Magazine article Artforum International

Twin Bills: Theresa Duncan on Women and the Man in Two Recent Films

Magazine article Artforum International

Twin Bills: Theresa Duncan on Women and the Man in Two Recent Films

Article excerpt

AT FIRST GLANCE, Sofia Coppola's melancholy love story Lost in Translation and Quentin Tarantino's brazen splatterfest Kill Bill: Vol. 1 don't seem to have much in common beyond their similarly lavish Oscar campaigns. But then a peculiar set of coincidences begins to emerge. Both are set in a dreamlike, poppalette Tokyo, the action in both pivots on the marital troubles of a female protagonist, and the films each sport a key scene in which the heroine rides along a hospital corridor in a wheelchair. Even some of the finer points are identical, like both films' featuring a minor Japanese character nicknamed Charlie Brown. The chain of happenstance starts to look like the "eerie" coincidences connecting the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. (You know, Lincoln's secretary was named Kennedy, Kennedy's secretary was named Lincoln ...) But while these young, talented filmmakers' most recent works may bear similar details, they intersect only briefly at a set of opposing cultural currents. If the X marking Coppola and Tarantino's generation stands for a crossroads, then one director is helping to maintain the status quo while the other emerges as American film's first truly great female director.

Toni Morrison famously declared Bill Clinton the first black president; and by lights of a similar set of sociological shifts and personal circumstances, Quentin Tarantino has become the first "female" director to reach American film's commercial and artistic pinnacles. While Sofia Coppola has a matter-of-fact Hollywood pedigree, Tarantino (like fellow hick striver Clinton) had no father. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, he was raised by a single teenage mom in Long Beach, California, eventually trading his shit job at the local video-rental mart for Cannes and a Palme d'Or. Also like Clinton, Tarantino grew up to be an accomplished and authoritative white man who can consider the subjectivities of women and minorities without breaking into a cold sweat. Beginning with Uma Thurman's Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction (1994) and Pam Grier's Jackie Brown (1997), Tarantino has demonstrated an unselfconscious empathy with and ability to write strong, dynamic roles for women that no female director in America has yet matched.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 centers on a woman's quest for justice. The title character Bill, played in Vol. 2 by David Carradine, is here an invisible figure looming over the story. We know Bill is the head of an elite, all-female group called the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, or DiVAS. Vol. 1 opens with Bill and his DiVAS gunning down a wedding party. The pregnant woman in the blood-soaked wedding dress, the Bride (Uma Thurman), is also known as Black Mamba, the most lethal Viper of them all. Bill and the Vipers leave the Bride for dead, but she is actually comatose. Cut to four years later. Suddenly awakening in a hospital, the Bride efficiently dispatches the hospital orderly who has been pimping her inert body (slamming a door repeatedly on his skull), steals his custom-built hot rod emblazoned with foot-high pink letters reading "Pussy Wagon," and sets off on a ferociously focused mission of revenge. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari said that a hole is just a vagina traveling at the speed of light. For years I had no inkling what that gnomic pronouncement could possibly mean--and then I saw Uma Thurman hurtling around in the Pussy Wagon.

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Sam Peckinpah's masterpiece of American screen violence Straw Dogs (1971) was famously called a "fascist work of art" by Pauline Kael; Kill Bill's hallucinatory violence and rivers of gore have elicited similarly hysterical commentary. The New Republic's Gregg Easterbrook went so far as to accuse Harvey Weinstein, one of the film's producers, of promoting terrorism. In conversation, Tarantino praises violent films for their "honesty" and for being "true to themselves. …

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