So my wife Trudi and I are watching Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) on TV the other day. The fight scene involving Daryl Hannah and Uma Thurman. Thurman’s “Bride” plucks out the eye of Hannah’s hitwoman. Then steps on it as her adversary writhes.
Trudi squirmed. And I thought: Did I really have to see this?
Once upon a time, there was a lot of controversy with films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969) about how violence was portrayed onscreen. Every once in a while, that sort of hullaballoo rears its ugly head again – particularly, it seems, when it comes to Mel Gibson extravaganzas such as The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006). Yet I wonder if there’s really a serious conversation going on currently about the amount of violence in motion pictures. Are we too used to computer-generated blood and gore to make this a real issue anymore? Have we succumbed to the lure of 300 (2006)?
Violence is popular. That’s a given. It’s a standby in comedy slapstick; it’s an old hand at drama. It’s really nothing new. It is, however, much more prevalent in the cinema today than it was 40-plus years ago, and technology has reached a point where any kind of gore shown onscreen is feasible, thanks to the glories of CGI. My question is whether all of it is really necessary. I see something like an extracted eyeball, and I’m not thinking: That’s something I want to see. I’m thinking: Get me the hell outta here.
One could make the argument that the eyeball scene is integral to the plot of Kill Bill: Vol. 2 – that it shows the supreme martial-arts skill of The Bride and her ruthlessness, which is comparable to that of the villains out to eliminate her. One could also argue that this scene is essential to understanding how The Bride prevents Hannah’s hitwoman from doing any more damage, as the latter character only has one eye to begin with. One could even point out that this sequence is no different in motive from the famous shock scene in Un Chien Andalou (1929) involving a man with a razor purportedly slicing open a woman’s eyeball.
But I’m not going to support any of those arguments.
To me, it seemed gratuitous, spawn of a tendency in the movies these days to tell, not show – to let no steak be underdone. Excess, as much as possible. Gore? Certainly. And let’s make it as uncomfortable as possible for the audience watching it.
Strangely, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) featured an equally – if not more – violent sequence involving masses of swordsmen being mutilated and wiped out by The Bride’s blade that I had no problem with. I found that scene more about cinematic style than substance, à la the opening and ending massacres in The Wild Bunch. Crisp, flashy cinematography. Deft editing. Varied perspectives. And a whole lotta blood. They worked … very well. I don’t feel the same way about the eyeball grabbing and squishing in Vol. 2.
I guess disgust is in the iris of the beholder. It may be that I was too sensitive to this type of thing. There was a time in my youth when I couldn’t watch certain scenes in the movies that featured a significant amount of gore, and to this day, I still can’t view selected moments – say, some of the gratuitous stabbing in Suspiria (1977) – without covering my eyes. A lot of the CGI bloodshed of today, however, is not anathema to me, and I was able to take most of the Kill Bill volumes in stride.
Why, then, did this eyeball scene bother me so much?
Part of the reason, I think, is because the rest of the movie is so well done. I like Quentin Tarantino; when he’s on, he’s a strong director with a distinctive worldview and appealing style. For some reason, though, I thought the addition of this bit of violence was beneath him. Imagine that: a burst of violence that’s beneath Tarantino! What is this world coming to?
In this case, I thought he slipped. Every director makes mistakes. This was one of them. There was certainly no need to show the eye coming out or the little orb being smushed by Thurman’s foot. It just wasn’t needed in a film that really was admirable for its economy. Kill Bill, methinks, is not an excessive duo … unlike, say, 300.
To my mind, it has to do with perspective. For a pair of films with such a high body count, Kill Bill’s mayhem really had more to do with a homage to sword-swishing films than enjoying the gore for its own sake, and I appreciated this outlook. On the other hand, 300 wanted the audience to revel in the blood while clinically appreciating the many ways a person could be killed CGI-style. That, in my opinion, was gratuitous. It was cosmetic, gloss. Violence without merit.
At some point, the industry does need to sit down and talk about how violence has permeated its celluloid and whether it’s more than just a selling point. Ratings are a big part of the problem, and the relatively bloodless violence of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), rated PG-13 in the United States, still has a higher body count than formerly controversial films such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), a PG-rated flick that caught a lot of flak for a scene in which a man’s heart is torn out of his chest. There’s something wrong with that, isn’t there? Or have we evolved, become more jaded, more used to onscreen butchering?
I haven’t. I don’t think Trudi has, either, judging from her reaction to the eyeball stomping in Kill Bill: Vol. 2. So far, subtlety hasn’t won out in the end. I can only hope that quality directors know it’s still there as a tool to replace brute force.