Thursday, December 16, 2010

Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion: White Lightning

I continue to blog about Kill Bill's relationship to the films that influenced it. My theory is that Tarantino does more than swipe. He alludes, as Milton does in Paradise Lost, to re-think, to interpret, and ultimately to conquer.


[Burt Reynolds breaks out of prison and this tense music plays. Not sure how to describe it. The loss of the clips is going to really kill us on the music front.]


[That same tense music plays as he escapes from the sheriff. ]


[Thurman looks around at all the Crazy 88s who have her surrounded and the same tense music plays.]

White Lightning is a Burt Reynolds movie, where he plays "Gator" McKlusky, a character I knew only from the end of the eighth episode of Archer where he insists that he looks just like him. White Lightning has a very Dukes of Hazard feel -- Burt Reynolds is a southern troublemaker who is really good at racing cars around small towns, and there is an overweight sheriff (played by Ned Beaty) who chases him around and whom he eventually tricks into driving his car into a lake. But in this movie, the sheriff drowns in that lake, proper revenge for drowning Burt Reynolds brother in the swap in the opening credits. So like Dukes of Hazard if Dukes of Hazard was trying to be a drama.

Burt Reynolds is in jail at the start of the movie and, when he learns his brother is dead, he attempts a break out in the first clip I have shown. That does not work and so he agrees to go undercover and take down this corrupt sheriff who is bootlegging. Turning rat goes against everything he believes in, but this is the only way he can get revenge. Eventually the sheriff figures out Reynolds is against him and catches up with him in the second scene I have here, which is near the end of the film. He chases him but Reynolds tricks him into that lake. The end.

Kill Bill links fall into three categories. First there are those genre cues, like the Tokyo of tiny buildings. Tarantino may not be taking that from a particular movie. That may just be one of those things that a lot of movies do. Then there are the more specific shots where he seems to be more clearly invoking another film, like the opening of Citizen Kane. Then there are things like this, where the connection is not arguable. The RZA used music from White Lightning in Kill Bill. Licensed it and everything. Burt Reynolds was thanked in the closing credits because of that.

It is bizarre to hear the music in White Lightning, as it seems sampled from Kill Bill. This sort of like an effect Harold Bloom calls apophrades, the return of the dead: "the uncanny effect is that the new poem's achievement makes it seem to us, not as though the precursor were writing it, but as though the later poet himself had written the precursor's characteristic work." That is going too far maybe, but the idea is there. Once you hear the second thing, it seems like the second thing must have been the first thing even though you know better. I get this especially when I see live action interview with the voice actors of the Simpsons.

It is mentally impossible for me to shake the feeling that the actors here are lip-synching, trying to trick me into thinking they have the voices of characters I know from the Simpsons. Hank Azaria's Moe impression seems dead on, but I cannot process it as anything other than an impression of a pre-existing Moe.

This is one of the effects of great art. You believe it is the primary thing, even though, rationally, you know better. Examples abound. There is no such thing as "The Unconscious." You cannot prove it is there with a scientific instrument. It was just an idea Freud invented. But Freud is so good you feel like he discovered it, rather than invented it. (This claim really may be going to far, but I am leaving it in).

The incorporation of music from White Lightning in Kill Bill is probably nothing more than the RZA saw the movie, remembered that awesome music, then decided he wanted it in Kill Bill years later. But a couple of things stand out when you know the context.

1. In the first clip the mood music transitions into something much more goofy. The RZA also has it transition into something much more goofy, though differently goofy.

2. In White Lightning the music is used at first as part of an escape attempt that will fail. So part of what we should read into this music choice in Kill Bill, and part of what we can see if we are looking for it, is Thurman feeling like she needs to escape, and realizing that this is not possible. The music does the work that lesser directors would rely on voiceover narration to accomplish. "At that moment, I felt like I had gotten in over my head and wanted to escape, but I knew it would not work."

3. The second time the music is used in White Lightning it is again Reynold's escaping the clutches of the law, but this time he WANTS to be followed, because this is where he will get his revenge. Crucially at the end of the chase scene he will appear to have escaped the Sheriff, but will dramatically return to taunt him and get him to keep going -- to his death. So this is also the music that starts his final, deadly, and successful confrontation with man he will revenge himself against. Thurman, like Reynolds, is looking for revenge for the murder of a family member (Reynolds' brother; Thurman's daughter who she believes to be dead), and Thurman, like Reynolds, gets this music at the start of the sequence that will end with her opponent dead.

4. There is something kind of comical and appropriate about the fact that when the music is paying for Reynolds the second time he is taking refuge at a home for unwed mothers, and is surrounded by pregnant women in the same way Thurman, taking revenge for being attacked while pregnant, us surrounded by killers.

5. Notice also Reynolds, in the second clip, has a damaged eye -- something that will come up a few times in Kill Bill, and once in the House of the Blue Leaves as she plucks an eyeball from one of the Crazy 88s. This eyeball plucking starts the black and white sequence the clip above is from. So the pattern of

a. Eyeball Damage,
b. White Lightning Music,
c. Transition to more goofy music
d. Revenge for the Death of a Family Member

is the same in both films.

Most importantly, the House of Blue Leaves sequence in Kill Bill is swirling with STUFF: so far we have a Hitchcock silent film, a Japanese monster movie, and a 70s movie about bootlegging in the south. Upcoming will be references to Bruce Lee's whole career, samurai movies, horror movies, and Spaghetti westerns -- and more. It is starting to feel like the whole history of film just gets collapsed into this insane sequence. Chronologically the House of the Blue Leaves is Thurman's first fight and it feels like she battles the whole of cinema history AS A FUCKING WARM UP. The ground must be cleared for Tarantino's hero to even get started.


Mitch said...

These Kill Bill posts have been amazing dude. Seriously, just really great.

I have to say though, I want you to publish it just so there will be a corporeal record of how much you've put into this. I know the copyrights will be tricky, but you should still try it, I think. Although it does really help to watch the videos.

Geoff Klock said...

Thanks Mitch. I have no idea how it could exist outside of these blogs for just the reasons you mention, but I will be thinking about it. One idea is to have a night at BMCC or the 92Y tribeca where I show the House of the Blue Leaves section of Kill Bill, then all the clips that go into that, then talk about the connections.

Mitch said...

That is a great idea. If you do that, I will be there.

Have you ever thought of recording and uploading a commentary track to go along with the moive, a la Rifftracks? That would be pretty great too.

Geoff Klock said...

I have thought of that, but again, the videos are kind of key to how this work. It is hard to talk about allusion when you cannot "quote" the thing being alluded to.

plok said...

Oh my God, that is just CRAZY! All right, I guess I have to see "Kill Bill" now.

Geoff Klock said...


plok said...

I know, I know!