Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Who Killed Bill?

Posts both recent and from long ago should prove that I adore Kill Bill, both as entertainment and a piece of pop culture whose components seem artistically and deliberately arranged. Entertaining, deliberate, artistic — anything that can boast these three qualities, by the way, qualifies as “good” in my book.

I was talking about Quentin Tarantino movies recently — because that’s what people who do when they lack the skills to discuss what everybody else is going on about — when my friend, Jesse, said he liked Pulp Fiction best. I like Kill Bill. (And, yes, for the purposes of my conversation and this post, I’m considering Kill Bill one movie, not two.) I have my reasons for liking it, though I’m quick to admit that my pick isn’t perfect and that Pulp Fiction and, to a lesser extent, Jackie Brown both have their merits and their reasons for being important to cinema in general. Jesse, however, found fault with Kill Bill, particularly with certain plot points. And when I asked him to say what specifically bothered him, he stopped me dead in my tracks.

A paraphrase:

“Something that was really irritating for me about Kill Bill was that the way it initially withheld Beatrix Kiddo’s name was pointless. It didn’t do anything to further the plot.”

I suddenly realized that Jesse was right: I can think of interesting implications of not telling the viewers Kiddo’s name, and I can think of just as many ways in which her name, once revealed, adds to the meaning of the film. However, pressed to say what logic prompted Tarantino to initially withhold the name but to ultimately reveal it, I could come up with no good reason — only sloppy writing or perhaps that Tarantino saw the virtues in giving and not giving the name and ultimately opted to do both.

why do we know this woman's name?

My thoughts on the subject, beginning with the pluses of not stating the name:

On a subtle level, Kiddo’s initial lack of a name helps to set her up as an idealized mother figure. Viewers learn at the end of Volume One that Kiddo gave birth to a daughter whom Bill has raised. This moment carries a lot of weight in the film because it changes Kiddo from a mere angry woman to an angry mother — one who eventually reconfigures the typical daddy-mommy-baby family set-up by getting rid of Bill altogether and raising her daughter on her own. So, for the period that Beatrix is still nameless, the viewer can hold her up as the epitome of motherhood and the bad-ass action film mother since Linda Hamilton played Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. However, any grand ideas Tarantino may be attempting to convey about the structure of families in general get changes when, partway through Volume Two, a character finally speaks Kiddo’s full name, arguably making her less of an everywomen or everymother and more of a specific person. That’s how I view it, anyway — in short, an effective naming strategy that manages to direct the viewers attention until it’s completely undone.

Once we know Beatrix’s full name, however, we can work with that and look at how that revelation lends the movie a deeper meaning.

Giving the character a name also adds a few somethings, though all of them work independently from the two points I just described. First off, the name “Beatrix” calls to mind the idealized woman from The Divine Comedy, Beatrice. (Hands down, however, any name respelled with an “x” becomes ten times cooler than the version spelled without, Roman numeral puns notwithstanding.) The main difference between the two is the fact that Beatrice causes Dante’s journey to happen — she asks God to allow Dante to go on the grand tour of the afterlife — and Beatrix is the one who actually goes on the quest, crisscrossing the globe and figuratively going though hell in her search.

Keeping in mind that the daughter’s name turns out to be “B.B.,” Beatrix’s name seems significant in that her “B” name and Bill’s “B” name produce a child that represents those two initial letters and, thus, equal parts of mom and dad. (“B.B.” also calls to mind the small, rather harmless bullet beloved by underage sharpshooters. Given that her parents work as assassins, that itself is notable — and cute, in an awful way.) And this wordplay adds meaning to the notion of Beatrix hacking apart the mommy-daddy-baby relationship, even though even her daughter’s name would seem to suggest that traditional family set-up.

Finally, once the viewer knows Beatrix’s full name, he or she can look back on lines delivered by other characters in a new context. In the first scene, for example, Bill repeatedly calls Beatrix “Kiddo.” Anyone unaware that Kiddo is actually her last name might interpret this as only a pet name, but it’s not, necessarily. (The guy clearly has affection for her, but that first “Kiddo”-strewn scene ends with Bill shooting Beatrix in the head, so perhaps it’s not the lovey-dovey appellation it might seem to be.) Also, in Volume One’s “House of Blue Leaves” chapter, O-Ren Ishii delivers a line that initially seems nonsensical: “Silly rabbit, tricks are for kids.” Upon seeing Volume Two, one might realize that the line could actually be a jab at Kiddo’s full name, as the recited cereal slogan includes both “tricks” and “kids,” two words that make up the majority of Beatrix Kiddo’s name. It’s a small point to make, I know, but it is one that develops a deeper meaning in light of the revelation of the name later in the show.

In Jesse’s opinion — and now mine, too, I guess, since Jesse put the thought in my head, the jerk — these arguments in favor or against Beatrix’s name don’t add up to enough of a justification for withholding the name, building up suspense, and then revealing it, for no reason. A good reason for doing so, I guess, would be to eventually reveal something that drastically changes the outcome of the plot. Theoretically speaking, had the film eventually reveals that the protagonist’s name was actually “Bill,” then that might have merited the initial reluctance to say it aloud at the beginning. But that would have been retarded. Also, if Tarantino truly wanted his protagonist to lack a name, he could have easily have written the film so that no one speaks it — or at least not have written it so that characters speak it but then have it bleeped out, as if it were some obscenity or some bit of information that would have somehow lessened their enjoyment of the film. As its stands now, the bleeps only call attention to the fact that her name is some big secret and build suspense around something that never pays off. (Not unlike how some critics might view the two volumes of Kill Bill — huge build-up with a let-down at the end.) For when it’s finally spoken, sans bleeps, the plot more or less proceeds as normal.

So then, I put the matter to you all, Back of the Cereal Box readers and good people of the internet: Jesse and I can’t be the only people who have discuss this apparent failing. Does anybody else know why Beatrix’s name was initially withheld, only to be eventually revealed?

Previous Kill Billery:
EDIT: Okay, so I kind of biffed this one, at least initially. I may have said some things about Beatrix and the Man With No Name that turned out to be less than correct. Guess it's what I get for going on about movies that I haven't seen recently enough. I took it all out, mostly because I was wrong, but also because it didn't have much to do with what I was trying to do with this post: Find out if anybody can explain this one aspect of Kill Bill.

11 comments:

  1. My thoughts are aligned with yours, that she was intended to be a nameless avatar of vengeance, sort of all three furies combined into the same person. Actually, that's a more appropriate reference than I intended, for I gathered that it wasn't so much what they did to her or her husband-to-be that drove the Bride on her quest, but the kinslaying of BB by Bill.

    As it happens, I knew her first name going into my second time watching it at the theater. There was an interview with Vivica A. Fox where she was asked what was being bleeped out, and she gave it up. So, knowing that, I saw O-Ren's line as less a taunt, more an old joke shared by people that used to be friends.

    Notice also that as her little list gets narrowed, the Bride loses more of her elemental fury, until at the time she is named she is hardly emotional at all. Elle was killed not only for vengeance, but as a form of justice. When Bill is killed, she's no longer angry, but genuinely weeping tears of sadness and relief.

    --Pedro

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  2. Yes, but why bleep the name and then reveal it? Any ideas?

    And yes, I never thought for a second that the Bride's revenge had anything to do with the dead groom. The first thing she does when she wakes from her coma is clutch her belly where her baby would have been.

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  3. Second, as I recall. First thing was to check to see where the hole in her head went. And what I meant by the baby comment was that I'd never considered the kin-slaying fury aspect of the first movie. Bill slew her daughter, yes, but (as far as she knows) he also killed his daughter, which was the provenance of the mythological Greek furies.

    To state another way, my reasoning for why she has no name, then gets one, is that she is slowly regaining her humanity as she marks off her list. She is at her bloodiest at O-ren, and Bill she kills without leaving a mark on him. When Elle reveals her name, I think Beatrix has fully regained her sanity. Contrast Beatrix's emotions during the first two killings, as opposed to Elle and Bill.

    I've never seen Pulp Fiction, and only recently watched Jackie Brown. So, you're saying I should Netflix it, correct?

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  4. Oh, I see now. Interesting theory. And yes, now that you mention it, the violence does taper off considerably. She doesn't even kill Budd. We don't even know if Elle survived, though the question mark at the end leads me to believe she didn't.

    And yes, Netflix Pulp Fiction. And anything else Tarantino has been associated with. Even bad Tarantino is worth the time it takes to watch it.

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  5. There's one slight hole in your comparison with The Man With No Name, specifically his motive.

    In A Fistful of Dollars, every other move he makes earns him cash-switching his allegiance between the families and the like.

    In For A Few Dollars More, he and Col. Douglas Mortimer (played by the late Lee Van Cleef) team up to kill off Indio's gang for the scads of bounties it brings; but it's Mortimer who has the vendetta against Indio, not TMWNN. He's the one who the watch with the girl's picture in belongs to. TMWNN inexplicably steals it near the end of the movie, but uses it to give Mortimer a sporting chance against Indio.

    And finally, TMWNN and Tuco Ramirez (the ancient Eli Wallach) are running a bounty collection scam during the opening of the movie. Remember the conversation he and Tuco have about Tuco's value, in dollars, as a bounty?

    Sorry to shoot this hole in your theory, but those three movies are among my favorites, and as soon as I read that it raised a red flag in my head.

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  6. Jesse4:13 PM

    I'm pleased to hear that you now concur with my assertion that the name bleep is pointless. Hopefully it hasn't tarnished your overall enjoyment of Kill Bill as I still consider it a really good film(s). I will continue to monitor this board to see if anyone offers a plausible explanation as I would like nothing more than to be proven wrong (as it does effect my overall enjoyment).

    While I enjoyed and agreed with much of your writing, I must take exception with a couple of points raised in your argument re: The Man With No Name. You mention that The Man with No Name "seeks revenge through brute force." I disagree. The Man with no Name is a mercenary/bounty hunter, perhaps with a heart of gold, but not motivated by vengence. This is evinced by his statement at the end of the film when he talks about pitting the two armies against eachother with himself in the middle (just as he did with the Rojos and the Baxters). This is not to say that he is without conscience. He kills the Rojos only after they massacred the Baxter family and tortured him. I think that if his debtor (the bartender) wasn't in the custody of the Rojos and being tortured, he would have left. This has more to do with honor than vengence. As I'm sure you're aware, A Fistful of Dollars is based on Kurosawa'a Yojimbo which is centered around a Ronin Samurai (whom are notorious for their co!
    de of
    honor -- Clint is no slouch in his portrayal of this archetype).

    In For a Few Dollars More, my point is even more valid. Eastwood's character and Lee Van Cleef's are never friends. They form an alliance against a common enemy but any opportunity to turn on eachother, they take it...until the end. When Eastwood's character arranges for Van Cleef's to duel with Volonte's. However, by doing so he ultimately arranges to take the entire bounty. I can go on with further examples in The Good, The Bad, & the Ugly if you'd like but I think my point is made.

    In addition, you state that the "comparisons between Eastwood's character and Uma's in Kill Bill are obvious." I'm afraid I don't see it. Rather than list all the ways they are dissimilar, I'd like to hear how you find them alike. I don't mean to sound contrary, I am merely curious. There are more similarities between the source material (Kurosawa's) than there are with Leone's works. I realize that one inspired the other but I don't see the link between the three (other than the swords). Lemme hear it.

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  7. Blah. That's what I get for writing about movies I haven't seen recently enough to remember correctly. I took out all the Sergio Leone stuff. There could be a connection there, but it's just been too long for me to remember it. Or I could just be totally off-base. Either way, I took all that out, since it didn't have too much bearing on what I was looking for. I think I'll have to re-watch the Dollars triology.

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  8. Roger Ebert said:

    There's B&W in the movie, and slo-mo, and a name that's bleeped entirely for effect, and even an extended sequence in anime.

    Maybe it's cheap borrowing from an established critic, but as my buddy once said when he discovered that Ebert penned "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," Ebert is not merely a hack, he's got street cred as the writer behind one of the craziest Hollywood insider movies ever made.

    Besides, the bleeping of the name also falls under the category of the old classic novels, where Mr. ————— would show up for dinner.

    Is it for some elevated mystique of the common? Is it because the character's name really wasn't coming into the writer's mind? Or is it just because it's a tad tweaky, and there were those in the audience who perked up and said,

    "Wait, what was that beep?"

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  9. Jesse1:48 AM

    I think rewatching the dollars trilogy is a fine idea -- I own all the special editions so we should definitely make that happen.

    Oh, and regarding Bubby's comment above: I'm not entirely sure what his/her point was, but noting the use of B&W, slo-mo, and animation reminded me of another point I made when discussing KB with Drew; The fact that those same stylistic choices were employed in another Quentin penned script -- Natural Born Killers. Oliver Stone and Tarantino are drastically different filmmakers, so it's strange enough that they would both use not only similar techniques, but almost nearly identical shots (i.e. the B&W POV shot of the knife cutting through the air and landing in a hillbilly in the opening scene of NBK, VS. the B&W POV shot of a Hatchet in the House of Blue Leaves finding the head of one of the Crazy 88 in KB). What I find even odder about this is the fact that Quentin took his name off NBK supposedly because it was no longer representative of his work (and as I understand it, he wasn't pleased with the finished product).
    So what's the deal? Why take your name off a film (that is generally recognized as being pretty good) then steal a bunch from it? Not to say that NBK was the first to use these devices but it's the first that I can think of to use them all in the same film. Or is it just a coincidence? I know that the reason Quentin had to go B&W in the House of Blue Leaves was to keep an R rating (because of all the blood), so perhaps Stone had to do the same thing in NBK (I know he had to cut a few other scenes due to blood and voilence). But what about the rest of the similarities? Any thoughts?

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  10. My point, slim though it was, was merely that the bleeped name really served no purpose other than as a cool factor.

    In other words, it means nothing.

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  11. I think it's also worth mentioning that Beatrix Potter wrote "The Tale of Peter Rabbit", so it could be said that every part of the 'Silly rabbit..." line is referencing her name in one way or another.

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