Saturday, January 31, 2004

The Art of Killing

Kill Bill, Vol. 1, as the titles in the beginning themselves proudly proclaim, is Quentin Tarantino’s fourth film. The previous three films in this American director’s oeuvre have established him as perhaps the most audacious of contemporary filmmakers. The thorough amorality of the attitude he strikes, especially with regard to his treatment of violence, has attracted as much controversy as the sheer vigour and panache of his filmmaking style has earned plaudits. With the jury at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival awarding the top prize to his mesmerizingly accomplished underworld saga Pulp Fiction, the art-house admiration he had gained with Reservoir Dogs translated into mainstream recognition of his mastery of the medium. With just two films under his belt, he was being cited along with the likes of Martin Scorsese as one of the most influential directors of the times, thanks to an army of imitators all over the world.

Kill Bill is a typical example of his work. On the surface, it is a mindless rehash of an excruciatingly violent revenge plot. But the wit of Tarantino transforms this silly plot into a tribute to the countless martial arts flicks he was exposed to during his career as a video-store clerk. The idiosyncrasies of one lowly genre are used to explore the medium of cinema itself.

As a stretch of Japanese anime relates the archetypal events of a character’s tragic life, Tarantino and his team bring the emotional pitch to the heights of opera. We are left to ponder the artificial dichotomy between high and low art. The animated section, admittedly the high point of the film, might also be Tarantino’s retort to his critics. In spite of all the macabre violence and, some would say, tastelessness, the effectiveness of the sequence is undeniable.

What contributes in large measure to that effectiveness is the music he employs for background. And just as important is his original way of employing it. The soundtrack to his films is a curious post-modernist pastiche, striding blithely across genres. Among all the dissection of this auteur’s style, perhaps the most underappreciated is the role that music plays in its success.

The eclectic choice of music throughout the film underscores the fact that Tarantino is no classicist. He will use anything that he feels will be effective. This characteristic tightrope-walking on the subject of style is in itself exciting. The results are sure to displease, even disgust, many. The most unpleasant part of the film is, no doubt, the extreme violence, simultaneously visceral and casual. It beggars description and has to be seen to be believed. And even seeing, you may be left unbelieving. And that, perhaps, is because Tarantino has his tongue firmly in cheek.

Though he is not innocent of the charge of revelling in excess, those very excesses are an indictment, and a celebration, of the medium. What shines through the ambiguity is the compelling art of Quentin Tarantino.