Quentin Tarantino not only grew up with movies, he lived vicariously through them. They were an integral part of his childhood and adolescence, providing word and image to act as fodder for his imagination and his fantasy life. In a November 2003 New York Times Magazine interview, for example, Tarantino admits to having fallen “hopelessly in love with Tatum O’Neal” when he saw The Bad News Bears. He then wrote a fan-fiction ABC “Afterschool Special” about himself and O’Neal. “I called her Somerset in the script,” he says, “and I did what I could never do in real life.” After that, he says, “that’s all I could do in school, just write new scripts.”
Further, as we know, movies provide for children images of gender roles, expressions of value and meaning, and safe glimpses into a large and dangerous world. In Kill Bill: Volume 1, more than in any of his other films, Tarantino revisits those movies and movie genres that he so loved as a kid, particularly the martial arts films and the spaghetti westerns (with cartoons and “blaxploitation” films thrown in for good measure). He even includes the grainy “Our Feature Presentation” graphic from those good old days at the beginning of the movie, and thus we in the audience are instantly transported, with a wave of nostalgia, backwards through adolescence to childhood itself.
But Tarantino doesn’t simply revisit the films and genres of his youth, he recreates them in significant and original ways. First, he fuses the genres into a kind of postmodern collage that has a storybook fantasy feel and wildly exaggerated confrontation scenes and violence. Imagine if, as an adult, you took from your childhood and adolescent memories the images and sounds that had the greatest impact on you—a childhood lived vicariously through movies, remember—and condensed them into a two-hour experience. In the exaggerated and fantastic way children view the world, scenes would play out in the bewildering, confused manner in which the adult mind recalls ancient events, fusing disparate events and images into a seamless picture. The result would be something very like Kill Bill: Volume 1. It’s short on plot or development, and is rather made up of a series of spectacular individual scenes—just like the conglomeration of your childhood memories probably would be.
And Tarantino’s changes go beyond simply fusing movies and movie genres. His most important alteration is his use of women in the leading roles. In Kill Bill: Volume 1, women are now both the heroes and the villains. True enough, it’s Bill (David Carradine) who pulls the strings, and more about that below, but every member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS—an acronym that obviously suggests femininity), save one, is a woman, and the man (Budd, played by Michael Madsen) hardly appears in the film at all.
Not only are the main roles filled by women, Tarantino also plays with traditional gender expectations and stereotypes. O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) is the head of Tokyo organized crime, in a reversal of traditional Japanese sex roles. Even more interesting is Gogo (Chiaki Kuriyama), the hot, young Japanese schoolgirl, the object of our fantasies and our porn, the epitome of passivity and little-girlish taboo sexuality. Only here she’s empowered, strong, and aggressive. Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) dresses in a nurse’s uniform—again, a typical male porn fantasy, except that she’s an assassin. Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) plays the traditional housewife and mother role, but is likewise strong and self-assertive, protecting her home and family in the way that a husband might—with violence and physical strength.
Despite these reversals, the film bears an apparent underlying conservatism about gender and sex roles. Note that the Bride (Uma Thurman) is pregnant and is thus poised to take on the traditional roles of wife and mother. It is when she is prevented from doing so, by her attack, that she becomes enraged and pitiless (“It’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack, not rationality,” she says to Vernita Green), as if taking on those traditional roles is what would have made her happy and complete. And Gogo may be strong and self-assertive, but she’s also psychotic. She asks the Japanese businessman if he wants to penetrate her—knowing the answer already—and then penetrates him with her sword, suggesting that there’s something terribly deforming that happens when a woman becomes too much like a man, which goes hand in hand with psychosis.
Further, playing the lead doesn’t necessarily imply wielding power, or at least ultimate power, in this film. This latter is symbolized by the pussy/cock distinction. When she awakens from her coma, the Bride, as she attempts to regain the use of her legs, says, “I could see the faces of the cunts who did this to me, and the dick responsible. Members all of Bill’s brainchild, ‘The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.’” In other words, though deadly, the DiVAS are underlings—they’re pussies, while Bill wields the real power—he’s the cock. Thus for the Bride to reap her revenge, to overcome the DiVAS and ultimately Bill, she must transform herself from pussy to cock.
Let’s consider how this transformation takes place, how it is that the Bride becomes empowered in the film. This is symbolized in a sequence of events and images, beginning with the “Pussy Wagon.” In the opening scene, after the lead-in and the credits, the Bride shows up at Vernita Green’s suburban home to confront her. Having dealt with Vernita, she leaves, peeling out in her truck, and we get a glimpse of the truck’s emblem, proclaiming itself a Pussy Wagon. We’re led to believe at first that this is the Bride’s vehicle, and thus that she is still a pussy, and is herself the pussy in question. She is, perhaps, offering herself up as receptacle, albeit in a dramatic, self-conscious way.
We learn through flashback that while she was in a coma, after her attack, she was in fact pure receptacle. The hospital orderly, Buck (“who’s here to fuck”), was selling her as a catatonic fuck doll for seventy-five dollars a pop. Further, he mentions that she’s barren, and this inability to produce a child is more evidence of her status as a receptacle (“Her plummin’ down there don’t work no more, so feel free to cum in ’er all ya wont,” he says). Recall too that, as she lays on the floor of the chapel, having been beaten and shot in the head, she spits at the Sheriff and he refers to her as a “tall drink of cocksucker.” Again, as a “cocksucker,” she’s a receptacle, but that she spits (as opposed to swallowing) might be indicative of her resistance to being one, even in that early, comatose state.
When the Bride awakens from her coma, she dispenses with Buck and then steals his truck, the Pussy Wagon. In other words, “Pussy Wagon” does not refer to a pussy offering herself as receptacle. Rather, it refers to the cock (“here to fuck”), ready to take all comers. It referred to the fucker, rather than to the fuckee. So by killing Buck (or at least smashing his head in), and stealing his truck, the Bride begins to transform herself from pussy, receptacle, to cock, the one in charge and in power. She’s now out to fuck someone else.
Next, the Bride goes to Okinawa to get a sword from Hattori Hanzo, played—significantly—by Sonny Chiba. Chiba was once Tarantino’s martial arts hero (he’s referenced in both True Romance and Pulp Fiction; the biblical passage that Jules quotes in the latter is from a Sonny Chiba movie), but here he is reduced to a supporting role. Further, and very importantly, we see him working in a Japanese café/sushi house, and he is in a relationship that has definite homosexual overtones. He and his male partner (in business, at least) squabble like an old married couple. When Hattori Hanzo calls to his partner in the next room to bring the tea, the latter calls out that he’s watching his soap operas. And when he finally comes into the room, the two of them have a spat over their respective roles in their thirty year relationship.
So not only have the women been thrust into the leads and the men reduced to supporting roles in the film, the latter have been emasculated as well. Hattori Hanzo hands over his sword—symbolically, his penis—to the Bride. She is now fully empowered and ready to reap her revenge. She’s been transformed from pussy to cock, from fuckee to fucker. And it’s only then that she seeks out O-Ren Ishii, the first target on her revenge list. (The confrontation with Vernita Green actually occurs later in the narrative, but appears earlier in the film, because of the way the film is chopped into stories and rearranged. This non-chronological ordering seems at first gratuitous, but seen in the light of this process of empowerment, the move from pussy to cock, it makes perfect sense.)
But why? Why has Tarantino done all this, recreated his past while inverting these male/female roles? The answer is that Kill Bill: Volume 1 is Tarantino’s own therapy session.
We all realize that our childhoods are formative, that we develop our neuroses due to (unhealthy) childhood relationships, neuroses that we have to deal with in our adult lives. We realize that if we’re going to understand ourselves as adults, we have to address those childhood issues. Tarantino is here not only confronting his past, in good psychoanalytic fashion, he is remaking it at the same time.
As kids, we saw our fathers as heroes. My dad was Clint Eastwood to me. (When I was too little to know better, he used to tell me stories of having fought at the Battle of Little Bighorn—sorry, dad—and I believed him and was enthralled by the tales, just as I was enthralled by Sergio Leone’s westerns.) Our mothers, on the other hand, played supporting roles. They were passive, loving (if we were lucky), trying to make up for our fathers’ shortcomings. Now, as adults, we realize that (for most of us) our fathers were simply absent, removed, distant (if there at all), and a threat. Just like Bill. In the film, we don’t see Bill. He’s in the background, removed, but ominously ever-present. Bill is the father—our father, Tarantino’s father, and, significantly and symbolically, the father to the Bride’s unborn child.
In Kill Bill: Volume 1, Tarantino is reliving his childhood as a pastiche, a postmodern fusion of the different styles that he loved and that gave his life meaning, all with an air of unreality—of the fantastic so characteristic of a child’s imagination—and at the same time he’s recreating his past in a more honest way. He’s depicting his father as the removed, distant danger that he was. And he’s recognizing his mother as the central figure that she was. Our mothers were the heroes and villains of our lives. They were the leading players, the ones who held everything together in our fathers’ absences.
What’s more, Tarantino not only remakes this past according to this more mature perspective, but also according to his desires—Uma Thurman is not only his substitute mother and ideal actress, but also his dream lover (who didn’t fall in love—or at least lust—with her, watching, say, Henry and June?). So, interestingly, despite its unreality, its storybook character, the film is a truer-to-life version of our childhoods than what most of us remember. The fathers are out as heroes; mothers have taken their place, as the central figures—struggling for power—we now recognize that they always were. And it’s all tinged with an air of blood and violence, symbolic of the unhealthy, neurotic character of the entire history. No wonder we continue to have those violent dreams.
Consequently, the film’s apparent conservatism about gender may in fact represent the very enlightened view that, in those leading roles, the women in our lives were psychically (if not physically) deformed in their struggle to gain the power that they needed to perform those roles, the power which was their due.
If this interpretation holds any water, then in Volume 2, Tarantino will of course perform the Oedipal act, by having the Bride kill Bill, the father. It’s as if Oedipus, directing the play himself, gets Jocasta (mother and lover simultaneously) to kill Laius in his stead.