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?
Cleary, Thomas (translator). Zen Essence: The Science of Freedom. Shambhala Publications. 1989.
Gyaltsab, Zhechen, et al. Path of Heroes: Birth of Enlightenment. Dharma Publications. 1995.
Gyatso, Geshe Kelsang. Understanding the Mind. Tharpa Publications. 1997.
Jiyu-Kennett, Reverend Master. Roar of the Tigress. Shasta Abbey Press. 2000.
Jiyu-Kennett, Reverend Master. Zen is Eternal Life. Shasta Abbey Press. 1999.
King, Winston L. Zen & The Way of the Sword: Arming the Samurai Psyche. Oxford University Press. 1993.
Lao Tzu. Tao The Ching. Translated by John C.H. Wu. Shambhala Publications. 1989.
Pabongka Rinpoche. Liberation in the Palm of your Hand. Wisdom Publications. 1997.
The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Shambhala Publications. 1991.
Sato, Kanzan. The Japanese Sword. Kodansha International. 1983.
Stevens, John. The Sword of No-Sword. Shambhala Publications. 1984.
Suzuki, D. T. Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton University Press. 1959.
Zenji, Koho. Soto Zen. Shasta Abbey Press. 2000.
Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate
This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.2.5
Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.
Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.
Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”
As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.
In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.
Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.
Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line
There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.1.5
Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.
This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.
The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.
Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.
The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.
Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.
That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.
As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.
The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence
The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.3
The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.
Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).
Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.
Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”
Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.
Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.
By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.
Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.
Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother
It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.3
Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.
The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).
Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.
It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.
That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.
Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”
In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.
Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality
Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.
“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.
The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.
Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.
During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.
Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.
What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?
What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.
I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.
As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?
It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.
How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.
Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.
You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?
We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.
Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.
That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?
I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.
Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?
Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.
You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?
That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.
Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?
When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.
Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?
Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.
The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?
I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!
I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.
That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.
Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.3
Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.
For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.
Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.
Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.
Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.
Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook
As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.1.5
Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.
This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.
Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”
Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”
George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.
Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian
The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.1.5
Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.
Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.
Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.
But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.
The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.
Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Jessica Hausner on Little Joe and the Ways of Being and Seeing
Hausner discusses wanting to sustain the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative.
With Little Joe, director Jessica Hausner reinvigorates an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type premise by boldly suggesting that modern humans don’t have any identities left to lose. The true body snatcher, rather than the beautiful, manipulative red flower at the film’s center, is a corporate culture that stifles our individual thought with double-speak and other subtly constant threats to personal status.
The challenge of such a premise, then, is to reveal the private individual longings that are suppressed by cultural indoctrination without breaking the film’s restrictive formal spell—a challenge that Hausner says she solved with co-writer Géraldine Bajard during a lengthy writing session. Little Joe is so carefully structured and executed that one is encouraged to become a kind of detective, parsing chilly tracking shots and flamboyant Wes Anderson-style color schemes for signs of a character’s true emotional experience.
Ahead of the film’s theatrical release, Hausner and I discussed her obsession with boiling societies down to singular metaphorical places, a tendency that unites Little Joe with her prior features, including Amour Fou and Lourdes. We also talked about the notion of social coding and pressure, and how the filmmaker was interested in sustaining the tension of the first act of a Body Snatchers production over the course of an entire narrative. For Hausner, such tension is certainly fostered with a rigorous devotion to sound and composition, which her actors found freeing, perhaps in the ironic tradition of her own characters.
Little Joe evinces a strong understanding of that staid, subtly restrictive office culture.
I think in all my films I try to find a closed space. Sometimes it’s a company or, in Amour Fou, it’s bourgeois society. I made a film called Lourdes where it was very clear it was that place in Lourdes. I’m trying to portray the hierarchies of a society, and I think it’s easier to do that if you have one place. Then you can show who are the chefs, the people in the middle, and the ones who just have to follow. Sometimes you can even see these statures on the costumes.
The brightly colored costumes are striking in Little Joe. It seems as if they’re expressing emotions the characters aren’t allowing themselves.
Yes. Well, they don’t allow themselves, or maybe I’d put it slightly differently: No one really shows their true emotions [laughs]. We all play a role in our lives and we’re all a part of some sort of hierarchy. And no matter what kind of life we live, we’re living within a society, and we do have to obey rules most of the time. My films focus on that perspective, rather than saying, “Oh, everyone has a free choice.” My experience is that free choice is very limited even in a free world. We are very much manipulated in terms of how we should think and how we should behave. Social codes are quite strong.
One of the lovely ironies of this film is that it’s difficult to discern which enslavements are caused by the flower and which are already inherently in place via society.
Absolutely. That’s the irony about it. When we worked on the script, it wasn’t so easy to build up a storyline that suggests a change that you never really see. Over the process of scriptwriting, we decided that the validity of feelings was invisible. We also had conversations with scientists, and we considered which part of the brain was responsible for emotions.
I’m curious if any singular story element led you to this premise.
I’m a big fan of science-fiction and horror films, and I do like those Invasion of the Body Snatchers films, but only the beginnings. I like the setups, those scenes where someone says, “Oh, my uncle isn’t my uncle anymore.” I had this idea to prolong this doubt about who people really are over the whole length of a feature film. Because it’s a basic human experience: You can never really understand what another person is thinking or feeling.
I love that there’s no overt monster in Little Joe. There’s no catharsis exactly.
No, there isn’t. The catharsis takes place on a very strange level, which leads to one of the other starting elements of the film. I wanted to portray a single mother who loves her job. So, the catharsis in the end is really very much centered on Alice as she finally allows herself to focus on her work and to let her son live with the father, which is okay.
You’re right that there’s a catharsis, from the fulfillment of the final line of dialogue.
This is what’s hard to reconcile: Despite the loss of self that debatably takes place over the course of the film, Alice gets exactly what she wants and the flower does exactly what it’s supposed to do.
Yes, I’m glad to hear you say that. I do get a lot of questions about the dark, dystopian perspective, but there’s no such perspective in this film. It’s a very friendly, light ending. If we all change, perhaps it’s for the better.
I’m curious about the visual design of the flower. It seems to me that it’s both male and female at once, which I think is an achievement.
What do you mean male and female? The design?
The shape seems phallic. Yet the color scheme almost has a lingerie quality.
I think the basic idea is that it’s a male plant. I wanted that basic juxtaposition between the boy and the plant. The film suggests that it’s a male plant, but yet, of course, when the plant opens and is exhaling the pollen…well, I would say it’s a very male plant. [both laugh]
The release of the pollen, especially for the first time against the glass of the lab, does feel like an ejaculation.
Yes. That was very much a part of the idea. The plant is trying to survive.
It’s like a revenge of the sex drive.
Which parallels how the humans are repressing their sex drives. It’s a lovely reverberation. What was the collaboration with the actors like? Such a careful tone of emotional modulation is maintained throughout the film.
I enjoyed the collaboration very much. the actors understood what the film’s style was about. You do have actors sometimes who are used to the fact that the camera is working around them, but in my films it’s always the other way around. The camera is determining the image and the actor has to fit in. The actors—Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, and the others—were able to cope with that method very well. I remember especially Ben Whishaw even liked it, because—if you don’t feel suffocated, if you’re strong enough to fight against the style—it can be a joyful way to work. The collaboration with the actors also focused very much on the undertone of what they’re saying. A lot of scenes have a double meaning. I’m always trying to show that people normally lie. So, everything that’s said is also said because it should be said, I don’t know if you know what I mean…
Yes, social coding.
I’m trying to make the actors act in a way that makes us feel a character’s position rather than any individuality, so that we know that the characters are a part of something larger and have to say whatever they’re saying now. We try to reveal the typical codes of a society.
Review: The Wolf Hour Is Dubiously Content to Watch Its Protagonist Squirm
The film is all surface, and its depiction of trauma becomes increasingly exploitative and hollow as it moves along.2
An air of decay and discomfort pervades the dingy Manhattan apartment where nearly all of The Wolf Hour unfolds. An agoraphobic recluse, June Leigh (Naomi Watts) languishes in the unit, overwhelmed with guilt from a past misdeed. The cramped, underlit apartment, full of dusty old books and overstuffed trash bags, takes on an increasingly oppressive quality as the door buzzer continues to go off with unnerving frequency. Despite June’s pleas to whomever is on the other end, all she gets in response is an ominous, crackling static. It’s an unsettling sound that’s a fitting approximation of the feminist icon and writer’s brittle mental state, which is inextricably tied to the decrepit state of a 1977 New York City plagued by sweltering summer heat and the Son of Sam killer’s reign of terror.
From the limited perspective of this tiny apartment, writer-director Alistair Banks Griffin constructs an aura of danger and alienation, filling out the broader scope of the citywide upheaval with street scuffles and snippets of news coverage that June overhears on the radio or television. It’s a provocative setting, which could have served as a compelling backdrop for June’s mental unraveling, but the acutely detailed portrait of this specific time and place never extends to that of the muddled, half-baked characterization of the woman who inhabits it.
Watts has made a career playing the most brooding and agitated of characters, and with a practically unparalleled visceral depth. Here, her subtly skittish gestures and facial expressions lend June a raw, nervous energy that suggests a woman on the verge of losing her mind. Strange, cathartic scenes, such as when June abruptly lets loose and feverishly dances to Suicide’s “Ghost Rider,” gives a strong sense of how far she’s strayed from the person she once was. But such unexpected character beats arise too infrequently throughout the film, and for all of Watts’s efforts, the roots of June’s anguish are never more than vaguely explored.
In an attempt to flesh out June’s interiority, Griffin’s script works in a handful of people who visit her apartment. But none of these characters, from her sister (Jennifer Ehle) to a grocery deliveryman (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) to a compassionate gigolo (Emory Cohen), offer much insight into the celebrated genius that June used to be. In fact, it’s only through June’s viewing of a contentious TV interview that she gave when her first book was released that we get any sense of the catalyst for her downward spiral. It’s a remarkably contrived manner of inserting much-needed backstory into The Wolf Hour, but even worse, it hints at a story far more intriguing than the miserabilism that quickly reveals itself to be the film’s default mode.
That interview reveals that June had a tumultuous fallout with her family due to her leftist screed’s thinly veiled criticism of her businessman father. It’s a turn that suggests something akin to the complicated father-daughter antagonism between Shiv and Logan on HBO’s Succession, yet Griffin does nothing with this bombshell, simply returning to June as she continues to drown in her paralyzing guilt. An abrupt and woefully misguided deus ex machina attempts to do some heavy narrative lifting, but it changes our perception of June without laying the sort of groundwork needed to make such a twist land with any gravitas.
In the end, June remains an enigma and the film’s finale only solidifies the notion that Griffin never had any interest in plumbing June’s emotional struggles. Like the sweat covering June’s face at all times or the dust that coats her apartment, The Wolf Hour is all surface, and its depiction of trauma only becomes increasingly exploitative and hollow as it moves along.
Cast: Naomi Watts, Brennan Brown, Jennifer Ehle, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Emory Cohen, Jeremy Bobb, Maritza Veer, Justin Clarke Director: Alistair Banks Griffin Screenwriter: Alistair Banks Griffin Distributor: Brainstorm Media Running Time: 99 min Rating: R Year: 2019
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