When Kill Bill Vol. 1 was released there was some controversy generated by the amount of violence in the film. Granted, the movie’s mayhem is so over the top that it can’t be taken seriously, but some critics were unable to see that. None was more guilty of this than Michael Medved.
Medved, in a column for USA Today (the nation’s happy newspaper), didn’t like the movie, as was to be expected. He thought the violence was there in place of a story (a criticism that is off-base seeing as the violence is the story) and that it was far too excessive. (As if a violent movie shouldn’t have a lot violence. Nobody ever criticizes a comedy for having too many laughs.) He understands that the film was a tribute to exploitation flicks, which were also often short on plot, and he knows that the movie is nothing more than a fantasy, but Medved believes that fantasies can “corrupt and degrade.” The film, he writes, “represents another step in the desensitization process that erodes cultural standards and mocks our innate, healthy revulsion toward cruelty.” All of this is presented as fact in Medved’s America. The truth of the matter, however, is that America isn’t the fantasy land Medved promotes in his columns and on his radio show, though he’d liked to believe that isn’t the case.
America’s cultural standards are in the toilet. There’s no question about that. They are there because we never had any high cultural standards in the first place. America’s cultural history has always been entrenched with its ability to absorb and destroy. Native American culture — which was here before the country was “discovered” — was mostly abolished through a glossed-over genocide, and in its place Americans used bits and pieces of all the other cultures that had been assimilated with the country’s melting pot heritage to create something they called “new.” Native American culture, black culture and so on — we sucked them dry and still do. The result of that is a mass-acceptance culture of the lowest common denominator (LCD) where we take the most easily understood and exploited aspects of other cultures’ art and entertainment and make them our own, and movies, while far from being the cause of it, represent that characteristic of society. So, is Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 guilty of promoting the decline of culture as Medved posits, or is it merely a symptom?
The movie isn’t desensitizing or eroding culture as Medved asserts. Instead, it is simply a stylized homage to the grindhouse flicks Tarantino and others enjoy. These films originally came into play for several different reasons. Sometimes producers needed to make a fast buck, so they turned out low-budget horror films because they were an easy sell. Then there was a culture that was latching onto the LCD cinema of another culture in the form of martial arts movies, which, while often very artistic, were simple films that could be enjoyed by anybody. And then there were the producers, directors, writers and actors trying to make something that Hollywood seemed afraid to do, which is where blaxploitation films came into play. Tarantino took moments from all those films and made them into something that hasn’t been seen in too long a time. He didn’t do it because he’s racist (as at least one critic has charged), and he hasn’t done it to affect America’s zeitgeist (as Medved fears may happen). That said, his movie is a direct reflection of American culture, though that is only because Tarantino is a product of that culture and not due to any direct effort on his behalf to make a political or social statement.
Medved seems to forget that this is a country that goes to war on a whim and has it televised movie-of-the-week style. This is a country where lynching notices were posted in newspapers in order to ensure a bigger turnout. This is a country that sends young men and women off, not to “defend us against real-life killers” as Medved suggests, but to defend corporate profits and get revenge for real and perceived acts. That’s our culture, and that brings us the entertainment and art Medved rallies against. It’s not the other way around. He’s blaming the wrong people.
Tarantino’s film works incredibly well. It does exactly what it set out to do. Some people, mainly those who are concerned about protecting the children and adults from themselves, will see it as nothing more than violence for the sake of violence. They, like Medved, will claim it is destroying what makes us a great nation. They won’t understand that it is a tribute film. Nothing more. Nothing less. If a viewer doesn’t know what Tarantino’s imitating, he or she will most likely see this as a live-action Tom and Jerry story or a big-budget Three Stooges film. The violence is so fake and so cartoon-like that only the most misguided will see it as a cancer; it merely apes America and its values. Revenge, violence, cultural bigotry and rape aren’t just characteristics of the film, they are America’s backbone. These traits weren’t introduced to America via the movies, either. They were introduced into the films by America.
If Medved is disturbed by all of this, he better start looking at the history of his government, the church and the corporations that are in control. And maybe his next column could be about how the real violence of war desensitizes a nation and how the corporate greed of companies like Enron destroys lives and erodes confidence in our system. Of course, that’s real life and far harder to attack than the fantasy of Tarantino’s film.
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Posted on November 17, 2003 in Features by Doug Brunell
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