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Kill Bill: Are we breaking back into paganism in the movies?

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 18 November 2003


I must admit that I have found all of Tarantino's films memorable with the possible exception of Jackie Brown. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were powerful enough to ensure Tarantino’s cult status. In his latest, Kill Bill: Volume 1 we again find ourselves in the ultra-violent world of big crime and assassination but this time with overlapping genres: Japanese cartoon, Samurai mysticism and Western decadence. All of this with a spectacular sound track, blood spurting from severed heads and limbs and a catch to take us back to see Volume 2.

In my article "Seek My Face" I suggested that it was the role of the artist to seek the face of God in his or her revealing of the truth. How is our Quentin doing this if at all? He is certainly a most skilful movie maker, Kill Bill is riveting and involving even if the fight scenes go on and on to the point of farce. It is basically a vengeance movie and much time is spent in combat of the most extreme and even unbelievable kind. Many opponents are diced and sliced and individual death and maiming become lost in the bloodbath. This is the opposite of Japanese Story in which one death is dealt with in detail and we leave the cinema much more affected by this and its slow painstaking picture of deep grief than we do after seeing hundreds slaughtered in Kill Bill.

So what is the point, or is there a point? Tarantino proclaims that Kill Bill is a movie movie in that it does not relate to reality. It is an art-form that takes only itself as reference. It is obvious that this is a film buff's film, a film that does not attempt to plumb the depths of the human condition but to offer us an experience of the film-maker’s art. Indeed, the human is glossed. We are given a pop psychology explanation of motivation: cold and brutal killers become the way they are by experiencing cold and brutal killing. Instead of becoming emotionally maimed they become violent masters of all they survey. This is the mythology at the centre of what plot there is. It raises the question: does seeing ones loved ones hacked to death create criminal cool or are such unfortunates wounded for life?

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Kill Bill relies on several mythologies, prominent among them is the warrior tradition of the Samurai and the sacred sword that is fashioned specifically for vengeance. The warrior armed with such a sword and driven by personal pain is invincible. The action scenes that rely on this mythology borrow heavily from Kung Fu films and are as fanciful. So much so that belief is suspended. Again we confront untruth; this is not an accurate portrayal of how human beings are. The maker of the sword advises that if its carrier meets God on the way then God will be cut. This myth carries all before it.

If a new paganism were to arise in our culture this film is what it would look like. It would be based on an amalgam of old and new myths. The old being the Samurai warrior myth of the necessity of vengeance and the new borrowed from popular psychology: the abused become the abusers. These myths tap into psychological realities but they are untrue in the world. This is the mark of paganism.

Kill Bill is not alone among modern movies in its use of myth. Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings trilogy are cases in point. Both of these series are as violent as Kill Bill, however the enemy is dressed up as faceless Star troopers in the former and as non-human humanoids in the latter. A reading of racism in the Lord of the Rings is hard to avoid but it is glossed by a folksy genre. These movies also have the old warrior myths with sacred swords and invincible heroes. The Lord of the Rings incorporates a potent mix of sentimentality for village England in the form of the Shire and a obvious polemic against industrial society (Mordor does look a bit like BHP).

Paganism is an imagined view of the world that imputes spirit to nature and superhuman powers to men. It denies the naturalness of the world and the frailty of humanity. Israel’s polemic against paganism can be found throughout the Old Testament particularly in the two creation stories in Genesis in which, as we have noted before, the world is a natural place devoid of spirit and men are creatures subject to limitation and death. Paganism is also confronted by the way Israel tells history, or in the fact that it tells its history at all. Although historical events are often embellished in a way that looks mythological (The escape from Egypt) the intended effect is to ground our understanding of the human in historical event. This is quite different from the storytelling of pagan societies, which is rarely based on the experience of actual people. Even Israel's non-historical legends like the book of Job or Jonah are set in the real historical context of agrarian life. Here we must make a distinction between the use of a literary device, like the heavenly council in Job and the fish in Jonah (or the talking snake in the garden of Eden) and a truly pagan genre. Such literary devices have been used successfully in movies as in Liar Liar and "Groundhog Day. The point is made, deceit destroys life in the former and the eternal return of the latter challenges the protagonist to a new humanity.

It is not surprising that paganism should rear its head in our time of the decline of the church and the suspicion that the environmental movement has cast over much science and technology. The search for spirituality has seen the rise of all the old cults that have been mixed with feminism, alternative medicine, nature worship, anything at all, really, that feels good. It is of the nature of paganism that it relies on feeling as opposed to reason. It feels true that eating powdered rhinoceros will cure erectile dysfunction. It feels true that there is a life force active in the universe. We like to think that something with a nice name like “evening primrose oil” is better for us than all of the science of the pharmaceutical companies.

I am not advocating that we ban Harry Potter from school libraries or go on a crusade against the film industry. These things are, to a point harmless entertainment. But I have realised how bored I have become with the genre. I started out seeing the first of the trilogies but my interest soon flags. The second movie in the Lord of the Rings struck me as pretentious rubbish and Star Wars has gone onto even more lavish but irrelevant productions. This is the problem with paganism, it palls, it exhausts itself because, like Kill Bill, it does not touch the heart of the matter. Paganism is self-deception; it projects a world that does not exist and it will therefore fade away. It breaks the bounds of limited humanity and quickly floats of into space.

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The violence in Kill Bill explodes on the screen and one wonders what the point of it all is. Extreme violence is also portrayed, for example, in the opening scenes of the beach assault in Saving Private Ryan. Do we seek the face of God in portraying the most awful things that can happen to the human person? Not just what can happen to our bodies but our minds and our souls? The portrayal of spiritual death in films like Lantana and American Beauty do not need to have blood spurting to lead us into the darkness. When asked why he writes so much explicit sex into his novels John Updike answered that it was important to show how his characters connected. Likewise, a war film needs to show what happens to bodies in modern warfare. Not to do so would be to invite abstraction, a disembodied view of the human, a conclusion blocked by the theology of incarnation. The portrayal of violence is essential to any art that attempts to portray the human because violence is a continuing human experience. The question about it is whether it does so truthfully or in a manner that conjures up the shoot-'em-up dynamics of the computer game. The violence in the three films discussed dehumanises in order to do just that whereas in Saving Private Ryan the full cost to human beings is outlined.

Drama leads us into the darkness so that we can recognise that we are creatures living in bodies of flesh and blood and whose psyches are prone to torment. The issue is not about how much and how graphic the violence is but whether it faithfully portrays the truth about us. Kill Bill does not and is therefore, in this respect, a failed work of art. That does not mean that I did not enjoy some scenes with relish. Tarantino is adept at marrying sound track with screen play to produce dissonances that fascinate and are a form of revelation to us. If the role of the artist is to make us see anew then there are times in Kill Bill that work superbly. But these times work specifically when the mythology is replaced by the truly human. The movie cannot therefore be totally dismissed and I, for one look forward to Volume 2.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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