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September 23, 2017

Saturday Evening Movie Thread 09-23-2017 [Hosted By: TheJamesMadison]

Out of Order

Back when The Simpsons was good and something to look forward to, they produced that little segment in the third "Treehouse of Horror" episode. I love this bit. Homer telling a scary story completely out of order to the point of inefficacy. Revealing key information about main characters after their respective payoffs. It's such a perfect example of terrible story telling.

I bring it up because it's one of the things I think of first when I hear of a story being told non-linearly. And yet, I know it can be done wonderfully well.

Last week we talked about the three-act structure, but because it's the most common narrative structure for film doesn't mean that it's the only one or even the best. I don't care about which is "best", but I do care about stories well told in different ways. So, let's talk about one of my favorite examples of non-linear story-telling.

Kill Bill

kill bill 2.jpg

People usually consider Pulp Fiction to be Quentin Tarantino's best movie. I'd say that it's his most important film (none of his others changed the face of film like Pulp Fiction did), but Jackie Brown, The Hateful Eight, and Kill Bill are better, the last being my favorite.

One thing I like about Tarantino in general is that his movies tend to bear a certain feeling like that of a novel. It's most obvious in a superficial way with how he occasionally uses chapters (Kill Bill has ten of them), but also in subtler ways. Scenes play out longer than most movies. Characters tend to get explored more. Overall, it feels a bit fleshier than a movie, sort of like a novel. Some call that self-indulgence, I call that storytelling.

Volume 1

Due to theaters not really wanting to release a 4-hour kung fu movie, Tarantino agreed to break his opus into two halves. There's relatively little different from his original idea except for an added bit of dialogue at the end of Volume 1 and some pull backs on the violence to achieve an R rating (the reason for the black and white segment during The Showdown at House of Blue Leaves). Still, we're here to talk about structure.

chapter 1.jpg

The movie begins somewhere in the middle of the story. After a short prologue where we see The Bride shot in the head, this same character drives up to a suburban home and starts a fight with a homemaker. For those with long memories, I said that movies beginning with action scenes were doing something wrong, but that was under the implication that the action sequence would be expected to elicit tension arising from emotional attachment. That's not what happens here. The opening sequence is funny as The Bride and the homemaker use household objects to try and brutally murder each other. What's actually happening in the chapter, though?

It's an introduction to The Bride. Her abilities are shown through the sequence, but once the sequence ends, she has a conversation with the homemaker (actually Vernita Green, a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad) where they outline the extent of The Bride's quest for vengeance. It's an introduction to the entire plot. Another interesting element is that this chapter takes place after the events of Chapter 5, and it makes no effort to hide that fact. At the end of this chapter, we see the name O-Ren Ishii on The Bride's Kill List with a red line through her name. It means there could not possibly be any tension around the rest of the movie, right?

chapter 2.jpg

Here, the movie takes a few steps backwards to explain a bit more of the specifics of the situation. We get a quick summary of the Massacre at Two Pines, an introduction to another member of the Squad (Elle), Bill attempting to walking back from his attempted murder, and an explanation of how The Bride recovered from her coma induced by the bullet to the head.

Squinting slightly and translating this to the three-act structure, this would partially function as the Set Up. What we'll find in this movie is that the set up comes and goes based on the needs of the narrative, so we see Bill partially explained, Elle partially explained, and The Bride's situation partially explained. Why only partially? Because there's a lot of explanation to be had. The story is very large. You can argue that maybe it should be cut down to be shorter, but as it is, it's very large, and the bulk of set up would weigh down the front of the movie unreasonably.

chapter 3.jpg

This chapter presents the back story of O-Ren Ishii, the third introduced member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. People often complain that this chapter is too long considering O-Ren's importance to the overall story, but I disagree. While the animated segment does probably go on too long for the purposes of introducing O-Ren herself, I think that the entire chapter not only introduces the Japanese member of the Squad, but also acts as a proxy introduction to the other members. We never really dig into the backgrounds of the other members (Vernita, Elle, Budd, or The Bride), so seeing how O-Ren got made shows us an example of what it takes to join the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. We can imply that the others have similar backgrounds and reasons to "[jet] around the world, killing human beings, and being paid vast sums of money".

chapter 4.jpg

Chapter 4 introduces Hatori Hanzo, a man who holds almost mythic importance in the world of Kill Bill. He makes the best katana swords in the world, and The Bride goes to him to get a sword to fight Bill. Hanzo eventually agrees when The Bride namedrops Bill, making the greatest sword of his career. "If on [her] journey, [she] should encounter God, God will be cut," he says upon his final inspection.

There's world building in this chapter, but also the implication that Bill's awfulness extends well beyond his treatment of The Bride when he shot her. Bill is a bad man, so bad that he inspires a man who swore off weapon making to make one more sword in order to kill him. It also further explains how far The Bride is willing to go. The looks that The Bride and Hanzo share when he realizes what she wants imply that she knows that not only could Hanzo say no, but he could also probably make a solid attempt at killing her for just trying.

chapter 5.jpg

I wrote about this a few weeks ago in a post about action, so I won't go in depth. Just that The Bride faces down O-Ren's gang (the Crazy 88), cutting through them all and finally killing O-Ren herself.

Aside from being an action set piece that is honestly one of the greatest put to film, there's narrative purpose to it. Killing O-Ren and getting through another name on the list, obviously, but it also demonstrates the depth of The Bride's need for revenge. She's willing to literally cut through dozens of people to get to her target, and she's good enough to do it. We're not being told that The Bride is dangerous, we're seeing it. The fact that she never faces off against another threat of that scale is indicative that Tarantino understood exactly what he was doing. He had demonstrated that The Bride was dangerous on an almost unfathomable level, so any time she comes face to face with someone, we know she's got that under her belt.

Vol. 2.jpg

Released six months after Volume 1, Volume 2 is where the narrative really settles down and tells a much more focused story. Focused on character, focused on relationships, and focused on implications.

chapter 6.jpg

It's here, at the halfway point of the whole story, that Tarantino choses to tell the start of the story.

If I had to guess, it's because he decided to bring in emotion at this point, but why? We've invested time with the Bride. We understand her from a plot perspective (her quest for vengeance), which Tarantino provided as an opening into the world. And then, he introduces the why. We've seen the why referenced to several times up to this point, but never explored. The chapter itself is touching as wounded people confront each other leading to the climax we all know is going to happen. There's a sense of inevitability to the action and dialogue that colors it differently than if we started with this scene, or even if it were just near the beginning.

It's also our first real introduction to Bill as a character. He's never been seen entirely on screen up to this point, always just out of frame and giving hints of who he is and what drives him. He almost seems more like a force of nature than a character up to this point. Here, though, we see him fully. We see his wounded, compassionate side, but we also see the fear in the Bride's eyes as she thinks of what he could end up doing (and does, of course). He's cool, and extremely dangerous.

chapter 7.jpg

Budd, Bill's estranged brother, is a sad loser. A former member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad works at a titty bar, getting abuse from its scummy owner and cleaning up shitty water in the women's restroom. He lives in an isolated and crummy little mobile home. If there's one of the Bride's targets that should be an easy kill, it's Budd, but Budd is the one who gets the best of her. Here we see the Bride descend to her lowest point since the bullet to her brain. Buried alive by the most washed up of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.

chapter 8.jpg

Flashback! What would a Tarantino movie be without a major flashback? (Jackie Brown, but never mind.) Anyway, this is where we discover what the Bride went through to become the killing machine we've seen. Would it have been better supplied earlier in the story? I don't think so. It's here for two very specific purposes: to provide a method for the Bride getting out of a wooden box six feet underground, and establish the tough love and respectful relationship that she developed with Pai Mei. It's a fun sequence.

chapter 9.jpg

Budd dies and the Bride gives Elle a fate worse than death. After escaping from her grave, the Bride finds that Elle killed Budd (probably the most sympathetic character on her hit list due to his clear view of the situation), but Elle also reveals that she killed Pai Mei with a poisoned fish head. Nearing the end of her quest, the Bride is tired and the fight with Elle is brutal (apparently inspired by hijinks on Jack Ass). Elle is probably the most personal of the Bride's targets after Bill. It's obvious that Elle replaced the Bride in Bill's bed.

Looking back over her journey, it's easy to see that the Bride, as she got closer to Bill, got there by killing the one's furthest from him emotionally and proceeding inwards. Vernita had completely left the life behind. Bill had helped O-ren become the queen of the Japanese underworld. Budd was his brother with whom Bill had a complex and strained relationship. Elle was heavily implied to be Bill's lover. In terms of her actual list, the only ones who the movie presents out of order are the first two (O-ren before Vernita).
Despite the story being told out of order overall, Volume 2 is largely in order and the main sets of action are told in an emotionally cogent order.

last chapter.jpg

The ultimate showdown is surprisingly low key. At one point Bill describes a fight they could have on a moonlit beach which was supposed to be the filmed ending, but Harvey Weinstein talked Tarantino into saving some money and so we have the 15 second sword fight while sitting in chairs instead. Is the fight itself less satisfying viscerally than any of the others? I'd say yes, but the physical fight between the Bride and Bill was never supposed to be the point. It's an emotional culmination of the Bride's journey. Finding her daughter to be alive completely disarms her and allows for the literal reason why the two don't start trying to murder each other the second the Bride shows up. Calmed down, it also allows for the two to talk, and the conversation is heartbreaking. It's obvious that the Bride loved Bill, but she loved her daughter more and swore to keep her away from the life she had led up to that point.

That decision hurts both the Bride and Bill, even to that day 4 years after the Massacre at Two Pines.

The Bride then kills Bill, fulfilling the promise of the title, and we get our ending where the Bride cries in shocked relief on the floor of her hotel bathroom while little BB watches cartoons on the other side of the door. It's an ending that the Bride earns completely. She went through Hell and dozens of bad people to ultimately reclaim her daughter, and she earned it.


So, I never really intended to summarize the movie in such detail, and I hope that I provided more context on structure than just that, but let me continue like I totally did what I meant to do.

Could this exact same story have been told linearly and had the same level of emotional impact? I'd bet a hearty yes on that. It could have been, but what would have been lost? Just taking what's already in the movie and rearranging it, I think the introduction would have been too long before ever getting to any sort of character or plot development. The middle would have been the Showdown followed by a small fight in a housewife's home, which would have been a curious order. The final third would have been the bulk of action in Volume 2 without Pai Mei, him not having been seen since the very beginning of the movie about 3 hours before.

Essentially, it would have had to have been completely rewritten and re-envisioned, not just re-organized.

I love it as it is, though. The disorder of the story pieces works. The long sequences that could have been shorter, are all entertaining in their own right. The story comes to a satisfying conclusion without tying up every lose end unnecessarily. (Is Elle alive? Will little Nicki come after the Bride at some later date?) And, most importantly, the Bride's emotional journey is clear, fulfilling, and complete.

The structure of the film seems to follow no formal rules, but it ends up working despite the seeming chaos.

Movies of Today

Opening in Theaters:
Kingsman: The Golden Circle
The LEGO Ninjago Movie
Friend Request

Next in my Netflix Queue:
The Flight of the Phoenix

Movies I Saw This Week:
OSS 117: Lost in Rio (Netflix Rating 4/5 | Quality Rating 3/4) Poster blurb: "Funny, but not quite as hilarious as the first." [Netflix DVD]
Seven Psychopaths (Netflix Rating 3/5 | Quality Rating 2.5/4) "When movies are about movies instead of people, there's a distance created that this one doesn't quite bridge." [Amazon Prime]
The New World (Netflix Rating 5/5 | Quality Rating 4/4) [Rewatch] "Beautiful and heartfelt exploration of the sad and inevitably fruitless search for Eden on Earth." [Personal Collection]
The Tree of Life (Netflix Rating 5/5 | Quality Rating 4/4) [Rewatch] "An achingly beautiful portrait of loss framed similarly to Job's story." [Personal Collection]


Email any suggestions or questions to thejamesmadison.aos at symbol gmail dot com.
I've also archived all the old posts here, by request. I'll add new posts a week after they originally post at the HQ.

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posted by OregonMuse at 07:37 PM

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