Kill Bill Unplugged
   How reshaping reality may haunt us yet
   by Nicholas Rombes

Compared to Pulp Fiction, which managed to shape old material into new cinema forms, he's [Tarantino] faithfully devoted himself to recreating scenes from his favorite trash films frame-by-frame. --Tomohiro Machiyama

The remix and the original. The copy and the doppelganger. Who is who in a theater of sounds where any sound can be you? --Dj Spooky

The Kill Bill films, with their relentless sampling of international movie traditions—ranging from French New Wave to Hong Kong kung fu, to Japanese samurai, to Italian spaghetti western—showcase in an extreme form of filmmaking that openly acknowledges that art is a mix of other texts and styles. When so many films today proceed as if encumbered in an elaborate and tangled harness, what to make of the raw confidence and pleasure of Kill Bill? Tarantino recognizes this secret truth: all movies are rip-offs of something else. They all borrow, beg, and steal. They are an amalgamation, a mix, a sampling of others. When Marshall McLuhan wrote that “the medium is the message,” he was recognizing this simple truth that all stories are basically recirculated stories, that it is merely the process and technology of telling that changes. Tarantino openly acknowledges this, and in some ways the Kill Bill films are fine examples of pastiche, which according to theorist Fredric Jameson entails "the cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion.” For Jameson and other post-marxist critics writing in the 1980s and 90s, this pastiche—which is different from parody because it does not share parody’s subversive humor—is symptomatic of the sickness of postmodernism, which rummages through history and culture and in the process defangs it and makes it into just another commodity.

What Kill Bill does is reveal this raw process of sampling, a process whose gestures and metaphors have for some time been associated with music (sampling, mixing, peer to peer, file-sharing, etc.) but have for too long been unacknowledged when it comes to film. For it is true that some films are remakes, but all films are remakes of reality. They all steal shots of the given world; they all sample reality. And if there’s anything to lament about CGI and other processes of creating highly controlled alternate realities, it is that these forms of special effects foreclose the possibility of the sheer accident and chaos of reality. (This point is only driven home in the bonus features of computer animated features like Monsters Inc., where the outtakes only serve to create nostalgia for the real and remind us that of course there are no outtakes as there is nothing accidental in the film.) If Kill Bill steals from other movies, it does so in the same way that you or I steal from reality when we open our eyes.

In a conversation with Matthew Shipp, theorist musician Dj Spooky said that “Well, no one owns language. Language is language. Period. And permutation is what makes it all happen. It's nice to have a sense of humor about origin, since there is no real beginning, middle or end.” This notion is further developed in the brilliant new book by Dj Spooky, Rhythm Science (MIT Press, 2004), where he writes that today’s “notion of creativity and originality are configured by velocity: it is a blur, a constellation of styles, a knowledge and pleasure in the play of surfaces, a rejection of history as objective force in favor of subjective interpretations of its residue, a relish for copies and repetition.” Or, put more succinctly, today’s artist is like the Dj, for whom “the selection of sound becomes narrative.”

Kill Bill’s relentless mixing of other film styles, traditions, and genres is testament to this logic of mixing, which values creativity not so much in the invention of new stories (impossible) but rather in the selection, arrangement, and modification of existing stories and images. It’s not that Kill Bill is the first pastiche movie, but rather perhaps that it so unabashedly acknowledges its status as a mix film. More significantly, Kill Bill does not need to be read as irony or parody or homage for it to work; without apology it samples, rearranges, and makes something new. In so doing it recognizes that it is in the arrangement of pre-existing texts that new texts are created, and that the new auteur director is akin to a Dj, mixing together existing samples to create difference.

It is difficult today to talk solely about content in any meaningful way: whether a film is pro this or pro that, whether it is too violent or not violent enough, whether or not it endorses the correct worldview. It’s not that content no longer matters, but rather that film consumers are increasingly involved in shaping the narratives they consume. Meaning is just another special effect. It is as easily dissected as a camera shot or a CGI sequence. Whether it be clicking through the internet, or managing and arranging downloaded and swapped songs, or manipulating the sequence of a film on DVD, or making and editing their own, or choosing characters, perspectives, and attributes in video games, film viewers are increasingly involved in the creation and arrangement of stories. Read in this light, the Kill Bill is not about anything other than its own status as a hijacker of other films, which were themselves hijackers of other texts. And we are all hijackers of reality.

In many ways last year’s Masked and Anonymous is a companion piece to Kill Bill: both are films that operate openly on the level of theory, both are concerned with the use to which old forms can be put. Masked and Anonymous owes less to other movies than to the tradition of Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, especially his posthumously published Arcades Project, a labyrinthine, fragmented collection of notes, observations, and aphorisms about departments stores, advertising, photography, Marx, railways, world exhibitions, to name just a few. Always threatening to spin out of control, the Arcades (written on and off during the 1920s and 30s) is a collision of quotations and commentaries that is a product of the alienating tendencies of capitalism that it sought to critique. Apart from all that Arcades is a fun and dangerous read, and one that—in its hypertextual, fragmented style—offers premonitions of our current mix culture.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Masked and Anonymous was so vehemently rejected on all sides: Dylan purists hated seeing their god shuffling around the movie on a human level, while those who always disliked Dylan anyway saw it as further evidence of his hypocritical detachment from the very System that has made his fame possible. But the movie will surely outlast these easy dismissals and grow in fame as a testament to the possibility of downright strangeness in an era when there is so little patience for the obscure and oblique. This isn’t to say that Masked and Anonymous is some cheap art-house excuse for poor storytelling, but rather that, like the Kill Bill films, it’s an experimental film. It is a movie whose dialogue is almost entirely aphoristic, proverbial. In the tradition of Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Thedor Adorno, and Greil Marcus, the writing in Masked and Anonymous recognizes that truth lies in the in-between moments, the pauses between lines, the collision of ideas and utterances. Here is a random sampling of lines spoken in the film by various characters:

[Human beings] build hospitals as shrines for the diseases they create.

• They’re all religious wars.

• No one is virtually free. You’re either free or you’re not free.

• Everybody’s doing the killing now. Everybody’s doing the dying.

• Happiness can’t be pursued.

• When you come right down to it, there are only two races: workers and bosses.

• People are impressed by people who win things.

• One sad cry of pity. In a town without pity.

• Keeping people from being free is big business.

Both Kill Bill and Masked and Anonymous are further evidence that the old distinctions between avant garde and mainstream cinema no longer have any meaning today. Everyone is an auteur, and there is no unified media system against which an avant garde might define itself. Masked and Anonymous’ experimentalism—its rejection of proscriptive dialogue in favor of aphorism and ambiguity—reminds us that experimental work can emerge from the most unexpected of places. In this way, too, the Kill Bill films and Masked and Anonymous are companion pieces: the radical pastiche and flattening of history in Kill Bill is balanced by the strong political dimension of Masked and Anonymous, which offers a horrifying portrait of a possible America, or even an America which is already emerging.

Dear reader, our dark question is this: what will be the payback for our voracious pillaging and reworking of reality? The mix culture that Dj Spooky describes in Rhythm Science is a potentially utopian one. “Play with the recognizability of texts and see what happens,” he writes. And yet, we live with the perpetual knowledge that, as it has always been, the real might very well strike back and lay waste to our appropriations. Reality is the ultimate remixer. In David Cronenberg’s film eXistenZ, the revolutionary Realist played by Jude Law confronts the virtual reality game designer at the end of the film. Before shooting him dead he asks him: “Don’t you think the world’s greatest game artist ought to be punished for the most effective deforming of reality?” A film like Kill Bill—with its relentless mixing of texts which themselves are third or fourth generation remixes of previous texts—reveals to us a new level in the deformation of a reality which shall not remain forever subjugated.

-- Nicholas Rombes

Buy the films mentioned in this article [click here]

Nicholas Rombes is an associate professor of English at the University of Detroit Mercy, where he teaches classes in film and literature, and were he co-founded the Electronic Critique Program (

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