Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop MD, Free for CAPC Members
Dunlop’s book tackles a subject that few of us would care to read about in a way that encourages, informs, and relieves fear.
“That woman deserves her vengence and we deserve to die.”
Last month, Netflix added Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 to their streaming offerings, and although these films are almost 15 years old, they feel completely new today. It’s not just that the films have held up well, which they have: the action is exhilarating, the camera work is breathtaking, and the dense, insular dialogue—which at its best propels Tarantino’s works, and at its most overblown, risks bogging them down—is stripped back in service of allowing the visuals to speak. Rewatching Kill Bill in our current moment is also a layered, surprisingly emotional experience. The tale of a wronged woman picking up a sword to defend and avenge herself is filled with inexorable connections to the wave of women rising up to confront their abusers and demand long overdue justice in the #MeToo movement.
Created specifically as a form of solidarity among women of color in 2007 by Tarana Burke, founder of youth organization Just Be Inc., the “Me Too” campaign went viral after actress Alyssa Milano asked Twitter followers to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault using the phrase “Me too.” It reached an unavoidable critical mass in late 2017, and has dominated the news cycle in the months since, creating a space for women who feared retribution to come forward and name their abusers. It’s in the wake of this still-growing movement that the story of Kill Bill begins to feel less fantastic and more grimly prophetic.
Kill Bill was originally envisioned as a single film, but split into two volumes when its runtime hit four hours. Despite its ambitious scope, it’s the most fully realized example of Tarantino’s films. It’s a revenge thriller, but to label it with just one genre is misleading. The film jumps from black and white to color, from live action to Japanese anime, the form molding around whatever Tarantino’s specific vision for that scene dictates.
The movie’s plot begins with the Bride, played by Tarantino’s frequent collaborator and “muse” Uma Thurman, lying bloody in a wedding dress with her slain wedding party strewn around her. Her former boss and lover, Bill (David Carradine), head of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, stands over her. She tells him that she is pregnant with his baby. He shoots her in the head.
When she awakes from a coma that has lasted four years, the Bride sets out on a very simple mission: to kill Bill.
The plot, though densely constructed, deviates little from this singular purpose. Along the way, the Bride kills dozens of people in spectacular, lurid fashion, slicing her way along a journey to punish the man who destroyed her life. Like many of Tarantino’s films, Kill Bill is swirling mash of high and low art, intricate plots and comic book violence, philosophical speeches and incessant profanity. He builds meticulous and particular dioramas, as interested in placement and consistency of fake blood as the characters’ history. He’s the Wes Anderson of carnage. Unlike a run-of-the-mill revenge slasher, Kill Bill centers the experience of its female lead. There’s an inherent feminism in the Bride’s swath of violence. She’s been victimized, but she refuses to be a victim. She takes control, she fights back. And the body count that the Bride accrues starts to feel like vindication on the behalf of the female gender.
The purpose for all this bloodshed is not so much to advocate violence as a response to trauma, as it is designed to allow viewers to see with their eyes the turmoil that churns in the hearts of victims. They have felt the impact of sin, and we have a responsibility to try to understand it. Tarantino chose violence because of its visceral impact on viewers: he wants us to not just know the cost of justice but to feel the cost of justice.
Much like how Flannery O’Connor uses brutality to depict the high cost of redemption, Tarantino uses violence to draw a picture of the cost for wrongs to be set right again. Tarantino’s universe, notably, lacks the divine presence that imbues all of O’Connor’s backwoods towns and farms and, consequently, his violence often exists for its own sake, the spurts of blood working as stylistic homage to pulpy grindhouse films as often as they function as redemptive symbol. But in the carnage of the Kill Bill films, we find a truth that feels darkly resonant in the era of the #MeToo movement: that injustice has consequences, and that those who inflict pain upon others will always have their deeds exposed and punished.It’s a far cry from the “redeeming blood” spoken about in scriptures, but the crimson founts in Kill Bill are redemptive in the way they represent purifying the world of misogyny, which is still one of our undeniable dominant cultural attitudes.
Tarantino’s knack for stilted dramatic structures makes us aware of the framework, a mythology of violence. The spouts of blood and scattered limbs are so exaggerated and cartoonish that we’re supposed to laugh as often as we recoil in horror, and it provides enough distance for us to see the commentary he intends beyond shock and awe. It’s a far cry from the “redeeming blood” spoken about in scriptures, but the crimson founts in Kill Bill are redemptive in the way they represent purifying the world of misogyny, which is still one of our undeniable dominant cultural attitudes. The version of power in Kill Bill stems from female agency, turning male violence against women upside down. There’s a very real desire from victims for their abusers to be punished, and while they might not have a thirst for blood, they have a thirst for justice. And the scriptures are clear about how we are all to thirst for justice.
Ironically—but maybe predictably—the themes of female agency and power in Kill Bill masked exploitive actions by the men creating the film. When accusations against Harvey Weinstein finally reached critical mass and led the board of his own company to fire him, Uma Thurman cryptically indicated that this reckoning was long overdue, and she had her own story to add to the dozens of others. Laid out in a February 3rd, 2018 article in The New York Times, Thurman describes how she was repeatedly propositioned by Weinstein early in their collaborative relationship, and although her memory of the event is hazy, she believes she was physically assaulted by the executive. Weinstein has admitted to bits and pieces of this, more than he has with similar cases. Thurman expresses great sorrow and regret that by not speaking out more publicly, she indirectly failed to protect many more women who would work with Weinstein. But how could she?
The allegations against Weinstein carry a central theme: Weinstein would coerce women by promising them greater opportunities in the industry and, if they resisted, he threatened to end their careers. Weinstein’s threats were far from empty. It’s hard to overstate the power an industry titan like that has. You can’t bite the hand that not only writes the checks, but influences other check-writers, too.
Tarantino held his own power over Thurman, and he exerted it. When preparing to film the famous scene where Thurman drives a blue convertible toward her final confrontation with Bill, Thurman wanted to defer to her stunt double Zoë Bell, but Tarantino insisted that it had to be Thurman, and that the road and car were safe. He told her she had to hit 40 mph or he wouldn’t get the shot he needed of her hair blowing in the wind. Like so many women in so many different and difficult circumstances, Thurman protested, but because she felt that she had no other option, she ultimately agreed. The car and road were not safe. As she built speed, the stunt car hit a loose patch of dirt and skidded into a tree. Thurman had to be carried out of the vehicle.
Whenever allegations of abuse from years past surface, there are always cries of “Why didn’t she come forward before?” The answer is simple: accusing a powerful man of wrongdoing tends to result in nothing beyond a statement of denial, while the career of the accuser is frequently deflated, if not demolished. Tara Subkoff made her acclaimed debut in 1994’s When the Bough Breaks, but says that turning down Weinstein’s advances ended her career: “My reputation was ruined by false gossip, and I was called ‘too difficult to work with.’ It became impossible for me to get work as an actress after this.” Mira Sorvino and Rosanna Arquette attested to the same cycle of censure after refusing Weinstein. And this is the smallest tip of a massive iceberg. For every woman whose story we hear, we can count on innumerable similar stories sitting invisible below the surface.
The #MeToo movement has seen years of women telling their stories finally materialize into substantive news coverage and court trials. It feels like a seismic shift in our culture, but one that has come far too late. The damage has been done, and its effects will continue to be felt.
It’s in this light that Kill Bill provides the ultimate escapist fantasy. The flood of accusations has not slowed, but there have still been a comparatively slim number of convictions. Our society is so firmly tilted in favor of male voice that even in a purportedly “progressive era,” women must struggle to make themselves heard. It doesn’t seem so unreasonable that a katana might be a necessary accessory.
Kill Bill’s bloody revenge tale exaggerates violence against women until even the most desensitized audience can no longer ignore it, empowering its female heroine to right the wrongs against her—an eye for an eye. It’s the kind of world that women today can only dream of, one where justice is swift and proportional to the crime committed. Yet it’s attempt to depict the high cost of justice rings hollow in the #MeToo era, when we know that even the film’s leading actress was only able to act out this fantasy in exchange for her silence about the real-world violence being done to her.
In a way, this reality reinforces the poetic truth at the core of Kill Bill: men have the power, and the overwhelming majority of women have suffered as a result of this power being abused. Even as Thurman strikes fear in the heart of her abusers, the actress herself suffered at the hands of an abusive executive and an obsessive director who referred her as his “muse” even as he willingly put her in danger. The idea of her was more enticing to Tarantino than the real person who entrusted him with her well-being in the grueling shooting process. His vision took precedence, and the result was a life-altering injury for a woman who was trying to show other women how they can proverbially fight back. Thurman’s character predicted the #MeToo movement’s show of strength and solidarity, while Thurman the woman and actress suffered at the hands of men without an avenue for justice.
Kill Bill would prove to be prophetic of the reckoning that came—as it always must—for the men who abuse their position and the women under them, but the film also carries a warning: oppression and violence will fester below the surface wherever it goes unchecked. In a voiceover narration, the Bride says, “When fortune smiles on something as violent and ugly as revenge, it seems proof like no other, that not only does God exist, you’re doing His will.” The literal meaning of the statement is tongue in cheek: God does not smile upon the ugliness of violence or eye-for-eye revenge. But the undercurrent of her statement, the symbolic import, rings true. Justice is not always easy or pretty, but when we pursue it—not through lust for blood, but in a spirit of love and truth—we are doing His will.
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