Thursday, February 24, 2011

Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion: The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin

Tarantino is obviously EXACTLY like John Milton, because both men quote the works of others, arrange those quotes in relation to each other and to the new work they are apart of, and they do so in order to achieve mastery over their influences.


[The opening credits to the movie. Gorden Liu does martial arts movies by himself. You can see it here: ]


Gorden Liu as Johnny Mo in Kill Bill. Thurman kills him on the balcony railing at the House of the Blue Leaves.


[Gordon Liu as Pai Mei, training Thurman to punch through a board from 3 inches away.]

You can see Liu in both roles in the trailer:

Gordon Liu is the main character in 1978 Shaw Brothers production The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin, which is the story of a guy who becomes a monk to learn Kung-Fu, so he can go back and help his people who are being oppressed.

The Shaw Brothers made a ton of the big 70s Grindhouse Kung Fu films that Tarantino loves -- which is why he puts the Shaw Brothers logo at the start of Kill Bill, even though Kill Bill is not really Shaw Brothers production.

36th Chamber, also called Master Killer, is also a favorite of Tarantino's Kill Bill collaborator The Wu Tang Clan's RZA, who wrote original music for Kill Bill. It is because of this movie that the Wu Tang Clan's first album is called Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers), and one of their members is called Master Killer. The RZA spent a lot of time watching this movie, and movies like it in New York when he was a kid, and it was a big influence on him -- so much so that he does a full 2 hour audio commentary track on the DVD of the movie. And from the commentary it is clear he has seen this movie enough to memorize it.

Gordon Liu plays actually two roles in Kill Bill, one in each volume: he plays Johnny Mo (the leader of the Crazy 88s) and Pai Mei.

I am not 100% sure but I think the music that plays in the first Kill Bill clip above is by the RZA -- so the RZA is supplying fight music -- and death scene music -- for his hero.

On the Johnny Mo front it is interesting that Gordon Liu is Chinese, leading what is presumably a team of Japanese swordsmen. It would just be an uninteresting accident of the movie except that the movie itself goes out of its way to point out that a half Japanese half-Chinese American woman played by Lucy Liu is leaning the whole team. We will discuss this more as we go but the mixing of race here mirrors the mixing of genres, many of which are clearly identified with specific countries (Spaghetti Westerns, Samurai movies, Kung Fu movies, Giallo horror movies and so on). Race and Tarantino is a big subject -- from using the n-word in Pulp Fiction to casting a white woman as the incarnation of Bruce Lee -- that it looks like we will be talking about in the future.

On the Pai Mei front there is an even bigger Gordon Liu connection. 36th Chamber of the Shaolin is famous particularly for the lengthy training sequence -- it is basically the middle part of the movie, maybe a third or even half of the running time. All of act 2 is the training. Liu has to master 35 different chambers, each of which teach him something about kung fu even if he does not realize how. Like the training sequence in Karate Kid, he hits bells and carries water and so on. At the end of his training he is offered the position of head of whatever chamber he choses (except the 35th, which is old men doing some kind of very abstract philosophy religious thing). Liu rejects this offer and wants to invent a 36th -- a chamber where the training will be open to the public, not just monks, so that they can defend themselves in the real world instead of living in a monastery. For this he is banished -- though the RZA's take on it is that is a silent approval: the monks send him out into the world so that he can do what he wanted in the first place. If you know this, his role as Pai Mei takes on an added significance -- it is like a glimpse into the end of the life of Liu's character from 36th Chamber. As in 36th Chamber we see the master in charge of one skill -- here the punching through a board -- which must be mastered before you can move on, and we see the same kind of techniques: basically torturing people till they get it right.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion: Game of Death

Tarantino. Not stealing things. Re-interpreting. Tarantino smart like Milton not dumb like Rob Liefeld.


[Bruce Lee being awesome in Game of Death. He is in a yellow jumpsuit with black stripes down the side. You can see it here: ]


[Thurman on her way to the House of the Blue Leaves in a yellow motorcycle suit with black stripes down the sides. You can see it in the trailer]

This one is maybe the most famous and obvious of the Kill Bill allusions, but it is also pretty central to the House of the Blue Leaves, and a bit more complex than may first appear.

Thurman wears the outfit that Bruce Lee wears in Game of Death. Game of Death is a TERRIBLE movie. The whole movie is built around 11 minutes of footage of Lee from another movie he was unable to complete before dying. Lee's character is played by more than one other person in the course of the film, and the filmmakers take every opportunity to shoot conversations from far away and have the fake Bruce Lee's wear glasses, and beards, and dress like old men, or be in bandages after plastic surgery. Stock footage of Lee is intercut but it sticks out as the change in film quality is really obvious. Chuck Norris is in the movie sort of -- they just incorporated footage from Enter the Dragon to sort of shoehorn him in there without his permission. The character fakes his own death (he is an actor, basically Bruce Lee, trying to get away from some kind of mob-syndacate thing that is after him) and footage from Lee's actual funeral is used. At the worst point in the movie the main character is at his dressing table in front of a mirror and we see an over the shoulder shot of him -- and on the mirror they literally took like a cardboard cutout of Lee's face and put it on the mirror to make it look like that was the reflection of the guy in the chair.

There is also a weird moment in the movie when Bruce Lee's character is filming a scene and is shot with what is supposed to be a prop gun, but it has a real bullet in it, which is how Bruce Lee's son would die when filming The Crow.

The clip above is ACTUAL BRUCE LEE fighting, and it is pretty awesome. I could have shown you the scene where he fights Kareem Abdul Jabar, which is pretty cool, but this one has the better fighting.

The outfit has become iconic and is alluded to in lots of things, including Shaolin Soccer, Jet Li's HIgh Risk, and Revenge of the Nerds. It is also an unlockable outfit in a lot of video games, including Dead or Alive 4, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, and Street Fighter 6. (Wikipedia -- I use Wikipedia and The Internet Movie Database for a lot of the trivia you see in these posts).

The important thing to keep in mind about Tarantino's use of the outfit is that is does not simply mean "Bruce Lee." It means "Ultimate Bruce Lee," Bruce Lee at the top of his game, as he was when he died. This is important because there are many Bruce Lee projects being alluded to in the House of the Blue Leaves, and they are not all equal.

It is also worth pointing out that in the original project, the movie the Bruce Lee footage was intended to be a part of, he is climbing a tower defeating opponents who are weak because they rely on a single fighting style, whereas Lee combines them into a new whole. A bit like what Tarantino does as he combines styles to make a powerful film. You can see why he might be attracted to Lee for the battle with influence that is a big part of the House of the Blue Leaves sequence in Kill Bill.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion: Star Trek: Wrath of Khan

I continue to say hey this guy Tarantino may be up to something other than just stealing stuff. Like Milton. You quote stuff, reinterpret it, that kind of thing.


[Ricardo Mantalban in a spaceship says something like "Kirk, my old friend, do you know the Klingon proverb that revenge is a dish best served cold? Well in space it is very cold."]


[The epigraph to Kill Bill: "Revenge is a dish best served cold. Old Klingon Proverb]

I talked about the epigraph to Kill Bill before, but totally failed to provide the clip from Star Trek. Here it is. [yeah this sucks without the clip but I am leaving this here as a placeholder. Sorry. More exciting things next week.]

Star Trek Wrath of Khan features Khan, a genetically enhanced survivor of the 1990 (!) Eugenics War, getting revenge on Kirk for banishing him to a wasteland which lead to the death of his wife. It is one of Tarantino's favorite movies, and is kind of awesome, although lamely Kirk and Khan never get face to face in the movie, which seems like a pretty big mistake.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion: Highlander

I argue that Tarantino does not just steal from other movies but repurposes them, as Milton did with epic poetry and as you might with magazines, if you were making some kind of letter indicating you kidnapped some dude.

[The end of Highlander. Christopher Lambert and Clancy Brown sword fight in a warehouse. The Warehouse is dark and they guys are not super well lit. There is a big window behind them and the only thing you can see through the window is blue light. You can see it here: CLICK HERE]


[Thurman fights guys against a background of abstract blue squares at the House of the Blue Leaves. She and the other fighters in in silhouette. You can see it in the trailer:


So last time I said that Tarantino was not doing much with the Samurai Fiction allusion, other than just sort of using it because it looked cool. But one thing he does do is change the color from red to blue. It seems like an inconsequential change -- until you see the final battle from Highlander.

Highlander is the story of a handful of sword-fighters, who can only be killed if their heads are cut off. They battle throughout the centuries till there is one left, till they get "the prize," which turns out to be like mystical knowledge to help humanity or something. We actually only see five immortal fighters in the movie, and two are throwaway characters. The Sean Connery character is really just a mentor for Christopher Lambert's Highlander, to teach him so he can defeat evil Clancy Brown in New York City. It was written by an undergraduate for a UCLA screenwriting class and then bought for $200,000. If you are writing a screenplay "Immortal unless the head it cut off" is the perfect rule to justify modern day sword-fights.

Clancy Brown, by the way, is also the bad guy from Carnivale. His satanic bad guy thing is really undercut by the fact that he a) has a distinctive voice and b) provides that voice for Mr Crabbs on Spongebob Squarepants.

Highlander is weirdly a predecessor to Kill Bill. You wouldn't think of it so much, in part because it is a fantasy movie, but there just aren't that many movies taking place in modern times where people are having massive sword fights, with Japanese swords, as Kill Bill and Highlander do. Like Kill Bill, Highlander has a rock and roll soundtrack -- HIghlander's is provided by Queen. Like Kill Bill, with is half-Chinese half Japanese Lucy Liu sword-fighting a white woman, Highlander is also cross cultural -- in the clip above Christopher Lambert is a Scottish guy using a Japanese sword he got from an Egyptian serving the Spanish court to kill a Russian.

Just after the lights are turned off in Kill Bill but before we go to the full on silhouette over colored squares thing, it does look a lot like the scene above in Highlander, which is the final battle: the dark figures fighting against a background of blue squares. Tarantino transitions through the very end of highlander Highlander, before filtering it through the very start of Samurai Fiction. He uses Highlander to justify coloring Samurai Fiction blue.

He connects Highlander, Samurai Fiction and Kill Bill as rock and roll samurai sword movies. Brothers in a way.

It certainly is not the most interesting link. This seems to be another instance of Tarantino incorporating references to other movies just to pump up the density, just to make the House of Blue Leaves be as encyclopedic as possible. The House of the Blue Leaves sequence, which you keep having to remind yourself is chronologically Thurman's fight, has something in common with all those doctoral dissertation introductions, where you survey the work done by scholars thus far, before bringing your thing to the table.