Monday, January 9, 2012

Ghosts and the Machine, Part One

Given that both Demonlover and Kill Bill, Volume One (hereafter referred to as simply Kill Bill) prey on their audiences by means of constant contextualization, juxtaposition, contrast and implausible unity, it only makes sense to see what can be gleaned from throwing the two flicks at each other. After all, information overload is at the center of both films. Demonlover’s jet-set thriller and Kill Bill’s revenge fable both explode well beyond generic limits, resulting in multimedia potpourri that absorb as many styles and textures as the medium can possibly hold--and more. Directors Olivier Assayas and Quentin Tarantino were already familiar with such postmodern dizziness, as their 1990s classics Irma Vep and Pulp Fiction respectively demonstrate. But their definitively millennial works (both Demonlover and Kill Bill hit American theaters in 2003) find the directors determined to push their reflexive, cut-‘em-up ethos almost too far, to the point of deliberate near-incoherence. While both films have increasingly complex, jumbled storylines, the whirlwind daze inflicted upon the audience reflects less plot twists than the sheer shock and awe of the filmmaking. Yet neither is content to merely bludgeon the audience into submission, in the vein of utter schlock like 300. Both Demonlover and Kill Bill are statements by their own existence; like The Matrix, they represent The Future by their very construction, even before one starts digging into subtext.

To do so is to discover how shockingly similar the films are in their methods, material, and intentions, even as Demonlover’s heady, semiotic stew seems superficially oppositional to Kill Bill’s delirious kung-fu wet dream. One can certainly imagine Assayas marveling at Kill Bill’s seamless editing, and Tarantino applauding Demonlover’s genre-savvy feminist critique (QT’s a big Carrie fan, after all). If one must boil either film down to a single concept, it would be that single concepts increasingly get you nowhere in a digital age; cinema, like literature and theater before it, must abandon oppositional dialectics to harness its complete power. Tarantino sees an animated heaven where Assayas sees a pixelated hell, but it’s more productive to envision a conversation (online chat?) between the two than a war. Each film could easily contain the other within it, and so intertwining their already convoluted DNA strands is sure to lead one down some interesting rabbit holes.

For all their abrupt shifts in mood, genre, camera language, and even film stock, both films have at their center an impenetrably tough woman attempting to survive the labyrinth their director has crafted for them. Demonlover’s Diane and Kill Bill’s Beatrix are unmistakable femmes fatale, ice queens heir to an unstoppable movie tradition from Double Indemnity through Nikita to (most blatantly of all) Femme Fatale. While Assayas and Tarantino deconstruct the archetype’s more titillating features (both protagonists are intensely physical but rarely sensual, and sex in both films is a poisonous power play--witness Gogo’s explicitly metaphorical penetration-by-sword of a would-be suitor in Kill Bill), neither director grants their ostensible heroines much in the way of distinguishing character traits or intriguing inner lives. Neither Diane nor Beatrix is mere eye candy, but it would be equally difficult to argue that they’re anything more than that: Diane is “neither here nor there,” and Tarantino knowingly bleeps out any mention of Beatrix’s name.

Demonlover’s descent into new-media bondage and Kill Bill’s baroque, ravishing blend of revenge tropes would seem to point toward some grand, summative moral revelation (as was the case in Pulp Fiction), yet both films seem ultimately more concerned with exposing the moral rot at the heart of their respective genre conventions. Nary a flicker of moral concern crosses Diane’s smooth, flawless features as she (and we) bears witness to a misogynistic digital hell, while Kill Bill’s samurai legend Hittori Hanzo gladly lets Beatrix off the hook: “Philosophically, I’m sympathetic to your aim.” Neither director is a cynic nor a misanthrope, and neither suggest that their protagonists deserve their suffering, but both women are ultimately implicated as reflections (and worse, enablers) of the stylized worlds they inhabit. Diane and Beatrix ground the directors’ outré concepts and methods, but only because they can bring nothing to the table themselves. Neither is a rebel, and neither is truly trapped: morality is the real ghost in the machine, lost in a centrifuge of chaotic imagery through which the heroines stroll, blind to the import of what they’re seeing.

Even the body is tainted beyond redemption. Diane takes a break from international intrigue to enjoy a hotel massage, but Assayas frames the scene as the furthest thing from relaxation. Her skin is pulled and slapped, tucked in and smoothed out; it’s less a revitalization of living flesh than a restoration of tattered armor. Assayas films her body as if it were a corpse, or more accurately, a collection of pixels on a screen, pointedly leaving her head and face out of the shots, making her as anonymous as Tokyo Animé’s digital dreamgirls. Demonlover carries Videodrome’s “new flesh” forward into the Internet age: the body as a fortress, designed for the thriller’s time-honored derring-do, but helpless before the insidious powers of reproduction and representation, and thereby detached from its own intrinsic worth.

Kill Bill is less obviously timely in its implications, but Tarantino still casts his central female body as doomed. Beatrix is imprisoned in a coma by the titular villain for the crime of becoming pregnant by another man. Her baby is taken from her, and her body is farmed out by an amoral male nurse as a passive, unquestioning sex aid, no different than the aforementioned animated pornstars. A passing mosquito keys her back in to the demands of her flesh, and she awakens. Tarantino zooms in on her hands (detached from a balanced whole, just as is Diane’s massaged back) as Beatrix reads her lifeline, learning to her horror that she has been out for four years. She clenches her fists in rage, literally covering up the bitter upshot of the violent criminal life she tried to escape, focusing her newfound energy instead on primal revenge. Ultimately, Beatrix’s return from rest empowers her no more than Diane’s attempt to rest; both are immediately swept up again in the cutthroat worlds they’re trying to escape, their bodies serving only as reminders of their failure to separate themselves from their environments. They make astonishing use of their bodies, as tools, weapons and calendars, but they cannot protect themselves, nor learn anything from that inability.

(To be continued)

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