Style as Substance

Kill Bill: Volume 1 is one of those movies that I’ve been keeping track of for years. From the beginning, I wondered why Tarantino was choosing such material for his next film. The plot certainly isn’t edgy. Uma Thurman plays The Bride, a woman miraculously survives a bullet to the head on her wedding day (the groom was not so lucky). After an extended stay in a coma, she awakes and makes a list of five people to exact revenge upon. Then she goes and kills them. That’s the plot.

And yet it’s still a good film (not a great film, but good). The plot doesn’t matter. Nor, really, do the characters. None of them are developed, or really likable. You root for the Bride, a textbook anti-hero, not because she’s been wronged and is seeking revenge, but because she’s such a badass. It is the style of the film that gets me, and like it or not, Tarantino is a master of style. The man knows how to manipulate the audience, and he is brutally unmerciful in this outing.

Let me rewind a bit. Do you remember the scene in Pulp Fiction where Vincent blows Marvin’s head off by accident? Somehow, Tarantino is able to make that scene, and the ensuing events, funny. Not ha-ha funny, it’s still black comedy, but funny nonetheless. You don’t really know why you are laughing, but you are. And that is what this movie is like. It’s like two hours of that one scene in Pulp Fiction.

Blood. Hundreds of gallons of it. Spraying, shooting, fountains of blood. The grisly murder rate in this film approaches triple digits. It’s not for everyone. James Lileks says he had “no desire to see clever violence,” and that is certainly understandable. These scenes are cold, merciless, and often disgusting, yet I found myself laughing. It’s just a natural reaction when you see someone’s head cut off and blood sprays out like a sprinkler. The gore is so over the top that it eventually ceases to be disgusting and takes on a blurry, surreal quality. Tarantino knows this works, but he’s not content to leave it there.

This isn’t an easy movie. It’s not the roller coaster kung-fu action flick it’s advertised as. It’s difficult. Why? Because in those moments where the gore goes beyond the surreal, you still sense gravity in the violence. Tarantino grounds the violence just enough so that you laugh when it happens, but you’re hit by an aftertaste of guilt a few seconds later. The blood may be completely over the top, but other details are what got me. The gurgling, the spasms, the screams. These things creeped the hell out of me. And on top of that, towards the end of the film, Tarantino keeps the film rocketing along at such a pace that your conscience can’t keep up with the violence, and you know it. That is, I suppose the essense of black comedy. It’s not easy and it’s not fun, but it makes you laugh anyway.

It is difficult to say, though. It’s not as obvious as I’m describing. The black comedy is more subtle than you might think from reading this, so take it with a grain of salt.

Walter sums it up perfectly:

I think Tarantino wanted a 180 from Pulp Fiction’s tone. I think he feinted high and then socked us in the gut. And it worked. Bold as hell, and he pulled it off. Now I’m sick to my stomach, but I respect the bastard.

I don’t like this movie the way I like Tarantino’s other work. I like it like I like Taxi Driver or Requiem for a Dream, which is to say, I don’t like it, but it is so well done that I can’t stop myself from watching it. The filmmakers, damn them, are so good at manipulating the elements of cinema that I’m spellbound even as I’m wimpering.

Kill Bill doesn’t have the weight of Taxi Driver or Requiem and it’s a flawed film, but it has it’s moments of brilliance too. There is a lot more to say about it, but I am at a loss to say more. It is difficult to describe because what’s important about this film isn’t what happens, it’s how it happens. It’s style as substance, and Tarantino makes it work. Damn him.

5 thoughts on “Style as Substance”

  1. style as substance? there are times when i understand what that term means and other times i’m completely lost. would you say unrelenting and constant killing is substance, and if so, is that substance that you like? how far remove is his style basically violence for violence sake? i know, i’m taking the easy route out, asking questons w/o offering any answers. sorry.

    i would disagree that there is any gravity in any of the violence, at least not more so than what is commonly featured in many other asian movies which kill bill lifts ideas from. and trust me, there is no gravity in 90% of those movies. i’m a little mixed on tarantino, but the major merit of kill bill is that he’s able to show his unbridled enthusiasm for asian action movies, which for an american moviemaker in an american studio is astounding.

  2. It is not the violence that I enjoyed, it was the way in which the violence was presented. The visual language (and I suppose audio too) used to express this and the constant unexpected shifts of that visual language (going to black and white and back, switching to anime in the middle of the film, the silhouette battle, and so on). As I said, the violence had a small degree of gravity to me – and watching other asian action movies never really gave me that feeling… I didn’t really like that, though I do respect what he was able to accomplish. I don’t like Requiem for a Dream either, but it is one of the best movies of the last few years. It’s story is really rather lame and cliched, but the way in which it was presented… was brilliant and spellbounding.

    That said, I agree entirely with what you called major merit of kill bill, as his style is drawn much from those movies…

  3. I can’t comment too much on Requiem, and that’s mainly because I think it’s somewhat lame. And in the end, lame might be how I would describe Kill Bill too. I don’t deny that Requiem had great flare, or Kill Bill probably tests the farther outpost of where Hollywood dares to reach. Actually, I love Asian movies, and Tarantino’s mediation and cheerleading of that will probably be enough for an upward turned thumb from me.

    My problem is that your cheerleading worries me. Style as substance and adept visualization of the inane shouldn’t be enough to win best of designations. Or I guess, if you say a great movie has 3 components, a brilliant style as one component can hardly be great enough to make up for deficiencies in the other two. I hope my proceeding example doesn’t stink to much of obscurity, but take John Woo. He has a wonderful violent style but it’s used to back up his themes (usually loyalty or something like that). I suppose the same can be said of Sam Peckinpah. Or more generally, the world of violence makes them the heroes they are. With Requiem, the style doesn’t serve anything other than the style or to glorify violence. And the same goes with Kill Bill to a large extend. They are just person who bring violence to the world.

    I don’t mean this to be a staight I think Requiem sucks and Kill Bill is flawed versus your enthusiasm for both. I am over-reacting from a small sample size because I’m unfamilar with other movies you like or thought were good. So I’m just raising a question while admitting not having complete information.

    Still as a Jen Connelly fan, I think Waking the Dead or Dark City features her talent to greater effect.

  4. I agree that style alone cannot make a movie great, but they can stand alone and command respect for what they accomplish. As I say, I don’t _like_ Kill Bill or Requiem, but I do respect them for their sheer mastery of style.

    Often such things come off as pretentious or silly to me, and the number of films that I respect solely based on style are few and far between (indeed, it would probably be limited to the films already mentioned – Kill Bill, Requiem, Taxi Driver, and possibly a Kubrick movie or two (though I think there is a lot more to Kubrick’s films than just style)) Put simply, there are very few films I will put up with that are like this – and to be honest, I’m not sure Kill Bill will make those ranks (I suppose we will need to see vol 2 before we can render a final judgement, too)… but I will still respect it, if only because of it’s technical merits (and the quote from Walter also sits well with me).

    Even when it comes to literature, there are those who hold style entirely too far above substance. When it comes to Joyce or Pynchon, I can respect it, but far too much of what is written today glorifies style over substance while shunning genre and storytelling (as if telling stories has somehow become unsophisticated).

    So basically, short answer: Style over substance can be done, but only rarely does it truly achieve anything. To me, the jury is still out on Kill Bill, but I stand by my initial response (which I didn’t think of as “cheerleading” but whatever)

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