I've never seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, though I've heard good
things about it. As I wrote last year, "It's a fight movie, right? I don't
like movies where the primary pleasure being offered is stylish depictions of
violence." I had the same trepidation about Kill Bill... but it's
Tarantino, so eventually I had to check it out.
Now, it's not like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are going
to be playing on PAX TV any time soon. But although those were violent
films, violence wasn't the chief draw. I might even go so far as to say
that by, for instance, spending an hour and a half on a guy drenched in
blood whimpering that he's going to die, Tarantino worked against the
Fire-N-Forget ethos of most shoot-'em-ups, be they of the cinematic or
the console variety. But either way, the 90s films — leaving out
Jackie Brown here because I, uh, don't actually remember it very
well — gained the rep they did not because of kewl fight scenes
but because of wild plot twists, instantly memorable dialogue, and a
soundtrack and mise en scène that just radiated cool.
Kill Bill is different, though. Sure, it too is full of audacious
story moments and enjoyable dialogue. The storytelling in particular is
top-notch — when we see O-Ren Ishii's inner circle heading to their
room in a Japanese club, it feels like a gathering of characters we've been
following for years, even though most of them have only had a few moments of
screen time. (Contrast this with the countless movies which, even an hour
after the opening credits, have you asking, "Wait — who's that guy
again?") And, once again, the movie sounds and looks awesome... or at least
it does when it's not serving up a fight scene. The problem is, it's a
martial arts movie. At bottom, it's a vehicle for serving up a string of
fight scenes. They are inventive and well-choreographed and stuff. But
I still found them basically abhorrent. I can handle some reasonably
gruesome stuff when it's necessary to the story. But I can't actually
enjoy a sequence of people hurting each other, no matter how acrobatically
they do it.
The usual riposte people like Tarantino give when media critics charge
that the violent content in their films has a harmful effect on society
is that they're merely reflecting what society is already like. But I
don't think it's an either/or, and it strikes me as disingenuous to
argue that people, especially kids, aren't influenced by what they see.
This phenomenon is especially pronounced when there isn't a TV screen
separating the viewer from the viewed. For instance, as my former
bandmate used to point out all the time, the number one predictor of
whether a kid will take up smoking is having a parent who smokes.
(Cue the "YOU, ALL RIGHT?! I LEARNED IT BY WATCHING YOU!!" commercial.)
The reverse is true as well. For instance, as most people reading this
probably know, I don't drink; in fact, I am closing in on 31 and have
never had a drink. And, sure, I have some deeply held philosophical
and religious reasons for this... but the main reason, I would submit,
is that when I was growing up I never saw my parents drink. Nor my
friends, as I was years younger than they were due to the grade-skipping
thing and thus totally out of the loop where parties and such were
concerned. So my worldview solidified without alcohol being part of it.
Then I got to college, where I was first exposed to drinking — as
an illicit activity involving several layers of law-breaking, from the
simple illegality of it to the fake IDs to the violation of dorm rules.
All this — even putting aside the fact that the drunk people I
encountered acted like assholes and trashed the hall and stuff —
added up to a hardwired association in my brain: alcohol is evil. And
I don't even mean the adjective. I mean the noun.
However, I've had to become somewhat accustomed to it — it's
part of the public sphere. If I wanted to avoid being in the room
when alcohol was being consumed, I'd have to boycott most restaurants.
But illegal drugs are another story. Again, there is a level at which
I can be rational and say that I have my reasons not to get involved
with them and those who have a difference of opinion are welcome to
their viewpoint. But that's not really the important level. A quick
anecdote: a while back, an acquaintance was having a get-together and
I was invited. This wasn't someone I know all that well, and in fact,
that's largely why I went — I'm very uncomfortable in social
gatherings full of strangers, but I was worried that this person would
be insulted if I were to beg off. So I get there and the place is
packed, and there's only one person apart from the host I even
recognize. So I stand in the corner nibbling on a snack and listening
to the conversation. One guy is dominating it, holding forth on a
range of subjects, and then he asks: "Would anyone be offended if I
were to smoke some pot?"
Offended? Not exactly. But... I have never seen pot before except on
a TV screen, and I don't want to have anything whatsoever to do with it.
I loathe alcohol, but drugs are something else again. To me, they're
beyond the pale, I guess is the best way to put it. And my
response was quite visceral: it came from beneath the human level,
beneath the mammalian level, down around the chordate level. Fight or
flight. I had to get out of there. Some brisk "thanks for everything,
must be going"s, and sixty seconds later I was out on the street.
Now, I say "fight or flight" because that's the name of that reaction.
I know it quite well. But it's not really the best term in my case,
because for me, the first half is pretty much inoperable. It's not
"fight or flight," it's just "flight." Fighting, for me, is also
beyond the pale. I just don't do violence. And again, to a
great extent this has to do with the behavior I had modeled for me
when I was growing up. My parents' marriage was a complete fiasco.
They had screaming matches pretty much every day of my childhood.
But it never came to blows. A couple of times there was some property
damage to make a particularly emphatic point — a cup hurled to
the floor was about the extent of it — but the lesson that got
coded into my basic makeup was that you can be having the most heated
argument imaginable, but even then, you never, ever hit someone. And
That's the most important level, but there are others. There's the
local environment. Again, score one for pacifism. Not much in the
way of violent crime in Anaheim Hills. No gangs of toughs... I didn't
even have any neighborhood bullies to worry about. On the global
level, the same message was reinforced. The war I grew up with was
cold. The USA and USSR hated each other, but they didn't actually
fight, not directly. That was beyond the pale. It would have ended
the world. I must admit that this is the heart of my opposition to
the war in Iraq: sure, I have rational arguments I can summon, but
underneath it all, my main objection is, when you have a dispute,
you don't just drop bombs and kill people. You just don't.
It is not done. As noted earlier,
Americans seem to like to equate government to parenting; if we fall
back on that analogy, what we end up with is an administration that
says that if Daddy thinks Mommy's been up to no good, he should just
shoot her in the head.
These were the thoughts I was having watching the fight scenes in
Kill Bill: that I had been brought up to abhor violence —
I never owned a toy gun, and I very much doubt I could ever bring myself
even to touch a real one — and so the endless scenes of Uma Thurman
hacking ninjas to pieces, which audiences were supposed to ooh and aah
over and marvel at how cool they were, actually made me kind of sick.
And I thought, "Looks like it'll be another one of those writeups...
a few words about the movie, and then a long tangential rant about how
our view of violence is shaped by our upbringing." Except then the
movie turned out to be about precisely this.
See, the basic plot is that you've got the Serpent Society —
Tarantino calls them something else, but the man knows his comics, and,
c'mon, they're the Serpent Society — and one day Black Mamba goes
missing. She decides to go straight, takes up with Dick Schiller, is
all set to get married and live out her life as Arlene the record shop
chick... but her old boss (and lover) doesn't take kindly to the idea,
and he and a quartet of Mamba's former associates gun down everyone in
the church at her wedding rehearsal. Only Mamba herself survives, and
she ends up in a coma for four years. When she wakes up, she sets out
for revenge. Cue several hours of fight scenes.
It turns out that the reason Mamba split in the first place is that
she discovered she was pregnant — and didn't want her daughter
raised to think violence was normal. The theme of children exposed
to violence comes up over and over again. There's an anime sequence in,
I think, the second hour — the movie's four hours long and split into
two volumes — in which a young girl watches a Yakuza gang slaughter
her parents; she vows revenge and becomes the queen of the Tokyo underworld.
The first revenge sequence involves Black Mamba coming to Copperhead's house
and trying to kill her the moment she answers the door; problem is, a couple
of minutes later Copperhead's four-year-old daughter comes home, and Mamba
doesn't want to kill the mother in front of the little girl. She ends up
doing so anyway — knife through the sternum, turn, there's the
preschooler looking on. And twenty years from now Mamba's going to have
another revenge fight on her hands.
Then there's the end of the movie, when Black Mamba finally tracks Bill
to his hideout... and finds her daughter, whom she'd thought dead, shooting
at her. The gun's a toy, but it's exactly what running away
was supposed to prevent. We learn the little girl's been stomping on
goldfish and watching Shaolin Assassin in lieu of listening to a
bedtime story. She doesn't seem to find it beyond the pale when she
learns that Daddy shot Mommy in the head. It is just a matter of time
before she gets into the swords. (By the way, the sword fetish in this
movie is really over the top. Obsession with weapons unnerves me. Still,
I guess I have to rank sword nuts above gun nuts, if only because of
marketing blurbs like, "With its distinctive square tsuba and full tang
construction, this is truly a sword any ninja would appreciate." This
is an actual quote from Ebay.)
Now, it's hard to take anything in Kill Bill entirely seriously,
even as it does its best to wring drama out of a pastiche world built
around swordfights and the Serpent Society. But the dispute between
the protagonist and the title character is not totally inapplicable
to our world. Instilling young people with the sense that violence is
beyond the pale is important. We seem to be going the other way,
though. When I was growing up, media critics recited statistics about
the number of murders kids saw on television over the course of their
childhoods; now you can add to that the number of murders the typical
American kid commits over the same period, on Playstations and
such. It's a minor factor compared to the home environment, but it's
still a factor. I've been reading about trends in the military and
one interesting development is that from WWII up to the current war,
the percentage of American troops who actually fired their weapons
when in a combat situation has risen from about 15% to nearly 100%.
And I've read officers commenting that, yeah, part of the reason is
that sixty years ago, aiming a gun at another human being and pulling
the trigger was a new and traumatic experience for most people. Now
it's something they've done thousands of times before they even sign
up. Me, I find it traumatic to attack someone in a strategy game —
I lose at Civilization and Europa Universalis II and such because I
can't even bring myself to move little tokens to take things "by force."
So for all its good points, I couldn't really enjoy most of this movie.
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