Wednesday, February 24, 2021

CANON OF FILM: "KILL BILL: VOLUME 1"

KILL BILL: VOLUME 1 (2003)

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino, based on the character "The Bride" created by Q&U

 

Among the Youtube reaction videos, and videos in general I've been watching lately, I've been watching others talking about and discovering Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" films. One of the ones I saw was James Rolfe's video on his Cinemassacre site where he talks about his fan edit he did of the movie. I'm not terribly big on fan edits in general; I think unless you're trying to make a point or, try to get a job as a trailer editor they're kinda pointless, but he mentioned this idea of wanting to make a more concise, single cut of the two movies and I tried to watch it. Then, I gave up half way through, because it's stupid; why would you want these movies to be edited down into one two, 2 1/2 hour film? Honestly, I think he's missing the point of the movie, and its a point that I think a lot of people, both people who love and hate Tarantino completely miss, Tarantino is a book nerd. 

Seriously, how do people miss this? I guess we've focused so much on the fact that he's a movie buff, who became a legendary film director, and yes, there's a lot of film references in all his films and you can have a lot of fun trying to seek them out, (Hell, Vanity Fair did a pretty good Youtube video on them; I'll post it on the bottom; I gotta get around to "Lady Snowblood") but in focusing in on that part of him, we completely dismissed and ignored the fact that he's a literary buff, which I think honestly is the most important aspect of his work. People were always so impressed and amazed with his willingness to challenge the traditional structure and tell stories in seemingly random orders and/or from multiple points of view that enough people were inquisitive enough to understand why he does that, but he's explained it before. He said that he wants movie to have the same storytelling freedoms that books have, and he's right. Books can go anywhere and do anything; one of my favorite pulp novels Rupert Holmes's "Where the Truth Lies" (Which was adapted into an underrated Atom Egoyan film) amazes me in how it manages to has use multiple first person perspectives, told in many different formats and through several different characters, and  seemingly nobody has much complaint or criticisms about that. In hindsight, it's all over his movies. In 1994, he amazed everybody with "Pulp Fiction"; it was so unique and original to film that I've heard some claim that he's been living off that film and its structure ever since, but that's such bullshit for many reasons, among one that's not talked about is that, if "Pulp Fiction" was a book instead of a movie, it probably wouldn't look that weird sitting next to, say Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" or something of that sort. He followed that up, with his only technical adaptation from a novel, "Jackie Brown", which was based on Elmore Leonard's "Rum Punch". 

Then he did "Kill Bill", his most epic and novel films he's done yet. There's a reason they're separated into, volumes, not parts; like a novel separated across multiple books, telling the same story. It wasn't intentional; the studio made him cut the movie into multiple parts but naming them volumes was genius. So was separating the film into chapters. Honestly, I can't watch this movie in particular without thinking about how it would read, and I think he meant it that way. I mean, it's a classic epic revenge tale, why wouldn't this make a wonderously, fun, bloody novel; it made arguably his most iconic film. I don't know why we don't think of the "Kill Bill" movies as among his very best sometimes, but arguably there's more iconic images and scenes in these films then any others he's made. 

"...Volume 1" definitely has the best pre-credits opening scene of all-time as we meet, The Bride (Uma Thurman, who came up with the character along with Quentin.) as she's beaten up, breathing for her life and lauded over by an unseen Bill (David Carradine) as he prepares his final literal shotgun blow to her head, right as she desperately announces, "It's your baby!" If that doesn't shock you into this film then there's nothing in Tarantino's arsenal of storytelling tools that will. We then, jump ahead to her fight with Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), the 2nd of the victims on her hitlist she intends to kill. It's funny, until this movie, violence wasn't actually as prevalent in his films as people used to think. "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" were endlessly criticized as violent at the time, but in hindsight, those movies were fairly tame; the sparks of violence were often so sudden that they could be hidden or cut through well-timed camera and editing tricks, or easy to overlook on future viewings because of how well the comedy in his dialogue takes over, but "Kill Bill: Vol. 1", we actually realize him to be an incredible action director. The battle with Green, in a distressingly primary-colored suburban house, is just the appetizer. Everything from the Bride's outfit choices to the car she ends up taking after getting out of her coma and fighting her way out of the hospital, is just deliciously infection eye candy. Up until now, while his films were always fantastical in their stories, they always felt like they could exist in a relatively modern real world, but since "Kill BIll", he's insisted on creating these stylized worlds full of such wonderful colors and images; it's not realistic, it's surrealistic. More importantly, it's Tarantino-istic. 

There's several underrated aspects of his films and "Kill Bill" in particular, like how it's Tarantino's most memorable and best use of music with The RZA's music supervision, but the production design has to be up there. It's also in the characters. Even though we know she's about to die by the end of the movie, he devotes a whole chapter to the story of O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), the first official victim of The Bride. For this sequence, he got Katsuji Morishita to animate the chapter, partly because it was too bloody to get any clearance to shoot it live-action without slipping into an NC-17 rating, but also because her background had to be told in a hyper-realistic way. It's great buildup, we know how difficult this woman is to kill, and we want to see how she did it, and boy do we see how she did it. Clad in a Bruce Lee yellow jumpsuit, armed with Hattori Honzo (Sonny Chiba, sorta reprising his role in "Shadow Warriors") steel and shot partly in black and white with splatterings of red, we get some expertly choreographed and iconic fight sequences. 

It's in how memorable that his movies always feel that I think his cinema buff nature shines through. All his movies on some level feel more prescient and almost always seem more memorable then other similar films. This is in how he visually uses his old favorite movies and probably comic books influences to create characters and images that just stay with us. Look at how much we remember Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama) a fairly minor henchwoman of O-Ren, but you can find a lot of people on Youtube just watching that fight between her and The Bride. Of course, she, like many in this film, feel like an amalgamation of several other characters that we may have seen somewhere before, but can't entirely put our finger on them. Tarantino is a master of iconography, maybe the master of it, whether it's in how he costumes his characters or how he allows them to act in the biggest ways possible, or even sometimes just in the casting of parts; Tarantino can take what may look great on the page, but can take that and create something iconically beautiful visually. It's almost like he's striving to take the image of the characters we might have of them as we read them in a book, and trying to transform them to the screen.  

"Kill Bill Volume 1" was the first time we realized just how much bigger he can make his films feels. He's untethered and unfiltered; sure he can always go back to those worlds of small time crooks that feel more reminiscent of cheap exploitation films from the '60s and '70s, but Tarantino with no budget limits and no rules can truly be a bloody genius. This was the first time he truly had that option and he went for broke and anything that tries to mitigate that fact is a disservice to all his later-period films, and especially to both volumes of "Kill Bill". "Volume 1" is more or less our Samurai introduction that sets up our Western dual of "Volume 2", but doesn't diminish "Volume 1". At the time when it was released, you could probably argue that it doesn't hold up as well on its own but I vehemently disagree now. For comparison, I seem to be the only one who still continues to despise Gareth Evans's "The Raid" films, and essentially those are just one long, blood-filled action scenes as well, but I still contend they're just choreography reels at best and unused video games levels at worst as they just want numb you to death with gratuitous violence. Tarantino understands that violence is a shock to the norms of everything else going on and is used that way. When somebody runs across a dinner table and chops off another's head, it should recognized and acknowledged for the suddenness that it is. That's how storytelling through violence works and not just a real-life version of pressing a power move combination. Even as the Crazy 88's get sliced and diced, there's meaning and power to it because we know everything beforehand and because we need to see how skilled she truly is, and how determined she is to get her revenge. 

  

Friday, February 12, 2021

THE EIGHT-EPISODE SEASON STRUCTURE: WHAT HAPPENS WHEN CABLE/STREAMING SERIES BECOME TO FORMULAIC?

So, I've been trying to keep up with television more lately. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don't; I'm a lot of seasons behinds that I really should get to.... (Someday, I'll finish a season of "Ozark"; I swear) One I finished watching lately was the new HBO series, "The Flight Attendant". 

 

It's kinda hard to describe without giving too much away, but I liked it a lot. I don't know if I loved it; I was actually confused by it for awhile, 'cause I didn't quite know for certain, while watching it, whether it was a miniseries or a regular comedy series. I kinda had a similar issue with "Russian Doll", which is very good, but it's also actually way more, intended as a comedy series that's really meant to only be a one-season series, which, eh, I'm of two minds on that, but generally I don't like it. I don't like gimmick shows where the idea is to follow this one long particular story over the course of a season, or the series in general. Like, television shows, (Excluding miniseries) shouldn't really be that narrow; you can run into some real issues down the line by doing that. This is one of the reasons that I still think "Lost" is pure shit, but they're not alone in that by any means. "The Killing", remember that series? No? Exactly. 

Actually, that's not fair, there's some good series that understand that you can have some major mystery in the center of it, for awhile, but not be beholden to that initial narrative thread. "Desperate Housewives" off-the-top-of-my-head, did this surprisingly well for four years, and that was after the initial mystery at the center of the series wore off. (They did jump forward in time five years and that was stupid and unnecessary.) One of the reasons I'm recommending "The Flight Attendant" is that I think it has potential to be a show like this, even after the first season narrative thread is gone, you can see the potential for how to keep it going into at least a few more seasons without having it's main character regress too much from what she's been through so far and keep the series going strong. Still though, I can't help but notice that, a lot of these series, especially the ones on cable and streaming that basically have, not even ten episodes a season, more like eight or nine or so; somewhere between 6 and 10, 12 at the very most, they-um, they're starting to blend together too much structurally for me, and not in a good way necessarily. 

People always talk about how the traditional three-camera network sitcoms are full of cliches and other such tropes, like how most of the time, you can watch a random episode of say "The Big Bang Theory" and not have too much advancement from the original condition, how there's no continuous story arc that we're progressing towards? That's both true and misleading, misleading because almost all 22 episodes/year of shows like that. It's not really that they have filler episodes, it's that they have more time to tell their stories, at a much more paced and slower way, through incremental changes over the course of, sometimes several seasons, as opposed to well, a lot suddenly happening to our main characters, in like eight episodes.... 

It's not terribly weird; I know when I pitched a TV series idea, I have an idea for how that series, at least over a first season would progress the narrative over say a 7-episode season and a 22-episode season. I'm starting to notice, that some of these series, even the good ones have kind of developed an odd structure to them, these eight-or-ten or seven-episode seasons, and it goes across all genres. I just watched "Carmen Sandiego"'s finale season as well, and some of their seasons are guilty of this as well, so this isn't specifically a genre issue. 

Basically, you still get, those so-called "filler episodes", only they do slightly more obviously progress the narrative incrimentally over the season run. but you get like, three or four of those of these episodes per season. First there's the first of pilot episode, depending on the season and that sets everything in motion, and then like, the next few episodes are those modified filler episodes, and then, there's the last few episodes of the seasons, which nowadays can seem just, all action and plot-based no matter what's going on, 'cause it's the end and we're chasing the ending. 

The first time I really recognized this strange idea for a narrative season format, and kinda getting frustrated with it, was-eh, "Eastbound and Down" actually. 

 

I only watched a couple seasons of "Eastbound and Down", it was okay, but the main thing was that the first episode of the season set up a condition, and then, there's three or four episodes of filler random absurd shit that has little effect on the total narrative, maybe incrimental character advancement at most, and then the last few episodes, got really heavy on the show's main story, they did that for two the two seasons I watched and that's all I remember. I don't remember any of the details from those filler episodes, I only really remembered those last episodes that were heavy on suddenly advancing the story of Kenny Powers, former major league pitcher turned drunken recluse. In fact, I remember that's kinda why I stopped watching it and didn't bother with the third season, because I thought the whiplash was too off-putting, and frankly I feel like there's a lot of shows like this, even really good shows. 

I'm not saying it's bad, but I'm not sure it works either, not for these shorter TV seasons that are prevalent on cable and streaming. Strangely, I think this works better for conventional 22-or-so episode seasons because by the time you actually have gotten to the major plot developments, you feel like they've actually been earned. You've been through and done a lot with these characters and followed them around for awhile, those supposed filler episodes feel like they matter much more. When you only have ten episodes or less for a season, even having one episode that doesn't feel like it's just continuously progressive the long-term narrative, even good shows can feel less good sometimes, and they really shouldn't. 

Yet, I also don't love it when a TV show doesn't have these filler episodes, 'cause suddenly plotpoints come and go too quickly. On "The Flight Attendant" there's a friendship between Kaley Cuoco's Cassie and her best friend Ani, played by Zosia Mamet, and then, there's a moment where there relationship basically ends because Cassie almost gets Ani's boyfriend killed. Yet, not even two episodes later, they're basically back to being friends who are working to help Cassie get out of this jam she's in, aka, being a suspect in a murder in Bangkok. That feels, like, not enough time has passed. It's not the first time I've felt like this was too short; I remember watching "Dexter" and that show doing this a few times, and like seeing Angel go from married to divorced to Maria and I barely noticed and remember 'cause he just goes through all the emotions that entails in a couple episodes. (That's a character that seemed to go through a lot of emotions quickly come to think of it.) I guess this is something that we can get away with when we watch series once episode/week but, like how does that play when you're binging series like these? I know I've found it disorienting at times. (I can think of like dozens of examples from "True Blood" for this one; they were really bad at it if you binged it.)

To me, it can seem weird. I can remember, like on the original "Roseanne" seeing it take Dan over a year to fully get over his daughter Becky eloping behind his back, and it felt like a full year. Hell, are there even longterm on-again/off-again romances anymore on cable or streaming series, it doesn't feel like it. Not anymore, when was the last one on a cable or streaming series? 

I actually asked that question btw, on a Facebook group and I got two responses and both of them were from network series. Do- do people not know the difference between network and cable and streaming shows anymore, 'cause there's a lot of fucking differences between them and they should be instantly recognizable. Do I have to bring back my TV Viewing 101 blogs to explain this? (Actually, that's not a terrible blogpost idea....) Anyway, I'm not saying that this is a negative in of itself, different formats of series should produce different kinds of series, but it's starting to feel like a lot of these series are beginning to feel a little too familiar to each other, and frankly, even when done well, when every series using the same narrative structure for a season, is eventually gonna get tiring and boring after awhile. That composes a lot of the complaints I hear about network television; they don't like procedurals or sitcoms where conflict gets wrapped up in a half-hour; I can understand those complaints, but I think we're gonna start hearing complaints of cable of series streaming having their own tropes and format structure being repeated over and over again soon.  

Although I think the bigger problem I have is that, while I like shows that use this format, I think it's a bad format. I mean, if I told you that, you only had to watch, only certain episodes, to catch the story of the series, and I told you that it was half the season's episode, that's a lot more tolerable when it's a longer twenty-two episodes traditional network sitcom series then it is for an eight or nine epsiodes streaming series. It's actually wasting a lot more of the shorter season, if you partake in the idea that every episode should advance the long-form narrative, which I don't, but you know the less episode/season I get, the more I expect those episodes to matter.  

There's positives and negatives to every television format, I know, I recognize that this is nitpicking; if it's a bad show then it's not gonna matter whether the structure works or not. That said, when every show starts seeming the same, it saturates the market quickly and that's when people start complaining about how there's nothing on TV/cable/streaming anymore, and I fear that that's what's gonna happen with this series format if it keeps occurring. It'll be taken over by lesser quality shows too much and too often and it could make actual good or great shows seem like every other show. I don't want either of those things to happen. It's probably inevitable, if it hasn't already, but I don't want to see it. 

I don't know entirely what the next move is to stop it or if it even should be stopped, and trying to come up with exact solutions or answers just led me to running through general complaints about certain TV shows and critiques thereof, so I don't think that would be any more or less helpful. I think the main thing for viewers, and the writers/producers/etc. of television series, especially these cable and streaming ones, is to be more conscious and aware of it. You don't have to fix it, or eradicate it somehow, but awareness of the issue is the first step, and that way you can either jump right into the flaws of the format, find new interesting ways to circumvent them in ways that play with the form and media or find ways to work around and eradicate that issue in the future, whatever works best for the show itself.