Off the Beaten Path: Aristotelian Deviation in ‘Kill Bill’

Film is frequently misunderstood as an art form, primarily due to its ambiguity as an art form. For as long as the medium has existed, film theorists have been debating the validity of film as a whole. Among the earliest film theorists to assert the merits that film had are the likes of Rudolf Arnheim, who believed that film’s strength as an art form lay in its ability to distance itself from reality, in essence a form of escapism. Andre Bazin, took a different approach to his understanding of film. He was cemented in the idea that film derived it’s power from its ability to seamlessly recreate reality. Regardless of what approach an audience may subscribe to, the importance of debate about film, even from its beginning, is important in understanding the basics of film theory. However, although Arnheim and Bazin may be known for questioning the art form itself, the questioning of the most basic element of most films, which is the plot, began far earlier.
Aristotle is frequently credited for first establishing the idea that drama, more specifically the Greek tragedies, followed a basic formula. Although drama and film have many differences, Aristotle’s plot formula is also applied to film. The audience’s understanding of a film as a compilation of rising action, climax, and resolution is called the Aristotelian plot. However, film established itself as a new type of art form by relying not only on the visual, but what the director shows his or her audience and more importantly, how he or she presents it. With the creation of film, film-goers began to see a dissent from the standard Aristotelian plot. Although Aristotle’s basic formula of rising action, climax, and resolution is still used more frequently than not, departures from this formula do exist in cinema. One of the more recent auteurs of the 20th century, Quentin Tarantino, often prides himself on being able to deviate from this formula. Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a perfect example of a non-Aristotelian plot formula. It details the story of an unnamed woman who is brutally assaulted and her attempt to get revenge on those who did this to her over the course of the next few years, through a display of non-linear events. The plot is non-Aristotelian for a variety of reasons including, a tribute to some of the films that inspired him, using it as a method of engaging the audience, and most importantly, Tarantino’s personal emphasis on stylistics over all else.
One specific example is over the film’s close, Hattori Hanzo says “Revenge is never a straight line.” While he goes on to explain his metaphor that it is easy to get lost when on the quest for revenge, it also seems to be a subtle wink to the audience and to the films which inspired Tarantino. Although Tarantino uses a variety of films for inspiration, most of them are represented visually, such as the splitting of the Crazy 88, which is a reference to Ichi the Killer. However, one of the most well known and, arguably, one of the most influential films on Kill Bill Vol. 1 is the 1950 Kurosawa film, Rashomon, mainly due to the audience’s understanding of time. Rashomon isn’t the only Japanese film to play with time and deviates from the Aristotelian plot, but in the tradition of Kill Bill Vol. 1 it is certainly the most notable. Tarantino himself is most known for his genre sampling and Kill Bill Vol. 1 is no different. One such example can be found on the film’s soundtrack itself. The RZA does a song detailing Oren- Ishii’s origin. Tarantino takes the rap element from black culture while blending it with the sounds of traditional Japanese music. However, Holm makes the point in his book Kill Bill: An Unofficial Casebook that the most noticeable is that it seems that he is paying tribute to these Japanese revenge films and Japanese cinema in general, following the old adage “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” While he thoroughly makes the film his own by showing other parts of the world besides just Japan, his method of tampering with the standard plot curve cannot be rightly called his own. Although few directors opt to do it, some do and Tarantino seems to garner a lot of experience through Kurosawa’s example. While Tarantino tackles different subject matter than Kurosawa, the material is still not entirely his own. He combines the temporal effects of Kurosawa’s with the plot line of Trouffault’s Mariee Etait en Noir. In a sense, most of Tarantino’s stylistic choices stem from his choices of inspiration and don’t seem to be entirely self-motivated. However, the combination and the use of film-sampling as Tarantino does with Kill Bill Vol. 1 is entirely his own. He manages to take elements of other filmmakers and combines them in such a fashion so that they are uniquely his own. This desperation to make something new out of the old seems to be a driving force in Tarantino’s work. While he edits and de-lineates from the standard plotline in an effort to make it his own, there’s also an element of homage to directors before him in his films. Kill Bill Vol. 1 of all of his films is arguably one of the most heavily influenced films and Tarantino doesn’t seem to forget that. Although he strays from the Aristotelian plot in his other films, none seem so motivated as Kill Bill Vol. 1.

Tarantino, with only a few films, has established himself as a formidable director. While some may take issue with his personal politics when it comes to film, Tarantino’s awareness of his audience is one of his most powerful tools. He seems to be in tune with what the audience wants and, by now, has come to expect from him. The deviation from the standard plot in Kill Bill Vol. 1 isn’t the first time he’s used it. In fact, it has been used in just about all of his films. However, it is one of the first times he has used it with such a central focus on a character. The Bride’s journey is, in fact, a very simple one. Many modern audiences characterize it as a “revenge” film, which tend to be very simply out, tales of disgrace and vengeance. While this would discount all of the other styles it incorporates, it is certainly an accurate description. The Bride has been wronged and the film details, not only her betrayal, but her return to strength. The concept of this film, give or take some of its characters, has been done almost to death. However, Tarantino offers a sliver of hope in his original telling of it. He begins with the destruction of The Bride so that his audience has some sort of emotional connection with the character and some investment in her revenge scheme as well. However, her return to violence is an interestingly calculated one. He begins her rampage with the killing of Vernita Green for several reasons. First and foremost, it is the first act of violence we see The Bride perform. This establishes her as a force to be reckoned with to the audience as opposed to the bloodied state that the film begins with. Also, although less important, but a crucial aspect of Tarantino’s film style, the audience comes to expect a certain amount of violence from his films. While it is delivered in spades later in the film, for a Tarantino film, violence is unusually withheld with the exception of Vernita Green, the rapist, and Buck. Finally, and more outside the reality of the film, Tarantino drew from Japanese cinema in creating this film, particularly in its style and fight choreography, therefore the character of O-Ren Ishii is of more significance. Vernita Green is viewed as expendable as the rest of the movie is spent illustrating The Bride’s rise to power again and her quest to kill O-Ren. As a whole, particularly Vol. 1 of the Kill Bill series would seem dull without the distortion of the plot. There’s also a possibility that the film would be more confusing if it stuck to the Aristotelian plot mainly because although time and space is fractured, it is not done in an incomprehensible manner. Rather, it is done in a way that excites and titillates the viewer. Furthermore, the audience is able to forgive these re-organizations of plot, but if the film had been presented in a cohesive, linear manner, it is likely that the audience would be unable to handle it due to modern audiences perception of what film should offer. One example is that most of the film, as previously mentioned, is focused on the takedown of O-Ren, but as The Bride’s list shows, O-Ren is the first to die. After the build-up and such a finish as O-Ren’s, the death of Vernita Green would have been next and interest in Kill Bill Vol. 2 more than likely would have diminished if Tarantino had ended on an anti-climactic fight such as The Bride and Green’s. Tarantino’s structuring seems to be clearly one of self-interest. He uses the images he shows and the information he withholds to keep his audience captivated in what would otherwise be a very simplistic and perhaps, uninteresting story. Instead, Tarantino offers a new approach on an old story. He uses the differentiation from the Aristotelian plot as a way to set this film apart from other revenge films, but also as a means to engage his audience.
In order to understand where Tarantino comes from in this film, it’s essential to look at where he has been. In fact, one of the first thing noted in the teaser of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill is that this is his 4th film. While this may seem like a minute detail, it’s important to the audience to understand the authorship of someone like Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino himself said in an interview with Mary Kaye Schilling for Entertainment Weekly, “This is my fourth movie and I haven’t done anything in a long time. It’s telling you who I am so far today.” His several films before Kill Bill Vol. 1, including Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown, have all reveled in playing with time and space. In viewing Kill Bill Vol. 1, these previous films can be found throughout, while still maintaining their own filmic realities. One obvious method Tarantino employs is his use of props in a self referential manner, such as the brand Red Apple Cigarettes which he created as early as his 1994 film, Pulp Fiction. In a way these discontinuities of time and consistencies of minor details are almost expected by the audience when it comes to Tarantino films. As an audience, there is a willingness to forgive these things. However, more so than these imperfections and the tiny trappings of the world, which Tarantino asks his audience to inhabit, is the way that he presents it to his viewers.
The reality of each of his films, and Kill Bill Vol. 1 is perhaps one of the best examples of this, is a fractured reality. As an audience, Tarantino shows bits and pieces of a whole, but leaves it to the audience to piece things all together. Knowing Tarantino’s affinity for creating his own world where his rules apply and his relish in the role of director, it is not difficult to see that Tarantino is primarily focused on the stylistics of his films more than the other aspects than most filmmakers deem essential. His emphasis is on making the journey of his protagonist, in this case The Bride, a very visually driven one as well as character driven. Tarantino makes it clear to his audience in no uncertain terms by playing around with the visuals. One of the boldest visual choices of the film is Tarantino’s departure from even the filmic world itself. When Oren-Ishii’s backstory is explained, Tarantino opts to use animation, in the style of Japanese culture, to bring his character to life. This type of deviation not only takes the viewer out of the time of the film, but even the reality of the film itself. The audience is presented with an alarming change. Although the animation is only about 5 minutes of the film, it is crucial to character development as well as Tarantino’s presentation and the audience’s consumption of the images. Another noticeable aspect that Tarantino toys with is the different environments of his film. Viewers see the Far East in the images of Tokyo and also images that may resonate more with American viewers, when he shows The Bride and Vernita Green battle each other in Green’s suburban home. Anderson states in his article “Mindful violence: the visibility of power and inner life in Kill Bill “ that Tarantino delights in the spectacle of combat, utilizing every aspect of the space such as the broken coffee table leg, in the fight between his two characters. The importance of these spaces is in what he does with them. He enjoys them more than anything else. As simplistic as it may sound, Tarantino’s driving force in most of his decisions in filmmaking seems to be fueled by his ability to do so. There are instances throughout the film, for instance when the film turns black and white when The Bride is battling The Crazy 88s, that are not fueled by necessity but Tarantino’s sheer desire to do so. This is particularly true of the presentation of the plot itself. Viewers see, as previously mentioned, Tarantino exercise absolute authority predominantly because of his enjoyment of his role as director. The fracturing of the plot does little to the emotional resonance of the film itself. In certain instances, it heightens the suspense but this is mainly done in the film’s end when it is revealed that The Bride’s child is still alive and that, clearly, the journey of The Bride is far from over. However, in more instances than not, it is a clear case of style over substance. Although it’s difficult not to see some grand meaning in the editing of this film, Tarantino offers no real reasons as to why this is done other than for the effect it has on the viewer. There is a sense of sensationalism in his violence and a certain catharsis, an idea used in Aristotle’s work, to the violence that The Bride is exacting. Although most distortion of the plot is a choice by Tarantino, there are some elements of necessity in re-structuring the plot in order to allow his audience to familiarize themselves with the story of his protagonist. He alters it just enough so that the audience can follow the character’s progression while suiting Tarantino’s personal aesthetic drive. For instance, the juxtaposition of scenes of The Bride’s weakness and her brutality is a stylistic choice but more importantly, it demonstrates her struggle for vengeance and with loss. In many cases, several film theorists agree that one of the main departures that Tarantino makes from Aristotle’s plot formula is his value of character. This value of character over plot is nothing new to Tarantino, but his priority in making his audience sympathize and/or relate to his protagonist is clearly a stylistic choice that, in some ways, essentializes his heroine’s journey over a cohesive plot. However, he doesn’t seem troubled by the repercussions of elevating his own personal stylistics over the fairly standard plot. After all, it’s what Tarantino has virtually always done. For this reason, Tarantino chooses to present his audience with a fairly simple revenge story, but does what his audience knows he does best by offering a heightened and fractured chain of events, that is simultaneously baffling, due to the audience’s confusion over just what happened in El Paso, and riveting, as viewers delight in the ruthless ultra-violence that is displayed on the screen. His reliance on stylistics first and foremost is firmly established throughout all of his films, but most notably in Kill Bill Vol. 1.
Tarantino’s motives for deviating from Aristotelian plot, even after closely examining the film, remain unclear. One can only speculate his intentions for putting together Kill Bill as he did. Nevertheless, it is clear that Tarantino’s deviation is a crucial element of his authorship. His desire to be outside of the cultural norm, but still be profitable and character driven is one element that is unquestionable. However, Tarantino’s influences also seem to be a large force in determining the tone, editing, and the story itself. Also, Tarantino’s relationship with his audience and his enjoyment of his own work are crucial in understanding the film. Finally, Tarantino’s emphasis of style as an all-important aspect of the visual medium of filmmaking should not be discounted. All in all, Tarantino’s deviation from the Aristotelian plot formula is not an outrageously new concept. However, it is his ability to make it uniquely his own, to engage his audience in his discontinuity without losing them, while entertaining himself that makes Tarantino a notable deviant from the standard Aristotelian formula.

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