Monday, April 19, 2004

Kill Bill Vol. 2

By Elise Nakhnikian

Writer/director Quentin Tarantino has been playing elaborate riffs on what makes homicidal people tick ever since Reservoir Dogs, but he’s never been better than in Kill Bill Vol. 2.

If the luscious eye candy of Vol. 1 was an exhilarating swoosh down a water park ride, Vol. 2 is a tidal wave that sweeps you up as it gathers momentum. Both halves (it was originally shot as one movie) are gorgeous to look at, often funny, and jam-packed with striking-looking people doing or discussing campily cool things, like “the five-point palm exploding-heart technique,” a fatal martial arts move introduced in Vol. 2. Both have vibrant, visceral soundtracks. But Vol. 1 devoted all that creativity simply to showing a killer at work, leaving audiences wanting a little more substance. Vol. 2 slakes that thirst, letting us see what was behind its heroine’s “roaring rampage of revenge,” as she sardonically describes it. In the process, it casts her — and Vol. 1 — in a whole new light.

Kill Bill is the story of The Bride (Uma Thurman), a creation of Tarantino and Thurman, who came up with the idea for the character while working together on Pulp Fiction. In Vol. 1, she’s a female version of the archetypal “man with no name” played by Clint Eastwood in his Sergio Leone Westerns, as two-dimensional as the silhouettes Tarantino likes to shoot against brightly colored backgrounds, in a nod to Hong Kong chop-socky movie credit sequences.

In Vol. 2, the silhouette gets fleshed out. We see The Bride as a vulnerable young woman in wide-eyed thrall to Bill (David Carradine). We learn her name (Beatrix Kiddo). We find out what made her reject the life that the pimp-like Bill trained her for, as the most talented and most favored member of Bill’s professional hit squad. And we learn why she’s determined to dispatch the remaining members of the squad, who left her for dead about five years earlier — especially Bill, who also happens to be the father of her child and maybe the love of her life.

Vol. 2 revives one of Tarantino’s signature techniques, using artfully indirect talk as a counterpoint to brutal, bloody action. In one creepily compelling domestic scene, Bill makes sandwiches in his kitchen, telling a story about how his five-year-old daughter learned about death while trimming the crusts with a butcher’s knife.

Like the wink from Beatrix that ends Vol. 2, these quirky conversations remind us that we’re safe inside what the director likes to call “Quentin Tarantino world.” At the same time, because they’re usually so firmly grounded in the mundane details of consumer culture, they blur the line between Tarantino’s world and ours, making his sociopaths and professional killers feel unsettlingly familiar.

Also familiar is the multicultural texture of Tarantino’s world, which looks a lot like America. A hybrid inspired by spaghetti Westerns and Chinese and Japanese martial arts movies, Kill Bill is part of an emerging international cinema that emulates and adapts movie traditions from Asia as well as Europe and the Americas.

Tarantino is at the top of his form here, and Tarantino in top form is one of the best moviemakers working today. From the beautiful, high-energy camera work to the side-winding dialogue to the slyly referential songs to the old-style characters filling out small parts (look for a deliciously oily cameo by Tarantino favorite Michael Parks as a Mexican pimp), he knows just how to construct what he calls “a movie-movie,” layer by juicy layer.

As in Vol. 1, the fights are lovingly choreographed. There’s less fighting and a lot less blood this time around, but when people do battle they clash like bull elephants.

Sound is also chosen for maximum impact, heightening if not creating a scene’s emotional heft. When Beatrix is captured and tortured by Bill’s brother Budd (Michael Madsen), for instance, Tarantino and his sound crew convey her panic by letting the screen go black as they crank up the ragged sound of her breathing, the taunting laughter of her captors, and the sound of their horrible work.

You don’t have to have seen Vol. 1 to enjoy Vol. 2, but it’s worth renting one of these days if you haven’t caught it yet. In the meantime, if you love movies and don’t mind stylized violence, treat yourself to Vol. 2 while it’s still in theaters. Movie-movies this engrossing don’t come along often.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Touching the Void

In 1985 two young Englishmen, Simon Yates and Joe Simpson, scaled a 21,000-foot peak in the Peruvian Andes. Their climb had never been attempted before and it hasn’t been done since, but they crested the mountain without much difficulty. Then they began their descent.

What happened next has caused a lot of people to vilify Yates or glorify Simpson, but the story dramatized in Simpson’s 1988 book, Touching the Void, and in Kevin MacDonald’s documentary of the same name is much more interesting. These two are neither heroes nor villains; they’re just ordinary guys who survived an extraordinary ordeal.

Well, okay, not entirely ordinary. Simpson and Yates are climbers, which means they’re unusually fit, unusually self-reliant people whose idea of a party is playing Spiderman at altitudes too high to support indigenous life forms. “We climbed because it was fun,” says Simpson. “And every now and then it went wildly wrong, and then it wasn’t.”

Things went wrong on this trip when Simpson fell, shattering his right leg. His first thought, he says, was: “If I broke my leg, I’m dead,” but Yates didn’t leave him to die. Instead, he spliced two ropes into one 300-foot length and began lowering his partner down the mountainside in stages. “What he did was quite extraordinary,” Simpson says, and it almost worked. But just before they reached the bottom of the slope, Yates lowered Simpson over a yawning chasm.

For about an hour and a half, the two sat in suspended animation, Simpson dangling helplessly while Yates sat in the snow bucket he had carved to hold his weight. Separated by 150 feet and a blinding snowstorm, they had no way of knowing what was happening to each other and no way to pull Simpson back up. Meanwhile, Yates’ seat was gradually shifting out from beneath him. To save himself, he finally cut the rope and found his way back to base camp, where he hunkered down to recover.

Amazingly, Simpson survived the fall after Yates cut the rope, but he landed in a crevasse with no apparent way out. After a night of horror (crevasses, he says. “have a dread feel. Not a place for living”), he gathered the courage to drop even deeper into the abyss, gambling that he’d find something other than empty space before reaching the end of his rope. The bet paid off, but now he faced a new dilemma: How could he travel the miles to base camp, over rough terrain, with no food or water and a badly broken leg?

The physical hardships undergone by the two were almost unimaginable. Yates was unrecognizable by the time he reached base camp, his fingertips blackened by frostbite and his face discolored and raw from exposure and dehydration. The pain was exponentially worse for Simpson, who lost a third of his body weight as he dragged himself back to base camp. At one point, he hopped over a stretch of broken rocks so uneven that he fell on almost every hop. “It was like having your leg broken again every time,” he says.

But their psychological ordeal is even more grueling. Although Yates plays only a supporting role in this drama, it’s clear that he suffered deeply for the Hobson’s choice that led him to abandon his partner. As for Simpson, his long dance with death has a terrible vicarious fascination. “It was a slow, steady reduction of you, really,” he says. “You didn’t have any dignity, care if you were brave or weak.”

The story is told by the three survivors: Yates, Simpson, and Richard Hawking, who manned the base camp. All three share a plain but eloquent style of speaking, a good memory for details, and a typically British aversion to self-glorification. Yates admits, for instance, that he thought about creating “a decent story that would make me look better” to explain Simpson’s presumed death, and Hawking says he was afraid to rescue Simpson from the darkness the night he made it back to base camp because “if he was out there, he was going to be a horrible thing.”

Sometimes the narrators speak to the camera, but often they provide a voice-over while actors play out their story. It may take a little while to get used to this technique, which is used more in cheesy History Channel movies than blue-chip documentaries, but MacDonald, a seasoned filmmaker who won an Oscar for his documentary about the Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Olympics, was smart not to let that stop him. The narration in Touching the Void tells the story, but the reenactments put us right on that mountain, turning us from listeners into observers.

MacDonald hired actors who can climb, even using Yates and Simpson themselves in some of the long shots. The performances are mainly physical, and they’re painfully convincing: I winced every time the actor playing Simpson landed on his bad leg. Aside from the talking head segments, which were shot in a studio, the movie is filmed in the Alps and the Andes, and after a while you can see the terror in that beauty and the benevolence in a sunny day.

Even close to two decades later, Simpson was unnerved by the mountain where he had felt his personality disintegrate. “I wasn't shaking, but I felt like I was,” he says. “I had forgotten just how appalling it was being reduced to almost nothing."