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 it stuck.

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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