am hints at the brothers having been caught up in a seemingly extensive sexual abuse ring, one involving aristocrats and at least one well-known artist, all of whom remain unnamed. It’s a scandal reminiscent of recently exposed conspiracies of silence that surround wrongdoing, such as those involving Jeffrey Epstein, Jimmy Savile, and the Catholic Church. And while Perkins’s film wants us to believe that the brothers’ saga reaches a definitive conclusion when they tearfully embrace after Alex learns about what happened to him, it leaves the viewer with a host of unanswered questions. Who exactly was part of Jill’s social circle? How extensive was Alex and Marcus’s abuse? Were there other victims?
Even a cursory glance at news articles about the men and reviews of their book suggests how much Perkins has massaged the details of the Lewis brothers’ lives to craft his sleek, emotionally punchy narrative. From watching Tell Me Who I Am, one wouldn’t know that there was at least one other confirmed victim: Alex and Marcus’s younger brother, whose existence the film doesn’t even acknowledge. By forcing Alex and Marcus’s story into such a rigidly linear narrative of redemption, the film ends up losing sight of its subjects altogether, reducing them to mere representations of its core theme: the brother who wants to learn about his past versus the brother who’d rather keep it buried.
That’s why Tell Me Who I Am’s attempt to end on a note of closure—“It’s over finally,” Alex says, as the camera tracks away from the house where he was abused—comes off as phony. Perhaps Alex feels that he finally understands who he really is, but the film leaves us with so many unanswered questions, it’s hard not feel that the picture we’ve been given of these men is nearly as misleading and incomplete as the one Marcus provided to Alex all those years ago.
Director: Ed Perkins Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Gloss of Stuffed Is at Odds with Taxidermy’s Inherent Boldness
Erin Derham’s unadventurous aesthetic inoculates her from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.1.5
Erin Derham’s Stuffed opens with a montage of the various taxidermists she profiles throughout her documentary. This opening lays bare the film’s argument in unmistakable terms: that taxidermy is an art form, closer to the work of Tim Burton than that of Norman Bates. But it also exposes the film’s most unbearable flaw, as Derham supports her hagiographic argument by sewing together her case studies with a relentless, and relentlessly generic, score that speaks to her devotion to formula.
It’s an unadventurous formula at odds with the documentary’s attempts to establish taxidermy as a highly complex, anti-paradigmatic endeavor involving great amounts of scientific precision, as well as creative audacity and whimsical experimentation. Derham insists so much on taxidermists’ labor being more than the mere production of replicas that her refusal to adopt a more playful aesthetic approach as she portrays the quirky imagination of taxidermists feels like equivocation. It’s as if she approached the documentary’s making with thick rubber gloves, thus inoculating herself from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.
This may be the result of a certain courting, conscious or not, of digital streaming platforms through the mimicry of impersonally glossy production values. In any case, it leaves the viewer in a position akin to that of the fussy eater trying to pick unwelcomed ingredients out of their food. We want to savor the taxidermists’ artistry, except the clichéd polish that envelops the film keeps getting in the way. It’s an artistry that’s bold by design, as the taxidermist utilizes dead matter not with the utilitarian goal of resurrecting it, but as raw material to sculpt something altogether new. If the Paris Museum of Hunting and Nature invited artists Sophie Calle and Serena Carone in 2018 to intervene in its collection of retired guns and taxidermic realism precisely because of the unusual juxtaposition of conceptual art and refurbished dead matter, moose in red gowns and all, Stuffed defines taxidermy itself as already marrying fanciful concepts with the illusion of beastly or avian resurrection.
Taxidermist Madison Rubin tells us she loves “seeing the insides and the anatomy of things” as she skins 11 ermines with the meticulousness of a sculptor, or a dollmaker. Others evoke the resurgence of taxidermy, which used to be particularly popular in the Victorian era, in these times of digital de-materialization. And some attest to the specificity of the medium—how no other art form can convey texture the way taxidermy does. Yet Derham seems more invested in glossing over the numerous chapters she’s divided the film’s narrative into than in exploring the depths of her story. Taxidermy and sustainability, taxidermy and climate change, the ethics of taxidermy, taxidermy and museums, taxidermy as a business, taxidermy in fashion—all of these get addressed too rapidly, sometimes in just a couple of minutes.
The rush feels particularly unfortunate when Derham turns her attention to rogue taxidermy, a Lynchean subgenre located at the intersection of dioramas, cabinets of curiosities, and surrealist art. Here, Calle and Carone’s red ballgown-wearing stuffed roadkill would feel right at home—that is, delightfully out of place in the world. Instead, Stuffed quickly continues in its quest of a happy, peppy denouement to match the pristine porelessness of its sheen.
Director: Erin Derham Distributor: Music Box Films Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Trick Will Treat You to Meatheaded, Commentary-Free Ultraviolence
Patrick Lussier’s film is an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy.0.0
In the 2000s, a film company called the Asylum flooded Blockbuster shelves with “mockbusters”: cheaply produced, straight-to-DVD knockoffs of box-office dominators with titles such as Transmorphers, Ghosthunters, and Snakes on a Train. Patrick Lussier’s horror mystery Trick feels like an Asylum spin on Todd Phillips’s Joker, as both are about marginalized white guys who paint their faces, start killing people, and become kings of the incels. But where the licensed DC spinoff is an irresponsible and irredeemable pity party for a creep, this cheap lookalike is just an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy, assembled crudely from horror and cop-movie clichés.
Trick opens with a handy list of the dictionary definitions of its title, hinting at the filmmakers’ estimation of their target audience’s intelligence. Trick is also the name of the film’s villain, short for Patrick (Thom Niemann), an 18-year-old who, on Halloween night in 2015, attends a party with his classmates in their Hudson Valley town. During a game of spin the bottle—played with a knife—Trick is pressured to kiss another dude but instead starts stabbing and slashing everyone. (The subtext of repressed homosexuality is never alluded to again in the film.) Incapacitated and brought to urgent care, Patrick breaks free from his restraints and drops more bodies until police shoot him repeatedly in a hallway, knocking him out of a second-story window, neatly alluding simultaneously to both John Carpenter’s original Halloween (the defenestration) and Rick Rosenthal’s 1981 sequel (the hospital setting). Trick staggers to the river and vanishes, presumed dead.
But more killings follow, on or around Halloween, in towns downriver from the first. Detective Mike Denver, the only cop who believes Patrick survived, is played by Omar Epps, who credibly delivers preposterous dialogue like a pro. In the film’s most ludicrous killing, Trick uses a crane to swing the tombstone of an F.B.I. agent (Vanessa Aspillaga) he murdered the year before through the windshield of a car in order to smash a wounded police officer (Dani Shay) sitting inside, a scene Denver sums up to a colleague: “He murdered your deputy with the gravestone of a fed I got killed. Who does that?” Then, after a beat, “What does that?”
Good question. To be scary, a horror villain needs either to be a credible menace or tap into a more primal social fear. But Trick is just implausible. He’s resilient like Rasputin, more violent than a rabid animal. At a time when cellphones and social media are ubiquitous, no one ever got a photo of him, and his classmates can barely even describe his features, just that he was smart as fuck—like, smarter than the teachers. The film shows off his far-fetched cleverness when he kills a different F.B.I. agent (Robert G. McKay) with a Rube Goldbergian guillotine involving a sharp wire, a utility pole, and a bundle of cinderblocks. Its employment makes for Purge-level spectacle without the social commentary to back it up. The beheading is just meatheaded ultraviolence—as inane as any other aspect of Trick.
Cast: Omar Epps, Ellen Adair, Kristina Reyes, Tom Atkins, Max Miller, Thom Neimann, Jamie Kennedy Director: Patrick Lussier Screenwriter: Todd Farmer, Patrick Lussier Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Robert Forster: Winning in the Late Innings
The Oscar-nominated actor brought a sense of honor and dignity to every role he played.
David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive opens with a nighttime ride into oblivion. A limo drifts through the lightless void of the Hollywood Hills, red taillights burning in the blackness. An enigmatic woman, ebony hair and curvaceous red lips lending her the air of a tragic beauty, sits in the back by herself. The limo pulls over, and after the woman says, “We don’t stop here,” the driver aims a gun at her, but a gaggle of joyriding kids comes speeding around the curve and crashes into the vehicle. The woman climbs out of the wreckage stupefied and traipses into the hills, leaving behind the mangled metal and bodies.
Soon, a stoic detective arrives on the scene. He looks like a lawman, serious, a little sad, his face etched with the wrinkles of time. He examines the cars, offers a few terse observations, gazes out at the nocturnal city sprawling before him. It’s Robert Forster’s only scene in the film, and it’s an indelible one, imbued with mystery and menace, an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Saying fewer than 20 words and appearing in only a handful of shots, he exudes an air of wisdom and weariness—that of an indolent man who’s seen some shit and knows the horrors lurking ahead. In a film of dreamy logic and ineffaceable images, Forster’s taciturn detective acts as the final glimpse of reality before we slip into a world of Hollywood hopes and fantasy.
Forster, who died of brain cancer at the age of 78 this past Friday, was a prolific actor who experienced a remarkable second act in his mid-50s after giving a deeply empathetic and vulnerable performance as a love-struck bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film populated by wounded characters leading unamazing lives, and who aspire to transcend mediocrity. “My career by then was dead,” Forster told the AV Club’s Will Harris in a 2011 interview. “No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing…I could not believe that he [Tarantino] was talking about the Max Cherry role.”
Like so many of Tarantino’s films, Jackie Brown is replete with colorful, loquacious characters whose banter is clever, trenchant, and self-referential, but Forster’s Max Cherry is reserved and crestfallen, a man who’s settled into complacency and finds in Pam Grier’s flight attendant an unexpected inspiration. It’s one of American cinema’s great unconsummated love stories. Forster is a subtle actor, playing Max as an Everyman who chases people for a living but never seems to find what he’s looking for, and who willingly embroils himself in a dangerous situation because of love. He’s smart, self-sufficient, a decent guy, and yet for Jackie Brown he’s willing to risk his life, or whatever mundane existence he calls a life.
Forster was one of those great actors who appeared in far too few great films. His filmography is rife with bad films, though he was invariably a dependable presence in everything he did. He began his career promisingly, with a supporting role in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, and earned renown for his turn as an ambitious and ill-fated news cameraman in Haskell Wexler’s incandescent Medium Cool. He played a private eye in 1930s Hollywood in the show Banyon (his role in Mulholland Drive almost feels like a brief homage to the short-lived series) and appeared in a slew of genre movies for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. Of note is Lewis Teague’s Alligator, in which a gargantuan reptile terrorizes a city, William Lustig’s nihilistic grindhouse flick Vigilante, and a rare villainous turn in Delta Force, opposite the indefatigable Chuck Norris.
It wasn’t until Jackie Brown and his subsequent Oscar nomination that Forster reentered the public consciousness. The way Tarantino exhumes old, often “trash” films when crafting his paeans to moving pictures, he also has a preternatural skill for resurrecting the careers of forgotten or faded actors. Tarantino fought for Forster to get the part. When news of Forster’s death went public, the director said in a statement:
“Today the world is left with one less gentlemen. One less square shooter. One less good man. One less wonderful father. One less marvelous actor. I remember all the breakfasts we had at silver spoons. All the stories. All the kind words. All the support. Casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brown was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life. I will miss you dearly my old friend.”
Forster appeared in a panoply of listless films and television programs throughout the 2000s (his appearance in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants in 2011 being an exception) but became a household face again in 2018, when he took on the role of Sheriff Frank Truman, Harry S. Truman’s brother, on the third season of Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Whereas Michael Ontkean exuded a mercurial youthfulness on the original series, that of a warm-hearted, just man capable of fiery spontaneity, Forster plays the elder Sheriff Truman rather pensively, sagacious and serene. Which is to say, he acts with the wisdom accrued by experience.
Forster also appeared in a season five episode of Breaking Bad, as a vacuum store owner and “disappearer” named Ed who helps Bryan Cranston’s Walt change identities. A stable presence amid the histrionic theatrics that defined the show’s approach to acting, Forster gives an understated performance and a sense of the real-world left behind by Vince Gilligan’s increasingly combustible melodrama. Forster reprised the part this year in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the actor’s final screen credit. In a film-stealing scene, Forster stands steadfast and stoical against Aaron Paul’s desperate, bedraggled Jesse Pinkman, refusing to perform his disappearing service over a $1,800 discrepancy. The viewer is, of course, rooting for Jesse, yet one can’t help but respect the conviction of Forster’s unruffled professional. The actor brings a sense of honor and dignity to the role, as he did with every role. Forster was a safe, reliable presence, someone you trusted, unflustered, earnest, whether he was fighting monstrous alligators or swooning after air stewardesses.
Review: Cyrano, My Love Thinks Art Is Only Born of Romantic Passion
The film is imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls Shakespeare in Love.1.5
Alexis Michalik’s Cyrano, My Love wears its fondness for Shakespeare in Love very much on its sleeve. Though it serves up nuggets of truth, its take on Edmond Rostand (Thomas Solivérès) and the turbulent circumstances surrounding his creation of Cyrano de Bergerac is an outlandish one, imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls John Madden’s Oscar winner. And while Michalik positions Rostand as the story’s triumphant artist, the French dramatist is often reduced to a skittish ninny—as opposed to the pompous ass that Joseph Fiennes’s Shakespeare was positioned as—whose great art emanates not from the mind, but the cockles of the heart.
For a film so hellbent on the notion that Cyrano de Bergerac was inspired not only by actual events, but real emotions, there’s surprisingly little effort made to articulate with any specificity the conflicted feelings behind Rostand’s penning of what would become the most famous French play of all time. The initial catalyst for his play’s central conceit occurs when he steps in to help an actor friend, Léonidas (Tom Leeb), struggling to find the words to woo a costume designer, Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah), on whom he has a crush. Rostand, in one of the film’s many blatant nods to Cyrano de Bergerac, begins to feed his friend a barrage of romantic lines and relish the secrecy with which he can play out a love affair without disturbing his marriage with his endlessly patient and supportive wife, Rosemonde (Alice de Lencquesaing).
Yet, rather than teasing out the ample psychosexual baggage that should arise from the cognitive dissonance of Rostand writing daily love letters to Jeanne, his unknowing muse, while still professing, with complete honesty, that his only true love is his wife, Michalik pivots his focus to the swirling chaos of Cyrano de Bergerac’s production. With Rostand’s emotional conflict left fairly nebulous, Cyrano, My Love never quite gets to the root of the author’s inspiration, leaving its familiar theatrical farce about the troubles of mounting a stage play grounded in neither genuine emotion nor any palpable stakes.
As the hurdles that Rostand and company face in staging Cyrano de Bergerac grow bigger and Rostand writes pages to be rehearsed before the ink dries, the film introduces a parade of quirky, ostentatious characters. From the historical, such as Sarah Bernhardt (Clémentine Célarié) and Anton Chekhov (Misha Leskot), to the imagined, such as a prostitute (Mathilde Seigner) who’s foisted into the lead role of Roxane, each one is more thinly conceived than the next, with eccentricities dialed up to 11. The most egregious of these larger-than-life characterizations, however, is Monsieur Honoré (Jean-Michel Martial), the black café owner whose sole purpose is to repeatedly tap into his struggles as a minority as a means to galvanize the all-white cast and crew, who he then cheers on from the sidelines.
Cyrano, My Love’s lone performative bright spot comes in the form of a surprisingly nimble turn by Olivier Gourmet, known primarily for his dour turns in many of the Dardenne brothers’ films. Gourmet lends both humor and pathos to the play’s famous but desperate lead actor, Constant Coquelin. But while Coquelin steals the spotlight in a number of scenes, Rostand remains little more than a perpetually anxiety-ridden artist who virtually stumbles into writing a masterpiece during a helter-skelter production. And with little care given to rendering the intense emotional tumult that spurred his artistic process, all the pandemonium of Cyrano, My Love proves to be much ado about nothing.
Cast: Thomas Solivérès, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Tom Leeb, Lucie Boujenah, Alice de Lencquesaing, Clémentine Célarié, Igor Gotesman, Dominique Pinon, Simon Abkarian, Marc Andréoni, Jean-Michel Martial, Olivier Lejeune, Antoine Dulery, Alexis Michalik Director: Alexis Michalik Screenwriter: Alexis Michalik Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: In Greener Grass, White Picket Fences Cast Shadows Like Tendrils
In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance, as the suburbs have already won.3
The opening credits of Greener Grass linger on a twitching, toothy smile covered in braces. Everyone in the film wears braces. Everyone drives a golf cart, too, and dresses in gentle pinks and blues. The lighting is soft and sun-drenched, an effect that’s most pronounced during the film’s soccer matches. In the opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the camera creeps through a suburb’s pleasant veneer to reveal the rot that festers beneath. But for Greener Grass co-directors, co-writers, and co-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, the very surface is the thing that’s so unsettling, a place populated by slithering, rictus-grinning meat puppets penned in by white picket fences and their own crippling need to conform.
The trouble, if you could call it that, begins when Jill (DeBoer) abruptly gifts Lisa (Luebbe) with her newborn baby as they watch their other children play soccer. This isn’t, in the film’s bizarre conception of suburbia, a particularly outrageous act. At worst, it’s overly generous, like giving someone a gift more expensive than they’re comfortable accepting; another neighbor, Kim Ann (Mary Holland), later laments that she wasn’t given the child instead. The children in Greener Grass are essentially property, status symbols to reflect upon their owners in their pristine homes and yards, all of which feeds into an undercurrent of pervasive competition that nonetheless reinforces conformity and simply not rocking the boat.
Everything is seemingly interchangeable in Greener Grass. At a cookout, it takes a full conversation for Jill and Lisa to notice that they’re smooching and hanging on the arms of the wrong husbands, Dennis (Neil Casey and Nick (Beck Bennett), respectively. And when Jill’s young son, Julian (Julian Hilliard), inexplicably transforms into a dog, she’s horrified, but Nick, the boy’s father, seems pleased: Julian may no longer be able to take the advanced math class, but he’s now a prodigy when it comes to playing catch in the backyard.
There isn’t much of a traditional plot to the film, which plays more as a recurring series of sketches that subtly further Jill’s downward spiral. DeBoer and Luebbe let their scenes linger long past the point of discomfort, both in the length of mannered dialogue exchanges and the amount of time they hold a shot without cutting; the camera gingerly pulls out or pushes in while characters perform odd actions in the background, like perpetually folding tighty-whities or fishing out a seemingly infinite supply of pocket change. It feels voyeuristic, and sometimes it is: In one scene, a hand appears to reveal that we’re watching a POV shot, and in another, an off-screen voice begins breathing heavily and starts mock-repeating dialogue.
A schoolteacher, Miss Human (D’Arcy Carden), fixates on the deaths of American pioneers making their way to the West. In pursuit of “a better life,” they lost things along the way, as the people of Greener Grass have lost themselves in their migration to the suburbs. The film is more unsettling for its lack of an ordinary plot structure where, say, Jill might break out of her suburban funk or get everything to explode with violence in a revolt against conformity. In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance. Here, the burbs have already won, having already sent out the white picket fences like tendrils as far as the eye can see. There is no escape.
Cast: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey, Mary Holland, D’Arcy Carden, Janicza Bravo, Dot-Marie Jones, Lauren Adams, Julian Hillard, Asher Miles Fallica Director: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Screenwriter: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Cave Pays Wrenching Tribute to the Doctors Saving Lives in Syria
Its depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after The Cave’s doctors have left Ghouta.3
Feras Fayyad’s documentary The Cave concludes with what almost seems like a non sequitur: After the staff at a Syrian underground hospital are finally forced to evacuate their war-torn city, the film fades to a low-angle shot of a submerged World War II bomber plane. Kjetil C. Astrup’s camera tracks slowly past the moss-covered plane and an unexploded shell that lies nearby. Yes, it’s a 1940s bomber, and The Cave is about Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, that’s subjected to constant bombardment from contemporary warplanes, but what does this image have to do with the ongoing Syrian Civil War?
Given how instantly recognizable this bomber is despite decades of degradation and overgrowth speaks to how familiar we are with the massive political and moral sins of the 20th century. Fayyad’s point would appear to be that these sins are being recapitulated today in the Middle East. It’s not only the relentless bombing and devastating chemical weapon attacks captured in the film that evoke images of Europe during the West’s greatest conflict, but also the treatment of people attempting to escape the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.
Over the image of the bomber plane, Fayyad places statistics about the tens of thousands of refugees who’ve drowned fleeing the conflict. As in the omnipresent WWII stories we repeatedly tell ourselves are warnings against ever letting such things happen again, thousands of people in the Middle East are trapped, starving, and suffocating, their homes and livelihoods destroyed by a global war being carried out over their heads.
By the time the submerged bomber appears on screen, those schooled in the history of occupied Europe (or who are simply avid tourists) may have already drawn another parallel, as The Cave, the name given to the underground hospital in Ghouta, evokes the Hospital in the Rock, the Budapest hospital built within a bunker under a hill in the leadup to WWII. From inside The Cave, where the camera keeps us for almost the entirety of the documentary, the sound of bombs is muffled, but their consequences are unavoidable. After every raid, the hospital’s dimly lit underground hallway fills up with desperate families carting the wounded, weeping mothers shoving others out of the way to check on their dying sons, and orchestral music streaming on Dr. Salim’s smartphone. The Mozart helps him focus and, he explains, replaces anesthetic, to which the hospital doesn’t have access.
Heading the small staff that operates The Cave during the years-long siege of eastern Ghouta is pediatrician Dr. Amani, a physician so superhumanly dedicated that she’d come off as an idealized abstraction in a fiction film. Fayyad doesn’t delve into her backstory, but Amani appears to come from a relatively privileged background: Her family, whom she speaks to regularly on the phone, seems to be in a safe place, and she’s well-educated and a feminist, an inclination she expresses strategically to the camera and, when necessary, to defend her occupation against overtly misogynist patients. Despite her presumed access to avenues of flight, she’s stayed behind to treat juvenile victims of bombing campaigns and malnourishment, even paying dangerous house visits to diagnose the children of women who can’t leave their homes. Though brave and generous, she’s no saintly paragon of modesty; on occasion, she rages against the regime and their allies, and the 30-year-old outwardly longs for a regular day-to-day life in which she might be permitted to wear mascara.
Fayyad saves its most graphic depiction of the consequences of the siege for the latter part of the documentary, as a chemical weapon attack perpetrated by the regime and its Russian allies sends dozens of choking people—many children—rushing to The Cave for help. Fayyad ratchets up the suspense with a booming score that crescendos as the staff gradually realizes they’re handling patients who are choking rather than bleeding, and recognizes the smell of chlorine beginning to permeate the halls. Despite the real human suffering on screen, the whiff of rhetorical construction supplied by the score and the accelerating pace of the editing makes the scene feel a bit too much like a Hollywood trope, crafting suspense out of pain.
Perhaps, on the other hand, that moment of tension could be said to effectively convey some aspect of the events as the doctors felt it. Other excessively stylistic elements in The Cave, however, work against the urgency of its messaging. The handheld, intimate format of the bulk of the documentary is preceded by a still and distant opening shot of the Al Ghouta skyline, in which missiles are shown gliding into the mass of buildings and erupting into slowly moving dust and smoke. Ironically, this shot almost beautifies or poeticizes the ongoing destruction of the city, its cool perspective conflicting sharply with the later embodied close-ups of the suffering victims of the bombings.
As the film goes on, the bombings draw closer to The Cave, part of which is actually destroyed by one raid. Samaher, the doctor put in charge of preparing the hospital’s meager rations, cooks in fits and starts, running away from the stove whenever the sound of a plane rattles the nearby wall. Many of the male members of the team chide her for her skittish, sometimes nervously playful behavior, but candid shots pick up even the even-keeled Salim crying after a rare and brief Skype call with his family. The film’s depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after Amani, Salim, and Samaher have left Ghouta.
Director: Feras Fayyad Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Addams Family Is an Ooky Show of Confused Messaging
Throughout, the film tirelessly hammers home the point of being true to yourself.1.5
The Addams family has always proudly embraced its otherness with a mix of confidence and indifference to the opinions of judgy neighbors. And Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan’s animated The Addams Family is no different in that regard, setting up its fish-out-of-water scenario as soon as Morticia (Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac) take off to New Jersey and settle into the Goth mansion where they’ll raise their two children, Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard). All, of course, with the help of their loopy Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) and loyal servant, Lurch (Conrad Vernon), whose rocking out on the mansion’s giant pipe organ constitutes the majority of the film’s score.
With the family’s strict adherence to ceremonies steeped in their vaguely Eastern European roots, particularly the saber dance that Pugsley prepares for throughout the film, the metaphor for the immigrant experience writes itself. But The Addams Family’s targets are ultimately not the seemingly resentful bigots who fear the Addamses’ presence in their neighborhood, but an outmoded notion of suburban conformity that harks back to the 1950s. MAGA-esque indignation, which occasionally creeps in through a comment spewed from within an angry mob, is dwarfed by a distaste for, of all things, tract housing and HGTV-esque renovations.
In fact, the film’s villain, Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), doesn’t fear the Addamses for their cultural differences, but rather for the devaluing affect their eyesore of a house, perched on a hill, will have on the community of homes she’s building nearby and planning to market on her hugely popular television show. While Margaux’s town is called Assimilation, the lockstep conformity demanded here isn’t one that requires the Addamses to reject any deeply held beliefs or cultural norms, merely to apply a quick slap of paint to their home and endure a wardrobe change or two. This leaves The Addams Family feeling pretty toothless, even for a family film, as it’s unwilling to even pinpoint the true roots of the townspeople’s fears. Its eventual forgiveness of their thinly veiled jingoism, passing the enraged residents off as otherwise friendly, well-meaning people who simply fell victim to the manipulations of the greedy Margaux, only further dilutes any potentially relevant commentary.
In a subplot involving Wednesday’s venturing into Assimilation Middle School and befriending Margaux’s daughter, Parker (Elsie Fisher), The Addams Family offers an intriguing twist on the idea of the Addamses as a perfect family. When Wednesday shows signs of accepting Parker’s fashion advice, she finds in her family, particularly Morticia, the very same intolerance they’re confronted with around town. But this nugget of wisdom is soon lost in the wind when Wednesday returns home to protect her family in their hour of need. Until the finale, the film tirelessly hammers home the importance of being true to yourself, yet its ultimate resolution, one of relatively uneasy compromise, confuses even that simple point. You be you, but eventually everyone wants to fit in one way or another, so maybe change just a bit?
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Finn Wolfhard, Nick Kroll, Snoop Dogg, Bette Midler, Allison Janney, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Elsie Fisher, Tituss Burgess Director: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan Screenwriter: Matt Lieberman, Pamela Pettler Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 87 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Mister America Is an Essential Addition to the On Cinema Universe
The long and circuitous narrative history of the so-called OCU weighs heavily on Eric Notarnicola’s film.3
Equal parts absurdist satire and ambitious serialized melodrama, Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, and Eric Notarnicola’s online comedy series On Cinema and its extended universe—including Decker and The Trial miniseries—together comprise one of the brilliant multimedia projects of the decade. Originated in 2011 as a rambling podcast featuring the inane and unenlightening movie chatter of fictional amateur reviewers also named Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, the show has since blossomed into an elaborate Siskel and Ebert-style pastiche that has increasingly focused on the ongoing drama playing out between the hosts at the expense of any critical insight, all while intersecting with and commenting on the real world in ever-elaborate ways. As a self-contained enterprise completely produced and financed by the fictional simulacrum of Heidecker, the various twists and turns of the show’s content over the course of its now 11 seasons come as a direct extension of the showrunner’s ego and overreach, with Turkington, the self-described “expert,” more often than not a misery-ridden victim of his tyrannical partner’s outrageous whims.
The long and circuitous narrative history of the so-called On Cinema universe (or OCU)—far too head-spinning a metafiction to summarize in a few sentences—weighs heavily on Mister America, the first theatrical release to emerge from the Adult Swim-sponsored fictional world. But Heidecker and company have taken steps to extend the subject matter beyond its niche audience. In a shrewd maneuver that marks a first within the OCU, Mister America is framed as the work of an outside creator: Josh Lorton, a documentary filmmaker (played by series director Notarnicola) drawn to the peculiar case of Tim’s run for district attorney of San Bernardino county—a bit carried out for several months this year on Heidecker’s real Twitter account. In presenting itself as an unbiased, third-party view, Mister America allows itself the luxury of recapping critical pieces of the fictional timeline without coming across as monotonous filler for the devoted fans, since Lorton’s position as a neutral observer simply curious about a local eccentric brings a new angle on familiar absurdities.
Playing journalist, Lorton fills in the context behind Tim’s district attorney campaign with clips from recent seasons, ersatz local news clippings, and social media posts. As part of season nine, Tim ran the Electric Sun Desert Music Festival, an EDM bacchanalia funded by scam money and fueled by suspicious vape oil that left 20 teenagers dead and put Tim on trial, facing a life sentence. This string of events led to the OCU’s most challenging and formally audacious experiment yet: the aesthetically exacting five-hour mock-broadcast, courtesy of the fictional Apple Valley News, of this weeklong trial (the judge of which, Curtis Webster’s Edward Szymczyk, appears in Mister America to provide shell-shocked commentary). One mystery member of the jury was responsible for the trial’s inconclusive verdict, and Mister America picks up with Tim having hired this person, a reactionary single woman named Toni (Terri Parks), as his campaign assistant on the basis of her dubious former ad experience.
The shady and ill-advised people Tim aligns himself with on the show—including Axiom and Manuel, the members of Tim’s nü-metal band Dekkar, and Dr. San, the spiritual guru responsible for the Electric Sun’s lethal vape oil—provide ludicrous counterpoint to the ongoing toxicity of Tim and Gregg’s relationship. Likewise, the Tim-Toni dynamic proves to be Mister America’s richest vein, as Toni’s guileless support, which verges on idol worship, if not romantic interest, periodically softens Tim’s autocratic harshness, and the scenes between the two in Tim’s Best Western “office” offer a compelling push-pull between dictatorial behavior and collaborative stupidity. In the film’s funniest scene, a boozed-up Tim tries to dictate an impromptu social media press release about his D.A. opponent, Vincent Rosetti (Don Pecchia), while Toni struggles to open a Word document, with Tim’s sudden rhetorical adrenaline gradually yielding to a resignation over his partner’s incompetence.
The wishy-washy campaign run by Tim and Toni suggests the kind of misguided political adventure many impassioned Trump supporters might theoretically embark upon in the wake of their leader’s success: an emphasis on eradicating crime, getting things back to the way they used to be, and leveraging personal vendettas for political gain. In this case, the outsized target is “Rosetti the Rat,” Tim’s moniker for the prosecutor who went after him in court, for whom he harbors such hatred that it leads to the campaign slogan, “We Have a Rat Problem.”
An uproarious montage follows Tim, fancied up in a bargain-basement beige suit and wraparound shades, as he plants signs with this slogan throughout his community, and the film’s trajectory hinges on an imagined showdown with Rosetti that’s almost guaranteed to never happen. Rather than going toe-to-toe with Rosetti on the campaign trail, Tim must instead contend with Gregg, whose participation in Lorton’s documentary throws Tim into one of his tantrums, as his On Cinema co-host knows the truth and wants nothing more than to spoil the bogus campaign—at least when not showering Lorton with unwanted movie trivia.
Just as it’s intriguing to watch Tim present himself for Lorton’s camera, outside the usual venues over which he exerts control, Gregg, too, winds up a more complex character by virtue of being observed in the film’s real-life setting. Already established within the OCU as a deeply troubled figure who medicates his loneliness via a fetishistic collector mentality, the neurotic ambassador of the rinky-dink Victorville Film Archive comes across even more sad and socially inept in Lorton’s presence. Several times, spurned by the camera crew, Gregg wanders off into the strip-mall anonymity of San Bernardino with no destination in mind. These shots, simultaneously haunting and amusing, color Gregg’s involvement in Tim’s personal affairs as the compulsions of a man with no other prospects in life beyond his cardboard boxes of useless VHS tapes—an impression created in On Cinema but given palpable heft in Mister America.
All of this may seem preposterously overcomplicated to the uninitiated, but the film is actually rather safe and inclusive in its comedic approach, leaning toward upbeat cutting and broad punchlines at the occasional expense of the drier, thornier documentation of psychological warfare on display in The Trial and On Cinema. The film’s streamlined form is justified by the journalistic framing device, of course, but Heidecker and Turkington’s combined improvisational genius is best served in the more open formats of the shows, when they have the free reign to be long-winded and dig into their characters’ respective pathologies.
That’s not to say that Mister America entirely lacks such antics—the climactic town hall meeting, which rapidly escalates toward hysteria, plays out in a convincing approximation of real time—but that it retrofits the pricklier excesses of Heidecker and Turkington’s comedy into a more recognizable mockumentary shape. In any case, what’s so fascinating about the world of On Cinema is the way each creative outgrowth expands and deepens the lore, and Mister America’s universe-specific innovations, including the introduction of Lorton’s outside observer, renders the film indispensable in context.
Cast: Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Terri Parks, Don Pecchia, Curtis Webster Director: Eric Notarnicola Screenwriter: Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Eric Notarnicola Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2019
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