January 29, 2013

"Kill Bill and the Death Code of Motherhood" by Elisabeth Workman

"The breakdown comes when you stop controlling yourself and want the release of a bloodbath." –Jenny Holzer
It should have come as no surprise to me, one December night in 2009, while I was sitting on the floor wrapping gifts but more--watching Kill Bill 2, that I suddenly knew I had to find out, with a stick of my own, if I was pregnant. I’ll explain.

 In one reading of the space baby at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick presents us with our own infantilization by the industrial entertainment complex, by its coercive, inebriating nutrition, its hostage-taking narrative theme parks with their blockbuster maws. And, implicitly, by the sparkly immortal flotsam and jetsetsam that swirl around in its vortex. White Jeeps and blue dinners and flashes of pussy emerging from limos and diamond pianos (“They are real diamonds,” [he smiles] “And I’m glad you want to see them, cuz let’s face it—you bought em!” --Liberace on The Muppet Show), the buzzing paparazzi, the Brangelina, the Betty White, the Seal &/&-not Heidi, the great revolving doors of rehab spas #winning, and new coercive histories voiced-over by so-and-so channeling the event of Stephen Spielburg cockblocking Ken Burns, in which they end up fusing like a two-headed lamb to project a new contemporaneous voice-over on all of existence, the soundtrack a mash-up of theme songs from The Civil War and Close Encounters, gangnam style. Space trash.

In which this becomes a given. I-  am-  afraid. I am afraid and afflicted and can’t stop looking. Consumed and consuming, I want to be afflicted and in love. In the experience of a movie, thoughts and sensations careen about in the weird borderland (where we are both in the time of the movie and the time in which we are watching the movie; “It takes you up and brings you back to the same place”—John Berger) of near complete possession. Reckless concession and rejection. Whooshy fetal dreamstate of becoming. On the cellular level, the splitting and dying, then emerging, nearly blood-splattered by Sanjuro, almost dogshitified by Divine, or not quite slimed by a dubious albino crocodile.

In the case of Tarantino’s Kill Bill, our infantilization might look something more like space baby 2:

When it is schlock. When it is merely an exercise in style. When it is an assault on the senses; something borrowed, something bloody; insulting; embarrassing; adolescent; a failure in story-telling; the cinematic equivalent of karaoke; structurally and narratively amputated; amateur; a vacuous junk heap; a devout hymn of praise to crap; carnivorous; insanely violent. When it isn’t human. When it is, as these reviewers seem to be suggesting (and making me want to see it more) kitsch.

There’s a full-throttled joy to Kill Bill that revels in artifice—its effects and affects, “an abominable real, inaccessible except through jouissance” (Kristeva). It’s a comicbookloveletter to the dead, embracing the bad, the cult-ified, and the critically overlooked in a universe in which glory is gory.

Kill Bill (the first, though Tarantino intended it to be one film) opens, framing the blood-splattered face of The Bride, heaving, looking up from the wood floor to her assailant (whose name is made absurdly clear by the embroidered handkerchief he uses to wipe her face) . We learn by the end of the scene that this bride is pregnant: “Bill, it’s your baby.” BANG. Fade to black. “Kitsch begins in emptiness,” writes Celeste Olalquiaga,” a hollow, suspended silence extending without horizons.” Then Nancy Sinatra’s reiteration: “Bang, Bang.” A literal & figurative shotgun wedding. And the pregnant bride, a taboo, abject in herself, made doubly abject in her suffering and ostensible death.

This image/idea of the pregnant woman as abject and/or evil has so much civilization behind it. Recently, I was with some friends, looking at prints at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, selected by our guide, who’s been scouring the collection once a week for the past year. One of the “Best of” prints he selected was this Temptation of St. Anthony, by Lucas Van Leyden, c. 1530.

Temptation as a pregnant woman. She’s luring him with some kind of jar (from this distance it almost looks like a coffee to-go). If viewers weren’t sure, we have the horned bonnet to let us know she’s evil. Krampus with cramps. St. Anthony warily raises his right hand in a Vulcan-ish hex gesture of protest, even his toes spread out in earth-gripping resistance.

This morning, I came across Celeste Olalquiaga’s beautiful essay “The Pandemoniac Junk Shop of Solitude: Kitsch and Death” (quoted above). And there was St. Anthony again, this time, Flaubert’s: “I’d like to have wings, a carapace, a rind, to breathe out smoke, wave my trunk, twist my body, divide myself up, to be inside everything, to drift away with odors, develop as plants do, flow like water, vibrate like sound, gleam like light, to curl myself up into every shape, to penetrate each atom, to get down to the depth of matter—to be matter!” O St. Anthony!

Read as a thought bubble above his head in the Van Leyden print, St. Anthony’s simultaneous desires for penetration and flow, twisting and division, give weight to the presence of the pregnant temptation as both consequence and process of transgression (and maybe in her jar is the magic desire-to-transcend-desire paradoxical elixir). But, as Olalquiaga points out, in Flaubert’s play, “This contradictory desire is shattered by the impossibility of its paradox: the blinding light of Jesus’s smiling face finally whites out the iconographic cornucopia…The symbol protects the herd from straying onto the allegorical gratification of kitsch: terrestrial abundance and imaginal saturation retreat to the underworld of death, fire, and evil—back to emptiness.”

We viewed the Van Leyden print alongside Jacques Callot’s Temptation of St. Anthony, rendered a century later. Here is a version colored-in by someone else (sorry, purists).

A wonder to behold, think Burning Man of the demonic, the etching flourishes with legions of winged imps and dragons, various fantastical chimera, flames of desire spewing from mouths and asses, a substantial amount of farting and anal lancing, and somewhere in the mix, a confounded St. Anthony, dwarfed by the din of a clearly dangerous and pungent material universe.

In death’s imaginary museum, we might see Callot’s demon fest as the ultrasound image of the terrors dwelling in that womb of temptation, her fetal phantasms, her underworld of evil. And maybe expelled from the knocked-up demon is a baroquely rendered cloud of flatulence, flickering with our own zeitgeist of anxiety, and its particular anxiety over pregnancy and women’s bodies—“theories” of rape and the status of the fetus, abortion-clinic bombings, workplace terminations, childbirth institutionalized as a form of medical crisis, the triage intake forms, the illegible bills, the glut of books and “best practices” and websites and warnings, the cultural circuitry of judgment, as meatheaded and simultaneously menacing as O-Ren Iishi’s Yakuza henchmen, which brings me back to the movie and The Bride.

In the opening wedding chapel scene, The Bride, known as Arlene Machiavelli (a name perhaps correlative with the marry-reproduce drive), is in exile from her life as a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, for which she bore the codename “Black Mamba.” In Kill Bill 2 we learn more about the snake itself, from Elle Driver (codename California Mountain Snake) when she deploys a literal Black Mamba to kill Budd, Bill’s beer-swilling & chew-juice-spitting brother. She reads from her pocket-size notepad, while swelling, pus-oozing Budd is dying, about the notoriety of the snake in Africa and the magnitude of venom in one bite, and “thus its handle, ‘Death Incarnate.’”

The shot to her head sends Uma Thurman’s Black Mamba into a 4 year coma, from which she wakes up to realize she has lost her baby (to her knowledge) and has been, through deals brokered by a hospital orderly, repeatedly raped. “Kitsch begins in emptiness: a hollow, suspended silence extending without horizon suddenly occupied by an implacable rush of images. An epileptic seizure.” Death Incarnate.

Up until the near end of Kill Bill 2, Black Mamba’s real name—Beatrix Kiddo—is  bleeped over, as if tied to the notion that uttering the name of the dead will reanimate her corpse, though she’s clearly animated, if only by a “wilde justice.” And, throughout the course of her journey into the bloody rings of fiery “terrestrial abundance and imaginal saturation,” she nearly dies, over and over again. “Deathjoy in repetition.”

Beyond the police officers who arrive at the scene of the chapel massacre, the world of Kill Bill operates outside of institutions and law, one in which a different code is at work. It is a kind of un-time, made clear by the visual pastiche mixing Hong Kong cinema with Spaghetti Western with anime with a general plastic vernacular, and in particular, Beatrix Kiddo’s hybrid formal/demotic way of speaking, played out well here in this early scene with Vernita Green:

Slightly repurposing an observation from Daniel Tiffany’s essay [and potential introduction to his future book?] “Inventing Clichés: A Geneology of Kitsch and Poetry”:  “What the mass discovers in the strange language, the worn-out phrases, the artifice—and the familiarity—of poetic kitsch is a reverberation, an allegory, of its own social being in historical conditions that would otherwise remain inscrutable.” Tarantino himself has invoked the P-word in discussing his writing for the screen: “I mean, there's an aspect I've always said that it's, you know, it's not poetry, but it's kind of like it. It's not song lyrics, but it's kind of like song lyrics. It's not rap, but it's kind of like rap. And it's not standup comedy, but it is kind of like standup comedy. It's all those things together…And there's word play, and there's rhythms, and [the actor has] to be able to get the poetry out of it.”

Zoom in: “It’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack, not rationality.” Throughout Kill Bill we are presented with a protagonist and at least three antagonists who trouble the gender binary. They are not hyper-sexualized as an Angelina Jolie ass-kicker might be. Beatrix Kiddo wears jeans and jackets or Bruce Lee jumpsuits or dirt, and talks “like a man.” It is a world in which the Charlie’s Angels model of chicks kicking ass for the boss-man is now obsolete, although its ghost looms, and the main objective for the exile from this world is to kill the Charlie-head, to Kill Bill. Throughout the film, the vermin order of men (apparently actively recruiting politicians, evangelicals, and mysoginists worldwide) get their comeuppance. Take the luck of Buck:

Or the fate of fools at the hands of women weaponized with the blade, the sword, the ultimate dick prosthetic:

The mystical aura surrounding the sword is overstated and well-played by Sonny Chiba as Hattori Honzo, the sword-maker who comes out of retirement to fashion a blade for Beatrix to seek revenge on his most evil student, Bill:

Just as any initiation marks a death in the moment of rebirth, so proceeds the exile’s re-entry into the warrior domain historically inhabited by men. And conversely, in embroidering this deathjoy piece of kitsch with a cinephilic love for excess and spectacle, Quentin Tarantino is occupying a realm historically occupied by women (thinking of Victorian salons as the site of mothers and childbirth and death and kitsch). Feeding life into abjection like a rhinestone-studded, blood-dripping placenta, apparently Lady Tarantino aims to please. It’s not until the end of Kill Bill 2 that Beatrix appears as the earth mother archetype in her seafoam blue flowing hippie skirt, driving her eggshell blue Karmann Ghia (Gaia), on her mission to finally kill her master.

Beyond Beatrix Kiddo’s surprise unveiling of the “Five-Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique,” the final fight scene defies the bravado of fight scenes prior. In them what bodies do in space and time is the ultimate expression of corporeal deathjoy, absurd and spectacular. In some cases their presentation could be seen as Baroque articulations of the genius conclusion to Akira Kurasowa’s Sanjuro:

I’m thinking of Tarantino’s excessive use of procession as a kind of drawn-out anticipation (per Kurasowa’s use of stillness and silence) of the blood fountains to come, particularly in the case of O-Ren Ishii’s procession to the restaurant of imminent slaughter with the Crazy 88s, or more bleakly, Beatrix’s desert march barefoot from her live-burial to Budd’s trailer to fetch her sword. The first fight scene between between Vernita Green and Beatrix Kiddo establishes the total destruction of domesticity and normative order from which this world is spawn.

It could be argued, I guess, whether or not Kill Bill is really kitsch, but more to the point: “All our thinking about art has really been about kitsch” (Daniel Tiffany, quoted out of context). Tiffany describes Kracauer’s thesis on the “mass ornament” at length: “What kitsch expresses, Kracauer contends … is the incommensurable with its (and society’s) glittering surface…--though these elements are the irresistible triggers of a social trance, at once banal and apocalyptic….Kracauer contends, ‘in pure externality, the audience enounters itself; its own reality is revealed in the fragmented sequence of splendid sense-impressions.’”

And so I think back to the time when I first saw Kill Bill in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania, somewhere off Route 80. My companion for viewing the film would one day be my spouse and ultimately, the father of our daughter. We were both odd inhabitants of the blue-collar-cum-refuge-for-Penn-State’s-disillusioned town called Bellefonte, “the beautiful spring” and county seat of Centre County, yes, in the center of the state. We related a lot to the Pogues song “Dirty Old Town” and found our survival in the shoebox dojo of one Master Young, nth degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. It’s difficult to describe the obsession we felt for this martial art, the discipline, the sparring, for the humiliation of being side-kicked so hard in the stomach you had to run to the bathroom to puke (okay, that only happened once to Erik), for the bloody knuckles, the wood-breaking, and the euphoria of being total beginners in a very old tradition. It literally possessed our lives—a possession much more generative than our respective possessions prior. We sparred (as in pretend-fighting or dance-fighting) outside of class, too, in the park, the field next to the farm with the peacocks, at home in the kitchen, the hallway, the bedroom, the backyard and watched through one winter, as many Akira Kurasowa films as we could find, plus Ghost Dog at least four times. Beyond the physical exhilaration there was a code we were attracted to, one that seemed to provide a clearing in our dirty world glittered with heartbreak and abandonment and loss and strife. It was a ballast. But one rooted in patriarchs. That’s why seeing women as anachronistic progenitors of extravagent violence in a world of easy monsters was nothing short of overdue ecstacy.

So, given our martial courtship, it should have come as no surprise to me that years later, one December night while I was sitting on the floor, wrapping gifts but more watching Kill Bill 2, that it would suddenly occur to me that not only was I watching Beatrix Kiddo on her L.A. assassin mission in a hotel room bathroom waiting  for the results of her pee-stick then disbelieving it was positive, but also—I, too, might be pregnant. Something about the way she was looking at herself in the mirror, the heavy, mutational feeling. The next morning, with a stick of my own, my hunches were confirmed. Disbelief was the first responder. Then, a barrage of competing impulses including joy, humility, and what can only be described as a kind of grand melancholy (apologies in advance?) for bringing a new being into this world so divine and fucked.

Though Beatrix Kiddo never experiences childbirth and believes throughout the course of the film that she has lost her baby, it’s hard not to see her bloodbath as a kind of surrogate for childbirth—its epic, dynamic physicality—in addition to playing out with actors the mental exercises of killing off combatant thoughts and societal anxiety in advance of childbirth to make room for receptivity of the unknown.

I ended up giving birth to our daughter in the bathtub (I had drawn water to soak per the midwife hotline’s recommendation to “wait for the contractions to intensify”) in an unanticipated, “unassisted” home waterbirth. It happened so quickly and intensely there was no time to make it to the hospital, not even time enough for the paramedics to arrive. It was early in the morning, bluish light coming in through the blockglass windows, Erik kneeling beside the tub, with a midwife on the phone between his shoulder and ear guiding him through the delivery. Our daughter was born in the caul, or “behind the veil,” an opalescent emergence in the cloudy red water. For an eternal second, my heart stopped, her face beneath the amniotic sac looked blue, I thought she wasn’t breathing. Erik gently wiped the veil away from her forehead, and from that she emerged, pink and writhing and breathing. It was a kind of death and initiation for all of us—one maybe that Erik and I had trained for so many years ago, but of course were knocked over, gorgeously mauled by its incommensurability—motherfucking blood and timelessness and the breathtaking magic of new life.

Elisabeth Workman’s chapbooks include Opolis; Maybe Malibu, Maybe Beowulf (Dusie); and Megaprairieland (Grey Book Press). Her first book of poetry Ultramegaprairieland is forthcoming from Bloof Books. She lives in Minneapolis with the graphic designer Erik Brandt and their daughter [BLEEP!].


Radish King said...

Outstanding contemplation on a movie I have always felt weirdly guilty for loving.
Rebecca Loudon

pknatz said...

This is hard to read. Much of my stuff is hard to read. But I want to try again.