Bright Lights Film Journal

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Cool: Appropriation and Prospects of Subversion in the Works of Quentin Tarantino

Overthrowing the patriarchy, one flush at a time

Let me tell ya what Like a Virgin’s about. It’s about some cooze who’s a regular fuck machine. I mean all the time, morning, day, night, afternoon, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick… dick.
Then one day she meets a John Holmes motherfucker, and it’s like, whoa baby. This mother fucker’s like Charles Bronson in “The Great Escape.” He’s digging tunnels. Now she’s gettin” this serious dick action, she’s feelin” something she ain’t felt since forever.
Pain.
Pain.It hurts. It hurts her. It shouldn’t hurt.
Her pussy should be Bubble-Yum by now.
But when this cat fucks her, it hurts. It hurts like the first time. The pain is reminding a fuck machine what it was like to be a virgin. Hence, “Like a Virgin.”

— Quentin Tarantino (Mr. Brown), Reservoir Dogs (1992)

2. Cool Continued

Whether it is the difference between Big Macs in Paris & L.A (Pulp Fiction, 1994), or the possibility of homosexual intercourse with Elvis (Tony Scott’s True Romance, 1993), Quentin Tarantino is fascinated with pop culture icons and images of coolness. His work aims to explore the origins of the cool and the way in which images (or reputations) are echoed in the realm of popular culture.

The criminals in Tarantino’s debut feature, Reservoir Dogs, are oppressed by a prohibition to mention their name or history. Authority is affiliated with the ability to give names; the movie’s characters are troubled with the correlation between their personalities and the colorful aliases assigned to them by the boss, Joe Cabbot. (“Mr. Brown? That’s too close to Mr. Shit.”)

Tarantino further explores this theme through his unique use of narrative. The diamond heist that is the nucleus of Reservoir Dogs is absent from the actual movie, existing only in reference, as a reflection in either past or future tense.

The infamous “like a virgin” monolog from Reservoir Dogs’ opening scene serves, in a sense, as an exposition to Tarantino’s whole body of work. His movies are about style as much as they are about substance, and no matter how sketchy his characters may look, “he makes sure they register onscreen in some indelible way. They may not have depth but they have presence” (Indiana et al 1995). The monolog is not only a thematic exposition, but also a statement of intent — Tarantino tells us that he aims to shake (and shock) a culture that has seen everything. He is here to make the “fucking machine” once again feel “like a virgin.”

3. Authority

As Sharon Willis points out, “Quentin Tarantino’s characters spend a lot of time in the bathroom, and because they do, the bathroom acquires a dramatic centrality in his work” (Willis 1997).

In his most famous novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera describes how early Christians were troubled by the idea that God — just like man who was created in his image — had to shit. Shit is unaccepted because its mere existence is sacrilegious — it undermines the existence of God, and thus shakes the foundations of patriarchal hegemony (Kundera 1984:240). The toilet is the place in which shit is reconciled with society — where our “aggressive soiling impulses” (Willis 1997) are appropriated and sanitized, and thus become socially acceptable.

When they do go to the toilet, Tarantino’s males inform us that they are only going in there to pee. In Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Pink asks Mr. White: “Where’s the commode in this place, I’ve gotta take a squirt.” In Pulp Fiction, Vincent Vega tells Mia that he has to go to the “john” to “take a piss” (script p. 67). Mia replies that that “was a little bit more information” than she needed to know” (ibid). What appears to be essential to the male, whose hegemony depends on the denial of shit, seems superfluous to the female.

Shit’s “biblical predicament” is referred to later in the movie — Jules explains to Vincent the Jewish prohibition of eating pork, and reasons that it’s an animal that “sleeps and roots in shit.” When Jules tries to convince Vincent that divine intervention is possible, Vincent gets up and declares: “I gotta take a shit.” In a way, it is Vincent’s way of denouncing God and thus dismissing divine intervention.

The toilet is the boundary between the acceptable and unacceptable, and often in Tarantino’s movies it is also a place in which submission to authority is negotiated. In Pulp Fiction Vincent Vega convinces himself to go home and “jerk off” instead of betraying his boss while talking to himself in Mia Wallace’s bathroom; in Reservoir Dogs Mr. Pink and Mr. White contemplate leaving the meeting point and “splitting” with the stolen diamonds in a warehouse bathroom; and in Jackie Brown (1997), Jackie splits Ordell Robbie’s dirty money in an airplane toilet booth. These three movies deal with defiance of authority, with catching the boss with his pants down (Willis 1997). The bosses in both Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs end up betrayed, and either killed or excessively humiliated (by anal rape). In Jackie Brown this tendency reaches its climax as one black woman overthrows three hegemonic institutions at one go: The Male, The White, and The Law.

1. Introduction

Academic discussions often apply the term “gaze” to a piece with an intrinsic subjective approach (Taylor 2002). Unlike the common masculine, feminine, or any other gaze, Tarantino offers us the gaze of cool (ibid). He creates the cinema of cool (Dawson 2002), or more accurately, the cinema of appropriation through coolness, of sanitizing through style. He throws us into a “world whose particular deity extends compassion only to the stylish and the violent” (Indiana 1995).

By imposing the “cool gaze,” Tarantino makes us enjoy what would otherwise be unacceptable. Tarantino appropriates words (“nigger”) and themes (homophobia, S&M) by making them appear cool. He makes us laugh at or appreciate them and thus accept them. “This may pump us up with a certain elation, but can only be followed … by a bewildered sense of depletion as if we’d been talked into robbing a liquor store.” (ibid) The “cool gaze” is Tarantino’s way of shocking and undermining social conventions, of making his audiences reassess their personal values.

But more than that it is an object of exploration; it seems that Coolness for Tarantino is an object of desire. The “Like a Virgin” monolog also introduces us to Quentin Tarantino himself (as Mr. Brown) and to his “determination to be the coolest of all filmmakers” (Indiana 1995).

And indeed shortly after that monolog was first screened, Tarantino’s “very name became an instant branding for all things cool” (Dawson 2001:12). Within just a few years, the former video store clerk “has become one of those cosmically disseminated mirages that even the most resolute ascetic living in a hole somewhere becomes aware of through the media” (Indiana 1995).

Tarantino himself, warts and all, was processed by the “toilets” of social appropriation and incorporated into the mainstream. Critic Yang Su likens the “critics and moviegoers to a population under dictatorship” (Su 2003). She explains that Tarantino’s “earlier success and his cult following enthroned him in the world of movie art” (Ibid), and soon Tarantino was able to do “whatever excessive he pleases” (ibid).

But does Tarantino still believe he could be a “John Holmes”? Does he still think he is able to shock and subvert?

4. Autueritarian Masochism

“Do you find me sadistic? I bet I could fry an egg on your head about now, if I wanted to.
No kiddo, I’d like to believe, even now, you’re aware enough to know there isn’t a trace of sadism in my actions… Okay — Maybe towards these other jokers — but not you …
No Kiddo, at this moment… this is me at my most masochistic.”

— opening monolog, Kill Bill

Tarantino’s latest releases Kill Bill I & II (2003, 2004) are the hyperreal saga of a woman who overthrows patriarchal authority. Protagonist Beatrix Kiddo is even spared the divine punishment of experiencing labour while giving birth to her daughter, a punishment inflicted upon Eve in the Garden of Eden, a story that is in many ways at the root of patriarchal hegemony. The film(s) can be seen as an ideological fantasy of feminist retaliation, or, as others suggest, as an empty tour-de-force of vanity and style that point nowhere beyond the surface (Schembri 2003). I would propose that more than anything, the Kill Bill saga deals with the process of creation — it is a sombre ballad about the artistic agency of an auteur in a postmodern world.

The non-diegetic division into two films plays an important role in stressing this point. The first movie is the movie, and the second one is in a way a reflection on the first one (Klein 2004). Tarantino chose to title Kill Bill I “The 4th Film by Quentin Tarantino” not out of “egotism” as some critics suggested (Toto 2003), but out of the self-irony of a director who knows that his movies have reached the point of having no existence outside the shadow of their author. The use of Nancy Sinatra in the opening song conveys this — “Bang Bang” is a song by a singer who helplessly strives to make an artistic statement beyond the shadow of her Father’s reputation (Klein 2003).

Kill Bill I is the “4th Film by Quentin Tarantino.” It is a film that has nothing but a director — a sequence of “movement and travel” (Martin 2004) directed to excess. (Arnold 2003) It is so extreme, that the Bride, the protagonist, does not even have a name in the first movie, or more accurately, she has a name but the Auteur does not consider it relevant because the movie is not about her — it is about him.

The first movie is in many ways redundant. It seems possible for a viewer to step into Kill Bill II and enjoy it without ever watching the first one (Burns 2004), just as it is possible for us to appreciate a Tarantino movie without even watching it — by merit of its director alone. The characters in the first movie have no volume, they are pure fiction, and exist only as visuals. It is only later, in the second movie, that they become “real” — they are born only after the movie is over — once they enter the realm of pop culture. The second movie is not a movie — it is what happens after the movie. The director in Kill Bill II is eminently absent; the dialogs go for too long, and the editing is flawed. But it is only in this second installment, when the director is gone that the characters come to life — they become voluminous and realistic, and the Bride finally gets to have her name mentioned.

As I have said before, I would like to look at the Kill Bill saga as a metaphor of the artistic process — Bill, the omnipotent and almost omnipresent patriarchal archetype, is the Author. He is the creator of each one of the women in the movie — he trained them in his own image and gave them their nicknames, not uncannily after poisonous snakes, in another reference to the primordial sin. Bill is the god of the hyperreal world in which the DiVAS (Deadly Viper Assassination Squad ) exist and perform. The Bride, who is the author’s (Bill) creation, runs away from this fictive universe and attempts to assert herself in the real world, to marry a normal young man and lead an ordinary life as a staff member in a record store. The impetus behind the Bride’s resolution is her pregnancy. The pregnancy is a metaphor for the Meaning that is produced by the interaction (or intercourse) between the author and his story, between God and his creations. The soil for this intercourse is the audience, where the author and his creation merge into a subjective meaning. The Meaning is extraneous to the work of creation — once the Bride is exposed to the interpretation of the audience she is no longer under the director’s authority. It is this authority that Bill struggles to recover — but even he understands that he will be the one to suffer the consequences of this recovery; once the Bride is unavoidably found and shot by Bill, he insists that there is nothing sadistic in his actions: “This is me in my most masochistic” — he is hurting himself, killing his own creation by imposing himself on her; the creator inevitably casts his enormous shadow over his work, and it pains him.

But Bill is even more masochistic than that. What seems gratuitous in a narrative, especially when dealing with Tarantino, is always interesting. “These are the things that, for some reason, the author simply could not leave out’. (Dinshaw 1999:186) In the second part of Kill Bill II, just before the Bride finally faces her tormentor, we are presented with such a seemingly gratuitous encounter. Beatrix, the Bride, faces an old Mexican pimp (Michael Parks), who shows her the way to Bill’s hacienda. The old pimp tells her about Bill’s childhood and his affinity for cinema in a clear reference to Tarantino himself. We are told that the pimp has known Bill since he was a kid, and he stresses to Beatrix that Bill would want him to lead her to him. His role in the movie is to reinforce Bill’s desire to be challenged; the yearning of an author to be eliminated by his own work.

In another apparently gratuitous scene, Budd (Michael Madsen), is humiliated by his titty bar boss, Larry. On his way out, a blond stripper assigns him the last mission he will ever complete: “Budd, honey, the toilet is at it again, there’s shitty water all over the floor.” This is the only toilet reference in the written draft of Kill Bill I & II, and unlike the sanitizing toilets in all other Tarantino movies, the toilets here are broken.

In the movie itself (II), the toilet has another appearance. During the clash between Beatrix (Uma Thurman) and Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah), Beatrix shoves Elle’s face into the toilet bowl. We see Elle’s face from the perspective of the toilet bowl as she almost suffocates to death. We see a blond girl (a pop culture icon and symbol of white capitalist cultural supremacy) that needs to flush in order to breathe. Her life depends on the toilet’s proper function.

5. Conclusion — Bubble Yum after all

Tarantino’s longing for the toilet to be broken is similar to Bill’s yearning to be killed by Beatrix. And indeed both Bill and the toilet are destroyed — but only in fantasy. In the real world, Tarantino is still bigger than his work. So big, in fact, that his movies can no longer say a single thing. Beatrix’s story of revenge is Tarantino’s struggle to free his work from his own shadow — of recovering his own expressive capacity. Whether it is toward the Bride or his audience, Tarantino here is not sadistic — he does not aim to inflict pain on anyone but himself. Kill Bill is an elegy on the impossibility of making a difference in a culture that has — not without Tarantino’s help — perfected the ability to incorporate and appropriate everything.

Unlike the now redeemed Bride, Taratino’s work is still in his own shadow, a shadow of a director who is too cool for his own good. As one critic points out, it seems that Tarantino has reached the stage in which people around him can no longer say no to him (Toto 2004); whatever he says or does is instantly accepted, and, more, instantly celebrated. Tarantino’s ability to subvert is burdened by his own image; he is oppressed by the unbearable lightness of being “cool.”

Kill Bill‘s fine melancholy illustrates the director’s desperation; Tarantino knows that unlike the broken toilet in Budd’s titty bar, the toilets of cultural appropriation are working in full capacity, ensuring subversion is futile.

Works Cited

Ansen, David. “The Importance of Killing Bill,” Newsweek, April 19th 2004. [30/04/2004]

Arnold, Gary. “Will Kill Bill Kill Tarantino’s Career?,” The Washington Times. October 10th 2003. p. D01.

Bernard, Jami. Quentin Tarantino: The Man and His Movies. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1995.

Burns, Sean. “Incredi-Bill.” The Philadelphia Weekly Online, April 2004. [01/06/2004]

Cooper, Dennis, bell hooks, Gary Indiana, Jeanne Silverthorne, and Robyn Wood. “Pulp the Hype on the Q.T.” in Artforum International. Volume: 33. Issue: 7. March 1995, pp. 62ff.

Dawson, Jeff. Quentin Tarantino: The Cinema of Cool. New York: Applause Books, 2001.

Denby, David. “Chopping Block: Kill Bill Vol. 2.” The New Yorker Online, April 12th 2004. [01/06/2004]

Dinshaw, Carolyn . Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999) pp 184-344

Klein, Uri. “Kill Bill.” Ha’aretz Online,November 4th 2003.[Hebrew] [10/05/2004]

Klein, Uri. “Kill Bill, Chapter 2.” Ha’aretz Online, May 3rd 2004. [10/05/2004]

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Kill Bill Is Feminist Statement, Says Tarantino,” Ananova Online, 2004.

Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Boston: Beacon Press, 1974. p. 238.

Mathews, Clive J. “The Hours,” Shiny Shelf Online Magazine, March 2004. [01/06/2004]

Martin, Adrian. “Torn in a Dream,” The International Federation of Film Critics Web Site,December 2004. [02/06/2004]

Schembri, Jim. “Kill Bill: Movie Review.” The Age Online. October 17th 2003. [15/05/2004]

Schembri, Jim. “Kill Bill Volume 2: Movie Review.” The Age Online. April 23, 2004. [01/05/2004]

Su, Yang (Prof.). “Tarantino and Us — A Review of Kill Bill Volume I” in Perspectives, Volume 4, No. 4, December 31, 2003.

Taylor, Rumsey. “Tarantino’s Use of the Cool,”Not Coming to a Theatre Near You Online, 2002. [10/05/2004]

Tarantino, Quentin. Pulp Fiction: Original Screenplay. 1994. London: Faber & Faber.

Tarantino, Quentin. Reservoir Dogs: Original Screenplay. October 1990. [20/05/2004]

Tarantino, Quentin. Jackie Brown: Final Draft.. March 1st 1997. [20/05/2004]

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Toto, Christian. “ New Film Butchered by Director’s Excess,” The Washington Times. October 10th 2004. p, D01.

Willis, Sharon. “Borrowed Style: Quentin Tarantino’s Figures of Masculinity,” High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997, pp. 189–258.