Technically speaking, there's no gratuitous violence in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill, Vol. 1," the gore-saturated martial arts fantasy in which severed limbs and mangled corpses swirl on the surface of a bare-bones story like the riot of color and motion in a baroque painting.
"Gratuitous violence" presupposes that there is some appropriate level of violence to get the job done -- telling a story, shocking the world -- and that the director has miscalculated, overindulged or unknowingly passed a clearly defined limit. But to accuse a director of gratuitous violence you must believe that the world is constructed of civilization and violence, the former (if all's right in the world) holding the latter at bay. In this model, filmmakers add violence to their films, but only in the quantities necessary to reinforce some set of values: the value of painting an accurate picture of the world, indicting its injustices or simply telling a good, compelling story.
Tarantino has positioned himself far past the point where violence must be justified, explained or related in any way to the usual demands of narrative or character. Where he is now -- and where he has brought much of his audience and the people who write about movies -- is a new postmodern funhouse. He has trained his audience well, trained them to see Tarantino films through the prism of Tarantino films. The "sophisticated" viewer watches a decapitation and thinks not about its moral meaning, or its narrative justification, or its potential effect on impressionable minds, but rather its relation to the Tarantino oeuvre and things that have influenced the Tarantino oeuvre. They think about references to anime and comic books and kung fu films. There's hardly time for ethical qualms.
"Kill Bill," writes Richard Corliss of Time magazine, "is about the motion, the emotion, the very movieness of movies."
The "movieness of movies" is a striking phrase, suggesting that Tarantino's violence has become purely an abstraction, to be discussed in the same way that music critics might talk about whether a composer has violated the spirit of sonata form, or borrowed too explicitly from Bach. "Movieness" is the sort of word that critics who usually deal with non-verbal art forms -- music, dance, some kinds of painting -- fall back on.
Other critics refuse to take this step. David Denby, of the New Yorker, aligns himself with "the squares" who are the worst, most contemptible nonentities within the ethos of Tarantino's cinematic world. The film, Denby wrote, "will doubtless cause enormous excitement among the kind of pop archivists for whom the merest reference to a Run Run Shaw kung-fu picture from 1977 is deliciously naughty -- a frisson de schlock that, for them, replaces any other vital response to a movie." Denby declines the frisson and concludes, "I felt nothing -- not anger, not dismay, not amusement. Nothing."
It has taken some time to get to this place, where it seems that you're either on the inside, or the outside, of some abstract aesthetic joke. By 1971, when Stanley Kubrick released "A Clockwork Orange," based on the Anthony Burgess novel, the director had developed a cinematic language of violence that has since become standard, whether it's Michael Moore lambasting American gun culture or Oliver Stone pursuing a conspiracy theory. There are rapid cuts between personal fantasies of violence and our collective, historical visions of destruction. Individual sexual desire and rape are woven together with shots of Hitler and blitzkrieg and atomic bombs. Music is deployed ironically to suggest that there is no simple dichotomy between barbarism and art; the presence of a Rossini overture suggests that a gang rape is really just a psychotic ballet.
But Kubrick's film was ultimately a satire. He may have suggested, as Tarantino occasionally did in his earlier films, that it is the hypocrisies of society that breed violence, and this suggestion is made, ultimately, to indict those hypocrisies and their fatuous practitioners. Kubrick blurs the lines between civilization and violence to make a vigorous anti-authoritarian argument -- which is presumably intended to make civilized people more self-aware and therefore better guardians of their values. Why, if violence is so wrong, are you, dear viewer, enjoying it so much?
In 1994, when Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" came out, based on a story by Tarantino, there was still a vestigial sense of the old civilization-and-violence paradigm. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, the hormone-addled, murderously indifferent Bonnie and Clyde clones, play characters who had horrible childhoods. They weren't, in fact, natural-born killers, but man-made killers. One might feel for them some remnant of sympathy. And with that nod to a preexisting villain -- the bad parent or abusive authority figure -- who is ultimately responsible, Stone was off and running, unleashing a long, brutal spectacle of mayhem.
Because the film made a tiny obeisance to a moral system, because it wanted to have some kind of larger message (Stone was also interested in critiquing the media's glamorization of violence), it was easy to argue that he had indulged in gratuitous violence. Critics, at the time, sensed that this was a flimsy message film serving as an excuse for a lot of slick and sassy gunplay.
Stone's film was released the same year as Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," and two years after "Reservoir Dogs." Both early Tarantino flicks were brutal, but both had a story to tell. In "Reservoir Dogs," a man with a hemorrhaging belly wound talks to a man with a severed ear, the violence done to them serving as a kind of emphasis on what truly matters: their dialogue. In "Pulp Fiction" and "Reservoir Dogs," there are also degrees of innocence and guilt among the victims, an acknowledgment that there is still a moral system that tries to control the use of violence.
But with "Kill Bill," violence has become entirely insular, circular, closed off from any other meanings. The story line is the barest thread of a vengeance fantasy. We laugh when the wreaker of this vengeance, Uma Thurman, literally crosses another name off the "to do" list in her little notebook, in part because this mix of the murderous and the mundane is so quintessentially Tarantino, and in part because it unmasks the plot as a barren flowchart of violence. And innocent victims have been banished. The numberless dead and wounded in "Kill Bill" are professional killers (or an occasional lowlife). War, and Tarantino films, are easier to swallow, easier to talk about as abstractions, when there are no civilian casualties.
A barrage of critical categories, mostly unsatisfying, have been mustered to make sense of this Tarantino tendency (fully realized in "Kill Bill") to remove the meaning of violence, to make cruelty as inconsequential as a good one-liner. Old-fashioned moral outrage is tired and, given the film's popularity, almost certainly ineffectual. And one can't really dismiss it as satire anymore, because "Kill Bill" has no pretensions to be about any world beyond itself. But the well-worn old argument that his films are really just innocuous comic books, or choreographic fantasies, are simply ways of avoiding the problem. Stylized violence, after all, is still violence.
Consider a very minor character from "Pulp Fiction," identified as "Long-Hair Yuppie Scum." A quick scan of the audience at a Tarantino film suggests that he has captured the hearts and minds of many a yuppie scum, despite the contempt for them that oozes from his trash-talking street thugs. Here, in a nutshell, is the postmodern conundrum: It is less painful to laugh with Tarantino at yourself (and your values) than it is to think he's laughing at you without you. Silly yuppie scum.
But this doesn't mean that if you choose, like David Denby, to stay on the outside of the private world of Tarantino's virtuosic and violent self-referentiality, that there's no place from which to criticize "Kill Bill." His violence isn't abstract. Violence, like sex, bypasses the intellectualization fundamental to abstraction. But in this film, violence has become as vacuous as an arabesque, a figure constructed entirely of what should be ornamental, like a cake that is all frosting or a Christmas tree made entirely of lights and no tree. It is ornament running the asylum.
And the film suffers a failing that is symptomatic of purely ornamental art from time immemorial. It becomes obsessional and empty, and there are only two places to go when your art has become obsessional and empty: into irrelevance, or back to first principles.
In the 18th century, as the Enlightenment was flourishing throughout the capitals of Europe, the isolated Catholics of Bavaria were building churches in which the insane profusion of ornament, color and fantasy eventually overwhelmed all other architectural values. From the outside, their churches were simple, dour buildings, often boxy and blank. On the inside, the line between the painted ceilings and decorated arches and pillars was lost in a grotesque fantasy of golden shells, tiny angels and architectural elements that had been flayed and diced into meaninglessness. This was architectural porn with no plot. It was the high rococo style, and it horrified enlightened critics.
It also faded after its 15 minutes. Form and function were brought back into balance, clean lines reappeared, old verities were reasserted. Visit these churches today, and you may laugh. Or admire the oddity of it. Or wonder: What were they thinking?
The rococo violence of Tarantino may be heading for the same fate. Or perhaps, in "Kill Bill, Vol. 2," or whatever else follows, he'll get back to the basic architecture of filmmaking.